Care instead of profit
A Realpolitik of Solidarity for Care and Climate points the way to a society that promotes care and relationships instead of competition and profit.
By Elisa Gratias
[This article published on 7/14/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.rubikon.news/artikel/fursorge-statt-profit.]
Care work is a vital foundation for all of us. Without the many people who care for children, the sick, relatives in need of support, or people in need every day, our society would immediately collapse. At the same time, in a capitalist social order, those who take on this work are just as overburdened as the ecosystems and their material cycles on which all life is based. Solving these problems, then, requires a transition to a new society characterized by caring and solidarity. Gabriele Winker describes how this can succeed and where it is already taking place. A review.
Like all great insights, this one surprised me by its obviousness: just because it is not paid, the daily time we invest in relationships and caring for others and ourselves is not less important or even less work. On the contrary. It is time-consuming, often exhausting, and more importantly, none of us would survive without it.
For my German-French reading circle I read "Solidarische Care-Ökonomie - Revolutionäre Realpolitik für Care und Klima" by Gabriele Winker. Care, care work, caring - these terms sounded abstract to me. This is probably because they receive as little attention in everyday conversations as they do in public discourse.
In the Corona pandemic, many applauded nurses in hospitals. But we probably only develop real appreciation for these activities when we ourselves are sick and need help. Care also extends much further into our daily lives: caring for children, looking after elderly people in need of care, shopping and cooking for ourselves and our partner or family, keeping the apartment clean, talking to friends or grandma on the phone ... All of this is care, and all of it takes time that we often don't (or can't) take because the paid work that we (have to) do in order to be able to pay rent and buy food takes up a large part of our time. Poorly paid wage labor in particular puts people under enormous pressure on a daily basis or even completely overwhelms them to the point of collapse.
Parents go to work to use their wages to pay a stranger to take care of their children. How alienated must a species be when it promotes activities and services that are secondary to survival and even harmful to health and the planet - such as Amazon, McDonald's, Google, Facebook - through profits, and hinders others that are essential to survival and a good life - such as caring for children, cooking food, cleaning, caring for others, talking to and listening to each other - by paying them poorly or not at all?
"Care work is a vital foundation of society. Without the many people who look after children every day, care for relatives in need of support, or help people in need, it would collapse immediately. At the same time, those who take on this work are overburdened, as are the ecosystems and their material cycles on which all life is based. These problems are ultimately unsolvable in a capitalist social order."
The first few chapters on the threat to care relationships, the threat of climate change, and the depletion of human and ecological resources read very tough with lots of statistics and numbers, and I had a hard time staying with it.
But how else is the author supposed to give the reader an impression of the situation? It became exciting for me especially from the middle of the book on, where Winker describes concretely what we as individual people can do in this society and this currently still profit-oriented system to feel better and thus also initiate a change, towards a "care economy that is oriented towards successful care relationships and the resilience of ecosystems". Realpolitik instead of just utopia.
Gabriele Winker presents various successful approaches and experiments - such as the self-managed operation of the Lossetal day care center, the Veddel Polyclinic in Hamburg, solidarity-based agriculture, or the self-organized, grassroots democratic initiative GartenCoop near Freiburg - and writes:
"The fact that they exist in their diversity speaks to the fact that they work and in this way are a significant part of the transformation and will be even more so in the future."
These beacons lead Winker to the obvious question: why aren't we well on our way to such a society? Her answer:
"Large social movements are still lacking, although the climate strikes of Fridays for Future 2019 were impressive. However, we will only achieve resounding successes if not only young people stand in the streets on Fridays, but just as many employees point out their problems and strike for their interests on Mondays.
What is needed is the participation of unpaid care workers who meet on weekends for various actions with children or relatives in need of care, giving one interview after another to the press and media. And when huge demonstrations regularly turn the city centers into a colorful gathering and political strikes empty the factories and administrations, the world will look different tomorrow and today's children will still have a chance at a good life."
This reminds me of the pictures and testimonials I saw and heard from my friends of the lateral thinking demonstrations against the Corona measures. Many people from a wide range of income levels and backgrounds came together to demonstrate peacefully and with music for their basic rights.
Winker, despite referring to the "historic moment" by which she probably means the Corona crisis, does not elaborate on the fact that it was currently forbidden by politics to demonstrate.
At the same time, I found the huge movements that took to the streets against the German government's Corona policy lacking in concrete political goals beyond Corona. Corona coverage distracted us all from the essential problems of humanity, while at the same time it managed to mobilize many people and make them more critical.
