Toward an economy of care

Thinking and doing beyond the outbreak: care as a value framework for designing p2p distributed network protocols enabling circular economy

COVID-19 is infecting our bodies and our minds

The lockdown is deeply affecting our collective consciousness: our most basic behaviours and social habits are being put into question.

It is more than just a pandemic threat to the health of (immuno)vulnerable people: COVID-19 is highlighting the systemic faults of the global economic system, political order and technological infrastructure. It is a ‘system error’ of sorts.

For example,

  • a medical parts corporation refused to relinquish their patent even when they couldn’t produce the parts but 3d printing hackers could
  • people in the US can’t get tested or treated if they do not have insurance or cash, so they are out infecting others
  • likewise homeless people are vectors of disease without any care at all
  • hospitals have shortage of masks
  • grocery chains stumble to provide delivery services

There’s an army of entrepreneurs foaming at the mouth to exploit the current situation.

These entrepreneurs are ready to deploy new “solutions” in the form of freemium services, ready to conquer new unexplored markets and ready to promote their products as a means to free up people’s precious time.

They’ve been writing articles about how the world will — necessarily, deterministically — change. By detailing which new behaviours we will adopt and which ones will completely disappear, they are imposing their monocultural visions on the post-COVID19 era.

Neoliberal entrepreneurs and monopolists are not stupid. They will try to revolutionise new parts of the economy, be it formal and informal welfare, sharing or even solidarity ecosystems, through on-demand services that will pretend to take care of everything we and our loved ones need.

This is not a speculative issue: this is a practical problem — an ethical, economic and political challenge.

Given that the transition to something new is imminent, we need to proactively plan and design it or risk having it done for us by the usual suspects: be it bureaucratic and centralised economic planning, the price system and its self-regulation of the market, the Big Power of platforms (big money, big state, big tech) (Morozov) and, of course, entrepreneurs pulling solutions out of a hat.

As Lauren Smiley wonderfully puts it in a not-so-recent article:

The on-demand world isn’t about sharing at all. It’s about being served. This is an economy of shut-ins.

We need to re-imagine and re-shape our economic and socio-technical systems.

Every day, social centers, networks, organisations, producers, activists, researchers and artists are discussing how we will be affected, how we can respond and how we can help our cities to thrive and resist. In other words, how we can “flatten the curve, and grow the care”. It is a shared act in imagining new forms of social contracts and economies.

Quoting Elettra Bietti:

COVID-19 provides a rare opportunity to change our societies and political systems for the better: expanding equal access to healthcare, food, education, and safety, deepening our understanding of the interconnections and fragmentations created by globalization, enhancing our ability to sustain ourselves, each other and the planet. Let’s not let the opportunistic actions of a few private companies and of irresponsible government policies take over our democratic futures.

We’re going to deploy a nervous system of production, distribution and consumption — of energy, infrastructure, goods — a federated economic network: not powered by an artificial intelligence, but rather by the systemic control that can be operated by an intelligence collective: the very same general intellect that is currently rebuilding social relationships based on cooperation, solidarity and the right to access goods and services in the middle of a pandemic.

Towards an economy of care

Anthropocene: the realisation that our experience as a biological species produces a geological imprint.

Capitalocene (Moore): the awareness that the “industrial” form of organic exchange with nature is a social relation and not a “natural, essential and a-historical” condition.

Chthulucene (Haraway): the rediscovery that “the earth does not belong to us but we belong to it”.

In these terrestrial bowels, we are not subject to infections more than we are part of the infection itself: contagion is the norm in biological and even semiotic systems. The exception to this norm is care: care for the balance and reproduction of life.

Placing care as our core value

Care is required to maintain the manifold activities that form our economic and social systems: maintenance, repair, healing, preservation, protection, attention and sustenance. Care is about long-term sustainability: generations of metabolic exchange between humans and the plants, animals and microbes we share space, energy and a vulnerable food chain with.

Caring is labour. It is necessary and it is skilled labour. It is a source of value. It has economic value, but also use-value — it makes our lives less hard, more meaningful and rich. It is more invisible, socially devalued and unpaid. For this reason, caring is not profitable, unlikely to be optimisable and resistant to being defined and replicated by algorithms.

How can an economy of care create new definitions of value? How will we know and measure the intangible and invisible labour that is taking place within organisations, communities, families, spaces and groups? How will we distribute value among participants? How will we stop ignoring “externalities” and integrate any productive outcomes into our supply chains so as to consider the environment as a meaningful part of our systems? How will we explore new forms of governance within our territories? How can we make sustainability more economically convenient? How can we free up access to value and labour to all parts of the population?

These are some of the many questions we would like to explore together through co-creation and mindful experimentation. The aim of this article is to be a signpost for how “code through thinking” and “think across the code” can be put into practice. The code acts as a new kind of grammar for social and ecosystemic relations, a protocol to reboot how humans, machines and environments interact. Reflow’s pilots can act as a testing field for open-feedback circuits between “imagination” and practice, as well as thinking and design. So this time we #dontgobacktonormal.

This post is the result of reflections and talks between Luca Recano and me, in the first weeks of the CoVid-19 outbreak. It was written within the context of the the H2020 funded European Project, Reflow. We were wondering together about the relationship between care and circular economy, protocols’ design, and imagination about rebooting economies, while still working on several related projects.