The following piece offers notes on the place of care work in revolutionary organizing, compiled after a brief group study on care work, reproductive labor and prefigurative politics.
Reflections on Care Work
By Ba Jin
When militants talk about “care work,” the term is often left broad, vague, or undefined. It can mean many different things: talking about emotional stress with comrades, preparing meals for hundreds of people at a demonstration, changing a someone’s bedpan, taking your kid to the park, or taking someone else’s kid there for ten bucks an hour. I would define “care work” as labor that serves other human beings, and helps them survive and sustain themselves physically and emotionally. It can be done in private or in public, paid or unpaid. This piece offers a few thoughts on the role of care work in revolutionary organizing.
Part of a strategy, but not a substitute for one
Activists usually affirm the importance of care work in social movements. Without care work, they say, people burn out, and only the people with the resources/ability to get care elsewhere will join the movement. This is true. But if we stop the conversation there, we simply affirm the importance of care work in a general, moral sense. We still need to evaluate how care work can be performed within specific types of groups, and how caring can be best integrated with the other tactics a group does in the course of its activity. We need to go beyond asserting that “care work is revolutionary,” and start outlining how it can be revolutionary.
Take the example of food preparation: do small groups of activists cooking at their meetings help bring revolution about? How, concretely? If the answer is that it allows activists to sustain themselves and keep doing other work, then what is their other work? If it provides a model of new social relations that others can replicate, then how will the group judge if the model is spreading, and evaluate why it is or isn’t? And so on. In my experience, when groups don’t have clear answers to questions like these, it means they don’t have a strategy, and they’re substituting care work in place of one.
By “strategy” I mean the group’s best guess about its goal, what it will do to get there, and how it will evaluate its work along the way. As with any set of tactics, carrying out particular kinds of care work does not amount to a strategy. Simply feeding people every week can be just as aimless as smashing windows every time there is a demonstration. Groups that substitute care work for strategy can end up spinning their wheels, creating welcoming spaces and taking care of each other very compassionately, but with little effect in broader society. Because of this, I don’t think care work is inherently revolutionary by its very nature. Instead, I think it’s only revolutionary inasmuch as it contributes to a profound transformation of society (one aspect of which, for sure, is establishing new caring social institutions).
If we agree on this, then we are provided two different ways to think about, and implement, care work in revolutionary groups. First, care work is part of a group’s internal political culture, the manner in which it develops strategies and cooperates to carry them out. Care is part of how the group makes decisions, handles interpersonal conflicts, and keeps its members in good physical and emotional shape to keep doing political activity. Second, care work is also part of the group’s external political work, a component of the strategy that the group is testing in practice. Here care is integrated with other tactics, as part of the agitation, actions and events the group organizes in broader society. These two realms are closely related, but distinguishable.
Care within groups
Care is an integral part of how any group sustains itself. When you check in with another member emotionally after contentious discussions, or help a member overcome his/her insecurities about writing or public speaking, you’re doing care work that sustains and develops the group. Without basic practices such as these, no revolutionary group would be able to survive. However, internal care work always takes place with certain limitations and challenges.
First, there are always concrete limits to what kinds of care a given group can provide. Most revolutionary groups in the U.S. today are pretty small, and revolutionaries must have a realistic assessment of the capacity of their group to care for its members. In some cases, members will have to accept sacrifices, like eating crappy snacks at meetings because nobody has time to cook or money to buy good stuff. In other cases, the group may have to send its members to outside resources that the group can’t provide itself, like connecting a member with a work injury to a cheap physical therapist. This doesn’t mean the group is discounting care work. It just means the group is providing care within the scope of its size and resources. Revolutionary groups should regularly evaluate what kinds of care are needed in order for the group to serve its purpose, compare this with the group’s capacity, and provide as much as possible to its members.
Second, much internal care work is part of intangible group “culture,” and is difficult to implement mechanically. When a member is absent for a while, is there another member who has a personal relationship with him/her, who can check in with him/her by phone or in person? Are all members developing a relationship with members’ kids, so everyone can take turns entertaining them when they get restless at meetings? These qualitative relationships can be nudged forward by group decisions, but they can’t be imposed by fiat. Sometimes specialized groups are appropriate for implementing care work—say, forming a committee to cook for meetings—but sometimes this can be awkward or bureaucratic. It can even be cultish, if it devolves into collectively managing member’s personal lives and emotions. A light-handed approach, such as pairing new members with a “mentor,” or making time for social hangouts after meetings, may help important relationships develop organically.
Third, groups must somehow strike a balance between rigorous and principled debate, and consideration for members’ emotional wellbeing. To evaluate and decide on strategies is an emotionally-charged, high stakes process. This is unavoidable. In order to develop a coherent analysis and strategy as a group, it’s necessary for members to challenge the holes in each other’s arguments, and highlight disagreements in order to resolve them. This process can be very challenging interpersonally—say, if two members have a romantic history with one another, or if a new member feels smacked down in the course of discussion by more experienced members.
