Reimagining the world of (care)work: the case of Cargonomia
Exploring Economics, 2019
Reimagining the world of (care)work: the case of Cargonomia
Authors: Ágota Csoma and Orsolya Lazányi
Review: Beatte Littig
This is an essay of the writing workshop Socio-Ecological Economics, published on 9 February 2019
A dominating capitalist market economy, especially in the west and increasingly in central and eastern Europe, centers life around working and consuming (Marcuse, 1964). Capital and wealth accumulation, economic growth and development, and commodification of socio-economic activities are justified in the name of profit. A capitalist race towards rapid commodification and the expansion of the market to more and more areas of human life ensures that people’s needs are met via consumption (ibid.). The process of commodification has already encompassed many aspects of our lives, e.g., land, food production, different forms of entertainment, and information, just to name a few (D’Alisa et al., 2015). Waged labour has to be undertaken in order for people to afford paying for these consumer goods (Frayne, 2015).
Polanyi showed (1957) that waged labour became the dominant way of ensuring livelihoods only in the 19th century, through the process of enclosures, first in England and later in Europe and in the whole western civilization. Labour, considered the act of selling one’s time and energy according to prices of the (labour) market, represents a reductionist way of ensuring livelihoods. In contrast to that practice, before the industrial revolution one could satisfy his/her (and his/her family’s) needs through diverse types of activities. Market and trading was only one, marginal mode of people interacting with each other and with the natural environment. Main driving forces of the economic activities beyond the market principle were embedded into the local social context. Solidarity-based practices such as reciprocity that involve trust and mutual respect rooted in human relationships were an integral part of meeting needs (Polanyi, 1957).
Nevertheless, in the 19th century and later in the 20th century market, paid labour became dominant and the main source of satisfying human needs. This is still the case in the 21st century and it presents several disadvantages: due to certain characteristics of capitalism (productivity, efficiency, competition), the world of labour discriminates against age (Wood & Harcourt, 2008), ability (Russell & Malhotra, 2009), race (Arrow, 1998), gender (Hartmann, 1976) and other personal characteristics as it fundamentally prioritises profit and time over social equality. On top of ignoring this vast and varied cohort of the population, it also does not recognise the economic and social importance of the so called “second shift” – tasks of everyday existence, which ensure the ability of the worker to show up at his/her job the next day, e.g., cooking, washing, cleaning - (D’Alisa & Cattaneo, 2013) – and the ways in which it impacts people’s everyday lives, jobs, and thus their effectiveness at work. Domestic and reproductive work, also called care work and mainly done by women, has gone unrecognised throughout history until feminist discourses have brought it to light and has pushed for various ways of validating it (Hochschild & Machung, 2012).
By most accounts, the longest-term consequence of the capitalist system and the growth paradigm is the environmental crisis and its manifold effects, i.e. species extinction, anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification, climate migration, sea level rise, etc., (Allen et al., 2014). Certainly, the issue of capitalism is more complex than just the above described disadvantages. However, western civilization’s unfettered desire for growth, development, and life surrounded by priced commodities has precipitated the exploitation of limited natural resources to such an extent that it has managed to unleash a climate crisis that comes with great social, economical and ecological unrest.
Proposed solutions to this crisis come in many forms and with different purposes, however we must be careful not to end up using the same tools that have created the problems in the first place. Activists around the globe are demanding a systems change, tackling the real roots of today’s problems, not just the symptoms (Klein, 2015). The idea of degrowth offers an ethical and practical way forward, by at first complementing current systems, and eventually, replacing them; “[it] challenges the hegemony of growth and calls for a democratically led redistributive downscaling of production and consumption in industrialised countries as a means to achieve environmental sustainability, social justice and well-being” (Demaria et al. 2013:209).
The present paper has opened with describing the ways in which capitalism penetrates and organises human life in order to generate capital and profit for those who own the means of production. It continued by reminding the reader of a handful of social and environmental disadvantages that it generates. If the premise is to somehow get a grip on solving such issues, then, in the following part, we would like to advance dialogue on some theories of change, together with hands-on examples and experiences to show that alternative ways of organising are possible, real and ready to replace the dominant paradigm of our time. Through the case of Cargonomia, a grassroot initiative in Budapest, we will show the benefits of expanding the concept of care work to include also community building, civic engagement and environmental activism in order to allow for different narratives that promote sustainable lifestyles with a milder environmental and social impact on the planet and its communities.
D’Alisa, Deriu and Demaria (2015) define care, and thus care work, as “the daily action performed by human beings for their welfare and for the welfare of their community” (D’Alisa, Deriu and Demaria, 2015:63). Some authors use the terms care work and reproductive work interchangeably to mean these action performed mainly by women for the benefit of their families and immediate environment/community (ranging from child rearing and home chores to taking care of elderly and the sick). The “labour of love”, as feminist discourse goes on to argue, differs from waged labour in that it is taken for granted as a limitless resource governed by social-emotional codes (Bauhardt, 2013).
