A Feminist Economics Proposal for the Future of Europe
In the midst of the largest pandemic of the last 100 years and a record fall in the GDP, the economic responses to the crisis have taken a historic turn from those provided in last previous crises, which were procyclical and ‘austeritarian’ with considerable damaging effects in terms of poverty and inequality. International economic institutions such as the IMF, World Bank or OECD are now advocating anticyclical policies and prioritizing expenditure in a time of crisis and economic downturn. Contrary to the orthodox rhetoric that in the previous crisis intentionally undervalued the multiplying coefficient of public expenditure, we are now moving towards some kind of entrepreneurial state rhetoric meant to reactivate and transform the economy precisely through that instrument. And this rhetoric is advancing to such an extent that there is a general impression that we are undergoing a change of economic paradigm.
Are we really in front of a paradigm change in economic analysis and economic policies away from the neoliberal ones? What does that paradigm change mean? Just a flexible version of the previous and still current capitalist neoliberal paradigm? A real step towards a changing capitalism? Or due to the historical resilience of capitalism and its various mutations, are we facing a resetting of the system that will start a new phase of capitalist accumulation encouraged by the digitalization of the economy and the huge public expenditure brought by the COVID-19 crisis responses?
We do not know yet. However, we do know that a deep transformation of our economies and economic policies will not arrive unless it also affects the most basic aspects of power relations in our societies. It must include a new social deal that, in contrast with the one forged after the Second World War, should finally be a feminist deal. And the condition for this transformation is that we add to the twin transitions, the green and digital ones present in all our policies, a third one towards a new social organization of care.
Let’s look at Europe. The EU has designed an unprecedent and quite speedy answer both in the scale and scope to the COVID-19 crisis. For this purpose, steps have been taken that, although necessary, were unthinkable from European authorities until recently, such as the proposition to pool member states’ debt or the design or planning of specific taxes affecting the environmental, financial or digital spheres. Or the design of a €750 billion stimulus package called Next Generation EU, combining grants and loans to member states. Despite this important turning point in relation to previous policies and trends, the amount is still insufficient compared to other stimulus packages such as the US or Chinese ones. And this is partly so because other possible and necessary political changes, such as the transformation of the European Central Bank into a lender of last resort or the achievement of full employment as one of its main objectives, are still not included in the European Union’s agenda. As a matter of fact, EU policy changes are not yet pointing towards a paradigm change, just a policy change.
In fact, despite how important the EU’s answer has been, it is probably still insufficient to address the global challenges we are facing, to guarantee the EU’s strategic autonomy and to really speak about a paradigm change. However, what is interesting in the EU’s response is that it combines short-term remedies aimed at maintaining the income of businesses and people while the economic activity was almost completely or partially shut down, with some longer-term measures seeking to transform our production models into greener and more digitalized economies. In this transformation aim lies the hope of a real paradigm change. The member states’ recovery, transformation and resilience plans, designed according to national needs but following the guidelines established by the European institutions—mainly through the stimulus package Next Generation EU and other economic governance instruments- integrate these short- and long-term approaches. The idea behind this policy is to arrive as fast as possible at an economic recovery, while accomplishing the twin green and digital transformations of our economies into a more sustainable and resilient system capable of withstanding any future economic, environmental or public health shock, including new pandemics.
For some time now, it has been clear that we must make a transition towards an emission-free economy in order to limit, with at least a minimum of hope, the effects of climate change. Likewise, in the last few decades we have been immersed in a technological revolution that is leading to the digitalization of an increasing number of aspects of our lives: education, production processes, administration, consumption habits and forms of interacting with each other. As in every period of technological disruption, this is happening at different speeds depending on the social sphere, economic sector and region, and is thus generating inequalities and redefining hierarchies and power relations, including gender relations. Since women have lower levels of digital literacy, they are less integrated in the technological sectors and are, therefore, not designing the algorithms that are configuring the worldview of our societies. This means that, once again, we are at risk of developing an androcentric worldview where women’s voices and perspectives are defined as ‘different’, in opposition to the dominant, male ones, instead of as an integral part of the understanding of our world and the design of our common future.
