The Political Philosophy of Care

The Political Philosophy of Care

In Reckoning, Deva Woodly makes a case for radical Black feminist pragmatism, a philosophy “that takes lessons from many twentieth-century ideologies and forges them into a political ethic for our times.”

Home-care workers and SEIU at a rally on November 16, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for SEIU)

The rhetoric of care pervades contemporary politics, from social movements to congressional spending debates. Some see “care” as a new framework for redistributive politics; others denigrate it as a self-indulgent language in which bubble baths get reframed as revolutionary praxis.

In her forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements, New School professor Deva Woodly makes a case for radical Black feminist pragmatism as “a new approach to politics, one that takes lessons from many twentieth-century ideologies and forges them into a political ethic for our times,” and describes care as one of its key elements. The politics of care “holds that the activity of governance in a society that hopes to be just must be oriented toward the responsibility to exercise and provide care for those most impacted by oppression and domination.” The care paradigm has become popular, she notes, after decades of eroding social supports, stagnating wages, and demands to work longer hours.

I spoke with her about care as both a practice within social movements and as a new governance model. The transcript below has been edited and condensed for clarity.  —Sarah Leonard

Sarah Leonard: Why do you think the framework of care is getting attention right now?

Deva Woodly: One of the things I noticed in 2014, when the Movement for Black Lives really became catalyzed in the streets, was its notion from Black feminism, particularly Audre Lorde, that self-care is a revolutionary act. Self-care was of course quickly commodified. But people were at their wit’s end, and the notion that caring could be revolutionary was something that people took up across political spectrums, across income levels, across other kinds of cleavages. It’s partly because people have been yearning so strongly for a language to talk about something that had been missing from mainstream politics. Until recently care wasn’t something that you could make a case for legislating about. Instead, people talked almost exclusively in terms of rights or prosperity.

Leonard: As this goes to press, we’re looking at all this potential social spending in the Build Back Better bill. Is this legislation part of a vision that you share, or does it feel like plugging holes rather than any kind of reorientation?

Woodly: I’m all for social spending that makes people’s lives better. The child tax credit is not a revolutionary policy, but it is a policy that has lifted half of America’s impoverished children out of poverty, and that matters. What’s being considered in Congress would reduce harm and make it possible for more people to care for themselves and others.

That does not absolve anyone of the need to continue to push to reorient politics away from the notion that having state funds be distributed directly to people creates an “entitlement society.” Instead, some of the people that we have elected recently, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cori Bush, are saying that public money should be used for public goods. Period.

We can think in terms of what [the abolitionist activist] Mariame Kaba calls non-reformist reforms. When it comes to child care, even if some people are talking about it just in terms of allowing everybody to go to work, people become used to having affordable child care, which would be frankly a revolutionary change. Once you have a universal, not a targeted, program—targeted programs are not non-reformist reforms, because they’re always vulnerable—you can build upon them in the future. People become accustomed to not suffering.

Leonard: It seems like people are resisting that suffering more and more.

Woodly: This whole so-called labor shortage has a lot of origins. Part of it is a capital strike. But part of it is also about people having realized what [labor journalist] Sarah Jaffe says, that work won’t love you back. People rearranged their lives so that they could survive COVID-19, and having rearranged their lives, lost loved ones, and suffered in various ways, they are making different choices. That is one way that people are choosing to be self-determining. It opens up possibilities for new arguments to be made and new policies to be passed. Even if the Democrats in Congress mess up this bill, which they better not, the fact that it is so popular is also something to be aware of. It’s popular to give people what they need.

Leonard: It does make the right’s case against social programs seem very thin.

Woodly: Albert O. Hirschman wrote in the 1970s that when people in power want to discredit popular ideas, they use a rhetoric of reaction, which has three techniques: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. They would argue that the policy that you want to pass is not really going to help people; it’s going to have perverse effects. Futility means that it’s not really going to help that many people, and we’re going to waste all this time and money. And then the jeopardy argument is that you’re actually going to be endangering the people that you want to help. This has been the right wing’s rhetoric for most of the twentieth century. It’s produced insane arguments, like Paul Ryan saying that children didn’t want free lunch.