Given that certain care activities, like bringing up children, are not to simply be completed faster and more efficiently, as capitalism would dictate, the rules and measurements used by the market would fall short of a genuine valuation of socially strong acts and behaviours. Instead of letting care and reproductive work be swallowed by market commodification, some degrowth scholars argue that other economic activities would benefit from a more people-friendly approach endorsing the advantages of social relations (Kallis, Demaria & D’Alisa, 2016).
Beside the problem of commodification, Biesecker & Hofmeiser (2010) argue that even productive work is grounded on the regenerative and restorative role of reproductive processes. In everyday life these are intrinsically inseparable. Their daring hypothesis is that the modern crises of today, especially the ecological and the reproductive work crisis, started with the theoretical separation of reproduction from production necessary for industrial modernity.
So far, care and reproductive work indicates mainly domestic work centred around the family, caring about elderly people, etc. However, Weeks (2011) cautions that, in this sense doing care work becomes imprisoned within the dogma of productive work (doing chores rapidly and effectively). She suggests instead that we reframe the idea of care work and expand it to include other recreational activities and allow ourselves the freedom to care for our and others’ well-being and happiness. In this new sense, doing care could enable people to re-appropriate autonomy over their lives and to have the power to choose between the ways in which they satisfy their needs.
Firstly, expanding/reframing the concept of care work in academia to include a wider range of unpaid work and activities, such as community involvement and civic engagement, has the benefit of acknowledging that the extent of people’s activities that the market economy does not cover is even larger than previously considered. Thus the meaning of care work could move away from the binary of productive work and care work, with care work as domestic and reproductive work serving paid work. But it could also refer to the whole ‘uncommodified’ part of people’s lives and therefore contribute towards decolonizing our imaginaries from overly market-oriented thinking. Having a more holistic view of care work (one that includes civic engagement) in academia would not only make research more robust, but could inform policy making and shed light on the things without a price tag that make people happy and safe in a convivial, open space where things and feelings are shared. Secondly, based on this expanded meaning of care work, several authors have shown that uncommodified activities and decisions not driven by profit/market but social relations can lead to more ecologically sustainable decisions (Hayden, 1999; Nierling 2012).
Nierling (2012) also uses this extended understanding of care work when she writes “[unpaid work] may include many reproductive activities like cooking, gardening, doing handicrafts and becoming involved in voluntary charity work or community service.” In this respect, “it allows one to pursue a sustainable lifestyle through (modern) forms of subsistence and political participation” (ibid:240). By exploring this form of subsistence and care activity on both an individual and organisational level, she finds, overall, that her subjects appreciate the time and effort they can put in their loved work without being pressured by economic incentives. The emancipatory power through collective organising allows for people to rediscover “the things that really matter: family, identity, friendship, community, and purpose in life” by “promoting a degrowth society with a high level of personal wellbeing” (Jackson, 2009:86).
Besides individual recognition and decisions surrounding more care work, collective action is needed to decolonize our imaginary. Fortunately, more and more people worldwide are becoming engaged in political and environmental justice movements through grassroots organizations and through civic engagement. In the next section we would like to expand on Nierling’s findings by presenting a grassroots organisation which, we believe, exemplifies well how one’s care towards the local, civic community allows one to lead a more conscious and sustainable lifestyle and how it can call for collective action.
The case we aim to present in this paper is a degrowth-inspired open collective called Cargonomia which operates in Budapest, Hungary as an organic food distribution point, a cargo bike centre, and an open space for community and educational activities related to degrowth, well-being, ecology and sustainable transition. The mission of the collective is twofold; on one end Cargonomia aims to increase access and knowledge about local, organic food production and sustainable mobility for citizens, and on the other it supports the creation of local, decent jobs connecting rural and urban areas by partnering with local, small scale business.
The background of this open collective is based on a cooperation between a cargo bike messenger company, Kantaa, a biodynamic farm, Zsámboki Organic Garden and low-tech design and fabrication cargo bike workshop, Cyclonomia. The result is a diverse portfolio of activities offered under the umbrella of Cargonomia. These activities are centred around a physical space that serves as the dispatching centre for bike messengers and where 50-80 vegetable boxes are distributed each week containing organic vegetables, fruits, bread and wine. These organic products and vegetable boxes can be picked up in person at the headquarters of Cargonomia or delivered by the locally produced cargo bikes within the inner districts of Budapest.
The available resources and infrastructure allow Cargonomia to develop further activities. The cargo bikes and the physical space not only serve the delivery of vegetable boxes, but Cargonomia also offers solutions for sustainable transportation for the wider community of Budapest. People can try cargo bikes or consult personnel about their usage during the numerous events organized by the open collective. It also connects people who own and those who would like to rent or try out this type of bicycles. In 2018 the community cargo bike sharing platform was launched to connect community places and citizens and to increase access of this sustainable way of transportation. Through this recent project, Cargonomia works together with other partners in all over Budapest where cargo bikes and trailers are placed and citizens can borrow them through an online platform.
