María Isabel Casas-Cortés, “Towards a Theory of Care / Hacia una Teoria del Cuidado: Ethnographic Accounts of Changing Political Subjects and Strategies”
“Towards a Theory of Care / Hacia una Teoria del Cuidado: Ethnographic Accounts of Changing Political Subjects and Strategies” 1
María Isabel Casas-Cortés
Chapter 7, Social Movements as Sites of Knowledge Production: Precarious Work, the Fate of Care and Activist Research in a Globalizing Spain. Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009. [PDF]
Shortly upon our arrival to the Lavapies neighborhood, and after attending a couple of meetings organized by Precarias, I received a mysterious email in my inbox:
Precarias a la Deriva ha Muerto, Viva Precarias a la Deriva!
Precarias a la Deriva is dead, long live Precarias a la Deriva!
(email on PD list-serve, March 15th 2007)
The “death notice”, as they called it, explained the transition period that Precarias was at the time going through. Since 2006, this feminist project engaged in a new experiment under the name of “Agencia de Asuntos Precarios”. Under this institutional sounding name -Agency of Precarious Affairs-, they made an attempt to formalize many of the relationships, resources and knowledges gained during the previous research phase. The Agency has currently an office space available every Saturday afternoon at Embajadores Street, a few blocks down from the previous squatted building that had to be evicted by order from the Madrid municipality. The new locale of Eskalera Karakola, the mythical women’s social center, is now located right across the street from Traficantes de Sueños, the alternative bookshop and publishing house, close to the local fresh food market, the muslim mosque and one of the libraries of the Universidad Nacional a Distancia, itself located in an old monastery destroyed during the Spanish Civil war.2 The new Eskalera Karakola, in contrast to the previous old building, is rented at an affordable price from the municipality and after a process of re-construction, now has a contemporary look, with a large meeting room, a radio studio, telephone line and a series of archives and basic technological support.3 Having this space available regularly and open to the public, makes this phase more prompted to act locally. This is in contrast with the previous phase, in that even if that phase had been a place-based research project, their material and effects ended up being more internationally oriented than expected. In this sense, La Agencia might be thought of as part of “the current process of territorialization of global justice movements” – meaning a tendency towards local concerns and organizing at the level of the lived territory, shared by many global justice initiatives at least in Europe (interview with MayDay Sur organizer, April 2008).
La Agencia was conceived from the beginning to operate more concretely in the Lavapies neighborhood and the city of Madrid. Furthermore, this email signaled a thematic shift. While the first phase focused mainly on the concept of precarity; during this second phase, Precarias intersects the concept of precarity with the question of care. This chapter then propose care as another conceptual contribution by this activist research project and the broader networks where it is inserted. Alleviating my temporary shock over my “object of inquiry” suddenly disappearing, the email went on to insist that this was in fact not the end of Precarias, but rather a process of metamorphosis where Precarias was still alive and well, yet in a new and different format. The authors claimed that part of Precarias’ spirit -not understood as a collective, but as an open trajectory- remained not only in the new phase, but also in all of those that have engaged with the PD project in one way or another, for instance: by attending their workshops, by circulating and translating their texts or by gathering inspiration to put other parallel initiatives together.
The name change from Precarias a la Deriva to Agencia de Asuntos Precarios was accompanied by a series of broader transformations that I was able to gather during my participation in this second phase. In particular, there seems to be two sides to the transition: one theoretical: from theorizing Precarity to theorizing Care; and a second one, in terms of practice: from an overt research team to the development of “alliances” as a political-research strategy. In this chapter, I argue that the transition experienced by this collective speaks to the transformative potential of practicing research. This transition is not merely chronological; it implies a profound process of transformation at the level of subjectivity and political imaginary.
The research conducted by la Agencia during this second phase is leading to further conceptual refinements of the notion of precarity by pairing it up with that of care, this way providing more insightful analyses of the current conjuncture. Yet, this research not only is able to explore the flexible metropolis in innovative ways. Rather, the activist research conducted by Precarias fueled a process of knowledge production able to nurture relationships and sustain alternative sociabilities: not only intensifying relations among the group members, but creating “unnatural” alliances and unexpected encounters between populations socially articulated as distinct and well-separated entities. In this case, Precarias -whose main participants are sociologically relatively similar4-, engage in processes of articulation with two particular groups coming from different sides of the sociological spectrum: one consisting of immigrant domestic female workers, and the other one composed of men and women in wheelchairs, due to accidents or life-long illnesses. In other words,
“Departing from the question of care as one of the main conclusions from our first research project, we entered in a new phase of building alliances with different sectors: first, domestic workers, at the intersection of precarity and migration, and also as a not desired effect of feminism…we fell obliged to understand and work this question; and second, the ‘handicapped’ population, because of their discourse on the fragility of life and the right to be diverse, speaking from such a radical reality”. (Interview Agencia member, may 4, 2008)
The first alliance works on the re-invention of political strategies for the fractured sector of domestic migrant workers. The second one centers on the process of the politicization of disability, starting from the very renaming of the terms handicapped or disability with “functional diversity”. The development of these two alliances would not be free of frictions.5
Tensions would arise out of the misunderstandings among such distinct particular realities. In terms of everyday needs and expectations, issues such as the disparity of work schedules, spatial restrictions or family responsibilities, made the relationship challenging at times. At the level of political goals, a series of clashes between political imaginaries were made evident during the process of alliance building as the chapter reveals Despite those difficulties, both parties seemed to accept the challenges involved, as if being moved by a mutual attraction able to generate a shared point of departure from which to speak a common language and re-articulate political action. The development of these processes of relationality suggests the potential of research for transforming subjectivities and facilitating processes of collective agency. This is the basis of the third contention of this dissertation, speaking to the question of knowledge production as opening possibilities at the ontological level by enabling the creation of different subjects, relationalities and ultimately, constructing other worlds.
This claim was developed through ethnographic engagement with the second phase of Precarias. While other chapters heavily relied on social movements’ own archives and brief auto-ethnographic encounters with other activist research initiatives, this chapter exhibits the most extensive ethnographic treatment of the Madrid-based group itself. The writing style makes an attempt to reflect the lived realities and lived relationships constituting the ongoing projects embarked upon by La Agencia. This is in part possible due to my full engagement with the group’s activities, participating in monthly meetings, workshops, drifts, actions as well as the regular practice of participating in the email list and writing exercises. I hope to evoke the diversity of activities and multiple material practices via staged conversations. Making use of my fieldnotes and collection of documents, I focus on the series of workshops that gave flesh to the process of alliance building, hoping these narrative strategy, coming from the genre of drama, lend some agility to the ethnographic narrative.
The chapter begins by describing the different levels of the transformation experienced by Precarias. From Precarity to Care: A Multi-layered Transition offers brief but necessary background information to the reader in order to understand the current new phase of Precarias and its implications. This section also addresses how the politics of research, even if not so overtly articulated, continue to be present and guide many of the practices and developments of this new phase. This embedded research acts as a tool to foster processes of subject transformation and renovation of political imaginaries.
The second part of the chapter directly addresses the dissertation research question about the conceptual productions by movements with Towards a Theory of Care: The Beginning of a Common Glossary. The previous research phase by Precarias provided the first steps of a theorizing process around the subject of care in search of a common political lexicon. I present it here as a series of novel terms that help to crystallize the conceptualizations around care and precarity. These five concepts will be further elaborated through the coming together of different parties during the alliance building phase. The encounters among Agencia and domestic workers, whether in the form of workshops, co-organizing street actions or co-writing, besides being filled with challenging tensions, develop a more refined understanding of care struggles, as seen in the next section.
The third part, A Theory of Care in the Making: The Silent Revolt of Care Takers, centers on the practice of building inter-subjective relationships and political articulations among different populations, in particular focusing on the alliance with domestic migrant workers. The ethnographic account depicts several instances of coming together to investigate the intricacies of care work and articulate possible strategies against the current state of fracture and for a socioeconomic revalorization of their work. The fourth part, The Cultural Politics of Care, addresses the different implications of embracing the concept of care. Both in terms of political organizing and research modus operandi, the centrality of care will bring along a series of challenges and transformations that are briefly outlined in this last section. The conclusion emphasizes the main arguments of this chapter, especially the transformative potential of research practices in social movements.
7.1. From Precarity to Care: A Multi-Layered Transition
The email with the “death notice” alerts the reader to the ending of Precarias a la Deriva as a mainly textual and explicitly research operation. It is the formal closure of a project and the announcement of morphing into a different political machine. In their own words, it is a transition “from the production of linguistic and visual codes (e.g. The Precarious Lexicon or the multilingual Precarity DVD), to the production of an everyday” (interview May 4 2008). This shift in the form and goals of research was due to the perceived limitations of a project that despite having great potential for generating a collective imaginary around the notion of precarity, was unable to produce further processes of aggregation and political action:
“Drifts were a powerful mechanism to promote instances of valuable communication among disperse and isolated actors. However, the drifts, by themselves, were not able to generate conflict” (Interview PD member, august 15 2005).
7.1.1 Towards the Production of the Everyday
The transition from a first phase as an action-research initiative to a second phase focused on concrete organizing through a formal “agency” was perceived as a necessary step, somehow, as a way to test the political hypotheses being previously advanced. If precarity emerged as an analytical catalyst able to provide insights about current conditions, what was critical now was to enact those realizations:
“The first phase has evolved into the construction of this Agency as an experimental space to create a practice, still to be invented, against the precarization of existente” (PD 2007).
In order to create this everyday practice within and against precarity, they opted for an organizing venue situated outside unions, NGOs, and other established institutions to implement strategies accommodated to local contexts and singular demands, deeply informed by the conclusions reached by the research project. The Agencia will work upon the alignment between precarity and care, shifting the theoretical attention significantly towards the question of care and its political derivatives. Care, one of the findings of their initial research project, was also emerging as a topic of concern among other activist circles, especially feminist ones. This is the case of the pan-European network Nextgenderation which was quite influential in bringing in the question of care into the broader precarity struggles upon criticizing their neglect towards certain precarious populations and their over-optimistic prospects of precarity:
“Insisting on the importance of care was a way for us to give a feminist radical edge to actions of the EuroMayDay, which was quick in proclaiming the disruptive possibilities of “precarity life style”. For us, they overlooked the very unequal situations of precariousness in Europe by insisting on their liberating possibilities (e.g. the end of full time jobs). While our group also partially thought that the break of frameworks of rigid labor setting could be liberating, putting the accent on the work of care was a way to recall that the burden of care makes the biggest part of precarious “flexible” jobs and is assumed mostly by migrant women and women of color – who were not actually included in the EuroMayday actions. In addition, inspired by Preacarias a la Deriva we also thought we needed to build collective care in activist networks, because precariousness pushes too many of us into burn-out. In trying to combine political activities and working for a living, caring becomes extremely important for us, challenging us constantly: without caring we will lose the battle anyway – care is the sinew of precarious struggles (Nextgenderation 2006).6
Despite the fluidity of the concept of precarity itself, as evoked in the genealogical cartography, the actual precarity struggles -as many other social movements- run the risk of enclosing themselves into ghettoized frameworks based on fixed identities, such as the precariat, the cognitariat, etc. Explicit concern about this matter was expressed several times publicly in conferences, articles or in personal conversations. The figure of the long-term and visually coded activist, with few family or work responsibilities, was becoming the main actor of these struggles. This was seen with much internal criticism. An imperative to work with all those sectors in different precarious situations, but outside of coded circles of activism, brought Precarias to engage in a phase of alliance building. Rejecting the traditional logic of the “squat,” based on a defined group of people with clear boundaries between those in and those out, the production of alliances seemed the most appropriate mechanism. According to PD, the professionalization and ghettoization of activism was an elitist and inefficient approach to collective action, in many ways limiting both activists and broad social change. Instead, it was important to engage in practices to promote openness and knowledge of each other, “getting to interact and jointly organize with of all those people that despite of living and passing by so close to us, still remain so unknown for many of us” (interview march 2007).
