On elder care work and the limits of Marxism - Silvia Federici

Text by Silvia Federici on elder care and its relationship with capitalism, feminism, and the left.

Submitted by jonthom on May 16, 2014


“Care work,” especially eldercare, has come in recent years to the center of public attention in the countries of the OECD in response to a number of trends that have put many traditional forms of assistance into crisis. First among these trends have been the growth, in relative and absolute terms, of the old age population and the increase in life expectancy (Kotlikoff and Burn 2004), not been matched, however, by a growth of services catering to the old. There has also been the expansion of women’s waged employment that has reduced their contribution to the reproduction of their families. (Folbre 2006: 350) To these factors we must add the continuing process of urbanization and the gentrification of working class neighborhoods, that have destroyed the support networks and the forms of mutual aid on which older people living alone could once rely, as neighbors would bring them food, make their beds, come for a chat. As a result of these trends, it is now recognized that for a large number of elderly, the positive effects of a longer life-span have been voided or are clouded by the prospect of loneliness, social exclusion and increased vulnerability to physical and psychological abuse. With this in mind, I present some reflections on the question of eldercare in contemporary social policy, especially in the US, to then ask what action can be taken on this terrain and why the question of elder care has been absent in the literature of the Marxist left.

My main objective here is to call for a redistribution of the ‘common wealth’ in the direction of elder care, and the construction of collective forms of reproduction enabling older people to be provided for when no longer self-sufficient and not at the cost of their providers’ lives. For this to occur, however, the struggle over elder care must be politicized and placed on the agenda of social justice movements. A cultural revolution is also necessary in the concept of old age, challenging its degradation as a fiscal burden on the state and the younger generations (on one side), and (on the other) its mystification as an ‘optional’ stage in life that we can ‘cure,’ ‘overcome,’ and even prevent, if we only adopt the right medical technology and the ‘life enhancing’ devises disgorged by the market (Joyce and Mamo 2006).

At stake in the politicization of elder care are not only the destinies of older people and the un-sustainability of radical movements failing to address such a crucial issue in our lives, but the possibility of generational and class solidarity, which for years have been the targets of a relentless campaign by political economists and governments, portraying the provisions which workers have won for their old age (like pensions and other forms of social security) as an economic time-bomb and heavy mortgage on the future of the young.