Who Cares About Care Workers? Capitalism and the Ethics of Uncaring

According to some sources we are entering the era of a “care economy”, one where reproductive work is on the rise as one of the fastest growing job industries in North America (Hester, 2018). This rise in demand for care work has been attributed to several factors, such as larger elderly populations, the unlikelihood of care work becoming an automated job, or the changing attitudes around caring for elderly relatives and family members (Hester, 2018). Others are saying that we’ve entered a “crisis of care”, one where social reproduction (the act of child rearing and taking care of the elderly) and the effort that goes into it is still regarded as free or as a gift acted upon out of love, rather than a form of labour (Fraser, 2018). According to Fraser (2018), care is seen as infinite, meaning that those who give care will always be able provide it without remuneration, when in reality it is a finite resource which places large demands on those who are pressured to produce it (Fraser, 2018). 

However we might ask, if there is a crisis of care, how does this play into a care economy which is only expected to keep expanding? What does this care economy really mean, and how does it connect not only to a crisis of care, but a crisis in equal pay for women and women of colour? How can we locate a care economy and a crisis of care within the realm of feminist ethics? Does the emergence of a care economy mean that care work will become a more legitimated field with better pay and better benefits? 

In this paper I will be attempting to answer these questions, while also arguing that capitalism as a structure and the values which it is built upon are incompatible with care work. According to my analysis, care work may never be fully integrated into capitalism in a way where it becomes fully legitimized, adequately compensated, and free from unequal dynamics of gender, race, and nationality. To describe this incompatibility I will use the term “ethics of uncaring” to describe the ethical foundations which I believe capitalism is informed by. This ethics of uncaring is also an intentional subversion of Gilligan’s (1982) “care ethics”, a term which describes relationships of care as a foundation for ethical investigation. Capitalism values autonomy, productivity, individuality, and (surplus) profit, whereas care work values dependency, collectivity, relationality, and caring for an unprofitable and no longer or not yet “productive” population. Therefore both systems are invested in different ethical principles that are ultimately at odds with one another. Furthermore, an ethics of uncaring also extends to a disregard for human life itself, and in particular human life which does not fit itself neatly into the productive forces of the economy. In other words, capitalism and it’s ethics of uncaring extends into a hierarchy of human life where the worth of lives and bodies is dictated by their productivity and economic contributions. Elderly and disabled populations, due to their lack of “productivity” and the financial burdens which they place upon the state are not considered valuable within capitalism. 

This ties into Frasers (2018) description of how capitalism views care work as an infinite reservoir which it can pull from continuously without adequate compensation or reciprocity. Not only does this ethics of uncaring apply to the recipients of care work but also it’s workers, who are seen as expendable and taken for granted. Not only is the emotional labour and draining nature of care work not structurally acknowledged within capitalism, but the lack of recognition that this job receives worsens the burdens placed upon care workers. Because care work was traditionally performed by female relatives and mothers in the home, mainstream capitalism still struggles to perceive care work as genuine work or labour in the first place. 

In order to explore the impacts of this ethics of uncaring, I will first look at Marxist feminist analyses of care work and womens unpaid labour in order to explore the ways in which care has been feminized and why it is devalued within capitalism. I will also briefly explore care ethics and how it relates to care work and the feminization of care. I will then incorporate a more global, transnational perspective on care work to illustrate it’s racialized underpinnings, which also serve to inform both the demographics of who performs care work while further contributing to it’s devaluation within Western capitalism. I will then use Mullers (2019) text and her comparisons between Kristeva’s (1982) notion of “abject” with the realm of care, in order to further explore the cultural mechanisms which relegate care work to the margins of society, along with the collective avoidance or disgust associated with care work (as well as elderly and disabled populations). I will then explore how enlightenment notions of autonomy and selfhood create further barriers between capitalism and care work, followed by a final analysis of the mental health toll which care work creates for its workers. 

I would also like to add that I am approaching this topic from a personal vantage point due to my position as a home care worker. This paper is in part informed and inspired by my own experiences within this field, along with the forms of discrimination or devaluation that I have experienced. Notably, I’ve received comments from friends or peers which revealed embedded assumptions or biases about care work. For example I have been asked if I get paid for my job, or told that I was “brave” and that I’m doing a job which “no one else wants to do”. I’ve also had friends assume that I get paid under the table rather than through the government. While most of these comments were made under the guise of innocence and good intentions, they are still indicative of a culture which devalues and misunderstands care work. I mention them here because they provide real life evidence of the themes I will be discussing later on, while also providing added context for why I chose this topic and why it matters to me. 

