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In “Caring Cities”, the needs of residents would be the heart of urban policy

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The successful campaign spearheaded by Deutsche Wohnen & Co. Enteignen to expropriate real-estate giants is now spreading beyond Berlin. In a number of different places, alliances are emerging that seek to bring services of general interest into the public sector, as years of ruinous privatization policies have made it clear that these elements cannot be entrusted to the market.

It is no coincidence that many of these struggles take place in the domain of social reproduction. Housing, hospitals, energy supply, and local transportation are essential forms of infrastructure that can only be used locally. The capital employed in these areas cannot simply be relocated, creating favourable conditions for struggles to re-municipalize or socialize such infrastructure.

Barbara Fried is the editor in chief of this magazine and the deputy director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis. 

Alex Wischnewski is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s global feminism programme and is based in Buenos Aires.

Translated by Louise Pain & Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

At the same time, the pandemic has shown which forms of social labour are truly essential, in the strict sense of the word, and should, therefore, be considered ripe for socialization. In addition to those already mentioned, these include all types of care for the elderly, sick, and children, education, food provision, cooking and cleaning. These are all tasks that have traditionally been performed by women and, largely, in the private-domestic sphere.

Yet somehow the notion of socializing care work in a broad sense has still failed to make it onto the agenda of anti-privatization coalitions. Why is that? Why is this necessary? How could we develop campaigns for a Caring City that would further propel the socialization of all forms of care work?

Who Cares?

In a capitalist society, care work is deemed a private matter and women’s responsibility. While historical struggles to professionalize such labour have indeed proven successful, the majority of unpaid domestic care work remains an individual responsibility. [1] Neoliberal policies have only made this situation worse by applying additional pressure on both wages and the working and reproductive conditions of households.

Professional services are barely able to meet the demand that has arisen due to the fact that the majority of women now need to be gainfully employed. Here, too, market control and economic rationalization have worsened conditions: there is currently a shortage of all types of social services, as well as of qualified personnel to meet demand. Consequently, care work is once again being transferred to the private sphere — this time in a double sense. Certain gaps can be filled by hiring babysitters, tutors, cleaners, or 24-hour care through either formal or informal channels, although this work is often carried out in very precarious conditions.

Those who are unable to afford to outsource such services are forced to rely upon family or social networks for assistance. In both cases, the financial and emotional costs are individualized. This became clearly visible on a daily basis during the coronavirus pandemic: single parents lost their jobs, elderly people became isolated, and women ended up particularly shouldering the burden of paid work, education and child-care duties, all from the kitchen table at home. The crisis of social reproduction is intensifying and is impacting ever-increasing swathes of the population. Existing stopgaps are being pushed to their limits.

The Private Is (Not Yet) Political

The fact that care work has traditionally been considered a private matter and the supposed innate responsibility of women has historically made it difficult to effect change in this area. Physical isolation, a lack of organizing experience, and a lack of workplace power often make it difficult for those who perform unpaid or precarious care work to stand up and demand better conditions — whether it be in the form of wage increases or a redistribution of labour.

This is further compounded by the fact that the enemy in this struggle is less easy to discern than, for example, in the area of rental policy, in which financialized real-estate companies offer a much more clear-cut political target. On the contrary, there is a rift that cuts through the class itself. The prevailing gender hierarchy, as well as disparities in terms of residency status and access to the labour market make it difficult to establish a collective subject capable of intervening politically. This is because certain sections of the class benefit from the current arrangements, or at least have a less pressing desire to effect change: the low-paid or unpaid labour of other people makes it easier for them to organize their own reproduction within the existing system.

However, there is a tremendous opportunity here to expand anti-privatization struggles into the entire field of care work, and to develop this into a strategic point of departure for a unifying class politics. Labour struggles in the domain of professional care work have achieved significant successes in recent years. Why not take the next steps collectively?

Feminist and anti-racist issues, as well as struggles for decent work and social justice, can be mutually reinforcing — particularly when they share a transformative perspective: namely that of an infrastructure socialism, according to which both professional and private care are made the responsibility of society as a whole, stripping away the foundations of the profit-driven and patriarchal system. In opposition to this system, it proposes an orientation toward the good life.

Learn more about Caring Cities at our new platform, www.caring-cities.org.

