Care and Its Discontents

Valeria Graziano, Marcell Mars, Tomislav Medak
Valeria Graziano, Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak are convenors of the Pirate Care project and researchers at the Centre for Postdigital Cultures, Coventry University.
Graziano’s research explores organisational forms and cultural practices that foster the refusal of work, the redistribution of social reproduction and the possibility of political pleasure. Recently, she co-edited ‘Repair Matters’, a special issue of ephemera (May 2019) and ‘Rebelling with Care. Exploring Open Technologies for Commoning Healthcare’ (WeMake, 2019). https://hcommons.org/members/valerix/
Mars is co-founder of Multimedia Institute/MAMA in Zagreb. His research Ruling Class Studies examines state-of-the-art digital innovation, adaptation, and intelligence created by corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and eBay. He is writing his doctoral thesis on Foreshadowed Libraries. Together with Tomislav Medak he founded Memory of the World/Public Library, for which he develops and maintains software infrastructure.
Medak is a member of the theory and publishing team of the Multimedia Institute/MAMA in Zagreb. His research focuses on technologies, capitalist development, and postcapitalist transition and is writing his doctoral thesis on technological development and planetary ecological crisis. Together with Marcell Mars he has co-edited ‘Public Library’ (WHW, 2016) and ‘Guerrilla Open Access’ (POPress, 2019). https://tom.medak.click

Pirate Care

Pirate Care 1 is a project mapping and connecting collective practices of care that are emerging in response to the neoliberal “crisis of care”.2 Throughout our lives, we depend on the support of our kin, friends, strangers and institutions to sustain ourselves – and to sustain the world in which we and the future generations have to live. That social and ecological interdependency defines the relations of care, and the effort to sustain those relations defines the labour of care. Yet, over the last decades of financialized global capitalism, the convergence of processes that include the rollout of workfare, rollback of reproductive rights, austerity and criminalization of migration many have been denied that vital support.

Against the background of this institutionalized “negligence”3, a growing wave of mobilizations and resistances around care can be witnessed addressing a number of fundamental needs: for instance, the Docs Not Cops campaign in the UK4, with doctors refusing to carry out documents checks on migrant patients; sea rescue operations, such as those conducted by Sea-Watch, that defy the violent pushback of refugees in the Mediterranean5. Growing resistance of the housing movements such as PAH in Spain to homelessness through the reappropriation of houses left empty by speculators and banks.

Likewise, in Greece, a growing number of grassroots clinics set up by the Solidarity Movement have responded to the draconian cuts in public healthcare by providing medical attention to those without a private insurance. In Italy, precarious parents without recourse to public childcare have been organizing their own pirate kindergartens6. The collective Women on Waves has been providing safe contraceptive and abortion options to women in countries where these are not available, at times using boats in international waters, like veritable care pirates. Or delivering abortion pills via drones7.

What these initiatives hold in common is that they are frequently acting in expressed non-compliance with laws, regulations, and executive orders that impose exclusions along the lines of class, gender, race or territory. They are not shying away from the risk of persecution in providing care and unconditional solidarity to those who are the most exploited, discriminated against, and condemned to the status of disposable lives. That disobedience and its politicization is what defines them as pirate.

A Pirate Care Syllabus

Pirate Care, as a project, aims specifically to activate collective learning processes from the situated knowledge of these practices. In this, we have been inspired by the phenomenon of #syllabi8, i.e. crowdsourced online syllabi created by social movements in response to situations of intense antagonism, such as #FergusonSyllabus9 and Gaming and Feminism syllabus10: in 2014, Trump 1011 and Trump Syllabus 2.012 in 2015, #StandingRockSyllabus 13 in 2016. Political struggles against structural discrimination, oppression, and violence in the present are continuing the legacy of critical pedagogies of earlier social justice movements – anti-racist, feminist, disability or labour – that coupled the process of political subjectivation and structural transformation with that of collective education.

Building on that reflection, we have set out to develop a radical pedagogy approach that would help social justice initiatives write online syllabi of their own. And to do so in a technological framework that would enable the syllabi, as well as the collections of texts that accompany them, to be collectively created, easily preserved and maintained independently from large digital platforms.

The first round of topics for the pirate care syllabus14 was written in November during a writing retreat organized by Drugo More (HR) in Rijeka and launched on March 8th for the opening of the “…of bread, wine, cars, security and peace” exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien. The syllabus, an expanding work-in-progress, currently includes topics on: – criminalization of solidarity, – sea rescue and care, – commoning care-work and childcare – debt and housing struggles, – psychosocial autonomy, – community safety from racializing policing, – transfeminist hacking, hormone toxicity and bodily sovereignty, – gender equality in tech milieus, – politicizing digital piracy.

On March 14th, with the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe, we have transformed our work on the syllabus into a collective note-taking effort to document organizing of mutual aid, solidarity and care in response to the crisis, titled “Flatten the Curve, Grow the Care: What are we learning from Covid-19”.15 With the participation of a broader Pirate Care network, we have collected and created around 15 notes, instructions and how-tos that are coming from and are used by grassroots initiatives in Italy, Croatia, the UK and elsewhere. The notes include information on how to assist people in home isolation, organize a solidarity kitchen, or mutual aid for the jobless, advice on reproductive rights, home violence and childcare in the quarantine, as well as write-ups on the implications of the pandemic on disability, environmentalism and technology. The notes are available in English, Italian, German and Spanish thanks to a number of translators who joined the network.

Pandemic recomposition of social reproduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has made many of the pre-existing contradictions of social and ecological reproduction under financialized global capitalism assume a stark relief and a novel configuration. Here, we want to highlight the deepening separation of relations of social reproduction.

