Care Crisis and Care Strike: Isabell Lorey

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To mark May Day, we bring you a selection of May Day Reading from the Verso Archive covering care work, sex work, black liberation & more; from Angela Davis, Gail Lewis, Melissa Gira Grant, Isabell Lorey, and Kristin Ross. Read them all here

In State of Insecurity, Isabell Lorey explores the possibilities for organization and resistance under the contemporary status quo, and anticipates the emergence of a new and disobedient self-government of the precarious. In this extract she looks at care crisis and care strike.


Judith Butler argues in favour of no longer regarding common shared precariousness as threatening and dividing it up into hierarchized protected differences, but instead recognizing existential vulnerability and considering it as an affirmative basis for politics. For Butler, precarity in its different extents forms the starting-point for political alliances against a logic of protection and security for some at the cost of many others.

Precarias a la deriva, a group of feminist activists from Madrid, also focus on existing logics of security and insecurity in order to lastingly break through them. Precarity is the starting-point for the Precarias as well, but it is one that must first be explored together. Their central political and social strategy consists in enhancing the status of care.

In a further development of the Situationist practice of the dérive, the Precarias practise a different kind of roaming through the city. Their political practice overlaps with their own research practice of dérive: ‘interviews in movement’ are conducted during tours through the city, in order to relate different locations to one another in collating precarious living and working conditions.

The Precarias’ dérive inscribes itself in the tradition of ‘militant research’, generating ‘minor knowledge forms’ for the purpose of self-organization. This practice refers back to the idea of co-research associated with the Italian workers’ movement of the 1970s, as well as to practices of consciousness-raising deriving from second-wave feminism. Starting from their own precarized existences, in their encounters and affections with other precarious they seek to break through the isolation and individualization of post-Fordist living and working conditions. They traverse not only places of work, residence, shopping and meeting, places of sexuality and of transport, but also the different modes of subjectivation involved. The Precarias a la deriva start, first of all, from their own different experiences of precarity and precarization, in order to enable a common orientation with others in the dérives. This orientation is not directed to a goal, but emerges in practice. In the dérive they pass through social spaces and explore the conditions of precarized everyday life, in order to find out, first of all, what a common struggle against precarity and precarization might mean. As they start from the presupposition that the precarious goes far beyond the realm of work and covers the whole of existence, there is no search for a common identity that would conjoin everyone into a unity. Instead, the Precarias are interested in inventing ‘common notions’ in Spinoza’s sense. Such notions are formed by way of the affective connections of bodies, through what they have in common in their mutual affections. Common notions arise through actualizing that ‘which is common to and a property of the human body and such other bodies as are wont to affect the human body’. Developed in encounters with others, in exchanges with them, both the multiplicity and the singularities of existence manifest themselves in common notions.

Similarly to Butler, the Precarias also argue against traditions of thinking that refuse our fundamental social relationality, warn against infection by others, maintain a logic of individualism and security, and thus perceive precarization solely as a threat. They contrast this kind of social and political logic with a ‘logic of care’, situating the term ‘reproduction’ and the multiplicity of care activities associated with it in the context of post-Fordist production conditions, and taking into consideration the new forms of communicative knowledge and affect work. In their militant research the Precarias focus not only on housework, nursing, child-raising and education, but also on work in call centres and sex work. Enhancing the status of these care activities enables alternative political responses to current problems, which the interminable reformulations of the logic of threat and security are not capable of providing. Contrary to the tradition of the political community of protection, the Precarias a la deriva therefore develop the common notion of a ‘care community’, a cuidadanía.*

The focus on care has, above all, two strategic components: on the one hand, it is intended to enhance the status of care work with a new understanding and make this the starting-point for political-economic considerations. The traditional evaluation is not thereby simply reversed, rather, the gender-specific and heteronormative distinction between production and reproduction is to be divested of its foundation, just like the separation between a private and a public sphere. On the other hand, the focus on care is intended to ‘return to the initial moment of anxiety’ and acknowledge our relationality with others – and thus also ‘our vulnerability and . . . our situated, partial and unfinished constitution within the weave of relationships in which we live’.

According to the Precarias, we currently find ourselves in a multi-dimensional ‘care crisis’, which is not to be separated from the ‘precarization of existence’ with which more and more people are confronted in different ways. Especially among the middle class, privatized risk management, in which one’s own life conduct has to be controlled through self-discipline, is still correlated with the tendency of individuals to close themselves off and with demands for security from those declared as ‘risk groups’. Individualization and segmentation increase, not least of all due to post-Fordist working conditions, which demand permanent availability while cutting labour rights and social rights at the same time. Time and the capacity for caring for others become scarce; self-care serves almost exclusively to (re-)produce a profitable and productive body. Yet regardless of how intense capitalized and technicized self-care is, bodies remain – not only at the beginning of life, but also and especially later in life – dependent on being cared for by (usually in their turn precarious) others, and increasingly by migrant women. Up to the present, the necessity of care work has not led to fair wages.

In addition, care work is closely linked with the denial of labour rights and citizenship rights, but also with the lack of the right to be cared for and to carry out care work under conditions of dignity. The strategic reference to a right to care activity is not intended to reproduce a ‘feminine duty’, nor to privilege heteronormative gender roles by way of which people who do not fit the norm are refused this right. The right to care activity also includes the right not to have to carry out such activity, meaning generally the right to have a choice about care work.

Against this background, the Precarias call for a ‘care strike’, designed to break open the rigid order of threat, preventive care, care-taking and self-care in order to arrange them anew. When the neoliberal dispositive of care – as the intertwining of affective and cognitive labour, the privatization of prevention, anxiety about precariousness, and servile self-care – becomes capitalizable and governmental in all four dimensions, what form can a care strike take? Can the relationality of life, our connectedness with others, be the object of a strike? Here a strike does not mean the suspending of care activities. On the contrary, care work is to be shifted to the centre, thus interrupting the existing order. The strike applies to political and economic dispositions that devalue care as being private, feminine and unproductive, thereby depoliticizing it. These are perspectives through which care work is perpetually made invisible, so that its associated conflicts are consequently not perceived. The care strike is intended to emphasize exactly these debates and struggles, starting from them in order to create, in Donna Haraway’s sense, the ‘instruments of vision’ that ‘vision requires’.

The practices of care and the refusals taking place within them, with their major and minor resistances, should be articulated ‘to produce new more liberatory and cooperative forms of affect’. Social relationships are ‘striked’, according to the Precarias, by producing excesses that flee from the interests of profit. This refusal, this flight, already takes place in everyday practices, but it must be composed, articulated, actualized, constituted. This is why the activist researchers ask questions such as ‘What is your precarity?’, ‘What is your strike?’, in order to move from singular practices to the common notions of ‘precarity’ and ‘strike’ in which affective encounters and communicative exchange with others are manifested. When the dispersed precarious roam around conducting their militant research, when they suspend their isolation in the strike, this does not lead to unification. Instead, ‘linguistic-affective territorialities are created between the points that do not already have territories a priori at their disposal’. The strike practices encompass interruptions and ruptures as well as inventions and improvizations. In them, new forms of living together and new forms of constituting emerge, with a view to changing fundamentally the ‘increasingly precarized world’.

* The Spanish term cuidadanía is derived from the word cuidado (care) and is a play on words with ciudadanía (citizenship). 

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