Antje Schrupp im Netz

Unconditional Basic Income and Care Revolution: Why we can’t have one without the other

Keynote bei einer interdisziplinären Tagung am 11./12.10.2018 an der Uni Freiburg (link)

Since the 1970s, feminists have been developing and discussing political, philosophical and economic alternatives under the heading of »care,« thereby putting life and sustaining life at the center of economic analysis. They have been criticizing the exclusion of unpaid care work from consideration in most economic theories, although this work is about 50 percent of all work necessary in society.

Although the “crisis of social reproduction” they have described is inextricably linked with other dimensions of the crisis, the issue has still not gained public awareness as such.

Most feminist economists agree to the fact that the reorganization of Care activities must be the center of any valuable approach to re-thinking the economy, including UBI-initiatives. Some years ago, I attended the yearly conference of the IAFFE, The International Association for Feminist Economics, in Berlin. Some 400 academics gathered there and shared their research. In literally every session I attended, at some point the question of Care came up.

Care work and the aspects of unpaid contributions to the wellbeing of societies and individuals is not something you can add as another chapter to your economic theories. It shifts the core of any approach.

What is care?

Care on the one hand signifies an awareness of dependency, neediness, and relatedness as basic human conditions, and, on the other hand, the concrete activities of caring for someone or something. Care is about caring for the world –through nursing, social work, or housework, but also by engaging in cultural change.

We often speak about care work in a very concrete sense of certain activities like cleaning, nursing, raising children, cooking and so on. I prefer a broader interpretation.“ Care includes all activity that takes responsibility for the persistence, integrity of creation, and regeneration of the world and for one’s own being in the world. Care activities include the cultivation of land and hedges, looking after animals and plants, and also political activism, information, research and development work.

Care work is often, but not always unpaid work, and maybe sometimes it is not work at all. To look at the economy from a care perspective defies the usual categories such as the division of paid and unpaid, or formal and informal work.

That means for instance that all calculations about a national income don’t say anything about the real wealth of a nation or the wellbeing of its citizens. They exclude a very large part of the economy, all unpaid work, from consideration. Why is child care or nursing included in the calcula-tion of national wealth, if it is done in public institutions or business enterprises, but not if it is done in families or private associations?

There is a philosophical and historical explanation for why care is not taken into consideration neither by mainstream economist, nor by most politicians and neither by male dominated leftish movements: Most care activities are situated at the bottom of the patriarchal symbolic order. They are banished into the realm of privacy, made invisible, or are delegated to presumably weaker persons with a lower social status in the form of poorly paid jobs.

The reason for this is a symbolic order of false hierarchies between culture and nature, free and dependent, male and female. In modern times it has been the “Sexual contract”, a term shaped by political scientist Carol Pateman in the 1980s, that divided the economic world into separate spheres, the public and the private, the market and the household, the paid and the unpaid, the visible and the invisible, and again: the male and the female.

According to this sexual contract, the “male” public political and economic sphere is steadily, but also secretly supported by the other sphere, the sphere of care work. This work is – so the theorists of the time say – quasi mysteriously done by women, whose nature it is to be supportive, giving, nourishing without considering their own needs, wills and desires.

As we all know, women have terminated this contract. It is no longer functioning. Housewives are no longer available, at least not enough to maintain the old order.

But we have yet to define what comes next. Some things have been tried, but they don’t really work out. Care work migrations on a large scale have produced care chains from poorer to richer countries. Many women and some men work double shifts to manage the so called “work-life-balance”, a ridiculously misleading false term, that suggests that work is not a part of life.

To take this challenge seriously we must put care activities at the center. To shape the world from a care perspective leads to a significant shift of the conventional emphases and to the abandonment of several well-established concepts and assumptions. The illusion of an independent human existence becomes obsolete. And the significance of traditional institutions such as state, market and family as well as their interrelations are seen in a different light.

New rules must be developed for all aspects of life: mindfulness, responsibility and empathy are no longer restricted to the private realm but rather recognized in their political significance. The public realm becomes once again a sphere where people live in networks of mutual dependency, of care/caring and responsibility for each other (as the Dutch political scientist Selma Sevenhuijsen has put it); a sphere where we can give new things a try and together can provide a good life for all. Sevenhuijsen has called this model of society »caring communities«. It also leads to a new understanding of the state. Public responsibilities such as child care, care for the elderly, education, health services, and even the police take a new shape and gain new meaning if they are part of a »culture of care«.