This imperative towards breaking the myth and reality of ‘isolated islands of radicals’ was present since the inception of Precarias. In fact the very act of research is conceived as:
“The promotion of knowledge about ourselves and about others (…) We discovered in the practice of research a way to get out of the ghetto of activism” (Interview January 2008).
Despite being seemingly counter-intuitive, the epistemological foundation of “taking the self as a point of departure” was — rather than an enclosing mechanism — an intentional device to be able to speak in first person about processes affecting many and in that way being able to connect with others at the same level: “partir de sí para salir de sí” (taking the self as a point of departure to be able to get out of oneself). The second phase will go a step further engaging in the actual process of alliance building, developing personal bonding and common political projects with sectors of the population previously conceived as quite ‘other’. This shifted mode of engagement will be an object of controversy and dilemma for the members of La Agencia, whose own positionalities get displaced to further engage in processes of acompañamiento.7 This new phase directly confronted the challenge of generating affinities and common struggles among distinct figures of the amorphous precarious sector, going from isolated bodies to agglomerations of affect, building alternative socialibilities and political practices in the process. The new phase also seemed different from the previous one in the apparent absence of the research component. Was the research practice totally over or does it continue to be present in different ways? I was totally intrigued about this issue upon my arrival, posing the following question: Precarias as a research project has morphed into La Agencia. Does this mean that research is over with, in order to start with action? Where is the research now?
“For me it’s another phase of the research process. They are not separated. Eg. if they are separated you end up with products such as this dead book (PD member shows a book on Feminist Economics that she wanted to share with us). It looks very interesting, but it just that- a project destined to be a book and nothing else. On the contrary, Precarias’ book was alive and generated resonances because it was born out of processes of antagonism and social struggle. But now, we want to move beyond the “propedeuticocomunicativo” (something like producing communicative resonance) function, in order to engage in actual organizing experiments of those people that have been attracted by that analysis and the language it generated” (Interview PD member, March 5, 2007)
This speaks to the broader question of the role and the form of research in processes of social struggle. What I gathered through my participation in the new organizing phase as La Agencia, is that besides coming back to some of the concrete procedures used in the previous phase such as drifts and workshops, one of the main research continuities of this new phase is the practice of carefully recording and documenting everything.
7.1.2. The Philosophy of Recording
From the first moment of encountering the work by Precarias a la Deriva, I was impressed by the careful attention put into capturing the nitty-gritty of their own activities, including meetings, street actions, or research episodes. Documenting seemed to be a very conscious practice, as they explicitly refer to it in their first publication:
“Nuestra metodología es una practica minuciosa del registrar. Our methodology is based on a meticulous practice of registering” (PD, 2004: 4).
Personally, I really identified myself with this desire to capture what movements were saying, doing and imagining. It was something we -as the research team behind this dissertationreally missed in the movements in the US. Discussions among many contemporary US autonomous movements are often guided by a careful attention to process.8 Despite the important role given to note-taking, the product is usually a bullet-point document limited to the practical goal of informing those unable to attend or just to keep some sort of record of the consensus taken. However the practice of carefully documenting one’s own collective practices as a political tool had seduced us since we first met Precarias a la Deriva back in 2004, during one of our initial research trips. Recording seemed to serve as the nourishment for building a collective memory, as a way of resonating and connecting with many other people’s situations, as well as a possible generator of conflicts in places usually codified as apolitical. Through participation in meetings and especially via the list-serve, it became clearer what the reasons behind this practice were. This philosophy of registering was based on the awareness that what they were collectively doing,-whether as an independent group or whether in alliance with others- had some sort of value, and was worthy of recording: “First, we record as much as possible, and then we will see what we can do, there is always time to reuse those tapes,” joked one of the precarias just before one of the most popular workshops of the year. In other statement, during the yearly evaluation of La Agencia, registering come up again:
“Registering is a way to facilitate collective thinking, tracking what we are learning in the processes of struggle” (July 15, 2007)
During the evaluation, many expressed how they missed the practice of writing together and their desire to put more care into “documenting the things we are doing” through texts, drifts, puestas en común (putting things in common). The reasons for engaging further in the task of documenting, (reasons carefully taken down by myself as one of the two official note-takers of the meeting), were several:9
“to produce common thinking and collective analysis sin pudor (without reverence); to communicate hacia afuera (beyond the group itself), through research texts and videos as well as radio programs; to build common and rebellious imaginaries (construccion de imaginario); to boost the learning curve, through writing and street actions, fomenting the communicative and creative part of our work” (July 15, 2007)
Actually “getting out to the street” was conceived not as a mode of demanding something to someone, but rather as “a space for collective creativity, a process of joy and knowledge production”. The proposal was to carefully work at all the stages of the continuum between: research>production of outreach materials>generation of imaginary>action>research.
The possible uses of documented and archived material varied from internal purposes to connecting with society at large. In order to get things documented, these are some of the tools being used, what they refer as dispositivos de registro (recording dispositifs): 1) video cameras, 2) tape-recorders, 3) photo cameras, 4) notebooks, and 5) el relato. The first three are done with high-quality machines that all belong to the Eskalera Karakola which is in general, technologically well-equipped. The note-book is actually the most popular artifact among Precarias. Small, accessible, journalist-like, these are indispensable elements in meetings and other activities. Note-taking dates, ideas, or just contacts seem to be a crucial part of the culture. They are used in many of the activities, although the ones that would be transcribed and posted on the list-serve are usually the notes from the monthly meetings. Finally, el relato is kind of expressionist narrative of a recent event or itinerary, usually made immediately afterwards, what they called en caliente or “freshly made”. Normally it is not very thorough, but rather intentionally spontaneous and light. Emphasizing certain things and ignoring others, this kind of story-telling is detailed as well as strongly subjective. This is how one of the Precarias invited us to write about the drift-exploration to the CAMPF (one of the biggest residencies of people with disabilities in Madrid):
“escribamos ahora con el cuerpo, con todo lo que nos ha dado escalofríos, carcajadas, tristeza, emoción, …que ya seremos mas racionales después, en la evaluación” “let’s write now with our bodies, with everything that gave us chills, laughs, sadness and emotion,…we’ll have time to be rational later, in the evaluation” (December 4th, 2007, metro ride back from the residency of people with disabilities).
Relatos are usually short texts (one to two pages) filled with shared terms and direct calls to a close reader. Sometimes the relato is signed by one member, and in many occasions is written by several voices, what they term as: relato a tres voces, relato a seis voces, etc. Each contributor produces a part of the piece, and then they are all put together. Normally, relatos are posted on the list-serve narrating what happened during certain events, especially those where other members were not able to be present. Also, relatos are used to communicate what the group is doing to similar groups, narrating episodes of a collective past to be shared via email or via convergence. As research material, relatos are key components of both drifts and workshops. A drift is a source of multiple relatos, each participant will generate a very distinct narrative. The plan is to produce a short text right after the itinerary, normally back at home, ideally in the very same day, still filled with all the impressions and possible lines of flight suggested during that intense exposure to a reality. The following is a fragment of a relato:
Relato de una deriva por Paulina 4 Dec 2007
La visita al Campf.
La espesa niebla de la mañana en las afueras de Madrid, y los grados exagerados de la calefacción de la residencia, resumen un poco la sensación que me provocó el Campf.
No se puede resumir en pocas palabras ni con una valoración positiva o negativa. Para comenzar, verlas tempranito, ojerosas pero dispuestas, me dio muchísima alegría. Me recordaba la fuerza que da el caminar preguntando juntas. ¡Era una deriva!
El encierro, se huele, se ve, se palpa. Le deja a una ansiosa. Para matizar le decía a Ramón, a ver, cómo te explico, esa residencia en Ecuador, sería de lujo. Habitaciones individuales, amplios pasillos, limpieza. Pero igual deprime. Es el formato lo que oprime. La diferenciación tan fuerte entre quien tiene ruedas por piernas y piernas con uniforme.
Also, right after a productive workshop, where many ideas have come up but have not been totally developed, the plan is that the participants have to finish their thoughts suggested during the discussion at their homes through these short writings. After this description of “the philosophy of documenting” -a seemingly mundane and trivial practice-, one might see how this constant attentiveness to tracking down the different episodes of a collective struggle, becomes itself a knowledge production practice.10 This practice is based on different dispositivos de registro (recording techniques) that result in a series of “archives” (in the old-fashion and Foucauldian sense, that is, as a set of statements, enunciative modalities, concepts, etc. interrelated among themselves to constitute a system of sorts, an archive). Archives, in this sense, are also an important component among certain social movements.11
Therefore, running through this manifold transition made out of several changes, a continuum line is traceable, that is, the foundation on the practice and spirit of research. Through ethnographic notes and staging conversations, the section narrating the story of the alliance with domestic workers tries to evoke the presence, albeit discrete, of the practices of activist research. Yet, it is not only at the level of research practices. There is also continuity in terms of the conceptual findings starting to be developed in the previous research phase. Mainly, the question of care and its derivatives which are now put under trial and error, re-conceptualized and further elaborated through the exceptional laboratory constituted by the alliance building with some of the main sectors of care work: immigrant domestic labor. The following section introduces some of the main findings developed by Precarias based on their initial drifts, readings and group discussions during the previous phase. It might be seen as the beginning of a theory of care, or better, as the foundation of a conceptual lexicon useful to understand and intervene in the circuits of precarity intersecting with care.
7.2. Towards a Theory of Care: Building a Glossary of Concepts 12
The concept of care is simultaneously emerging in different disciplinary fields and spheres of knowledge: from ecology, to feminist economics, and even liberation theology. The contribution by Precarias is situated within this emerging attention to care as a political, economic and philosophical concept. What is distinct about Precarias’ contribution, is not only the connection made between care and the question of precarity, but especially the site and format of enunciation. Coming from a location of struggle, their theory of care is presented as something in the making, more in search of a common lexicon of conflict than a coherent and fixed series of answers. In this following section I present the five concepts related to the question of care that have been most developed by Precarias and that come out as the most explicit during the process of building the alliance with domestic workers. These five concepts are: care, care crisis, global care chains, careticizenship, and careful strike. These are some of the provisional understandings of each term:
We’re talking about the sustainability of life, that is to say, the daily activities of affective engineering that we propose to visibilize and revalorize as the prime material of the political, because we don’t want to think social justice without taking into account how it is built in day to day situations. (PD, Huelga de mucho cuidado 2003)
While this is one of Precarias statements about the centrality of care, they are inserted within a broader feminist wave towards the re-politicization, of care practices. What many contemporary feminist social movements mean by care is “those material and immaterial tasks that provide security and comfort to third ones -such as cleaning, cooking, nursing, rearing, smiling, reassuring, etc. -those activities necessary to sustain life itself”.14 Following their argument, despite its centrality in producing and maintaining life, contributing greatly to economic growth and socio-political development, all that production15 generated within the sphere of care has been for the most part undervalued and made invisible. Historically this invisible, nonrecognized and unpaid position has been assigned to women, and it is still the case nowadays where 85% of those who ‘take care of care’ are women (Sevilla Conference, April 2007).
