Seizing the Moment

Nancy Folbre
26 January 2022

Seizing the “Moment” for the Global Care Agenda: From Theory to Practice. International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) event, January 25, 2022

Many thanks to IAFFE in general and Mary Borrowman in particular for organizing this forum. Here are my preliminary remarks—subject to revision: I feel grateful to be a part of a long international trajectory of socialist feminism that dates back to at least the early nineteenth century, and will, I believe, date forward for a long time to come. I am especially grateful for a younger generation of scholars and activists who are fearlessly and creatively advancing a vision of gender equality that can strengthen efforts to move toward a more cooperative and sustainable economic system.

The global pandemic has imposed huge costs on both unpaid and paid caregivers and exposed huge weaknesses in our care infrastructure. I see increased awareness of this on the left that is reframing the progressive policy agenda. Of course, here in the U.S., it’s hard to be optimistic about the fate of the Democratic Party’s legislative agenda, but the Build Back Better initiative clearly framed some important social policy goals. Elsewhere in the world, there are causes for optimism—for instance, feminist care-centered policies helped carry Gabriel Boric to electoral victory in Chile.

However, the global pandemic has also revealed weaknesses in our public discourse, and, perhaps, in our understanding of social conflict. I, for one, have been deeply humbled by the visible, tangible, every-man-for-himself anger and shocking lack of concern for public health that is widespread in the U.S. and many other countries.

I have long been a critic of traditional economic assumptions about “rational economic man,” but I have a new appreciation of just how irrational and self-destructive both women and men can be in the face of unexpected shocks. I also have an intensified respect for social norms of cooperation, mutual respect, and care.

As social scientists, we need to think harder about the forces that strengthen or weaken these social norms. I blame the toxic legacy of economic institutions that reinforce competitive individualism, and economic theories that romanticize, even idealize, the individual pursuit of self-interest. But I don’t think that a critique of patriarchal capitalism takes us far enough—while gender and class are important dimensions of social division, so too are race/ethnicity, citizenship, nationality, and many other aspects of group membership.

Many different kinds of inequality can lead to forms of distributional struggle that not only impose huge social and economic costs, but also undermine our ability to cooperate in addressing truly global problems such as climate change.This is the problem of non-care, writ large.

This is why I think we should develop an intersectional political economy aimed at better understanding social division, with a view to developing the progressive coalitions that we need to better care for ourselves and the future of our planet.

* * * *

Here are the great questions that Mary Borrowman posed at this seminar, which prompted the response above. Questions to me:

You have been a pioneer in the area of care, with research spanning decades, the core of which has focused on value across the spectrum of unpaid to paid care, such as the care penalty. COVID has further exposed intersectional inequalities that underlie these issues of value at a global level. As you assess the increased awareness that COVID has brought to care issues, as well as the exacerbation of inequalities in both unpaid and paid care, what aspects of the core theoretical issues around care are you seeing well reflected in policy conversations and where are you seeing approaches missing the mark? What does a feminist economic approach to care entail within these discussions?

In terms of value, is your sense that there is a real reckoning happening amidst discussions of care or is that core piece getting lost amidst more instrumentalist framings of getting women back to work?

How does this tie into broader economic discussions/debates about the role of the state and “sound” economic policy, particularly in COVID response policies?

What other reflections do you have to share from a big picture, theoretical perspective given your expertise in this area?

Mary also asked these general questions:

As we have now heard from speakers across the spectrum of theory to practice, the questions I want to pose to all speakers are:

I think the answers to these questions depend very much on the specific communities that people are a part of. I just want to say that I think “concrete actions” include sustained efforts to change the way people think about themselves and the world.

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