Friday, October 30, 2009

Video: Which Side Are You On, Sudbury?

The strike against giant mining corporation Vale Inco that began in late July in Sudbury is still going strong, and doesn't look to be ending any time soon. Here is a quick video (found via Green Sudbury) putting images of worker resistance here in northern Ontario to a classic labour song. (And, sure, the images gloss over the criticisms that can be made of the local leadership from a pro-worker position, but it is still pretty inspiring.)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Video: The danger of a single story

Please take 20 minutes to watch this video of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie talking about the danger of having your consciousness formed by a single story of a person, a group of people, or a place. There are a number of reasons why I think this is worth sharing. Partly it is just good sense. Partly it is very relevant to reflecting on the colonial history of Canada and any number of other historical processes of oppression and resistance. Partly it is very much connected to my own book project, which has a number of interrelated goals but which includes the goal of putting a dent in the dominant monolithic story of Canada through the sharing of stories of resistance to and in Canada from a wide range of people, eras, movements, and social locations that interview participants were generous enough to share with me. And partly it is good fodder for critical self-reflection -- Adichie's unflinching, matter-of-fact honesty about instances where she has been in the grip of a single story, usually a story produced by power about those who are in some way oppressed, is both a prompt for me towards greater political self-reflection and an example of how to engage in that self-reflection responsibly...for some reason I've been thinking a lot this last week about instances in the past when I have responded poorly to friends taking the risk to point out that I was in the grip of an oppressive, dominant story, and this video is useful in processing some of that.

(Link found via MC.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty

[Kiran Mirchandani and Wendy Chan. Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty: Welfare Fraud Enforcement in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2007.]

A few years ago I read (and reviewed) a neat little book by Henry Giroux which talked about Hurricane Katrina. The book struck me as a rare attempt to apply ideas with their origins in academia in an accessible, popular text. Now, it didn't feel like it worked all that well in that case, but I thought it was a great thing to try.

Criminalizing Race, Criminalizing Poverty is a very different book in many ways, but it strikes me as similar to the extent that it is an effort to experiment with ways to make important, critical ideas produced through academic processes accessible and useful to social movements. There isn't quite the same effort to stitch together academic ideas with a broad harvest of popular, muckraking reportage as in Giroux's book, and the form is quite conventionally academic in some respects. But it is very clear, very straightforward, and very tightly tied to experiences and issues that are likely to resonate with people struggling against the oppressions that are its focus. It doesn't try to be flashy or sensational, but it succeeds better than Giroux's volume as an accessible, useable tool for people who want to make change.

The book begins with succinct and effective summaries of some of the relevant context. There is a good description of the vicious welfare changes instituted in Ontario and British Columbia in the late '90s and early '00s. I especially appreciated the way the idea of "racialization" (with an emphasis on "gendered racialization") was presented.

The first bit of original research is a look at all articles involving the phrase "welfare fraud" from the Vancouver Sun, Toronto Star, and Globe & Mail newspapers between 1993 and 2006. They found that the old liberal division of the poor into "deserving" and "undeserving" continues to be a central frame in articles on welfare, even if the 19th century language rarely appears explicitly. They also wrote,

Not surprisingly, our findings are consistent with previous studies, which argue that the media reinforce stereotypes about recipients, which includes both sexist and racist beliefs. Although some effort was made to provide counterclaims, the content of the articles are instructive for what they omit. Attempts to contextualize the problem of welfare fraud from the perspective of a welfare recipient were piecemeal at best. Readers are thus left with the impression that the media are in general agreement with the government over the need to rein in the problem of welfare fraud and find tough solutions to the problem. [43]

The "counterclaims" they refer to above includes the presence of plenty of material used by those resisting neoliberal welfare reform, such as evidence showing that the assertion that "welfare fraud" was costing huge amounts of taxpayer money was untrue. However, these facts were presented in such a way -- framed in such a way -- that the implicit consensus between the dominant media and the state in favour of neoliberal reforms was largely undisturbed. Most notably, despite this (muted and undermined) presence of voices of opposition, discussions of racism in the context of "welfare fraud" and the experiences of racialized people on welfare more generally were largely absent from the surveyed articles.