However, some of the recent socio-economic transformations (e.g. women’s access to labor markets, migratory movements, flexibilization, etc.) not only strengthen the fragility and exploitation of that sector of the population traditionally ascribed to care issues (women), rather, these transformations are also generalizing the problems of care to the rest of the population, exponentially multiplying the question of who is in charge of caring. Care tasks end up, more clearly than ever, affecting everybody everywhere: since we all take care of somebody or we are being taken care of, we all have to deal with the emerging challenges of an increasing void of care-givers that have to be filled with different roles and actors (this phenomenon affecting mainly industrialized countries). The situation is exploding because of many deficiencies: such as the lack of an explicit policy about care-givers, of infrastructures and services, as well as of the cultural recognition and the monetary remuneration of that critical activity.
CARE CRISIS 16
The deepening and expansion of the ‘care-giver’ as an increasingly necessary figure, is opening contradictions and challenges referred to by Precarias and other feminists as the “care-crisis”. This crisis forces a necessary redefinition of the roles of care-givers and care-takers, opening questions such as: who is going to take care of those that need more care -children, elders, people with functional diversity, etc.? What kind of infrastructures, services, recognition and new family structures would resolve the current situation of a care-crisis? This crisis brings along both challenges and promising opportunities. If this crisis is understood as something not limited to the domestic sphere but rather, is seen as a social question, then it is possible to see its transformative potential. The logic of care, as basis for a more sustainable society, is counterposed to the dominant logic of profit-making and securitization. Also, care, as the set of activities oriented to sustain life, would generate a certain sense of commonality among diverse situations and different populations, helping to amplify mobilization processes.
GLOBAL CARE CHAINS 17
The process of globalization has entered into our homes through the question of domestic labor. The internationalization of care and intimacy is made out of what has been called “world chains of affect” (Russel 2001 in PD 2004). These chains are mainly formed by women, transferring care tasks from one woman to another one. This transfer of tasks might be with or without remuneration. These women are dispersed through homes, working simultaneously at local and international scales. Normally, these chains start in ‘poor’ countries and end up in ‘rich’ ones. For example, a sister or grandmother replaces the mother who migrated to northern countries to take care of the children or parents of another woman, who herself works outside of the home. This migrant woman will engage in both homes, multiplying her presence and transcending borders. This is the kind of affective work in chain, or in sequence, formed by women placed in different parts of the world but closely connected. This chain will be marked by relations of power and hierarchy among the women involved, depending on the social value of care work, racism and situation of legality of each link in the chain.
According to some contemporary feminists, the notion of care helps to redefine the political understanding of citizenship and rights, which as concepts of Modernity are both considered limited and biased. They recognize that even if citizenship was historically necessary to acquire certain improvements, according to a feminist analysis, citizenship is placed on the first side of the gender division made around public/private spaces and autonomous individual/ interdependent community. Besides emphasizing those ingrained divisions, the notion of citizenship is based on a state-centered notion of the political “always asking for something from a public institution”. Recognizing care would go beyond a monetary or legalist acknowledgement in the part of the state. Rights under the premise of care would be redefined as the necessary redistribution of care-tasks, redefining given roles and developing new infrastructures. This is what they refer to as cuidadanía. In Spanish, the term cuidadania was born out of a typo (interchanging a couple of letters, cui- instead of ciu-), that by mistake was written in the inaugural sign that is still present at the doors of the El Pumarejo Center. This very building hosted several years later an international conference on Precarity where this term was object of public discussion.19 Some Sevilla-based feminist groups started to appropiate this grammatical episode in order to rethink the connections between care and rights.
A CAREFUL STRIKE
In order to call attention to the importance of care work among both precarious circles as well as society in general, Precarias came up with an imaginative proposal. Rather than a foreseeable political strategy, it was conceived as a consciousness raising mechanism. This discursive proposal was a strike of care work: calling to stop and thus make visible the necessary, continuous, and invisible activities of care. Based on that paradoxical call for stopping the unstoppable, the goal was to bring attention to care’s centrality and to start a process towards the politicization of care. Posing the following kind of proposal constitutes a creative and communicative tool for the generation of a different imagination:
“In this way the strike appears first as a question: “what is your care strike?” In second place, the strike appears as a multiple and daily practice, because care is not a domestic question but a public affair and a generator of conflict.” (PD 2003)
To recapitulate, the conceptualization of care via these five terms is not understood as finished or completely articulated. Rather, it is the beginning of something to be proven useful, sharable, and able to appeal subjectively and intervene politically. For instance, through the alliance with domestic workers these concepts are put to work, discussed, imagined and re-made, articulating a common lexicon in order to think through innovative ways to reconsider one’s own conditions and act politically. The following ethnographic section attempts to convey a sense of a theory of care “in the making”. The terms of the glossary will appear as point of departure for broader discussions.
The next section provides several responses to the initial research questions guiding this dissertation project by introducing the context of emergence, describing the research practices that go into making a political-affective alliance as well as the further development of concepts in the process. The material mostly comes from ethnographic field notes taken at meetings, workshops and drifts, as well as performance-actions in public space. The process of alliance building among La Agencia and a group of active domestic workers speaks to the three contentions advanced in this dissertation, though emphasizing the third one: that is, the hypothesis of the transformative potential of research, in terms of subject formation, fostering agency and re-inventing political imaginaries. Through the story of the relationship, I hope to show how each party originally came with distinct notions of the political, including a certain sense of the political subject and concrete ideas for political strategies. Through the alliance, an emerging process of mutual contagion of political logics was fostered, articulating a renovated political imaginary and collective lexicon of struggle.
7.3. Alliance with Migrant Domestic Workers: The Silent Revolt of Care Takers
Migrant domestic work was one of the main themes for the initial research project by Precarias. Conducting a drift with a domestic worker from Ecuador allowed many of Precarias’ members to walk through the different spatial corners of her everyday itinerary and engage in dialogue about issues not usually spoken about. The uniform became one of the main topic of discussion and confession by the part of this woman, who openly spoke of the uniform as a “check point”, a marker of hierarchical difference as if the border and all its racial profiling mechanisms were embedded in that piece of cloth. While I was there, this drift and its implications were mentioned several times:
“After having conducted drifts through the intense lives of some domestic workers, I would not give up to the potential of a foreseeable common struggle” (Retiro Park, long day evaluation meeting, July 15, 2007).
This speaks to how this experience deeply touched many of the participants, making a profound impact on the findings, which significantly geared from the question of precarity itself towards issues related to the “globalization of care”. This shift also invigorated a political energy towards the desire to articulate and work with a sector -migrant domestic women- that despite its growth had not thus far been politically visible.
7.3.1. Shifts in the Geographies of Domestic Labor
Since the fifties, the growing incorporation of women into the job market has increased the problem of how and who is to address domestic labor and care work towards children, sick and elderly people, in other words, towards all those people more acutely dependent on others.
This worldwide process has taken different rhythms and articulations depending on each historical context. In this case of Spain, as in other countries of the Southern rim of Europe, this process overlapped with the period of increasing economic de-regulation and the regression of young welfare states:
Con estas premisas, cabe decir que el trabajo domestico y de cuidado se esta reorganizando. Las nuevas necesidades de cuidado (acentuadas por el envejecimiento de la población) y las dificultades de un contexto laboral (que prima la temporalidad y recorta los derechos), agravan las condiciones en que se reproduce la reproducción, por no hablar del tiempo para sí, para la sociabilidad y la acción social y política. Así pues, la función del “ama de casa” no desaparece sino que se reconfigura (Hogares, Cuidados y Fronteras 2004: 12). 20
This arrival of women into the job market then did not change the enduring division between the professional and the family spheres. The feminist critique calling attention to the power relations embedded in that dichotomy of public/private spaces was still valid. Reproduction work did not gain any re-valorization, despite constituting the basis of any functioning society. Rather than being considered as critical common responsibilities of society at large, domestic work, attention towards children and care work in broad terms, are conceived as something to be managed individually, under the sole responsibility of the nuclear family. In this context where care is undermined and market-oriented activities are socially and economically praised, women are not willing anymore to accept the role of “mere house-wife”. Still, some of them have to go through the well-known “double workday”. The other partial solution has been to rely on a “third woman”. This third woman is increasingly a migrant woman, subordinated to the controls and constraints of an increasingly restrictive border and migration regime. This woman experiences severe restrictions in terms of family life herself as a result of the migratory policies that limit any kind of family re-aggregation. This growing product of a “new global division of labor” is particularly a novelty for the case of Spain, which for a long time had not been a country of in-migration. Also, the growing equation between the “care giver” and migrant woman brings along new articulations of class, ‘race’ and gender, in a country that was internally quite homogenous in ethnic terms. According to one study, the historical infra-valorization of care and domestic work increasingly mediated by the ethnic difference becomes the neo-colonial foundation not only for Spain, but for the new Europe (Hogares, Cuidados y Fronteras 2004: 13). This explanation points to the complex political economy of care.21 Care, also for Precarias, is shaped by class, race, gender and nationality. This could actually be related to coloniality, care becoming a space of tension where modern/colonial power relations are reproduced.
In this context, the Socialist government announced a series of legal changes which would consider domestic work under the general regime of labor. Until then, domestic work was legislated under a special labor regime, established well before the achievements of workers’ movements, and as such, with notably fewer rights than a regular worker. The integration of this special regime to the general labor regime was one of the measures to limit the increasing number of abuses and illegal conditions in the domestic sector. According to the Ministry of Labor, the majority of domestic workers in Spain are currently situated in the informal or unregulated sectors of the national economy.22
This legal opening provoked certain timid responses by unions in support of the legal change. Yet, these statements were not so loud and eloquent as usual. This might be due to the historical and present lack of familiarity on the part of unions in dealing with this kind of ‘atypical worker,’ most of the time under no formal contract or ‘semi-illegal’ contracts, and the reluctance to address the growing intricacies of informal economies and the increasing migrant working class. In this context, new lines of conflicts emerged around age-old questions, although articulated differently in terms of gender, ethnicity and forms of struggle.
7.3.2. History of an Alliance
“Alianzas como intercambio de energías, conocimientos y prácticas. Alliances as exchanges of energies, knowledges and practices” La Agencia evaluation meeting, Julio 15, 2007
The first alliance embarked upon by the recently created Agencia Precaria was with this turbulent sector of immigrant domestic work. In particular, it was with a concrete initiative called Servicio Domestico Activo-SEDOAC (Domestic Service in Action). This is a nascent attempt by a few domestic workers who, after having gone through a frustrating experience with mainstream unions, wanted to organized themselves independently. Sedoac women accidentally met women from the Agency and after some initial communication, decided to embark on a process of collaboration. The Agency would offer a well-located and welcoming physical space for meetings and more public gatherings, as well as free legal consultation thanks to the various lawyers associated to Eskalera Karakola. For its part, Sedoac, in a kind of political reciprocity, would provide the entrance to a labor sector usually quite inaccessible, share survival strategies and organizing practices. Many Sedoac members displayed a political expertise characterized by great speaking abilities and creative and pleasurable activities, due to organizing backgrounds in their respective countries of origin.