The overall cooperation and the practical activities of Cargonomia support its partners in their long-term economic viability. Given existing services and infrastructure, Cargonomia acts as a tool in linking and streamlining these, with a focus on communication networks and operating space. The partners are independent in their daily operations with their own budget and individual responsibilities of offering competitively priced high quality goods and services. However, being part of Cargonomia provides greater stability and flexibility for the members than could be achieved if working individually by pooling infrastructure and human resources.
Besides supporting traditional business activities, the cooperation enables outreach activities to a wider audience. Regular events and workshops take place at Cargonomia headquarters, in the bicycle workshop, on the farm and in schools, community gardens, etc., where the group is invited for knowledge-sharing. Cargonomia also became an open space for dialogue about the importance of local food production, sustainable mobility, and transition towards a degrowth society. These dialogues contribute to the promotion of the services of the partner organizations - e.g. organic food sale - but more importantly the space becomes a place for democratic knowledge sharing.
While the selling of organic goods and delivery services supports traditional business and indirectly contributes to the creation of paid work for employees of the partners, cooperation itself is organized around civic engagement. The members of the Cargonomia team do not receive any direct financial benefit for the coordination and organization of the activities. The vegetable box distribution, organization of events, holding workshops, developing cargo bike sharing platform, educating young families to use cargo bikes are carried out in the unpaid free time of the team members. What makes it possible to accomplish such a wide range of activities is the interdisciplinary cooperation between the partners, the diversity in personal knowledge, experience, and skills, and a strong shared commitment.
According to the co-founders, maintaining a high level of diversity and quality of activities would not be possible within the market system limited to paid jobs. Informal work allows members to do what they are the best at and use their competencies based on what is needed. Thus organizing events and workshops, and distributing vegetable boxes becomes a personal joy. ‘No big investment’ applies as a rule, thus services, activities and events are organized based on the skills and creativity of the members, which leads to the experimentation of innovative solutions. The diversity of activities contributes to gain new abilities and to connect different communities.
Since Cargonomia is not obliged to pay salaries or generate income to pay back debts it does not have to comply with the growth paradigm. Decisions about the services, and resources to use can be made based on a degrowth logic which is embedded in the operation. It means that ecological boundaries and social issues are always prioritized over profit. For instance, the recently launched cargo bike-sharing project is based on the current under-used, locally produced cargo bike fleet and the wide partnership relations around the city. Cargo bikes owned by the collective are placed at partner organisations, such as the community place, cafés, and DIY workshops where citizens can borrow them through an open source platform. No additional investment allows them to keep the system at human scale. It works based on relationships where partners and users know each other and give their time and energy towards a common good that does not juggle ecological trade-offs. Human relations and mutual support become the backbone of the project and the compensation for economic value through the recognition of every effort invested in the community. Doing work that is decoupled from a growth paradigm, i.e., running the process of creation not based on economic principles, but on personal and creative ones, rewards individuals by improving their well-being, feeling of recognition, and achievement, as Nierling (2012) justified in her findings. Furthermore, it helps to decouple the operation of the system from economic growth while contributing to sustainable mobility.
We have analysed the case of Cargonomia through the lens of an extended definition of care work: including care towards our, others’ and the environment’s flourishing.
Accordingly, individual decisions regarding care work (in its extended meaning) contribute to:
(1) the viability of small scale, de-mechanized, local businesses to carry out their ecologically sustainable operations;
(2) individual benefits such as recognition, gaining new skills, conviviality, etc. and
(3) develop further activities to support sustainable lifestyles.
Nierling (2012) argues that developing new and hidden skills and competences in autonomous and emancipatory ways “might lead an individual to decide in favour of a satisfying conduct of life by means of a decommodification of work” (Nierling, 2012:245). Namely, one could find more alternative ways of subsisting, at least partially, than the prevalent form of waged labour. Engaging less in waged labour can have several positive impact on our social lives—empowerment, more time and ability to participate in political debates, recognition, etc. (Jackson, 2009)—and it can also facilitate a path towards a more ecologically sustainable life (Hayden, 1999).
The Cargonomia case shows how individuals’ participation in grassroots initiatives and engagement in transition movements can contribute to more environmental and socially conscious decisions at the individual and collective organisational levels. Grassroots, autonomous organising increases access to sustainable food consumption and sustainable mobility, while enabling participants and the wider community to participate in debates on local sustainable transition pathways. These diverse purposes would not be possible if driven purely by economic goals.
Even though today this alternative form of organising is possible, it is sustained by individuals who can afford to carry out activities beyond paid work. It comes with the precondition of economic security that excludes others and prevents many people to join such initiatives and enjoy its benefits. In the long term, the transition movement towards a degrowth society will have to find strategies to allow everyone, especially those who are not economically wealthy, to perform care work while having their basic needs met (Schneider, 2010). It might come with the idea of finding a holistic concept of work where paid and unpaid work are equally important. The better recognition of care work could help us to decolonize our imaginary and shift our lifestyles towards a more cooperative and sustainable society (Jackson, 2009: 91). Cargonomia aims to inspire other citizens, groups and organizations to experiment new ways of cooperation and to reorganize our lives around more volunteer/civic activity that contributes to our personal wellbeing and enhances better organizational decisions.
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