Radical Care: Seeking New and More Possible Meetings in the Shadows
of Structural Violence
Kelly Gawel
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 3-24.
This article attends to the intimate contradictions that differentially shape and limit caring ca-
pacities and relations in a violent world, and the embodied ethical and political transformations
at the heart of learning to care otherwise. From manifestos calling for universal carein de-
fiance of the state-sanctioned horrors of the pandemic era, to the abolitionist politics of care
developed by BLM organizers through movement building and healing, and the proliferation
of mutual-aid infrastructures to meet needs and distribute resources in the face of overwhelm-
ing crisis and neglect these examples and so many others illustrate with undeniable clarity
that radical care is finally on the agenda. In what follows, I hope to contribute to this urgent
conversation by pointing to how care is shaped in fundamentally contradictory ways under
conditions of entrenched structural violence, and the limitations of normative frameworks
when confronting this reality. To unambiguously valorize care in ethical and political life is to
risk occluding the constitutive violence of existing social structures and norms, its impact on
the intimacies of caring relations, and ultimately the ways that communities mobilize alternate
economies and practices of care towards healing and social change. While it is crucial to value
care and work for a more caring society, I claim that efforts to transform patterns of relational
harm and develop new sensibilities should also be highlighted as integral components of rad-
ical caring praxis.
Radical care, Politics of care, Ethics of care, Social justice
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Radical Care: Seeking New and More Possible Meetings in the Shadows
of Structural Violence
Kelly Gawel
For the Care Cadre
in gratitude and hope for new horizons, and ancient remembrances, of care
Care is the social, material, and emotional weaving that sustains life and connects us to others.
From midwifing new life, nurturing the young, the work of sex, and the tending of death,
trauma, disability, and physical and mental illness, it is vital in every life stage and process.
And yet, despite its ubiquity in all aspects of life, care has been routinely neglected and even
dismissed by hegemonic and radical theorists alike. The feminist philosophers who have been
prominent in redressing this omission are right to reclaim the ethical value of care, and to
situate it in its rightful place at the centre of political theory and action.
But the fact of care’s life-sustaining capacities does not, in itself, make it an unequivocal good.
Indeed, it points to an unsettling ambiguity. Particularly under conditions of widespread op-
pression and dominance, caring practices, capacities, norms, and relations can themselves be
shaped by, and can even play a role in reproducing, forms of violence that are anathema to the
life and flourishing of many people, even the earth itself. Exploiting and extracting the care
labour of subjugated people as well as systemically neglecting those most in need of care
is, and has historically been, a constitutive feature of the social reproduction of violent insti-
tutions. At the same time, transformative practices of care play a vital role in how marginalized
communities sustain themselves under these conditions, mobilize forms of resistance against
them, and nurture possibilities of living otherwise.
The systemic invisibilization, naturalization, and devaluation of care make it difficult to theo-
rize. But this difficulty also stems from its phenomenologically embedded and relational na-
ture. This article is written from such an entangled place. The theoretical framework I develop
below has its roots in my experiences organizing with a collective devoted to radical care.
Many of the insights presented here were generated out of conversations, inspired by collective
practice, and forged in response to the possibilities and limits of this project that I was an
integral part of, and cared very deeply about. Both the power and the failure of this collective
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
imbue and motivate my argument here. The seemingly inevitable ways it fell apart along the
very cleavages that brought us together, despite the presence of incredible skill and much good
will, speaks to the contradictory realities of care, the problems they pose for organizing prac-
tice, and the level of skill and attunement needed to hold and confront them.
I structure the paper around three interrelated claims. These provide different vantages on the
overarching problem of how to politically mobilize care when caring practices and relations
are embedded in, and often themselves reproduce, forms of structural violence. By structural
violence I mean relations of exploitation, extraction, abuse, and coercion that are societally
systemic, which often trace multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, and which condition
social forms, institutions, and patterns of intimate attachment in fundamental ways. Precisely
because care is so often naturalized and de-historicized, I begin by socially and historically
situating these structural contradictions and their impact on historical experiences of selfhood
and relationship. My first claim is that radical approaches to care call for critiques of, and
sensitivity to, these systemic and historical harms that so often shape social organizations and
divisions of caring labour at macro and micro scales.
The problem deepens when we consider that such harms are often normalized, naturalized, and
mystified by given moral economies of care themselvesfor example, in the assumption that
care is simply a labour of love that some (gendered, racialized, migrant) people are more
equipped to provide. My second claim is that this complicates how we ought to conceive of
care as an ethical and political good. Insofar as caring practices and relations are so often
shaped by structural violence, even in their most intimate dimensions, accounts of care con-
ceived as a species activity or set of intuitive dispositions are insufficient grounds for gener-
ating caring ethics and politics. I claim that such naturalistic understandings of care run the
risk of instead naturalizing norms, distributions, and practices of care shaped in fundamental
ways by systemic harms. While care ethicists are my main interlocutor in this regard, this is a
move shared, to varying degrees, by contemporary political theorizations of care such as those
articulated in the widely read and discussed Care Manifesto (2020).
While valuing and securing access to care are necessary and crucial endeavours, a single-
minded focus on questions of distributive justicecalling for more care in public life or more
caring institutions sidesteps this violence embedded in social structures and norms of care,
the ways this violence is woven into the very intimacies of caring relations, and indeed the
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
generative forms of care practiced by communities of struggle past and present. My final claim
concerns these local, engaged, and transformational dimensions of radical care. Like gender,
care cannot be conceived as a trans-historical natural attitude
(Malatino 2020) outside of or
beyond its social and material conditions. This means that reconstituting caring practices and
relations on intimate and relational levels, in and through movement building and collective
healing, is a vital component of transforming cultures of care in ways that are aligned with
social justice and should be viewed as inseparable from the project of politically centring
care and securing its just distribution.
This article is ultimately about transforming caring relations at both intimate and structural
levels. It asks more questions than it answers, and points to the need for engaged and embodied
learning: learning, for example, new methods of political and ethical education that unwind
the vigilance, relax the hyper-attunement, enliven the insensibility, and diffuse the entitlement
through which social inequalities shape or attenuate people’s capacities to give and receive
care. Or to notice and intervene in the often subtle and intersubjective mechanisms through
which care is extracted, denied, or coerced. What relational holding environments can we cul-
tivate to tend to the wounds inflicted by normative care, or to endure the inevitable failures of
such endeavours without rupturing the relations we want, or need, to sustain? And how can we
nourish the political desire to cultivate new forms of intimacy and relation in the face of great
resistance from without and within?
1. Structural Violence and its Intimate Legacies
I understand care in a broad sense as the material and affective labour and relations through
which social bonds and individuals are reproduced. Care is thus conditioned by, and upholds,
social forms of family and labour, as well as institutional life. At the heart of daily and inter-
generational reproduction, it involves modes of knowing, perceiving, and relating that are
highly subtle and skilled, and also culturally and historically specific. A starting premise of
this article is that social organizations and divisions of this caring labour express and reproduce
gender, racialized, colonial, ableist and class oppressions on both macro and micro scales.
The devaluation and exploitation of caring labour and those who perform it, as well as the
systemic neglect of those most in need of care, are not incidental but structural to the mainte-
nance of violent institutions and social relations.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Dynamics of racial capitalist exploitation, for example, perpetuate and compound multiple,
and intersecting, forms of oppression through what have come to be known as international
care chains.
Capitalist accumulation depends upon reproductive labour to support ever more
endangered life conditions. Maximizing profit requires externalizing this labour, and in doing
so, exploiting it as fully as possible: naturalizing it as a female vocation or coercing, stealing,
or paying extremely little for it. And it is not a coincidence that many migrant women of colour
from the Global Southwho often work in isolation and without basic labour and citizenship
protections in households continents away from their own are currently doing this sort of
A related point concerns the crucial differences, as well as relations, between paid and unpaid
forms of care and social reproductive labour. Drawing on the extensive feminist debates on
the subject, I understood these distinctions in terms of the broad categories of: i) caring ser-
vices subsidized by the state (e.g. welfare services, public health care); ii) caring services in
the private market economy (e.g. privately employed nurses aids and elder care workers); iii)
unpaid domestic labour that contributes to household and community reproduction (e.g. the
housewife,but also broader, often female, kinship networks); and iv) paid care labour that
is de-regulated and hyper-exploited in private, domestic economies (e.g. paid domestic labour-
ers and nannies). I follow theorists who centre the intersecting oppressions reproduced in these
social organizations and divisions of caring labour. Black feminists have long pointed to the
vast differences between unpaid and paid domestic labour, and the extreme forms of exploita-
tion and abuse, historically rooted in slavery and segregation, involved in the latter (e.g., Carby
1982; Lorde 1979, 1980; Davis 1983, 1972). Evelyn Nakano Glenn further articulates the ra-
cialization at play in these divisions, exploring the historical continuities between paid domes-
tic labour performed by women of colour on the one hand, and the racialized de-skilling of
care and reproductive labour in commodified service economies on the other. In doing so, she
highlights how this ongoing and systemic racialization has involved not only the “dirty work”
of tending to bodily needs, but much of the intensive emotional labour so closely associated
with care (Nakano Glenn 1992).
Political and ethical articulations of care must attend to the histories, interlocking oppressions,
and social hierarchies at play in political economies of care, as well as the specific forms of
agency and organization fostered by those at the frontlines of the struggles at the heart of caring
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
relations. In this sense, I follow those who have critiqued the care ethical tendency to value
bio-familial care over commodified caring services (Parreñas and Boris 2010)a move which
discounts the intensive forms of emotional and bodily labour performed by exploited care
workers, the role of paid care work in buttressing the ostensibly private home, and the histor-
ical and actual non-primacy of the nuclear family in many people’s lives.
Together, these assumptions support and motivate my claim that care is not outside of or be-
yond violence and political transformation. The flip side of this is that the harms reproduced
in caring structures and relations are not intrinsic to care as such, but features of social relations
and norms that both moralize and devalue it along multiple and intersecting axes of oppression.
“Dangers” such as paternalism and parochialism thus should not be construed as pathologies
inherent to care, but as examples of historically specific harms corresponding, in large part, to
contemporary social forms and institutions: e.g. cultural and familial chauvinism in the case
of parochial care, and, in the case of paternalistic care, the individualizing narratives of re-
sponsibilization and deservingness at play in the allocation of ever dwindling assistance.
At the same time, this structural violence impacts people’s lived experiences, intimate rela-
tions, and dispositional attunements to the world and others in ways that are not always appar-
ent, especially to those in positions of power and privilege. This non-transparency of care
poses deep political and ethical problems that can rarely be solved through individual intention
alone. To illustrate this point, and the resultant need to deepen transformative orientations to
care, I want to turn to a historical critique of empathy presented by Saidiya Hartman. The
example I discuss comes from her Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in
Nineteenth Century America, a text which charts, in stark and intimate detail, the “quotidian”
terror that was routinized in daily life during this era of slavery and its immediate aftermath.
Her examination of these routine cruelties, and the processes through which they were nor-
malized, sheds unwavering light on the disavowed connections between liberal ideals of free-
dom and consent and the realities of subjugation and coercion bringing attention to the im-
pact of white supremacist violence not only on the public life and institutional practice of this
culture, but on private experiences of selfhood and relation.
Hartman’s critical gaze lands in particular on the troubling ambiguities of white empathy dur-
ing this time, which she illustrates through a discussion of the Letters on American Slavery
composed by white abolitionist John Rankin. She questions the purpose and complicated,
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
unsettling and disturbing” effect of a particular instance, where Rankin describes an imagina-
tive identification with the position of an enslaved person, writing himself and his family into
a fantasy of enslavement in an attempt to illustrate its moral harms. For Hartman, the “diffi-
culty and slipperiness” of Rankin’s empathy, his “projection of self onto another in order to
better understand the other […] confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved be-
cause in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than
for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach” (Hartman 1997,
Importantly, Rankin’s exercise was an attempt to mobilize empathy as a tool of abolitionist
political and moral education. His aim was to elicit care for the plight of enslaved people, first
from his slave-owning brother to whom his letters were addressed, and then, with their publi-
cation, from white Americans more broadly. But Hartman reveals how this endeavor was
“complicated […] by the fact that it cannot be extricated from the economy of chattel slavery
with which it is at odds” (Hartman 1997, 21). Rankin’s “facile intimacy” belies his display of
solidarity, for it also reenacts the erasure and complicity his sentiments were intended to mit-
igate. His gesture fails to relate to the other as other, or bear witness to their pain. Even if that
was his intent, his care remains thick with the institutionalized violence he was attempting to
use to dismantle it. Despite his abolitionist intentions, his empathy retained the relational con-
tours of the white supremacy he dedicated his life to overcoming. In this sense, Rankin’s dis-
play of empathy was a contradictory manifestation of care.
Hartman’s discussion of Rankin has more than historical relevance. In the context of the above
discussion, it demonstrates the dangers of positively valuing apparently natural attitudes of
care and provides a stark example of how emotional patterns of caring attention and response
especially on the part of those in the position of oppressor can reproduce deeply harmful
dynamics, even in attempts at repair. However, elsewhere Hartman makes clear that her pen-
etrating critique of the relational imprints of violence is ultimately in the service of those whose
autonomous, insurgent, intimacies and desires were, and are, irreducible to it. This is most
evident in her discussion of Black women’s “coerced and freely given” care, which she locates
at the centre (“the belly”) of the world (Hartman 2016, 171). She notes that what Black women
were forced to endure as caretakers of their enslavers and oppressors exceeds available politi-
cal categories. Yet so do the freedoms they cultivated and harboured the alternative
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
economies of nurturance,
intimate imaginaries, and ways of living otherwise they made pos-
sible with their “brilliant and formidable labor of care.” Most crucially, these “forms of care,
intimacy, and sustenance exploited by racial capitalism […] are not reducible to or exhausted
by it” (Hartman 2016, 171).
The quality of Hartman’s caring attention itself reveals something profound about the trans-
formations at stake in learning to care in radical ways, and what this might ask of us and our
living. She has spent years in the archive and on the streets, following vanishing yet indelible
traces of the intimate lives and desires of individuals who the historical record only represents
through the violence done to them. The historical counter-narrative that she weaves is itself a
“beautiful experiment” (Hartman 2019) in caring otherwise. In her attention to the vast un-
knowns of their living, she hones new ethical and political sensibilities perhaps capable of
meeting these others at the limits of knowing, and touching possibilities of their living which
have not yet found a home in this world. It seems, in reading her work, that she feels these
histories and people, accompanies them, and brings them into the circle of her care, while also
letting them shape what that care is and can be.
2. Political Considerations on the Ethics of Care
To recall my argument as a whole, my aim is to illuminate the painful contradictions that shape
and limit intimate relations and practices of care, the deep ethical and political problems this
poses, and resultant need to place embodied ethical transformation and caring praxis at the
center of radical movement politics. The critique of care ethics and its naturalization of care
as a value which I develop in this section further motivates these problems and possibilities.
Calls for reforming ethics, or even reimagining society, based on the value of care tend to rely
on what I term naturalistic/naturalizing epistemologies of care. That is, such approaches rely
on generating normative and political value from features of care that are naturalistically con-
ceived as intuitive dispositions and forms of attention involved in care as a species activity.
While I am focusing on the care ethical tradition here, it is important to note that such ap-
proaches to care as a moral good or species activity are commonly assumed, and also, at least
implicitly, inform much recent literature on care.
To put it another way, I think that speaking
to the problems of caring radically under conditions of entrenched and escalating structural
violence requires complicating narratives that argue for a caring society on the basis of existing
norms and relations of care.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The care ethical tradition in particular largely shares a consensus regarding not only the moral
value of care, but the idea that this moral value derives from intuitive caring capacities such
as attention, other-directedness, responsiveness, and receptive attunement. Because these dis-
positions or motivational attitudes are fundamental to effective care, most care ethicists take
them to be naturalistically given moral goods. My claim here is that these relational dimensions
of care are themselves often implicated in structures of violence that generate contradictions
in caring practiceseven and precisely at these intimate levels.
Joan Tronto speaks to these concerns with her political argument for an ethics of care. In
calling for a more caring society, Tronto re-configures traditional boundaries of moral and
political thought by centring the political as well as ethical value of care as a species activity.
I articulate my argument below in conversation with Tronto in particular because, while I am
sympathetic with her move to bring care from the margins to the centre of politics and her call
for a more caring society, I believe her approach remains rooted in naturalized assumptions
about care. I hope that my engagement with her work here thus motivates the need for critical
and transformative that is, radical approaches to care, and the always already political
realities of caring practices and dispositions themselves.
I agree with certain aspects of Tronto and Bernice Fischer’s famous definition of care: “On the
most general level we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes every-
thing that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our worldso that we can live in it as well
as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we
seek to interweave in a complex, life sustaining web” (Tronto 1993, 103). Given its scope and
power, it is not hard to see why this definition is so commonly cited, and contested. In a broad
sense, the definition, and analysis that follows from it, summarizes many care ethical positions
in that: i) it defines care as an essential, life generating activity; ii) it moves from this fact of
the matter to care as a robust moral value; and iii) it develops an ethics and politics stemming
from the skills and practices of caring. While I agree with i), it is precisely care’s essential and
life-generating capacities that lead to my divergence from ii) and iii). The very fact that care
is so generative and fundamental to human life and meaning, and thus cannot be abstracted
from social conditions and historical contingency, entails that we must be careful when deriv-
ing “oughts” from care’s ontological primacy. This leads to my issue with the third point: it is
care’s ethical and political imbrication with existing social forms and institutionsthe family
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
of course, but also medical, educational, private and public caring services, etc. that leads
me and others to call for more critical and transformative approaches to skills and practices of
care themselves, as well as what it means to maintain, restore, and live as well as possible in
our world.
Care ethics mark a radical departure from Western philosophy and its fixations on individual
choice and action, or the generation of rules from rational moral principles. This ethics begins,
rather, from the concrete needs of situated others, and generates a relational ethics from the
values and practices of care involved in meeting such needs (Held 2006). In and of itself, this
move to develop moral theory from the perspective and experience of caring relations them-
selves poses a deep critique of the methodological individualism and abstract calculations of
the modern Western philosophical canon.
Perhaps deeper still, the move to ethically centre
the feminized and privatized values and labour of care explicitly builds upon the feminist dic-
tum regarding the political and social nature of the so-called personal and private dimensions
of human life and world making. With its relational, experience based, and pluralist approach,
as well as its interrogation of the gendered logics organizing social life and values, care ethi-
cists fold emotional intelligence, responsiveness, and intersubjective attunement into the very
fabric of ethics. The shift in the location, methods, and agencies of moral and political philos-
ophy that they enabled in doing so cannot be overstated.
Even, precisely, in my disagreements with them, I pay homage to care ethicists, and the para-
digm shift in ethics and politics they collectively engendered. While I critique even the most
explicitly political care ethicists for inadequately politicizing care, I am also building on their
foundational assumptions. And in some respects, political analysis has been integral to care
ethics since its inception. Many care ethicists generate a politics of care from their ethical
observations: Ruddick for example offers an early example of a politics of peace grounded in
maternal care, and Gilligan overtly critiques the gendered dominations that lead to masculinist
biases in moral psychology. There have also been developments in the theory, from the pri-
macy given to dyadic, maternal caring to theorizing care in broader political and social regis-
ters. As Kittay points out, care is itself a social and political value and the question of who
performs the labour of care is a social and political question (Kittay 1999, 1). Virginia Held
likewise examines social and political questions in light of the values of care and offers sug-
gestions for the transformation of society based on this analysis (Held 2006, 37).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
With this move from personal, dyadic, and maternal understandings of care largely rooted in
Western, heteronormative notions of the nuclear family to an understanding of care in its
social and political context, the discourse of care ethics has also become more skilled at cen-
tring race, class, nationality, sexuality, and ability, and analyzing the complex situatedness of
care (Engster 2007). However, even the nuanced and socially conscious perspectives offered
by Held and Kittay ultimately derive their political critique from problematically equalized or
universalized notions of caring. For Held, a robust moral theory of care ethics is grounded in
what she understands to be the universal experience of care. Indeed, this universality is what
justifies care’s place as the “most basic and most comprehensive value” (Held 2006, 3). Kit-
tay’s dependency critique of liberal theories of justice presents an alternative to liberal theories
of equality, grounded in the understanding that we are all “some mother’s child.” This equal-
izing maxim forms the basic assumption through which her well known concept of doulia is
expressed and justified.
Thus, while Held and Kittay each theorize care on social and political
registers and point to the need for political reforms that centre more just distributions of care,
they both base this analysis on assumptions about a universal experience of care that sidestep
the structural and systemic oppressions that deny people basic access to care, normalize abuse
and neglect in existing caring structures, and/or exploit and extract the labour of care workers.
Joan Tronto takes this political analysis a step further by offering an explicitly political argu-
ment for the ethics of care, grounded in a critique of power relations that deny care as a moral
and political reality. Care, an essential element of human life, is also systemically devalued
(Tronto 1993, 158). Centering care politically thus requires critiquing the structural relations
and political norms that have led to this devaluation, which should itself “lead to a profound
rethinking of moral and political life” (1993, 111).
Like Held and Kittay, Tronto self-consciously places her intervention within feminist history
and praxis, as well as political theory. A central claim of her Moral Boundaries is that “in
order to take morality seriously […] we have to understand [moral arguments] in a political
context” (1993, 3). This insight drives her political view of care and her re-construal of the
moral boundaries that she claims preclude caring politics. Not only are morals political, but
valuing care requires reevaluating morals in a way that politically and ethically centres an
integral concept of care (1993, 101). However, rather than resort to an essentialized “women’s
morality” traditionally associated with feminized norms, she claims that upholding the value
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
of these norms requires re-construing the limits demarcating moral and political thought: trou-
bling the boundaries separating morality from its political and personal contexts, the public
from the private sphere, and indeed morality and politics themselves.
According to Stephanie Collins, care ethics eschews the distinction between politics and mo-
rality uberhaupt: “Building on the feminist insight that the personal is political, care ethicists
tend to believe experiences in our individual ethical lives must inform the principles that guide
our political institutions, and that the nature of our political institutions condition possibilities
within our individual ethical lives” (Collins 2015, 6). Tronto’s claim is more critical and trans-
formative: rather than merely upholding the norms of intimate life and bringing them into
conversation with questions of public and political policy, she asks the quasi-transcendental
question “how might an ethic of care become possible?” which implies a critique of the moral
boundaries and power relations that constrain care to the private sphere or recreate paternalistic
and domineering tendencies in the allocating of caring services (Tronto 1993, 175).
This analysis has implications not only for political theory, but for the ethics of care itself,
which “remains incomplete without a political theory of care” (1993, 155). Tronto’s argument
is finally that “only if we understand care as a political idea will we be able to change its status
and the status of those who do caring work in our culture” (1993, 158). This understanding
care as a political idea rests on problematizing what she terms “morality first” accounts of
care’s social and political value. It is not enough to simply export an unmediated notion of
care into political life. Tronto is explicit in her critique of Noddings in this regard, who she
views, following others, to have a dyadic, sentimentalized, account of care that refuses insti-
tutional and structural analysis. Viewing the morality of care as prior to politics is incompatible
with a genuine critique of politics and morality, and ultimately re-inscribes the very divisions
between the public and private, rational, and emotional, spheres that care ethicists are intent
to shift and reconfigure.
Tronto’s aim is to place the value of care front and centre in policy and theory, while also
addressing the social inequalities and power imbalances manifest in caring relations. Tronto
calls for a more caring society on the basis of re-drawn moral boundaries grounded in the
political and moral value of care as an integral species activity. “To recognize the value of
care,” she claims, ultimately “calls into question the structure of values in our society” (1993,
180). Insofar as care is not a secondary and parochial concern, but central to, and constitutive
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
of, human life, we are obligated to take a critical stance on existing ethical and political norms,
and ultimately to implement the value and practice of care at the centre of social and political
This is true, but is only half the picture. For Tronto, we must change the context in which we
think about care, but we do not have to change care itself. Despite her intent to provide a
political theory of care that moves away from the dyadic and sentimentalized notions offered
by “morality first” notions of caring politics, Tronto ultimately rests on an uncritical and ahis-
torical acceptance of care as a value specifically, the moral qualities of attentiveness, respon-
sibility, competence, responsiveness in meeting other’s needs and the integrity of good care
(1993, 127-136). “Because the practice of care is also a political idea,” she contends that her
account “does not face the problem of trying to import a moral concept into a political order.”
Rather, she contends, “the practice of care describes the qualities necessary for democratic
citizens to live together well in a pluralistic society” (1993, 161-162).
Tronto’s understanding of the disposition and practice of good care as a political ideal still
abstracts care from social relations which constitutively devalue and exploit it. While she ex-
plicitly draws attention to questions of power and difference in caring relations, and indeed to
how “care is raced, gendered, classed” (1993, 112), she ultimately contends that moral bound-
aries and their social and political settings are what preserve this privilege and oppression. She
thus does not question how relational dispositions and practices of care themselves often re-
produce or invisibilize the very power imbalances she intends to address. Despite her compel-
ling claims to the contrary, her call to move a holistically conceived notion of good care from
the margins to the centre of politics thus still relies on an abstract and apolitical notion of care.
Tronto critiques both inequalities in care-giving relations and the norms and processes that
exclude care from political and moral life. In doing so, she is bringing care into view as a
constituent force of politics. But, insofar as her politics of care rests on naturalistically con-
ceived values and dispositions of care, she ultimately naturalizes dimensions of care that are
socially, culturally, and historically conditioned.
The devaluation, exploitation, and extraction of the caring labour of marginalized people, and
systemic neglect of those in need of care, are not pathological deviations from an ideal of good
care, but essential and fundamental conditions of the world as it is. Norto point to the same
issue from the opposite angle are dangers such as paternalism and/or parochialism inherent
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
to care itself. Countering such harms should involve complicating narratives that argue for a
caring society on the basis of existing norms and relations of care exporting feminized no-
tions of care associated with the nuclear family into the public sphere, for example, but also
questioning the more widespread tendency to generate caring ethics and politics from natural-
ized caring dispositions (e.g. attention, receptivity, responsiveness, other-directedness) or a
de-contextualized transparent self. Rather than assume them a priori, we might inquire about
the social and political forces that shape or attenuate what we mean by such caring capacities,
encourage their hyper-development or atrophy, or direct them towards some and away from
The very feminist politics that care ethics draws upon and richly elaborates calls for political
orientations to those layers of experience and social practice excluded by dominant under-
standings of the political. The same goes for care: like gender, the epistemologies, practices
and dispositions of care are not natural attitudes but socially and materially contested sites of
struggle and transformation. Care is political all the way down, and thus appears as a natural
morality. This is to flip the script of care ethics, but in a way I believe is consistent with its
most radical and visionary impulses.
3. The Care Cadre
As I noted at the beginning of this article, my thesis concerning the non-transparency of care
and resultant need for collective and embodied approaches to its transformation, originated in
the beauty and failures of a project on radical care, which we lovingly and ironically termed
the “Care Cadre.” In discussing my takeaways from this project, I want to emphasize that I am
speaking from my own experience, not for this collective or any other. This itself is a limita-
tion: this article would have perhaps been more compelling, and certainly more consistent, if
it were collaboratively written. Moreover, the very contradictions I am pointing to present the
danger that my engrained patterns of relating rooted, for example, in my whiteness, US cit-
izenship, feminization, and/or economic precarity might lead me to misrepresent what hap-
pened or hinder the conversations I hope to invite in speaking about it. These risks notwith-
standing, I conclude with this intimate organizing experience for several reasons. First, to hon-
our this collective, the work we did, and its profound impact on this writing. Second, to present
a specific vantage point on the obstacles that care’s living contradictions present even to orga-
nized efforts to practice care in politicized and transformative ways. Finally, as a performative
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
attempt to motivate the need for collective praxis in developing political and ethical ap-
proaches to care capable of confronting these obstacles.
The group formed in New York in 2015 in response to the failure of our radical Left political
communities to address specific incidents of sexual violence violence that recent feminist
movements such as #metoo have shown to be endemic to groupings and institutions across
ideological and other social spectrums. It was an intimate but not small group of people, fairly
diverse in terms of race, class, ability, sexuality, and nationality, and the majority of the group
identified as women. Most of us did not know one another prior to the group’s formation, but
we largely shared an anarchist, queer, feminist, and anti-colonial ethos, and considered care to
be integral to our political activism and work in the world. While we largely ended up facing
inward toward group formation and process rather than external political action, the latter re-
mained an important goal. We met at least once a month for about two years.
Our organizing centred on the question of what a militancy of care might look like as a com-
ponent of feminist organizing. I now conceive of this question as an emergent yet guiding
theme that we elaborated through ongoing co-creative process. It was not only the content of
this question, but its form, that proved important in this regard: the project in many ways was
an attempt to relationally inhabit the space opened by the urgent questions of care in our lives
and communities. This militant inquiry, for example, informed our articulation of care as re-
fusal as a no which became as fundamental to our praxis as questions of when, where, how,
and for whom to provide care. In asking how our care might become, or might already be, a
militant and transformative practice, we were also engaged in the social reproduction of strug-
gle: striving to cultivate a relational container capable of holding each other’s pain, and of
generating political power.
What emerged was a space of experimentation by and for radical care workers. We developed
our collaborative methods as we went alongusing freewriting and creative play to shed new
light on old dilemmas, or cultivating ritual containers to bring a sense of the sacred to our work
and to hold and process its intensity. In the process, we learned to meet specific needs as they
arose, and to gradually build trust and a shared language to express what we were doing and
why. Together, we honed our caring skills, and even maybe forged new ones. In small and
halting, but also extremely powerful, ways we rendered visible, theorized, and politically
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
centred the invisibilized and devalued work we had all been doing for years in our political
A word we used to describe the group was a vortex an apt term to describe the magnetic swirl
of intensity, the unruly pull of affinity and need, that allowed us to practice and theorize care
in new ways. But as time went on, the very social fractures and unmet needs around which we
so powerfully converged began to show up between us in ways that we did not yet have the
wisdom or skills to addressand the spiral unravelled. My experience with this group led me
to an embodied perception of how the contradictions of care run so deep as to hinder attempts,
even on the part of skilled organizers, to address social injustice and intimate harm. It taught
me that the honed capacities for care we bring to our politics and ethical praxis can be shaped
and limited by the very forms of violence we seek to overcome. The question I was left with,
and which lies at the heart of this inquiry, is how to generate transformative practices and
cultivate sensibilities capable of holding and unwinding such painful contradictions, rather
than succumbing to them, or being undone by their force.
This is a tender topic, but one that I believe touches the heart of care. Attending to this level
of social shaping and wounding can be deeply uncomfortable, and requires culturally and com-
munity specific holding containers and modalities for interrogating power. In pointing to this
terrain of intimate contradiction and struggle, my aim is not to make a universalizing or gen-
eralizing claim about people’s experiences. My intent, rather, is to point to how experiences
of care (giving and receiving), or lack thereof, shape the very contours of our sensory worlds
and embodied relations to others. In this sense, my argument follows care ethical insights about
the specific and relational nature of care, which, in its intimate pains and joys, can only be
known from the inside. Such specificities include the skills and virtuosities of care, but also
the personal and collective resistance strategies, protective mechanisms and deflections, and
strategies of endurance that people develop in the face of intimate coercion, exploitation and
neglect as well as the alternative political economies, kinship networks, nurturance practices,
and liberatory values that individuals and communities manifest in their cultures and practices
of care.
Radical caring praxis is emergent in the sense that it is cultivated in response to the specific
needs of the communities who mobilize it. I thus think it is the nature of such projects to refuse
generalization, but this experience has led to my sense that developing responsive mutual-aid
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
and collective care structures to address community specific harms and needs however lim-
ited, fleeting, and fraught with failure they may be is a direct and generative way to bring
new forms of knowledge, skill, and sensibilities to bear on the ethics and politics of care.
4. Answering the Call of Radical Care
To call upon Audre Lorde’s riddling metaphor, we cannot dismantle cultures built on the ex-
ploitation and devaluation of care with the tools used to build it. Although I hesitate to draw
upon an idea so frequently applied and misused, I think it is helpful for situating these problems
and possibilities of care. Lorde herself was specific about the role of intimate relational pat-
terns and attitudes in maintaining the dominant order, as well as fostering new and more life
affirming ways of living. For Lorde, old blueprints of expectation and response” (Lorde 2007,
123) serve as master’s tools when they normalize violence and prevent genuine mutuality and
nurturance across differences. Given how profoundly social organizations and divisions of
caring labour trace social inequalities, I believe that we can take many existing norms and
practices of care as paradigmatic instances of how such oppressive blueprints can live in our
attachments and sensibilities. Such patterns of expectation and response are expressed as she
points out in who cares for the children of whom during academic conferences (2007, 112),
but also in unconscious and somatically engrained expectations about who should, or will, be
disproportionately responsive to the needs of others, and who’s needs should, or will, be dis-
proportionately responded to or neglected. Because care’s imbrication with structural violence
runs so deep, such patterns can show up even in earnest attempts to confront them. And yet,
for the same reason, transforming embodied practices of attention and responseforging new
caring sensibilities and “new patterns of relating across difference” (2007, 123)is a political
task of urgent proportions.
It is difficult to forge new caring tools. Confronting the contradictions of care and developing
new caring sensibilities requires intimate and collective learning learning how to cultivate
new blueprints of expectation and response; to develop new capacities to attune, discern, re-
spond, and refuse; to unearth hidden histories of insurgent care; and to hold, again and again,
the devastating ways our communities of care will almost inevitably reproduce the very sorts
of harms they seek to remedy.
Though we relate to them in so many ways, and from infinitely
varied vantage points, these legacies of care remain restless within and between us. In Sara
Ahmed’s terms, they are histories not yet finished with us. But neither the violence, nor the
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
freedom, at their core can be deciphered if we insist on viewing care as external to the vital
struggles with which it is intimately bound.
While it is necessary to value care and work for a caring society, disentangling care from
violence requires transformations in caring relations at both systemic and intimate registers.
Politically and ethically transforming care at these levels is a multi-generational task perhaps
inherently fraught with failure. As daunting as this is, there are infinite ways to begin anew,
which over time might deepen mutual connection, fortify collective agency and purpose, and
help to sustain the networks of mutual-aid and collective care needed for the coming crises
(Spade 2020; Kaba 2020). There are, for example, many resources available for white people
like myself to learn somatic awareness and relational techniques for addressing our tendencies
to lash out, collapse in shame, or once again centre ourselves when faced with our racist blind-
spots and complicities (Menakem 2017). We can form racial justice pods to support our trans-
formation and avoid overburdening our BIPOC friends and political allies. Cis men can learn
to see and acknowledge the care of feminized people, expand their capacities for feeling and
expressing emotions, and share in the burdens and pleasures of caring labour. They can form
groups, and agree to hold each other accountable to transforming rape cultures. Such endeav-
ours can, and already do, form integral parts of larger social movements.
The question of how to collectively care for each other and ourselves in the shadows of struc-
tural violence is an open and living one. But there are many models to learn from. In innumer-
able ways, and on massive and micro scales, people are radically responding to individual and
community needs and desires, and forging new and more survivable ways of living at the mar-
gins. Such practices of community care are a necessary condition of sustained and sustaining
social movements, and indeed often constitute their most revolutionary, if threatened, edges.
In the US, examples such as the Black Panther Party’s Survival Programs, AIM’s (The Amer-
ican Indian Movements’s) survival schools, the queer healing modalities arising out of the
AIDS crisis, the care webs developed by disability justice activists and queer and trans com-
munities, and the politics of care which, according to Deva Woodly (2022), is the most unique
and radical feature of the political philosophy guiding the Movement for Black Lives, all pro-
vide examples of care’s essential role in radical social transformation. These legacies of care,
too, leave their traces upon the conditions of our living. Their call is heeded in concrete and
ongoing ways by queer, BIPOC, migrant, poor, sex working, and disabled individuals and
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
communities and so many otherswhose radical caring, while under constant threat, reveals
glimpses of living otherwise.
Joan Tronto insists that care is definitively not a master’s tool (Tronto 2014, 226). I believe
that it can be, and also a revolutionary one. My argument has been that our ethical and political
practices of care must themselves be adequate to the violent contradictions, as well as the
revolutionary possibilities, of care. This is an inevitably situated and complex affair. My hope
is that this writing may speak to these problems and possibilities in caring ways that gesture
beyond the limits of its author, and toward the collective genesis and ongoing work of care so
central to the survival and healing of communities of struggle, historically and in the present.
At all levels, this writing would be inconceivable without the brilliant and careful reading and
contributions of my beloved friends, collaborators, and teachers. In particular, I want to ex-
press my gratitude to those who read and commented on this manuscript or played an integral
part in the conception of its theoretical and political vocabulary. B Love, Weiouqing Chen,
Veronica Dakota Padilla, Teresa Casas Hernández, Angelica Stathopoulos, Zhivka Val-
iavicharska, Esra Atamer, Melissa Buzzeo, Cinzia Arruzza, Jay Bernstein, Jeremy Bendik-
Keymer, Ciclón Olivares, Sandra Stephens, Caffyn Jesse. You have transformed my caring,
and this writing, for the better. Finally, I am sincerely grateful to Liesbeth Schoonheim and
Cissie Fu for the generative and ethical guidance throughout the editing process.
1] This reference is to the concluding lines of Audre Lorde’s “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining
Difference: “We have chosen each other/and the edge of each other’s battles/the war is the same/if we
lose/someday women’s blood will congeal/upon a dead planet/if we win/there is no telling/we seek beyond his-
tory/for a new and more possible meeting” (Lorde 2007, 123).
2] See for example Engster (2007), Feder Kittay (1999), Held (1997), Ruddick (1995), Tronto (2004).
3] I use the term ‘radical’ in both the critical and revolutionary senses of the word, to name the intersectional
oppressions at the root of social organizations and divisions of caring labour, as well as the essential and integral
role of care in the cultural and social reproduction of autonomous and resistant forms of kinship and community.
Furthermore, because of its influence on the claims and methods that I develop in this article, it feels important
to include a discussion of this collective here. However, for reasons of confidentiality and consent, I do not
discuss the specifics of our relational dynamics. I am aware that this generalization also poses ethical and political
problems, and did not take this decision lightly. I want to thank to the editors for encouraging me to develop the