In our days, the feminist focus on Economy as Care has gained more public visibility and political organization than ever. On March 15, 2014, occupational scientist Gabriele Winker opened the first Action Conference Care Revolution in Berlin with the question of what a “care revolution” might entail.

She said: “We use this term to mean political action that takes a radically different starting point for political argumentation. We argue … for a type of action that thinks about politics and economics not from the perspective of growth rates and securing and maximizing profits, but from the perspective of human needs, that is, most importantly, caring and being cared for. … We must … make clear that an economic, a societal system must be able to satisfy basic needs of all people in their diversity without discriminating against people from other regions of the world.”

The initial intention of the action conference was to bring together people and groupings from various contexts of care—private households, caregiving, raising children, self-care, cleaning services, and so on—to exchange experiences and to motivate them to join forces and take political action. The organizers had anticipated about 150 attendees. Yet five hundred came.

Ina Praetorius, a political friend of mine and author of the book “Economy is Care”, who attended the conference, described it like this:

“People with disabilities thought about the ‘right to good assistance’ together with their carers. Mothers and fathers exposed the potential of the propagandistic term ‘work-life balance’ to obscure things. Researchers from various disciplines exchanged ideas with autonomously organized ‘caring communities.’ A Polish carer who migrated to Switzerland was applauded as a pioneer because she had won a lawsuit against her employer who had not paid her appropriately for providing 24-hour home care for the elderly. Participants reported about the consequences of the policy of privatization in the German health-care system, the precarious situation in southern European hospitals created by the rigid austerity policy in the course of the euro crisis—and about successful resistance against it. And there were many more surprising encounters.”

The “Network Care Revolution,” which has since been founded, still continues to spread, especially among young people. Its transformative approach is still too young to draw conclusions. But ownership of the term “care” has not yet been claimed by an academic discipline or a political party. It is still undergoing transdisciplinary development, and as an English term, it can potentially be understood around the world, therefore I think it has the potential to topple the dichotomous paradigm.

How does the Unconditional Basic Income enter the scene? Could it help in a Care Revolution and how?

Feminist Economists and Care Revolution activists are divided on this matter. Some of them favor it (I am one of them). Others strongly oppose it. Many are yet undecided. For the last 15 years, I, together with others, have been trying to bring feminist arguments into the UBI movement while also trying to advocate the idea of an UBI in feminist contexts, in order to reconcile feminist economics and the UBI movement. Neither has been easy. Many feminists remain skeptical. When for instance the Network Care Revolution was founded there was a proposal to include the UBI in the list of proposals and demands, but it was rejected. The main reason was that the majority of the Care activists did not see a crucial link between the UBI and the paradigm shift towards a care-centered economy.

Unfortunately, they are right. This link doesn’t exist yet or it is rather loose. Most UBI initiatives do not really take Care activities into consideration. Maybe they add a “care chapter” to a book or invite a “care speaker” to a conference. But that is not enough. As I said, we need a paradigm shift towards a care centered economy in general.

Ina Praetorius who was a member of the Swiss Initiative Committee for the referendum to introduce a guaranteed basic income in Switzerland, had some rather frustrating experiences with her co-members who weren’t really interested in the care issue. She resumes: “The mainstream unconditional basic income discussion, which tends to be dominated by white men, accepts the view, especially well-established on the Left, that gender issues are a ‘secondary contradiction.’ Secondary contradictions, it is assumed, disappear by themselves as soon as the societal conditions have changed when the primary or basic contradiction, for example that of capital and labor, has been resolved.”

But the care crisis cannot be solved by introducing an Unconditional Basic income. Can it be solved without? Although official Politics do not recognize the care crisis as part of a structural crisis yet, the issue has been raised recently ever more often in the established media, pushed mostly by young female journalists who are personally affected by this issue. The Care Crisis has gained a much broader visibility than ever.

But it is often treated as a matter of social policy in its individual manifestations, for example measures against the crisis in nursing care, additional pension credits recognizing time spent by mothers in child-rearing, or the right for children to be at a day-care institution as assistance for parents in reconciling work and family life.

