Reimagining the Mainstream
The 2020 coronavirus epidemic came into our lives as a shock, but in view of the political choices the states had made under neoliberal hegemony it was not all that unexpected. In recent decades, fiscal retrenchment and privatization policies have systematically dismantled state capacity in a way that compromised social well-being and human security while endangering the planet.
The pandemic revealed how interconnected the community of states are and the urgency for a collective response to common problems. Ironically, it also emboldened the proponents of domestic self-sufficiency. Therefore, the legacy of Covid-19 for global cooperation is likely to be complex and manifold.
The gendered impact of the current crisis provides a forceful entry point to probe into the pandemic’s likely effects. Much has been written on the adverse outcomes of the pandemic on women, focusing largely on the disproportionality in shouldering its burden. I would like to deviate from this popular discourse and argue that gendered outcomes of the current crisis are not merely a matter of relative discrepancy between women and men but rather, that it is of a systemic and structural nature. Gender relations are embedded in the patriarchal division of labor, which designates women to caregiver and men to breadwinner roles. The breadwinner norm has been the organizational rationale of mainstream economy and governance, with care as its subsidiary.
As the pandemic disrupted this mainstream system, the world of work and the public sphere are now in disarray, fueling two interrelated trends with profound implications for gender equality as well as international relations: (i) care crisis, and (ii) securitization
According to economists, the current recession is unusual and distinctly different in its employment affects compared to previous economic downturns, which were either ‘mancessions‘ or affected men and women more or less equally. Male dominated industries such as manufacturing and construction are closely tied to economic cycles,
whereas service-related sectors, dominated by women, are normally less cyclical. The current crisis hit these less cyclical jobs the most, causing a sharp decline in women’s employment, while at the same time women remained overrepresented in essential jobs at the frontlines of the struggle against the virus (e.g. over 70 % of health workers are women).
Since the start of the pandemic, as market economy slowed down, the demand for care labor – both paid and unpaid – intensified. The less the state could provide, the more had to come from households and communities in coping with the pandemic, creating an explosion of care crisis.
Care economy has long been in crisis, but its appropriation of daily life on a global scale is a consequence of the current pandemic. Total care labor associated with reproductive work constitutes a huge slice of economic activity. Paid care work comprises 11.5 % of the global workforce, and two- thirds of the workers are women (ILO). Unpaid care work accounts for around 16.4 billion hours a day, equivalent to 2 billion jobs, and again over three-quarters of these are performed by women and girls.
Yet, care work is massively undervalued; its unpaid component is invisible and excluded in conventional measures of economic activity such as GDP. Paid care work, on the other hand, is stereotyped as feminine, thus enabling the recruitment of low wage, flexible, easily disposable and replaceable labor. Feminists had long identified the devaluation of care work as the source of women’s subordination and exploitation. ‘Wage for housework’ campaigns that began in Italy in 1972 were followed by other invaluable initiatives to give visibility to care labor. However, these did not go beyond fragmented policies and practices, and care work remained largely in the shadows of domestic life.
Italian feminist Sylvia Federici had warned about the dangers of devaluing care work over 30 years ago, noting that it would eventually materialize into a crisis too big to ignore. The pandemic with its disruption of mainstream public life has indeed made this reality too big to ignore: the crisis in care economy has come into the limelight.
Mainstream breadwinner model
The mainstream economy based on the male breadwinner model has undergone considerable change over the years. As a result of socio-economic transformations and women’s rights movements globally, women integrated into the labor market in increasing numbers. Indicators of gender equality measured by gender balance in employment and in decision-making positions became policy goals for states and international organizations. For middle class and affluent women this meant outsourcing their care and household responsibilities to less advantaged women. The women of lower classes had long been a source of cheap labor in factories and menial jobs.
As lockdowns disrupted the on-site activities of educational and commercial sectors, the bulk of the tasks have been transferred to the modern family, making it a collision zone of irreconcilable demands, multiple forms of production, exploitation and abuse. The demarcation of traditional binaries of public/private, domestic/professional, paid/unpaid labor became blurred. Under Covid-19 the new divider is confinement, determined by whether jobs could be performed remotely or not and compulsory stay home policies.
Confinement created multiple hardships and vulnerabilities especially for overcrowded households and those with no access to outdoor space, technology and secure incomes. In countries where government support packages were meager, the very survival of the disadvantaged groups became an acute challenge. Policy responses to the pandemic deepened existing inequalities and created new ones, erupting in social pathologies, such as suicides, generalized violence, etc.