However, the beginning was challenging due to the logistical difficulties in materializing the relationship. The activities done together were minimal and the communication hard given the disparity of work schedules and family responsibilities. The first assessment about the alliance, done in the annual evaluation meeting on July 2007, was quite pessimistic in regards to level of mutual cognizance and collaboration. However, in that same meeting, many expressed the desire to try it again. The consensus about working on the domestic question come mainly from the strength and reflection gained during the research phase. Through the next year, after some initial yet serious logistical difficulties, a routine of activities started to come together enough to enable each party to see each other more often and plan joint events together. In the process, as the ethnographic account shows, different visions of politics arose and became the source of misunderstandings but also mutual influence and collective learning. Also, the procedures being previously used by Precarias as research methods -mainly, drifts and workshops-, were put to work to strengthen the organizing goals. The spirit of research and inquiry runs through the different activities that make up the alliance, in the sense of investigating the intricate realities of paid domestic work as well as of nurturing the desire of knowing each other’s realities.
The following section is made out of my fieldnotes from attending a series of workshops. Having participated since the inception of this particular alliance, I selected a fragment of the development of this relationship, including the first joint activity between the groups, which consisted in the planning and execution of a drift as well as the first of three co-organized workshops. These are particularly significant in terms of structure and content. These encounters are narrated as “scenes,” putting the actors on the stage by themselves. Each intervention is identified by collective figures: Agencia, Sedoac and other interested domestic workers, without specifying individual names. The goal is to show the process of alliance building and mutual politicization.
The First Joint Drift:
Political Imaginaries in Tension: Law vs. Affect
One of the main problems of a recently arrived or long-term migrant domestic worker is the isolation and lack of knowledge about one’s rights and consequently, the difficulty of organizing with others. Sedoac women were indeed concerned about how to increase the small numbers of domestic workers active in changing their conditions. La Agencia proposed to distribute flyers in different parts of the city where domestic workers would be passing through on their ways to work, publicizing a workshop for migrant domestic workers. Since the domestic servant’s workspace is a private home, it was necessary to think in terms of itineraries and transit spots as the places of potential encounter. The know-hows learned from the experience of urban drifting proved useful at this point. When trying to reach this kind of atypical worker, most in the informal economy, traditional publicizing venues such as posts at union locals resulted as inefficient.
After a long brainstorming session among members of Agencia and Sedoac while sitting around a map of the city, two itineraries were traced: one would pass along the different employment pool offices (bolsas de trabajo) for domestic work; and the other would target the main transportation hubs (intercambiadores) of the city early in the morning and late at night, following the domestic work schedule. So far the two parties seemed to agree in terms of strategic planning, the divergences though arrived when discussing about what was the flyer calling for:
SEDOAC. We are calling for a workshop for domestic workers to demand the promised change of law in reference to domestic work: the transition from a special labor regime to the general regime in order to be considered with the same rights as any other worker.
AGENCIA. Yes, ok. But that demand is exactly what the president Zapatero is going to do, we need to ask for more, right?
SEDOAC. Well, he promised to do this, but when and under what conditions?
AGENCIA. My point is that what we are fighting for going even further than a particular legal change, right?…we are fighting for women’s rights, undocumented workers’ rights…we are doing a revolution!
SEDOAC. Mmm…. It is true that this change of law is not enough, but still it is important…what about adding to the main theme of the workshop -change of law-something like…”because we always deserve more!”
They finally agreed upon the content of the flyer. This was not a mere discussion about the terms, but about the very purpose of the first public event organizad by this alliance. The disagreement upon the goals envisioned for this joint workshop shows two different ways of understanding political action. This clash of political logics will come up again and again, being reformulated through the process of alliance building.
Plaza del Sol, January 15, 2008:12am
During the day of the expedition, small mixed groups converged at the different places identified as targets for flyer distribution. The goal was not only to publicize an event, but to spark conversations that would potentially lead to more knowledge about the territories, institutions and itineraries of domestic work.
“Drifts are mechanisms to generate spaces of encounter and provoke conversations at places that are produced as absent and silent” (Interview Agencia member, January 15, 2008)
Aware of this function of the drift, I was part of the small group in charge of the itinerary through four different labor pools of the city. The expedition started at the metro stop of Plaza del Sol, where several participants of Agencia and Sedoac converged. The walk started with a conversation among the drifters themselves about the “legal question”.
AGENCIA. I don’t like it, but I totally understand this legalist concern that SEDOAC has. It is a consequence of so much pressure on the part of society to have papers about everything: papers for citizenship, papers for contracts, papers for family issues… without those papers you are potential object of abuse…as if our lives would depend on pieces of paper…as if one would be made out of paper!
SEDOAC. Yes, I don’t like it neither…and much less to think of myself as merely be made out of paper, but since they are so key to define issues of life and death…we want to focus our struggle to regularize our papers both as migrants without legal status and as workers of the informal economy.
AGENCIA. Hey, hey… I think through this alliance there is the possibility of learning something from each other though: we are realizing how vital the legal question is for many people, something we ourselves were really bad at admitting, except for the abuses suffered when not having the right papers in terms of formalizing homosexual relations… At the same time, I hope we are showing how this “aferrarse a lo juridico” is not enough and many times even limiting the efficiency of the struggle … focusing on the individual achievement of papers limit processes of collective struggle…
SEDOAC. Why is that limiting?
AGENCIA. The only certitude we can offer is that being alone we can not do anything, but together we are able to efficiently struggle: inventing ways to intervene in everyday conflicts and putting cooperation and collective creativity at the service of the battle to change our current conditions. Rather than focusing on each individual case, the goal is to generate a solid base of affect, as source to fight for individual and collective rights. Even if you personally are totally depressed, try to have the energy to share it in collective spaces and redefine individual problems into common issues.
This debate will run through the development of the alliance, starting a process of mutual contagion among distinct political logics: papers vs. creacion de lazo; law vs. affect; state vs. beyond the state… For instance, this clash of different notions of the political and thus new political subjectivities re-appears in the following account of the first workshop.
The first jointly-organized workshop: Re-defining notions of expertise and representation
During the preparations for the first public activity together, while women from SEDOAC insisted that the main goal was the integration of domestic work to the general labor regime, Agencia participants always framed it in terms of rights in the broader sense, or more open-ended struggles affecting different spheres of life. The first set of goals emphasized legal concerns such as gaining further knowledge on the specifics about workers’ rights or having access to lawers. The second set of goals, (especially after witnessing frustrated efforts at organizing by undocumented street vendors who focused too much on the issue of papeles23
recognized the importance of the legal question but wanted to go beyond that. For the actual workshop, Agencia members offered to distribute material about specifics on legal issues, but also avoided having a workshop reduced to individual consultations on particular cases addressed to a legal expert. On the contrary, for them it was crucial that this first workshop would function as a space of encounter among domestic workers themselves, offering the possibility to feel themselves, at least temporarily, outside of the usual state of acute isolation and fragmentation experienced in that sector. Rather than an expert to be consulted, the premise was to facilitate a self-empowering sense that ‘we are the experts’ on this topic, nobody knows ‘better than us’ about how it is to live under these conditions. During the preparatory meeting a week before the workshop, SEDOAC women showed certain enthusiasm about this idea proposing that if ‘we are the experts’, we have to start by sharing our own experiences and knowledges in order to create a common pool. The point of doing a go-around (each participant sharing her own experience) at the beginning of the workshop was to build a sense of collectivity instead of the usual path of facing problems on an individual basis.
After having participated in email discussions, informal meetings with domesticas and precarias as well as helping in the publicizing of their first public event together, I was excited when the day of the Agencia-Sedoac workshop arrived. On the walk to Eskalera Karakola from my apartment, I was thinking that rather than focusing exclusively on the topic of the discussion, I should also pay attention to the procedures, since I heard Precarias counting the “taller” as a research method. What format and concrete methods are used? How are the roles of researchers and researched defined? Is the presence of a research agenda explicit? The first workshop centered on the new legal opening promised by the Socialist Party: the integration of domestic work within the general labor regime. This topic provided the possibility to show different notions of the political and concepts of expertise at work. The theme of the workshop was to explore the juridical regime of domestic work.
Workshop about the juridical regime of domestic labor
Eskalera Karakola. Sunday February 3, 2008: 16 pm
The workshop took place at an indoor space decorated with casual furniture, artistic posters and political flyers. There was a large red floor and a huge bay window at street level. A welcoming area with a sofa and coffee table greeted all entrants. Next to it, without an intermediary wall, a large space was filled with chairs in a circle. Around ten domestic workers that had heard of the workshop arrived on time, sitting around the little table and shyly introducing themselves to each other…A few minutes later, the room was packed with around 40 people, most of them domestic women, 3 men accompanying them, and around seven agencieras. Most of the workshop dynamic was facilitated by some Sedoac members (the 3 that had been most involved in co-organizing with the Agencia). Some logistical roles were divided among agencieras: note taking on a big blackboard; snacks; time keeper …After a half an hour presentation about how Servicio Domestico Activo (SEDOAC) was formed out of the frustration emerging from one of the major meetings on domestic work organized by big institutional actors and central unions (ADESCO), the circle was opened to participation:
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER. Oh! So are there any lawyers here today?…
Sedoac. Not today, our organization is too small yet to be able to provide legal services.
Agencia. For today, we are distributing a copy of the current rights in the domestic sector. We also have several copies of this guide explaining different resources for free legal assistance.
All the copies were distributed. The introduction to the workshop continued while the attendants were taking a look at that material. This time the workshop was framed in terms of building up on our own expertise.
AGENCIA. The workshop is also conceived as a way to create “herramientas de autodefensa” (self-defense tools) to be used in unfair and challenging situations…useful tools, but not always legal solutions… the idea today is to start from our own experiences as real experts on our own situations…who else is going to know better what our problems are?…and share those knowledges to form a common pool of knowledge, useful for many of us….that’s the goal of today’s encounter: to narrate and share our concrete expertise: what to do in certain cases/what to avoid/etc….things a lawyer would be unable to know… INTERESTED DOMESTIC
WORKER. I really like that, what you just said…
After that brief interruption, the presentation about SEDOAC went on by a very articulate and empowering speaker from Colombia.
SEDOAC. Our expectations of getting legal status were defrauded by working in such a deregulated, invisible and exploitative sector. When you finally get your own papers (regularization in terms of migration status), suddenly you start paying “la seguridad social” (social security), you feel as if you were one more in this society and outside of the fears of being deported…however…you realize how even though you are paying as any other worker, you are not getting the same labor rights nor the same social treatment: no right to the unemployment subsidy; no right to sick leave …; not even the possibility of having a contract in writing, everything is just agreed upon by word.
SEDOAC. “Nos espabilamos” [we woke up]…we gained some consciousness about this unjust situation, and especially because of the need to feel accompanied we started this small organization that is just beginning…with four courageous women.