The Feminization of Care and the Patriarchal Division of Labour

Firstly, in order to gain a better understanding of why care work is devalued, we must look at the demographic of the workers themselves. As I mentioned earlier, care work is recognized as distinctly feminine work, in that it is culturally understood that women are better at caring than men. This association has been further cemented by care ethics scholars such as Gilligan (1982), who argued that women have a propensity for a care ethic based off of relationality to others or the ability to form attachments, rather than the traditionally masculinist branch of ethics which is built off of rationality, objectivity and a rejection of codependence or over attachment (Gilligan, 1982). While Gilligan’s (1982) theories were an attempt to legitimize or validate the ethical capabilities of women, while also trying to incorporate the domestic or private spheres of women’s lives as legitimate foundations for ethical inquiry, her theories have also been criticized as essentializing all women as “caring”, therefore cementing binaries of women as “caring” and men as “uncaring” (Spelman, 1988). 

Marxist feminists have pointed out that the sexual division of labour and the unequal gender dynamics which inform it laid the foundations for the emergence of capitalism (Muller, 2019). According to these feminists the heterosexual bourgeois family laid the foundations for the division of labour within patriarchal capitalism, meaning that women’s unpaid labour in the family and home allowed capitalism to flourish (Muller, 2019). Other Marxist feminists such Mariarosa Dalla Costa (1973) have targeted the division of unpaid care and domestic work and attempted to bring attention to the status of unpaid work as legitimate work. According to Dalla Costa (1973), during the emergence of capitalism men were largely absent in the home since they were encouraged to work externally in the public sphere, leading to an increasing divide where waged labour or productive labour was considered to exclusively take place outside the home (Muller, 2019). This leads to a split between the productive and reproductive spheres, or paid and unpaid labour. Dalla Costa (1973) further argues that domestic housewives “reproduce the labourer, which is the main commodity for the process of production” (Muller, 2019, para. 10). Therefore while domestic housework is framed as a personal service, it is in fact the reproduction of labour power, “a commodity which is essential to the production of surplus value” (Muller, 2019, para).

 According to Scholz (2011), reproductive labour is disassociated from “abstract labour” along with the processes that determine value and surplus value (Muller, 2019). She calls this “value disassociation”, meaning that all the elements which comprise gendered care taking are seen as separate or are “structurally split off” from the value of abstract labour (Scholz, 2011, p. 118: Muller, 2019). This ties into my thesis in that value is determined not on the basis of reciprocity, mutual aid, or bringing “value” to others lives (as is the case with care and reproductive work), but rather that value in the capitalist sense is built upon abstract labour outside of the home, along with the accumulation of surplus profit. Value according to capitalism is not only detached from social reproduction but also the nature of social reproduction, which is explicitly involved in the maintenance and improvement of human lives. 

Suzanna Uhde (2016) also discusses how capitalism provides a form of “distorted emancipation” for women by creating a “double workload” (p. 391). While women become increasingly more incorporated into the economy and workforce through more employment opportunities, they are still expected to perform the majority of domestic and care duties at home, thus creating a double workload for women (Uhde, 2016, p. 391) 

Muller (2019) also comments on Marx’s (1990) theory of the double-free wage laborer. In capitalism the double free waged laborer is “free” in that he is free from capital since he does not own any, nor does he have other commodities which can enable him to own capital (Marx, 1990). His only commodity is the labour which he himself can produce, or his labour power (Marx, 1990). He is also free to do as he pleases with his labour power- for example he can choose which contract he enters into (Marx, 1990). The double free labourer forms the basis of surplus value, since the labourer produces more value than the capitalist has to compensate them for- therefore labour produces value and surplus value (Marx, 1990). However, Muller (2019) points out that Marx does not take care work into account in this analysis. She states that; 

“in calculating the value of the laborer, Marx does take the need for nutrition into account, but not the fact that the reproduction of every individual laborer, as well as the reproduction of the entire labor force, also requires care work: somebody who cooks the food, raises the children, provides emotional support, etc” (Muller, 2019, para. 40).

