Collaborative Feminist Degrowth: Pandemic as an Opening for a Care-Full Radical Transformation
The crisis we face as a global community must be understood not only as a public health crisis, or as an economic crisis of the capitalist mode of production, but also, fundamentally, as a crisis of the reproduction of life. In this sense, it is a crisis of care: the work of caring for humans, non-humans, and the shared biosphere.
The pandemic is a historical rupture. It’s also an opening for reworlding––as one recent meme says, “There is no going back to normal because “normal” was the problem.” As a group of activists and scholars from the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA)1, we take this opportunity to reflect on how we can, from our diverse positions, face this moment, organize, and collectively imagine radical alternative modes of living: those with more time for community, relationship building, and care for each other as well as the non-human world.
This collaborative reflection is motivated by the following concerns: First we would like to stress that this crisis is NOT our degrowth. Secondly, we want to clarify what an intentional (feminist) degrowth project means, and why it is more necessary now than ever. Thirdly, we want to bring attention to dimensions of care and reproductive work that have been so centrally relied upon, yet so invisible and neglected, in this pandemic. Finally, we want to offer proposals for how this crisis can help us move towards care-full economies in the long term.
GDP is plummeting, resource use exploitation and pollution are declining, CO2 emissions have fallen, and in some places non-human life is able to reinhabit spaces made through diminished human activity. At a first glance, these items might read like a degrowthers’ or environmentalists’ wishlist, and yet we want to underline that the slowdown in the global economy provoked by the pandemic is NOT to be confused with feminist degrowth. On the contrary, some responses by dominant actors present worrisome and dangerous paths within surveillance, authoritarianism, and ecofascism. As the slogan proclaimed in the context of the last financial crisis: “your austerity is not our degrowth.”
Economic recessions or depressions are crises, they are not equitable to care-full social transformations, and they serve nothing to disentangle economic models from biophysical impossibilities of indefinite capitalist growth. Feminist degrowth embodies the vision of a radical transformation towards a just, sustainable, and convivial society brought about by voluntary change. Degrowth is an umbrella term for visions of doing economies otherwise, in ways which do not have growth and accumulation as their overriding aim but instead focus on care, well-being, conviviality, solidarity, provisioning economies, commons and commoning, and a concern for equality, human flourishing, and meeting basic needs as defined in context. It is rooted in collective, and democratic decision making.
Responses to the crisis in some quarters have included a much-needed re-evaluation of public collective goods and infrastructures, and an acknowledgment of government’s capacity and responsibility to provide for their citizens2, moves on which we want to build. However, we must be wary and vigilant against other visions seeking to capitalize on this moment that may mobilize inequality, authoritarianism, austerity, and repression. This includes Silicon Valley fantasies of provisioning to those who can afford it via Amazon drones, the fortification of global hyper-surveillance states, and a further deregulation of wage work which is already being implemented in many places. Many who are dropped from formal, more stable employment in the context of this crisis will not recover it afterwards, as countries pass special legislation allowing precarious contracts and short-time work in order to “save” businesses. Meanwhile, interventions to flatten the curve of contagion rely on repression including militarization of countries such as Ecuador, India, and Kenya, to enforce physical distancing in absence of a functional public health system, opening the way for recurrent human rights violations.
Our intervention therefore asks: how can we use this moment to democratically rebuild social organization of labor and care work? To reconstruct the realm of public welfare that has been so depleted by decades of neoliberalism, austerity, structural adjustment, and the privatization of education and healthcare? How can this opening lead our economies towards emancipation from the grips of the growth paradigm founded in heteropatriarchal capitalist principles? A feminist degrowth project calls for an end to the subalternization of reproduction in service to the realm of production.
We suggest here some priorities behind an intentional degrowth informed by a democratic and feminist approach that empowers all facets of society to engage, mobilize, and transform:
1. Towards a Provisioning Economy: Recognize and regenerate social and ecological reproductive capacities
As all but essential services are locked down, this crisis invites us to (re)consider the nature of the essential and the superfluous. As “productive” enterprises are shuttered, the material bases that sustain and regenerate life and that which we cannot live without are starkly emphasized. Some have termed those material bases the provisioning economy, one which provides what people actually need for their well-being and reproduction. This refocusing on basic material needs has sparked appreciation for the farmers who grow our food, to the supermarket workers who stack the shelves.
This capacity to provide is further based on the maintenance, recycling, repair, and restoration of environmental, infrastructural and social resources. These undergird social and environmental reproduction and are sometimes termed the reproductive economy––the work done to reproduce ourselves. It includes unpaid work in the home, as well the protection, regeneration and defense of the ecological capacities to reproduce life, often led by peasants, activists and Indigenous peoples who engage in care-full work and struggles to feed the soil, to keep water sources free from contamination and air unpolluted. Their reproductive and care labor has been considered free of charge and available for exploitation, while the including air, water, and soil fertility have been long considered a “free gift” to capitalism.
