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Without care, we lose

With skill and intention, caring labour knits together the social fabric as part of collective fights for justice and dignity

LabourSocial Movements

Ailén Possamay, “What they call love is unpaid labour,” Buenos Aires, 2019.

“How many people around us have burnt out, are depressed or completely overwhelmed by our struggles and family life?” ask organizers Rushdia Mehreen and Pascale Brunet. Reckoning with depletion in activist circles, Politics & Care, the Montréal-based initiative with which they’re associated, creates spaces for activists to organize toward collective wellbeing. Part of what’s remarkable about their work is the way they foreground caring labour in movements.

Usually associated with women, caring labour is the daily and nightly work that people do to nourish others, materially and relationally. It includes everything from assessing needs and tending to sick people, to raising money and figuring out logistics, to setting up and cleaning up, to mediating conflicts and relating to interpersonal harm, and so much more.

Caring labour is happening all the time in movements and communities in struggle. This includes activities such as welcoming newly involved people, checking in on those who have experienced trauma or death, transporting people to protests and meetings, cooking for those who are ill or new parents, hosting potlucks and dance parties, and building relationships with activists in other places and movements.

Care work, to paraphrase a slogan from Domestic Workers United, makes all other work in movements possible. Groups can’t hold large-scale gatherings without people preparing food. Organizations can’t function effectively unless people tend to hurt feelings and unstated tensions. Protest organizers can’t sustain militant direct action without people providing first aid and legal support. Parents and caregivers can’t participate in events unless people make intentional space for kids.

In short, the success of movements frequently rests on their collective capacities to do caring labour consistently and well.

Yet ruling relations have rendered caring labour largely invisible. Feminists of the 1970s, particularly Black feminists and other feminists working within and against the Marxist tradition, were some of the first to point this out. Thanks to their efforts and those who have built on them, we can now understand that colonialism, racial capitalism, and heteropatriarchy have structured an historically-specific set of social arrangements for how the work of care happens in North America. In these arrangements, caring labour is feminized and devalued.

Discussions on the left about movement-building all too often reproduce these arrangements. Most of us who have spent time in activist circles will recognize the sadly familiar dynamic of care work being treated as less “real” or “important” than other forms of political activity. Instead, the focus tends to be on outwardly-oriented work associated with men. When movements replicate this tendency, writes activist-scholar Dean Spade, they primarily lift up “people who give speeches, negotiate with bosses and politicians, get published, get elected, and otherwise become visible as actors in ways that align with dominant hierarchies.”

Contemporary media cultures have exacerbated this tendency. For sure, activists have been able to make use of social media platforms to generate networks of care and amplification that, at least in some ways, circumvent the atomizing orientations of these technologies. At the same time, the kinds of political efforts that tend to be highly valued—whether presentations, publications, or protests—are fairly easy to share through tweets and Instagram posts. They usually fit within the technical constraints of these platforms and frequently can conform to prevailing norms of individual achievement.

Meanwhile, the activities of care work—whether planning a meeting, gathering resources, or supporting someone through a hard time—are more difficult to acknowledge and represent. These activities are often slow-moving and collective, and it’s difficult to convey their significance within character limits.

All that said, this tendency is not a new problem on the left. Because caring labour is feminized, many people—especially but not only cisgender men—have tended to overlook it. Take children’s activities. It’s striking to learn how socialists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries unthinkingly assumed that women would organize care for kids. Even as socialist women built impressive schools and other programs with thousands of children participating, socialist leaders (mostly men) rarely accorded these efforts any importance or prioritized them for organizational resources. What’s even more striking is how consistent this pattern has been through many subsequent movements.

Another telling example is prisoner support. State repression of movements over the last fifty years has generated a lot of political prisoners, some of whom have spent decades behind bars. Although a few of these incarcerated revolutionaries have been lionized on the left, the unglamorous day-to-day work of supporting them and their families has been taken up mainly by very small all-volunteer groups and networks, usually led by women, non-binary people, and trans people. Those consistently doing this work have built remarkable campaigns that have nourished imprisoned activists and, in some cases, won their freedom. Although crucial for movement survival and continuity, this labour is mostly unrecognized outside of prisoner support circles, and larger organizations seldom direct resources to it.

Across cycles of struggle, good-hearted activists with liberatory aspirations have regularly related to care work as an afterthought, if at all. But as long-time organizers Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell point out, “legitimizing some work as ‘real’ and keeping other work unacknowledged isn’t useful to movement building.” This tendency produces a distorted understanding of what is required to generate winning movements and sustain struggles for the long haul.

Prevailing norms and habits might focus our attention on highly-visible activities, such as mobilizations and media work. Yet as Moore argues in her master’s thesis “An Ethic of Care,” “it is important to look at the extensive and intensive work that is taking place ‘behind the scenes’”—the much less celebrated efforts that underpin the big events. “Moreover,” she adds, “we need to consider the work of mending, maintaining, and building the social relations that are necessary to make even the ‘behind the scenes’ organizing possible.”

There are many instructive examples of collectively-organized care in movements. Going back to at least the 1970s, we can find instances of organizations formally setting up collective childcare arrangements. In the 1980s, the direct-action anti-nuclear movement formalized the role of the “vibes watcher,” a person tasked with paying attention to emotions during activist meetings. cMany movements have since adapted versions of that role, now sometimes including designated support people at events and protests. Building on similarly long histories, it is also now commonplace for confrontational protests to be accompanied by street medic teams and legal defense crews. And the last two decades have seen many movement-based experiments with structures for addressing interpersonal conflict and harm in groups.

With skill and intention, caring labour knits together the social fabric as part of collective fights for justice and dignity. And when we recognize the significance of this work, we can deliberately organize care in ways that strengthen our efforts and advance our aims.

Chris Dixon is a long-time activist, writer, and educator. Originally from Alaska, he lives in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory, where he is a member of the Punch Up Collective. Find him online at writingwithmovements.com.

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