Motherhood and a new caring politics

Mark Boden

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

In this talk I am going to argue that placing mothering at the centre of political-economic discourse is central to the advance of progressive politics, the dismantling of the hegemony of neoliberalism within British society and its replacement by what could be seen as the ‘good society’. In making this argument I will bring two strands of thinking together: a Marxist-Feminist perspective which focuses on social reproduction and from the area of developmental psychology: attachment theory.

In the UK, but more generally within advanced capitalist societies, we are witnessing a crisis of care which can be described as pressures that are impacting on key social capabilities: raising children, caring for friends and family members, maintaining households and social connections more generally.

Social reproduction is generally regarded within society a women’s work. Affective/Emotional/Maternal labour is often performed without pay, but it is crucial to the reproduction of any society including ours. Capitalist society structurally separates social reproduction from economic reproduction, with social reproduction associated as it is with ‘women’s work’ being obscured in its importance and value…

Capitalism as a social form is driven by an unlimited drive to accumulate value, which in turn periodically de-stabilises social reproduction. Central to neo-liberalism and pertinent to our discussion here is what Karl Polanyi termed the embedding of the economic from its social base and its turn against it.

How is neo-liberalism, or perhaps more accurate to say capitalism, turning against its social base, i.e. social reproduction? A key driver is financialisation- debt and how, especially after the crisis this is impacting on all areas of British society.

The increasing weight and centrality of debt within the UK is intrinsically related to the politics of austerity, which puts pressure to cut social spending and increase the dispossession of public goods via privatization etc.

Low wage economy, insecure work and working conditions coupled with an expansion of consumer credit is the toxic result of over 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony.

Women have been entering into the labour market in increased numbers with an increase in hours of paid work per household, this has been in some aspects progressive, however it has also witnessed a transfer of care to others, who are often poorly paid and female.

High levels of inequality and insecurity are a result of the destabilising impact of capital accumulation and the erosion of the public sphere, which in turn feed into a crisis of care.

The impact of insecurity cannot just be seen in economic/social terms, it also impacts upon our psychology, emotional development. Here I argue that attachment theory provides a resource of critique and policy intervention to assert the crucial role a ‘politics of mothering’ has for any progressive project.

Attachment theory, drawing on an impressive body of evidence posits that there a biological/psychological need to be in proximity to care givers in our earliest years, not only to be physically protected, but emotionally contained, responded to and held in mind. Good enough attachment enables us to develop sufficient security in relation to ourselves and others.

Increasing insecurity, pressures on family life, attacks on provision of care place stresses on parents, especially mothers and in turn their children. The increasing crisis of mental health within our young people can in part be explained via the relationship between the crisis of care/social reproduction I have outlined and attachment bonds within the family and broader social networks of care.

Placing the politics of mothering at the heart of a progressive alliance in my view must require a change in the political economy of Britain, the renewal of a socialist feminism, which could entail the following broad goals:

  • Demands for decent public housing
  • Rights for low paid workers, especially women
  • Increase in good and affordable childcare
  • Increase in healthcare provision, especially in relation to social care
  • Protection of public spaces such as playgrounds, community centres etc.
  • Paid maternity and paternity leave on a significantly higher level than now
  • Reduction in working week, increase of leisure time
  • Raising children given far more priority and paid


Dr Mark Boden holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics and has taught social theory and comparative politics there. Mark is also a trainee counselling psychologist. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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