Beautiful Transgressions Who Cares?

Whose problem is it when a mother finds herself unable to take part in political resistance because she can't find childcare provision? In her new column, Sara Motta argues that a strong, inclusive movement cannot be built and sustained if we allow obstacles to female participation to be systematically ignored or trivialised.

Beautiful Transgressions, New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 0:00 - 12 Comments

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By Sara Motta

Last week, at a meeting to organise a gathering about how resistance against public spending cuts and growing unemployment can be strategised, I raised a question about childcare, to ensure inclusivity.

I was met with responses that ranged from viewing the issue as a logistical question to be dealt with at the end of the meeting (along with sleeping and food), to a debate about whether this was something that necessitated collective responsibility, to a comment that people who have children will somehow just arrange for them to be looked after for the weekend.

I felt a deep pit in my stomach. For yet again, I had to explain why this is an important political issue, not merely a problem of organisational logistics, but a fundamental question about inclusion and voice. This time, I couldn’t do it. I instead went to another room, to get some space and hide my tears. At the end of the discussion it was agreed that childcare would be an item for logistical planning to be included in our feedback of our meeting.

I wish to continue this discussion here, however, and begin from my experience as ‘the mother in the room who asked the question about childcare’. I want to begin from my personal experience and political learning as a means to explore and give voice to one aspect of the female experience of capitalism and of how this impacts upon questions of how we constitute political struggle and community.

If we want to build inclusive communities of resistance, then discussions like these need to be taken seriously. The question of how children are cared for, who cares for them, and when and where they do, is a political question that goes to the heart of our assumptions about what politics and resistance are, what we value in political struggle and the types of alternatives we seek to create.

The assumption that childcare is not a political issue often permeates the political spaces that I find myself in. This is largely because it is imagined that political action involves putting pressure on the state to change particular policies, and/or building movements that seek to challenge corporate power and elite politics through forms of direct action. Struggles against capitalism thus centre on fights over wages and against exploitation and/or attempts to change and challenge capitalist consumption and distribution.

This is a ‘politics of the outside’ which views power as something located in structures of the state and market or in the mainstream ideas of ‘others’. It is a politics of the public in which power is viewed as an object to be won, controlled or destroyed – not as social relationships that need to be subverted and transgressed.

Most problematic in this understanding and practice of politics is the silencing and exclusion of that which is considered to be private and the domestic. The domestic sphere is often regarded as outside of capitalism and thus secondary to struggles against power and domination. Yet, as autonomist Marxist feminists demonstrated over 30 years ago, it is precisely through the wage that the exploitation of the non-wage labourer is organised.

Non-waged labour occurs in the domestic sphere. It is the work of producing the most important of commodities for capital – the wage labourer – and producing subjects that are disciplined to the dictates and demands of the market. As Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James argue, it is the work ‘of giving birth to, raising, disciplining, and servicing the worker for production.’ It involves emotional, psychological and physical labour – washing, cooking, bathing, cleaning, educating, caring for sick children.

This work has been historically constituted as ‘women’s work’ and continues to be overwhelmingly feminised. It is organised through the individualisation and privatisation of social reproduction through the separation of the family unit from the community, the home from the workplace and the private from the public.

The realities of social reproduction become isolation from others and exhaustion from work that never ends. Yet the carer’s experience, struggle and labour are often normalised, invisibilised and not viewed as politically relevant.

These conditions have been intensified by the violence of neoliberalism that has broken collective solidarities and cultures and eroded public services in health, education and housing. Such violence has been accompanied by the breakdown of survival strategies for working class families with increasing labour precarity.

Many women now shoulder a double burden of low-paid and uncertain paid work combined with domestic work. Thus, not only do carers face isolation, exhaustion and loneliness, but increasing material poverty as well. The realities of the domestic sphere are becoming ever more psychologically, emotionally and socially de-humanised.

Yet if the domestic sphere is a site of accumulation and exploitation then this also means that these everyday relationships, practices and beliefs are sites of resistance. If at the centre of the everyday social factory is the woman in the home producing labour power as a commodity then a pivot of resistance is her struggle not to reproduce this role and to transgress the individualized and atomized family.

A key political question then becomes ‘how we reproduce our communities and ourselves in ways that resist and subvert the creation of the waged labourer and the separations of capitalism’?

Time and autonomy are essential to the success of any such resistance. The demands of housework and paid work remove time to think, to reflect and to be. They take away time to develop intellectual, political and social autonomy. They undercut the ability to be a social and political agent. To have time means to work less and to open up possibilities for re-constructing political creativity, subjectivity and community.

When we do not take the question of childcare seriously as a political question, therefore, we undercut our ability to build inclusive communities of resistance. When we view such questions as private and individual ones, we mirror the relationships, understandings and practices of capitalism.

