What kinds of care are being offered or withdrawn by the welfare state? What does this mean for the caring practices and interventions of local activists?
Shedding new light on austerity and neoliberal welfare reform in the UK, this vital book considers local action and activism within contexts of crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
Presenting compelling case studies of local action, from protesting cuts to children’s services to local food provisioning and support for migrant women, this book makes visible often unseen practices of activism. It shows how the creativity and persistence of such local practices can be seen as enacting wider visions of how care should be provided by society.
This chapter takes a qualitative approach to a Sure Start Children’s Centre as a space framed by a particular set of policy imperatives. It is argued that the targets of policy are not simply translated into the space and that interactions between staff and users are somewhat ‘uneasy’ and ambivalent because of this. It is also argued that friendships between groups of parents play an important role in mediating access to the centre as part of wider ‘caringscapes’ of parenting.
This book is concerned with matters of community, local action and practices of care, and their relationship to matters of austerity, crisis and transformations of the welfare state. I begin with two quotes from Sandra, a community activist running a residents’ group in a deprived neighbourhood in Stoke-on-Trent, a case study discussed further in Chapter 3. I had known Sandra since 2005, when I had first undertaken research in her neighbourhood. She spoke to me during a second round of research in 2013, about the impacts of austerity cuts on the projects they ran in her community. Much of their energy was now spent on a food redistribution project, collecting surplus food from supermarkets and making it available at very low cost to residents. Yet she told me:
‘It’s a sticking plaster [my emphasis] and it’s never going to achieve the outcomes of making somebody self-sufficient. You’re not going to get to the stage where they don’t need that service. Until they get a job, until the benefits are paid properly, until they’re not ill anymore, until the families are grown up, there are so many things that impact on why people can’t feed their families that we’re never going to solve that.’ (Sandra, Community activist, Stoke-on-Trent)
In the same interview, Sandra also mentioned that they were no longer able to run a youth club because of loss of spaces at the local school. However, she said that they had now found different ways to run sessions with young people: ‘So we lost all those facilities.
This chapter continues themes of the previous chapters, around a politics of everyday life, including local action, domestic life, care and questions of austerity and the responsibilities and reach of the state. However, it places them within a different context, the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic, or more specifically the initial phases of the pandemic, March–September 2020. There are too many aspects of society which have been thrown into sharp relief by the crisis to consider here in much detail – questions of class, work and inequality, race and vulnerability, disability and much more besides (Rose-Redwood et al, 2020; Andrews et al, 2021). Social science will continue to make sense of the pandemic for decades to come, and so the discussion here can only be partial and provisional, especially given that it is still ongoing at the time of writing. In what follows I focus on the nature of local action during the early stages of the pandemic. What were the politics, ethics, affects and practices of care that emerged at this moment of immense strain on society? What infrastructural forms did these take? And what do they reveal about the possibilities and problematics of a localised politics of care?
If austerity as discussed in preceding chapters can be understood as ‘slow violence’ (Pain, 2019) or ‘crisis ordinary’ (Berlant, 2008; Brickell, 2020a), then the COVID-19 crisis was (and is, at the time of writing), a much more visible and immediate crisis, which has impacted on almost every sphere of human life and interaction in a dramatic way.
This book has presented the voices and experiences of local activists and community actors of different kinds, working in diverse settings, and with different orientations towards their local action and activism. The case studies have sought to evaluate the potentials and problematics of such sites and practices of activism. Such evaluations include the lives of activists and those they work with, but also in relation to wider spheres of politics, representation and governance. In this way I have traced the outlines of a politics of everyday life, always ‘in the middle of things’ (Tronto, 2015: 4) and enmeshed in other dynamics. As previously discussed, some of the practices here would not normally be included within studies of social movements or activism (see Martin et al, 2007; Jupp, 2012). By bringing them together I have aimed to demonstrate the slippery boundaries between what might normally be seen as ‘volunteering’, community action and political activism. All the projects can be seen as interventions into matters of politics, involving citizenship and empowerment, and questions of care and collective infrastructures. In particular I have considered together the case study of anti-austerity activism around Children’s Centres in Chapters 4 and 5, involving practices likely to be understood as activism, alongside case studies of different forms of local action, provisioning and material support (in Chapters 3 and 6) more likely to be understood as ‘volunteering’ or ‘community action’.
In this final chapter I draw together some wider conceptual conclusions about such political significance or politics of everyday life.