How do we now use this potential to bring the essential issues into the focus of these newly politicized citizens and, as Winker suggests, to mobilize them also for an economy and politics focused on caring rather than profit?
Winker writes of interviews for the press and media, but I ask myself whether corporate media, which are financed by advertising from exploitative companies, report on this at all when it comes to unvarnished system criticism and ultimately an overcoming of capitalism. Why does this not happen so far?
Why do we devote so much more time and attention to the sense or nonsense of compulsory masks than to the question of how we want to live?
I miss in Winker's book the answer to this question in relation to the media - shouldn't she come to more critical views towards them when she deals with the transformation to a society based on solidarity and precisely with the question why we are not yet on the way to such a society? At least indirectly, she addresses it:
"But many are still reluctant to commit themselves seriously and with full force to a different society and to fight for good and ecologically sustainable living conditions. They see little chance of achieving anything with their actions. And not to be underestimated: It takes courage. Because it is indeed difficult to stand up loudly in public against the almost worldwide ruling social formation, capitalism."
For this, she quotes Kurt Tucholsky:
"For nothing is harder and nothing requires more character than to stand in open opposition to one's time and say aloud, No."
Winker further adds:
"That means relentlessly criticizing policies and economic systems that destroy social relations and ecological cycles alike."
These words reinforce me again. Because I feel it firsthand when people around me talk about “Nazi perverts" and mean alternative media and protesters against the Corona measures. Some friends and family members who trust the "official news" think I'm a bit wacky and gullible to conspiracy theories at best, and terminated my friendship at worst because I work with alternative media that "incites hatred" and "is dangerous."
So, I realize that my insights and wishes for a society based on solidarity are not even recognized as such by these people and - as it often seems to me - by the majority of the population. Nevertheless, to continue and cautiously seek conversations on topics that others prefer to suppress or see completely differently actually requires more courage than I would have thought possible a few years ago, when I was even less critical.
Capacity to act
Winker describes the situation in which most of the population in industrialized nations finds itself:
"In all areas of life, individual responsibility is growing without people being able to exert sufficient influence on the framework conditions under which they are expected to fulfill this responsibility. Even if employees are supported by colleagues in their jobs, they are often in competition with each other again during the next test of their abilities due to the competition on the labor market, to which the entire way of life has to be oriented. What remains is the permanent pressure to perform on one's own under insecure conditions in gainful employment and unpaid care work.
Such a driven life leads to fear of failure. For it is not clear how long all the effort to present oneself in a good light will lead to success. Also, in the competition for professional careers, there are always losers as well as winners. This is also true in the family, when parents are judged by whether their children can withstand the pressure to perform at school.
Nevertheless, people try for a long time to maintain their chosen life plan, even when it leads to excessive demands. At some point, however, this no longer succeeds. Many are exhausted without any hope of recovery. They work at the limit of their strength and, at the same time, are under pressure to constantly further exploit their potential on their own initiative."
Aren't almost all middle-class people just as affected by this permanent pressure as the low-income and unemployed members of our society? How do we find each other? It seems to me that everyone is suffering in their filter bubble and doesn't want to whine. "Complaining at a high level" ... I also said this sentence more often. But there's a difference between "I have existential angst because I don't know how much longer I can take the pace of work and lack of meaning in my job" and "I can only fly on vacation twice this year."
So I advocate that we dare to talk more about our fears in private conversations and public debates, to listen to each other, and to ally with each other - across different income levels.
What a boon and inspiration that Winker proposes concrete ideas that restore agency to those affected.
Reduced working hours
"Many people direct their criticism against the amount of work and family demanded of them, which gives them far too little rest. How widespread this excessive demand already is in society and how many are aware of this fact is shown by the annual representative survey of the institute DGB-Index Gute Arbeit (2019), which focused on work intensity in 2019. According to this survey, 42 percent of employees could not imagine holding their job until retirement without restrictions under the current demands (ibid:22). Such an occupational work situation causes existential angst, but also raises questions about how life could be structured differently."
Thus, she suggests reducing workload as an individual as a possible course of action:
"It turns out that single individuals and also single families change their life situation by their individual behavior, even if they do not intervene in structural conditions. This means that others no longer have exclusive control over their lives. People experience themselves as less determined by others. Their own wishes for a good life are given more weight."
This paragraph reflects my personal situation and life decision and shows me that I am obviously not alone with this path. After a year as a clerk in a Paris translation agency, I didn't know what to do next, as such a life until retirement seemed bleak and a wasted lifetime to me. I didn't understand why the others found it so "normal" and went along with it.
