COVID-19 and the Financialisation of Social Care

Social care

Session 2 of the 2022 SOAS Social Policy Seminar Series with Dr Emma Dowling and Professor Susan Himmelweit

By Jessica Sklair, Research Fellow, Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies, University of Cambridge

Two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, an air of uncertainty hovers over the UK. With hospitalisations and fatalities apparently in decline, a relaxation of self-isolation rules and other restrictions looks imminent, bringing us closer to a return to ‘normality’ than we have been since March 2020. Yet the pandemic is far from over, here or elsewhere. Infection rates remain high, the threat of a new variant still looms, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the diverse knock-on effects of both the virus and our response to it will be felt for many years to come.

One area in which we are only just beginning to see these effects is in the realm of social care. Here, fallout from the pandemic is putting further pressure on care systems already at breaking point due to years of austerity measures and the creeping effects of the financialisation of service provision.

These themes were the focus of the second seminar in the 2022 SOAS Social Policy Seminar Series, entitled The Financialisation of Social Policy: Pandemics, Climate Emergency and Policies, organised by Lena Lavinas, Elisa Van Waeyenberge, Ben Fine, Kate Bayliss and Julia Ngozi Chukwuma on 8 February 2022. This session, on COVID-19 and the Financialisation of Social Care, featured Emma Dowling, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vienna and Susan Himmelweit, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the Open University and founding chair of the Women’s Budget Group.

In this blog post, I reflect on questions raised during the seminar (a full recording of which is available here), and draw connections with the first seminar in this series (held on 11 January 2022 and available here), with a view to building a broader debate as we move ahead with the series as a whole. 

In the first seminar of this series, we saw the importance of approaching two key questions in parallel. The first – inspired by Ian Gough’s talk on his ‘Framework for an eco-social contract’ – is what a fair and just social policy agenda might actually look like in the future. The second question – emerging in the discussion that followed Ian’s talk – is how do we get there, and crucially, how do we persuade government and the capital markets with which it is increasingly entangled to adopt a just agenda for social policy, rejecting inevitable attempts at a financialised takeover of new ideas. The second seminar provided an opportunity to explore the latter of these questions in more depth, and to ask whether the pandemic and responses to it might offer openings for pursuit of a different course for social policy on care in the UK.

In their talks, Emma Dowling and Susan Himmelweit explored the contours of the UK’s failing care systems, providing essential insights into the economic and political processes that have led to the widespread commodification and financialisation of care over the last two decades. While neither predicted an imminent reversal of these trends, both highlighted aspects of the current landscape of social care that could represent entry points for resistance.

Susan Himmelweit, for example, pointed in her talk to the limited scope for productivity gains in the care sector. Susan argued that the labour intensive and relational nature of care does not make it the ideal arena for financialisation, and explains why the care sector was commodified later than many other sectors of the domestic economy. The difficulties inherent in commodifying care also explain why so much care work is still unpaid and why for-profit care is so often of such poor quality.

Bringing a heightened focus on care in the home, and greater care needs across diverse sectors of society, the pandemic has highlighted these qualities of care. The difficulties inherent to commodifying care have meant that the consequences of persistent attempts to do so have often been devastating for both care workers and those receiving it. But might growing frustration on the part of financiers – concerning the limits to increasing productivity around care – lead to a retreat from the care sector on the part of investors?

In a parallel and connected argument, Emma Dowling’s recent book The Care Crisis: What Caused it and How Can We End It? (Verso, 2021) shows how the financialisation of care forces the stripping out of the fragile and human dimensions of care from care work – precisely because these are not considered productive in economic terms. In her seminar paper, Emma spoke about how the ‘slippage of caring capitalism is its reduction of caring to an affective disposition’, a process which works to further undermine the importance of well-funded systems of care that are both human and effective.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly focussed our attention on the essential human and relational dimensions of social care, seen for example in the experience of those living in care homes, isolated from their loved ones and dependent on exhausted care workers to mediate communication through Zoom. Will the future see greater attempts to financialise those aspects of care which seem inherently resistant to commodification? Or might heightened appreciation of the human aspects of care open the door to greater resistance to its financialisation post pandemic?

Central to debate on how we move towards a new political agenda on care is also the question of how to raise awareness of the possibility of a fair, just and inclusive public system of social care. In the UK – as in many countries – we have become accustomed to a discourse on the innate limits of public service provision. Emma Dowling and Susan Himmelweit’s talks for this seminar both threw light on the importance of raising public awareness that the form our systems for care provisioning take is the result of political decision-making, not of market inevitabilities.

In this vein, Emma Dowling pointed to the pervasive idea that care is ‘a cost to be eliminated as opposed to a part of social provision’, while Susan Himmelweit highlighted the contradiction of a capitalist economy that depends on systems of care to ensure the social reproduction of workers, while simultaneously undermining public commitments to spending on those systems. As the long-term effects of the pandemic on those that both need and provide care become increasingly clear, assertion of the value of public social care and the possibility of its effective provision must be placed at the centre of debate.

The next session of the 2022 SOAS Social Policy Seminar Series, ‘COVID-19 and the financialisation of health’ with Kate Bayliss, Mark Hellowell and Jasmine Gideon, is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, 8 March 2022, 5-7pm at SOAS, Senate House Alumni Lecture Theatre (SALT). Please find more information, including login details if you want to join us online, on our Events page.

Dr Jessica Sklair is a Research Fellow at the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is an anthropologist working on philanthropy and the changing role of the private sector in international development. 

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