Against the so-called ethics of care

5 May, 2021

ethics of care

The ethics of care have migrated from feminist theory to the language used both by the Spanish government for pandemic management and by the political parties in their electoral campaigns.Care and the vulnerable have become terms of use, the maternal status of female candidates has been turned into an electoral issue and vulnerability has been turned into a synonym of the condition of precarious workers. What lies underneath this language trying to become state ideology?

In this article

The ethics of care become mainstream

Ethics of care started with the definitions: 'physician, mother and candidate'
Ethics of care started with the definitions: ‘physician, mother and candidate’

The election campaign in Madrid has been even more infamous than usual. The letters with threats to some candidates and ministers of the national government helped the tired and false anti-fascist discourse precooked by Iglesias and the Sánchez government to confront the the diffuse violence encouraged by the fear-mongering and the covid-denialist temptations of the Madrid PP, increasingly influenced by Vox, expression in turn of an increasingly frustrated and politically adrift petty bourgeoisie .

The biggest novelty of the Madrid election campaign consisted of one of the main candidates insisting over and over again that she was a physician and mother of three children. Errejón’s party, vanguard of the most reactionary ideological innovation, put the ethics of care in the mainstream.

To do so, it resurrected old clichés about how femininity/motherhood are naturally loving and caring, reinforcing these sexist clichés with a permanent nod toward a medical profession that pandemic propaganda and its conversion into experts has given hypocritical lip service to.

The fact that Vox and PP presented women candidates mattered little to Más Madrid. The discourse hammered during the years of compulsory civil service by the female section of the Francoist Falange on the existence of a supposed innate ethic to women, centered on care and common sense, was once again expressed in all its shameless and unabashedly sexist vulgarity.

At first glance it might seem that this latest contortion of errejonism toward the ethics of care is nothing more than a way to valorize the health system and social spending by borrowing a stale and unfortunate analogy. But no. The ethics of care is an elaborate ideological construct with a long history in the USA. And it is well on its way to becoming part of the state ideology in Spain and Europe.

Ethics of care, commodification and institutionalization of community relations

"The personal is political", an old idea from the revolutionary puritanism of the 17th century, which reappeared in the feminism of the 1960s, is the origin of the ethics of care
“The personal is political”, an old idea from the revolutionary puritanism of the 17th century, which reappeared in the feminism of the 1960s, is the origin of the ethics of care

The ethics of care discourse was born in the 1970s as part of the totalitarian drift of American second wave feminism. It is a further development of the puritan principle the personal is political, in a framework in which the women of the American petty bourgeoisie, coming out of tremendously classist universities, were expanding the spaces of power to which their mothers had already had access within business and the state.

Hitherto the main thrust of American feminism had been saving the petty-bourgeois family and its differentiated economic status vis-à-vis workers by giving wealthy class women access to managerial and executive positions. Along the way feminism had become part of the ideology of mobilization for war and swept away labor protections for working-class women, laboriously wrested away in the 19th century.

In the 1970s the tension between the American petty-bourgeois nuclear family model and participation in ever-increasing quotas of corporate power ruptures. Domestic wage labor – the service – grows in cost faster than cadre wages rise and its cost accounts for a growing share of the extra income generated by the joint earnings of spouses. Maintaining the dual role of domestic manager and industrial cadre was increasingly difficult and the professional cadre couple begins to have to devote time to daily housekeeping and child-rearing. Service becomes help on an hourly basis.

The solution? Freeing the petty-bourgeois family economic unit from the hourly cost of child and home care in order to encourage its competitiveness. Do away with the communitarian basis of the family and recognize it for all purposes as a productive unit… with salaried workers. That is to say, to commodify it even further. To recognize the tasks of the domestic environment, the cares, always turning them into paid activities, into salaried work… that would have to be entrusted to salaried workers or, failing that, to charge the spouses according to their contribution.

This was not about promoting or accelerating a cultural change – which was already independently underway – regarding men’s responsibilities in child rearing and domestic responsibilities, but about affirming the mercantile nature of family and couple relationships. This happened at the same time and in the same environment in which the new tendencies of feminism moved from traditional prohibitionism to the vindication of prostitution as sex work. A new feminist morality based on extreme commodification was emerging then.

But one question remained: who was to pay these caregiver wages?

Pretending that it should be done by the state without further ado seemed utopian to say the least, although a whole branch of feminist economists will be advocating it for decades. The solution will require a slightly more elaborate argument coming from feminist psychology, allowing one to equate domestic care with the “public goods” provided by the state itself: health, education, dissemination of values…. Thus care ceased to be conceptualized as a communitarian expression and became a personal responsibility and then… political, institutional… that is to say, it must be guaranteed by the state. The discourse of the ethics of care is emerging.

This cultural shift is at first marginal yet visible. The social offshoots of the US New Left of the sixties abandoned in the eighties and nineties the welfarist logic in the neighborhoods. Encouraged by the ethics of care, they begin to organize time banks in which neighbors exchange care by using hourly vouchers. The idea is to expand the idea that traditionally decommodified community relationships have become interchangeable goods.

Caregivers and the vulnerable

Under the ethics of care lies the same "protective homeland" (national capital) which makes us precarious in the first place.
Under the ethics of care lies the same “protective homeland” (national capital) which makes us precarious in the first place.

But the ethics of care generates its own categories as it moves from slogan to public policy. Categories which are far from innocent. The passage from a state guaranteeing certain minimum conditions of exploitation -health, training, infrastructures, freedoms- to the caregiver state means conceiving state policy from a division of society into two new groups: caregivers and the vulnerable.

The pandemic has helped the debut of these categories in Spain by all means. It’s not just marketing and linguistic bias. It’s not just the Peronist stench liked so much by Errejón, Iglesias and Sánchez nor the caretaker epic of a social shield that turned out to be made of cardboard. Turning workers, made precarious en masse by the temporary layoffs and unemployment, into vulnerable passive people expels half the population as a conscious and active part of society… while reconverting their gravediggers into protector-caretakers.

Redefining us as the vulnerable, as a part of the social body paralyzed by the disease of crisis and pandemic, the ethics of care orients any claim we make to the need to be cared for by others, by social physicians and the mothers of the vulnerable.

Mónica García, physician, mother and candidate, dedicated her golden minute to her children, telling us through what she wished for them. It may be coincidence, but the fact is that she is an anesthesiologist. And after the anesthesiologist, when the patient loses consciousness, comes the surgeon.