SEDOAC. I have to change my talk because of recent news: I was supposed to talk about the legal differences between the current status of domestic workers under the “regimen especial” and the promising status that would have been gained when this sector would have become part of the “regimen general”. However, during this past week the government announced that this would not happen yet.24
AGENCIA. Well, the European Union wanted to eliminate all the “special regimes” in terms of labor policy within EU countries. The Spanish government has been doing that with some economic sectors such as agricultures, however with the sector of domestic work, there has been a delay…the excuse is that the concerned parts have not arrived to an agreement…however, the concerned parts are just a paradoxical representation of the sector: the employers’ association on one side, and on the other, the main unions.25
The need of forming some kind of collectivity against everyday isolation as well as the question of gaining awareness about one’s own expertise were rapidly linked to issues of representation.
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER. So, who is representing us? Why aren’t there more associations of domestic workers? We are trying to form one, there are others in Bilbao, Valladolid, etc…we have to put something together at the national level!!
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER. Having this kind of association behind you would:
– give you more security and legitimacy at your workplace: our bosses will know that we are not alone, by ourselves…”they are always saying: let me consult with my manager “gestor”…we will be able to answer, “let me consult with my association”…
-we would also have more information about our own rights and about where to go in case of abuse: we can show this guide for immigrants’ rights and resources you just gave us to our bosses…
-we could invite our bosses to these kinds of talleres…
The impulse for this kind of self-organizing came from the analytical realization of the importance of their work. Many domestic workers were thinking along the same line: “Why are we being so economically and socially underestimated, despite our critical contribution to families and society at large?” Sedoac women explain their analysis of the value of care work as well as some of the transformations they were observing as a result of the migration question.
SEDOAC. Exactly…all our organizing is based on our own analysis about how this sector, despite being forgotten by the government and undervalued by society, is actually the foundation for society. It facilitates the social, labor and family life of many women, and families of this country…
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER.. We take care of someone else kids’ with an intense love, the love that we are not giving to our own children -many times of the same age- in our countries of origin…
SEDOAC. Care work, now and here, is intimatly connected with migration. This brings along a series of transformations into our role: the same way technologies and globalization have advanced communications and economic transactions across distance in real time, my care work is also taking place across distance in real time.
SEDOAC. Migration is not sequential, and even less now, when you are indeed living in two or more worlds at the same time…women not only have to be able to be simultaneously in two places -at work and at home-, this super-woman now must be able to be in a third place, the South.
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER. Right. And not only the space gets multiplied, but also the time is “desdoblado”, simultaneously taking care of several people.
As the time-keeper, at this point I made signals to put an end to the initial presentation since it was longer than planned. Nonetheless, it was worthwhile I think, because it gave people a much better idea of what this encounter was about, and also laid down the ground for encouraging participation sharing analyses about the intersections of domestic work and migration. After insisting on the value and expertise of domestic workers, it was time to listen to each other. The next part of the workshop consisted in a round of sharing experiences, particularly concrete moments of conflict and negotiation.
SEDOAC. The method proposed for having an efficient discussion is the following: we will go in a circle, each of us addressing two points: first, narrating a crucial experience of conflict, of abuse; and second, how you responded, or not, and how you negotiated…
After this, we will see what topics are the most repeated and do small groups to work on those issues, and there we will address the third question: what should I have done? What could I have done? By myself or with others? The result of this would be a list of strategies that we will put in common at the very end of the taller.
At this point we were around 40 people. Each woman started to narrate different episodes, some with many more details, others with more passion, some (around 5) said they were happy without problems so far….
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER. Everything began like roses, as if we were in love, my boss would tell me “oh my dear how well you’ve cleaned!”. But everything turned upside down when I asked her to help process my papers… she began to ignore me, to not look at me, to avoid me…until I finally got in front of her one day to ask her again. She told me that I couldn’t demand anything, that in this country I was an illegal, and that “I couldn’t even walk the streets of Madrid”…I answered that “I was just as much a senora as she was” and I went running home to cry…
After many testimonies, the more frequent topics were written down on a blackboard:
1) conflicts around the question of migration documents;
2) irregular layoffs;
3) stories about racist and sexual harassment;
4) greater workload than originally agreed upon
The big circle was broken down into four random small groups by each participant choosing a number between 1 and 4. While the chairs were being moved, the ambiance was very warm, with chatter and laughter, everyone enjoying little snacks and drinks. People seemed quite at ease especially after sharing those personal stories. Right after, each small group worked on one of the four main problematics identified during the go-around in the big circle. After half and hour of focused discussion on how to respond to these different situations of conflict, it was the moment to put the material in common. Everything was written down on a large flip-chart. Overall, there was an unexpected eagerness to go out to the street and make the domestic work question visible. Many mentioned the importance of sharing and writing down the nitty-gritty about practical advice and everyday tricks in negotiations.
After the workshop, at the monthly internal meeting of the Agencia, everybody was quite positive about the workshop: “we saw much more energy and eagerness to do something than expected, although also being prudent about calling for mobilizations before the “vinculo” [link] among the current participants is made stronger and more people are engaged in the process” (February 23, 2008). They also discussed the tension among the legal priority versus the goal of self-empowerment and the importance of learning together. Some of the Agencia participants confessed that at times, during the workshop, the tension was felt as an irresovable conflict.
This first workshop, in addition to being a long, yet fun encounter and a productive discussion on the question of domestic work, revealed a series of distinct notions of politics and expertise. For instance, in terms of political goals, many domestic workers emphasize the struggle for changing the legal status of domestic work, especially because formalizing the documents related to migration was not a guarantee of better treatment at work or personal improvement. The domestic workers with papers testified how even after being legalized they were still suffering the abuses of the informal economy. Others, mostly members of Agencia but also domestic workers, were envisioning the generation of a space of encounter and selfempowerment, an opportunity for aggregation and mutual support to break their impotence and isolation. Related to this question are the understandings of expertise and representation: while some wanted to rely more on lawyers and mainstream associations, others defended the double statement of ‘we are the experts’ and thus ‘we can represent ourselves’. Something that seemed to be agreed upon, was the centrality of care work and the need for its re-valorization. All of these themes will be further developed in the next workshop, a month later.
Workshop about Strategies:
Fears and Challenges Sunday March 16, 2008: 17:00 pm
Familiar faces when I got to Eskalera Karakola. Also a few new faces started to arrive: domestic workers from Cote d’Ivoire, Colombia, Rumania…as well as a lawyer and a nun (from the popular Church of San Lorenzo, very involved in Ferrocarril Clandestino and an immigrant women’s group). The workshop started with a member of SEDOAC welcoming everybody and asking for a round of introductions: say your name and something that rhymes with it, as an easy way to start breaking the ice. The new ones were asked to talk briefly about their experience: where they were from, how was their work and current migrant status. One of them, from Colombia, was very insisting asking details about the event. Even if it felt like a pain at the time, it was a way for everybody to get to know better what SEDOAC, la Agencia and these workshops were about. It is interesting how B introduce la Agencia and la EKKA:
INTERESTED DOMESTIC WORKER. And what is La Agencia? What about Eskalera Karakola, written with K in the flyer?
SEDOAC. They are going to tell you right now, but let me say that they have been great allies since the beginning supporting many of our calls, like this one, inviting us to their space. “Contamos con el apoyo de un grupo de chicas comprometidas con la causa” (We count on the support from a group of girls committed to the cause)
This way of representing the members and role of the Agencia was an object of discussion during the Agencia’s internal monthly meetings. It was an uncomfortable position because they look at the struggle of improving domestic work as part of a broader struggle against precarity and for the revalorization of care work. Instead of supporters, they felt and wanted to be seen as part of the same common struggle. This speaks to the broader challenges of processes of acompañamiento.
SEDOAC. We are going to present the methodology and structure that some of us from Sedoac and la Agencia have prepared for this second workshop.
AGENCIA. “La dinamica del taller” tries to build upon the main conclusion of the previous workshop, that is, the importance and yet underestimation of care work. In order to push this hypothesis further along we will do a spontaneous brainstorm about how to visibilize the problems faced in and the contributions offered by our work. After that, we will break in to small groups to discuss possible challenges and specifics in materializing those ideas.
In order to spark the imagination, the brainstorming session included the video-screening of “El Futuro de los Cuidados”, a fantasy based news report that portrays the consequences of a hypothetical strike in the care sector. 26 What would happen if women stop taking care even just for one day? The goal to visualize the relevance of domestic work directly spoke to the larger question of care and its intimate connection with precarity. Sharing everyday experiences of conflict and brainstorming strategies of visibilization was the beginning of a long-term process of the politicization of care work.
SEDOAC. We have organized the main points coming up from our brainstorm in three clusters:
1) Fight for the right and the practice to speak up at the private workplace (answer back to your employer if necessary, don’t swallow everything, share your story with others);
2) Strategize tactics to make our supposedly individual problems public (street performances, media-grabbing attention actions (eg. collective sweeping of iconic buildings such as the Ministry of Labor or the Congress), collective legal suits, strikes?, participation on TV and radio programs, “escraches” to particularly abusive employers to make their behavior known among neighbors).
3) Organize a consciousness rising campaign (de sensibilizacion) addressing politicians, public opinion in general but also geared towards domestic workers and employers.
All of these proposed actions implied a significant transformation of assumed practices and stereotypes as a domestic worker: first, from being quiet and submissive to being eloquent and knowledgeable about their own rights and responsibilities; second, from remaining in a semi-hidden state, alone with their fears of employers and migration authorities, to feeling accompanied and supported enough to make their work public and an object of political discussion. Finally, from being under the burden of multiple super-imposed prejudices -as woman, immigrant, from different ethnic background and being a domestic servant- to being able to participate in a struggle for recognition and re-valorization – in short, a struggle for dignity.
This struggle is based on the premise that care work must be recognized as essential to the overall functioning of a society. This postulate is shared and supported by la Agencia who arrived to the same conclusion, not only from the world of domestic work but also from other spheres. These workshops in search for actions were based on that premise. However, it was important not to take for granted the feasibility of political action among a sector under high vigilance and feeling all kinds of pressures and abuses…it was necessary to go step by step, doing politics of care with ‘care’, being attuned and sensitive to the challenges of those conditions…. The second half of the workshop was structured in small groups to address the delicate question of fears. This format provided a space for more intimate conversations and allowed for the discovery of affinities among the participants.
Three small working groups discussed for almost two hours the possibilities of the actions proposed, starting from personal fears to thinking through feasible and concrete strategies. Our group, made out of participants from Agencia, Sedoac and new interested domestic workers, gathered women from Morrocco, Colombia, Ecuador, Cote d’Ivoire, Rumania, USA and Spain.
Care Workers Strike? Relato en caliente de una discusion sin precedentes
Our group dove into the idea of a strike: Before anything else, we made sure that all of us knew what strike meant, since we represented many different political traditions and distinct situations in each country. We all knew in theory what it meant, but in the moment when we asked ourselves if we had participated in one…the majority of us had no experience.27 Asking about personal experiences of strike participation and about the references it brought for each of us was somehow a way of creating a joint understanding of the meaning of strike and what it would imply to strike in the domestic care sector.
