For the first time in many years, care work has become something to value. We weekly clap its iconic representatives, those working in and risking their lives for the NHS, and have rediscovered the ‘heroic side’ of what they have been doing all along. They’ve been offered no pay rises, nor even proper personal protective equipment, resulting in hundreds of preventable deaths among front-line health workers.
Moreover, some of us can recall another moment of nascent clapping a mere three years ago, in this decade of imposed austerity, when Tories – including many in government today – cheered as they ‘successfully’ blocked a desperately needed pay rise for nurses and other key workers. It forced nurses to declare a ‘summer of protest’ on behalf of all those public sector workers, whose pay and conditions had been deteriorating for years. But this strike had minimal results.
The now weekly clapping, which Johnson (pre-hospitalisation) and his Chancellor cheerfully joined, does offer a crucial moment of genuine collective celebration for an increasingly isolated population. Unsurprisingly, however, the hypocrisy of government applause rightly produced some online mockery, including the suggestion that following the example of the government replacing pay rises and benefits for health workers with a regular round of applause, the practice looks likely to be rolled out across the private sector.
Indeed everyone – from multibillionaires to powerful corporations to media celebrities to Elizabeth Windsor – is now even more eager to be seen as ‘caring’. Multinationals who are notorious for their super-exploitation of labour globally and for the devastation of the environment everywhere they go, are now embarking on ‘carewashing’ programmes. They declare ‘We Care’, with every commodity they deliver, despite numerous reports on how they utterly fail to meaningfully care for their employees. In reality, care work has always been both underpaid and undervalued, from time immemorial, and remains so today.
One reason for this is that it has been traditionally viewed as women’s work, hitherto done freely and largely invisibly in the home, and more generally taken for granted. ‘Unskilled’ and ‘feminine’ were too often synonymous with women’s work outside the home, again often caring work, which was also seen as requiring less remuneration.
The recent crisis has highlighted a rather more profound schism between those jobs that have been traditionally under-valued versus those that have been scandalously overpaid. Up until very recently, we seemed fully accustomed – and by and large comfortable – with an immense, market-generated pay gap between so-called ‘high skill’, trained professional and managerial jobs and those described as ‘low skill’, basic and even essential.
Over the course of a few weeks, however, our calculus has shifted. ‘We clapped for carers, now boo for bankers!’ We have begun revaluing jobs on the basis of how dependent we are upon them, including not only nurses and doctors but also shelf stackers and bus drivers. The fundamental incompatibility between caring values and market or exchange value has now hit home.
We are today painfully reminded that caring requires personal engagement, a sense of duty and responsibility, and often certain forms of emotional attachment that the marketplace has failed to reward sufficiently. For while caring, in its great and unrecognised diversity, is always in huge demand, it can only be made profitable if wages are kept very low. It will never be easy to hurry, amend and refashion its mode of delivery to increase profits, despite attempts to do so.
We also now know that the importance of caring extends well beyond that of hands-on care. This should also lead to us revaluing all those underpaid and systemically undervalued workers performing the essential jobs of maintaining our social infrastructures, in turn enabling us to survive, flourish and care for each other.
And yet our next challenge is to re-imagine care and caring beyond the limits that have for a long time been imposed upon us by a system that thrives on the pursuit of individual interest. It is time to ask how and why such carelessness – from failures to tackle the ever-expanding homelessness on our streets to unwillingness to prevent the vast numbers of drowned refugees at sea or to engage adequately with the climate crisis – has come to be seen as merely unavoidable and banal.
It’s surely not that most of us have enjoyed seeing nurses’ salaries held back and their training bursaries removed, or seeing so many people left without the care they need. We were never that sadistic or destructive. But we were complicit in never challenging the limits of our imagination around care. The current rupture of ‘the normal’ surely provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to change this.
What we propose is a model of ‘universal care’: the idea of a society in which care is at the forefront in every sphere of life. Universal care means that care — in all of its various manifestations — is our priority not only in the domestic sphere but in all spheres, from our kinship groups and communities to our states and planet. Prioritising and working towards a sense of universal care – and making this common sense – is necessary for the cultivation of a caring politics, fulfilling lives, and a sustainable world.
So let’s stop merely applauding front-line care and essential workers, and force those who can, whether in government (local and national), parliament, or business, to show they really mean it by insisting on radical systemic change whereby we have the resources to nurture and to build the necessary infrastructure to ensure the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life. Of course, we can also keep applauding the work of caring, in once rare but now weekly moments of celebratory bonding with the neighbours. But equally importantly, we must also oppose the systemic carelessness that has become so prevalent in our society.
Andreas Chatzidakis and Lynne Segal are members of The Care Collective
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