Social Reproduction and Collective Care

August 20, 2015


A Horizon for Struggles and Practices

The Radical Collective Care Project is a small research group investigating the politics of collective practices of care. Our aim is to explore different methodologies from small self-organised experiments (such as mutual legal aid and housing cooperatives), to substantial movements (such as the PAH and Occupy Sandy) and models for policy (such as the historical one-kitchen house and proposals from feminist economics). On our website we’re putting together a modest showcase of examples from across this spectrum, to ask and learn about the specific challenges they face. We hope to map out a set of common knowledges and frequently occurring problems within this horizon. In the future we hope to find resources to expand the project and open it up to wider participation.

Struggling around social reproduction

The crisis we are in is a profound one. It’s not just the economic system facing a crunch but also the mode of social organisation and reproduction, as well as ecological systems, reaching a tipping point. It’s a deep crisis, one that isn’t about to be resolved but rather will keep erupting, leading to new breakdowns at economic, societal and environmental levels. Our survival and flourishing on this planet can no longer be managed via abstract chains of exploitation because those chains increasingly break down. We in the Global North – at least those of us with northern papers and skin colour – have been able to get by thinking that we don’t depend on anyone, that we are our own masters. This is in line with the liberal subject that structures our societies and relations, which fetishises independence and thinks of itself as universal. Well, in fact, we do all depend on one another in global capitalism – we cannot think of societies as islands (whether at a national, ethnic or other level) because we depend on Chinese factory workers and Congolese miners as much as on Polish plumbers or Indian IT workers (to reiterate some major national industry professions).

It is time to transform these interdependencies into more sustainable and friendly ones, and the site of this struggle is social reproduction.

What is ‘social reproduction’ and what does it mean for struggle?

Taking the term from Marxism and feminism, it refers to the ways in which a society regenerates and sustains itself – the forms of life and their ways of taking care of the bodies that compose a given group. The social reproduction modality of capitalism ends up creating vast “surplus populations” as well as austerity and unemployment in times of crisis. So the question of how to struggle at the level of social reproduction is not just about how to manage the welfare state of one country. Indeed, the welfare state in its 20th century form is no longer much of an option for organising a generalised way of looking after bodies within a population because the economic growth it fed on is no longer possible in Europe (and the male wage worker it was built around has come to be demystified).

Social reproduction operates on many levels: how we cover our everyday needs; how we relate to resources and ecological systems in our fulfilment of needs and desires; how we organise and manage this fulfilling of needs/desires at different scales, from the household to the neighbourhood to the city and region, to the larger country or continental and indeed global levels (and here, as a myriad of movements propose, the question is about rethinking what we actually need to organise via which scale, and where scale is a mere expression of our alienation and being managed by big corporations and financial mechanisms).

So reimagining and struggling around social reproduction can mean fighting for the right to housing or water, for social rights and a basic income to sustain oneself. It can mean struggling against privatisation and building other systems of supply, management and distribution (from free self-education platforms to soup kitchens); it can mean struggling for commons, in the sense of resources that belong to all members of a community and are managed collectively; it can mean struggling within a perspective of ‘transition’ or reorganising the way domestic and care work are done, beyond hierarchies of gender and race. These struggles mark a huge field that may seem to englobe almost anything, and that’s okay for our purposes since what we are interested in is a shift in the lens through which we read what is happening today and where the problem of our struggles lies. That problem is not just one of good management or stable wages but one that calls for profound reorganisation of some of the channels through which we get what we need and desire, through which we sustain our lives. It presents itself in times of high unemployment and intensifying precarity.

Strategies of reproduction

On a very basic level, social reproduction refers to a problem – namely, that we don’t have guaranteed access to what we need; our reproduction is contingent, for instance, upon employment or access to welfare, or having friends or family who can sustain us. We all develop strategies of reproduction in relation to this problem and these can be immensely individualising, competitive and normative (e.g. careerism and nuclear families). But they can also be collective, and they will have to be to some extent, for struggles that are based on everyday relations of mutual separation and competition tend to be dependent on strong top-down leadership and ideological investments. Strategies of collective care transform individualisation into solidarity in a much more embedded and embodied way than ideas and slogans can. And rather than departing from big ideas, these struggles start from the everyday – things like child care or making a living – meaning they are accessible and immediate to a lot of people. Political change, in this way, is not beyond people’s individual everyday struggles, but about the transformation of individual everyday struggles into collective struggles. This is not just a question of shared demands, but also collective capacities.

