Image Credit: Care: The Highest Stage of Capitalism by Premilla Nadasen (Haymarket Books, 2023)
Radical care is not only a survival strategy—it goes beyond care as social service or a “good deed”—and is outside the dominant individualist and profit-making structures. It is an example of prefigurative politics, which Harsha Walia defines as “envisioning and actualizing egalitarian social relations.” Although these models may seem small-scale in the context of an invasive care economy, they are in fact an indication, using a phrase that animated the World Social Forum, that “another world is possible.” Examples of prefigurative radical care are not only an alternative to capitalism—they sit in opposition to capitalism because they work to dismantle and rebuild. They aim to provide care and transform. They offer ways of thinking about communal care as a form of radical relationality that is unambiguously anticapitalist and part of a larger political struggle.
Few people would disagree with an aspirational goal of a truly caring society—but what is a truly caring society? And what is the role of the state in a radical future? What kinds of reforms move us closer to a goal of a caring world, rather than setting us back? Care is often invoked as an alternative to the carceral state. But, as we have seen, these alternatives, which sometimes take the form of social services, can be extractive or destructive. Where does that leave us? If the prison abolition movement calls for the dismantling of all prisons, should a transformative care politics call for a dismantling of all profit-oriented or state-controlled care systems? Care is messy and complicated. We cannot reject all care institutions wholesale, but need to carefully weigh which caring policies do harm and which provide necessary support for survival.
I hope to illustrate what radical care looks like in practice and how it can be part of a transformative politics that can move us toward a more liberatory future. On-the-ground activists are reimagining care and generating alternative models for more effective challenges to capitalism. We have so much to learn from campaigns for radical care and from what people are already doing, even as we grapple with how these struggles connect with one another and build toward long-term social transformation.
Grassroots activists have established systems of communal support in response to state neglect, violence, and the unequal allocation of resources. Their examples of radical care were born out of state abandonment, or what communications professor China Medel calls “strategic abandonment”—when people are simply left to die. These practices are not always intentionally organized as alternative—they evolve out of community need, sometimes without a specific political orientation—but they have the potential to become alternative. They are often cooperative, antihierarchical practices outside the state and profit-making systems. If we understand radical care as not just taking care of people in the present but also as part of constructing models for a new collective future, these would serve as inspiring models.
The Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Holmes County, Mississippi, models a communal approach to the problems of gendered violence, state and family abuse, and economic insecurity. It provides a physical space and a social safety net for girls and young women in a region where little government social support exists. Started by local resident Ellen Reddy in 1994 as a child-care center, the center serves and empowers the local community. Its foundational premise is that every family needs to be cared for, and everyone has a responsibility to look out and care for one another. The community—not child protective services, the police, or school officials—becomes the means to address behavioral problems, mental health challenges, and domestic violence at home or school. Beyond Holmes County, the center is developing an agenda of expanding economic opportunities in the Delta, ending corporal punishment in schools, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, addressing domestic violence, supporting sexual autonomy for young people, and empowering African American girls. One of my students described Ellen Reddy’s work as “the abolitionist future.”
The kind of everyday care practiced at the Nollie Jenkins Center is also recounted by Sandra Killett, whom we met in chapter 5. Sandra’s childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by collective care. Born in 1962, Sandra was raised by a single mother with a substance use disorder who couldn’t provide the care her seven children needed. The family was on public assistance and money was always tight. Despite the hardship, Sandra’s aunts, neighbors, older siblings, and family friends stepped in, looked out for one another’s children, and helped out whenever necessary—what Sandra calls a “community wraparound,” something she undoubtedly values more after her run-ins with the child welfare system.
To this day, she still ponders the contrast between her own entanglements with the system and her childhood. Despite her mother’s substance overuse, child welfare never intervened. Part of the reason was the commitment to collective care: “It was everyone looking out for everyone. … I didn’t know of any child welfare involvement … We just took care of everyone.” Sandra believes firmly that knowledge about how to address poverty resides with the people themselves and that the community wraparound from her childhood could be a model for moving forward: “You think that because we are living under poverty in most cases, that we have no wherewithal about what we need, what it would take, how we need to support each other. We know. We absolutely know.” Sandra’s story is evidence of communal care that was less structured than the Nollie Jenkins Family Center but nevertheless provided the support her family needed. Her mother’s small public assistance grant was crucial but not enough, so the mechanisms of communal care kicked in to ensure the family’s well-being. These are both examples of a “care infrastructure” outside a market and profit-driven system.