We spoke about the difficulties of striking in relation to carework and domestic labor in particular…stopping the machines, not going to the factory for a few days is very different from refusing to take care of a blind person, of children, etc. So, how could we reinvent the formula of the strike in order to adapt it to a sector where the space of work is the private residence; where the workday is lived alone, without other workmates; and where the raw materials of the work are people, normally very dependent people, instead of machines? After getting stuck for quite some time, and thinking that it was nearly impossible to conduct a strike in such a situation, we recuperated our energy by reminding ourselves that the state of things needed to be changed. Then we began to imagine that it was possible to STOP caring temporarily, though taking previous concrete steps: letting people know with enough time in order to find family members and friends that can help as caretakers, or finding a way to provide ‘minimal service’ (such as leaving prepared food).
Starting from Fears
In order to avoid triumphalist solutions and filling our mouths with grand plans that at the moment of truth would be unrealizable, we had to start from the most micro, from the most everyday experiences and above all from those fears that would stop us from conducting such an unprecedented feat: a strike of domestic workers! The goal being that by sharing common fears the situations of the different domestic workers would be de-individualized. By speaking of concrete experiences from each workplace, the fears began to appear…the idea suggested by the organizers of the workshop was to talk about fears by representing each of them with balloons decorated with different material distributed around the several small groups. Our group came up with the following fears and corresponding representations:
• The fear of being fired was represented by Don Joaquín, who appeared here as a red balloon with hair made out of several wool strings, cotton eyes, pointy eyebrows made with a marker and a flat mouth made with a wool string. The live-in domestic worker for this blind person explained the strong sense of responsibility she had towards him; but also spoke of him as a boss that could pay her better and help with questions related to migration papers for her family but did not, and that is why she felt the need to complain.
• The fear of abuse was represented by el Sr. Embassador, who was recreated via a balloon with curly hair made of cotton. The live-in domestic worker for the ambassadors of the Ivory Coast in Madrid had gone through abuses such as being quasi-locked in her living quarters and paid a monthly salary of only 100 euros!
• The fear of being falsely accused was represented by Dona Ana, the boss of a Morroccan girl working part time for her. Dona Ana was a minimalist white balloon, with one woolen string for hair and an anonymous face of panic! Dona Ana had refused to pay her the last several months. Even though the domestic worker did not have her papers, she dared to legally denounce the case with the support of the Ferrocarril Clandestino and a group of women from the Church of San Lorenzo. Her boss responded by threatening to accuse here of theft, a false accusation, that would have to be settled in court.
• The fear of continuous pressure and stress was represented by Dona Rosa, with long hair made out of blue tissue paper and a face drawn with black marker. She looked pretty but very angry.
Dona Rosa was the owner for various bar-restaurants in the city. She was a continuously nervous boss and always bugging her employees. Working as domestic worker for her, she could not imagine asking such a boss to go on strike, when this boss wouldn’t even give her a little time off when her family came to visit from Romania.
The pooling and visualization of fears becomes a way of identifying a series of common collective problems, and thus generating situated analyses and potential strategies. At the end, what emerges goes beyond a self-help tool box to fix individual problems. Rather, the result moves towards the creation of a collective identity and a common political strategy. This effort of indagación de nosotras mismas (“investigation of ourselves”) was channeled through the simple research technique of a focus group discussion – assisted by balloons – to fuel processes of collective self-empowerment. The format of the small group used in many activist and community development settings was truly envisioned as a research focus group, potentially able to generate analyses and conceptual contributions. The practices of documenting during the discussion spoke to that realization: what was being discussed was carefully recorded, treating the material as a source of knowledge, the basis for a new political lexicon, and possibly for publishing and reaching broader publics. This modus operandi resembles many of the traditions of engaged inquiry from which activist research draws upon, particularly feminist consciousness rising, Participatory Action Research and engaged scholarship more broadly speaking. The pooling together of fears in this case serves as an example of how a simple research technique such as a focus group discussion could serve as the generation of new analyses and political tools that come from rearticulated subjective positions, and like a balloon, could these fears once articulated be able to float and fly away?
Finally, we discussed different strategies to supersede the fears of striking and propose formulas of public action adequate to the circumstances, including a clandestine strike of care takers.28 What Precarias advanced once as a hypothesis of political action, “una huelga de cuidados,” was now being put to test. The evocative power of this concept -a generalized stoppage of care related tasks- was a formula to call attention to the crucial yet invisible role of care work. Now, the role of constructing imaginary and discursive production encountered the concrete terrain of bodies and everyday practices ready to embark in the enactment of that concept. The concept of striking, however, will be re-articulated according to the concrete needs and pressures lived in the everyday. In particular, rather than jumping to the colossal organizing strategy of organizing a strike among domestic workers, the alliance decided to start a long-term process of low-intensity requirements, yet highly powerful in their contents. This brought back the original tension between the two groups of a politics of law versus a politics of affect: while some wanted to limit the organizing process to making sure the promised law was finally passed; others wished this coming together was the source of a collective identity able to put effective political strategies without precedents, such as a strike of care takers. Finally, as if product of a mutual contagion, it seemed that those two sides of the spectrum reached a consensus: the important matter was to put care at the center of the public debate. Such a daring goal required mostly a struggle upon well-engrained values and long-lasting prejudices. This brought along a re-articulation of political strategies, instead of the strike, what was needed at this point was a campaign for the re-valorization of care work. The campaign was the theme of the next series of workshops.
7.3.3. Building a Campaign to dignify domestic labor
The rest of workshops of the year 2008 centered around conceiving an effective awareness campaign (campana de sensibilizacion). The other issues discussed in the very first workshops co-organized by Agencia and Sedoac -speaking up in the private and public spacealso remained part of the campaign discussions. For instance, in order to support the process of self-empowerment in domestic space, several work sessions were organized to share “trucos”: that is, the nitty-gritty of mastering the diplomatic skills required for the delicate balance between proffesionality and intimacy proper of domestic work. Also a list of domestic workers’ rights and responsabilities was put together to be distributed among the upcoming participants. This simple legal tool was something absent thus far and greatly welcomed by both veterans as well as new domestic workers. In terms of interventions in the public space, several ideas of street performances were considered. Finally, on the eve of one of the negotiations about the new law about domestic work, agencieras and domesticas performed the first street action at the Plaza del Sol in November 23, 2008. The action consisted in series of theater scenes about everyday episodes typically encountered by domestic workers. The improvised actors were prepared with with all kind of artifacts associated with domestic work: from cofias to brooms, and strollers, together with hand-made signs expressing simple and direct statements: ¿Si te importa cuidar a tu familia, por que no cuidas tambien a quien la cuida? As a way of closing the different scenes everybody joined in big applause and a common shout: “Porque sin nosotras no se mueve el mundo”.29
In order to move the campaign forward, there were two items to be resolved: first, an attractive slogan and second, a direct logo able to capture the goals of this long-term campaign. It was a campaign not only addressed to politicians, but especially to the general public with the goal of dignifying care work. In order to fight the increasing normalization of hiring a domestic worker without any kind of contract leading to many potencial abuses, the idea was to generate a series of statements, sound bites and powerful visuals to comunicate that having a “maid” under those conditions was not acceptable. It was a long-term project intended to shake common sense and generate an awareness about the how non-common sensical it was to mistreat care takers, who are the very ones taking care of loved ones. This message ideally would be soon travelling through soundbites and stickers through radio, newspapers as well as metros and public spaces.
Throughout 2008, several brainstorming sessions around the two questions were organized. A particularly producive workshop took place in June 2008. These were some of the slogans that came out of the small group I was participating in:
“Si no te gusta ser explotada, no explotes”
“Si el amor no tiene precio….¿por que me pagas tan poco?”
“Si valoras el cuidado de tus hijos o de tus papas, ¿por que lo pagas tan mal?”
Soy domestica, pero tambien soy madre, tengo amigos, me divierto…¿acaso no tengo estos derechos?
Si ya se acabo la esclavitud, ¿Por que nos esclavizáis asi?
¿Estáis seguras de que se acabo la esclavitud? Pues dejadnos volar como palomas…30
After brainstorming slogans in small groups, we gathered in a circle again. Several images of a potential logo were passed around the 40 participants at that moment in the workshop. The ideas for the different images were brainstormed and discussed in the previous meeting. One of the images was an octopus-woman, speaking to the ‘orquestra syndrome’ that domestic workers go through doing multiple tasks simultaneously. However, people did not like it, because the image of the octopus reminded them to something negative. The most popular icon was the “mujer-engranaje” (gear assembly or machinery woman). The goal was to send the message that when a domestic worker does not labor, many things collapsed… “conmigo se mueve el mundo”. This image attempted to call attention to the centrality of domestic work as the basis for the overall society to function: kids, office work, important meetings, the factory, eating, well being. Another domestic worked added: “La sociedad funciona porque hay un motor que empieza en la casa, y mueve el colegio, la oficina, la fabrica, etc.”
Also, people like this image because it was a woman figure with whom to identify. Actually, it was the photo of one of the domestic workers, but without super clear markers and stereotypes. The age and the ethnic background were vague on purpose.
The third image was an Asian goddess with many hands to suggest the multitude of tasks undertaken by care workers. People preferred this to the octopus, but with the drawback that this image did not send the message of the centrality of domestic work as did the machinery woman image. Finally, in order to choose the final candidate among the possible logos, the decision was made by the intensity of applause. The machinery-woman won by enthusiastic applause concluding a very celebratory workshop. Again, the format of the workshop served beyond a self-help tool for each individual domestic worker. Rather, workshops and small group discussions function as veritable spaces of knowledge-production from which to collectively analyze the meaning and political economy of care and think together ways to communicate the problems of current forms of valuing care labor.
The campaign was then a point of encounter among the different political imaginaries that intially came into friction: politics of law versus politics of affect. It was an strategy that could act as a pressure point for the necessary legal change, but also it had the potential to go beyond an strictly juridical and individualized treatment of the problems faced by domestic workers. Withoug calling for a general strike of domestic workers, but through more subtile and feasible interventions, a process of self-empowerment had already started, where domestic workers were simultaneously speaking up both in the domestic and public spaces; building a community of affect and mutual support among a very fragmented sector; and finally, interpolating the general public by trying to break prejudices and re-dignify domestic work.
7.4. The Cultural Politics of Care
The ethnographic description of the alliance between la Agencia and domestic workers has shown how the five concepts advanced by Precarias around the question of care emerge thought the organizing process in different ways. For instance, the centrality and meaning of care runs through most of the workshops becoming the leitmotiv for the strategy of the campaign; the question of the care crisis is taking as an implicit point of departure while the notion of global care chains is overtly addressed when speaking as migrant mothers and grandmothers; the more slippery question of careticizenship appears through the conflicts on the legal question; and finally, the possibility of the strike when debating about strategies. As such, the new phase of alliance building embarked upon as Agencia acts as a way of testing the political hypotheses advanced during the most overt action-research project. The ethnographic discussion also shows the concrete procedures to carry out this research phase of not only testing, but enacting, political hypotheses.
