Crises of care, COVID-19, and the Carceral State

As these words are put to page the world remains in the throes of the corona- virus pandemic amidst renewed calls for increased social spending in light of the pandemic and for social and economic justice more broadly. The pandemic has intensified the ongoing crisis of care/social reproduction in late capitalism and lays bare, perhaps for the first time for some, the contradiction in capitalism between profit and “life-making,” (Bhattacharya 2020b). At the heart of this contradiction is that while capital depends on workers to produce commodities (hence the present calls for people to get back to work), as Tithi Bhattacharya (2020a) points out it is a reluctant dependence. On the one hand capital must ensure workers’ biological and social reproduction not only tomorrow but into the future as well, but on the other the profit motive necessitates that capital constantly push in the opposite direction such that all the paid and unpaid labour of reproducing workers daily and generationally is devalued and taxes kept low so that the institutions that support these activities remain underfunded, and/ or under threat of partial or outright privatization. The reluctant dependence of this contradiction is summed up well by Wendy Brown (2015, pp. 104—105) who argues that the paid and unpaid, affective and material labour of social reproduction—mostly performed by (often racialized) women—acts as “the unavowed glue for a world whose governing principle cannot hold it together.” COVID-19 has only brought the capitalist crisis of care and social reproduction into sharper relief, both in the pandemic’s effects even more clearly exposing how capitalism differentiallwy values some labouring bodies over others and as state responses to the pandemic disproportionately benefit capital.

Pandemic, crisis, and social reproduction

Some might argue that the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is different, that it is caused by a virus that does not discriminate between human beings, and that we are all in this together. This virus and the disease it causes start in the biological realm to be sure, but as Rob Wallace (2016) and Mike Davis (2006; 2020) have pointed out, the recent increase of health threats from the human- animal-ecosystems interface (HAEI) in the form of zoonotic diseases (zoonoses) cannot be understood without considering contemporary capitalism and industrial agriculture, and land use change in particular. Thus, in both its origins and in its transmission, as Kim Moody’s (2020) work on global supply chains has shown, COVID-19 is tightly bound up with the social relations through which contemporary capitalism organizes the production and reproduction of life on planet earth. But, as SRT makes vividly clear, it is in the virus’ impact, and our response to it that it is most apparently and deeply integrated with the inequitable social relations by which our political economy is organized, none the more so than in the realm of social reproduction.

There is indeed no end to the examples we can refer to which demonstrate the uneven impact of the pandemic and the distribution of its effects according to pre-existing, and now amplified inequities or those newly emergent. We only need to look at the statistics on those most affected by the virus which, even in a relatively equitable country like Canada, are heavily skewed towards working class people of colour and, though the virus seems to have more serious effects on men once they are infected, women make up a greater share of cases given their over representation in care and other essential work (Fraser 2017). When we look elsewhere, to countries in the North with higher inequality, and to the South the picture is even more bleak. As diametrically opposed organizations as Oxfam (Jacobs and Lawson 2020) and the World Bank (Lakner et al. 2020) both argue— with important differences in their analysis, conclusion and policy prescriptions of course—that the impact of COVID-19 on poverty and inequality in the South will be devastating. For example, in the face of years of the hollowing out of the public provision of water, sanitation, and health, in the absence of adequate or any savings at all amidst stagnating wage growth, massive unemployment, and/ or precarious work worsened by the pandemic, and skyrocketing household debt, Oxfam (Jacobs and Lawson 2020) estimates that half a billion people risk falling into poverty in developing countries alone (See Sumner, Ortiz-Juarez and Hoy 2020 for further analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on poverty and inequality).

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