Alliance building rather than blaming

The shock results of Brexit and Trump have given way to blame.  This risks further fracturing social relations between different groups feeling uncared for. Care ethics offers a perspective on alliance building as a way forward. A care ethical perspective on Brexit and Trumpism 

A care ethical perspective on alliances

Thousands of words have been written seeking to explain why so many people in the UK voted to leave the European Union and why so many voted for Donald Trump as their President in the USA.  Many have made a connection between the two outcomes, both of which were unexpected for many of those usually thought to be ‘in the know.’  Trump’s election appeared less surprising for many of us in the UK precisely because of our recent experience with voters rejecting what they saw as a status quo dominated by a ‘metropolitan elite’. This elite has been linked with the way in which ‘experts’, unaware of and unconcerned by the impact of years of neoliberalism and increasing inequality, have assumed they know best for people whose lives have been made precarious by policies demonstrating little care for those with little power. It is not my purpose here to rehearse the many arguments that have been made along these lines. But I do want to start by reflecting on one aspect of the responses to both votes before considering how a care ethical perspective might help us find ways in which we can hang on to a sense of progressive possibility in dark times.


The failure of pollsters to accurately predict both results has been followed by a flurry of analysis setting out who voted in what way or for whom.  The urge has been to find who to blame. Key variables structuring such analysis in the US have been gender, in particular asking why so many women did not take this opportunity to put a woman in the White House; ‘race’ and ethnicity. Others are religion, education, social class and location. In the UK the key variables, in addition to locality, have been education and age. Differences in voting have clearly demonstrated geographical divides within the DisUnited Kingdom.  The fact that areas receiving substantial income from the EU voted to leave has been used to suggest a form of false consciousness. But commentators also recognize that a decision to leave came from emotional responses to a sense that ‘this is no longer my country’, rather than any rational assessment of best interests. This emotional response results from the decimation of working class communities that has left people bereft of a sense of solidarity with others living close by.  But it was also powerfully affected by a perception that increasing migration has resulted in too many of those living close by being strangers from elsewhere.

“The baby boomers’ last laugh”

But the result of the EU referendum has also emphasised a disturbing and growing fracture based on age and generation. Analysis has shown a greater proportion of leave votes amongst older people in comparison with younger people. In this context age is linked to education; those without university degrees were more likely to vote leave than those with, and the expansion of university education over the last two decades has meant a higher proportion of younger people with degrees than is the case amongst the older population. Some have responded to this evidence of age related difference not only by condemning older people for disregarding the interests of future generations in terms of opportunities offered by the EU, but also by suggesting that older people should not be allowed to vote because the future is of no concern to them.  One example of the way in which voting differences have been summoned to pour oil on to the flames of inter-generational conflict appeared in a piece in the New Statesman, a left leaning weekly, on 1st September.  Tim Wigmore concluded a piece setting out what he saw as the way in which people of my generation have enjoyed seemingly unlimited benefits that are now consciously being denied to young people: ‘The Brexit vote could be called the baby boomers’ last laugh: the parting shot of a generation that has enjoyed unprecedented largesse from the state and then bequeathed debt, unemployment and political instability to their grandchildren.’ This suggests that those opposing EU membership were not only those who feel left behind by globalization, but those whose affluence means they do not care what happens to the generation that follows them.  It implies an alliance amongst leaver voters between those who feel uncared for and those who, in the words of Joan Tronto, assume a privileged irresponsibility not to care.


This urge to categorize groups to blame for Brexit and for Trump’s election is not a good basis for progressive alliances on which to move forward. So can care ethics offer any insight to enable us to recognize what lies behind rejections of the liberal mainstream without retreating into an oppositional identity politics? I have argued that a participatory politics involving a process of ‘deliberating with care’ can not only enable attentiveness to (or recognition of) the needs of others, but also offer the transformative potential of building solidarity across difference (Barnes, 2008). The spaces in which alliances can be built are usually small scale, local and involve groups who often feel themselves powerless in the face of decision makers who have control over their lives. But the transformations that can be achieved, if nurtured, can grow into larger scale movements such as the disability movement that create fundamental change. Caring about others is helped by a recognition that we too need care and may need this even more in the future. In the context of Brexit there is an immediate and obvious focus for alliances between migrant care workers and those needing daily help to retain dignity as others meet their personal care needs. Our positioning as care givers or care receivers is not fixed and most of those who blame older people for Brexit probably do not share Pete Townsend’s desire: ‘hope I die before I get old’. Care ethics provides a focus for recognizing that we are all, as Eva Kittay reminds us ‘some mother’s child’. It offers language with which to talk about what it means to be uncared for as well as to reflect on the necessity of care to social justice. As Amohia Boulton and Tula Brannelly (2015) have argued, addressing past injustices associated with colonization requires care. Those who feel marginalized from their own societies as a result of rampant neoliberalism and globalization may feel something akin to indigenous populations usurped by white colonial masters.

Neither blame nor despair

This is not to suggest some superficial response of the ‘we’re all in this together’ variety offered by David Cameron (remember him?) in response to the financial crisis. But it is to suggest that neither blame nor despair is an option when the consequences of Brexit and of Trump’s presidency are likely to include further injustices for groups already marginalized and disempowered. And it is also to suggest that placing care at the centre is one way of focusing the need for recognition of difference without retreating into monolithic identity politics. So we need to build and extend alliances, including between those who saw Trump as the saviour of the dispossessed white working class and those who recognized him as a racist and misogynist; and between those who thought leaving the EU would enable a return to a more familiar country and those who care about international relations or whose future aspirations extend beyond nation state borders. Care ethics asks us to understand the impact of past injustice and how present actions will impact social relations in the future. We must build alliances where people are at – be that in small scale projects seeking to help refugees find a new home, or initiatives such as those addressing older people’s need for practical help and young people’s need for somewhere to live through renting space in their homes.

Joan Tronto suggests Trump’s election means we need to move from the academy to the streets. Yes – but we also need to build from those spaces in which the transformative potential of care ethics can and is achieving practical expression.

Barnes, M (2008) ‘Passionate Participation: emotional experiences and expressions in deliberative forums’  Critical Social Policy, vol. 28(4): 461-481.

Boulton, A and Brannelly, T (2015) ‘Care ethics and indigenous values: political, tribal and personal’ in M Barnes, T Brannelly, L Ward and N Ward (eds) (2015) Ethics of Care: critical advances in international perspective, Bristol, Policy Press.



Courtesy header picture: Claytoonz

About the author: Marian Barnes

Professor Marian Barnes is emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Brighton, UK. Please also look at

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