1. At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what
you reject, but I wonder what are you for? What institutions
do you favor that will be better than what we have for the economy,
polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you have vision for?
I am in favor of institutions that have certain values at their core. These values help define how the institutions work and what they look like. The values I would like to see governing and defining our institutions are participation, solidarity, justice, and equity. To take one example, let’s look at how we do caretaking in this society. Currently it is mostly invisible work done by women in the family. When it is done as paid work outside the family, it is still mostly done by women and women of color are overrepresented in this field. They are underpaid and undervalued. They are mostly not in unions, do not have job protection, are not valued by society, and mostly remain invisible. Thus, the way we do caregiving work now reinforces sexism and racism. One way to structurally counter gendered and racialized caregiving is to socialize that work.
Socializing caregiving work but preserving individual liberty in families will begin the process of unraveling sexist kinship structures at the same time that it supports diversity in families. It’s a process that will take generations and that will require (obviously) other efforts in other realms of society as well, but it should be a key focus of attention for a society that is committed to non-sexist practices in all levels of daily life. Here are five reasons why we should socialize caregiving work:
(1) Children represent the future.
The next generation—whether your offspring are included in it or not—will inherit our collective messes and triumphs. They will be the engineers that sort out what to do with the garbage we leave behind. They’ll have to figure out how to preserve whatever treasures we create. They are the ones who will take care of us when we are old. They are tasked with nothing less than carrying on. Not only is it their right to be born into a society that looks out for them, but we better hope they have such a society, if only in our own self-interest.
(2) We need women’s contribution in the public sphere.
We also better hope we can find effective ways to de-gender the caregiving work. If women are doing the lion’s share, the simple fact of the matter is that they will be more worn out and less able to participate in other aspects of society, and so we will miss out on their contribution. Just as there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are ill-equipped to participate because they do un-empowering work all day, so there can be no true democracy if some groups of people are sleep-deprived or are overwhelmed by private caregiving responsibilities. We care about democracy not just because of the principle that says everyone should have a say, but because we can do with nothing less than our collective imagination and will in the ongoing work of making a better world.
(3) No matter what the gender configuration of caregiving in each family, every person needs access to caregiving work via public institutions (in the same way they need access to empowering work).
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have argued that a balanced job complex should include a fair mix of empowering and un-empowering work so that everyone is equally empowered to participate in decision-making. But what if this leaves out another whole kind of work—caregiving?
Caregiving is neither tedious nor empowering. It is both and neither. It requires both creative energy as well as endless patience. It is in a league of its own because the caregiver, although often performing rote and repetitive tasks, is in a position of responsibility regarding the emotional well-being of the person being taken care of. This responsibility has unfairly fallen on women. Nancy Folbre in The Invisible Heart defines "caring labor" as work that "is done on a person-to-person basis, in relationships where people generally call each other by their first names, for reasons that include affection and respect. … Much of this work is done on behalf of family members … Much, though not all of it, has an explicitly compassionate dimension."
There have to be publicly structured ways to share caregiving work or else the biological/gendered pressure for women to monopolize it will win out. We can’t dictate what private families do, but we can make sure that all individuals, no matter how they were "mothered" or "fathered" have access to the work of caregiving—and so learn about it themselves and hone those skills.
Would everyone perform direct one-on-one caregiving? Probably not. Some people may not have the disposition, and those people could engage in any number of indirect ways of providing care. But my guess is that almost everyone could find a way to participate in direct caregiving. Given the wide range types of caregiving, it would be hard not to find a way to fit in. Whether changing diapers, coaching a sports team, teaching chess, setting up an apprenticeship at your workplace, or simply providing an extra pair of arms to hold your neighbor’s baby when needed, you would be contributing to meeting human needs.
In the process, all the young ones would have access to caregiving from a great variety of sources. Thus they would experience it as a non-gendered activity, and as they grow up, they would be better able to pursue their own inclinations and proclivities in that field in a way that was at least not defined by gender.
(4) The more caregiving is socialized, the less invisible it will be.
Another benefit of including caregiving in a balanced job complex is that the work of caregiving becomes structurally impossible to make invisible. This is not to say that everyone has to help raise everyone’s children, but they do have to participate in creating a safe, nurturing, educational space for the next generation to grow into. They have to be part of the web that makes sure that other people’s needs are getting met. Thus, they have to be tuned into and aware of the mechanics of caring. This will lead to better decision-making in the same way that if you experience rote and empowering work, you make better decisions about how to organize work because you are more invested in fairness, etc.
A society that sees caring for children as a collective responsibility and that creates institutions that share caregiving work will make better decisions about how to organize daily life, the economy, politics, etc. (For now, my focus is on children, but clearly there are many other age groups and types of people that would benefit from caring. Indeed, I can’t think of group or type of person who would not.)