I felt: I can't do this and I don't want to do this. So I went into financial insecurity - and lo and behold, I'm still alive. As a self-employed translator, I initially needed precariously paid part-time jobs as a receptionist and in customer service at a start-up, but gradually I got faster and increased my hourly rate as a result. I learned to turn down jobs that paid too poorly or represented "bullshit work" to me, and that this didn't cause my clients to shun me, but rather to respect me and give me the jobs I enjoyed and thus delivered in good quality.
When I realized that I was making as much in 20 hours of work a week as I had previously made in 40, I decided to stop working if possible so that - instead of making more money - I would have time for unpaid activities such as relationships, creative work, learning, self-care, and later, volunteering for the Rubicon.
It's paradoxical: these activities enrich my own life and that of those around me because I have more time for myself and my loved ones, yet this decision caused me guilt for a long time because we are now "programmed" for performance in terms of making money and doing remunerated activities, and I felt useless and selfish.
Little by little, I am learning to "reprogram" myself and to focus on what makes our lives worth living. In this process, Winker's book is helping me greatly to overcome my unconscious, profit-oriented belief patterns and to recognize the priceless value of unpaid activities.
Jointly organized volunteer work
According to a survey conducted by the German government, the percentage of citizens over the age of 14 who volunteered was over 43 percent in 2014, and this refers to activities that are undertaken unpaid or for a small expense allowance. These relate to a wide variety of areas such as sports, schools and kindergartens, culture and music, social areas or church and religion. Winker also emphasizes the special recognition that volunteer work in this context "is not primarily done by those who have a lot of time on their hands."
"Volunteering creates community and offers individuals opportunities to make new acquaintances and be active together. At the same time, volunteering also provides a direct experience of how meaningful work can be that supports others in one way or another."
This is also something I experience firsthand since I started volunteering for Rubikon. In doing so, I had been looking for a purpose for a long time, feeling guilty because much of my family were doctors and nurses doing meaningful work that helped others, while I felt unable to do so.
Little by little, I am realizing that we all have different talents and enjoy doing different activities, which we then enjoy "giving" to others. Thus, everyone can make a volunteer contribution with what he or she enjoys if they long for more meaning in life.
It has improved my quality of life considerably at that time and helped me out of depressive states of inner emptiness. Today, I even work for the Rubicon professionally and experience a sense of meaning through paid work. A few years ago, I would never have thought this possible. Winker is right. Individual action is worthwhile for the individual, even if it does not (immediately) eliminate structural grievances.
Political commitment and action in solidarity
"Knowing the risk of failure, most people currently resign themselves to the social conditions and thus maintain those living conditions under which they suffer. If they are no longer satisfied with this and want to push the boundaries of what has been possible so far, if they want to become comprehensively capable of action, this can only be implemented collectively within a political framework."
Demonstrations, petitions, boycotts of certain goods, or strikes can at least first get a public debate going and sometimes even achieve material success. This is how our ancestors finally fought for the welfare state, which has since been abolished again, which is only possible because a large part of the population accepts it, feels powerless and is chronically overwhelmed by everyday life. And so Winker comes to a crucial point: "Often activists complain that too few still participate in such protest actions." There may be various reasons for this, though Winker speaks to me from the heart when she points out the following dilemma:
"For political work, like all other work, suffers from a lack of time in the neoliberal system. Thus, people often sit together, stressed and coming to a meeting out of competitive forms of work. In such a situation, it is not easy, but important, to nevertheless take time to understand what desires individuals associate with their commitment. This doesn't just mean the big goals, but also needs that are prevalent in the moment."
The transformation strategy
The transformation proposed in Winker's book "seeks first to build a solidarity-based care economy within still-existing capitalist structures. In this way, the total volume of gainful employment can be reduced and thus its importance pushed back."
"In this way, a restriction of consumption is supported, which is necessary for ecological reasons and for reasons of global justice. At the same time, people are given more time to implement their own respective life plans. These are made possible with the development of a social livelihood security via an unconditional basic income and with a social infrastructure that is open to all, needs-oriented and democratically designed. (...)
The more organs of self-government and the more commons emerge, the better people learn already under capitalism to relate to each other in a friendly way, to make decisions together and to find consensual solutions even in case of conflict."
After reading some critical texts on the topic of "unconditional basic income," I become alert when I read about it in Winker's book. It ignores the dangers of an unconditional basic income within today's political structures. Doesn't she think that it could be misused to blackmail and silence critical fellow human beings? I am surprised that she analyzes and criticizes the system so clearly - even wants to abolish it and replace it with an economy without money - but does not include the people who sit at the levers of power and ensure that the system continues to run despite all criticism.
