THE UNIVERSAL CAREGIVER SOCIETY
On the 21 January 2029, the new President of the United States of America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, gave her inauguration address. The landslide victory of Ocasio- Cortez as President, following her brilliant performance as Secretary of State for Energy under former President Elizabeth Warren, was largely attributable to a grassroots mass movement, an alliance between Justice for Carers, Black Lives Matter and the Green New Deal activists that had swept not just the U.S. but the world.
“I declare America to be what feminist Nancy Fraser has called a universal caregiver state. We are a proud nation of caregivers. Care work is essential work. All of us during our lives at different times will be either caregivers, or care recipients, in childhood, illness, old age and if we have a disability or mental illness. Care work not only helps us to flourish, care is essential to the life of every human being, every animal, and to our shared planet. Unless we care enough to take radical environmental action now, climate change will destroy our world. There is no planet B.”
Ocasio-Cortez declared that Capitalism has created a crisis of care, both for people who need it, and for caregivers providing it. Capitalism has been free-riding on female care work for too long. In announcing immediate raises in carer wages to parity with male dominated professions, Ocasio-Cortez said; “Care work is low carbon work. A care job is a green job. Those who give care have for too long been underpaid, marginalised politically, and frankly exploited. Care has all too often been done by poorly paid workers, by for-profit companies delivering poor quality care, staffed primarily by minorities along gender, racial and class lines. All those who perform unpaid care work in the recent past have paid a savage Care Penalty, facing impoverishment and even homelessness in old age. This is no way to treat those who keep our lifeworld going, nourish it, nurture and care for us when we need it.”
Ocasio- Cortex paused, then said; “At the centre of the universal caregiver state, is care for the planet, and I am proud to announce our signing – in the nick of time- the International Accord on the Green New Deal, joining other nations like the UK, the European Union and Australia, but also China and India.” She then announced to wild cheers from the crowd, “like those nations we are close to recording zero emissions in January 1st of this year, 2029, for the United States.”
How did we get here, in 2029, to this revolutionary moment? Looking back the transformative moment was the terrifying pandemic of 2020. It acted, as the writer Arundhati Roy put it, as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas…Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
It started, like all revolutionary movements, small and local. In the darkness of a London evening, in March 2020 at 8pm, the sound of clapping and cheering rang out. As the sound swelled and rose in the cold air, it warmed all who heard it. It was the Clap for Carers – the nurses, doctors, home carers and carers in nursing homes, and other emergency workers who were providing essential care and saving lives while risking their own.
The value of care was also at the centre of the New York Caring Majority, an alliance which emerged as, in the U.S., the brutally unequal consequences of the pandemic became clear; disproportionately killing the poor, the homeless, the black and Hispanic populations. It also impacted much more on anyone involved in low paid but essential care work, compared to wealthy white elites, the knowledge workers who were able to isolate themselves and work from home. The N. Y. Caring Majority fought “to create a world in which all of us have the care and support we need to lead full healthy lives. In our vision, the work of providing care will be a respected and recognised contribution… a dignified and well-paid job within a fast-growing and flourishing sector of a sustainable, humane economy.”
In Australia, too, progressives responded to that heartfelt moment of recognition and solidarity in the face of a terrifying pandemic by starting the Assembly for the Future, a virtual gathering of citizens to begin the crucial work Roy had exhorted us to do – stepping through that portal and imagining and fighting for a different, more just world. At its centre was care and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in fighting for social and economic justice for First Nations people, an end to deaths in custody, and the enactment of long overdue Treaties with First Nations people, confirming Indigenous sovereignty, land rights and custodianship.
The Green New Deal in Australia proposed by the Assembly for the Future, meant the fast tracking of 100 % renewable energy targets for every suburb, business, council area, industry, and house. While at first the Coalition tried to smuggle in a “Gas Led Recovery” via stacking the Covid Commission with their mates from fossil fuel companies, social activism quickly exposed this shoddy move. Once the shady covert use of the Commission was made visible, a majority of shareholders voted against their company’s boards if they refused to comply with the Paris agreement. The rapid swing to renewable energy for all households, councils, businesses, and the rebooting of a home-grown manufacturing industry provided brilliant job creation schemes in communities desperate for employment as so many businesses collapsed in the pandemic.