European authorities are not unaware of the fact that these transitions, as those that occurred in the past, may not be fair. This is why they have established funds—though insufficient—for a just transition in the regions that are most dependent on carbon-related activities, including mining and carbon-based power plants. Most importantly, the European Social Pillar will finally be developed as seen in the Social Summit held in Porto at the beginning of May 2021. Nevertheless, while environmental indicators are fully integrated in all spheres of economic governance and mainstreamed through all European policies in consonance with the European Green Deal, the same is not true so far regarding social indicators and the Social Scoreboard. Or, more precisely, we do not yet have economic indicators available that take into consideration the social consequences of economic policies, including their impact on gender equality. This is quite clear in European economic coordination mechanisms such as the European Semester.
That means we might be returning to the growth path thanks to the reactivation of the economy resulting from the increase in public expenditure, but within the same old paradigm. For instance, GDP growth could be –and it has been– compatible with an uneven distribution through the generation of pro-poor growth that concentrates wealth in a few hands. In addition, work creation could be –and it has been– compatible with high poverty levels, including in-work poverty, or the creation of precarious, badly paid and strongly segregated employment, which women are very much acquainted with and which, far from closing the gender gap, activates a new gender divide that is clearly manifesting itself during the COVID-19 crisis. This crisis has brought an additional care burden for women and has deepened the segregated and precarious female employability, including the limits of –previously venerated for work life balance and gender equality– teleworking within an uneven distribution of care.
In fact, if we want the twin transitions to take place without really leaving anyone behind and including the social dimension that all economic policy should have, it is necessary that we add a third transition, the care transition, and that the future of Europe includes the implementation of a care deal as well. The European norms that member states need to comply with to develop their national recovery plans have a social dimension, but it is not on an equal footing with the green and digital transitions, especially from a feminist perspective that places care at the centre, but far from an essentialist approach. Care should not be considered and treated as an exclusive and naturalised female task.
On the contrary, care should be understood as an aspect of human life that is also economic, since it involves the use of limited energy and time resources, both material and immaterial, with evident direct and indirect costs, as well as the performance of actual work to satisfy basic human needs. In this sense, care work is every activity that is carried out to meet care needs and not only those that are developed through what is usually known as ‘unpaid domestic work’. In fact, care work may be monetarily remunerated or not. In case it is, it may be provided by a benefit system, public services or the formal or informal market. In case it is not, it may respond to motivations related to love and solidarity, or, on the contrary, may be the result of submission, obligation, or commitment to the wellbeing of others embedded in gender cultural norms. Non-professional caretakers may feel psychologically, socially and even physically compelled to do their work. Care can therefore be provided by the public sector, the market, the family or close friends, or by community-based civil society organizations. The levels of gender-, income-, ethnic- or origin-based inequality are therefore very much linked to the care organization systems in the different territories, to their visibility, degree of formality and to the value attached to them. From both an analytical and a political point of view, it is obvious that those systems cannot remain hidden as they are now as the largest fraction of an iceberg.
In this sense, it is reductionist to think of the economy of care as either linked to the jobs created to look after older or dependent people, as it appears in some of the national recovery plans after the tragedy we have gone through in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, or only related to childcare within the family in a naturalised and essentialist way. From a feminist economics perspective, the economy of care is a proposition for a different economy where both analyses and policies take into consideration the complexity of care provision in our societies. It begins by looking at care not as the expression of a specific need but as a wide and complex range of satisfiers, or as a satisfier of satisfiers. Within this context, satisfiers are the expression of ways of being, having and doing that contribute to fulfil human needs, which ought to be placed at the centre of any political action—including those related to the conservation of our natural environment. It is therefore essential that the inequalities generated by the still insufficiently acknowledged and assessed growing needs for care are mainstreamed into all stages of the public policy cycle, from design to budgeting, implementation and evaluation. This is why we speak of the need for a third transition towards a new social organization of care, where a true social co-responsibility for care can be realized. Unless we achieve it, none of the gender equality policies, such as the directives on work-life balance, equal pay or pay transparency will be a game changer in Europe, substantially improving our gender equality standards.
