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IV. Policy and the Design of Institutions

Care as Work: The Exploitation of Caring Attitudes and Emotional Labor

Introduction: Care, Value, and Work

Care is a great good. It is also a source of special vulnerabilities, especially as a form of labor, both paid and unpaid. How can liberalism address these complexities of caring relations, particularly when vulnerabilities of care arise from apparently free choices?

Care is a special case of the problem of exploitation, of one class appropriating the products of the labor of others to the detriment of the workers. One classic Marxist criticism of liberalism is that liberalism cannot explain the injustice of exploitation. If workers choose to work, it appears that liberalism must respect the terms on which they choose to work - never mind that choice, in this context, is illusory or not morally meaningful. Catharine MacKinnon famously applied this analysis to women’s subordination (MacKinnon 1987, 60). Not only do women make choices in a context of limited options and social and economic pressures, women come to want what is not in their self-interest through gender socialization. For example, women come to eroticize the submissiveness associated with femininity in patriarchy. On MacKinnon’s analysis, men and women are classes parallel to the classes of capitalists and proletariats in Marxism, with men exploiting women’s sexuality. What if such an analysis also applies to care - that is, that limited options and social and economic pressures shape women’s caregiving choices and that gender socialization leads women to value care, against their own interests, facilitating their exploitation?

This might seem wrong-headed. After all, as noted at the outset, caring and being cared for are great goods and so appear to be in people’s interests. Indeed, caregiving is a source of self-esteem and of pleasure for many women. But like sexuality, caregiving and caring are shaped by limited options, social pressures, and gender socialization.

Before proceeding, we should distinguish three types of care. “Care” can refer to material caretaking - taking care of physical and material needs. Care can also refer to emotional caring labor or emotional support. A third kind of care is attitudinal care, or subjectively experienced benevolent attention and concern. Both material caretaking and emotional labor can take place independently of attitudinal caring, as when performed by a stranger. Attitudinally caring relationships conceptually need not involve material caretaking or emotional labor, but usually do. My argument concerns all three distinct kinds of care, distinguishing between them as needed. For brevity, I will refer to attitudinally caring relationships as “caring relationships” in this chapter, although “caring relationships” could also refer to relationships of material or emotional caregiving lacking attitudinal care.

In this chapter, I will provide a liberal analysis of the exploitation of women’s care. Women provide more material care for children, the elderly, and for material needs in the home, and this inequitable distribution of labor has long been a cause of concern for feminists (Okin 1989; Brake 2016). But the exploitation of material caregiving labor within the household, through the gendered division of labor, is only part of this analysis. I want to extend the analysis, more controversially, to the less- recognized division of emotional labor and to the formation of caring attitudes themselves. Women are socialized to perform emotional labor - maintaining relationships, attending to feelings - and to identify themselves with caregiving roles, more so than men. Women, more so than men, are socialized to care and to base their identities on caring (Bartky 1990, 99-119). This asymmetry is crucial to the exploitation of care, just as the construction of gendered desire is crucial to the exploitation of sexuality on MacKinnon’s analysis.

Because care and caring relationships are goods, it may be difficult to see the harm in the gendered inculcation of caring attitudes - more difficult than in the case of gendered sexual desire. Indeed, if men’s socialization to be less caring deprives them of caring relationships, they are harmed by virtue of this socialization. But this may be true while it is also true that the disparity in caregiving - where one group is socialized to provide care, and another to receive it - has distinctive harms for the care providers.

My task here is twofold: to analyze the nature of the injustice of this gendered distribution of care within liberal theory and to argue that liberalism can address this exploitation by treating care as work. Breaking down legal boundaries between work and care will help protect carers’ special vulnerabilities. Conceptualizing care as work grounds my argument for economic and labor protections for unpaid caregivers. This is not to deny that care is also a great good; I am not claiming that it is merely work.

This chapter should be read in the context of a series of essays I have written, which argue that a liberal state should support care, both caring relationships and material caregiving (Brake 2010, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018). This chapter is, in particular, the companion to another paper that challenges the dichotomy between care and work (Brake 2018). This dichotomy obscures the special vulnerabilities that arise for paid caregivers as carers and for unpaid caregivers as workers. Thinking of care as work will increase the law’s ability to protect caregivers, paid and unpaid.

In the companion paper (Brake 2018), I focused on the distinctive vulnerabilities of paid care workers. Care gives rise to special vulnerabilities in paid as well as unpaid care. Law professor Naomi Schoenbaum has argued that law fails to recognize that in intimate work, the “relationship generates value but also vulnerability” (Schoenbaum 2015, 5). For example, the relationship itself can be terminated against both parties’ wills if the care worker is transferred or terminated. When this happens, not only may the worker lose the valuable relationship, she may also lose the value of the intimate knowledge she has gained, which allows her to do her job well. Law should recognize paid caregivers’ distinct vulnerabilities as carers (whose valuable relationships may need protection) and as workers (whose care work relies on a special body of intimate knowledge) (Brake 2018).

In this chapter, I focus on the distinctive vulnerabilities of unpaid care workers. As the companion paper argues that we should recognize the overlap between paid care work and care in law, this chapter argues that we should recognize the overlap between unpaid care work and work in law. We should see unpaid material and emotional caregiving as work. Attitudinal caring is not only compatible with work but it can be manipulated to exploit workers. Caregiving is (among other things) work, and work which is disproportionately extracted from women, and the state can address this by treating it like work.

In what follows, I first outline the problem of the exploitation of unpaid caregiving. I then argue that liberalism has the theoretical resources to address such exploitation. Then, I present a proposal for legal measures to address it within an ideal liberal egalitarian state. Finally, I address two theoretical objections.

These arguments draw on feminist analysis of gender inequality, care ethics, and liberal egalitarianism. Together, these approaches suggest that care is valuable and that its value has been neglected. Susan Moller Okin (1989) argued that care has been ignored in political thought and relegated to the private sphere outside the scope of justice. This prevented political philosophy from addressing women’s inequality. But care is a matter of justice because its distribution affects equal opportunity for women and children and because care is a good that the state should support. I argue that subsuming care under norms of justice can protect the vulnerable, especially women who perform care. Protecting care, and recognizing carers’ special vulnerabilities, has profound importance for migrant women, women of color, and worse-off women, who perform a disproportionate amount of paid, and arguably unpaid, care. Protecting care also affects people with disabilities who rely on care workers. A theory of care is integral to a full account of justice (Kittay 1999; Held 2006).

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