The Spanish housing movement PAH is an interesting example of this. They have managed to overcome the individualisation and shame of being caught up in unpayable mortgages. Many people would join the PAH simply to get help with their individual cases, but the sharing of stories soon made them realise that their problems were common. And common tactics such as eviction resistance, bank occupations and collective negotiations with banks, made it clear that the solutions would be collective too. Many who went to their first PAH meeting to defend their individual dreams of home ownership, were soon fighting a collective struggle for the right to housing, because the best way to deal with the individual problem turned out to be collective solidarity.

Relation to labour

It seems unlikely that there can be a return to the near-full employment that existed after the world wars in certain core capitalist countries. That moment of economic growth, from within which the welfare state became possible, is over. We might see similar economic growth in ‘developing’ nations like China or India but we also increasingly see that this comes at an environmental and social cost that is unsustainable even in a relatively short term. Economic policies, illnesses, suicides, strikes, protests, riots, food supplies and migration all play into one another as bodies and communities struggle hard to find what they need to live.

In the West, where labour-intensive industrial production tailed off in the last century, labour and wages can no longer be the sole horizon of our demands, since they concern a dwindling proportion of the population. Struggles around wages are now rife in China, while what we increasingly suffer is unemployment, precarity and diminished welfare services. This doesn’t mean that labour struggles become obsolete, of course a large part of our populations are still working, but it’s impossible to stick with a system that crassly privileges the employed over the underemployed or unemployed when the latter come to make up almost half of the population.

This is why we see struggles around reproduction emerge most strongly in the European South, where there has been a rapid economic downturn accompanied by unemployment and de-classing. The question people ask there, and this question obviously echoes in other places too, is: ‘how can we organise our livelihoods beyond being dependent on these abstract forces that can leave us completely screwed from one moment to the next?’ How do you build new forms of resilience and mutual support, new forms of self-managed supply chains and cooperative self-employment where we at least control the basic mechanisms of our everyday survival?

So, the social reproduction angle is necessary to understand the character of struggles today. But more than that, it also opens new possibilities. In classical labour organising, wage struggles are compartmentalised into different sectoral unions fighting for their own particular interest. Meanwhile, migrant and racialised labour, as well as domestic workers, are largely excluded from collective bargaining. When we start with social reproduction, we immediately start with an issue that is transversal to different forms of labour and non-labour. This problem of the contingency of reproduction is common to the salaried employee, the housewife whose marriage to a wage earner is her central access to money, as well as for the people engaged in self-employment and illicit and informal economies.

Organising around problems rather than identities

Struggles for reproduction address broad social problems, which are often lived in very different ways by different communities. The main question is whether these struggles build communities that compete with other communities and individuals, or whether they find ways to compose across lines of identity in order to make a broader claim on society.

The Black Panther Party started from a disillusionment with traditional civil rights protest. They asked how it was possible to go beyond symbolic protests and short-lived forms of civil disobedience, by creating a social power in the everyday. They did this by making themselves directly useful to their communities, starting from the specificity of their oppression. With their ‘self-defence programs’ they built a solid base around the issues that were lived much more urgently by black people than other poor communities, such as police brutality and racism. This helped create solidarity between different groups of black people, between those working, studying, and on welfare. But they did not simply oppose white supremacist identity politics with a black nationalist identity politics.

Apart from opening alliances with different struggles – such as those of the students, Native Americans and homosexuals – they created an everyday politics of reproduction with their Survival Pending Revolution programs. These included free breakfast programmes for children, free food programmes for the poor and elderly, free medical clinics, legal aid assistance and much more. These programs created a social base that made the Panthers much more powerful than the regular armed revolutionary groups. For them “revolutionary struggle” did not simply mean an ideology-based struggle for a world to come, but for the defence and extension of new social relations, which were already under construction. The survival programs addressed problems that were shared both by poor workers and the unemployed, by women, men and children, as well as black, Chicano and poor whites – namely, that wages and welfare were not enough to reproduce them. The Panthers show us that struggles grounded in questions of social reproduction can create direct relations of care across lines of colour and profession.

Relation to the state

The question of the state obviously plays a key role here, because this crisis is about the end of a paradigm where states guarantee (at least some of) their populations’ survival. It’s important to remember that the welfare state originally emerged from struggles of workers for basic security and rights – it was born out of a need to pacify industrial workforces through responding to the demands and struggles for a common good. The social and indeed also political rights we won in the course of this are considerable, and we think it’s important to keep that in mind when thinking about struggles and institutions today.

