Exhaustion and caregiving, the care crisis as seen by Nancy Fraser

Par Julie Raby , Masters candidate, Sociology, UQAM
26 November 2018

The author wishes to thank Jean-Marc Fontan and Annabelle Berthiaume for their contribution. care crisis Nancy Fraser

Translation: Katherine Mac Donald

“Giving care at the human level requires a consistency, a patience and an amount of time which have become impossible. Overall, we have lost the profound purpose of institutions that solidify social connections. The ideology that dominates the public discourse has flipped the sense of the world: autonomy from now on depends on the sacrifice of the other, the most vulnerable, those who slow us down »[1]


care crisis Nancy FraserOne Quebec woman out of two will be called upon one day to become a caregiver for an immediate or extended family member. This situation represents a feminist issue that touches simultaneously on the value of caregiving work, in large part done by women, and impoverishment[2]which occurs when they find themselves, often against their will, having to take care of someone close to them. This situation affects the organization of both public services and the job market, which have a hard time offering adequate and structural responses to these realities. The reality of caregiving questions the sharing of individual and collective responsibilities regarding the care of people.

With the aim of discussing the question of the sharing of responsibilities for the care of individuals from an economic and political angler, we propose a synthesis of Nancy Fraser’s text[3]where the premise touches on the tensions between market forces and the necessary social replication activities. In “Contradictions of capital and care”, Fraser (2016) presents a socio-historical portrait of the forms of social reproduction activities according to three phases of capitalist development in Western societies. Her contribution allows us to grasp the connections that take place between the State, the market forces and the women’s movement. She also brings up the modalities which played a part in the maintenance of a devaluation of social reproduction.

Sociohistorical transformations of the link between production and reproduction

The separation between production and reproduction has forged social organization as well as the link between political and economic spheres. From three historical periods of capitalism, the author presents how the implementation of a new norm has constantly brought up the issue of equality between men and women and between women themselves. Following the concept of the “snake that bites his own tail”, she puts forth the idea that the separation between social processes of production and reproduction is an inherent contradiction to the capitalist regime. This latter provokes punctual crises when the economic rationale has to displace the social reproduction conditions that support their deployment.

Liberal capitalism of the 19th century

Liberal capitalism of the 19th century is the founding regime of the frontier between production and reproduction. This regime established the structural foundation of capitalist development where subsistence economy, specific to a communal social structure, was replaced with a market economy. The appearance of manufactures marks the split between domestic production, which is from then onward considered “non-work” as it is done outside of the factory’s control, while the concept of work is limited to the production of merchandise and salaried work.

In comparison to a communal structure that offers collective support in reproduction tasks, in this new regime, workers are responsible for their own, as well as their family’s social reproduction. The imperatives of production and reproduction are thus in contradiction as a significant number of underpaid workers find themselves unable to ensure the minimal conditions of subsistence for their families. Working-class women and children who were earning miserable wages became the iconic representations of capital’s neglect of social relations[4]. This context gives way to a crisis with two facets: one of social reproduction among the poorest, whose capacities are pushed to the extreme, and a tension brought along by the middle class who are outraged by what they consider to be the disintegration of families. Thus appears the conception of a new household imaginary, a space that awards women with the responsibility of ensuring a peaceful haven for workers. This gendered form of social relations organization thought up according to the complementarity of public and “private” spheres, where men are the breadwinners, and the women maintain the household, sets the foundations of an androcentric regime where masculine authority reigns.

Women from the working class, including racialized women, denied material help and income, will protest their inability to satisfy the household norm. On the other hand, upper-class women, in order to meet this ideal, request the legal recognition of their social contribution and dispute their legal status as minors. Around this tension, women find themselves stuck between giving in entirely to social protection under a male dominion in the private sphere or giving in to a growing commodification, which does not take into consideration the time necessary for social reproduction. The emancipation movement will start with their legal and political demands and by a gradual feminization of the workforce. In this way, women are already tracing the way towards independence more than the recognition of caregiving work.

The 20th century

State-managed capitalism, which Fraser associates with the aftermath of the Great Depression and Second World War, will soften the contradiction between the social reproduction sphere and that of economic production by putting the State’s powers behind social reproduction. A small group of economic actors puts forward the concept that economic stability requires an educated and healthy workforce, which requires State intervention. In response to the ambitions of economic growth, domestic consumerism will transform the household into the main stage for the consumption of everyday items and will contribute to the rise of mass production. According to the author, this connection between the market and the State brought along a stabilization of social reproduction. Around demands for rights to dignity and material wellbeing, the working class and social movements demonstrated a backing of social reproduction against the economic rationale. This period will give way to significant democratic and social developments (investments in health and education, economic protection of social security).

This welfare State still rests on racial and gender hierarchies. Women of color, denied social protection, must leave their own families for low-wage jobs among white families. Also, the gender hierarchy rests on a second norm: that of having a family income (fundamentally associated with men’s work) and that of masculine authority as chief breadwinner. Public investment reinforced this norm by establishing family income as the model of economic organization, notably through social aid measures that will refer to family income.

In the 1940s and 1950s, wages given to women were lower than men’s because these latter were considered to be the chief breadwinners of the family. A man’s wage was treated as a family income.[5]

Overall, in the name of the alliance between social protection and commodification, the emancipation of women was put on the back burner. Feminists begin to reflect on the sense to give to unpaid household work, which appears as a common denominator among women, regardless of their civil status, social class, ethnic background or profession[6]. Emancipation and modernization both being associated with a break from traditional household roles, the quest for equality will once again pass through the investment of women in the workforce.