The Assembly for the Future grew and grew. From it emerged the Care and Justice Party which held the balance of power in the Senate from 2022. That helped push through a bold new program of social change. The graffiti which went viral caught the moment; “There can be no return to normal because normal was the problem in the first place.”
The pandemic acted as a shape shifter; the new mood was a radical break with what had gone before.
One of the seismic shifts was in how we thought about work. It was about stepping through that portal and creating a new social imaginary around care. In reality, much of the transformative work changing what we considered valuable work and how we should reward it, was already done by the pandemic. The phrase ‘essential worker’ was given a whole new meaning. It did not mean one of the wolves of Wall Street and the finance industry, nor the narcissistic company CEOs who drove down worker’s wages while awarding themselves huge multimillion-dollar salaries.
The essential workers were the nurses, emergency workers, doctors, pharmacists, and specialists in infectious diseases who battled on the front line of the War against Covid. Everyone knew their lives depended on these people. It was more, however, than the medical personnel. It was the cleaners keeping the hospitals virus free, the people supplying food to patients and staff, the people keeping grocery, vegetable, and food stores open, the food banks and charities, the delivery drivers, all those continuing to provide needed goods and services were essential. It was the disability, child, and elder care workers, as well as the millions of parents and family who provided unpaid care work to children as childcare and schools closed, while working from home. People knew as never before that it was the low paid or unpaid, the low status and largely invisible workforce of the shadow care economy which kept the visible economy afloat.
As all our lives were shown in such stark ways to depend upon all these people, a new sensibility was born. It was a moment of moral quickening, a new understanding of the absolute centrality to all our lives of care. The pandemic of 2020 changed everything. It shook up long held assumptions about women and men and leadership. The brute fact was nations led by women did so much better. Under their leadership, nations dramatically lowered the infection and death rate. Until this moment, power and the capacity to lead was considered “natural” to men, a male entitlement even, while women leaders, simply by being gendered female, were seen as suspect. Yet it was nations led by women, with exemplars like Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, which overwhelmingly did better in beating Covid, with vastly fewer infections and lower death rates. “Want to Stay Alive? Elect a woman!” became a meme that strengthened over the decade.
Meanwhile those countries led by the macho, toxic masculinity exemplars like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnston and Vladimir Putin faced catastrophic disasters. Hundreds of thousands died. Trump was dubbed The Death King, presiding over the worst death rates in the world. Few families were untouched. As the corpses mounted, he kept on admiring himself, declaring how great he was, declaring “victory” over Covid as record infections smashed previous highs every day. “How is my popularity rating today?” was the only question he would ask, his staffers later revealed. He had lost all interest in the virus, declaring in July 2020 that it would just magically “disappear.” One by one, Republicans, from Secretaries of State to former staffers, turned on him. Leon Panetta, former Defence Secretary and CIA Director expressed his outrage in mid 2020, “This president has essentially gone “AWOL” from the job of leadership that he should be providing a country in trouble.” Trump’s idle tweets that people ingest bleach as a Covid cure, finished him. In the November 2020 election, Trump lost in a devastating landslide. Even Fox News did not at first back his campaign to declare the election loss “rigged,” until Rupert Murdoch intervened. Elizabeth Warren’s success in winning the US election of 2024 was representative of the sea change in attitudes towards female leaders. The macho leader was utterly on the nose with the public by now.
The pandemic smashed neo liberalism too. When the pandemic hit, Australia and the Anglosphere were at the tail end of this morally bankrupt and unjust ideology. Neo liberalism had worked handsomely for the big end of town. Inequality had risen exponentially delivering an ever-larger slice of the pie to the richest citizens. Widespread tax evasion meant one third of corporations in Australia paid no tax at all, and billions of missing funds. Meanwhile wages stagnated for most folk, while soaring house prices in many countries made home ownership unaffordable for the young and made household debt rise to an all-time high for the rest, despite two parents working long hours in most families. Despite picking winners – like fossil fuel companies with billion-dollar taxpayer subsidies – the ideology that said the free market would fix everything, collapsed in the face of the pandemic. It was no longer possible to sneer at government as the source of all our woes, but instead people rightly looked to their elected representatives to provide the stimulus and safety net to save the economy and their lives.