Analytically and politically, we cannot hide that the COVID-19 crisis is built on previous structural crises, including the ecological one that is showing us the consequences of pushing the physical limits of our planet. But it is built on the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, whose economic recipes have not only generated morally and economically unbearable inequalities, but also created instability within the system by issuing unpayable amounts of debt. The financial logic imposed by neoliberal capitalism on the production economy has destroyed the latter’s resilience, exposing businesses and citizens to shocks as extreme as the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, the public expenditure cuts dictated by neoliberal policies have limited the governments’ capacity to respond to the sanitary, care and economic emergencies associated with the pandemic. There is also a crisis of civilization underlying the COVID-19 crisis, because the success of consumerism and of the various individualist models based on the idea of ‘everyone for themselves’ has led to the commodification of a growing number of aspects of our lives – from the separation of freedom from equality, to the confusion of rights with individual desires – and can even explain the social support given to the decision of the wealthiest governments in the world not to make COVID-19 vaccines a global public good from the very beginning of this pandemic.
And of course, the current crisis is also built on a crisis of care that manifests itself at the individual level in the daily life of many women who suffer from social exhaustion because of their multiple roles, supporting last-resort solidarity networks. But it manifests itself as well at the national level through insufficient public services and the creation of precarious jobs, and at a global level through the global care chains associated with migration, a crisis that has also impacts our labour markets and innovation capabilities.
For instance, the crisis of care and mortality experienced in nursing homes across Europe has laid enormously important and transcendental problems on the table, where gender-, ethnic-, income- or origin-based inequality dynamics meet with several social and economic challenges. On the one hand, with demographic challenges, linked to population ageing, on the other, with labour challenges, related to the increasing precariousness of the labour markets and the emergence of non-standard labour contracts and the gig economy—which create much uncertainty for both female and male workers—, and, finally, with fiscal challenges resulting from neoliberal globalization. Neoliberal globalization has indeed trimmed down our welfare systems by increasingly financializing our economy and exacerbating economic inequalities and political disaffection, especially among the population groups most in need of a change of course in political and economic policies. The COVID-19 crisis has also exposed the fact that the social mandate on care is still mostly falling on women’s shoulders. Even if women are the majority of university graduates, even if most of them have joined the labour market, even if some men have started carrying out care work, we are still suffering a loss of female talent in the labour market and in decision-making and creation spaces. A loss of female professional talent that matches the loss of men’s caring talent to look after not only dependent people but also our households and common spaces in a society where people are raised as interdependent social beings who need to be taken care of throughout their lives, especially in those moments where deprivation of care is incompatible with life.
Women continue to carry the burden of the social care mandate as if it were the natural thing to do, limiting their wellbeing and the development of their capacities. Care continues to be considered primarily a private problem, not a social responsibility that may be fulfilled by different agents, even though the family is still the main one. In an ageing Europe, we cannot ignore the economic, political and scientific dimensions of care. If we want the economic transformation that we are designing to be social, we need to incorporate into the European Union and member states’ narrative a third transition, one that will lead to a new social organization of care. The future of work should not rely on a female-unlimited time availability nor on a reduction of (market) working time without having in mind the huge amount of unpaid work done mainly by women without remarkable male, public or business co-responsibility.
For this reason, a care deal is necessary, because it means placing the third transition towards a new social organization of care on equal footing with the green and digital transitions. This should be the banner of a European green and feminist socialism that needs to lay the foundations of a new Europe capable of developing in a respectful and non-predatory way in relation to the rest of the world. The concepts of independence, which are so much rooted in our value system, must definitely be dismissed or reformulated. The COVID-19 crisis has proved what we already knew: humanity is profoundly interdependent and it is, therefore, essential to provide the mechanisms for this interdependence and the care work associated with it to unfold in such a way that every right is respected and there is no exploitation involved.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is a good occasion for socialists to display the principles of feminist economics concerning the importance of placing people at the centre of all political action and economic policy and of achieving a feminist social deal. A deal that will add to the twin transitions—the green and the digital—a third one, aimed at realizing a new social organization of care where care work will not fall mostly on women and go unacknowledged and unvalued for the simple reason of women being tied to a “naturalised” care mandate.
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