CARE EXTRACTIVISM: why are women the failsafe mechanisms of neoliberal democracy?

by May 9, 2023All Articles

The concept of care extractivism suggests that states treat women’s social reproduction work as a kind of failsafe mechanism. Women are expected to deal with the fallout from the South African government’s austerity policies.

STATES AND THE SOCIETIES THEY are responsible for have historically treated women like a natural resource. They have assumed that women have a “natural” capacity to do social reproduction work of cleaning, cooking, soothing, healing, childraising, birthing, breastfeeding and so on. These acts are not typically described as work, but rather as acts of “love” or “care”.

Christa Wichterich points out that, under neoliberal austerity, “naturalising” social reproduction work in this way enables: care extractivism the intensified commodification and exploitation of labour in social reproduction for the purpose of managing crises situations without burdening the state or the health industry with additional costs and responsibilities. 

States do this by making social reproduction work the responsibility of families (“kinship voluntarism”) and by celebrating voluntary and honorary work. In South Africa, community health workers have been placed in this position. This allows the state to withdraw from providing free or subsidised essential services.

The concept of care extractivism suggests that states treat women’s social reproduction work as a kind of failsafe mechanism. The Merriam- Webster dictionary defines “failsafe” as “incorporating some feature for automatically counteracting the effect of an anticipated possible source of failure”. This certainly describes the role women are expected to play within their households and communities, to deal with the fallout from the South African government’s austerity policies. Since the 1980s, these have caused public services to deteriorate and become commercialised; or they are sold off to the private sector.

Social reproduction is work

Within and outside the household, the women doing social reproduction work are not typically described as workers or a labour force. Yet their labour time amounts to an investment in the productive economy – the part of the economy, included in the national accounts, that produces goods and services to be sold for a profit.

A 2015 report released by the Department of Women estimated that, in 2000, unpaid work within the household could be valued at 50% of GDP. That’s R440.1 billion. And about 70% of this work was done by women. The same report estimates that in 2010 women were still responsible for 71.9% of unpaid work. This suggests that the gendered division of social reproduction work within the household remained fairly stable over time.

This labour force is simply described using words like “mama”, “gogo”, “my wife,” and “my girlfriend”. Unlike wage workers, women are not paid money for doing social reproduction work. Their contribution to raising the next generation of workers is not accounted for in the national accounts. Instead, they are paid in social capital – they are valued as “good women”.

Perversely, this status earns them respect in society because they are praised and celebrated for their selflessness. This is a celebration of their willingness to forego payment for social reproduction work. But it also keeps them in the position of having to continue doing this work without complaining, if they want to remain respectable in the eyes of society.

Examples of the “gender trap”

South African women have written about this gender trap and how it drains the time and energy of women and undercuts their ability to participate in overt forms of political activism.

Writing about the “Cost of Living Campaign”, Rita Edwards from the New Women’s Movement reminded us that even at the dawn of democracy women were warning the government that social grants covering only “pap and bread are not enough”. And they were asking, “if the Government has to cut spending, why is it always in the areas where women, especially poor women, are most vulnerable?”.

Elaine Salo analysed gender norms that pressure women on the Cape Flats into being upstanding and selfless mothers. She pointed out that the pressure to be “ordentlik (decent)” made women responsible for upholding working-class households’ dignity through the work of creating respectful and respectable mothers, wives and daughters. They had to prioritise this work within the household under conditions of precarity, violence and poverty.

In her research on the Free Basic Water (FBW) grant in the early 2000s, Hameeda Deedat described the specific humiliation this scheme inflicted on women. Women were unable to pay for commercialised water provision. So they were forced to cut down household water consumption even if it meant they couldn’t clean nappies fast enough or flush the toilet while they were menstruating.

Shamim Meer and Catherine Albertyn wrote an article reflecting on the 2001 Treatment Action Campaign case demanding that pregnant women should have access to nevirapine. They point out that the case prioritised women’s status as mothers not citizens. The case ultimately defended a mother’s right to have a healthy child, rather than female citizens’ rights to reproductive healthcare services, and to choose the terms on which they accept to be pregnant.

In 2009, writing about the crisis of social reproduction in South Africa, Jacklyn Cock and Khayaat Fakier described black working-class women as the “shock absorbers” of this crisis. They are the ones who combine unpaid household work, precarious work in the formal sector and meagre social grants to literally keep their households alive, while not being able to access public services – e.g. pap smears – that could help them to stay alive.

As this brief list shows, South African women have been critiquing, theorising and organising against the patriarchal division of social reproduction work for many decades. It is also clear that this political work has not contributed to reorganising social care work in any meaningful sense. Austerity policies continue to deepen with each budget year. This is despite the fact that unemployment, inflation, under-investment in health, education and early childhood development services, and the privatisation of essential services and housing also continue to deteriorate. And on each of these dimensions, women – especially black working-class women – are systematically worse affected than men.

Collectivising the work

If we are to move towards a more just system of reorganising social reproduction work, it is important to focus on how to make it a collective responsibility in at least two senses. Firstly, it can be collectivised through making it a public responsibility.

A 2015 report released by the Department of Women estimated that, in 2000, unpaid work within the household could be valued at 50% of GDP. That’s R440.1 billion. And about 70% of this work was done by women.

It is important to continue mobilising to ensure that essential goods and services are moved back into the public sphere. Together with this, it is important to ensure that public sector provision isn’t captured by a commercial logic: these goods and services should be free at the point of care. It is also crucial that public sector provision should not be captured by a patriarchal logic: where essential goods and social reproduction work are provided by a paid but mainly female labour force, this labour force should not be employed on informal, short-term and otherwise precarious contracts.

Secondly, it can also be collectivised by ensuring that unpaid social reproductive work is more equally divided between men and women. This should happen in all spheres, but especially in the private sphere (in households). Both our government and progressive movements criticise the state for dismantling public services and are aware of the political, social and monetary value of social reproduction work. They are also aware of the gender domination it is based on and that it helps to legitimate.

It is therefore too simple to argue that the current inability of the South African state to deliver social services will result in women carrying an even greater share of the burden of social reproduction work. That inference is based on the assumption that men and boys continue to stand back and take on a marginal role in that work. What is stopping them from picking up a broom or a mop, bathing a grandfather, feeding a child, helping with homework, or cooking a meal?

This is the other (not the only) part of the challenge: how do we also ensure that the many small, exhausting and non-negotiable tasks of making life possible – day in and day out – and that the state is unlikely to collectivise, don’t fall to women simply because we think it “comes naturally” or “they are better at it”? This is what Kopano Ratele has referred to as: bringing gender democracy into the home, turning the Big Democracy into the small democracy… come to think of it, the idea of a democratic, non-sexist society is a hard one to digest and to practise. Take a moment to think about it again: is it not a terrifying thought to be equal to others? It is a terror because it implies a revolution. And revolution in turn implies death – the death of the old and the birth of the new. We can’t imagine equality in the same way as we can’t imagine our own death, that is to say, social death.

But why is this so? For to believe in and practise equality implies in one sense to give up power and to write a new contract about sharing power.

This is the revolution still to come.

Lauren Paremoer is a member of the Political Studies Department at the University of Cape Town.

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