The economic effects of the pandemic were, at first, highly unequal, impacting worst on vulnerable communities. However, as unemployment quickly reached and surpassed the level of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the job losses were so extensive and so many people were affected that a sense of solidarity emerged. The phrase “We are in this together” was often heard as people understood that the only way they could survive was by government stimulus and spending. Billions of dollars of much needed revenue were raised by cracking down on corporate tax evasion. The harsh and punitive neo -liberal regime of austerity, fetishizing government surpluses, inflicting budget cuts on the poor while giving tax cuts to the rich, refusing to properly fund core institutions of democracy like education, health and mental health, evaporated as the pandemic dragged on without a vaccine. The shaming and stigmatising of anyone receiving government benefits disappeared too, when so many citizens ended up depending on the solidarity of taxpayers to survive, through the extension and universal application of the job seeker and job keeper wage subsidy.
It was in the second year of the pandemic when things really shifted towards the necessity for a Universal Basic Income. By early 2021, 9 months before the vaccine roll out in October, it was recognised in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and most of the EU, that some form of Universal Basic Income was the only way their economies could survive. The world-wide depression was so devastating that the Democrat dominated Congress and Joe Biden, elected as U.S. President in November 2020, followed New Zealand, Australia and most of the EU and UK in bringing in a UBI. The world economy would have collapsed without the introduction of the UBI, and millions would have faced starvation.
The UBI brought a radical shift from self-respect and dignity being dependent on having paid work, to a more inclusive model based on citizens engaging in socially valuable labour. It might be unpaid love’s labour, caring for an elderly parent or small children without falling into abject poverty. It might be joining the increasing numbers of well-paid care workers looking after young children, elders and assisting people with a disability, in one of the many job creation and stimulus packages for one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy. It might be volunteering your time to working on land care projects or local solar neighbourhood grids or developing community vegetable gardens providing fresh produce to those locked down at home. It might be volunteers visiting and assisting those with a disability. It could be working in the creative industries which for so long had bought a literal, grisly truth to the romanticised idea of the artist starving in the garret. Many people, of course, were able to continue in professions just as before, although far more worked from home. But the whole idea of work had to radically change and did. Once everyone had access to the UBI, resentment of welfare recipients disappeared, and the exonerating adjective “paid” stuck in front of the word work slipped out of our vocabulary. Everybody worked, everybody contributed in one way or another, and no longer was one gender considered worth more than another because they were ‘the breadwinners.’ The epidemics of anxiety and depression among young people caused by fear and uncertainty during the pandemic, improved dramatically when they were guaranteed a basic income and gained respect for the contributions they made to their community.
Although the pandemic was a portal, we could not have stepped through and made it a transformative moment without a tough political struggle.
The decisive factor in ushering in the new caregiver state, was the General Caregiver and School Strike of 2027. Alongside the school students striking on climate change, for the sake of planet earth, hundreds of thousands of care workers joined in a series of rolling strikes around the world, uniting in the common cause of care. Care for each other, care for our common life world, planet earth.
The effect was pandemonium. This revealed something that came as a shock, even after the pandemic, to the privileged who always had their care work done for them. They were shocked to discover just how much the visible economy depended upon the vital shadow care economy. It was the General Strike of Caregivers in 2027 that ushered in a new regime, a change from the now discredited Universal Breadwinner state to the Universal Caregiver state.
Marilyn Waring, the founder of feminist economics, was a key player in the reorganisation of the new economy, advising governments all over the world. Her hugely influential book Counting for Nothing, What men value and what women are worth showed that excluding unpaid work and the cost of inaction on climate change from calculations of Gross Domestic Product was disastrous. “What we don’t count, we don’t value,” she said. Waring was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 2026 – the first time a feminist economist had ever been recognised in this way. And nations began for the very first time to include the value of all unpaid care work and the cost of climate change and environmental degradation into their calculations of Gross National Product.