The rest of the research is based on 24 interviews with indigenous and non-indigenous racialized people in Toronto and Vancouver. The results are discussed across several different chapters. The first of these chapters examines some general themes in the experiences of racialized people on welfare: the level of financial support is inadequate, especially in Ontario after the 22% cut by the Tories in the mid-1990s (which subsequent Liberal governments have not restored); many recipients who do not have strong English language skills face additional barriers to applying and to advocating for themselves; many recipients have had negative experiences with case workers; many recipients face structural barriers to employment, often related to the racially and gender segregated labour market in Canada, explicit racism and sexism in the labour market, and to the lack of recognition of credentials obtained in other countries; and many participants noted a heavy impact on people's emotional and psychological wellbeing because of the constant assaults on their dignity by the welfare system.

The next chapter deals with the ways in which the welfare system criminalizes recipients, especially recipients of colour. The amount and kind of information demanded both at initial application and in the regular subsequent reviews means that recipients are subjected to constant surveillance and lose significant privacy when it comes to their financial situations and living arrangements. All of this contributes to a significant loss of dignity for recipients. The book quotes a report by the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition which points out that in order to receive welfare in Ontario from the late '90s to the present, recipients must endure "daily humiliation from government agencies." The continuous demand for excessive documentation communicates to recipients that they are under constant suspicion, and that they must forever be demonstrating their worthiness. The arbitrary, bureaucratic, and often poorly communicated rules which recipients must obey keeps many confused about what their rights are, what is expected of them, and what resources are available to them. The tendency of the bureaucracy and politicians to frame everything not strictly in line with the rules that recipients (and, often, case workers) do not fully understand as "fraud" contributes to constructing recipients broadly as criminal, despite the fact that actual criminal fraud against the welfare system has always been quite rare. In summary, "The intense surveillance and control of welfare recipients also ensures that only a small proportion of those in need will actually receive assistance. For racialized people, the problem is exacerbated by racist comments and treatment within the welfare system" [80].

Specific manifestations of racism in the welfare system were examined. This includes indirectly racist barriers related to language, which constantly crop up in a system based on confusing English-language forms, arbitrary English-language rules, and case workers who often speak only English, especially given the vastly inadequate resources for translation for people living in poverty. It also includes more direct forms of differential treatment related to racial background. All of this ties back to the ways in which,

for many, welfare is cognitively linked to members of a particular social group (e.g., Black or Aboriginal people)... The ease with which racial resentment is mobilized by critics of the welfare system without directly addressing the issue of race highlights the degree to which negative attitudes about welfare are deeply associated with race and racial stereotypes. [86]

The final chapter of the book ties welfare reform, crusades against "welfare fraud," and the particularities of what they call "welfare racism" to the overall shift towards neoliberalism in Canada and gloablly. They argue that

Racism in neo-liberal times manifests itself through the shift from welfare to workfare, in the construction of welfare recipients who face language or labour market barriers as 'cheats' and in the distinction made between the so-called 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor.

The criminalization of poor, racialized people is but one dimension of the way neo-liberal ideology has reshaped our lives. The dismantling of the social state and the erasure of the economic state work in concert with the strengthening of the penal staet to manage poverty in an era of mass joblessness and precarious employment. The intense surveillance of welfare recipients is...part of a broader trend by the state to warehouse, through criminalization and penalization, those who refuse to accept the precarious nature of wage labour. The public campaign against welfare fraud in Ontario is an example of how governments, in an era of neo-liberalism, no longer feel any discomfort in placing blame on targeted groups like immigrants and single mothers for their misfortune. Their poverty is blamed not on structural inequalities of the new marketplace but on their own shortcomings in being unable to overcome the racism and sexism of the marketplace...

People of colour, and in particular women, who are more likely than men to live in poverty and typically have young children to care for, have borne the brunt of these neoliberal policy initiatives. Our book shows that the state fails to help poor people in need of assistance and in fact blames them for their lack of independence and self sufficiency. [89, 92, references in original]

All of this in only 100 pages.

