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Caring democracy: current topics in the political theory of care

Caring democracy: current topics

Introduction

In 2013, political care ethicist Joan Tronto1)Joan C. Tronto is Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, Professor Emerita at the City University of New York and initiator of the Care Ethics Research Consortium www.care-ethics.org. applied a care-ethical view to democratic theory in her book Caring democracy: Markets, equality and justice, and invited scholars from all over the world to think about democracy from a care-ethical perspective.

Petr Urban2)Petr Urban, PhD, is Head of the Department of Contemporary Continental Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences took up this invitation by organising the ‘Caring Democracy’ conference, with the aim of discussing current topics in the political theory of care in order to contribute to a more caring democracy. Hosted by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences, the conference was held at the Karolinum, a historical building located in Prague’s Old Town.

The conference programme consisted of a keynote talk by Tronto and work presented by 16 experts from 11 countries. The conference attracted an international audience who actively participated in the discussions. The well-arranged coffee breaks and lunches were excellent moments for attendees to get to know each other and to exchange information.

Keynote

Professor Joan Tronto delivered the keynote address on ‘Neopopulists and exclusionary discourses of care: towards a new politics of inclusion’. She started by stating that we should no longer see care as just a ‘practice’ and a ‘disposition’; we need to think of care as a discursive practice and as ‘an idea that functions in powerful ways’. In the first edition of the International Journal of Care and Caring (IJCC) in 2017, Tronto offered a critique of, and an alternative to, the political discourse of neoliberalism, noting that it is important to rethink the allocation of care responsibilities, but within a democratic framework. In her keynote address, Tronto paid attention to the discourse of neopopulism now evident in the US and Europe as new problems arise, and explained why it is a problematic framework while proposing an alternative one. Tronto explained that neopopulists can be characterised by their shared concerns, for instance, people who feel threatened by immigrants and call for additional security to protect society. She argued that we could not offer an alternative until we understand these beliefs within a discourse of care. To do that, we first have to look at those who vote for neopopulists, and why.

Recent research indicates that especially men, less educated people, those with religious affiliations and majority ethnic groups opt to vote for neopopulists, seeking security and economic protection, with neopopulist leaders responding to these concerns within a context of care: ‘Take care of yourself, blame others’. Tronto associates this discourse with a traditional breadwinner–caregiver model, that is, vulnerable women are protected by strong men who feel good about carrying the responsibility to protect their families. She stressed that we have to understand that neopopulists cling to familiar traditions out of fear. However, this traditional model of caring no longer works in an increasingly diverse society in which women and men have become more equal. Most importantly, this model creates greater levels of economic inequality and endangers democracy. Tronto posed the following question: ‘How can we offer an alternative to this old-fashioned model of caring and formulate a better argument from the political Left to challenge the neopopulists’ framework?’.

Tronto underlined that she does not yet have a precise answer to the question, but she does know that good practices of care and governmental change towards a more caring democracy will help. According to Tronto, care generates more care. She shared some examples showing how new spaces and conditions have created opportunities for strangers to connect and care for each other across racial, age and economic lines: senior citizens spending time in a childcare facility with the children of working parents; and people asked to invite their previously unknown neighbour to share a meal. In Tronto’s words: ‘We don’t need to be afraid, we need to be more caring’. Tronto’s keynote address encouraged us to think about a caring democracy as an alternative political framework to neopopulism, and showed how opportunities to create a more democratic society can be centred around care.

In celebration of the first ever annual CERC conference in Portland, USA this week the latest International Journal Care & Caring special issue is free to access until 30 September.

Contributions

The two-day programme included papers on a range of topics addressing areas related to the political theory of care. At the end of the conference, Tronto summarised the contributions of the papers in three categories: (1) the conceptualisation and meaning of ‘caring democracy’; (2) ‘democratic practices’; and (3) ‘appropriate methods’ for researching topics in care ethics.