Finding a way to manage this dynamic is one of the major challenges social movements face today. The left typically swings between the revolutionary party tradition, exemplified by Mao’s “Combat Liberalism,” and the consensus practices inherited from the 1980s. The former is an excellent guide to principled debate, but has almost nothing to say about feelings. The latter provides great ways to manage group dynamics, but often brushes over political differences for the sake of shallow consensus, and blurs together feelings and arguments in the course of discussion. Somewhere between these poles lies a new form of group praxis, which revolutionaries today must discover.
Care in political work
With regards to external political work, many activists argue that care is the necessary first step of any strategy. If we build movements that are caring and sustaining, masses of people will be able to join them. If we don’t, few will. I think this idea is only half-true. On the one hand, people certainly need a basic level of care in order to participate in movements. If you organize a community meeting where everyone is an inconsiderate jerk, and no food is served for five hours, most people aren’t going to come back. Revolutionary groups must incorporate basic levels of care into the events they carry out, to the best of their ability, and in a manner suited to the kind of workplace or community they’re organizing in.
On the other hand, this answer fails to explain much of how mass movements unfold. First, it fails to explain why people sometimes leap into massive but unsustainable ruptures: why neighborhoods sometimes riot for days without legal support; why women take to the streets in demonstrations where men are misogynist and violent toward them; why workers go out on wildcat strikes without union backing or a strike fund. Second, it fails to explain why people often don’t flock to groups that do good care work—like when people only attend your neighborhood meeting to eat the pizza, and then leave early. Third, it fails to explain how everyday folks evaluate participating in movements. What else is important to them, besides the care they receive? (For example, do they feel the movement’s strategy is plausible?)
I don’t think care work is sufficient to bring a mass movement into existence on its own, nor do I think it always has to be in place for one to emerge—but I do think it’s a necessary component for movements to sustain themselves, grow, and win. One example of this is the 2006 Oaxaca rebellion. I won’t recap the story of the rebellion here, but a brief sketch of events may be helpful. (For more info, check out Teaching Rebellion edited by Dana Denham, Women in Uprising by Barucha Peller, and the documentary Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad.)
In June 2006, police attacked a teacher’s encampment in downtown Oaxaca, which led to a counterattack by masses of Oaxacenos. Having won the streets, they established the APPO and set up nightly barricades across the city, at which people rotated sleeping and meal provision, and discussed the crisis. Weeks later, a large women’s march was planned, which wound up spontaneously occupying a state TV station. Once the building was theirs, the women decided to stay: they maintained barricades, cooked food, and turned the station into an ad-hoc women’s center. In the process, they had conversations about their shared experiences as women for the first time. New women’s organizations emerged out of this experience.
Oaxaca shows how mass movements proceed by qualitative leaps, and create spaces of care to sustain their newfound size and power, generating new consciousness in the process that didn’t exist before. The mass movement jumps forward in an unanticipated manner (driving out the police, occupying the TV station), at which point care work provides part of the means for the movement to sustain a new level of activity (maintaining nightly barricades, turning the station into a women’s center) and develop to a further level (having discussions that lead to new revolutionary consciousness and action). In technical terms, care work is part of the means of expanded reproduction, the “self-valorization,” of the movement.
Crucially, while Oaxacan women ended up creating collective kitchens and consciousness-raising groups, this was not the result of small activist groups planning and implementing these things beforehand. Instead, masses of women developed these forms on their own in the course of a struggle, and revolutionaries played a role in sparking, sustaining and popularizing them. I believe this is exemplary. Small revolutionary groups can’t invent the caring institutions of a future society by themselves in isolation, and bring them to the people. Instead, millions of regular people will create new institutions of survival and care, on a mass scale, through their self-activity in the course of the struggle. The best use of revolutionaries’ energy—our best role—is to identify, clarify, defend and spread that self-activity as it unfolds. Just as with new institutions of democratic decision-making or popular defense, new forms of collective caring should be the subject of our attention, analysis and intervention.
Others get paid to care
Because it’s so often discussed in activist circles, this piece has focused on unwaged care work taking place within revolutionary groups, and in the course of their political work. However, I would be off-base if I ignored the other dimension of care work: the paid care work that millions of people do to survive.
A huge chunk of the workforce today is composed of jobs in which people care for other people, whether as home nurses, day care staff, social workers, or something else. Women of color have historically predominated in these positions (as nannies, for example). With the changing composition of industrial production after the 1970s, more and more of the workforce is doing this kind of work.
These proletarians are in a tricky structural position, different from the old-school image of an assembly line worker. Their work often brings together, in a contradictory manner, their own desire to care for other human beings, and the harsh reality of having to do so under conditions they dislike, in order to survive under capitalism. Furthermore, these workers can’t “stop production” as one would in a factory: when an auto plant goes on strike, it creates an immediate crisis for the capitalists planning to sell the cars, and less so for the general population who plans on driving them in the future. In contrast, when hospital workers or nannies go on strike, it creates an immediate physical and social crisis for the people they care for.
These conditions suggest that new and different kinds of organizing and action will be necessary for political work within the large, low-wage, feminized care work sector. I don’t have such a strategy to offer in this piece, but I want to point out that this must also be part of a discussion of care work. Any discussion that leaves out those who are “paid to care” risks falling into bourgeois feminism or autonomism, and ignoring the experiences of proletarian care workers.