I think there is further experimenting that could be done with volumes like this in terms of the form of the document and the writing, if the goal is popularizing knowledge generated in academic spaces. Still, as it stands this is an important tool -- direct if not exactly easy -- for people on assistance, activists, and others educating themselves about the Canadian welfare state. It is, unfortunately, not easy to find -- if I am remembering correctly from when I was in my last frenzy of book ordering, this one was not only out of print but had to be ordered used from a bookstore in the U.S. But it is knowledge about welfare in Canada in the neoliberal era that you will find few other places.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Long Quote: Indigenous "Self-Government" In Canada

For Aboriginal peoples in Canada, self-government can represent freedom from a long history of oppressive colonial governance: "ever since they were forcibly deprived of self-government by colonial powers, Indians have hoped to reclaim it. An offer of self-government is one they can hardly resist" [Boldt and Long 1988: 47]. The counterfoil, or disciplinary tactic, underlying this particular mode of governance-through-freedom is the threat of the loss or further limitation of what hard-won autonomy First Nations have been "awarded." Therefore, government control of the finances upon which First Nations communities rely is a central mechanism for disciplinary practices. To avoid the disciplinary "whip," First Nations are compelled to structure their governments in a manner that re-creates liberal ideals of limited and accountable government.

Devolutionary processes at the heart of current self-government initiativies can be understood to mould First Nations governments into "municipal-type structures that can be readily slotted into existing federal and provincial systems" [Boldt and Long 1988: 28]. First Nations bands and organizations, having finally won a degree of autonomy from the (post) colonial government, have a vested interest in maintaining and enhancing the current relationship -- despite the difficulties of inadequate support structures and funding. Radical solutions or new experiments in social and political practices are curtailed as emergent structures of First Nations governance increasingly come under the disciplinary and supervisory gaze of the Canadian government.

-- Amie McLean, p. 82, "Colonialism, Resistance and Indigenous Post-Secondary Education in Canada," in Mobilizations, Protests & Engagements: Canadian Perspectives on Social Movements edited by Marie Hammond-Callaghan and Matthew Hayday, Halfiax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008. (Quotes Meno Boldt and J. Anthony Long. 1988. "Native Indian Self-Government: Instrument of Autonomy or Assimilation?" in J. Anthony Long and Menno Boldt, editors, Governments in Conflict? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This Blog's Name

This is a rewrite of the post I wrote when I first changed this blog's title to "A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land." Its basic message remains the same but some of the language has been changed to better reflect my current preferences. I may continue to fine tune it in the future.

When I moved back to Canada, after fifteen months living in Los Angeles, I changed the name of this site to reflect that I was no longer living in the United States of America. I solicited name suggestions on a few occasions, both online and in person. I received some responses, though fewer than I had hoped. After much pondering I decided to go with a suggestion forwarded by rabfish: "A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land."

I like it because there is some continuity with the name that this blog held for the first 15 months of its existence. I also like it because it has multilayered and complex political implications. If I had not started this blog while living abroad, I would not be emphasizing my own Canadianness in the title, so I feel a little funny about leaving it in there now, but I suppose juxtaposing "Canadian" with "Occupied Land" in that way does demonstrate a rootedness in a particular place but an internationalist orientation via the understanding of "occupation" described below.

Anyway, though most of the time and for most of its inhabitants it is not in the same league as sites of active military occupation like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, there are still important ways in which "occupation" is a useful conceptual tool to understand the situation of northern North America. Certainly from an indigenous perspective this land is occupied by a settler state that is historically derived from and is still actively engaged in colonization and cultural genocide. I am a settler and not an indigenous person, of course, but I think any radical politics based in this part of the world has to be rooted in an awareness of that reality -- I'm not saying my political ideas or practice deal with it adequately, but I try, and the title of this blog tries to acknowledge that and keep it at the foreground of my own attention.

