Care vs Work

Care offers a hopeful alternative to the destructive concept of productive work that is dominant today.

How to crack the dominant system through care

Author: Angelina Kussy 

Angelina Kussy is a coordinator for two of Citizen Network's networks: UBI Lab Network and the Neighbourhood Democracy Movement. Angelina is originally from Poland and is now based in Barcelona. In this article Angelina argues that we need a new vision for human work, and taking care of each other in our neighbourhoods must be at the heart of that vision. This article was originally published in the Berliner Gazette.

The core of most of the problems in our societies nowadays is productivism: an obsessive, religious and self-destructive fervour based on the believe that we need to work more to produce more, and that the relentless efforts for the GDP are unstoppable and necessary. The problem with labour or the working class is that it participates in and legitimizes this process. Historically, because it was forced to do so, often through brutal violence, as it was deprived of alternative means of reproduction and power, political voice and tools for alternative and multiple social organizations. But nothing what was created by human beings cannot be unfolded by them.

The imperative of growth, through ever-increasing production, has always been coupled with injustice and the sacrifice of life and the health of the people in the factories (and nowadays also in the offices managing the extraction processes or just doing bullshit jobs). But, at least in the last decades, it is also a system that threatens life on the planet. We have to dismantle it. We need to stop growing. For the planet, and for us as part of the web of life on it. How to do that? The field and concept of care, rather than work as an abstraction that can simultaneously refer to socially useful or harmful activities, seems to have great potential to advance this task. But before I reflect on this potential, let me explain what productivism is.

Together with Félix Talego we explained the concept in an essay prepared for the workshop Anthropology and De-Growth at the London School of Economics and Political Science:

“It is a system of ideas that classifies and orders the activities carried out by human beings in relation to each other and the biotic and abiotic environment, anthropomorphised or not. It is a notion specific to modern Western culture, and its development can be accurately traced back to its origin, as well as its subsequent institutionalisation. This institutionalisation turns the theory of Production into a legitimising doctrine of the current hierarchies of the State and of capitalist corporations. This institutionalisation has reached such an extreme that, currently, all hierarchies –and each relevant position in them – are justified by their claim to achieve the progress of Production under optimal conditions. As a legitimised system of ideas, it not only interprets the world, but also, thanks to institutional support, creates it. It defines the subjects (producers/non-producers), conditions and stamps the norms and social relations (productive-reproductive-unproductive), practices (productive-reproductive-non-productive-other activities), organises space, the meaning of things (raw materials/products/waste) and shapes the set of human relationships according to the trinity productive-reproductive-unproductive, because – according to the theory around Productivism – human relations are essentially ‘social relations of production’.”

Sailing on a sinking ship

Right now this worldview is so strongly established, both institutionally and ideologically, that even the politicians concerned with environmental issues agree on making this framework “green” or think it can be balanced through more technological innovation or something similar; everything to not alter the bases of the system itself. As a result, we’re all sailing on a sinking ship; for in order to reproduce our individual lives in the current institutional framework we need to work, and working to produce (or make production possible) we are often destroying the base of the living world – we’re sawing off the branch we are sitting on.

In this context, the activists for ecological causes very often demand that we stop contaminating, extracting from and destabilising ecosystems; but little reflection is put into how people will reproduce themselves in an alternative way. It’s true that one sector is more harmful (i.e. more contaminating, more polluting, more ecologically destructive) than another, but the problem is productivism itself, its machinery. On the other hand, we still have the old leftist thinking that we just need to gain more power in the battle of labour against capital; but how this will produce the radical shift of the paradigm on which our society in based if they are both different sides of the same coin? Perhaps the power of the capitalist system resides in the fact that it has forced us to think that we need to choose between the two, but killed our imagination about different ways of reproducing our lives.

And here I am not referring to the hidden part of the iceberg of the production process, the “reproductive work,” that is, everything that is necessary to “produce” and maintain the worker who produces. In short, capitalism’s “free ride on social reproduction.” By social reproduction, I refer here to the general systemic framework of organization, maintenance, redistribution, and management, “the ensemble of activities through which people secure the conditions for their future existence” as Robert Foster explains. These activities are culturally constructed, supported by traditions, beliefs, customs, or laws, and can be horizontally organised or coercively imposed (directly, for example, through the use of police force, or structurally, by creating conditions in which people’s choices are severely restricted).

Beyond the hidden part of the iceberg

This broader anthropological definition can be applied to any kind of society, not just capitalism or state capitalism (socialist regimes). In this way we can think about a future social organization beyond this framework. Because the mere division between something that could be production and some other sphere, a sustaining base, is a dichotomy that only supports the productivist regime, since it is based on these hierarchies. It’s precisely because of this distinction that caring activities (maintaining life and not “producing” anything new) and nature are devalued or treated as resources to be used for greater and “real value” creating tasks.

The power of the productivist lens is so imperious that even the most radical movements thought that democracy meant democratic decision-making and ownership in the workplaces. That is valuable, of course, but real democracy is more than that. If the old left thought that the problem was that people should have more labor rights and higher wages, but it is still the capitalist who can decide where our social efforts will be invested (on what, how, where, etc. we will work), more radical movements demanded that workers be the owners of workplaces and decide collectively about their companies, but very few were against the whole system, which takes for granted that we should focus our social organization on the process of production.

Democratization of social reproduction vs. care extractivism

A similar problem arises today when we talk about the neoliberal attack on social reproduction, understood as what enables and sustains production. Reproducing the abstract divisions imposed by the obsession with economic growth pushes us into limited options as those who use them, reinforces their power as categories describing the world, and much as the old left demanded more money without questioning what was being produced, we now demand more money from the state for reproductive activities without questioning the productivist system as a whole and the power of nation-states.

