Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Take Care: Society of Care and Self-determination Income

May 20, 2020. Originally published April 30, 2020 in Italian as “Abbiate Cura || Società della cura e reddito di autodeterminazione” in Effimera: Critica e Sovversioni del Presente. Translated by Francesca Zambon and edited by Julie Dind and Katia Rozenberg, with thanks to the author for authorizing this publication. Illustration by Katia Rozenberg.

This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

I haven’t seen my mother since March 4, 2020
I went and came
I stood with the mask
Under the windows where she was hospitalized

Woman crouching, wearing a cold mask

What is care? [1] Over time, many feminists’ papers and books have dealt with this question. It is not hard to understand why. Care is at the core of a series of investigations that closely observe an intricate and contradictory tangle of tasks, roles, obligations but also powers, desires, and feelings; women are at the center of this web. It has been necessary to gain full awareness of a woman’s duties imposed by society, but also to add that “feminism does not deny the divine domestic function of woman.” [2] Divine function, then. These words are captured, one by one, by Sibilla Aleramo through the readings of Lea Melandri, who dedicated herself to this topic with rare sensitivity and depth. Other sources of inspiration would recall the primitive accumulation and the production (or reproduction) of the primary asset of capitalism, the labor-power, that is the human being, the child who must be conceived, delivered, nourished, and educated. In other words, brought into the world. And it is still this feminine divine function that shores up the “wage slavery” (to which women have no access) of the adult male and unmasks the concealed features of its productivity, in the health and illness of a dream of love that perhaps drowns in the struggles of everyday life.

Let us then project this social motherhood, this “true motherhood” and “instinct of expansion” [3] into our present, today, a disoriented world that leaves no room for nostalgia but focuses on the war against the COVID-19 pandemic. On this “battlefront,” the positions once again waver between the impositions of the social institutions of power, different according to social roles and categories, and the very concrete daily needs: squads of women physicians, nurses, online professors with a missionary spirit, mothers at home who, between Skype meetings, make soap bubbles on the balcony or accompany their children for a bike or scooter ride in the yard, daughters who wash (with gloves, glasses, and masks) the clothes of their sick parents and prepare bags with clean and disinfected garments, perfectly sealed and ready to be delivered under tents set up outside the hospitals in clothing drive centers for hospitalized patients.

We are immersed in a series of delicate and essential needs but also, in spite of ourselves, in a narrative of national pride that covers up its flaws by dumping its problems on the shoulders of individuals. In this context, then, the recovery of a woman’s caring, of a society of mothers, evokes the regression towards a kind of cheesy (but also enormously painful) humanity, studded with heroic individuals and tragic “personal cases” where the feminine virtues rescue from death and chaos, remaining inscribed in the most traditional and “moral” canons of the almighty mother. The exhausted nurse, who collapses but does not abandon her position, feeds the public imagination. She takes care.

The risk of this interpretation seems to me, at this moment, very much possible and rather disturbing. Istat (Italian National Institute of Statistics) data on the region of Lombardy shows that 53.4% of deaths occurred in the RSA [4] and 28% in the family. What does this mean? That people have died, and still die, alone. In this poetic and proverbial statement lies the up-to-date observation of what has happened and what is happening: the gap between an imaginary model of society and the reality behind the terrible weakness of every state structure. The healthcare system, the collective care, and the public health management have crashed revealing the raw essence of biopolitics and the limitless fields of experimentations. This chasm, this abyss in front of us, forced us to make superhuman efforts and to endure inhuman distances in solitude; at the same time, it made us empathize with the dominant order of things to ensure the survival of those we loved and had near. We did not always succeed in this titanic undertaking. Family welfare. And we had to accept, as if this was not enough, a regime of suspension of freedom and fundamental rights in which any kind of common sense was put in brackets—removed when not ostracized and attacked with great aggressiveness. We must take care. The system, of course, does not show any care towards us.

The care for human life, which we suddenly realized to be fragile, has been directly entrusted to the vocation and proximity connected to the constitutive unit par excellence, the family (the clan, the fratria, the ghenos in history), while everything else had been locked outside the door. In social distancing there is no help, there can be no shared participation. Care often takes place from afar: only voices and not bodies, not faces. These are voids of presence that, in such delicate moments, amplify a feeling of being defenseless and indelibly mark our experience. In the past two months I have aged three hundred years.

“ In social distancing there is no help, there can be no shared participation. Care often takes place from afar: only voices and not bodies, not faces. These are voids of presence that, in such delicate moments, amplify a feeling of being defenseless and indelibly mark our experience. ”

Let us remember the whole message, while the helicopter flies in circles over our heads during a cloudy day in late April: life is always fragile. The promotion of a natural and static instinct towards care can turn into a chain which attaches to sexual difference a purely identitarian and biological meaning and solicits in a worrying way (exceptional situation) the reappearance of all the socially associated characteristics that power naturally loves to assign to the male and the female.