As well, there are very real ways that relations of production and state relations in so-called advanced capitalist countries amount to relations of occupation over any territory they encompass and over all people in that territory. In this sense, most of the world is occupied by hostile forces. Particularly in the capitalist heartland, either you are oppressed or you are unavoidably implicated in the oppression of others or both. There is no way to escape this in modern industrial states, no room for an escapist self-determination that lets you wiggle out of the confines of these social relations; only social transformation that liberates us all can liberate any one of us. Though my particular identity is, in most ways, one which the social relations of northern North America and its dominant culture tend to privilege, I am no less embedded in these structures of occupation. Indeed, this makes me both occupier and occupied. And this leads to the idea that occupation is not just a series of structures, a complex of oppressive relations, but it is also the ways in which those structures distort the perception and consciousness of everyone they touch -- they make us believe oppressive lies so deeply that sometimes our gut reactions are still captive even when we think our minds are free. Not only are our geography and our society settings for struggle against this occupation, therefore, but so is our consciousness. And this blog will continue to be a series of notes and thoughts and ramblings from my own journey of struggle against those multiple occupations, as occupied and occupier, both within and without.

Cornell West Interview

Check out this neat interview on Uprising Radio with Cornell West, talking about his new memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Social Policy and Practice in Canada

[Alvin Finkel. Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier Univeristy Press, 2006.]

This is a solid overview of the history of the Canadian welfare state. It targets introductory readers, I think -- it seems to be largely intended as a textbook -- but it does so without the same degree of sacrifice of political sophistication that is often incorrectly understood as the price of accessibility.

The author, Alvin Finkel, is a long-time Canadian academic and editor of Labour/Le Travail, Canada's main labour studies journal. He says of his politics, "While my intellectual influences are eclectic, they begin with Marxism and its emphasis on the struggles among social classes for power" [2].

Finkel has put together a history that is the broadest survey that I've seen of social welfare practices in the territory currently claimed by the Canadian state. He begins with a brief look at the ways in which pre-contact indigenous nations met social needs, which I think is a vital place to start. I would've appreciated a lot more detail in this section, as well as a greater emphasis on the ways in which the sphere we normally associate with the phrase "social welfare" only coheres as a separate entity in the context of capitalist ways of organizing the world. However, just the fact that this section is here pushes social welfare into a different context than the one in which it is usually treated, even on the left. The rest of the book is a chronological examination of the different ways in which the settler society has dealt with social needs -- from the punitive poor laws and private charities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, through the first fumblings towards a welfare state before World War II and the rather more thorough but still partial efforts after World War II, and on to neoliberalism and the elite assault on the post-war achievements around social welfare in Canada.

In each section, attention is given to the various social forces that shaped social welfare practices at that point in history. There is emphasis on the importance of struggle in the gains that were made, in a way that is not monolithic but that evaluates each instance. In the chapters on the heyday of the Canadian welfare state there is a fairly methodical but not paintstakingly dull look at how each major area of the welfare state took shape. There is also a thoroughgoing engagement with the extensive feminist literature on the Canadian welfare state as well as attention to the experiences of indigenous people. You could no doubt ask for sharper feminist and anti-colonial analyses, but the treatment of these issues is serious and substantive, in contrast with much that has been written by the white male left in this area. There is less attention to the experiences of non-indigenous people of colour with the Canadian welfare state, though still some, and considerably less attention to the experiences of people marginalized along the axis of sexuality. The book would also have benefited from a more thorough examination of the ways that global relations of white supremacy (particularly those aspects that have involved centuries of white-dominated European and Euro-American societies draining wealth from the rest of the world) and patriarchal relations (particularly the unpaid, low-status caring and reproductive labour that falls mainly on women and that allows capitalist accumulation to function) were a precondition for Canada and the rest of the West to have enough wealth to build welfare states in the first place.

Of course, however thorough, a book organized as a survey is still a survey, and a textbook is still a textbook. I'm sure different readers would come up with lots of different places where they would like to see more detail or a more thorough presentation of the argument for a particular conclusion. As well, while not neglecting the importance of struggle by ordinary people in presenting its history, the book could have gone further in exploring both vision and possibilities for struggle oriented towards the future. And there were other areas where the emphasis that the text ends up having is arguably more about the form of the book than about the politics of the author. For instance, it certainly doesn't fail to talk about the intrusive and oppressive aspects of many state responses to poverty, but because its mission is to present how X, Y, and Z came to be, that intrusion and oppression comes across as more peripheral to the story than it is to the actual experiences of social assistance recipients. As well, the author clearly is no friend of capitalism, but the very mission of this book means that it chronicles various human activities that are premised on trying to meet human needs in the context of capitalism -- this is important stuff to know about, and certainly I don't subscribe to any clear "reform vs. revolution" dichotomy, but again it functions to make certain political responses to human need in the context of capitalism peripheral to the story when I think there are responses that deserve greater attention (while still, of course, paying lots of attention to struggles that are directly about meeting immediate needs).