This chapter considers a politics of care, firstly via a discussion of care ethics and conceptualisations of care in broad terms, before moving on to consider care and transformations of the welfare state and economy, including in relation to gender roles and processes of austerity. Care is an everyday and ongoing set of practices and relationship. In this book, the forms of care at stake include caring for children (especially as a mother), care for neighbours, care for older people and those with disabilities, ‘young carers’ supporting their parents, forms of community care, especially among migrant families newly arrived in the UK, and notions of ‘self-care’ and nurturing. All these forms of care involve vulnerabilities, needs and dependencies. However these forms and practices of care are not individual relational matters but in themselves caught up in wider structures and institutions that may be caring or uncaring. Forms of care may be sustained in the most hostile and uncaring environments. As such, a politics of care, as Joan Tronto (2015: 4) writes, must ‘start in the middle of things. Care practices don’t suddenly begin, they are already ongoing’. Within this book, the research projects discussed did not initially have a focus on care, rather I came to see that care practices and politics were crucial both for the actions of local activists, and the wider economic and political structures that framed these actions.
How, then, to approach this diffuse and everyday terrain? Theorising care has been a key concern for feminist scholars over decades.
This chapter continues the themes of the previous chapter, but with a focus on how the issues discussed, of gendered dynamics of care in society, social welfare and conditions of austerity, create a context for forms of political subjectivity and action, or citizenship. This begins with a focus on the specific context of the UK state, and its relationship to the scale of community and local action. The second section focuses on more conceptual issues around citizenship and the ‘politics of everyday life’, including notions of vulnerability, the lifecourse and storytelling as forming aspects of political action, that can enable us to trace this emergent politics.
‘Community’ is obviously a contested term (Joseph, 2002), suggesting both a local scale and also a social entity denoting belonging and inclusion or exclusion. Communities may be based on locations or on identities or both. For the purposes of this book, community represents a space for action, a space both material, but also emotional, relational and political. As will be further explored, the spaces of community potentially offer spaces for political action and citizenship to those who are unable to participate in more formal and wider scales of politics (Staeheli, 2008). There are debates around the definitions of ‘activism’ at such a scale (Martin et al, 2007), an issue discussed further in the next section of this chapter. For the purposes of this book, I generally use the terms ‘local action’ or ‘activism’ as opposed to ‘community action’, as I feel these terms enable links to wider debates around politics and citizenship that the term ‘community’ can render problematic, as will be explained.
In this chapter I explore experiences of local activism among diverse women, with a focus on care, the lifecourse and the self, as part of the patternings of the politics of everyday life I am concerned with. I follow individual research participants’ ‘journeys’ or ‘stories’ into and through local activism and action of different kinds, presenting interview and other data across a number of research projects. In so doing, I draw out common themes about how different individuals might enter and sustain activism at a range of scales. This also involves considering how different organisations and infrastructures support and position such action, particularly with regards to aspects of the welfare state. All the primary research participants in the chapter are women. While I draw attention to gender as a key issue here, as discussed in Chapter 1, I am not arguing that all women share experiences of activism and citizenship. Nor do the women discussed here share a cohesive identity. Differences around race, class, location, age, work and migration status are all apparent in the accounts presented in this chapter.
Indeed none of the organisations involved had an overall remit to focus on women, although the ‘period poverty’ project which formed one strand of the Coastal Arts project discussed in this chapter, was clearly gendered. Rather the dominance of women within groups working on issues of neighbourhood, community and family support reflects the often gendered nature of local activism (Martin et al, 2007). This relates to matters of care and gendered divisions between public and private lives, and between different forms of work, as discussed in the preceding chapters.
This chapter moves away from considering individual trajectories of activists, and focuses on the substantive issues that are made visible during processes of austerity activism. In so doing the focus here also moves away from ‘horizontal’ forms of local activism that involve community connection and support, to more conventional ‘resistance’ or ‘vertical’ practices that directly address those in power, within repertoires of anti-austerity activism (Craddock, 2020). Nonetheless, in line with my sense of interwoven processes of ‘resilience, resistance and re-working’ (MacLeavy et al, 2021), I do not see these forms of activism as forming opposing categories, but rather as inter-related articulations of citizenship and political subjectivity (Martin et al, 2007).
In particular, as discussed in Chapter 1, I am interested in what may be made visible during processes of anti-austerity activism, in how these might be seen as politically productive interventions that can bring matters of care into politics in new ways, even when planned-for cuts go ahead. This is significant given the taken-for-granted nature of care, the ways in which it is entangled with everyday lives and experiences (Hall, 2019a). As already discussed, changes affecting care wrought by austerity, from reduced household budgets to benefit changes and service reductions, do not necessarily result in visible ‘crises’, but more often are coped with, managed and absorbed into everyday lives (Jupp et al, 2019).
Furthermore, the ways in which welfare services and forms of support are reduced under austerity tends to be a process rather than a dramatic event, which can also function to render changes invisible over time (Kiely, 2021).