Therefore Marxism has also been guilty of neglecting the realm of care work as genuine work, while also glossing over the labour that takes place behind closed doors within the private sphere in order to ensure that male labourers and workers can participate within the capitalist economy. 

Care work and Globalization

When discussing the gendered nature of care work, it is also important to frame it as an equally racialized and globalized form of labour. In her analysis, Suzanna Uhde (2016) argues that the continuous globalization of capitalism, along with the advances of capitalist or neoliberal feminisms which only selectively enforce certain feminist claims, do not adequately challenge the gendered division of labour (Uhde, 2016). In her own words “the personal has not become public; rather it has been marketized” (Uhde, 2016, p. 391). 

For example the private care sector is largely built off of unequal class and racial dynamics, with most private care services largely being used by White middle or upper classes families and the care workers employed by them typically being lower class or migrant women of colour. In addition some private care work positions provide accommodation for their workers as part of their compensation (or in addition to a working wage). These positions often try to appeal to migrant women hoping to relocate to Western countries, and have been critiqued for recreating “slavery” type scenarios which make it difficult for care workers to set professional boundaries with their employers or advocate for better pay and benefits (Donovan, 1987). These dynamics are particularly eerie and evocative of the American slave trade when Black women served as “mammies” and care workers for White families- a trope which unfortunately persists today in the private and public care sectors (Donovan, 1987).  These dynamics also inform the devaluation of care work since migrant and POC women statistically form the lowest paid demographic in North America, with Black and Hispanic women making an average hourly wage of 12$-13$ in the USA, compared to an average hourly wage of $21 for White men and $17 for White women (Patten, 2016). 

Care Work as Abject

Another element worth considering which contributes to the devaluation of care workers is the perception of care work, or more specifically the elements involved in care work, as abject. In her text, Muller (2019) uses Kristeva’s (1982) theory of abjection in order to explain the societal disdain and even disgust towards care work. Kristeva’s (1982) notion of abjection is used to explain the subjects transition into the symbolic order, where the refusal of that which is “unstructured” is the “precondition for self-being” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 3). Therefore that which is abject is incompatible with the formation of selfhood (Kristeva, 1982). The realm of the abject is typically rejected by or hidden within society, especially since that which is abject is typically seen as improper and unclean (Kristeva, 1982). Abjection encompasses everything which reminds us of our own animality, physicality, or vulnerability- common examples of which include bodily fluids, physical excrement, and anything associated with the processes of birth and death (Kristeva, 1982). All of these elements are inevitable to human life and inherently tied to our nature as human beings. This means that despite the collective urge to hide everything which is abject from the general public, it will always exist lingering beneath the surface and at the margins of society (Kristeva, 1982).  

Using this definition of abjection, we can see that care work directly deals with many of those things which we consider abject (Muller, 2019). It involves direct contact with bodily fluids of all kinds (urine, stool, sweat, etc) while also requiring the care worker to come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of another person (Muller, 2019). Care work is also informed by vulnerability, specifically the vulnerability of the care recipient, who is to some extent physically vulnerable and dependent on the worker. This level of dependency or vulnerability is also associated with abjection in that it reminds us of our own physical vulnerability and the confinements of our material and embodied realities (Muller, 2019). Additionally, Care work (specifically with elderly populations) directly confronts death and the process of aging. The realm of death and dying is a prominent example of that which is abject, representing the ultimate loss of structure and the ultimate surrender to our physical and material confinements (Kristeva 1982). For many, being close to death or being reminded of death is not only difficult but existentially traumatic since it reminds us of our own inevitable decay and eventual passing. Not only do we not want to be reminded of death, but we do not want to be associated with it either. Due to the relational element of care work, the worker not only perceives or witnesses the process of dying but is in contact with this process, or becomes embodied and enmeshed within this process. 

Since care work could be classified as abject, this further explains the stigma associated with it and it’s relegation to the margins of capitalist society. Both capitalism and mainstream society want to separate themselves from that which is abject, especially since that which is abject is considered threatening not only to the individual sense of self, but the collective self and social identity. Capitalist society is one of the dominant forces which seeks to obscure that which is abject from public view and keep it behind closed doors within the private and hidden sphere. Therefore capitalism not only devalues care work, but is also disgusted, troubled and unsettled by care work.