(5) Finally, if successive generations receive caring (in some form or another) from all adults, caregiving work will become less and less woman-centered.
Even in a society that embraces diverse families, women are still the ones who give birth and have the capacity to nurse. These biological pressures alone will probably mean more women being the primary caregivers in the early months or years of a child’s life. Women’s potential to be the primary caregiver, however, does not have to mean that caregiving is seen or experienced as "women’s work." Nursing moms could have food delivered and prepared by men. Men (or women) whose balanced job complex included supporting and nurturing families with newborns would mostly support and nurture the mother and/or other family members—cleaning, cooking, caring for siblings, reading out loud, playing music, preventing a new mother’s isolation, etc.
If there are social supports for old people to stay in families, then there could be another lap nearby, another set of arms, another source of lullabies—great assets for any family with a newborn.
Outside the home, there could be emotional support for people in the newborn’s family. People working as playground monitors would help solve disputes, keep kids safe, apply Band-Aids when needed, and walk children home when they are tired. Sufficient teachers, tutors, and mentors could mean older siblings arrive home relaxed and confident rather than in desperate need of maternal support.
The nursing mother would be providing one element of nurturing in what should be an elaborate web of nurturing. Children growing up in this context would perceive nurturing as gender neutral, even if it is sometimes at least partly informed by biology (as in the case of breastfeeding). Children would learn caregiving skills from men and women. It would be seen as a valued and integral part of everyone’s work. This would be true whatever the family configuration might be – single mother, heterosexual parents, homosexual parents, multiple parents, extended families, whatever.
2. Next, someone at the same event asks, "Why do you do what
you do? That is, you are speaking to us, and I know you
write, and maybe you organize, but why do you do it? What do
you think it accomplishes? What is your goal for your coming
year, or for your next ten years?
I do what I do because I believe change is necessary for the survival of the planet and all of us on it. In other words, it is not just desirable. I don’t do it because I hope for moderate improvements in a few people’s lives (although moderate improvements can be good things too!). I do it because I believe we need radically different structures and institutions in our society if we (and future generations) hope to live on this planet in a just and peaceful way. The other reason I do it is because I believe change is possible. Every day I endeavor to figure out how the political work I’m doing, the writing project I’m doing, the organizing I’m doing, the eviction I’m trying to block, the war I’m trying to stop, etc. fits into the larger goal of radical systemic change. I believe that if those of us who do social change work across diverse venues could get together and strategize around large-scale movement building, we could win major systemic change. We have the power to re-orient the way institutions work. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t do this work. Yet I believe we are a long way from figuring out how to work together. That is our major challenge. My goal for the next year is to take steps in my local area to bring social change activists together, to build trust across movements and efforts, to develop cross-movement strategy and vision. Or perhaps that is my 10-year goal. Yes, that’s probably more realistic.
3. You are at home and you get an email that says a new
organization is trying to form, internationally, federating
national chapters, etc. It asks you to join the effort. Can
you imagine plausible conditions under which you would say,
"yes, I will give my energies to making it happen along with
the rest of you who are already involved?" If so, what are
those conditions? Or – do you think instead that regardless
of the content of the agenda and make up of the
participants, the idea can’t be worthy, now, or perhaps ever.
If so, why?
To me, the effort has to be rooted in local grassroots organizing. That part seems hard as those organizing efforts are mired in crisis. Yet, I believe those connections must be there. We must show how joining this federation will make the work on the ground more do-able and more winn-able in the long term. I am interested in federating with others who are doing grassroots organizing and who can share lessons on how they are bringing questions of vision, strategy, and cross-movement organizing to that work.
4. Do you think efforts to organize movements, projects, and
our own organizations should embody the seeds of the future
in the present? If not, why not? If yes, can you say what, very
roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an
organization you would favor?
Yes. Our current projects should contain the seeds of future institutions. They should uphold values of solidarity, equity, participation, justice, and diversity. They should not be hierarchical or re-create sexist, classist, or racist norms. They should be nurturing spaces that build love and trust by fostering the building of relationships.
5. Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others
did not answer it?
Honestly, I think about these questions all the time. Perhaps you might say I’m obsessed about figuring out how to build the kind of left infrastructure we need to move beyond occasional eruptions of social change movements and toward sustained dismantling of current institutions concurrent with sustained rebuilding of those institutions. Others might not answer because this all seems too hard and too far-fetched. While I feel compassion for people who feel fatalistic about the state of the world (who among us does not feel defeated at times?), I can’t accept it. Succumbing to fatalism ensures defeat. So there is no choice but to get over it.