Pascale Molinier writes: “It is said that care is in style. This is the worst thing that could happen to it.” [5] Well, when Molinier published her beautiful text she could not have known that even a popular body lotion would use “care” to advertise itself (“share the care” on the notes of Stand by Me). But in the end it is not surprising, since the market of “care” is today one of the most attractive for capitalist exploitation. It is precisely this unprecedented historical phase, which forces us to stay within the care, that exhibits all the dark sides of it, that is a “violence of care (which care is not)”: intolerance, indifference, improvisation, very little happiness. Not a hint of care for the children, the boys, and the girls injured and transformed by impositions—absence of games, loved ones, friends — that have lasted for months.

Continuing in this direction, after two months under house arrest, one could add who knows how many other stories where coercion and abuse against women takes place “di casa, in casa,” [6] to use a cynical pun.

The discourse around a society of care (I’m thinking of Ida Farè) and of an “ethics of the subalterns” [7] whose activities, connected to care, are not in any way held to the same standard as the ones of hard labor [lavoro hard], as it was defined by a brilliant friend of mine, which is always the work in the factories first of all, that is the male work, the real work—a crucial theme for all of us. At this moment, however, the voids and the urgencies connected to vulnerability (defense of the welfare state; right to income; right to housing) must be very clear to us, along with another central issue: they made all of us even more immensely alone in fear, so much for the care. I borrow here the words that Roberto Faure used, a few years ago, in his Fabbrica della paura (“Fear Factory”): “Fear is solitude, solitude is fear. The workers, in the internet era, often do not know what happens to their colleagues, even less what happens to the other categories” [8]; they have been shattered, categorized, individualized, deceived by media propaganda.

And there it is, the individual-as-enterprise that is not subject to impositions but is led to do what it accepts to be and do — a form of asceticism at the service of performance, to refer to Dardot and Larval, that does not favor dimensions of common care. The virus, at least at this moment, is putting a strain on our ability to actually take care of what stands outside of us, revealing once again the limit against which social life, commonality, and the public, collective, general, common space seem to be continually breaking. I have heard of no outbursts of common sensitivity, no real politicization of the problems related to care, nor the necessary projections and indispensable identifications. Is it me who got distracted? Will it be possible to recover? What will our next steps be? What are we imagining? Some friends have formulated some serious hypotheses: could they be the basis of a communal feeling?

“ The virus, at least at this moment, is putting a strain on our ability to actually take care of what stands outside of us, revealing once again the limit against which social life, commonality, and the public, collective, general, common space seem to be continually breaking. ”

The proprietary individualism peeks out, despite the imposture of the narrative on the strategic importance of relations, of “together we will make it,” of the respect for the other, of empathy (on which I also counted). To think with care also means striving to always welcome the logics of non-domination and freedom, beyond fear and beyond pain, to allow the unfolding of the general intellect (the presence and valorization of the other). This is the Commonfare we envisioned. And I am sure it is the same for anyone who has, these days, seriously considered unauthorized care or in other words matters of care and society of care in a radical and innovative sense.

However, for something to really change in phase two or three or five hundred, one must tell the truth, reminded to us by Tristana Dini, who is, not coincidentally, the editor of Angela Putino’s posthumous work: “As a result of this evident social pact, in later times, the experimentation on the living, positioned in a place of exclusion, will seem a deliberate practice to strengthen life” [9]. That is, everything we have experienced has worked “as a snare to trap the bodies in a dimension of a self that is legible in terms of ego and subjectivity, not in order to permit that freedom of movement inherent to the bodies and inalienable to them, but rather to place them, dispose them, and find a place for them in a sort of position that corresponds to instances of discipline, measurement, and control” [10].

It is also worth rereading, during this strange and fragmented time that messes up every plan, an essay by Roberta Cavicchiola, Simona Paravagna, and Paolo Vignola, who already predicted that being healthy will not only be “the minimum goal to achieve (‘health is the only thing that matters!’)” but also “the despotic guide of our behaviour, of our modes of being and feeling.” In this perspective, quoting Benasayang, they are making us visualize a life that will increasingly look like “a clinical story, a story that tells of ways to avoid illness and healing at all costs.”

In short, the reasons listed above, after the article written for Il Manifesto, better explain, I hope, why at this moment it seems crucial to me to talk about a self-determination income [11]; to speak of the care income (Decree law “Cura Italia[12]) instead seems slippery. I hope there will be no tensions or conflicts: it is not a time for breaks and lacerations; it is a time for clarity. I believe it should be a practice of respect and mutual recognition, to discuss and to find, together, a way out of this.

Right now, we really need to resist and exist. In the even more dystopian scenarios of the upcoming crisis, when they will try to impose the continuous cycle of a 24/7 job to observe the sacred principle of social distancing that will become the norm, we need an individual, unconditional income in order to be able to decide what to do with ourselves, in an act of self-determination: to stay within the care or to decide otherwise; to avoid the risks (at this moment) of all the implied details of morality and ethics that seems to apply only to the individual, or better yet, to the individual woman; to avoid the risks of categorization (“mothers, teachers, servants”); to become aware of the role of “housewives of capital” [13], given that today we know, with crystal clarity, that life produces surplus value. I fear that a direct and exclusive link between the tasks of care and salary could take us to the heart of that contradiction that I already mentioned: it would strengthen the division of roles and establishes a condition of dependence.