Anyway, this is a good place to start in learning about social welfare in the Canadian context, as long as it is supplemented with attention to some of the more detailed and more critical work that is also out there. One of the most important lessons that is more obvious from this long duration history than from many of the narrower works I've looked at is the extent to which the left-liberal and social democratic commonsense of the welfare state as the rule and neoliberalism as a foolish exception is backwards and dangerous. We have to recognize that the period of even a moderately generous welfare state is the exception in the history of capitalism, and the more generalized viciousness of neoliberalism is closer to the historical norm. And we have to orient our responses to neoliberalism accordingly, and not expect some easy transition back into default pseudo-social democracy to save us.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Video: Organizing Working-Class Communities

This is an interesting video of a talk in Toronto by Steve Williams, the co-director of an organization called POWER which is based in working-class communities of colour in San Francisco. Some of what he has to say about organizing in working-class communities made me nod my head enthusiastically, some of it I feel kind of unsure about, but all of it speaks to hard challenges and hard choices that all strands of the left must face in order to emerge from our current irrelevance. And all of it comes from someone intimately involved in one instance of a particular kind of mass-based organization that exists in various U.S. cities and that are doing some of the most effective and interesting radical organizing work in North America right now, so I think it deserves some serious attention.

The talk was organized by the Socialist Project and endorsed by No-one Is Illegal - Toronto, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and the Black Action Defence Committee. This is actually the second part of the event -- it was preceded by a short talk by Sam Gindin, which you can also find here.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Review: Restructuring and Resistance

[Mike Burke, Colin Mooers, and John Shields, editors. Restructuring and Resistance: Canadian Public Policy in an age of Global Capitalism. Halifax: Fernwood Books, 2000.]

I've had a strangely conflicted reaction to this book.

It's a collection of essays talking about neoliberal restructuring in Canada in the late 1990s. Whenever I'm reading a collection, I begin from the assumption that I will like some pieces and not others. And, indeed, there were a handful of the essays in this book that I thought were really interesting and useful. I liked Alan Sears' piece on education reform under the Harris Tories in Ontario. I appreciated the pieces on different aspects of resistance to neoliberalism by David McNally, Susan Ferguson, Anver Saloojee, and David Camfield. McNally's piece against left nationalism and in favour of both anti-racism and internationalism in the labour movement resonated with my feelings about the current strike in Sudbury. I have some questions about her use of the category of "social citizenship," but Ferguson's discussion of how left feminists should relate to the attack on the welfare state raised a lot of important issues. Saloojee's nuanced but critical look at employment equity from a left anti-racist perspective is also useful because it challenges both uncritical embrace of certain kinds of reforms that can derail broader change while also challenging the kneejerk after-the-revolution response sometimes found on the (white) radical left. And having come of political age in the era of the fightback against the Harris Tories, I have my own take on the how that struggle unfolded which overlaps with but isn't the same as Camfield's, but his is certainly worth reading.

More than that, I think the collection as a whole is a useful survey of the neoliberal shift in Canada, and that's an important thing. I might take issue with some of the ways that it does so, but it covers a lot of relevant ground and provides plenty of material that is important in its own right and that could easily be reworked in ways more to my taste. And, really, I should be totally used to reading books that I have mixed feelings about -- I do it all the time, and I think it should actually be a signal to us that we need to pay closer attention when we don't have some positive elements and some negative elements in how we react to a given text.

But for some reason, much of this book irritated me. I think a lot of that had to do with the particular kinds of academic discourse that fill its pages. It is a mix, certainly, but it is pretty heavy on the political science and political economy. In general, I think there is lots to be learned from those approaches, but lots of problems with them too. Often I think that the good stuff they have to offer would be even better if presented in a different way, a different context. And for some reason I just had a low tolerance in this book for being drawn back to particular academic disputes that I know are not pointless (because elite discourse can be an important if ever-partial arena to engage in struggle) but that sometimes feel pretty pointless to me.

