Collective Care

Collective care is 1) a central element of abolitionist social and political struggles and 2) a central analytic of abolition as a critical framework for grasping at the root all forms of violence in existing society.

Put another way, abolition partly concerns the project of the creation of non-carceral, non-capitalist, non-white supremacist institutions of collective care. If we understand abolition in this way, then collective care must be at the heart of our thinking, our strategizing, and our fights.

So, I begin with the thesis of the centrality of collective care to abolition, and my aim is to consider how this centrality is especially important for building toward queer and trans liberation. In particular, I want to reflect on the connection of struggles for the destruction of prisons and cages of every kind and struggles for queer and trans liberation. Collective care is a relay point for connecting these struggles.

I have structured some thoughts about collective care around three points:

(1) an observation of the carceral nature of so-called caring institutions in existing society

Prisons are a site of unquantifiable violence and harm, and one constitutive feature of this harm is concentrated, systematic gendered and sexual violence. In prisons we see the very obvious violent enforcement of normative genders and sexualities, the very obvious mistreatment, abuse, and medical neglect of queer and trans people. To say something like prison abolition is trans liberation is to underscore that nothing even remotely like gender self-determination for all people can exist in a society with prisons.

Without diminishing the myriad violence at the site of prisons, we can also look to the violent enforcement of normative genders and sexualities across other institutions. In particular we notice this enforcement in institutions of so-called “care,” of so-called therapy, or so-called service to/for others.

To list some examples of what I mean here, consider:
A – the warehousing of LBGTQ+ elderly people in elder care institutions were they often face multiple forms of abuse, neglect, bullying, and systematic isolation.

B – the long history and ongoing present of confinement in psychiatric hospitals and other institutions “for” people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities. In the case of psych hospitals there is often involuntary confinement for indefinite amounts of time which is justified by medical diagnoses and includes painful treatments such as extended periods of isolation, physical restraints, and electric shock “therapy”—all obviously without the consent of those incarcerated (Ben-Moshe, “Reconsidering Confinement”).

we must also remember that many queer and trans people were for a long time considered “mentally ill” and confined involuntarily in psychiatric hospitals and adjacent institutions. We must also remember that psychiatric institutions were common sites of locking up and warehousing Black radicals and revolutionaries in the so-called U.S. throughout the twentieth century (Metzl, The Protest Psychosis).

C – the violence experienced by queer and trans youth of color in the juvenile so-called justice system. Where you have youth literally confined—or subject to tremendous apparatuses of surveillance and discipline—for being “difficult,” for making “trouble,” for being poor, for being queer, for being Black, for being trans.

This cluster of really fucked up institutions–institutions which disappear people, kill people, ruin people’s lives–points to the necessity of the creation of entirely new institutions of care. This requires nothing less than uncompromising struggle for social relations based in interdependency without paternalism, relations of vulnerability without abuse, relations of solidarity without hierarchy.

(2) the significance of care work as a site of multiple, connected struggles

At present the overwhelming majority of care work in the so-called United States is undertaken by women, in particular women of color navigating unsafe and very bad working conditions. (For some of the history of caregiving in this context see Evelyn Nankano’s Forced to Care (2010)). There is much to say on this topic, for now though I will just flag care work as a central site of the production and reproduction of racialized and gendered domination in capitalist society. Two things follow from this observation.

1. The nexus of collective care and abolitionist futures involves an understanding of paid and unpaid care work as a central site of class struggle, as a central site of struggle against racializing and gendering violence which we know to be not accidental but constitutive feature of capitalism as a system.
2. This observation is an invitation to talk about collective care in the context of waging long term struggles against existing society. An important point of exploration for us is collective care in the context of aiming for longevity of this struggle. How can we reproduce ourselves, our lovers, our comrades, friends, our neighbors in ways that make possible sustained antagonistic struggle?

(3) point to some resources pertaining to questions of collective care

There is no single answer to the above question. But it likely involves forms of caring for ourselves and others that we do not even know yet, forms which will emerge in changing situations, which will emerge as we get better at collectively caring for each other.

There are also places to look for answers and places study alongside (obviously not study in a way that is confined to a classroom or school p.s. though there is nothing stopping us from building our own autonomous learning institutions…).

For example, we live in a moment when more so than ever in history lessons from transformative justice and anti-violence movements have been written down by really badass queer women of color who have been doing the work for decades:

Beyond Survival: Strategies from the Transformative Justice Movement (2020)

Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology (2016)

And finally I want to end with a reflection on a notion described by Joy James, the notion of the captive maternal. The captive maternal refers to non-gendered practices of caretaking (practices which do not conform to the gendered norms of mainstream/dominant society) in various contexts of captivity. One such context is care taking practices among Black political prisoners in Attica in the 70s. Drawing on James’ work, we might read the texts of Black revolutionaries with an eye for insights about collective care. In George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye and Assata Shakur’s Autobiography, for example, this notion of the captive maternal has been arguably recurring. I suggest the captive maternal is a notion to guide and complicate reflections on care, and in a crucial way it grounds questions of collective care in histories of Black revolutionary struggles and rebellion. 

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