Overthrow Property Ownership — Abolish Gender Relations

Such a socialization of care has a twofold effect: socialization seeks to structure important social sectors in a way that serves the public economic interest and to overturn the dominant order of property ownership, which is a crucial aspect of class relations. In the case of care work, this means not only abolishing the private ownership of hospitals and the market-based organization of geriatric care, childcare, and domestic services; it also involves extricating care work from the family and the household, as well as from the gendered division of labour with which it has historically been entwined.

A socialization of care would therefore also aim to transcend the gendered division of labour that implies a binary configuration of gender and as such constitutes an essential foundation of hierarchical gender relations in general. The care sector must therefore fully become the responsibility of broader society in the sense that care-work is no longer delegated to women (unpaid and in private), as this often robs women of (economic) autonomy and opportunities for personal development. In Janine Brodie’s terms, what we need here is a kind of “double de-privatization”.

Care as Society’s Responsibility

What exactly would it mean to make care a social responsibility and thus reorganize it democratically? First, new public infrastructure would need to be established and expanded. We need more day care centres, more neighbourhood, family and healthcare centres, more care support centres, canteens, youth clubs, and homeless shelters, etc. These need to be designed to accommodate people’s needs as they evolve over the course of an individual’s lifetime.

A one-size-fits-all social policy is a thing of the past; we need arrangements that cater to specific needs and local conditions, and that provide access for historically neglected communities. This applies, for example, to families with more than two parents or care communities, as well as offering comprehensive healthcare to undocumented people and to trans people. It is therefore crucial that practical support be provided for self-organization and collective solutions, without these being instrumentalized as a stopgap for inadequate public services — as is currently the case with the German government’s promotion of “volunteerism”.

The socialization of care does not merely entail a transfer of ownership from private to public hands; it is not simply “nationalization”. On the contrary: it is about ensuring that the means of social reproduction are at the disposal of the many, rather than the few. This would require determining social needs via a process of democratic planning involving all those who are directly impacted by it. Appropriate consultation and decision-making structures would first need to be established — for example in the form of local care councils. Ultimately, all of this will only have a chance of succeeding if we also see a change in the overall social division of labour. It is only by radically reducing the number of hours spent on wage labour that care work can be performed without leading to exhaustion.

A Caring City — Why Not?

Comprehensive care structures must be available locally. Even when they are organized collectively or as part of the public sector, which means that they are taken out of the private household, they should always remain in the immediate social environment. For movements against privatization at the local level, the concept of the Caring City might offer a vision, a productive model that combines a number of different approaches, demands, and actors.

A few questions remain to be clarified: how can municipal and non-profit organizations, employees, residents, and local politicians work together to develop care structures in their local area? How can the existing infrastructures be democratically transformed and brought under collective control? What exactly would a city adapted to meet the needs of all its inhabitants look like? How can we start working at the local level to overcome the logic of privatization and open doors to a project of transformation that is both feminist and socialist in nature?

Pioneers in the Struggle From All Over the World

The good news is that there are already approaches and experiences that we can learn from, and which may prove fruitful for local projects (in Germany). Some of the most interesting examples come from the municipalist movements in Spain.

Barcelona

In 2017, the left-wing city government of the Barcelona en Comú platform proposed a “set of measures to democratize care in the city of Barcelona” as a fundamental pillar of its “rebellious governance”. The plan draws on insights from Marxist feminism, which also emphasizes the economic importance of care work for national economies. As such, the measures seek to position care work at the centre of a municipal economic policy, instead of treating it as either a private affair or merely an aspect of a paternalistic and pacifying social policy.

Accordingly, economic policy measures must extend beyond questions of business and labour market policy, be expanded to encompass the entire (also unpaid) care sector, and prioritize approaches of self-organization, cooperatives, and an economy rooted in solidarity. This would also aim to counteract the increasing gender imbalance seen in the fact that ever more women live in poverty.

In order to ensure a genuine paradigm shift — including in terms of administrative procedures — Mayor Ada Colau made the strategic decision to not leave the drafting of the set of measures up to the Office for Feminism, but rather entrusted it to the Office for Social and Solidarity Economy, which collaborated closely with the Office for Labour and Economic Policy. The aim was to work together with all the other departments concerned to set a “precedent for a public care policy” that would encompass all areas of care work and provide for it to be redistributed among the various actors — that is, the state, the market, private households, and public service structures. At its core, the objective was to combine tangible improvements in everyday life with the long-term goal of establishing a gender-equitable care economy.

