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In a fascinating discussion between Gary Gutting and Nancy Fraser on nytimes.com* we are reminded that the success of a woman like Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook is really only a partial win for feminism but a total win for capitalism. In other words, to define successfully breaking the glass ceiling for women in corporate America as any sort of pinnacle in feminist achievement can also be seen as a capitulation to the profit motive as the ultimate signifier of success. As Nancy Fraser points out, success within existing social hierarchies does nothing to overcome those hierarchies. Another way to put this is that corporate success does nothing good for anyone but the individuals who personally achieve it. I am reminded of my college days in reading this feminist takedown of capitalism, understanding that the fundamental flaw in capitalism is the value of production over reproduction and the myriad ways in which this plays out.
The reason that doing good for, caring for, other people is so financially devalued in our society has its roots in the unpaid, ‘nonproductive’ labor of women throughout history. Men earned money by doing work. Women earned nothing by caring for children and households, which was defined as ‘not-work’ due to some conception that caring for children was the nature of women. If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life, as they say. Caring is devalued because it is not seen as work. Caring for people is only financially productive in the sense that it saves money elsewhere. If we provide onsite nursing care, for example, we have less frequent, costly hospital visits. Providing care-based services can only be justified on a policy level based on costing less than not providing it.
The caring professions not only don’t pay well, they actually don’t technically exist at all. Take my profession, social work, as an example. Social workers care for their clients, sometimes deeply and intelligently. But this is not what they are paid to do. They are paid to provide linkages and measured treatments. The caring is a free side benefit. I would argue vehemently that going above and beyond the minimal requirements of our jobs (linkages and interventions) is where the value comes in for both worker and client. All the good social workers I know know this intrinsically. But if you look at our job descriptions, providing ‘care’, in the sense of human warmth, compassion, mutual appreciation, is not part of our paycheck. One way this plays out, tragically, is that many of the best clinicians I know, the most compasionate, also tend to be not so good at billing. Capitalism has infused every aspect of our lives, so to the agency for which this person works, he or she is ‘not pulling their weight’ and is not a good worker.
So what should we do? Since caring for people is never going to be financially profitable in the sense of productivity, the most promising source for growth in this economic sector would need to come from our government. Pure capitalism promotes purely self-interested behavior. We can harness the best aspects of capitalism by tempering its negative side effects with strong social policies and a safety net for those that don’t succeed in its games.
Even if we stick with purely economic arguments, providing more care to more people, and paying more people to provide care, is actually a great way to redistribute wealth without having to call it welfare. Ford knew that he had to pay his workers enough so they could also be consumers of his products. As self-interested as this thought is, it ends up benefiting all involved. Yet it is a closed system, in that the hierarchy remains exactly the same. The push for a $15 an hour minimum wage is an excellent example. It will give people that have jobs way more buying power and will improve their quality of life. But spending the money we earn maintains the hierarchy. Maybe we should all just take a year off.