For instance, I'm sure it's useful for Stephen McBride to lay out the flaws with human capital theory as a way to understand labour markets -- we need tools to take apart the arguments of our opponents. But I already know that I have serious political objections to human capital theory and I have no immediate need of technical arguments about its errrors. Or take Gregory Inwood's essay on the social union that was negotiated among the federal and provincial governments in the '90s and what it means for the evolution of Canadian federalism. I certainly learned from that -- I learned some about the history of Canadian federalism, and I learned about the social union, which I have been shockingly vague on despite being around and supposedly paying attention when it was happening. But that essay's way of talking about Canadian federalism, which I think is based in political science, is all bound up in discourse that makes it harder to see how state relations actually function and how they integrate with social relations more broadly, and that give a sort of "state's eye view" of things. Or take the collaborative essay examining competing analyses of globalization. While that essay, and the larger literature of which it is a part and of which I have only read very tiny bits and pieces, is useful in that it talks about the actual nuts and bolts of what has happened under the label "globalization," I don't actually find either of the main contenders in the debate to be very satisfying. That is, "weak globalization theory" and "strong globalization theory" argue about what states have become and why in the current era, but (echoing a point I first read in a book by Nandita Sharma) both of them buy into the same set of myths about how state relations under capitalism have functioned historically. And that makes an essay organized around the debate between the two feel less than satisfying.

Another possibility is that my grumpiness around this book has more to do with my own process than it has to do with the book itself. In almost every chapter I've written for my own book, my initial wave of reading for said chapter has reached a point where I've felt I really should be done the reading and on to writing of a more focused sort but I still have some reading to go, and that always sets me on edge. I am at that point now. So it's possible this review might have been more glowing if this book had been at the top of the pile instead of near the bottom.

In any case, if you are looking to learn about the neoliberal shift in Canada, particularly the key moment of the mid- to late-1990s, this is a useful book.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Justice and Freedom for John Moore

I have written before on this site about the case of John Moore, an Ojibway man from Serpent River First Nation who now lives in Sudbury, Ontario, and who has been fighting for decades against an unjust second degree murder conviction.

In the last six or eight months, a more sustained sort of committee has formed to support John in his struggles for justice. The committee is called Justice and Freedom for John Moore.

John is ultimately seeking a full exoneration. However, as an interim step, he has been asking the federal Justice Department for a review of his conviction. The law under which he was convicted was ruled unconstitutional in the late '80s in another case. The only demonstrated justification for the ten years he spent in Millhaven Penitentiary and for the ongoing judicial regulation of his life through the parole system is that he spent some time with two men and it was ruled that he should have known that they were going to commit murder later that day. He was convicted despite not being present when the crime was committed, something that would not happen under today's laws.

To support John's efforts to obtain a review of his conviction, we are circulating a one-paragraph statement that we are asking organizations and prominent individuals to sign on to. John has had lots of supporters in Sudbury for a long time, but the stonewalling of the federal government will only be overcome if we can show that people from coast to coast to coast care about justice and freedom, and will not stand by as yet another indigenous pereson suffers from the racism in Canada's judicial system.

For more information on John's situation, see the committee's new site. In particular, check out the statement that we are asking organizations and prominent individuals to sign on to, as well as the list of preliminary signers. Initial signers include Glenn Thibeault, our local Member of Parliament; the Aboriginal Peoples Alliance of Northern Ontario; the Sudbury and District Labour Council; renowned indigenous and feminist activist/author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.

"What can I do?" I hear you asking. A very good question. The first thing is learn more about John's situation. If you are a blogger or a twitterer or on a relevant email list or in some other way a circulator of information, you might want to pass this request along. If you think your name, your position, or your accomplishments are something that might make Conservative politicians and jaded bureaucrats say, "Uh-oh, this is maybe something we should listen to," then sign on to endorse the statement as an individual. If you belong to a group or an organization -- especially some sort of activist grouping or trade union -- you could take the information on the site and the statement and get your organization to endorse it. Or you could do all of these things.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review: Women's Caring

[Carol T. Baines, Patricia M. Evans, and Sheila M. Neysmith, editors. Women's Caring: Feminist Perspectives on Social Welfare. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998.]

