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.