Focusing on provisioning and the reproductive economy brings economics back to its core. The word economics comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means administration of the household. A feminist degrowth calls for restructuring our economy to shift the emphasis from the production of things to feed the growth imperative and endless desires, and towards the reproduction and provisioning of life and meeting needs. It is crucial to foster this provisioning set-up of economic practice––without romanticizing ideas of the ‘local’ or forgetting gendered impacts of any economic transformation.
The sustainability of life should constitute the main goal of social organization. This requires the recognition, regeneration and strengthening of social and ecological reproductive capacities as well as a transformation of markets and modes of exchange as modes of provisioning.
Therefore, we urgently call for a society that not only stays within planetary boundaries, but replenishes and boosts both social and ecological reproductive capacities. One example are food systems based on small peasant agriculture or community supported organic agriculture which both increase local resilience, support the regeneration of the soil and reduce dependence on global supply chains.
2. Home as a site of production and reproduction
“I stay at home because I care for the vulnerable” is a common phrase we hear to promote physical distancing (problematically called social distancing) in this uniquely uncertain time. Unpacking this call for retreat into the domestic sphere as an act of caring brings up multiple questions. Who gets to stay home safely? Who are the vulnerable? And how can we care for others beyond isolation?
Firstly, we should note that the home as refuge is made luxury under existing capitalist social organization. The wealthy are those who have the luxury to shelter in place and maintain their salaries, the disadvantaged less so. In some cases, their work cannot be done from home. Some have to go out to care for others. Others don’t have a home at all. The virus, like pollution, is not democratic. It discriminates across structural inequalities, modulated by forms of oppression and discrimination which cumulate and interlock across gender, race, class, (dis)ability, age, and place, among others. Men are dying in higher numbers due to Covid-19 across all locations. In the US, black communities are more impacted, to give only some examples.
Further, the home is not always a safe space. Measures to restrict movement confine vulnerable people to the same space with their abusers leading to increasing levels of domestic violence against mainly women and children. As employers expect people to do care work and wage work at the same time, either in home offices, in their factories or on their fields, while replacing teachers at home, without due attention, gendered divisions of labor become ever more defined and unequal. This collision of wage work and care work in the home has starkly revealed what feminist scholars have always pointed out: that the household has always been a work-place and that the workplace depends on the household whether or not they are the same place or different places.
Finally, we must ask how we can center care for each other and our communities and social solidarity while maintaining physical distance. How can the conviviality and solidarity integral to degrowth thrive over alienation in these moments? While the state assumes that all households are made up of hetero-patriarchal families, and these will serve as safety nets to absorb the social and economic dislocations of this crisis; the reality is that in many countries, the most common household type is a single person.
This atomization means that forms of practical solidarity and, in fact, social proximity are needed. All over the world, communities are building support and care networks that reach beyond the heteropatriarchal nuclear family, and that support and interconnect members of non-nuclear family households, which make up the majority in every country. We share the enthusiasm of anarchist thinkers for affinity groups as one model for recreating networks of “odd-kin” rather than “god-kin” (in Haraway’s words) for surviving the virus. They suggest that by choosing a group of people you trust and with whom you share similar risk factors and levels of risk tolerance, we can joyously engage in togetherness and care now to preserve our mental and physical health. Such affinity groups can then be connected in broader groups of mutual aid which can engage in broader practical solidarity with the homeless, migrants and refugees, and collective mobilization and support for each other’s struggles and resistance––from rent strikes and labor movements to direct solidarity with care workers, LGBTIQA+ and prisoners´ rights groups.
Creating these networks of care now, beyond our homes, can overcome alienation and provide fertile ground for the necessary collective mobilization to create the futures we want in this historic moment. Further it can help us imagine more collective ways to organize the reproduction of their lives, while relying on commoning, community resources and attending community needs.
3. Towards a Caring Economy. Care Labor and Care Income
In most countries today, the majority of nurses, health aids, and child-care workers are women, while essential positions where men are concentrated include hospital orderlies, garbage collectors, agricultural laborers, doctors, delivery-people, and others. Many of these essential positions are occupied by informalized, undocumented, or migrant workers. As such, these workers face specific difficulties accessing public health and welfare services. If they fall sick they likely will still have to continue to work. So they also face greater risk of being fired or criminalized, as in many cases they will be forced to choose between hunger and health.
We consider degrowth a question of regeneration. While many aspects of our global economy need to degrow, some critical democratic infrastructures, such as infrastructures of care, will have to flourish. Therefore, we need to invest in transformative policies that center around the (re)production of life and the commoning of care. In a feminist degrowth future, the provision of community, domestic, and environmental care beyond the market and the state will be based on radically different logics than profit maximization, competition, or efficiency. We therefore also call for the socialization of all universal health care, the socialization of utilities, the decommodification of food, housing, medicines, education, and other basic services.
