Following CEO's EU in Crisis conference, we are sharing contributions from conference participants giving their impressions from the conference. This fifth contribution was written by Ewa Charkiewicz of the Feminist Think Tank in Poland. In this contribution, she draws parallels between the EU in Crisis conference and another recent event looking at gender, power and work issues.
A day before I came to Brussels I took part in the conference Gender Macht Arbeit (Gender, Power, Work) organized by WIDE Switzerland. In a way, the two conferences complement each other. Let me therefore make linkages between debates in Berne and Brussels. The WIDE conference was devoted to the crisis of care economy (social reproduction) but also went beyond the focus on the crisis to show longer trends in terms of precarious livelihoods, decline of public expenditures on care (health care, education, social assistance), and marketisation of care with the effects of re-privatising it to households, and in particular to women.
While affluent women can buy the care work of other women, the women from low and middle income households increase their workload to compensate for cuts in public services and social assistance. The conference addressed the situation of migrants and paid care workers, including nurses and social workers. Pressures to cut costs leads to reductions of employment, increased 'flexible working', and intensification of work of remaining employees. Care is financialised, a price tag is put on every service or good, and financial arguments operate like weapons of mass destruction of care, all the time justifying and enforcing cuts. The transformation of what was public good into markets for care services and introduction of economic efficiency norms generates social inefficiencies, and leads to a decline in the quality of care when more time is spent on financial administration and reporting, than at patients' beds or at homes of the needy, or simply transfers care to unpaid work in the household, which often disables women from going to work.
Financial austerity measures which are so pronounced in the old EU today, did not begin with the recent crisis. Neo-liberalisation and privatisation of the state has been going on for some time now. The neo-liberalised state is authoritarian – otherwise it would not enforce drastic reductions in entitlements, and it would have been unable to convene a new round of enclosures on care/social reproduction. The neo-liberalised state is not only redistributing to business, and marketising and privatising care (a public sector hollowed out from inside) but it also adopts the form of an enterprise itself, and functions like an investment firm. With this move, priorities of the state change. New political subjects of the state are investors not citizens, whose rights are displaced.
It is paradoxical that the establishment discourse on green economy and green jobs does not take into account jobs in care which are the most green of all in terms of their environmental impacts (the point made at the WIDE conference by Shara Razhavi from UNRISD). Actually, we should expand the concept of care economy to include nature. People need nature and mutual care to live. As things are now, we compete for nature with capital which mediates almost all social relations including relations with “nature”. Both care and nature are financialised. Speeded-up expansion of capital accumulation intensifies demands for nature and labour, which in turn depends on social provisioning, including women's reproductive work. Reproduction of people and nature is at collision with the reproduction of capital, and this is where the main axis of all social conflicts is located. That's why I think defending social reproduction is a common frame for all our struggles to reclaim the state and EU for its citizens. Given the authoritarianism and social viciousness of the neo-liberalised state, and new technological and discursive means of surveillance and the control of populations, I think we should, at the same time, look for and nurture alternative means of social provisioning outside of the neoliberal project.
To come back to making links between the Berne and Brussels conferences, I want to mention my point of departure: Warsaw, Poland.
During exchanges at the WIDE conference in Berne, I was struck with the similarities of trends in marketisation of care among countries as diverse as Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands. During the CEO & TNI conference 'EU in Crisis', there was very little space to make East/West linkages. With the exception of two interventions from the floor, one from Poland, on Eastern Europe as a laboratory for austerity measures that are taking place now in the “old EU”, and from Hungary, on the social costs of permanent adjustment, the permanent crisis of social reproduction in Eastern Europe was not addressed, and neither were resistances. Just a week before our conference, 95,000 people demonstrated in Prague to protest austerity policies.
We need to go beyond lyrical memories of democratic revolutions. Transition was conducted in the name of freedom and democracy and this discourse was used to camouflage what is fact: that this transition project was a new round of enclosures when public property was almost completely privatised or the public sector was hollowed out from inside by marketisation. In Poland the former dissidents became a new micro-class of managers of “transition” and major beneficiaries of this project (together with a group of former socialist state managers). With the help of the EU and the international financial institutions, managerial elites conducted a transition by the destruction of existing means of livelihoods and institutions by force of law, selectively privatised the state property to themselves and international investors. A couple of investment funds actually own the majority of assets in Central Europe. The main competitive advantage and generater of economic growth is cheap labour and low taxes for business. In Poland there are 14 special economic zones, where these policies are implemented to the extreme benefit of corporations and local managers, and to the extreme hardship of people, in particular women, as employment in the zones is feminised, or low paid, temporary jobs via work agncies (including unpaid work in the form of alleged job training, contracts per hour, from Monday to Friday).
As a colleague from Hungarian small business association mentioned at the Brussels conference, in 1989 wages in Hungary were at 40% of those in the Western Europe, and now they are at 20%. In Poland, average cash allowances to the poor are below biological survival level (16.7 euro per year in 2008). Thirty nine per cent of fiscal transfers from the EU (structural funds) are directly redistributed to business in the form of non-returnable grants, and much more if investment in public-private partnerships or infrastructure for business is included. Let's unpack this scam at our future meetings.
The CEO conference in Brussels was for me a very valuable opportunity to learn, to link with others. I was impressed with the high quality analysis and very friendly arrangement of space. Given political contingencies, the focus was on movement building in Western Europe. The linkages with trade unions impressed me, too. I look forward to the next such exchanges, and hope more space in plenary sessions will be given to left feminist critiques, and to the analysis of crises and resistance in the EU 10.