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Neoliberalism has led to a crisis in care – and we urgently need to solve it

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Infant mortality is on the rise in the UK, while life expectancy for both men and women has stalled and is even dropping in some areas. In 2017, the number of homeless families and individuals placed in temporary accommodation rose by nearly 80,000, a 60% increase since 2012. And, yet, these are only some of the recent manifestations of the acute care crisis Britain is facing today.

While the figures in the United States, Canada, France, Holland and other European countries are different, there, too, a care crisis has been simmering for a very long time. But the UK crisis has intensified and taken on new forms over the past few decades, as the UN envoy’s report on poverty in Britain so starkly reveals. This is due to a number of factors, some of which are quite straightforward and even particular to Britain. Years of NHS underfunding, massive cuts to council budgets, and the grossly inadequate infrastructure necessary to address the needs of an expanding elderly population are perhaps the most obvious.

Other factors are less so. For instance, more women and mothers have joined the paid workforce at the same time that childcare and the care of the elderly are being privatised, often becoming prohibitively expensive as a result. This has added extra economic and emotional stress to many women and families. Meanwhile, care professions continue to be grotesquely undervalued, while care workers often do not have job security. Even when they do, they are grossly underpaid.

The sad irony is that while the UK and other countries are experiencing a crisis of care, care may be precisely what is needed in order to ward off the major looming catastrophes of our time.

Neoliberalism colonises care

The care crisis should not simply be understood as the outcome of particular austerity progammes or even the steady erasure of the welfare state. This crisis is inextricably linked to the entrenchment of neoliberalism.

Political theorist Nancy Fraser has shown that with the rise of financialised capitalism, responsibility for care work has devolved almost completely onto families and communities. This has happened at the very moment when the “two-earner” family is becoming a necessity and the gig economy is producing ever more precarious work and workers.

But neoliberalism is not merely an economic system of financialised capitalism. Rather, it is also a form of reason that remakes everything into the image of the market. This kind of reason, as I show in my work on neoliberal feminism, encourages us to perceive ourselves through the lens of a calculative metrics. It incites us to organise every social, political and even affective aspect of our lives as though we an Excel spreadsheet. The value of people, the Earth’s resources, and all other living things are increasingly being judged by market categories such as profitability, dividends, and value appreciation — precisely like stock portfolios.

Consider the British education system. Most schools have stopped teaching children how to think and are focused, instead, on preparing them for “the test” since these scores influence their rankings according to Ofsted metrics.

Perhaps most brutally, these neoliberal market metrics now inform the actual care of the most vulnerable. As the journalist Gary Younge has written, local councils, which used to provide more comprehensive care for children at risk, are now inviting private companies to take over: “The more troubled children are, the more money companies get, and children go not where they most need to be, but where most profit can be made from them.”

Care, then, has been reduced to profit. And Britain is in no way unique.

Overcoming the care crisis

The terrifying reality is that neoliberalism is rapidly creating a world in which it is becoming impossible to imagine possible registers other than that of the market to evaluate our interpersonal relations or the different kinds of work that we do.

And so it has become more urgent than ever to draw on all of the alternative resources available — new and old, theoretical and activist — in order to push back against this devastating form of neoliberal reason. One way this can be done is precisely through reclaiming the term “care”.

This is already taking place on the margins. Political movements, non-governmental organisations, and academics are increasingly focusing on mobilising the idea of care in order to advance social change. I am myself part of a group of researchers who believe that care, rather than liberation, has become the principle political issue of our time. In our collaborative research we query how we might disentangle care work from its gendered history while concurrently taking into account the ambivalences that so often accompany practices of “taking care” of others.

Care as the basis for a new progressive politics is perhaps most clearly articulated in Naomi Klein’s 2017 book, No Is Not Enough, where she describes her participation in a coalition of organisations, movements, academics and activists that came together and wrote the Leap Manifesto, a people’s platform. This manifesto mobilises people around a politics “based on caring for the Earth and for one another”. It is about the need for a shift from a system based on endless taking — from the Earth and from one another — to a culture based on caretaking.

The envisioned culture of caretaking is one in which everyone is valued, and we don’t treat people or the natural world as if they were disposable. Today, it is not enough to demand an end to austerity policies in order to “solve” the care crisis. The crisis is much more profound than that. We must mobilise around the idea of caretaking, understanding that it is only through such a politics that we will be able to sustain the Earth and all the beings living upon it.

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