“ In the even more dystopian scenarios of the upcoming crisis, when they will try to impose the continuous cycle of a 24/7 job to observe the sacred principle of social distancing that will become the norm, we need an individual, unconditional income in order to be able to decide what to do with ourselves, in an act of self-determination ... ”

Since the times of the demand for “wages for housework,” this crucial discourse has been brought to light: “The possibility of obtaining decent services, as well as that of obtaining healthcare facilities appropriate for our need of physical well being, depend on the power to reject our first disease, that is housework. ... We don’t want this money in exchange for another job; it is not the job that’s missing, it is the money[14].

Self-determination income is a tool to strengthen the subject and its desire, within a precarious working process that increasingly coincides with existence. More than ever, it is not the job that’s missing (it is perennial), it is the money.

Please, let’s not talk about care income and instead seriously discuss what a society of care should mean based on what we have lived and are living through at the time of the Cura Italia.

[1] In Italian, “cura” means both “care, attention” and “cure, treatment.” (Translator’s Note).

[2] Sibilla Aleramo, Una donna (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1977), 66. Quoted in Lea Melandri, Come nasce il sogno d’amore (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002), 49.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] RSA, Residenza Sanitaria Assistenziale, “Sanitary residence care.” “The RSA is a non-hospital home for a variable period (from a few weeks to indefinitely) for dependent persons, who can not be cared for at home and in need of special medical care. RSA can be distinguished from hospital, which is aimed at patients suffering from an acute illness, and the nursing home, which is bound to at least partially self-sufficient elderly.” See (Translator’s Note).

[5] Pascale Molinier, Care: prendersi cura (Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali Editori, 2019), 13.

[6] “Essere di casa” means, metaphorically, that something happens habitually, that something becomes the norm— “normal” to the point of being familiar. Coercion and abuse, then, are the norm (“di casa”) and happen, more than ever, “in casa,” at home. (Translator’s Note).

[7] Pascale Molinier, Care: prendersi cura (Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali Editori, 2019), 15.

[8] Roberto Faure, “Fabbrica della paura,” Quaderni di San Precario 4 (Milano, dicembre 2012).

[9] Angela Putino, Corpi di mezzo. Biopolitica, differenza tra i sessi e governo della specie, ed. Tristana Dini (Verona: ombre corte, 2011), 74.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Self-determination income: proposed, among others, by the feminist movement “non una di meno,” the self-determination income is envisioned as an unconditional and universal income, not linked to working positions, citizenship or housing ( (Translator’s Note).

[12] Decree law “Cura Italia”: On March 17, 2020, the Italian Government enacted the so called “Cura Italia” law decree, with the aim of issuing urgent measures to address the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 emergency. See (Translator’s Note).

[13] Cristina Morini, Lavorare la vita: attualità della riproduzione sociale, Intervento al seminario UniNomade di Napoli, 23-24 giugno 2012; See also Cristina Morini, “Riproduzione sociale,” in Piccola enciclopedia precaria. Dai Quaderni di San Precario, eds. Cristina Morini and Paolo Vignola (Milano: Agenzia X, 2015), 57-72.

[14] La prospettiva politica, documento di Gruppo Femminista per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico, Ferrara, 9 ottobre 1977, in Antonella Picchio and Giuliana Pincelli, Una lotta femminista globale. L’esperienza dei gruppi per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico di Ferrara e Modena (Milano: Franco Angeli, 2019), 86.

Cristina Morini is a journalist, essayist, and independent researcher. Her work deals with issues relating to gender and the processes of work transformation. She is a founding member of the Bin-Italia association (Basic Income Network Italia) and a member of Effimera, a network of research, analysis and political discussion. She is the author of numerous essays on the feminization of work, precarity, and the relationship between subjectivity and contemporary capitalism. Her publications notably include: “The feminization of labour in cognitive capitalism,” Feminist Review 87 (2007): 40-59; “Segmentation du travail cognitif et individualisation du salaire,” Multitudes 32 (2008): 65-76, co-authored with A. Fumagalli; “Life put to work: Toward a theory of life-value,” Ephemera 10 (2010): 234-52, co-authored with A. Fumagalli; “Social reproduction as a paradigm of the common: Reproduction antagonism, production crisis,” in Post-Crisis Perspectives: The Common and its Powers, ed. O. Augustin and C. Ydesen (Peter Lang, 2013), 83-98; “Anthropomorphic capital and Commonwealth value,” Frontiers in Sociology 5 (2020), co-authored with A. Fumagalli. Her book publications include La serva serve (DeriveApprodi, 2001); Per amore o per forza. Femminilizzazione del lavoro e biopolitiche del corpo (Ombre Corte, 2010); and Lo sciopero delle donne. Lavoro, trasformazioni del capitale, lotte (Manifestolibri, 2019), co-edited with Alisa Del Re, Bruna Mora and Lorenza Perini.