The lockdowns have revealed the fundamental dependence of societies on “essential services”. The frontline workers in health and elderly care, in cleaning and food supply chains, or in transport, whose work is mostly invisible, devalued and precarious, had no choice but to continue to go to work to not lose employment and income. Largely composed of women, people of color and migrants, they had to risk infection and their communities were predictably some of the hardest hit by the disease. Conversely, all those who could shelter in place have experienced a rapid digitization of all aspects of their lives, transforming their homes into workplaces and surrendering all their social reproduction needs into the hands of tech giants. The deepening separation between those two subject positions, operationalized through networked capital, is accelerating further fragmentation of the working class, disposability of their lives and ability to contest a growing techno-capitalist oligarchy.

Two different positions emerging from this condition are captured well by Ian Alan Paul, who speaks of the “domesticated/connected subject, who in being confined to their home is pushed to invent new ways to reconnect to and participate in a virtualized economy” and “the mobile/disposable subject that serves as the circulatory system of the pandemic” on which the former relies. It is the mobile-disposable subject who “becomes increasingly vulnerable and precarious as it is compelled to move at ever greater velocities”.16

What seems to be emerging is a scenario in which the foregrounding of the needs of a “care society” might be vulnerable to be weaponized as a new justification for public resources being diverted from maintaining, repairing and strengthening existing public infrastructures of social reproduction, towards the coffers of the major players of “platform capitalism”. Telehealth, remote learning and broadband services are being presented as inevitable by the likes of Bill Gates and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in their pitches to politicians as they are securing large sums of public money.

As Naomi Klein put it, rather than gaining momentum for a Green New Deal, the aftermath of the pandemic risks to fuel the rise of what she names a “Screen New Deal”17, where techno-solutionist approaches are presented as “benevolent” interventions in civic life.

Politics of organizing care

Against the challenges of dramatic recomposition in social reproduction and its subsumption to networked capital, it is worth reflecting on the generative cuts that the emerging practices of pirate care can create in the present political moment.

Caring is not intrinsically “nice”. It always involves power relations and processes of discipline, exploitation, and harm. It is a necessary and skilled form of labor that is shouldered by workers, mostly unwaged women and migrants, who themselves receive the least amount of care while serving those who take care-labor for granted. Reciprocity and solidarity are not implied18. To address this disparity on which provision of care rests in most societies, practices of pirate care are experimenting with the forms of egalitarian self-organization, alternative approaches to social reproduction and the commoning of tools.

They organize the labour necessary for social reproduction in an autonomous way that rejects to be mediated by the dominant forms of state or capital. They are neither configured in the form of services to buy or sell nor as bureaucracies to comply with or fight against.

Their solidarity is not generosity. The “charity-industrial complex” (a structural condition that allows someone like Bill Gates to be currently the major funder of the WHO) – shows that not all aid is politically progressive. So, even if we use the word solidarity to talk about many of the experiences of aid during the pandemic, solidarity remains a very specific form of generosity and linked to a specific work of risk redistribution – that is, solidarity means knowingly taking on the vulnerability that would be otherwise dumped onto someone else.

Their solidarity is not humanitarianism either. As Pia Klemp, the Sea-Watch boat captain, warned “I’m not a humanitarian. I am not there to ‘aid’. I stand in solidarity. We do not need medals. We do not need authorities deciding about who is a ‘hero’ and who is ‘illegal’. In fact they are in no position to make this call, because we are all equal.”19

Pirate Care practices further undo two key dichotomies inherited from previous political moments but that are not serving us well to grasp the present conjuncture:

The first is the dichotomy positing care as the other to technology. As Annemarie Mol put it: “During the twentieth century it was commonly argued that care was other to technology. Care had to do with warmth and love while technology, by contrast, was cold and rational. Care was nourishing, technology was instrumental.… Care (and caring relations) at home, technology (and instrumental relations) in the workplace. A life world here, and a system over there.”20

Instead, pirate care initiatives are often entangled with technologies of various kinds, which they re-adapt and manipulate for their own purposes, and they also highlight different regimes of skilled labour, expertise sharing and knowledge production. The ethics of a pirate care highlight the need to fight against our digital overlords and their extractivism, and reappropriate or build tools, frameworks and infrastructures of their own.

The second is the dichotomy between autonomy and capitalism and the state as terrains of struggle. This dichotomy echoes long-standing debates and splits on the left, most recently picked up in a polemic between two strands of Marxist feminism: scholars such as Sue Ferguson21 or Marina Vishmidt22, for instance, have criticized the way in which proponents of commoning such as Silvia Federici and Kati Weeks identify the grassroots initiatives of common sustenance such as collective kitchens or workers cooperatives as a space where radical experimentation can take shape, prefiguring alternatives to capitalist systems. The critique here is that these autonomous initiatives continue to operate in a unitary system of capitalist production and social reproduction. But by looking at pirate care processes, a different and non-binary relation appears viable between the practice of autonomy and the demands put on the state, between an investment in decentralized power and the necessity of strategic action. Such grassroots organizing has in the past transformed society-wide systems of care provision: miners’ medical aid societies forged the National Health Service in the UK; the feminist movement has laid the foundations of reproductive health centers in Italy; Black Panthers clinics’ organized resistance to racialized medical testing; and ACT UP’s actions in the 1980s forced the US Food and Drug Administration to change protocols relating to the availability of life-saving trial drugs in the United States, to name a few.

Finally, under the increasingly violent conditions of emerging neofeudalism, which Jodi Dean described as a system of legal illegality23, pirate care practices are re-politicizing piracy not so much as a move outside of the law, as a libertarian utopia, but as a form of politicization – a prescriptive split24 of the political terrain around a principle to advocate for different foundations and practices of constructing a just world and a good life.