The Caring Labour of Political Action

Disclaimer: Firstly, a thank you to Zach Biech for introducing me to these ideas, with his own mixed in throughout this piece. Any mistakes are my own. Secondly, I have not read the original texts, but plan to. These are just initial thoughts.


Timothy Snyder apparently posits two types of politics that have come to define our times. The first is a politics of innevitability. This is a liberal faith in the innevitable progress of history towards the triumph of a liberal democratic end. Because it is innevitable, we merely have to wait and technically execute it as best as possible. This is another way of talking about what I have called in other posts the “technocratic” model of politics. When this apparent innevitability does not come, people become disenchanted and some turn to a politics of eternity. This vision of politics sees struggle as eternal. There is no future, and all else, the past and present, truth, etc. all become mere tools in the struggle to preserve an imagined collective self (e.g. the race, the homeland, etc.).

The Avoidance of Politics

Both visions of politics deny the need for the actual “caring labour” of politics as I have described it elsewhere. That work consists essentially in a coming together around a shared problem, experience, or opportunity across different and possibly conflicting visions or interests to forge a common course of action. In the politics of innevitability, there is no reason to personally get involved in this work both because (1) impersonal historical forces will eventually solve the problem, and (2) it is a technical problem for experts to solve who will ask if they need any information. This view of politics is fundamentally deistic. History was set in motion a long time ago and will work itself out. It ignores the fundamentally vulnerable quality of communal life. The fact that, like biological life, it must constantly maintain itself or die. It cannot be taken for granted. It must be nurtured. How it can be nurtured I will discuss shortly.

The politics of the eternal also turns away from the caring labour of politics but in a different sense. It senses the vulnerability of political life born of interdependence (evidenced in part by its biological vision of politics), but it denies that interdependence and replaces it with the imagined independent sovereignty of some political self (“the organism”). The work of politics which happens across difference is then seen only as a trespass to be overcome at all costs, using force if necessary. The problems which politics are meant to solve come to be identified with politics itself (i.e. the other is identified as the cause of the problem). The politics of eternity must be characterized by fear because it is intolerant of one of the basic facts of life, the other.

The Caring Labour of Political Action

What alternative is there to these frighteningly inadequate visions of politics? Snyder offers a politics of responsibility. Although I do not yet know the details of what he proposes, I can already feel why this is the right word and why a political ethics of care must be part of the solution.

Responsibility, the first step in Joan Tronto’s classic formulation of care, begins with acknowledging the need of the other and taking it on. A political need is unique in that in its purest form, it must be a common need. There is no care giver and recipient as such, although there may be one who experiences the need acutely and another who holds the institutional levers required to address it. While one might experience the problem directly, e.g. the inadequate healthcare, its political dimension, i.e. the injustice, is a feature of a reality shared by all members of the political community. In some cases, this may extend to all humanity as Kant points out in On Perpetual Peace. To the extent that there is a need for justice intertwined with but distinct from the need for healthcare then, it is common, although the priviliged may not feel it as acutely as the marginalized. This takes the work of becoming informed. It is mundane work, and not all all the creative self-expressive act of action as Arendt defines it. In itself, this is a daunting and despiriting task.

The politics of innevitability professionalizes this function to the greatest extent possible. The politics of eternity has no regard for the needs of the other or even the true needs of the alleged self if acknowledging those needs undermines the will to fight. Information gathering and dissemination is mainly geared towards encouraging the fight (“propoganda”, “fake news”, etc.).

The second part of this first step is to take on the need as a task once it is acknowledged. It should be pointed out that in contrast to visions of politics like Arendt in which political action is a creative act of self-expression, on the account of politics as caring labour it is self-expression to the extent that one personalizes what was previously an impersonal unaddressed dimension of a shared experience. It is artistic in the way a great author can put in words something everyone is feeling (whether they realized it or not), but the feeling belongs to all of them and it must precede the author’s words.

Once this first step is taken, the labour is effort across differences to find creative compromises that meet the acute need in a way that satisfies the shared life. The existence of a correct or even satisfactory answer cannot be taken for granted ahead of time, but neither can the absence of an answer. Politics is fundamentally exploratory and experimental for this reason. In place of this negotiating, the politics of innevitability prefers a judgment handed down to competitive rights bearing litigants from on high. The politics of eternity sees only a fight.

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