Care then becomes a conceptual focus for the current phase of Precarias as Agencia. However, it does not limit itself to being a key analytical category from which to think many of the shortcomings of previous understandings of precarity. Nor does it reduce itself to being a useful organizing tool to respond to the urging realities knocking at the door of Eskalera Karakola. Rather, according to what they say about themselves and as many others witness, including myself, care begins to be understood as a lived practice among the Agencia members. Care constitutes a practice that does, or at least tries to, permeate different spheres of the Agencia. One of the instances that became a pattern in all their meetings, workshops and public events was paying attention to the “petty” stuff. In contrast to most of the activist scenes in Spain where smoking is not an issue at all, rather a constituent trait of a political meeting, this was not the case for the Agencia. Also, their gatherings were exceptional in the providing of food and drinks, including the succulent pot luck dinners arranged for the internal meetings. The same attention was put into the cleaning of the space, always looking crystal clear. Childcare – something completely ignored in most Spanish political circles- was also a point of concern, although not always fully achieved.31 All of those are instances of “prefigurative politics”, one of the main principles of autonomy. In this particular case, a politics of care calls for practicing care itself in the everyday life.
Care was also a practice for mutual support among the very members of Agencia. Taking care of each other was part of doing politics. Moments of illness, childcare, computer crashes, work related problems, legal issues, or love crises, were just some instances where some would take time, energy and skills to support others and vice versa. Asking for help was a common practice, either in person or via email through the large list-serve of “instinto precario”. In that sense, even if these practices remind us of an ordinary relationship of friendship, they were framed as a broader issue and part of a politicization process: the urgency to respond to precarious lives. The whole idea of the Agencia was conceived as a tool to channel mutual practices of care: “through the exchange of affect, knowledge and resources, la Agencia is a political response to the precarization of existence” (interview, summer 2005).
The practice of care also appeared during the initial research process, as eloquently put by a Nextgenderation activist and PhD Philosophy student, also linked to the Precarias’ project:
“Setting off to understand the frailties and strengths of their own survival strategies in dislocated patterns of labour, they explore the setting of precariousness in the city of Madrid. They also show us, describe to us, webs of care and affects that sustain an urban world in constant dereliction -for instance, the undervalued work of migrant domestic workers… but by researching these patterns, by “drifting” the city, encountering its people and re-encountering themselves, they are also re-creating webs of care and solidarity, practicing care in-situ, building (other) possible connections and caring knowledge. […] There are efforts to re-discover the revolutionary aspects of feminist visions and practices of caring, to produce both descriptive and transformative skillful knowledge – a process of collective empowerment. One of the things we learn from Precarias’ work is to stand for care, because we cannot afford to throw it away with its essentialist traps” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2008: 7-8, my emphasis)
If we look at the current work of alliance building, there is also quite a lot of care practices involved in materializing relationships between distinct populations. It was indeed a real challenge to arrange unconventional alliances with the baggage of layers of socially-ascribed hierarchies: how to acknowledge and behave towards the abysmal differences in terms of physical health with a group of people with disabilities? How to deal with the actual ranking among ethnic backgrounds, and the extreme fear among many domestic workers working without legal status? Agencia members tried to address some of these delicate questions. For example, the construction of the EKKA space had taken into consideration the accessibility for people on wheels, having no stairs and an equipped bathroom for that reason. Also, the coorganized workshops with both groups of domestic workers and people with disabilities were coplanned in advance in order to make sure that these sectors that usually experience discrimination and lack of space to speak, would take ownership through the process.
As such, care, while being a conceptual finding and a pre-liminary practice during the initial research phase, was further elaborated during this second phase. Somehow, the centrality of care brought along important research transformations at the level of research and politics, encouraging epistemological, methodological and political transformations for the group.
Activism becomes a practice of care, not only in the immediate sense, caring for the small things; but also in a broader sense, caring as loving for others, nature, life, etc. Care as an overall philosophy of concern. This speaks to one of the main traits of activist research as the production of affect and alternative sociability.
7.4.1. From “partir de si” to “acompanamiento”
While the epistemological foundation of the first phase was mainly on the idea of taking the self as a point of departure for exploring the reality of precarity and the principal methodology were the drifts as a mechanism to thread different selves into a common realization of shared problems and singularities, the goal was always “partir de si para salir de si”. The second phase as Agencia would push even more this initial move outwards going out of the self to engage in processes of alliance building. This involved the acknowledgement of greater differences than expected. The logic becomes one of accompaniment. The position of
acompanante represented a series of challenges for a research and political modus operandi used to speak in first person. These concerns were expressed at one of the internal meetings of the Agencia focused on sharing impressions about the last domestic workers workshop and making a collective evaluation of the ongoing alliance with SEDOAC. The following are a series of challenges identified in this new process of accompaniment, engendering re-defined subjectivities and signaling emerging political imaginaries.
Internal meeting of La Agencia, May 15, 2008 Eskalera Karakola, Putlock lunch
What about our practice of speaking in First Person?
The meeting started by commenting on the frustration about: “where are our voices in this alliance? Precarias voices were actually quite absent in the workshops, they were not speaking about themselves but facilitating the workshops and the small discussion groups, summing up the points discussed by domestics, but not really in first person. That’s why, when the composition of a group was not well balanced, and there were a lot of Precarias voices, the conversation became very mono-thematic, with one or two people talking. To this problem, the agencieras emphasized the necessity to think of shared problems starting from our own experience: for example the problem of housing. The following are a series of quotes from the lively discussion on that matter during that internal meeting of La Agencia:
– “Sometimes the bridge of difference to be crossed feels very large…the experiences are so specific you can not find similar stories of your own to share…”.
– “Well, sometimes you don’t need to be so explicit, complicity emerges from the mix among the different parties, the continuous contact and care to sustain it [la afinidad surge del roce].”
– “It seems to me that there are two models: the intellectual researcher that goes to the factory on the one hand, and on the other, the process of building a common language, building a link [vinculo], that is not only based on a formal setting for talking and listening, but on sharing common experiences: in this case, with the domestic workers, focusing on being woman, getting old, being alone, being financially tight”
– “Maybe we don’t need to focus on our past, but whatever is being built together, on what we are sharing right now…” This notion of activist research and its concomitant dilemmas resemble to the experience and writing by Colectivo Situaciones. The militant researcher was not conceived as the outsider expert visiting a community in trouble. The process of research, they say, would enable to find a series of concerns in common to be analyzed together. Research becomes a process of collective production and re-articulation of epistemic roles:
“Militant research is processing what you are living through. Working with others, working with texts. […] overcoming the stupidity that distinguishes researchers f r o m researched […] What happens when the discussion is no longer about “who is who”? who is on the inside and who is on the outside; who “thinks” and who “acts”; who has the right to speak and who is better off letting others speak on their behalf? When the question who is who is no longer policed, a new possibility emerges: that of producing together” (Situaciones 2006: 18).32
This definition, embraced by Precarias as an ideal of what would activist research look like at its best, implied a series of challenges on the ground. In this case, the importance to find points in common and re-start talking in the first person during the alliance with domestic workers had not to be taken for granted. The new role taken by Precarias/Agencieras as predominantly listeners was indeed object of discussion. Again, the question of listening brings back the more abstract discussion on activist research from chapter three. In particular, listening speaks to the ethics of permanent questioning, and the ability to “locate questions” more than finding endurable answers. Within this ethics of research, the practice of listening becomes an important although delicate must.
The Risks of Listening and the Limits of the Word
There were also reflections about the new site inhabited by Precarias: the site of listening. They insisted on the importance of a welcoming attitude towards those personal histories of lived injustice, listening taken as an act of support and recognition. However, as one Agenciera said: “are we becoming Maoists?”. To what another Agenciera replied: “sometimes you feel like a voyeur of the supposedly authentic revolutionary subject…Also, the focus on individual dramas could not lead us into the risk of easy victimizing?”
Another question of concern was how the word was not enough to depict the realities of care work, and therefore, how could the group facilitate other ways of expression? The enthusiasm of using balloons to deal with the experience of fear by representing their bosses -including hair, eyes and mouth- was evaluated as a success: “It is a tool that goes beyond the word. Through the process, they are expressing A LOT (te esta contando mucho): gender, class, colonial, or geopolitical questions”. This question of modes of expression and different registers spoke to the multiplicity of sources of knowledge, including the long narrative of apparently anecdotic information.
The Value of the Anecdote
Some Agencieras expressed their confusion about listening to long stories of distress and drama in the following way: “what do you do with those detailed episodes about situations of injustice at the domestic workspace? Another one would pose the question in more research oriented terms: “How to leap from some of the anecdotal information to develop a broader analysis of the problem?” To that anxiety to develop analytical production in the process of alliance building, these were some of the responses:
– “However, is not the anecdote itself telling you a lot, making a fine analysis of unknown situations? The anecdote acts upon both teller and listener, by piercing through the teller and churning the listener [anecdota atraviesa al que habla y remueve al que escucha]. It is important to express that lived reality which is often inappropriate to share, even at times among your family and friends, because of the fear of being looked upon as a failed person. It is important to listen to those realities that are distant, listening until they become familiar and not exotic in order feel them closer to oneself and think through them.”
– “Now the question is: How to link the intensity of the testimony, story telling and experience to a constructive articulation of those forces of rage and sadness? As listeners, how to redirect those forces of discomfort? [escuchar y reconducir esa fuerza de malestar]” The anecdote, finally, was re-evaluated as a performative act, able to fuel processes of mutual connection and understanding. Also, some were pointing how the anecdote might be considered as a form of self-knowledge worth while to take in consideration for more sounding and complex analyses. On all these methodological considerations, the question of care emerges in multiple forms. In this new phase as Agencia, care is not just the object to be analyzed but the basis of the research production process, engaging all the dilemmas that such practice of care implies when dealing with differences and new positionalities.
Beyond Advocacy: Building an Agency and a Common Lexicon with Care
According to some of the participants, although the Agency is functioning non stop, it is still very much in the very process of being defined, both in terms of its role, and its concrete actions. Once the initial research project was more or less finishing, a series of reflections and languages emerged leading to the idea of the Agency. If part of the goal of that initial research project was to discover how to produce a commons while maintaining the singular (“the singular in common”) and to experiment with new forms struggle around the multi-faceted faces and sectors of precarious labor in the metropolis of Madrid, the Agency is an attempt to respond to those results. Yet, the new process of alliance building poses multiple challenges: how to put mechanisms of self-organization among distinct precarious people in place? How to avoid political strategies merely social service based and enhance those useful for the everyday lives of all? How to put in place mechanisms of reciprocity, conceiving these relationships as made out of several moments of “back and forth” (toma y da)?
Part of the goal of the Agency is to serve as a node, where people could come as collectives wishing to reach out, or as individuals with particular issues to solve. Thus the Agency serves as an info point, resource base, network of contacts, but also as a place to mobilize on different issues, that is, to politicize seemingly individual problems and to provoke new conflicts. The idea then being to serve as a point where disparate issues (from domestic work, to job-firings, to people with disabilities’rights) could be linked through some common understandings while each maintaining their autonomy: a space for singular struggles to thread together with other seemingly micro-level struggles into a sort of common set of tools and experiences fighting or dealing with the “precaritization of existence” and “politicization of care”. The research phase generated a new vocabulary and a concrete modus operandi in selforganizing: less coded in the jargon of a particular political culture, less ideologized … more focused on politicizing everyday life and practical issues. This somehow materialized in this Agency. As such, the Agency and all the political challenges involved might be seen as the result of a research process, as a response to how bringing the disparate itineraries and singularities into a common orbit of political action. This political action understood in terms of autonomy.