Often when I am brought face to face with some major something that I have consistently failed to consider in my thinking, talking, writing, acting in the world, I get a kind of aghast sense of vertigo. I think that's pretty common. And, of course, the experience of missing politically important stuff is something that happens to all of us on a regular basis no matter how careful, thoughtful, and experienced we might be, so figuring out practices to channel that vertigo into learning rather than into defensiveness and denial is pretty crucial. I'm still working on that.

Now, I think that part of what is hard about such moments is that they always indicate something about ourselves that we have been blind to, not just something out in the world, and I think that the tendency to see only the aspects that are "out there" is one that we need to work against. Nonetheless, some such moments are more surprising, in retrospect, than others because of the kind or amount of our own experience that we are revealed to have been trained into not seeing, not questioning, not knowing, not understanding.

I have been feeling a bit shocked at the ways in which two other recent books plus this one have revealed to me how underdeveloped my understanding of the social organization of caring and reproductive labour has been. Part of why it has taken me by surprise is that it is far from something I have never thought about before. On the contrary, I've thought about it a lot and understood myself to have a decent analysis of the relationship between those kinds of labour and gender. For the last half dozen years or so, partially because of the respective character of my own and my partner's participation in other kinds of labour and partially out of a sense of political responsibility for challenging the patriarchal organization of caring/reproductive labour in whatever small ways that can be done at the level of the individual relationship, I've done a little more of it than the average for men in this particular time and place. The choice to do this was based on thinking about it. The doing of it forced me to think about it more and differently. And one consequence of privilege associated with masculinity is that taking on such labour is more visible than when women do it. For one thing, this means it is more likely to be seen as labour and as notable by others than when women do it, which results in occasional instances of infuriating disapproval or, more frequently, personally discomfiting and politically inappropriate praise for doing things that we should all do just as part of being human. Of more relevance to the point I'm making here, it has also been more visible to me in certain respects, I think, than to at least some women who do the same (plus, often, much more) because the expectation of doing it wasn't trained into me as I grew up, and I still have to wrestle with moments of resentment that sometimes have quite a gendered character.

Despite all of this, after reading those other two books plus this one I feel that however much I had reflected on reproductive/caring labour and gender at the interpersonal level, and despite some awareness of some of the key points feminists have made on the topic, my understanding of its scope and significance at the social level had been lacking. These books have given me a much deeper and more textured appreciation of points that I know feminists have been making for many years. For instance, the sheer magnitude of caring/reproductive labour that is necessary for society to function seems like an obvious point, perhaps, but it is easy to gloss over it without appreciating its true significance. I have also been pushed to build a clearer picture of the extent to which it makes no sense at all to talk about shifts in relations of production -- whether the real-world shifts of neoliberalism and resistance to them, or visions for the just and liberatory future we desire -- without making reproductive/caring labour not just an add-on but integral to the discussion. (It has also become clearer to me that the failure to do this by broad swathes of the left is yet another aspect of our failure to wrestle with the ways in which we continue to be trapped in the reified and separated ways of understanding the world grounded in capitalism, patriarchy, and other relations of domination.)

Women's Caring is itself a rather unprepossessing book, a collection of essays coming out of Canadian feminist academia. It actually shares an editor with one of my other recent reads and, like that volume, was released in the few years after the most intense point of the neoliberal assault in Canada in 1995. Its focus on caring labour (with some attention to social policy) rather than social policy (with some attention to caring labour) made it feel quite a bit more interesting to me, though, even if its relevance to the chapter I'm writing at the moment is considerably less. Essays in the book talk about caring labour and neoliberalism, caring and "women's professions," caring labour in the lives of South Asian women in Canada, care and abusive relationships, child welfare, child care, and live-in caregivers. I found the chapters that outlined the connection between caring labour and violence against women, and between caring labour and women's disproportionate experience of poverty, to be particularly powerful.