This pandemic has raised the pitch of calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), by actors ranging from Pope Francis to the Spanish Parliament and US tech venture capitalist Andrew Yang. Defined as a modest sum paid monthly to each resident to secure conditions of life, the UBI has been advocated as part of wide-ranging visions and purposes. Degrowth aligns with those proposals that seek material conditions that can liberate individuals from exploitative employment, support transformation away from environmentally-damaging regimes, and help move beyond battles of jobs vs. environment toward politics that address viable livelihoods as inseparable from a sustainable earth.
As feminist advocates of degrowth, we propose a Universal Care Income that builds on and differs from other proposals by foregrounding the social recognition of unpaid and gendered care work that we all perform to sustain the life and wellbeing of households and communities. Care income seeks to foster equity and solidarity by conceptualizing this income as an investment out of common wealth in capacities for all citizens to take care of ourselves, our kin, and others. For example, we support the call for a care income by the Global Women’s Strike (GWS) and Women of Color GWS, which urges governments to recognize the indispensable role of (re)productive work of life and survival, that we now depend on even more than ever.
4. Towards a Solidarity Economy
In the immediacy of the pandemic, we need to strengthen existing affinity groups, mutual aid networks, and all related efforts. We acknowledge that solidarity comes in many forms. Therefore, we need to support each other’s struggles and resistance––from rent strikes and labor movements, to direct mutual aid solidarity with precarious care workers, unhoused persons, and prisoners. In recognition of the enduring coloniality of North-South relations, a global foreign debt relief for states in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
We need long-term structural solutions to protect those who are vulnerable. We need shelters, sanctuaries and direct support for refugees, undocumented people, and the homeless. We also need the decarceration of immigrant detention centers and prisons, as a proven proliferation ground for community spread magnified by systemic human rights abuses, and as a further claim for a united effort for care-full transformation. Care-based crises can’t be solved by mass incarceration, or the closure of national borders. Degrowth is about planetary thresholds, not borders. The pandemic shows us that life (and its backside, death) does not recognize borders, but it does hinge on limits, for example, as deforestation from agro-industry incurs into forestlands and viruses jump from displaced wildlife to livestock and then to humans.
For now, world leaders are focusing on saving the economy. They need to focus instead on saving the biosphere, by way of swift policies like a solidarity-based Global Green New Deal. We don’t need to choose between jobs or climate protection, nor do we want to return back to ‘normal’ life or business as usual. The pandemic reveals that climate policy will require a much wiser, better-organized approach than ‘normal’. Given the global climate thresholds we have already unleashed, this concerns everybody’s survival although vulnerabilities vary strongly: while the resulting crises are distant and punctual for the privileged, their effects are disproportionate on the most vulnerable.
The pandemic offers an unprecedented, vital insight: the true, total interdependence of all humans on the biosphere. It reveals the interdependent and systemic way in which we must transform economies in the face of the growing climate and environmental emergencies to foreground care for humans and the environment. We need an economics based first and foremost in care, stewardship, cooperation, sharing, and commoning. For industrialized societies, this means vast resource and wealth redistribution, sweeping protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as degrowth, and decarbonization of the economy. This must include social and environmental justice that make up for centuries of coloniality and plunder.
Change needs to be systemic to match the scale of the emergency and the inequalities uncovered and reproduced by the pandemic. This crisis can and should be used as a collective learning point for a transformation towards an alternative feminist degrowth future.
We demand a more care-full world!
1. Launched in September 2016 at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest. We are an inclusive network of academics and activists that aims to foster a dialogue among feminists and degrowth proponents, and to make feminist reasoning an integral part of degrowth activism and scholarship.
2. Ireland’s nationalizing of its health system is one such example.
Author: This piece is collaboratively written by roughly 40 scholars and activists affiliated with the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA), a network that aims at making feminist reasoning an integral part of degrowth. You can subscribe by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, you can visit our FaDA project space on degrowth.info, follow us on twitter, or write to the coordination group at email@example.com.
Participants in conversations leading to this text include among others Amanda Mercedes Gigler, Anna Saave, Barbara Muraca, Corinna Dengler, Dominique Just, Eeva Houtbeckers, Emily Rose McDonald, Evi Curu, Federico Demaria, Giacomo D’Alisa, Janina Dannenberg, Jennifer Wells, Leah Temper, Lina Hansen, Lindsay Barbieri, Manuela Zechner, Maria Consuelo Revilla Nebreda, Marisol Bock, Megan Egler, Miriam Lang, Natalia Avlona, Patricia Susial Martín, Rebecca Rutt, Sophie Sanniti, Sourayan Mookerjea, Stefania Barca, Susan Paulson, Teal George, Wojtek Mejor.