A few thoughts on politics, dependency and care

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes the way in which foetal scans both reflect and influence our contemporary view of how human beings are formed and how they relate to one another:

The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. She has become a void – the already autonomous tiny space hero flies forth. […] The picture don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.

Of course, this isn’t true. The foetus depends on the gravida for sustenance and growth, and the baby would die if no one bothered to feed it and keep it warm. But it’s a nice image. Dependency, we are taught to believe, is for losers.

And yet all of us are dependent on others, not just as foetuses, but as adults. And we’ve just voted in a UK government who would like us to think that none of this matters at all. Dependency and care – not as temporary states, but as human inevitabilities – are politically unspeakable.

To be fair – and why not, since what difference will it make? – I don’t think any of the mainstream parties has truly stood for a politics of care, one that recognises the inevitability of dependency and the value of labour that takes place outside of what is called “the world of work.” I don’t mean by this “therefore all parties are the same”; they aren’t, not by a long shot. But not even the most well-meaning will commit to speaking the truth: that we are not all viable little economic units, just waiting to be fired up by the right opportunities and policy incentives. We are none of us self-sufficient and there is no programme that will make us so.

Dependency is a fact of life; unpaid care work will always be with us. Sometimes dependency is temporary (we are children, or we are ill, or we have caring responsibilities which leave us unable to do other “duties”); sometimes it is not (we are old and will never work again, or we will never be capable of undertaking paid employment). Even when we are earning money, our quality of life depends on subsidies and inequalities (we might suspect that many of the clothes and electronic goods we purchase are the result of slave labour – people we sponge off just because they happen to have been born somewhere else – but we don’t like to think about it too much).

The richer we are, the less we acknowledge our dependency on others (indeed, we might even have the nerve to consider ourselves “wealth creators”). Wealthy people – like David Cameron, like George Osborne, like all of them – have no idea how much they leech from others. Perhaps they suspect it – indeed, maybe an subconscious inkling of it makes them all the more eager to make dependency itself taboo. Because once you accept that it is natural and universal, instead shaming others you might be forced to acknowledge your own dispropportianate allocation of resources.

Many people in my family “don’t work.” My grandma is 96 and my children are five and seven, so I think they are excused. My brother is 42 and due to ill health has never been in paid employment. My mother is retired and my father is semi-retired, working part-time. I have a paid job and so does my partner. Considered as a nuclear unit (that is, ignoring everyone older than me) we are a “hardworking family,”™ but in reality all of us depend on one another to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, the care that is offered and received is not inevitable. Many people in my brother’s situation do not have family support in any meaningful way, not because of “broken Britain” or some abstract lack of moral values, but because it is hard and it costs money (for instance, I’d have to give up my job to do the care work my mother does). Some people see such things as “choices” because to them, that’s what they would be. Do I do it or do I pay someone else to do it? But dependency is not an indulgence and care is not a lifestyle choice. They are the very basics of life.

Tony Blair claims that Labour needs to be “for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.” As though election defeat is down to showing weakness, looking soft, not standing up for those who believe they’ll never be ill or old or poor. Perhaps, given who the electorate will vote for, there is some truth in this as an image, if not in any deep, moral sense. But there is also the problem of inconsistency. If you never commit fully to a politics of care but remain apologetic, treating it as a means to an end until everyone magically becomes “useful,” you will be far less convincing that the person who just doesn’t give a damn. Because most of us know the truth; care and need are part of our daily lives, whatever we would prefer to believe. And it would take a lot of courage to risk appearing “weak” enough to say it. It is easier to deface monuments, or to revert to myths of a “centre ground.” Take either of those options and at least no one will call you a mug. Dependency and care are a much harder sell, and a much harder fight.

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