We deny women and children access to community, collectivity, political learning and practice. We reinforce the exclusion, silencing and invisibilisation of these aspects of the woman’s experience of capitalist isolation and alienation. As Silvia Federici argues ‘We go to demonstrations, we build events, and this becomes the peak of our struggle. The analysis of how we reproduce these movements, how we reproduce ourselves is not at the center of movement organizing. It has to be.’

How might we begin to take these questions and problematics seriously and build inclusive forms of politics that can subvert and transgress the capitalist social relations that are reproduced in our political practice?
One way is to begin from women’s experiences. Yet in order to create these possibilities, women, mothers and carers who are used to being silenced by the everyday grind of poverty and by the non-stop exhaustion of working and caring need space to speak and be heard.

Another way is to listen and learn from the traditions of feminist critique and struggle which demonstrated that the domestic sphere is a site of exploitation and accumulation and is therefore a site of resistance.

Our political building cannot centre its attention on resistance as a momentary act, a meeting, a march. It needs to take seriously the building of our community and its reproduction in ways that overcome the divisions, separations and exclusions of capitalism.

Sara Motta is a mother, radical educator and writer.

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Sofia
May 17, 2011 23:38

This is a brilliant critique of, frankly, sexist attitudes all to common in “activist” communities.

On the one hand I am grateful to Sara for so poignantly demonstrating why these attitudes *must* change if we are to build any kind of sustainable radical social change/improvements

On the other hand, I am really annoyed with the far Left. I am angered that we, women, are still having to make these arguments. Feminists before us have been through this already in the 60s and in the 80s. We have made the arguments for the necessity of collective childcare in our movement, and we have won these arguments. Why are we having to go through this again? Why have these gains been eroded *from within* the revolutionary/activist/lefty community?

I do not want to dwell on this negative. Rather I want to thank Sara again. It takes courage and ALOT of strength to speak about trivialised issues from a marginalised/silenced position. It can be draining and demoralising. However, it can also be empowering and refreshing. I hope Sara feels the latter and I hope she continues to provide such informative and insightful analysis.

Afua
May 18, 2011 1:51

Another great piece that raised some crucial but often unacknolwedged points. I remember speaking to you about this a few months ago and it really made me re-think the way in which I/we view resistance and the shape it takes. So thank you! xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Sam
May 18, 2011 1:56

Agreed. I think that this, among all the other bad, oppressive, destructive and detrimental habits, is one of those things infused into us by growing up in the capitalist, patriarchal society we live in (not trying to make excuses for it btw) and more education and thought on these subjects is just as necessary as struggles in the workplace. Glad that Sara and others are being so critical on these issues, and thanks Sofia for directing me to these articles 🙂

Farooq
May 18, 2011 9:25

Excellent and thought-provoking article, this is a discussion that needs to take place.

ramona
May 18, 2011 14:38

thanks for this Sara,
although as a parent myself, i’d like to add a few disagreements to this piece.
‘people who have children will somehow just arrange for them to be looked after for the weekend.’ easily refers to me and others in my position.
before having a kid i had a glorious image of collective responsibility for childcare,which certainly hasn’t come to fruit. this is for 2 overlapping reasons, one being about people’s seperateness in our society (which i don’t really put down to individual unco operativeness but societal structure and socialisation), and also my own child.
to begin, i do not have the sort of child who can be collectively childcared. he’d want to find me if we were at a gathering, and he would want to stay with me, and talk to me all through the meetings. whether or not others would find this distracting, i certainly would. having my child with me would mean i couldn’t engage as fully. if i am not physically available to him however, he will be fine with people he knows and trusts. if there are children his own age who he knows well he will also go off for brief periods. but for me, having someone look after my child in the same setting doesn’t in any way lend me to the fullness of participation as when i arrange for someone close to look after him while i am away. (i appreciate this is also a privileged position, i have good friends who i exchange childcare with, and grandparents who will help)
secondly, as to the collective responsibility. i agree with sara when she says :
“When we do not take the question of childcare seriously as a political question, therefore, we undercut our ability to build inclusive communities of resistance. When we view such questions as private and individual ones, we mirror the relationships, understandings and practices of capitalism.”
but i think people not providing instant answers, or solutions for situations that are potentially quite complex, are matters of people not taking childcare seriously. the practicalities of sleep and food are important questions too, and to designate childcare into the same practicalities is not to dismiss it.
a weekend gathering is NOT a community, it can’t immediately become one, where the kids more or less look after each other, and everyone is invested in everyone else’s wellbeing. communities are built on longevity and collective struggle, not on a weekend agenda.
this is not to detract from the points Sara makes, but to further raise questions around them.

ramona
May 18, 2011 14:47

mistake!
sorry, that line was meant to be:
, are NOT matters of people not taking childcare seriously

Laurence
May 18, 2011 20:31

Just to add to Ramona’s points:

Here in Dublin we pushed quite a bit for child-friendly events and thinking about childcare etc. as part of radical events.