Most of the projects pertaining to the 68 individual measures set out in the plan concerned a “socialization of care work” and were geared towards establishing new public infrastructures such as family centres and crèches, expanding those that already exist, and increasing access for vulnerable groups. The newly introduced tarjeta cuidadora (care taker card) provided relief to people with special domestic care-giving responsibilities by granting them privileged access to urban care infrastructure and social services.

Another set of measures focussed on providing logistical and financial support to projects serving the public economic interest, and self-organization initiatives such as multi-generational houses. Private providers, especially in the field of geriatric care, would be impacted by changing the requirements for receiving contracts, in order to improve the quality of care and working conditions in their establishments.

Finally, in each municipal district a post was created for a care economics expert in order to provide concrete guidance for this restructuring and to ensure it was accordingly supported through public relations work.

However, one shortcoming of the project is that none of the measures explicitly envisaged a re-municipalization of the companies that currently run on a for-profit basis, especially in the domain of geriatric care.

Madrid

Similar approaches were also employed by municipal governments in other Spanish cities. In Madrid, for example, the left-wing government headed by the Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now) coalition passed a similar action plan entitled City of Care (Ciudad del Cuidado 2015) during its term in office (2015 to 2019). In order to achieve gender equality, it also focused on increasing the broader societal and municipal responsibility for care work. In addition to redistributing care work and improving the services on offer, the plan placed a particular emphasis on questions of democratic participation and supporting instances of local self-organization.

Pre-existing social clinics and initiatives for shared care work received practical assistance in order to further develop their work, exemplified by a pilot project aimed at combatting “involuntary loneliness”. Neighbourly relations and social connections in the local area were actively and deliberately fostered in an attempt to overcome the social isolation experienced by members of the community. The project aimed to reinforce the social fabric as a whole — a move predicated on the idea that, as components of a Caring City, (grass-roots), democratic decision-making processes and participatory requirements planning cannot function without a strong social fabric.

The Madrid action plan also incorporated a number projects and initiatives grounded in feminist urban planning. Laying out a city in a gender- and care-sensitive manner transforms how public space is used, which in turn facilitates a shift in terms of people’s everyday lives and social relationships: for example, parents get to know one another in the playground. If the playground is not tucked away in a hidden corner, but is rather an integral component of a city square or park where there are also facilities and activities for people of other age groups and interest groups, then parents will also come into contact with their neighbours and elderly people. Wide, well-lit footpaths with open, visible greenery work to ensure that women and queer people in particular feel safer in the space; they can move more freely and use the public space for their own purposes.

Feminist urban and transport planning has the potential not only to improve the quality of life of marginalized and vulnerable groups, but also to facilitate other social relationships. It can serve as a basis both for collective care work beyond public infrastructure and for direct democratic co-determination and planning.

Latin America

In Latin America, too, in the aftermath of the mass feminist mobilizations, we saw an intensification of debates around care relations and the conditions of social reproduction — which also took place recently under the term “caring cities”. These are reflected in both municipal and federal policies.

As a result, initiatives with different focal points have been established that aim to re-appropriate the social infrastructure necessary to sustain life. The self-organization of residents in collaboration with the left-wing city council, in Valparaíso and other cities in Chile, made it possible to set up pharmacies that offer important medications at prices far below market value.

In a similar collaboration between grassroots initiatives and left-wing political parties, a previously informal settlement in Rosario, Argentina that was facing eviction is currently being developed into a fully integrated neighbourhood with its own water supply, sewerage system, and internet, as well as social infrastructure like schools, parks, and a sports ground. This is being funded by the federal government, the funds in question raised through a one-off wealth tax imposed by the centre-left government. Yet the project is being designed, planned, and managed by local residents in cooperation with the staunchly feminist Ciudad Futura (City of the Future) party, which is represented both on the city council and in the regional parliament.

In many places, initiatives work through a combination of self-empowerment, organizing, co-determination, infrastructure, and government programmes that support and finance projects. What is required here is a redistribution of resources, rather than — as is so often the case — initiating self-government with the mere aim of providing cheap alternatives to compensate for government failures or gaps in service provision. In this way, other levels of state policy can also be incorporated — whether initiatives to reduce working hours, or financial aid and pension benefits, which affect the scope for care activities in myriad ways.

In countries like Uruguay and Argentina, centre-left governments have also been and are currently working on implementing Sistemas integrales de Cuidados (integrated care structures) at the federal level. Existing programmes and services are being expanded and better connected.