7.5. Conclusion: An Ethics of Knowledge Production
This chapter maps the transformation in Precarias’ activist research practice at two levels. First, in terms of conceptual production, they shift the attention from precarity to care. Second, in regards to the research practice itself, they become more focused on local issues and alliance building. This transformation is linked to the third contention of the dissertation, namely, the place of knowledge production in the creation of new subjectivities and world-making practices. The chapter makes extensive use of ethnographic material, particularly in showing or enacting the transformation through an account of workshop practices with a particular group. The process of alliance building among La Agencia and Sedoac, though speaking more directly to the third contention about the transformative power of research, it an exemplary case of the two other contentions advanced in this dissertation: 1) the production of concepts by movements; and 2) the development of a series of concrete procedures, shared with a broader community of research practice, which is predominately based on the logic of political autonomy. Along the way, the chapter outlines Precarias’ theory of care, on the one hand; and on the other, the role of care itself in the research process -care as the foundation for an ethics of knowledge production, for an ethics of research that links knowing, being, and doing.
In this phase as Agency, practicing care is part and parcel of the political-research process. This attention to care reveals a belief in “how we know is often as important as what we know” (Puig 2008: 14). That is, knowing is not just about discovering worlds but creating relations and even alternative worlds. This generative potential of research based on practices of care brings along notions of the political based on everyday experiences of mutual support, leading to solid and sensitive networks and alliances. Care, in the work put forward by La Agencia, becomes both a question to be critically analyzed and a form of doing politics. First, care constitute the very object of inquiry. As such, the re-conceptualizations of care both in theoretical and practical terms advanced by La Agencia, become crucial to understand the generative and transformative potential of research practices among social movements. The centrality of care impacts the political imaginary of many precarious struggles in Europe, for instance: caring practices enter into the activist repertoire pushing forward more everyday understandings of solidarity and sensitive ways to deal with differences. Second, care as a political practice implies paying attention to “petty” stuff in the day to day organizing. Also, bringing care into politics means a special sensibility to alliance building, aware of differences and with the desire to go beyond the ghettoized self-reliable individuals that usually constitute the activist population. Taking care of each other, being aware of responsibilities and needs, constitutes the raw material of the political. Activism becomes a practice of care.
1 English translation: Towards a Theory of Care
2 I point to this specific urban landscape in order to convey a sense of the social and architectonic density surrounding the main organizing space of Precarias.
3 This kind of office space was conceived in line with the parallel projects of Oficinas de Derechos Sociales. FOr more on this kind of Offices for Social Rights see last section of previous chapter. The political economy of these independent spaces is based on the financial contributions of their members. They also might accept donations and scholarships from universities, municipalities and other local institutions.
4 If looking at the most active members of the loose network that participate in PD research project, Precarias was more diverse than usual activist groups, but also holding a lot of similarities. Roughly it was comprised by young women, with international background although most of them from Spanish origin, working intermittently at a variety of flexible jobs, many related to the “manipulation of codes” -as they put it-, to refer to types of jobs related to call centers, translation, teaching, writing, and service industries.
5 While the researcher was able to further participate and ethnographically investigate both alliances, for purposes of this dissertation only one of them -the alliance with immigrant domestic workers- is object of attention in this chapter. The extensive material as well as the unique nature of the second alliance made with the ‘handicapped activist group’ is currently a work in progress towards other publishing outlets.
7 While for PD the enterprise of building alliances was a whole new adventure, this political practice has been part of left imaginaries and organizing for decades, also, the concept of ‘acompañamiento’ is well known in LA. For the purposes of this dissertation, what is at stake is not to identify what seemingly new activist practices they introduce, but to signal how processes of collective research led to transform political practices and strategies.
8 See my own ethnographic description of process-based meetings in Blurring Boundaries” (2008: XX)
9 All of the following are verbatim transcriptions of the meeting. Words in italics show the terms that are part of the common vocabulary developed by PD and that, when translated directly into English, loose some of its evocative power.
10 Sometimes I felt that this mode of writing was quite similar to ethnographic note-taking. They did not refer to the term etnografia, even if some of them have had an anthropological background. However, that eagerness of taking notes of everything, those detailed descriptions of events, that individual writing of collective happenings, …it sounded like generating field-notes of a mythical ‘field’: their own meeting place, their own city, their own trajectory,….producing a kind of auto-ethnography of a collective struggle. There are definitely some parallelisms although many differences as well. The first time I encountered their publication it felt very ethnographic to me, as a first year student of a PhD in Anthropology. Actually I put together a paper about it called “other ethnographies are already possible”. I engaged the material more carefully suggesting similarities and disparities in a paper for a LASA conference (2004). Finally I decided that it was not worthwhile to call it ethnographic work, just describing it would be enough for the reader to take his/er own conclusions. However, it was to my surprise when presenting the dissertation material to a group of American students in Madrid, visiting Professor Cameron spoke up, explicitly calling it in the following terms: “this is the return of ethnography”. Some dilemmas and jokes for the ethnographer engaging with such ‘writing machines’ are described in “16 ironies of conducting research”, my paper presented at the SMWG symposium (eg. the supposed objects of study ask you to be the official note-taker; they gave you a note-book as a gift; they write great ‘relatos’ for you, juicier than your own ethnographic notes…)
11 To see more on the practice of archiving by social movements and the new possibilities this offers for ethnographic research see chapter 2 on methods.
12 This information has been collected by the researcher from the writings and discussions by Precarias on the question of care after having finished their initial research project on the feminine precarity in Madrid.
13 This provisional definition of care is based on Precarias’ material and other contemporary feminist collectives from Spain.
14 For a broader definition of care as cooperation, interdependency, social ecology and transversal everyday activity see Precarias a la Deriva (2003) Una huelga de mucho cuidado. Contrapoder #7
15 Care then is part of production and not just reproduction. According to the member of the Lilith feminist collective, such a division is based on Marxist economics that puts production as the main activity, and reproduction as the supporting device for the first one. This understanding is based on the patriarchal division of public/private.
Feminist versions emphasize the centrality of the reproductive realm, which is understood as the one that is producing life itself, and economically speaking generates 2/3 of total social production (Sevilla Conference, April 2007). One might query that while putting “care” as part of “production” as well (and not just reproduction) is a sensible corrective to the Marxist/feminist use of reproduction, yet does this formulation extend the code of production to life itself? Some might see this move as an economization of ‘care’.
16 This explanation of the notion of care crisis is based on the presentation by La Agencia at the Sevilla Conference on Precarity as well as on the Manifiesto for the Women’s Day parade in Madrid in 2007. The manifesto document was discussed, consented upon and distributed by different collectives of the Madrid feminist movement during the march on March 8th. It is important to mention that this definition of care crisis is my own reading of those contents.
17 One of the inspirations to develop the concept of care crisis linked to the question of globalization was the book by Barbara Ehrenrich and Alrie Russel Hochschild. This is a compilation of case-studies dealing with the global economy of care, the phenomenon of a “care-deficit” in countries of the Global North and the solution of care as a central export product for some countries of the South.
18 The first time I heard this term was at the Sevilla Conference on Precarity, which addressed the two hottest questions being linked to the question of precarity at the moment: 1) basic income and 2) care. The workshop on “Practices and Rights of Caretizenship” took place also at that typical Andalucian patio of a downtown occupied building described in the previous chapter. The four participants at the table also spoke about the changing relationship between life/work being discussed by their colleagues speaking on the question of basic income in the morning. However, this afternoon workshop began from a care-centered vision, rather than a labor-centered approach of the same phenomenon. This definition of the increasingly popular notion of “caretizenship” is based on the presentation made by a member of the Agencia de Asuntos Precarios and by a representative of the Sevilla-based feminist collective Lilith.
19 This point generated a large debate among all the participants at the Conference on Precarity, Social Rights and the Crisis of the Wellfare State (Sevilla April 2007). The discourse of renta básica was criticized as being immersed in a conventional understanding of rights and citizenship. The debate was quite productive trying to reconcile both proposals, which until then seemed quite distant from one another, each one mutually ignoring the other. Despite that apparent distance, there were things in common between the roundtable on renta básica and cuidados , although starting from different premises and a rather gendered embodiment of the presentations: the first workshop given mainly by men and the second by women.
20 Homes, Care and Borders is a multi-country research project funded by the European Union where some Precarias contributed.
21 Maria Mies writes a pioneering book that gets at some of this political economy. See Patriarchy and Accumulation on a world scale (1986) London: Zed Books
22 For more information see http://www.amecopress.net/spip.php?article849
23 Papeles para todos! Papers for all! This is the slogan of many migrant rights networks through the world demanding legal regularization for all immigrants. In Madrid, the initiative of Ferrocarril Clandestino, a project where many participants of La Agencia are currently active, is a network of migrants and non-immigrants activists working to fight the current consequences of the border regime in the European Union.
24 According to different news sources, the promised law that regulates domestic work as part of the Regimen General was not going to be possible before the end of the Zapatero administration.
25 In order for the unions to be able to participate in the national level negotiations on the legal reform regarding domestic work, they had to have representation at work places in that sector, in other words unionized domestic work sites. The problem with the union model though, since it is workplace based, is that in order for ‘representation’ to occur there must be more than one worker at a worksite. In most cases though, there is only one domestic worker per home (this may be part of the reason why domestic work had been such a forgotten sphere on the part of the unions up until now). In order to resolve this dilemma and still be able to ‘represent’ domestic workers at the national level, the unions searched out domestic workers at the homes of the nobility, who would often have multiple domestic servants and tried to recruit them to the union.
26 This is an independent production that was inspired by the concept of care strike developed by PD in one of their writings “Una Huelga de mucho cuidado”. The video portraits an imagined scenario of what would had happen ten years later after a care strike.
27 I personally shared my experience of responding to the general call to strike against the war in Irak during the first day of the invasion of Baghdad in March 2003. However, striking as a part time translator of an international wine testing contest was not comparable with striking when the workers is totally dependent on that particular job.
28 Some of the concrete strategies concluded in our small group were:
-Huelga clandestina: es decir, no decir que ese dia hacemos un paro laboral y vamos a una manifestación. Dar otras razones, tomar un dia por asuntos propios, avisando con tiempo.
-Movilización durante horas libres: para evitar posibles complicaciones en el trabajo, no hacer la accion durante horas laborales.
-Dado que no hemos explicado que vamos a una accion, en caso de ser vista por otros o en los medios de comunicación, optar por disfraces…
30 Key word during the conversation, slavary, inspired by a nation-wide alliance between domestic workers associations in the United States that is using that term for their campaign.
31 It is interesting to note how this new phase of alliance building focusing on the question of care was paired off with a sudden arrival of several babies from participants of La Agencia, including myself. This supposed a drastic change in the regular modus operandi of the group (in fact, having babies within activist circles is a rare phenomenon in Spain). From accommodating meeting times to gaining familiarity with the strange world of motherhood, this mini baby boom was a real challenge both in theoretical and practical terms. This topic and my reflexive notes on this matter might be explored for another paper. Here I wanted to signal how ideals of care (e.g. childcare) break down in the “nitty gritty” of everyday practice, and how despite their best intentions and analyses, there were still aspects that had to be worked on.
32 This definition by Colectivo Situaciones was sent around the list-serve of Precarias a la Deriva when it first appeared in one of the recent works by the Argentine Collective. See La Esclavitud del Alma.