In the past few weeks, we have experienced a baptism by fire. After years of neoliberal policies of austerity, deregulation and privatisation, always accompanied by the devaluing of care work, the spread of coronavirus has taught us very quickly just how vital robust care services are to the wellbeing of nation states.
Yet until last month the notion of a caring state was almost an oxymoron.
Beginning with Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, from the 1980s the rulers of nation states in the Global North and elsewhere wanted us to believe that care is up to the individual, the supposed backbone of competitive markets and strong states. Since then, successful countries have been understood as those most actively promoting the neoliberal policies of the free market, prioritising growth economies and ruthless competitiveness in every sphere of life. As a result, governments that have long based their policies on the needs of the few are now scrambling to find solutions to the lethal spread of Covid-19.
The current global calamity is certainly a moment of profound rupture. Yet, like all moments of rupture, it provides us with a critical opportunity: the opportunity to imagine and create a different world.
If the pandemic has taught us anything so far, it is that we are in urgent need of a politics that puts care front and centre of life.
But care is not only the hands-on care people do when directly looking after the physical and emotional needs of others. Care is also an enduring social capacity and practice involving the nurturing of all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of human and non-human life.
What would happen if we began to imagine a caring state—not just in the short but in the longer term?
Beyond welfare, to the caring state.
A caring state begins from building and maintaining an infrastructure based upon a recognition of our profound interdependencies and vulnerabilities, while ensuring that the necessary material, social, and cultural conditions exist for the mutual thriving of all. This means valuing caretaking over profit-making.
A state organised around care adopts many of the initial post-1945 welfare promises, while working to eliminate the inherent sexist, racist and hierarchical premises and manifestations of that time, alongside combatting the anti-immigrant xenophobia so evident today.
The caring state thus ensures high-quality and flexible care that is predominantly free at the point of use for all ages, from children to the elderly. It provides and ensures affordable housing and shared public and cultural spaces for all, along with high-quality public schooling, vocational training, university education and health care. A caring state recognises that its infrastructure as well as its day-to-day functioning depends on a myriad of skills and competencies.
Given our interdependencies, each and every inhabitant must be recognised as having something of significance and value to contribute at every stage of life. Thus, a transformation of cultural norms goes hand in hand with the caring state’s avowal of everybody’s intrinsic dependency, with autonomy and dependency seen as two sides of the same coin.
Significantly rethinking the welfare state clearly moves us well beyond the traditional gendered division of labour, since both the need to care and the need for care should be understood as shared by each and every one of us. It’s why rethinking the welfare state is also about rethinking how public provision is perceived and distributed, working to avoid the top-down, disciplinary and coercive model.
Public provision in the caring state therefore does not revolve around promoting dependencies, but instead enabling everyone to cultivate some form of ‘strategic autonomy and independence’, as disability activists have called for. It means encouraging genuine forms of mutual engagement and collaboration without these practices becoming an alibi for the private sector. Indeed, creating the conditions that allow for new relationships within and among the state and its diverse communities is premised on everyone receiving what they need both to thrive and to participate in democratic practices. The state needs to facilitate more rather than less democratic participation.
A caring state would also foster norms and institutions that enable the inevitable tensions and ambivalences of caring to emerge, encouraging deliberation and acting in concert in a range of public spaces. It is one that supports the kind of radical municipalism and co-operation that we have seen in Preston, Jackson and Barcelona.
What would it take?
Maintaining caring infrastructures necessarily requires shorter hours in paid work to enable the time and resources for people to expand their capacities to care, whether in familial or any other caretaking settings. Indeed, the best of hands-on care requires time to slow down, maintain relational continuity, while patiently taking stock of others to enable those being cared for to use or develop whatever capabilities they have for personal agency and wellbeing. Once care is prioritised in this way, it becomes easier to find ways to recognise and try to meet our shifting dependencies, assisting those who need to develop or gain control over capabilities others take for granted.
The way in which belonging and citizenship operate within current state borders also need transforming. A caring state is one in which each life is understood to have intrinsic value and where belonging is not defined over and against any subordinated other.
There must also be a recognition of and a reckoning with past atrocities, with forms of reparation, whether for genocide, slavery or dispossession. This will entail a process of decolonisation and the reclamation of stolen lands and stolen lives, as well as learning from indigenous resistance. Only by confronting the past and prioritising the needs of those who have been most marginalised, violated and least recognised by uncaring nation states can we move forward into a better future and cultivate a radically different way of relating to others and the world itself.
Building upon post-war welfare states, but refusing their traditional exclusions and hierarchies, such a radical vision of caring states simultaneously works to undermine the conditions that produce economic and environmental refugees and migrants.
Indeed, in the necessary utopic future we envisage in which care becomes the organising principle of all states across the globe, economic inequality and mass migration would dissipate and environmental injustice be rectified through our mutual commitment to caring for the world.
Ultimately, our caring imaginaries must move away from only caring for one’s own, and from diverse forms of radical community building, to caring for the furthest reaches of our interconnected planet. At present, Donald Trump’s care-less ‘America first, markets first’ attitude, has led only to the USA now enduring the fastest increase in the coronavirus, outpacing every other country around the globe.
For once, care for the vulnerable has to be taken seriously. But this will disappear overnight unless and until we start to build more enduring and participatory infrastructures of and for care now. Can this be done? Yes, but not unless we fight for it.
Lynne Segal is anniversary professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, London. She is the author of several books including Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing and Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy.
Catherine Rottenberg is associate professor in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her most recent book is The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism.
Segal and Rottenberg are part of the Care Collective, an interdisciplinary project to re-theorise and re-value care, along with the Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim and Jo Littler.