The UBI however, the idea of fundamentally decoupling wages and work, is significantly more radical than such fragmented ventures. Regardless of how they participate economically, in the “societal process designed to satisfy the human need to preserve and sustain life and the quality of life,” women, men, and others would be liberated not only from fundamental anxiety about their own survival and from the stereotypical, often desperate search for “employment”—as devoid of meaning as it may be. Many of them would be encouraged to experiment with forms of living outside the generalized model of securing their livelihoods by working for wages, for example, as Ina Praetorius, puts it: “by still untested trans-forms of existence between care, art, and ecology, by pleasurable-ascetic forms of non-consumption and self-sufficiency, by means of livelihoods as inventors, cross-generational care cooperatives and other, not yet discernible peninsulas that could be easier to sustain and connect in networks of post-dichotomous innovation in a society with an unconditional basic income.”

The argument that can legitimize practically anything today, namely that “jobs” must be “created” at (practically) any cost, would become just as obsolete as the idea that people would have to do meaningless work simply to secure their livelihoods. A self-determined re-orientation of individuals toward “satisfying the human need to preserve and sustain life and the quality of life” – and this is what economy is or should be about – would become possible again.

I am convinced that, understood in the context of the post-dichotomous paradigm shift, the introduction of an unconditional basic income would be an important “part of the solution”: A presumably highly effective state measure to support the development of a liberal, just, and sustainable society.

But only if it is understood in the context of a care-centered economy. Otherwise, the UBI might well become a part of the problem.

Many male activists are still mistakenly convinced that an universal basic income could be conceived of and introduced without working at the same time for a paradigm shift in the economic system. Therefore, the mainstream in the UBI-debates usually deals with the future of the care sector and the complex problem of its centuries-old naturalization briefly and succinctly in the context of the question of how “unpleasant work” and its lack of ”recognition” should be handled.

The usual response is that in a society with a basic income, there would be three possibilities for the unpopular tasks. One: people—each and every one—would do them themselves. We would coordinate with our neighbors for work in public spaces. Two: we would leave unpleasant tasks to machines and robots, since some of this could be rationalized. Three: we would enhance the value of these unattractive tasks: In order to guarantee that they continue to be done, such work would have to generally be paid better.

Unfortunately, there is yet a fourth possibility: That those tasks would not be done at all. We know that this is possible, because it already happens today, for example, when toilets in public school are cleaned only every other day because they can’t afford more paid hours. What if care will not be valued more highly and paid better in a society with a basic income, but will continue to be performed without pay or underpaid by those conditioned to do it, because it follows a logic of necessity and can therefore not be integrated in the familiar “free” play of supply and demand or the customary methods of labor disputes?

If it is no longer the necessity of earning the basics of our lives, what motivates us to do the necessary work? This question must be taken seriously, and its answer cannot be a promise for the future. Because there are people who need it to be done, every day, without delay. One way to prepare for a society with a basic income is to focus systematically and with curiosity on these “unpopular” activities, and thus on the mostly unexplored “lowly” areas of the symbolic and social order: What is sometimes called “dirty work” often touches on what is called “excrement,” “stool,” “feces,” or “shit.” Since all people are part of nature, it is an unalterable fact, despite all the yearning for cleansing spiritualization, that we must not only be supplied unceasingly with air, water, and food, but that we also produce waste. Filth in all its forms does not disappear by itself, but must be collected and cleared away; managed, disposed of, or transformed, for example, into fertilizer or biogas, in sanitary installations. Instead of ostensibly ridding oneself of this supposedly embarrassing side of all life and the corresponding work by pushing it away into spheres of dependency, vocations with low recognition and poor pay, into euphemisms and extra-economic discourses, they could systematically be placed at the center of attention as a way of deconstructing the dichotomous order.

That is why the “ABCs of the good life”, a little book I have written together with eight other feminist thinkers, includes an article devoted to the topic of “shit”. I quote: “Making shit a taboo … stands in the way of recognizing shit as the foundation of life. The fact that shit, as fertilizer, causes new food to emerge, is … evidence of the fact that we are designed to cooperate with all life forms. In so doing, people recognize themselves as beings integrated into the cycle of life, with needs, dependent on others, physical, and mortal. … Explicitly naming shit and how we deal with it, and making it visible, means focusing our thought and action on essential conducts and spheres of life that receive little attention in the prevailing order, such as households, agriculture, care, and cleaning. It means grappling systematically with the meaning of shit and of the activities involved with it—as well as with the significance of the people who carry out these activities.”

