Revolt of the Subalterns [1]

Simmering beneath the surface and making waves, yet largely ignored by politicians: the discontent of those providing care – paid or unpaid – is turning into resistance.

In Germany, the Care Revolution has been a subject of discussion for some time. In March 2014, over 500 politically active people met for their first action conference on this topic; the participants are involved with initiatives or work in various fields relating to social reproduction (health, care, assistance, education, training, housing, domestic and sex work). These initiatives have developed into a broad network (, which is pushing for fundamental change and a move toward needs-oriented models for social infrastructure and collective ways of living. The view is that a political discussion on the Care Revolution could open up a new direction in the debate about socialist visions.

Who cares?

How care should be split between paid and unpaid work and how such unpaid work should be shared between men and women is the subject of intense debate, at many levels. “Patients are no longer receiving comprehensive care within health systems, with the gaps having to be filled by family carers.  Learning can no longer be achieved when classes are overflowing and teaching personnel overwhelmed, so families have to act as tutors. Elaborate time management is essential if those providing care are to have any chance of coping with the various tasks confronting them and such precarious systems often break down,” writes co-founder of the Feministischen Instituts Hamburg (Feminist Institute Hamburg), Professor Gabriele Winker in her book “Care Revolution” [2]. This book was presented at the congress “The strength of Critique: Trajectories of Marxism-Feminism” at the end of March in Berlin, which was jointly organised by the feminist section of InkriT (the Berlin Institute of Critical Theory) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, with support from transform! europe. “What appears to be individual failure to meet day-to-day demands, is actually the consequence of neo-liberal crisis management.” What is needed is a “fundamental change of perspective, a Care Revolution and a culture of togetherness and solidarity,” says Winker.
At the Marxist feminist congress, discussions on care became part of a wider debate. Presentations and workshops focussed on the crisis in reproductive labour: a crisis which is deepening due to wage stagnation, unemployment, the dismantling of social systems, stress and the relocation of care work to the invisible, personal sphere. Based on the history of the oppression of women, Frigga Haug has developed the thesis in her introduction: Gender relations are production relations. The production of life should be seen as part of production relations. The point would be to emancipate the fields of commercial food production and social reproduction, which is organised between the personal sphere and the state, from its place in a capitalistic hierarchy; also, self-development and political action should be augmented given that every individual should have an equal entitlement to these and equal rights, according to Haug, who set out this approach in her Vier-in-einem-Perspektive (Four-in-One Perspective, 2008).

Neo-liberal crisis management

Those parts of the economy which create high added value, and are thus of interest to capital, stand in contrast to those which create little added value, such as the care economy and which, as a result, are left to personal initiatives or the state. Activities carried out by the state sector are financed through tax and duties. In other words: the state siphons off a portion of profit and wages in order to make it possible for care work to be undertaken within an institutional framework (nurseries, schools, hospitals and care homes). This means that state austerity policies have a more-or-less direct impact upon the quantity and quality of this care work. The catastrophic effects of austerity can be observed from the example of Greece. “More stillbirths, new HIV infections, cases of tuberculosis and depression, as well as suicide: according to one study, these are the devastating effects of drastic austerity in Greece. One aid organisation has spoken of outright violation of human dignity.” 800,000 Greeks have no health insurance; the suicide rate has risen 45 per cent within four years” (spiegel-online, 22.2.2014).
“In contrast to paid-for work, reproductive labour has played no role in political action as yet. The present political system is almost entirely focussed on getting the profit-making machine up and running again, with growth of any kind. The vital interests of many citizens are not being taken seriously,“ says Gabriele Winker.

Network of resistance

As at networking events such as that in Hannover at the end of March this year on combined resistance, campaign planning, input on strikes in social and education professions, or using the first of May to honour “invisible work”, there is a spirit of opposition growing in Austria as well as elsewhere. Under the slogan “CaREvolution”, an initiative has been set up in Salzburg calling for better pay for nursing staff. The initial motive for this initiative was the EU rules on working hours, according to which workers cannot be expected to work for more than 48 hours a week or 13 hours at once. That provoked opposition from doctors due to the salary cuts caused by a reduction in overtime and extra pay. Their protests were successful and resulted in a 30 per cent increase in salary, which the Austrian region of Salzburg financed to the tune of € 13.5 million.
Qualified nurse and member of the works council for the Salzburgerland region health clinics, Fabian Dworzak commented, “There’s an Austria Act on Working Time in Hospitals, but no act on working time for doctors.“Without overtime and extra pay, under the new Act on Working Time, nursing staff will face a pay cut of up to € 500 to salaries which were already meagre to begin with (€ 1545 before tax, € 1182.99 after tax, representing average net pay of € 8.28). In a region of Austria with a high cost of living, that is unacceptable: a 30 per cent salary increase is also being called for in the nursing sector. Christine Vierhauser, chair of the central works council, is supporting this demand, as are parts of the medical community.
The regional government is maintaining a strategic silence. However, “the regional government should note that nursing staff are in a position to bring hospitals to a standstill,” pointed out Dworzak in an interview with Salzburg24. The situation has already inspired resistance in the region of Upper Austria under the slogan “Operation Menschlichkeit” (Operation Humanity) and healthcare facilities in Tyrol, Vorarlberg and the Vienna Hospital Association have expressed solidarity.

[1] Antonio Gramsci with subalternity, he described social groups who are denied access to sections of society. Subaltern strata of society are highly restricted in terms of opportunity, political interests and in gaining awareness of their potential political strength and in articulating themselves politically and publically, due to hegemonic structures and the dominance of other sections of society.
[2] Gabriele Winker: Care Revolution. Schritte in eine solidarische Gesellschaft (Steps toward a society of solidarity). (transcript) X-Texte, transcript Verlag Bielefeld, 2015.