But we can do more. After centuries of the destruction of the commons and other more autonomous and less extractivist ways of reproducing and organizing our lives, and, no less importantly, a period of time that closed off the possibility of thinking about new ways of doing this (because people believed the story of progress and were focused on progress) the current moment opens up a unique opportunity to finally democratise social reproduction, in the broad sense that I’ve defined it.

How do we do that? We have to pluralize the economic bases. Productivism is a child of the 19th and 20th century search for “great narratives,” totalizing systems based on theories that are supposed to explain and organize (in the most optimized way) human life. We need to look for leverage points to gain independence from this totalizing structure. If we can choose not to work, then we can choose not to do socially and ecologically harmful work. If we can choose not to work, we can put our time and effort into the social struggle for access to the land. We can do politics. As Harry Cleaver has explained, the primary function of work today is ultimately political control, to keep people busy so that they can’t think and organize around the goal of changing the system, so that they can’t be political actors.

Slowly transforming the system from within

New systems are not born on the ruins of previous ones (or when they are, they usually repeat the same hierarchies and inequalities, calling them by a different name or hiding them in a more sophisticated way). They are born within the hegemonic system and slowly transform it from within. When we were organizing the Fearless Cities summit in Barcelona, the first Municipalist Internationalist in 2017, I remember one of the activists (Adria) recalling Cohen’s words: 

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

The rings that are still ringing in our broken system are, for example, caring work, the work that serves others and ourselves, that connects us to each other, that sustains social relationships, that supports the most vulnerable parts of our society and society as a whole. Teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers in nursing homes, in private homes, etc.

Of course, the way care is provided today also represents new forms of modern slavery. How else, for example, could domestic work be described? Working 24 hours a day with very little or no labor rights? Being locked up in someone’s private home? Living with the employer? In care, we can see the core axes of discrimination such as gender, class, racialization, ageism, migration status, etc. converging. It is the growing need for social care that today drives the stratification of social reproduction, dividing people between those who enjoy the right to care and those who are forced to care for others without having their own needs met.

But this happens because care, like everything else in this totalizing system, is provided within the rules of the market, competition and exploitation of one part of society, so that the other part of society (the everyday minors) can enjoy their freedom at the expense of others. Of course, simultaneously with the extractivism of “natural resources,” we face multiple processes of care extractivism. Of course, the name itself comes from the productivist mindset, where everything is a “resource” to be used in the production process – and has no value before it is subjected to it.

The antithesis of the managerial class

I strongly believe that at the same time care is the crack in the system. The caring class is the antithesis of the managerial class, as David Graeber explained to us, because it is the work within the current system that is not a shitty job. Even if it is unjustly organized, it is socially useful work. Analogously, care as a concept is what can help to theoretically construct the foundations of a new system. It is focused on maintaining what we have, not on trying to grow. It is a necessary activity in all societies. In fact, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued, our civilization begins with care, because the other animals do not “save” another animal whose bones are broken. We do.

And, of course, there have existed and flourished societies where wage labor did not exist, and where work was not the ultimate goal of the community and the individual, but where such a concept existed, it was understood rather as a necessary unpleasant effort to achieve some other goal, but not as a means in itself: as something glorified for the sake of production and as a source of social prestige (as Hannah Arendt reminds us, in ancient Greece only slaves “worked,” the “citizens” aspired to devote their lives to politics).

Care work reminds us how empty is the concept of work in capitalism, as it organises all human activities according to their place in the process of Production and equals producing bombs with producing a medicine. At the end, according to this theory, both create “value” only because they passed the process of production. When we compare care work with other kinds of works we clearly feel that there is something wrong in this radical reduction of significance behind the concept of work in productivist economies.

Caring, then, is one of those activities not harmful to nature that we are already doing, even if not in a socially just way at the moment. Ultimately, what a regime of social reproduction regulates is what, how, and by whom something is done. And this is what we need to change profoundly. The realm of care points to what certainly needs to be done. And if we are able to put it at the centre of our society, so that it is highly valued, we can also build our identities around caring and being cared for, as opposed to striving to become an owner and a worker in order to feel like a “valuable social being.” We can of course care for each other, more dependent members of society, and our significant others in many different ways, but it would be difficult to “care too much.”

Current experiments in care provision, such as the Care Superblocks in the Netherlands, Barcelona or Bogotá, also show that the care sector is driving the creation of commons. In these cases, the public sector is helping to involve the community in the social organization of care. And when we talk about the commons, we are not only thinking about what is done, but also how it is done: that is, who and how decides about social reproduction.

“Unions of life”

Care could be that crack through which light enters. If we build the care commons, small pieces of reality where we organize our efforts around what is needed and not harmful to others, ourselves and the planet, and do it in a democratic way, we could inspire further ways of pluralizing economic bases for a post-growth reality. The term “unions of life” has already appeared in the alternative left press and organizations in Barcelona. I imagine them as capable of transcending the particular interests of an industry in order to protect the general socio-ecological interest.

These unions, possibly federations of the presently “productive” and “reproductive” workers’ or tenants’ unions, and all those that do not fit the formal requirements of being unionized, as associations of care workers, can be the critical mass to begin to claim and create different assets for social reproduction and social welfare, independent of our relationship to work (and thus production) throughout the life course. Universal Basic Income (UBI), for example, if accompanied by measures to guarantee the right to housing, can be one of the tools to gain time to build such commons. Without the means for alternative social reproduction, most of us will continue to be forced to participate in the madness of growth.

Publisher's note: This article was originally published as a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website, visit:

The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Care vs Work © Angelina Kussy 2023.

Article | 11.08.23

community, Community Health, disability, health & healthcare, It's Our Community, Need for Roots, Neighbourhood Democracy, Europe, Germany, Spain, Article

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