Social Care: Zeros and Sums

We face a crisis in social care intensified by COVID-19, but, Ian Parker argues, protest movements and radical organisations are coming together to mobilise for change.

14 December 2020

The struggle for social care means working across the multiple contradictions in ‘care’ – how we care for each other now and how we build alternatives – and overcoming the ways these contradictions are stretched out in this wretched society to divide us from each other. Those that urgently need care are being reduced to zero, to nothing, treated as expendable; that has been the logic of the brutal ‘herd immunity’ agenda of the Conservative government since it took power.

The UK government is still pursuing this logic, with some tweaks and crocodile tears, that will let the weak, those made weaker by poverty and stress, go the wall so that the so-called ‘resilient’ can survive. For those with private health insurance, private pension plans and family wealth that trickles down to them, this is a matter of basic economics and free-market ideology. They are profiting from the Covid-19 crisis, and so, for them, the sums add up; the ‘herd immunity’ logic is part and parcel of the reduction of working people to being suppliers of value to those who own and benefit from control of the means of production.

This Covid-19 world is a world laid bare, a world of quick profit and economic survival and death; a world of zeros and sums. For those crooks who care for each other, and who can pay for us to care for them, ‘social care’ is a nonsense phrase. Their only concern is with individuals, people divided from each other, and so collectively organised solutions and collectively organised social care is something they despise and are busy cutting back to the roots.

This is a time for us to organise collectively and reclaim social care. Divide and rule also operates according to the logic of a ‘zero-sum’ game. A zero-sum game is one in which it seems that if someone wins, then someone must lose. Social care as a progressive political project cuts across that assumption, enabling us to see that it is possible if we understand how we are being divided from each other, that we can work together so that all of us are ‘winners’.


First task: break the zero-sum game that divides carers from those they care for, and from the hard-pressed families made to take on the burden of care. This is the task addressed by meetings and mobilisations of those fighting for care workers and for a National Minimum Wage which will tighten up legislation to make that into a reality rather than a fiction. This now connects with the ‘We Are With You’ strikers from Unison and activists in the Sage Nursing home organised by the United Voices of the World.

A public meeting on Thursday 17 December brings together these campaigns with ‘Reclaim Social Care’ and the Care Worker C19 Action Group. Key to the development of this initiative is going to be the involvement of those who are cared for, those demanding better services, demanding that their voices be heard, those in organisations like Disabled People Against Cuts who have now been working with the Independent Living Strategy Group to formulate their own demands. This is the first task being addressed, and those involved know well that this first task is linked to many more, intersects with other tasks, and with other forms of oppression.

Second task: break the zero-sum game that turns women in families into the unpaid primary carers, and then harvests those skills in the employment of women on cheap wages in the care homes and other care services. This is not an optional or mere supplementary add-on to the ‘real economy’, the world of real work in which the real workers, real men, are the big bread-winners.

Care work is real work, not mere ‘women’s work’, and everyone employed in the sector, whether women or men need a real wage. Progressive movements need to take seriously the ‘feminisation’ of workplaces, and understand the role of unpaid care in the family and paid care in the service sector. This has been a key argument made by activists pushing for ‘social reproduction’ to be taken seriously as an intimate and necessary part of economic production.


This is where feminism shows its vital role as social critique and social movement, a critique and movement which deepens socialist struggle by drawing attention to the many ways in which exploitation and oppression operates. New conditions of capital accumulation and ecological crisis need new forms of analysis that feminist theories of ‘social reproduction’ provide. They are tools for struggle and for social care as prefigurative politics. We care for each other now as activists because we want to build a world in which we all care for each other.

Third task: break the zero-sum game that divides those involved in manual labour from those involved in intellectual and emotional labour; the emotional labour of care work is labour, it is work. Care workers are drained, exhausted, by the strain of not only having to provide basic material support but also to cope with giving emotional support to those stressed, stressed because of poverty, sickness, exclusion and oppression. As activists in the radical mental health field have argued for years, every social crisis intensifies the crisis in social care.

Mental health care has also long been plagued by the division between ‘carers’ in the medical institutions and their clients, but collective mobilisation – workers fighting for fair pay and proper working conditions and patients taking control of treatment agendas and thus of their own lives – is absolutely essential. The way forward here is not to save money, to take care of the sums by treating people as zero, by concentrating people with mental health needs in large institutions; the big mental hospitals have failed, and mental health system survivors and current consumers are demanding decentralised community services, community support. They are demanding social care.

Organisations already working across these divisions are refusing the zero-sum games that structure our lives under capitalism and that make our misery all the worse in times of crisis. Social care is an integral part of what we are fighting for and needs to be put at the forefront of our politics. These are the frontlines of care.

Come to the meeting ‘Care Workers Taking the Fight into 2021’ at 6.30 on 17 December with Paula Barker MP, Sandra Daniels of Reclaim Social Care, Alison Treacher of the Care Worker C19 Action Group, and hear the voices of the Unison and UVW care home strikers.

This article originally appeared on the Socialist Resistance website.

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