Taking unpaid care work into consideration allows for better tailoring services to specific needs and making up for existing deficits. In Uruguay, for example, a time-use study was commissioned that also covers domestic care work, a campaign was initiated in response to the gendered division of labour, and unpaid care work was incorporated into an expanded gross domestic product in order to generate public awareness of how crucial care work is for society, and the extent to which it is devalued as “women’s work”. In both countries, government plans were drafted in close consultation with local actors and combined with appropriate demand assessments.

Is the Grass Really Greener On the Other Side?

Germany has also had its own initial experiences with collective co-determination in the political organization of basic service provision. Attempts to establish care councils are still in their infancy, but ideas are being developed — for example in Freiburg — with regard to how organizational approaches might be combined with democratic requirements planning. In stark contrast to this, civil-society councils for food sovereignty and climate action in some cities and municipalities have already achieved a level of institutional cooperation with policy-makers and administrative bodies.

An essential orientation for the process of democratizing care structures is provided by the IniForum in Berlin — an independent coalition of rental policy initiatives that was financially subsidized by the senate administration, whose future remains uncertain under the new government. The goal was to establish independent bodies that would still be able to have an institutional influence on parliamentary politics, for example through regular hearings.

However, these structures are not necessarily accompanied by guaranteed decision-making powers. As the successful yet largely inconsequential Berlin referendum Deutsche Wohnen and Co. Enteignen recently reminded us, the binding force of direct-democratic elements sorely needs to be enhanced.

Action Plan

Politically speaking, a project to foster a Caring City in Germany is not exactly uncharted territory. For a number of years, protests and self-organizing have been on the rise in relation to the issue of care: from union strikes in the care sector or in social and educational services to action groups for better conditions in geriatric care, to “Medi-Büros” that provide access to medical care for undocumented immigrants; from local outpatient healthcare centres (polyclinics) that also incorporate the social elements of health, to feminist strikes that also encompass private households. A great many of these had already come together in 2014 at the Care Revolution action conference and had established a network in which local campaigns converged and transregional campaigns were initiated.

A number of these concrete approaches and ideas for socializing basic services could also be combined into an “Action plan for a Caring City” in Germany: a set of measures comprising projects to be implemented in both the short and long term, and others that are socially transformative in nature.

These include starter projects such as the demand to re-municipalize private service providers in geriatric care or to reduce full-time hours in the care sector to six-hour days as a starting point for a reduction in working hours to be mandated in collective bargaining agreements. This includes expanding healthcare centres and neighbourhood centres that provide support services for elderly people or leisure facilities for children and young people, as well as spaces where communal care work can be performed in parents’ groups or community kitchens. This includes measures designed to ensure the city is accessible to everyone, such as free public transport or a health insurance card that would grant undocumented people access to health insurance.

But it is also a question of creating a city in which everyone feels safe and at ease; a city with green spaces and wide footpaths that are well-lit at night, additional measures to prevent sexual harassment in public spaces, and a ban on unwarranted police checks. It also requires restructuring public administration so that gender equality and the guarantee of good care relationships become central to its operations, and that constant reviews are conducted to assess whether public services are truly accessible to everyone.

The question of which ideas should be foregrounded for each individual Caring City project should be discussed and decided at the local level. Although this may initially be entirely self-organized, past experience has shown that in the medium term, institutional and financial protection will be necessary. Such protection enables the creation of a collective space for different interest groups and stakeholders in the field of care work — for healthcare workers, private caregivers, and recipients of care.

This constitutes both a challenge and an opportunity for Die Linke in both city councils and state parliaments, especially where the party forms part of the government. It would have the capacity not only to provide infrastructure and material resources, but also to campaign for demands to be implemented and to develop projects with transformative impact, that are regional in scope but have an impact on a national level, such as the rent cap in Berlin.

The long-term objective should be the establishment of a care council that would permanently ensure the collective determination of needs and negotiation of interests. The council in question would have to exert organized pressure on political decision-making processes — that is, it would also have to establish a democratic mediation point between political movements and parliaments.

Movements for a Caring City therefore have the potential not only to connect a variety of initiatives from the care sector and from urban policy and anti-racist contexts — they also have the potential to introduce a feminist and intersectional perspective into the current anti-privatization struggles and debates about socialization. This would constitute an initial starting point for a possible socialization of care relations, which would in turn lend a concrete form to an important transformative project of a class-conscious feminism, for which broad swathes of the population could be mobilized.


[1] According to the latest time-use study conducted by the German Federal Government in 2012/13, this amounts to approximately 30 hours per week for women in Germany and 20 hours per week for men.