I always think about that comment now because of what happened during the COVID-19 era. In my area in New York, school lunches became free. It wasn’t only that it’s good to feed the children; they were also trying to keep jobs for people who otherwise might have been fired. They were trying to spend the money that had been allocated, even though the schools were set to shut down. This confluence of circumstances made it so that people are now used to free lunch. This year, when the children are in school five days a week, their lunches are free.

Leonard: Turns out kids like it.

Woodly: Turns out everybody likes it. You have people like the middle school principal here, who’s not a revolutionary, standing up in front of the orientation class at the beginning of the school year saying, “They finally got it right on free lunch.” This is how it moves. There’s not a utopian transformation that happens all at once where everybody sees the light. It’s these hardscrabble political opportunities, which people are organized to take advantage of, where you move forward an agenda that relieves people of some of their suffering. That’s how you win.

Leonard: In some places, COVID-19 really showed what productive things the state could actually do.

Woodly: It didn’t only show what the state could do. It also showed what the people do. When we were in lockdown, the largest mass mobilization in American history happened, and that was, in part, because people had the time to get together and to make community. They had the time to be democratic citizens.

Since things have begun to reopen, we have seen a very fierce battle from the right to reclaim ground. So even if the school gives free lunch, conservatives argue, they give it with a side of critical race theory. These ideas [like free lunch] are otherwise so popular that they would gain a supermajority that would be hard to overcome.

Leonard: You’ve said that the vision of care put forward by a lot of social movements is a dual vision. Care has to take place in the here and now within the movement. And we have to understand that if I really care about your well-being, I have to fight for larger changes. It’s a counterpoint to a lot of what one can encounter even in left spaces, which say you have to sacrifice yourself for the cause. How do you see the difference between those two positions?

Woodly: Caring takes a lot of work, which is why you should be allowed to take breaks. The Black Lives Matter movement and Black feminism have learned from the mistakes of the past.

For a lot of people in movement spaces, it’s very routine to meet and talk with movement elders. Those are usually people who were involved in the 1960s civil rights and Black Power movements. And one of the key lessons that those people pass down is that burnout and fragmentation are real. And martyring oneself is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not necessarily good for the movement because it causes things to fall apart.

So the movement takes an Ella Baker approach to leadership. The idea is that it shouldn’t sit with any one person. We don’t need individual charismatic leaders to carry the whole cause on their shoulders or heroes who are working all the time and never taking the time to care for themselves. Movement work is hard and demanding. That’s just a reality. But to get from the world we’re in to the world that we want, we need a cross-generational struggle. People don’t have to be in the trenches of movement work for their whole lives. They spend some time there, and then they pass on that knowledge to someone else who’s coming up and hand over the baton.

Many of the organizations that were founded in Ferguson or after Ferguson in 2014 still exist. But most of them don’t have the same leadership. Leadership has turned over and transitioned, and not in a particularly fractious way. This movement is very cognizant of what it means to last. We all require care; we all are responsible for care. To make us individually responsible for care or only nuclear families responsible for care is insufficient. Taking that reality into account, how do we create institutions, a policy apparatus, and movements with a common-sense orientation toward care?

Leonard: Are there particular organizations you would point to?

Woodly: Black Youth Project 100 has had some fantastic leadership transitions, as well as Southerners on New Ground, Assata’s Daughters, and Black Visions out of Minneapolis. Most organizations in the movement have had pretty good transition processes.

Leonard: In other types of spaces, I’ve seen a very different mentality: that we’re at war and can never take a break. The result is burning people out instead of cultivating them, and besides that being inhumane, it seems crazy to me to burn out the people on your own side.

Woodly: If your politics is based on a distributive model, meaning that everything is about handing out goodies—whether those goodies are material or in terms of status and rights—the flip side is a scarcity mentality. That is [political scientist] Iris Marion Young’s argument in Justice and the Politics of Difference. That scarcity mentality leads us to a place where we think that care is not important, because there’s not enough. We are at war, and we have to get the thing that is enough.