To me, their transformation strategy lacks the element of how such a movement is supposed to gain reach when much of the media, dependent on the advertising revenues of powerful corporations, has at least a conflict of interest in this regard and only engages in pseudo-criticism.
"A society based on solidarity begins when the capitalistically necessary separation of paid and unpaid work is broken down, in that there is no longer paid work and people satisfy their needs directly instead of mediated through money and the exchange of goods. Then care in various dimensions is at the center of living together: care for oneself, for others, for generations not yet born, and for non-human nature."
My pessimistic impression is that for this to happen, more people would first have to fall into poverty or need care in order to value care work more. Many still seem to identify more with what they have - apartment, car, status. So it's hard for me to hold out even a little hope that such a transformation is possible, because most people in rich industrialized countries probably don't want it, since they are so familiar with this system and this identification. My fear is that most of my fellow humans feel rather threatened by such an idea and therefore reject it. But before my resigned thoughts sweep me into the downward vortex of powerlessness, Winker writes about patience.
A social and ecological turnaround requires perseverance
"At this historic moment, the shaping of a society based on solidarity can begin. This also involves first comprehensively breaking down the classist, heteronormative, racist, and bodyist norms and values and the actions determined by them. For these values and norms were structurally secured in capitalist society and have been reproduced again and again, so that they must now be consciously deconstructed and unlearned.
This probably takes a lot of time. It also takes a lot of time to learn to take seriously at the same time the needs of people living far away and also the needs of future generations when satisfying one's own needs, insofar as one's actions also affect their living conditions."
Wouldn't most people absolutely agree here? And how many act accordingly in their everyday lives? And does that bring anything at all? Wouldn't it be the corporate managers, shareholders and governments who would finally have to take this into account and take it seriously?
"Breaking out of the usual, taking time for oneself and for each other, and experiencing ourselves together as effective can make people happy. This is especially true when the focus is not on expectations and norms, but on interest in the other person. From each small step, more can develop if the eyes and ears get used to paying attention not to advantage and competition, but to concern and solidarity.
The importance of social relationships, especially relationships of care, can be experienced again and again today. Many know the moments of happiness when a newborn is welcomed. Not only the parents feel a lot of energy and want to support this little person, who cannot survive on his own, as much as possible.
Everyone knows the moments when our help puts a smile on another person's face, letting them know we were able to help them a little bit. Most of us have experienced how good it feels to be recognized and accepted by others as a vulnerable person. For me, these experiences give me courage to fight for a life together in which there is more and more room for such moments of happiness in everyone's everyday life."
So Winker advocates combining political or volunteer engagement with cultivating caring in everyday life. Yes, we can do something. Every day, anew. Feeling better.
"If we don't let ourselves be further humiliated, if we don't submit, and if we find a way of life that respects the needs of others and protects ecosystems, life feels right."
The question here, however, is again: how far does our small and big courage, as Peter Frey so beautifully described it, go to walk this path? It is exhausting to encounter great resistance even in the smallest steps. But as she writes so beautifully: The reward is that life then feels right again.
What I like so much about Winker's work is that she makes the connection between the desired society and the current actual state, bringing her utopian visions into the realm of real possibilities:
"Such interaction, however, requires not only a different social framework, but also long processes of learning that should be tried out in the rudimentary forms that are currently possible. This is another reason why it is so important to adopt and practice today already a caring attitude toward human beings, but also toward the non-human world."
Every person who wants to work for a more humane world may thus ask himself to what extent he is already practicing his visions himself in everyday life. The change is in our own behavior. This text and all the books I read are worth nothing if I do not use them to guide my actions and small decisions in everyday life and gradually change them.
The more of us put theory into practice like this, the more change becomes visible. And as Winker writes: Every active doer experiences the reward immediately in the form of feelings of happiness, which in turn make you want to be more active. Give it a try and infect more and more people with your new zest for life!
"Being interdependent, vulnerable beings is then no longer threatening, but can be experienced positively."
Elisa Gratias, born in 1983, grew up in Saxony-Anhalt. In 2005, she emigrated to France, where she completed her studies to become a translator. In 2014, she moved to Mallorca and has since worked there as a freelance translator, author and artist. Her emigration experiences and her penchant for pondering gave her many insights on happiness, fulfillment and society. She writes about this on her blog flohbair.com. She shows her art at elisagratias.com.