The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It? by Emma Dowling is an important and insightful study of the dynamics of care under capitalism. Taking the UK as its primary focus, it considers how the financialisation and marketisation of care have shaped the landscape of social reproduction, while also remaining attentive to the role of unpaid care both within and beyond the family. Starting from an analysis of what constitutes care, care work and the care crisis today, the book goes on to consider various approaches to managing care, from austerity and neoliberal restructuring, to the offloading of care onto families and communities, to the individualisation of wellbeing and the potential vulnerability that comes with the idea of self-care.

There is much to commend about this book, but I was particularly struck by its discussion of the limits of volunteering as a solution to the crisis of care. As the emergence of networks of mutual aid during the early waves of the pandemic suggests, the idea of people freely coming together to address their community’s reproductive needs has a distinctly emancipatory dimension. And yet, as Dowling is quick to note, volunteering “does not take place in a vacuum, but in context. It thus takes on specific functions, the effects of which call for closer scrutiny.” Dowling acknowledges the appeal of this kind of unpaid work – as a means of engaging in personally rewarding activity that gives something back to society, for example, and as a means via which to connect with others – but is also careful to situate it in the context of an intensified interest in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector on the part of the state. Increasingly, the rise of this sector is entangled with government cuts, restraints on public funding and the rolling back of social entitlements. The answer to the care crisis, the book shows us, is not simply for people to be more caring. Empathy can only take us so far.

There are further consequences to the rise of volunteering for paid workers, given the potential for the de-professionalisation of care. Those employed to care may find that areas of their work that are perceived to be low-skilled and unspecialised – as in the relational and affective elements of caring, for example – are handed over to unpaid workers, with the result that the holistic character of care is disregarded and some of the potentially more satisfying aspects of the caregiving process are ‘externalised’.

In Dowling’s words, “A care fix is required to maintain standards of care on a tight budget. This care fix not only relies on recoding caring activities as unpaid work, it potentially transforms the nature of what staff do, by emptying its role of many of its caring dimensions.” The book encourages us to engage carefully with the politics of positioning ‘the community’ as a resource for unpaid care.

Can one retain what is politically radical in the idea of mutual aid – cooperation beyond the state, autonomous organisation, working together not just for survival but also for collective flourishing – while avoiding falling into a ‘big society’ model that represents an abdication of state responsibility and simply pushes the burdens of social reproduction onto individuals and groups without providing suitable training, resources, and support? These are some of the questions that The Care Crisis opens up.

The book succeeds in the delicate task of confronting the intricacies of a complex social problem in a manner that is lucid, accessible and forthright. Dowling’s account of the crisis of care encompasses waged and unwaged, domestic and non-domestic, directly market-mediated and indirectly market-mediated forms of care work. It considers how these different kinds of working relations and these different contexts for the delivery of care inform each other and are shaped by interrelated factors. Yet the author is able to bring admirable clarity and precision to this complicated nexus of issues. In this way The Care Crisis provides an overview of the current situation, including its causes and potential consequences, that is suitable both for those already deeply immersed in issues of social reproduction and for those relatively new to the topic.

Helen Hester is Professor of Gender, Technology, and Cultural Politics at the University of West London. Her most recent book is Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018).