In the first category, Elizabeth Conradi’s (DE) paper reflected on conceptualisations of ‘care’ and showed that these often refer to either an ethical-political dimension or a welfare-resourcing dimension, with a tension emerging between these two dimensions. Conradi proposed to separate the dimensions analytically because they translate into different kinds of practical questions, and are sub-structed by different political goals. Brunella Casalini (IT) addressed another conceptual gap, that is, between two different feminist traditions on the meaning of care: one with a vocabulary of care; the other with a feminist vocabulary. She compared both vocabularies by analysing the differences and similarities, and showed how they could be merged. Using a more philosophical language, including Nussbaum’s notion of ‘compassion’, Justin Leonard Cardy (US) presented his work on a philosophy of love, titled ‘Civic tenderness: love’s role in achieving justice’.

In the second category, Helena Olofsdotter Stensöta’s (SE) presentation defended the welfare state as a historical institution that can, under certain circumstances, be seen as a caring institution. Petr Urban (CZ) also stressed the possibility that state institutions care, arguing that, ‘Oftentimes, the tension between bureaucratic and caring values in the practice of public administration is healthy and productive’. However, there were also presentations about state-oriented practices that are not so caring: Lizzie Ward described a disturbing situation concerning elder-care in the UK, which showed the risks and responsibilities inherent in self-funded care; she stressed that intense vulnerability is not a good bargaining position. From the viewpoint of poor women in Japan, Yayo Okano and Satomi Maruyama presented examples that made clear that these women do not have a voice. The lack of care and of the opportunity to participate in political debates on poverty conceals the poverty of these women.

There were three presentations on the problematic role of the state in the field of education. Pokorný indicated that the Czech government shows little interest in education, especially in the school as a niche of positive deviation. Adriana Jesenková presented examples of practices in Slovakia that show the deficits of democratic care, as well as the importance of diversity and pluralism. In a presentation on caring, education and democracy, Tammy Shel pleaded for more philosophy classes in Israel in order to teach students how to debate in a proper way. In the long term, this should benefit democracy in her country. Furthermore, there were presentations that provided alternative ways of developing democratic practices: Jorma Heier (DE) postulated that democratic care starts from social movements, rather than from politics; Anne Cress (DE) explored the critical and transformative potential of care ethics; and Kanchana Mahedevan (IN) raised a global postcolonial concern, namely, that care goes beyond the boundaries of nation-states and causes new care inequalities. Concerning caring practices, Veerle Draulans and Wouter de Tavernier (BE) presented their research on culturally diverse elder-care and the complexity of the intersubjective relations of recognition in this field.

In the third category, the focus was more on the question of how to conduct research on care. The research presented included a variety of methods: Pokorný promoted phenomenology; Jesenková argued for pragmatism; Clardy defended the use of cognitive science; and others used philosophical analyses in various forms (eg Casalini and Cress). Research by Okano and Maruyama (JP), as well as Draulans and De Tavernier (BE), focused empirically on social science data, and Lizzy Ward showed an example of how co-production might be a way to think methodologically about care.

Tronto’s keynote address and the papers presented show that it is a challenging (But not impossible!) task to move from a neopopulist to a democratic framework in which care should be central in our society. Tronto closed the conference with an urgent call to continue to refine the feminist arguments of care and to engage in broader public discussions on care as a research community, and invited participants to become a member of the Care Ethics Research Consortium (CERC) (see: www.care-ethics.org).

  • Honsbeek, K. (2018) Caring democracy: current topics in the political theory of care (23–24 November 2017, Prague, Czech Republic), International Journal of Care and Caring, 2(3): 449–52, DOI: 10.1332/239788218X15355318754221

Krystel Honsbeek

Krystel Honsbeek MA

Krystel Honsbeek has a background in social work, and received her Master’s degrees in philosophy (Tilburg University) and care ethics (University of Humanistic Studies). Currently, she is a PhD student at the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Using a care ethical perspective, her research focuses on meeting care needs of older LGBT people in changing local care landscapes. Also, she is a social worker at autism organization Leermakers Zorggroep, and is a member of the editorial board of the Care Ethics Research Consortium.

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