I picked this book up from Verso Books while it was 40% off after reading a positive review in Tribune, the magazine of the socialist left in the Labour Party. Working in the care sector, this was of particular interest for me. The marketisation of the care sector has been disastrous. The profit motive and people’s health are the antithesis of each other. However, upon reading I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not simply a critique of how we look after the vulnerable in society, but about how we care for everyone. Despite this, there were many shortcomings of the book which I will attempt to investigate in this piece.
The major obstacle this piece often comes across is idealism –– the way of looking at the world that states that the prevalent ideas in society are dominant over reality, rather than the Marxist point of view that reality is dominant over the prevalent ideas. What this leads to, in terms of this book, is that at many points it veers dangerously close to the reductive line of “if we cared for each other more then there would be less bad in the world”. Obviously, this is not what this piece is meaning to say. However, with its lack of analysis of the historical and material factors or a plan for how to get to the type of society the reader is often left with this sense.
Where this lack of material analysis is perhaps most profound is in its analysis of the nuclear family. It suggests that the nuclear family is a white, heterosexual phenomena and to some extent this may be true but only because it was Europeans who had the first capitalist systems. It does not explain how this came to be. At one point in our evolution, the nuclear family was as alien to white, straight people as it often is to LGBT+ and BAME people. What constituted the family was different under feudalism, slave societies, and tribal societies to what it is today. The family broadly reflects the mode of production at the time, while still being influenced by cultural factors. The nuclear family arose from the need to pass inheritance from father to son. Engels believed that this structure would become obsolete within the working class due to them not owning property, however the individualist ideology of the ruling class has prevented this from happening.
Where the analysis of the nuclear family is accurate is in how we are conditioned to only “care for our own” in a keeping up with the Jones’ kind of way, playing families against each other to put barriers against them uniting. While I understand that this piece was never meant to be a rewriting of Engel’s Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, I do believe that if you want to theorise over which structures will come next then you must look at how the current structures came to be.
A remedy to the nuclear family which the author proposes is “promiscuous care.” Promiscuous care is the idea that you care widely and deeply for a number of people, it is not limited to people you know but also stretches to those you do not. This was carried out within the gay community during the AIDS crisis. The flaw with using this as an example was that this promiscuous care that happened within the LGBT+ community did not begin as a political statement; it began as a necessity. At that time, and even today, LGBT+ people faced being shunned by their families for being who they are, meaning they had to look elsewhere for the support you would usually get from a traditional family. That, coupled with a homophobic government, meant they had no choice but to support each other. While this does show that this kind of care structure is possible for humans, it needs to be put in context. The author does recognise promiscuous care in the LGBT+ community was largely due to the circumstances at the time; however, they fail to truly make the link between this and how we get there as a society.
While this was never meant to be an economic piece, it fails to go much beyond a somewhat left social democracy. The biggest mistake to this effect is it poses the establishment of the welfare state in Britain as an example of the state being caring. This is fundamentally wrong. The welfare state was set up to stave off revolutionary sentiment, and to ensure the longevity of capitalism. How could you have a caring state that was spending millions on imperialist wars, trying to suppress colonial peoples who wanted freedom? This should not be misrepresented as me suggesting the welfare state was negative, however the reasons for a right-wing Labour government passing it should not be ignored. It was a concession to an organised working class.
Towards the end, in the ‘Caring World’ section, it makes the assertion that some Marxists bring economics down to purely market functions. While Marx spent a lot of time talking about the functions of the market, he did not negate the role of concepts sure as culture, politics, religion which appear to hold space in a sphere away from production, however, in reality these concepts are shaped by production and in turn shape production. Anyone who denies this is denying Marx. While it is a somewhat throwaway remark in this piece, to point this out in The Care Manifesto seems like it is either an attack on Marxists, creating a ‘strawman’ which can be easily defeated rather than dealing with our actual arguments, or the author is not well versed in Marxist thought. I hope it is the latter and they are not deliberately being disingenuous.
If it is the latter, then I believe a Marxist understanding would greatly increase the value of this piece. One example where this is particularly evident is in the understanding of the state. Either the authors believe that the working classes can seamlessly lay claim to the bourgeois state through its ‘democratic’ procedures or that the ruling class will somehow become caring. Both these ideas have their own flaws. With the first proposal, the transfer of power from the current ruling class to the working classes cannot be seamless, why would they give up their power without a fight? Even in countries in which the left has came to power through electoral means, they have had to contend with coups orchestrated by the old ruling class and imperialists. In the second case, why would the ruling class put in place policies which would harm their profits unless they were forced to by a radical working class?
That is the point. The fundamental issue with this book is that it appears to want to replace class-based language with softer, more palatable words. It replaces the word “solidarity” with the word “care”. This is an unnecessary step to take which sucks class politics out of our movement. To me solidarity comes from people being engaged in struggle, looking at others in a similar situation and saying, “we are the same”. In our recent history nothing exemplifies this better than the miner strikes in 1984/85. Working class people went through hell during that time, yet many ex-miners say that it was one of the best times of their lives because of that sense of community that came from fighting for the same thing and sticking together through great adversity. The international solidarity they received, especially from socialist countries, was great as well. I worry that this could signal a future for the left in Britain, shying away from class conflict.
Another example of this is through the book it rarely, if ever, mentions capitalism without a prefix Any time the economic system is mentioned it is always neoliberal capitalism, disaster capitalism or algorithm capitalism. This obscures the economic system that is to blame for our careless society- capitalism. This is not to say that these terms or prefix capitalism does not have its place, however it avoids one fundamental contradiction. How is an employer meant to genuinely care for their employee? How is the oppressor meant to care for the people they oppress? How do you care for someone while simultaneously stripping them of the profit they make for you? It’s like asking for solidarity between the sword and the neck.
A lot of the concrete policies this book advocates are good things to advocate for. More community owned space would benefit our class. Giving us space to meet would remove at least one of the barriers we face when we try to organise. As communists, we cannot shy away from the “small things”. We all have dreams of being Lenin, however revolution is not built in a day. Pushing for things that would give our class the tools it needs to fight for better is something we should be doing when the conditions are right. This cannot be divorced from class, however. Often class is replaced with community, in this piece, which again obscures the prevailing forces in our society.
While I could go on about the successes and flaws in this book, I will save you from that. No other book I have read recently has had me thinking as much as this has. Many of the policies it provides are excellent and would lead to a more caring society. However, we can not allow ourselves to begin obscuring how big a role class plays in our daily lives. What this comes down to is the fact that it is incredibly difficult to care for others beyond your immediate circle unless you have the time, money, and energy to do so.
The Care Manifesto gives an idea of what a caring society would look like, and it gives a certain analysis of the current problem. But what it does not do is tell us how we got here, suggesting the problem only began with Thatcher and Reagan, nor does it adequately tell us how we achieve the society it sets out.
What we can take from it, however, is that our current society does not adequately care, and we must strive for better. The pandemic has highlighted this better than anything else could. The devastating thing is that it has taken tens of thousands of deaths to prove this, and still the ruling class will not listen. It is time to make them listen –– let us not shy away from class politics or shy away from the fact that we are communists building a revolutionary movement. We can not shy away from any of these facts, because when we do, we lose.
Josh Morris, is the YCL’s Marxist-Leninist Education Officer