A politics of care

By Olave Nduwanje

This text elaborates on the notion of a ‘politics of care’ as a practice and pragmatic value. Writer Olave Nduwanje refers to the black political scientist Deva Woodly, who in her writing asks the question: What would be required for care to be an ethical and political practice that orients people to a new way of living, relating and governing? For this, Woodly goes back to the the innovations of Black, feminist, queer and decolonial political traditions in today's sociopolitical movements. The politics of care is an approach to political thought and action that moves beyond the liberal approach which situates care as a finite resource to be distributed among autonomous individuals, or as a necessarily feminine virtue. Instead, those elucidating the politics of care for the contemporary era draw on rich interdisciplinary traditions and social movements to theorise and practice care as an inherently interdependent survival strategy, a foundation for political organising and a prefigurative politic for building a world in which all people can live and thrive.

In a recent online panel discussion, political scientist Deva Woodly established a framework for the development, recognition and implementation of a politics of care. Her research and thinking offer effective insights and promising tools for integrating innovations from the Black, feminist, queer and decolonial political traditions into today’s social-progressive movements.

In progressive social movements, attention to the different applications of communal and self-care has been increasing for years – not only in intensity, but also in complexity. Even in the mainstream media, cultural and political discourse, I think I can discern a growing sophistication in discussions and basic knowledge about mental, physical and social care. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has given American theorists a renewed impetus for situating (and understanding) care – as ethics, practice and resistance strategy – within the ever-evolving radical Black feminist, queer and decolonial political traditions.

In particular, the work and research of Deva Woodly, Senior Lecturer in Politics at The New School (New York), serves as a good introduction to this political-ideological awareness and praxis.

In July 2020, she participated in a panel in which she called it a politics of care and challenged us to learn from the activism and political struggles of the Movement for Black Lives in the US. She argues that the Movement for Black Lives can provide us with insight and usable knowledge about the formation, function and development of the so-called politics of care. In this short essay, I hope to outline the contours of the politics of care with the aim of encouraging collective dialogue, debate and research at local levels.

Woodly begins her pleading with a (re)definition of care:

“Care is a pragmatic value, requiring that what is needed for health, well-being, maintenance and safety be provided with serious attention to the right things to avoid unnecessary harm or risk”.

(Re)defining care as a pragmatic value, and not as ‘sentiment’ or as actions, puts it in the same position as values of rationality, freedom and progress – be it political, economic or philosophical in modern thought. Such re-defining opens the way for the development of a political ideology in which care serves as an ideal test and practical yardstick for knowledge production, socio-economic and historical analyses, decision-making, policy-making, implementation and enforcement.

Knowledge production and socio-economic and historical analyses within a ‘care as value and politics’ paradigm involve focusing on the lived experiences of those who claim care. Indeed, care as politics requires the radical rejection of the traditional dynamics of object versus subject. The object of political knowledge becomes its subject and vice versa; marginalised groups and individuals produce knowledge of and about their marginalisation – as do racialised groups, stigmatised groups and exploited groups. And it is that knowledge – from lived experience – from which political (policy) priorities, resistance strategies, coalitions and actions arise. Such a politics of care – or care as a pragmatic value – thus tends to shift the political centre to the margins. The margins, and those who inhabit them, become the source of direction-giving politics. In this way, political power devolves into the hands of fluid, polyphonic, relational, hyper-local, self-actualising and self-governing political constellations.

Woodly’s (re)definition of care as a pragmatic value furthermore implies a seismic shift from a politics of accumulation to a politics of provision.

The provision of ‘what is needed for health, well-being, maintenance and safety’ is incompatible with the logic of capitalism, in which accumulation is the dominant pragmatic value. Nor is it compatible with the logic of (progressive and conservative) liberalism, in which freedom is the dominant pragmatic value. Thus not with the logic of the Enlightenment, in which rationality prevails. Accumulation, freedom and rationality as prevailing pragmatic values, however, do a good job of mutually complementing each other. After all, obtaining, having and holding as much as possible can easily be framed as a freedom and as rational, and therefore also legitimate, responsible and good.

Obtaining, having and holding as much as possible encounters, however, pragmatic objections in a political system in which the provision of what is necessary is the norm. The provision to each other – and thus to others – of what is necessary is based on collective solidarity and mutual aid. The provision of the necessary gives rise to commons of livelihoods and necessities. Self-enrichment – obtaining more than what is necessary – on the other hand, withdraws means of subsistence from the commons. Thus, self-enrichment endangers the commons and leads to unequal access to what is necessary for existence. In contrast, according to Woodly, a politics of care spurs political actors to ‘avoid unnecessary harm or risk’. Causing unnecessary damage or risk to the commons as a result of self-enriching accumulation is thus neither rational nor legitimised under the denominator of freedom. A politics of care necessitates an economic and social production that provides what is individually necessary, but also provides what the commons need for their (continued) existence.

In their foreword to The Politics of Care (Contemp Polit Theory. 2021 Aug 24 : 1–36), Woodly and Brown trace the politics of care – care as a pragmatic value – back to the rich history of the traditions of “… Black Feminisms, Indigenous and Decolonial Feminisms, and Social Reproduction Theory”. In doing so, we must always bear in mind that these political traditions used care as … an ethics, a relationship, a form of work, an element of cultural reproduction and a building block of non-capitalist and non-hierarchical social relations’, and not just as a pragmatic value. Especially because the undervaluation of care is a result of centuries of white, hetero-patriarchal, validistic and capitalist supremacy. This undervaluation of care has required the reduction of care – and the claim to it – to an affect; a feminine, irrational and non-pragmatic sentiment with freedom-robbing potential. Take, for example, the discourse of liberal conservatives in the US who legitimise their fight against universal health care under the guise of guaranteeing citizens’ freedom of choice. Or the liberal and centre-left conservatives who argue that the cost of caring for the planet (and all of the life it enables and harbours) should not hinder economic growth.

The social movements that through the centuries have persisted in presupposing and pioneering a politics of care, did so by embracing the affective dimension of care, among other things. Audre Lorde wrote in Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hate and Fury (1983): “We can learn to be mothers to ourselves”. With these words, dripping with sentimentality, she introduces a concrete proposal towards a politics of care, which she calls a “first step towards true change”. So too the many battle cries that we associate with the Black, feminist and decolonial struggle for liberation – think of: Black is Beautiful, Black Lives Matter, I can’t breathe, I have a dream, the personal is political – that do not shy away from mobilisation through affective rhetoric.

Progressive social movements in the Netherlands and Belgium do well, in my opinion, when they strive to guarantee safe spaces and/or take joint responsibility for each other’s healing and well-being. Or when Black activists, media and organisers make an effort to facilitate moments in which Black joy and #BlackJoy are given free rein and expression. Or when LGBTQI activists organise sex and intimacy parties. Or when we remind each other on social media that taking naps from time to time is an act of resistance. A politics of care would do well to oppose the strict dividing lines between the affective, the pragmatic and the intellectual/rational. After all, these dividing lines have for centuries been the instruments of political traditions which have promoted rationality, freedom and accumulation as highly pragmatic values. Political traditions, that is, that have enabled the commons-destroying, life-consuming hetero-patriarchal, validistic, capitalist, white supremacist and ecocidary world order. And, in the words of Audre Lorde:

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

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