Breaking through the kind of resistance Sara describes was the first barrier, only. After that there was a lot of learning (I would say still in progress) around what works, what is suitable, what issues arise etc. in “providing childcare”. And beyond that questions of what is suitable / appropriate / etc., how to negotiate very different views of children, etc.

Some part of it (and only some part) was generational, in terms of people getting to the point in their own lives of having children – and often like myself starting to think about them in very different ways at that point. It is a big maturing process (and one which I think not everyone manages).

I think for me what came out is the need to integrate children, not simply childcare. In the same way that as activist communities mature they come to realise that adult participation can be affected by other caring responsibilities, health / age / disability impacts, mental illness, social marginality etc. – or even simply preferring to be cooking, mending bikes or engaging in pixie activities rather than talking in meetings! – and slowly learn to take these on board rather than have a “one-size-fits-all” model of participation assuming physical health, good education, no time constraints or caring responsibilities, etc. etc.

But of course it does all start from getting people to acknowledge that childcare is an issue – that opens a doorway to a whole other range of questions.

(Opening that doorway can also help, at times, making better connections outside the activist ghetto – but that is a whole other discussion!)

Andy
May 26, 2011 4:40

An important contribution.

There’s a problem in autonomous groups of ‘one-size-fits-all’ models and assuming a certain kind of subject, as Lawrence says.

I think, however, that the issue is not quite where Sara thinks.

Something being a logistical question does not necessarily mean it’s not political – food, for instance, is very much a political question for autonomous groups, since veganism is a major concern for some people. And if they’re really only expecting two or three people who are parents, looking for ad hoc solutions rather than a systematic response isn’t necessarily wanting to brush aside the issue.

The main reason there’s limited awareness is that very few autonomous activists have children. This is partly because of the age profile of the scene, partly the substratum (mostly ‘freeters’ or precariat), partly the implied values of the scene itself.

Sara seems to be implying something like a destiny faced by women of being consigned to a private sphere through being forced into the role of childcare. This might not be true of her own experience, and of some of the places she studies, but in Britain, there’s a sizeable and growing layer of young people who don’t have children. The reasons for this are twofold: firstly the realisation of reproductive rights, and secondly, the fact that people in marginal employment don’t have the income or financial stability which are culturally taken as prerequisites for ‘starting a family’.

Among young women, there’s also a certain tendency to resist being subordinated through unpaid reproductive labour by refusing to have children. In activism, this might be coextensive with the ‘refusal of work’ more broadly.

So the situation in autonomous groups is not akin to the situation in the world of work for example, where there really is a big public-private split and a huge issue of unrecognised social reproduction. I think the frame Sara is using is very similar to how one might discuss, for instance, why there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for professional women in academia, management, or the professions – women end up excluded from full participation because the sphere of reproduction is ignored, in a context where both men and women mostly have children, but women do most of the labour with children. I’m not sure this is quite what’s happening with activism. It’s more akin to an issue such as disability rights – there’s a small subset of activists with particular needs which are difficult to get on the agenda because they don’t accord with the experience of other activists.

Of course this doesn’t mean the issues should be neglected or brushed aside. But very often, we can’t assume in advance that people will know what’s needed to include others who are different from them. In my experience, with autonomous activists, it’s most often a question of being a good advocate for yourself. They aren’t going to ‘get it’ about special needs automatically, because it’s not in their own experiential frame, but they’ll be a lot more open to the existence of different frames and experiences than most people are. On the other hand, they’re only going to ‘get’ as much of your particular situation as you can articulate. After a certain amount of consciousness raising, people will ‘get it’ without needing to be told, but it takes a long process before they get to this point.

In Theory – Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony and Heteroglossia – Ceasefire Magazine
Jul 29, 2011 9:38

[…] whether parents respond to the needs of their children, whether opposing views are able to get a hearing in meetings, whether political views are treated as self-enclosed ‘opinions’ to which one is […]

Vernon Goddard
Jun 24, 2012 12:18

Hi Sara and thanks for pointing me in the direction of your article which I found powerful & informative. I’d like to join you for the workshop on 30th June and may wish to offer observations at that point……….Vernon Goddard.

Dagmar Diesner
Oct 15, 2012 16:51

Dear Sara,
You are speaking out of my soul. I have been frustrated with the social movement when it came to organse childcare . Like you, I had the same experiences at meetings for example, at ironically when it came to creating another world is possible, but this has became an exclusive club where mothers and children had to stand outside. At important European social movement meetings I have found myself organising kid spaces, and to these my friend from the 70s commented dryly was exclusively runned by mothers. In the 70s she has pointed out that there was a sense of common responsbility by social movement activists for children and parents to include them in shaping different realities. Personally, I got desperate in the theoretical circles that at the end i focused my engagement,once the second came, on creating a community garden.
Good luck with everything.

Who Cares? | Collective Self Care
Apr 14, 2013 22:53

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