Perhaps the most affecting essay in the book for me was Marge Reitsma-Street's "Still Girls Learn To Care: Girls Policed To Care." The original research in this chapter was a series of interviews that Reitsma-Street did with pairs of sisters, one of whom had been labelled "delinquent" by child welfare authorities and the courts and the other who had not. She interprets this research in light of the literature around socialization into caring-focused roles. She talks about the ways in which "girls learn to care in certain prescribed ways and to bear the costs of caring, and they are also policed to care and to bear the costs... they are pressured subtly and coercively to care for others in particular ways, especially for boyfriends, fathers, and children, more than for themselves" [87, emphasis in original].

One challenging feature of the book was that it felt kind of pessimistic to me. I don't know whether that came more from what I brought to the reading or if it was actually a thread running through the text, perhaps due to the moment in which this book was published -- I'm sure many of the women who wrote it felt like decades of their hard work to bring feminist reforms were being torn apart by neoliberalism. Part of it, though, is undoubtedly because it is an area with no easy answers.

For instance, the last chapter I wrote in my own book was in part about struggles by a particular indigenous community against the decades of colonial predation by child welfare authorities, and I think it is crucial to support efforts that resist the way that child welfare functions as an excuse for state attacks on racialized and poor families. At the same time, one of the essays in this book makes the excellent point that resisting intrusion by child welfare authorities in a context dominated by neoliberalism can function in some situations to support the neoliberal drive to reprivatize the nuclear family in ways that make it harder to talk in politicized ways about some of the violence that shapes the lives of many women and children.

Similarly, a number of the essays challenge a number of different kinds of assumptions that pop up in various strands of left thought around better ways to organize caring. For instance, my gut reaction tends to be skeptical about professionalized forms of caring and to favour caring in the context of already-existing personal connections. Yet these essays challenge the idea that professionalized caring-for labour is inherently inferior. While also pointing out lots of instances where it doesn't fit either. It depends a lot on context and preference.

I also tend, in a related but not identical inclination, to react in my tummy in favour of non-market, non-state organization of caring. The essays point out, though, that caring labour organized in non-market, non-state ways often translates into more unpaid work for already overburdened women. Governments often frame cuts to institutional care of various sorts as a turn to "community care," but almost invariably the resources made available are so inadequate that mostly that translates into "family care" which in turn mostly depends on unpaid labour by women. In the real world there are no pure or simple options, and at the moment not even any experiments in organizing caring labour that remotely approaches the scale of the need other than state and market relations. The questions are complicated and immense, need is immediate and ongoing, and "after the revolution" is simply not a meaningful answer.

That said, I think perhaps one key to begin getting a grip on these questions is to get out of the social democratic tendency to think of questions of caring labour as something that can be addressed by services, and recognize that reorganizing caring can't be separated from reconfiguring social relations more generally. That, somehow, makes it a little easier for me to reenter questions of "what do we do now" in ways that feel more hopeful. Read with that in mind, the final essay in the book makes some interestisng steps to thinking about caring labour in new ways, though I think there might be lots of ways to push that farther. For me, that means escaping the tendency exhibited in some of these essays to take "state" and "market" and "other" (or what I have been calling "non-state, non-market") as inevitable and static in their character. Rather, part of overall projects for radical social change means starting from how these apparently disparate spheres of life exist now and pushing their logic and organization to change. That is, not only do we push for caring labour to be reshuffled between these spheres in ways that are more tailored to people's needs, we also push them to work in ways that look more like what we want. Most plausibly, I think that means social democratic supports for caring labour that push the boundaries of collectivity and local participatory democratic control, and non-market, non-state experiments that are of significant size and that effectively challenge the gendered impacts of caring in how they work. Admittedly, it's hard to imagine how either of those could happen any time soon in the context of Sudbury in neoliberal Canada, but they don't feel impossible or impractical.

In practice, among other things, that means being open to micro-scale alternatives in the here and now. It means challenging men, and the training we receive not to engage in caring labour, as well as challenging the highly disciplinary ways in which young women are trained towards very specific ways of engaging in caring labour. It means defending the remnants of social democracy but from a critical left position. It means resistin both mainstream and left moralizing about how caring labour "should" happen. And it means challenging assumptions about how employment has to be organized. These things are not sufficient to bring about a just and liberatory reorganization of caring labour, but they seem to me to be some key places where our urge to do so hooks into practical issues that are produced by how caring labour is currently organized.

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