Many of us might have become increasingly cynical about the role of institutions in caring for the bodies under their jurisdiction, since we’ve seen just how corrupt and determined by economic powers state policies have been under neoliberalism. We need to recognise this alienation from the state and oppose the elites that have inhabited it, but in many places it is becoming feasible to start new institutional experiments and forms of governance that speak to our needs. We certainly need to reclaim the functions of self-management and revive our democracies as bottom-up and permanent spaces of decision-making, to push for transparency and give strength to our own experiments in creating supply chains.

From this, new institutions can be born, or indeed old ones can be taken over, as we see in the struggles of new electoral platforms and parties in the Mediterranean. Syriza, the Spanish municipal platforms as well as the Turkish HDP party all understand the importance of infrastructures of social reproduction at the grassroots and neighbourhood levels. The ways in which they relate to collective care movements such as solidarity clinics, popular soup kitchens, workers cooperatives or grassroots agri-ecological networks will be key in determining whether their politics can lead to a sustainable future. We hope they will not merely snap back into proto-social-democratic politics of labour and economic growth, but recognise the need for a paradigm change; we know they recognise this situation and have many movements pushing them to propose a politics that’s in line with the social imaginaries and practices in place.

In the crisis, we’ve seen self-organised practices of care take over responsibilities from the state, saving and minding lives where the state divested itself. Movements, volunteers, friends and families build new networks of mutual support. Some neoliberal strategies have this in mind, as the UK Conservatives’ Big Society programme, for instance, or struggles for parent-controlled kindergartens in the German 1980s, which often ended up implying unintended privatisation. Those strategies are often called “neo-communitarian” and try to instrumentalise the social to facilitate privatisation, legitimising cuts on social safety nets like welfare or pensions by saying people do this better when working with the market. It’s a strategy that tries to absorb ongoing collective organisation and weaken existing collective structures. It links the freedom of people with the freedom of the market and insists the state can’t provide freedom.

Occupy Sandy was a great example of how community organising could do things the state couldn’t – effectively rescue people in the face of natural disaster – and this created a chance for Occupy Wall Street to cooperate with working class people that had hitherto seen them as a bunch of media-savvy middle class activists whose ideas and practices were irrelevant to their lives. It was acts of help rather than manifestos that broadened the struggle.

At the same time, in countries such as Greece, fascists and the church provide soup kitchens and distribute food to gain loyalty through it. Their work resembles charity with all its blackmailing and dependency-creating functions, and yet food provision can also be done in a more militant way, as solidarity and not charity. Many initiatives collectively run soup kitchens open for all, crucial in times of exploding poverty.

To create networks of care and reproduction can also be a way to avoid the blackmail, discipline and individualisation that comes with conditional support from agencies or the state, like workfare and racial profiling. This also happens in Spain where patients and health workers got together in the Yo Si Sanidad Universal campaign to fight exclusion from access to healthcare, making sure people get treated despite having no formal access to public healthcare (since the law was changed in 2012 to exclude many people).

South/North, Centre/Periphery

Of course the periphery is what reproduces the centre, in material terms. In the case of Europe, there’s a long-standing Eastern semi-periphery; and a renewed Southern one, having those so-called PIGS who have been relegated to a subaltern position since the crisis. And there is the global periphery of course, all those more distant sites of raw material extraction, outsourcing, labour importing, waste dumping, war waging – a complex thing to analyse and currently subject to strong geopolitical shifts.

In the peripheries, social reproduction is more obvious as a shared problem. Right now, with the drastic changes they have lived through, the European Mediterranean countries have seen an explosion of politics of social reproduction, changing their social and political landscapes and producing not just new practices and movements but also subjectivities and collective resilience. In the Eastern peripheries, experiences of super-exploitation and struggles for survival have been a reality for decades, and European ‘integration’ has meant little more than restructuring that exploitation under new neoliberal logics – alongside a strong erosion of the communal knowledges and practices of self-reproduction that stem from the Yugoslav or indeed Soviet context. Those communal knowledges are also key to learn from, and our next round of case studies will address how these can be articulated through contemporary situations.

So what we do is set out to see how this horizon for struggle – what we call collective care, or social reproduction – is being articulated in different places.

by Manuela Zechner & Bue Rübner Hansen@zanubar and @BueRubnerthe Radical Collective Care project


Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.