Leonard: Sort of a neoliberal mentality, right? Like all historical change is up to me, personally.

Woodly: Only I can fix it, yeah. I mean, we call it hegemony for a reason. It’s not only [an attitude] characteristic of one side. It just manifests in different ways, depending on people’s political views. What I think is so promising about the Movement for Black Lives and movements that have arisen in the twenty-first century that center care is they give us a chance to move beyond that twentieth-century mentality.

I get very frustrated by people who want to pick sides in historical debates or characterize themselves in the terms that the nineteenth and twentieth century gave us. Because I think that denies our livingness. I don’t have to be an acolyte of someone who died 150 years ago. We are as alive in this moment as they were in their moment. And we have just as much of a responsibility to leave the world with some good ideas and some novel approaches.

We are human. We are capable of doing that. According to Hannah Arendt, that is our prime capability, to create something—that’s freedom. So let’s embrace that and not pretend that we have to be wedded to the grand ideas of the last century. We need some grand ideas of our own.

Leonard: One of the ideas that the Democrats have been using is describing care as infrastructure. I’m curious what you thought about that.

Woodly: I quite like it, actually. Infrastructure simply means all the things we need as structural supports in the world to go about our business. Feminists have been arguing for a hundred years that the economies of care are hidden infrastructure. So why not call them by their name?

Leonard: It seems remarkable that each of the leading justice movements—whether it’s housing justice, reproductive justice, environmental justice, or abolitionism—all call for basically the same thing. So, housing justice will require paying attention to green space and pollution in the neighborhood, to public transportation, to not having people getting arrested so they lose access to housing. Abolition requires people having a place to live, and it requires that people have access to mental healthcare. These are all movements overwhelmingly led by Black women and queer folks, many of whom identify as feminists. And it seems like there’s a clear perspective on governance.

Woodly: It’s a political philosophy. I call it—they don’t call it this necessarily—radical Black feminist pragmatism. And I think it is the first political philosophy of the twenty-first century. It is a very coherent way of looking at political problems, even when you are focusing on one particular manifestation. The truth is if you have a politics that is oriented toward people being able to care for themselves, their families, their communities, and being able to be self-determining, then you’re looking at the same sorts of things. It’s an intersectional perspective.

Leonard: And it became more concrete during COVID-19, right?

Woodly: Mutual aid came onto the scene in many communities all over the country and the world. Of course, people have always done this. But it expanded in its popularity and as a technique of local governance during the COVID-19 era. A lot of people got a taste of free fridges and common pantries and giveaways for basic needs. Those things are important. Not only because they give us all a chance to both give what we can and take what we need without judgment or designation; it was also a lesson in local self-governance, because people organized themselves so that they could coordinate these activities on a relatively large scale. All of those relationships and skills that people acquired during that process are transferable. They are really important skills for democratic citizens to have. And they are bases for people to imagine what governments can do.

Leonard: Here in New York City, there were dozens of projects. In Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, which has a lot to say about New York, part of her point is that people have lost their ability to see themselves as powerful actors.

Woodly: As agents, yes. You can’t have a functioning democracy if people don’t know what self-governing means or feels like or looks like. This very unfortunate and deadly situation has nevertheless given people an opportunity to understand themselves in those terms. The ways that translates to institutional politics are not necessarily straightforward. We have a lot of evidence that the mass mobilizations in the summer of 2020 played a big part in being able to be organized enough for the Democrats to win. At the same time, that’s not automatic. It’s not always the case that the self-organizing that people do in their communities and the skills that they acquire will translate into electoral politics in such a neat way. It depends on circumstances. It depends on what Democrats can deliver. It depends on whether or not they can protect basic rights. It depends on whether or not they respect the people who work their asses off to give them the power to do something. But regardless of how it translates into institutional politics, people have gotten a taste of what self-governance means. As a small “d” democrat, that means everything.

Sarah Leonard is publisher and co-editor of Lux, a magazine of socialist feminism, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, and a contributing editor to the Nation.

Deva Woodly is an Associate Professor of Politics at the New School. She is the author of The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win Acceptance (Oxford University Press, 2015) and Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2022).

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