Enlightenment Ideas of Autonomy Alongside Care Work and Disability

Capitalism is in part inspired by enlightenment ideas which reward rationality, autonomy, and productivity (Adam Smith, 1776). For example one of the key founders of capitalist theory Adam Smith (1776) focused on individuals and their ability to increase their wealth through specialized production. This framework valorizes the ability of individuals to not only be productive, but to be self reliant in their production and ability to earn wealth. Other capitalist theorists such as Ayn Rand (1967) describe capitalism as a system allowing individuals to act in their rational self interest while also solidifying their individual rights (including the right to own property). These ideas, many of which were directly informed by enlightenment principles of liberty, freedom, and self actualization, valorize the human as an independent and autonomous individual without taking into account not only the ways in which social stratification affects one’s liberty or autonomy, but also serve to devalorize and stigmatize those who are physically dependent on others. Not only that, but those who are physically disabled are framed as unable to fully self actualize or achieve full subjecthood. 

In her analysis of the relationship between care workers and care recipients, Ervelles Nirmala (2011) commented on how disabled people with more severe physical impairments are perceived as less autonomous because they need care workers to help them with physical tasks (Nirmala, 2011). In other words, because they can’t do certain physical tasks, they are perceived as lacking autonomy in other areas of their life as well and become infantilized and framed as secondary or half fledged individuals rather than fully formed human subjects (Nirmala, 2011). In her words, “this is because when humanist notions of autonomy are privileged as normative in defining human subjectivity, persons with moderate to severe disabilities who radically differ from this norm have historically been labelled “deviant” (Nirmala, 2011, p. 177).

This is relevant to my analysis since it provides further evidence for the stigmatization of disabled bodies, a group which form a large basis of those who receive and rely on care work. The stigma associated with disabled bodies is directly related to capitalism and the ways in which it valorizes certain more productive or more autonomous bodies, further cementing the incompatibilities between care work and capitalism. 

The Emotional and Physical Toll of Care Work

In addition, there has been extensive literature regarding the physical, emotional and mental drains which care work places on care workers. This strain can be attributed not only to the nature of the job, which is demanding in and of itself, but also the fact that it is not adequately valued or properly compensated. In my analysis I am proposing that if care work were considered a more legitimate form of labour and therefore better paid, or better yet if we lived within an economic structure that determined value based off the improvement of individual lives and care for others, then care work would be more highly prioritized, and by extension care workers and their recipients would have a higher quality of life. 

According to Schulz and Sherwood (2008), care work often results in chronic stress for the worker, so much so that it has popularly been used as a model for studying chronic stress. It has also been well documented that care workers tend to report higher levels of depression, a factor which is also exacerbated by their socio economic status or access to support networks (Schulz & Sherwood, 2008). In addition, according to Denton (2002), being adequately paid, having good benefits, and receiving peer support were all important factors in the mental health of care workers. Therefore, the mental health effects of care work are exacerbated and clearly worsened when this work is not properly compensated or recognized.

In conclusion, I am hoping that this paper has illustrated the ways in which capitalism disregards and misunderstands care work as a practise and as a form of labour. Through it’s ethics of uncaring, capitalism not only deprioritizes labour which is dedicated to improving the lives of others, but is particularly disinterested in improving the lives of those who are unproductive, perceived as “abject”, or physically dependent on others. I am hoping that this analysis can help pave the way for new critiques of capitalism which take into account care work and disability as useful avenues for exploring anti capitalist action and commentary. In particular I think it would be useful for more anarchist, socialist and marxist circles to pay closer attention to care work and disability, since these movements too are equally capable of and guilty of putting forth misogynistic and ableist ideas. Lastly I would like to end with the following quote from Nancy Fraser; “this crisis will not be resolved by tinkering with social policy. The path to it’s resolution can only go through deep structural transformation of this social order” (2017, para. 39). I am very much in agreement with Fraser’s proposal, and believe that the only way to advocate for care workers is through uprooting, deconstructing, and perhaps one day abolishing capitalism. 










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Who Cares About Care Workers? Capitalism and the Ethics of Uncaring

Sophia Hirst Barsoski

Tioh'tia:ke / "Montréal"

Sophia is a fourth year student at Concordia majoring in women studies and sexuality studies. She also works as a home care worker and is passionate about advocating for care workers and fighting against capitalism.