Financialized capitalism

Around the 1980s, the gradual weakening of the Welfare State, paired with the globalization of commercial exchanges, will lead to financialized capitalism. The State will reduce their role of social protection by abandoning certain care services just at the time when women are more active in the workforce and when their capacity to provide care for their family and community is limited. Through feminist critique but mainly the economic context, the ideal of a single family income is replaced by the more modern norm of a dual-income family. As Fraser (2016) mentions, this situation will bring about either an increased commodification of household work for those who can afford it or increased pressure on families who cannot.

On the economic side of things, the debt becomes the preferred tool to dominate States and households. Through debt, financiers can pressure the State to disinvest from social expenditures, and investors dispossess the population from their natural resources. Salary increases do not match the expenditures necessary for social reproduction and accentuate consumer debt.

With the competition of social movements, including the women’s movement, emancipation corresponds more and more to the single fact of having access to public services or spaces and represents the capacity of being autonomous[7].“To emancipate oneself means to have an increased range of personal choices to lead the life we want to lead… it is also increasing the responsibility we have over our own lives[8]. In this context, women who are now recognized as politically and legally equal in all domains, especially within the work sphere, demonstrate a certain resistance regarding reproduction issues seen as being outdated. This system forces members of the household to increase their hours and transfer the weight of caregiving onto others. Under the rise of individualism and the congregation of equality “already” between the sexes, this regime unites individual forces of emancipation and commodification against social reproduction. From it appears a new peak in the imbalance between economic and social reproduction forces.

In conclusion, according to Fraser, these three periods of capitalism reveal the tension between economic production and social reproduction. They bring to light the social organization models establishing with these latter a particular norm of relations between the public work sphere and the private family sphere, and the hierarchizing of social norms regarding sex and race.

These three periods also allow us to follow the contribution of feminist movements, who revealed the inadequacy of dominant norms through values and principles of a modern world that rested on implicit equality between sexes and cultures. In conclusion, Fraser remarks that financialized capitalism, within which the dual-income family is the norm, is seeing the birth of the beginnings of a new critique of the exhaustion of families and the questioning of the workweek. If certain feminist discourses call for a balance between work and family, the struggle of social reproduction must embrace a call for the reconception of the connection between production and reproduction.

The invisible and unlimited work of family members and attendants is seen as a “woman’s thing.” Regarding the manly reforms of the Minister of Health, they propose to institutionalize cheap labor and feminine self-sacrifice. However, this disdained labor is not one job among many. It is the one that allows all others to be possible. The taking in charge of vulnerability by certain individuals is the condition of the autonomy of others.[9]

While exhaustion is brought up in the public space by workers of the healthcare system (nurses, teachers, attendants, etc.), by mothers and caregivers, as proof of a social organization unable to catch its breath, what political role does the philanthropic sector have to play within a State in the midst of a reconfiguration? Can it contribute to the revision of the historical boundaries between production and reproduction? Considering that up until now the primary referent of the concept of work had the effect of both culturally and politically devaluing a whole invisible portion of caregiving and to impoverish mainly the women who are employed within it, why not try the opposite? Faced with this care crisis, why not revisit the answer given to the inherent needs of care from the reproduction referent? Is it not the essential pillar that embraces the whole of living together?


Erhenberg, Alain,  (2010). « De l’autonomie comme aspiration à l’autonomie comme condition » pp.189-219,  et   « Conclusion : les affections électives ou l’attitude individualiste face à l’adversité. » pp.339-352, dans La société du malaise, Paris, Odile Jacob

Fraser, N. (2016) « Contradictions of capital and care », New Left Review 100, July-August 2016, p.105

Lanctôt, A. (2017) « Une histoire de Noël contre la charité » Le Devoir, 15 décembre 2017.

Langlois, S. « Conclusion et perspectives : fragmentation des problèmes sociaux », dans F. Dumont, S. Langlois et Y. Martin (clin), Traité des problèmes sociaux, Québec, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, p. 1107-1126.

Tremblay, D-G, (2003), « La difficile articulation des temps sociaux : concilier la vie familiale et la vie professionnelle », Revue Interventions économiques [En ligne], 31, 2003, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2003,consulté le 30 septembre 2016.

Notes de bas de page

[1]Ma traduction: Lanctôt, A. (2017) «Une histoire de Noël contre la charité » Le Devoir, 15 décembre 2017.

[2]Reducing the number of hours leads to a loss of revenue of around 16 000$/year for caregivers of non-senior individuals (Fast, 2015) citation on the Regroupement des aidants naturels du Québec, RANQ website.

[3]This text is also the subject of a conference in French which can be accessed through the following link: https://www.ehess.fr/fr/media/38e-conf%C3%A9rence-marc-bloch-contradictions-sociales-capitalisme-nancy-fraser

[4] Tilly, L., Scott, J. (1987) « Women, Work and Family », cité dans Fraser, N. (2016) « Contradictions of capital and care », New Left Review 100, July-August 2016, p.105

[5]My translation. Langlois, S. « Conclusion et perspectives : fragmentation des problèmes sociaux », in F. Dumont, S. Langlois and Y. Martin (clin), Traité des problèmes sociaux, Québec, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, p. 1107-1126.

[6]Toupin, L. (cited in Robert, C. (2015) « De la nécessité de politiser le travail ménager : quelles perspectives pour les féministes aujourd’hui? » n. 4 Oikonomia, 21 mai 2015. I think I can directly cite Louise Toupin’s book, as it is the proposition formulated by the international campaign for a wage for housework (the subject of Toupin’s book)

[7]Erhenberg, Alain.  (2010) « De l’autonomie comme aspiration à l’autonomie comme condition » pp.189-219 et  « Conclusion : les affections électives ou l’attitude individualiste face à l’adversité. » pp.339-352, La société du malaise, Paris, Odile Jacob

[8]My translation. Ibid

[9]My translation. Lanctôt, A. (2017) « Une histoire de Noël contre la charité » Le Devoir, December 15th, 2017