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Care Work
From Caring Communities to Caring Cities

A kindergarten teacher reads to children.
People in care work often criticise state failures that force them to organise themselves. | Photo (detail): Sebastian Gollnow © picture alliance/dpa

The problem of unpaid care work is attracting increasing attention. But what are so-called queer care communities and why are they still needed? Alek B. Gerber of the German Care Revolution network describes how people are forced to close the supply gaps in public nursing care themselves.

By Alek B. Gerber

During the COVID-19 crisis, pictures of overfilled hospitals, empty supermarket shelves and people clapping for carers on balconies came thick and fast. The effects of the crisis are devastating. Lonely people in self-isolation at home, play areas cordoned off with barrier tape, and elbow bumps instead of handshakes – the social reproduction crisis reaches a peak here. People are no longer receiving the social care they need. In a profit-driven economy, people are increasingly suffering from time-related stress and psychological pressure, struggling to provide for subsistence-threatening risks. 

However, it is not just in the last two years that the governmental has passed on responsibility to civil society. Previously, people were already dependent on caring hands, on protective spaces they had to fight for themselves.

Queer Care Work

Systematic institutional failure has led queer people to create spaces for care themselves, so-called “communities of care”. 

A community of care may be referred to as queer when transgender, intersex and non-binary people, often living in precarious situations, offer one another mutual support. They take turns to look after one another, depending on who has the energy and resources at any particular time.  
For example, queer care work focuses on providing care in connection with sex reassignment surgery, support during adoption processes or emotional support for people who have suffered discrimination or violence. The boundaries of paid and unpaid care work, between welfare and self-care, between being looked after and looking after others, have to be sounded out again and again, depending on one’s needs and economic status. During the AIDS crisis back in the 1980s, the lack of state welfare especially in Europe and USA prompted the establishment of communities of care where care work was performed collectively and was usually unpaid. Today, it seems at first sight as if communities of care step into the breach when welfare state strategies ought to come into play. However, it is not enough to criticise caring communities for being a resource that takes the pressure off neoliberal welfare state structures.

The German state should not be relieved of the responsibility of looking after members of society. In order to politicise individuals and society as a whole, care work needs to be collectivised.

Government cuts in funding for alternative centres providing psychosocial counselling where people have the opportunity to exchange experiences about queer life and love mean that safe spaces of this kind are increasingly disappearing. Hardest hit by this are queer people who suffer other forms of discrimination as well, such as racism and/or classism, and who cannot resort to commercial services. Queer people “are facing unprecedented precarity due to the failure to improve non-commercial provision and care structures,” wrote sociologist Mike Laufenberg ten years ago.

Community Capitalism

As well as the many existing social and ecological crises, it is also possible to speak of a crisis of social reproduction, to which government responds with a structural lack of concern. That is evident, for example, in financial cutbacks in the social sector and the lack of adequate pay or recognition for care work. Unfortunately, clapping on balconies is not enough.

This crisis does not make capitalism crumble, however, but demonstrates its enormous power to transform any changes into capitalist structures. Today’s credo is no longer individualism, but community. Where government has failed, good neighbours step in to fill the gaps. Above all during the coronavirus crisis in the last two years, these disparities have come sharply into focus, like under a magnifying glass. If neighbours, friends or the community had not been there to go shopping for people in quarantine, many people would have had to subsist on old canned soup. And it boggles the mind to think what would have happened if they had run out of toilet paper.
“Once again, it becomes clear that unpaid labour was and remains the elixir of capitalism”, write sociologists Haubner and van Dyk. It is exasperating that queer communities need these free care structures because many queer people are short of cash and some are mentally ill, often on account of the everyday structural discrimination they face. 

The socialisation of care work highlights the importance of the community for individuals. Criticism of community capitalism is directed not against vital, everyday expressions of solidarity or alternative economies, but against the careless political and moral state of community capitalism, based as it is on exploitation.

Care Revolution

Gabriele Winker, too, co-founder of the Care Revolution network, which is operating in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, also sees these gaps in state provision and says that without a voluntary care structure, the life of society would collapse. 

It is hardly surprising that the individuals on whose shoulders the great responsibility for this unpaid care work lies soon become overburdened. What is therefore required, for example, is more time, less paid work, a basic safety net, and the extension of social infrastructures, which is also what Care Revolution is calling for. Above all, these are things that can be implemented by self-administration bodies. The concept of the “caring city” currently being tested in Barcelona is a good example, with measures that aim to put care work at the heart of economic life. Public infrastructures such as those called for by the Care Revolution network are increasingly being expanded. A care card gives people performing domestic care work privileged access to municipal care infrastructures and social services. Madrid tabled a similar idea in its “Ciudad del Cuidado” project, focusing on democratic participation and promoting self-organised initiatives.

For nearly ten years now, the Care Revolution network has been indefatigable in producing ideas about what a good life for all might be like. Now it is up to the benevolent state to actively take the initiative and do some caring.