Care collectives also emerged in the early 2000s among disabled people and their allies in response to the inadequacy of public health care. These collectives were founded on an ethic of interdependence: everyone gives and receives care, even as it is acknowledged that some people have more needs than others. This dynamic creates a form of what gender and women’s studies professor Akemi Nishida calls “messy dependency,” where mutuality is not reciprocal but based on desire, ability, and agency. It can be unruly and, according to neoliberal metrics, unequal. Mutual dependence in this context means that people contribute what they can, rather than equally. Controlled by the disabled people, these “care webs,” as disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha calls them, are a way to build community power. The disability justice group Sins Invalid, relies on the “rich and unique” wisdom—“crip wisdom”—of the disability community to redefine dependency from its stigmatized and disempowered connotations to a term that reflects deep and valuable communal relations.
Another example is mutual aid, which legal scholar and activist Dean Spade defines as the “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” No More Deaths, a volunteer organization, offers direct aid to people trying to cross the US–Mexico border. The US border patrol has either failed to provide life-saving assistance or, more frequently, has systematically targeted and meted out violence to migrants. Based in Tucson, Arizona, No More Deaths provides first aid, food, water, blankets, and other necessities for survival. According to China Medel: “In the practice of care, desert aid workers prefiguratively build a world in which hierarchies of human value are abolished, where migration is an expression of life making, and where food, shelter, medical, and emotional care are available to all, regardless of notions of deservedness.” The organizing and material aid are an “abolitionist gesture” that “builds alternative forms of recognition and inclusion against the logic of criminalization and the production of valueless life functioning to ‘protect’ the United States.” Mutual aid, then, is not premised on paternalistic notions of charity but on solidarity as a democratic and collaborative process that can undermine capitalist logics.
Communal care may not be explicitly anticapitalist, but it may nevertheless lead to political engagement. Sandra’s early experiences with communal care and the failure of state support when she became a single mother propelled her into activism. People may begin to understand their own agency and nurture radical ideas about the kind of world they want to live in. In that way, communal care “can radically remake worlds that exceed those offered by the neoliberal or postneoliberal state, which has proved inadequate in its dispensation of care” write Hi’ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese, the editors of an important collection of essays on radical care in Social Text. Examples of communal care are, perhaps, “rehearsals for living,” as Robyn Maynard and Leanne Simpson describe it, in which people are finding new ways of being and developing new visions for the future.
The Care Manifesto was published in 2017 by the Care Collective, which started as a London-based reading group and has become an important text for reimagining care. It calls for social transformation premised on a universal ethic of care that is not tied to the market economy and rejects hierarchical decision-making and unequal valuation of life:
Universal care means that we are all collectively responsible for hands-on care work as well as the work necessary for the maintenance of communities and the planet … It translates into reclaiming forms of genuinely communal life—from schools to public space to lending libraries. It means shortening the working week so that caring for children, for example, can be more easily shared. It involves reversing the corporate marketisation of care and caring infrastructures, both by “insourcing” and by extending democratic alternatives to capitalist markets, which have never aligned well with the work of caring. It also means restoring and radically deepening our welfare states, both centrally and locally, through progressive forms of municipalism and strengthening or introducing universal basic services.
This is a powerful vision. The Care Collective calls for reimagining democratic society premised on what they call a feminist, antiracist, eco-socialist, queer political vision of care, a commitment to helping and caring for others as an alternative to both individualism and marketization. In this reading, care is a feminist politics that promises to transform a neoliberal, individualistic, profit-oriented, extraction-based economic system.
This articulation of radical care pushes the conversation about how we can practice care in promising directions because it is collective, people centered, and an egalitarian form of social organization. However, the Care Collective seems to aim its criticism specifically at the neoliberal and post neoliberal state rather than the capitalist state more broadly. Neoliberalism’s diminishing support for care and collective well-being has resulted in economic inequality, people without basic resources and services, social isolation, health crises, and ecological destruction. The Care Collective argues, correctly, that there is an “irreconcilability of care with market logics,” and it wants to restore and radically “deepen our welfare state.”
An excerpt from Care: The Highest Stage of Capitalism by Premilla Nadasen, on sale now from Haymarket Books. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Premilla Nadasen is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University and Co-Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Her books include Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States and Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement.