The ‘crisis of care’ is currently a major topic of public debate. Often linked to ideas of ‘time poverty’, ‘family-work balance’, and ‘social depletion’, it refers to the pressures from several directions that are currently squeezing a key set of social capacities: those available for birthing and raising children, caring for friends and family members, maintaining households and broader communities, and sustaining connections more generally. Historically, these processes of ‘social reproduction’ have been cast as women’s work, although men have always done some of it too. Comprising both affective and material labour, and often performed without pay, it is indispensable to society. Without it there could be no culture, no economy, no political organization. No society that systematically undermines social reproduction can endure for long. Today, however, a new form of capitalist society is doing just that. The result is a major crisis, not simply of care, but of social reproduction in this broader sense.
My claim is that every form of capitalist society harbours a deep-seated social-reproductive ‘crisis tendency’ or contradiction: on the one hand, social reproduction is a condition of possibility for sustained capital accumulation; on the other, capitalism’s orientation to unlimited accumulation tends to destabilize the very processes of social reproduction on which it relies. This social-reproductive contradiction of capitalism lies at the root of the so-called crisis of care. Although inherent in capitalism as such, it assumes a different and distinctive guise in every historically specific form of capitalist society—in the liberal, competitive capitalism of the 19th century; in the state-managed capitalism of the postwar era; and in the financialized neoliberal capitalism of our time. The care deficits we experience today are the form this contradiction takes in this third, most recent phase of capitalist development.