Global Care Gaps, Modernity and Capitalism

Photo: Kin Mun Lee, CC BY-NC-ND-2.0

Care for one’s self and others are issues moving fast upwards on the societal and sociological agenda in the countries of the Global North. Market fundamentalism, the crisis of finance in 2008, and austerity schemes have been threatening and destroying former standards of working conditions and welfare policies. In these parts of the world the fordist promise of a strong conjunction between economic growth, so-called technological progress, and welfare for all or at least most society members obviously failed. But the issue, in new ways, is emerging in the Global South, particularly in the context of the economies and welfare policies of the middle-income countries. In their growing capitalist economies such a promise seems to be renewed if populations formerly having been excluded from social benefits are now addressed by care policies concerning health, elderly, child care, etc. Such tendencies are showing that care regimes in the Global North and South are eroding or arising at different times depending on and interrelated with the economic and political development. And in other large parts of the world living conditions still are undermining labor, social and human rights and people continuously are lacking provision of care even at the minimum required to survive.

Contemporary capitalisms can be characterized by new forms of commodification and decommodification of work and social reproduction, the transnationalization of work and politics and new forms of governance. As well as over other areas of work and social reproduction these tendencies range over care and care work, too, marketizing them in different ways and producing new forms of global care gaps. To give just two examples: On the one hand, care industries as well as networks between economy, state and science are discovering care as a business in the wide range between care technologies as robotics, wellness industries and profit-oriented professional child, elderly or health care. On the other hand, everyday life care and care work, i.e. domestic work, child care, elderly care are provided by migrants working in and assisting private households as employees, contract workers and live-ins available around the clock. This traffic in workforce is organized by care agencies, from local up to transnational, and the mainly female workers are more or less excluded from economic, political, social and cultural participation and rights when lacking a legal residence permit status.

From “Hausmädchen zum Mitnehmen”

Making care and care work a ‘business case’, in both examples, new global care gaps as well as new forms of inequality are arising: In the first example, the case of the profit-oriented industrial and professional provision of care, solvent clients are addressed and care becomes, whatever we may think about its commercialized, industrialized, rationalized forms, a privilege of those who can afford to buy such services and products. In the second case the rich countries of the Global North and West and the middle and upper classes all around the world receive care at cost of and by exploiting the workforce and care resources of the poor(er) countries in the Global South and East, producing a global ‘class’ of denizens providing care for the citizens all around the world.

Reflecting on such developments, research strands and approaches of sociological theory, sociology of work and labor studies, sociology of care and feminist theory lead to a fundamental reflection on modernity and capitalism. Through the lenses of this debate the commodification of care and care work, work and social reproduction have been understood to be a part of a fundamental transformation and an epochal change of capitalism reorganizing the relations between economy/market and politics/state in favor of the market forces and at cost of democracy. Therefore, in the line of these discussions, global care gaps as described above are to be discussed in the frame of a critical analysis of modernity with its promise of equality, justice and democracy as well as of the capitalist idea of growth and progress. Given the limited space it is not possible to enfold such an analysis; therefore I only want to conclude with one exemplary figure that illustrates why the reflection of care and care work leads to the roots of the modern and capitalist society.

Photo: Jiuguang Wang, CC BY-SA 2.0

Facing the contingency of life, its precariousness, indigence and vulnerability, care and care work are essential to safeguard life, therefore they have to be considered in the frame of human rights and are as such a basic condition of social integration and cohesion. Nevertheless there is a fundamental tension between care and especially care for others and the modern promise of equality, justice and democracy caused in the principle of meritocracy. Meritocracy strongly connects equality and justice with performance and the idea of an autonomous subject represented by the citizen. In this frame individuals are conceptualized to be independent and able to care for one’s self, an idea which does not meet the reality of the mayor population worldwide. In the frame of modernity we are lacking a general acceptance for the need for care that meets the reality of all human beings (though with different extent and urgency in regard to the global care gaps), favoring instead a particular acceptance in the case of childhood, morbidity, disability etc.

In the capitalist concretion care for one’s self and others as well as other themes of life are subordinated to the dominant orientations on profit, value creation, efficiency etc. either by neglecting them (as in large parts of the world) or by exploiting them (as in the case of care industries). Even if, by example, care industries and technologies would provide care of highest professional and quality standards they don’t diminish the global care gaps, on the contrary. The fiction behind such an idea of growth and progress is to control the contingency of life instead of facing it by caring as a precondition for a good life for all in a just and democratic society. If the ISA in July will be discussing a “global sociology and the futures we want” what could be a contribution of a global sociology of care? In my perspective one contribution could be to reflect on how societies are dealing with the contingency of life as a yardstick of critique of contemporary capitalisms and as a yardstick of the economic growth or de-growth we need and progress we wish on the way from a capitalist to a care-ful society.


AulenbacherprofilBrigitte Aulenbacher is a professor of sociological theory and social analysis and head of the Department of Theoretical Sociology and Social Analysis of the Institute of Sociology at the Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria.


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