Middle class professional women, after years of relative success in integrating into mainstream public life and struggling to break the glass ceiling, found themselves once more confined to the home where again they were the primary providers of care and housework – affecting even those who thought they had gone beyond that. With the rude awakening came many questions: were the advances of the past decades in women’s rights simply illusionary? / has the mainstream patriarchal division of labor remained intact? / are we women back where we started?
At another level, like other economic crises throughout history, the current pandemic stoked nationalist sentiments and a push for securitization, already a rising trend since the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers. Covid-19, provided socio-economic interests predisposed towards nationalist narratives a fertile ground to close borders and apply export restrictions on critical medical supplies and essential foods.
Authoritarian governments were quick to seize the opportunity to advance their conservative agendas, instrumentalizing the pandemic to crackdown on rights and liberties – women’s rights often at the forefront of their transgressions. In this respect, many governments adopted strict abortion laws, outlawed protests, promoted pro-family ideologies and defamed universal human rights standards as alien to domestic culture and religion. The debates around the Istanbul Convention and Turkey’s eventual withdrawal from it is illustrative, with Poland possibly next in line.
The growing skepticism towards international law and inter-governmental institutions has driven multilateralism into a crisis. The new authoritarianism blames the ills of the current pandemic on foreign influences and norms imposed from outside, including international dependencies that they aim to correct by emphasizing securitization, nationalist solutions and hard borders. Paradoxically, these very governments displayed little success in effectively responding to the health and socio-economic needs arising from coronavirus pandemic.
The life-threatening risks of Covid-19, combined with lockdowns, increased domestic responsibilities and repressive state policies, pushed women back into confinement and restricted the activism of women’s organizations in confronting gendered violence and human rights violations. The good news is that women’s organizations proved to be resilient as they used the internet innovatively to broaden their solidarity networks at a multitude of levels, ranging from the local to the global.
Intersections of care crisis and securitization
The Covid-19 outbreak laid bare the fragility of the mainstream public/private dichotomy and exposed care labor as the essential ingredient of life, without which families, societies and economies cannot function. Historically, the household has always been the provider of last resort – with women’s unpaid labor absorbing the burden imposed upon it, all the while working at jobs that typically pay less than those of men.
Women’s unpaid and paid care labor is essential for the market, the state and the patriarchal gender regime, a fact that explains why women need to be kept in their place, whether by consent or by force. However, as evidenced by years of women’s rights struggles and the more recent waves of feminist strikes across the globe, women are no longer willing to be capitalism’s shock absorber and submit to a preordained caregiver role. Furthermore, fertility levels are falling and household size is shrinking, signaling a chronic care labor deficit. Policy incentives for high birthrates, flexible work arrangements, sharing of care responsibilities by couples or invention of smart robots are falling short of promising a viable and sustainable solution.
The populist backlash and conservative gender policies are desperate efforts to restore the conventional patriarchal order that is destabilized; its sustenance now requires greater repression and violence.
In this sense, patriarchy and capitalism are facing their most manifest challenge today, putting the ‘civilized’ world at a crossroad. Unless the mainstream is democratized and the care crisis is resolved once and for all, authoritarian populist trends are likely to thrive, endangering international cooperation and multilateral diplomacy.
Care can no longer be perceived as a private concern and the exclusive preoccupation of the essentialized female. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift from the mainstream male breadwinner model towards a care-based model as the organizational principle of the state, economy and the international system. This means treating care not as a commodity but as an ethical value that can effectively negate the carelessness towards people and the planet.
It remains to be seen how and in what direction relations of power and interests will unfold in the aftermath of the pandemic. Though some observers have declared the end of neoliberalism, it might still survive with minor concessions and the new normal will basically be a return to business as usual, care remaining in the margins. Alternatively, the securitization approach, while proven to be ineffective in the management of Covid-19, may continue to dominate the global political landscape, and lead the world towards conditions reminiscent of the Cold War era.
However, given the multiple crises unleashed by the pandemic, a more positive prognosis is a likely tilt towards affirmative politics that promotes collective welfare over profits and care over exploitation of people and nature. The call for reimagining the mainstream with social policies that prioritize and invest in care might be more attainable today than ever before. That alone will enable us to bring about a just reorganization of production and reproduction, and to overcome the structural and systemic inequalities we face today at the local, national and the international levels.