This is but one example on how we must dig deeper into our heritage of false dichotomies and hierarchies. The paradigm change behind a Care Revolution means to develop a cultural understanding of neediness as normal human condition and not as something that threatens a person’s freedom or autonomy. Neediness is not something that applies to certain “persons in need”, the children, the old, the sick, but to everybody.

The mechanism of markets and negotiations between equals does not apply to Care Work, because care always involves people in need. People who can’t help themselves. And who often don’t have the money to pay for it. And who have no economic value. It is possible and even rather usual nowadays to think of child care as a form of “investment” in the future, because the children of today will be participants in the economy of tomorrow. But the elderly? There simply is no economic value in caring for them. From a pure economistic point of view, to care for old and sick people means to pour money down the drain.

And the State? Could not the state pay for it? Well, we all know that the calculations on how to finance an UBI, deal with high numbers. How reasonable is it to double or even triple those numbers by considering more paid jobs in the care sector and substantially better paid jobs too?

But that’s not even the biggest problem. Under capitalistic conditions, money that is pumped into the care system is quickly pulled out by profit-oriented companies. Currently, we are experiencing a boom in commercialization of the care sector. The older generation of today is relatively wealthy – as wealthy as old people will ever be again in the foreseeable future. However, the available money is not used to improve the framework of care work, but it satisfies the return expectations of investors.

Care work, care activities, cannot be measured in money alone. Other than the necessity to earn a living there will always be other reasons why people do this work, and there we are: To do this work is not expected from everybody to the same extent. Many women have to deal with expectations from family and society. They are expected to engage in family care work if there is no other option available. Many feminists fear, that this pressure would become even stronger with an Unconditional Basic Income because then those women who are expected to do private care work would no longer have an “excuse” in the necessity to earn money, to provide for a living. The Unconditional Basic Income sets us free. But the freedom of some may be the burden of others.

The UBI is not in itself a part of the solution for the unsolved Care Crisis. More than once I have heard, while discussing this matter with male advocates of the basic income, that those women would at least get some money for their otherwise unpaid work, if there was an UBI. This approach is fundamentally wrong: Being unconditional means that there are no conditions to be met. So theoretically we must deal with the possibility that women – as well as men – will take the money and watch Netflix all day long while leaving the children, the old and the sick unattended.

I know that this will not happen. I know. But I insist that we must not, in advocating an UBI, rely on the fact that this will not happen. Instead, while advocating for an UBI, we must at the same time try and find solutions for the care related questions:

Who will do the care work, when nobody is forced to do it by material need and the obligation to work for low wages? Who will do the care work that can’t be done by the person in need themselves, that cannot be automated, and that nobody with money is interested in funding?

Which activities precisely are “unpleasant”, and why? How should those who for many generations have been defined as being part of nature and thus silenced suddenly learn how to speak and also to eloquently defend their interests?

An Unconditional Basic Income as mere monetary payment would not diminish the destructive forces of the capitalist market, where only what makes money and profit is produced and offered. What remains unanswered is what are the goods and services that are »necessary« for a good life.

What do we want to produce and how do we want to do that? How can we get out of the capitalist growth constraint while protecting and preserving our natural resources and our environment? Which activities should be promoted and secured by public infrastructure and services, because they are fundamental for securing the existence and social participation of all people?

The yardstick of social development is whether it promotes the good life for all people, in the sense of freedom and solidarity, self-determination and unconditional social security of basic needs. For that we need Care-Centered economic and social theories and movements, and we must stop to consider Care-related questions as additional chapters to our otherwise already formed projects.

The Unconditional Basic Income maybe a part of the solution. But it certainly is not the solution itself. It has every chance to be a crucial step towards a society of “caring communities”. A society that enables people to care for themselves and each other. A society that does no longer ignore the neediness of “normal” human beings and “outsource” their shit to certain groups of people – the women, the migrants, the poor. But for this to happen the UBI movement and its advocates have to embrace a care-centered understanding of economy as a whole, in other words:

To actively join the ongoing Care Revolution.

Thank you for your attention.