A symbol of the new Universal Caregiver society was the March for Care every year. The new mantra was the four R’s of the universal caregiver regime, Recognize, Respect, Redistribute and Remunerate. Recognise the care work which nurtures us all, by both paid and unpaid carers. Respect that vital, life-sustaining work. Redistribute the unjust and highly gendered nature of care work between men and women. Renumerate justly those engaged in care work.
A whole new meaning was given to “You have to have a go to get a go.” All citizens should do their fair share of care work. Job interviews now required not just achievements listed on a Curriculum Vitae, but evidence that you had in some way taken responsibility for care. This dismantled the idea that the privileged can just buy their way out of having to contribute to the well-being of those family members who needed care. (Nursing home residents got a whole lot more visits when it was designated as emotional abuse not to visit old people in homes.) Care was a shared responsibility, not just an expectation of one gender.
The introduction of the Four-Day Week helped parents and carers combine employment and care, and productivity went up. Home-based work increased permanently as the universality of the Office as a work site retreated. Flexibility in working and paid leave around peak caregiving periods like the birth of a child, family illness or elder care, was now a matter of labour market regulation. With these reforms, the numbers of women in the paid workforce and in leadership roles rose to parity with men.
Green Parties surged in the polls and in France did so well that in 2020 President Emmanuel Macron held a referendum on whether to introduce the crime of “Ecocide” into the French legal system. The yes vote won. Other nations, including the US, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, soon followed suit in enacting legislation against the Crime of Ecocide. This had a salutary effect on companies and political parties. Corporations were held to account for their emissions and suffered heavy penalties if they defied the new regulations. Australia ceased digging up coal and exporting it. Canada abandoned the tar sands. Campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies were enormously successful, finally removing their social license to operate. The threat of being charged with Ecocide meant it was too risky for political parties to accept donations from fossil fuel companies. These companies which were now regarded in the same light as tobacco companies and asbestos miners. The Green New Deal created many jobs in huge solar and wind farms, including in former coal mining areas. Australia with its unparalleled resources of space, sun and wind, became as the economist Ross Garnaut had advocated back in 2020, a renewable energy superpower of the post-carbon world.
At the heart of the Universal Caregiver state was a new relationship between First Nations people and settlers, enacting far-reaching Treaties with meaningful reparations which recognised and respected Indigenous sovereignty. As the date and name of Australia Day changed, statues of old white male racists and slave owners were torn down. New monuments were erected paying tribute to hitherto invisible but important contributors to our common world – Indigenous leaders, women, health and community workers, nurses and carers, parents, and volunteers. Refugees were now welcomed and granted asylum, permanent residency and then citizenship.
Looking back from 2029, the transformation since 2020, has been immense. It has not been without pain, political struggle, and conflict. And the fight is not yet over. But what is clear is that enough people at the time of the pandemic and after, made a choice. They stepped through that portal, as Roy called it, and began not just imagining, but fighting for and creating a better world based on the values of care and justice.
Anne Manne is a writer, social philosopher and essayist who has been a columnist for the Australian and The Age. Her first book, Motherhood, raised the way neoliberalism and the new capitalism was reshaping society, what we value, and our decisions around love, care, paid and unpaid work. It was a finalist in the Walkley award for best Non- Fiction book. Her 2008 Quarterly Essay, Love and Money: The Family and the Free Market, was a finalist in the Victorian Premier’s prize for non-fiction. She has also published a memoir, So This Is Life, and in 2014 she published the bestselling The Life of I; the new culture of narcissism, which was a finalist in the Queensland Literary non-fiction book award. Her longer essays on contemporary issues have been primarily in The Monthly magazine, such as The Great Domestic Hoax: Making women’s unpaid work count, and Rape Among the Lamingtons, Tragic Evidence of child sexual abuse in the Newcastle Anglican church. She is currently writing a new book on institutional child sexual abuse.