Caring Democracy: Current Topics

An international meeting of care ethicists and political theorists was for the first time organized in Eastern-Central Europe. It was held under the title Caring Democracy: Current Topics in the Political Theory of Care in Prague

the capital of the Czech Republic, on the 23rd and 24th of November, 2017. The event was hosted by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences and took place in the 14th century building of Karolinum at the heart of Prague’s Old Town. The central theme as well as the name of the conference was inspired by Joan Tronto’s recent effort to rethink the substance of democracy from the care perspective, as developed especially in her books Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice (2013) and Who Cares? How to Reshape a Democratic Politics (2015). The organizers were excited to welcome sixteen speakers from eleven countries from across Europe, Asia and the US. Everyone appreciated the presence of Joan Tronto who had generously accepted the invitation to give a keynote speech. The large international audience, which merged with the speakers during the coffee breaks and took an active part in the discussions, included numerous attendees from Netherlands and the UK as well as several scholars coming from Japan and South Korea.

In her opening keynote entitled Neopopulists and exclusionary discourses of care: Towards a new politics of inclusion, Tronto focused on current neopopulism, the burning political issue in many higher income countries in the Global North. In order to grasp the core of the new populism, she argued, we need to understand that and in what sense it is a discourse of care. Tronto characterized the new populism as a discourse of protective care, which is based on economic and security-oriented protectionism. The neopopulist narrative of care as protection is, in Tronto’s view, deeply anti-democratic, since it reinscribes the traditional gender roles, reinforces the hierarchy of protector and protected, and shifts the burden of the reproduction of solidarity onto charitable individuals. Tronto finally contrasted the protectionist model of care with the democratic model of care and her idea of caring democracy, which centers upon assigning responsibilities for care and ensures that all citizens participate in this assignment of responsibilities. Tronto’s talk, which was partly based on her thus far unpublished thoughts, has clearly showed a path to a new field of application of the political theory of care.

Tronto’s keynote was followed by a group of papers that reflected on the fundamental conceptual elements of the political theory of care. Elisabeth Conradi distinguished between ‘the welfare-resourcing approach’ and ‘the ethical-political approach’ in conceptualizing care and argued that there is an unnoticed tension between the two approaches which needs to be uncovered both for analytical and practical reasons. Jorma Heier proposed the notion of ‘disprivileged irresponsibility’ in addition to Tronto’s ‘privileged irresponsibility’ and drew attention to the epistemic gap between theorist and non-theorist citizens. Anne Cress concluded the section by offering a care-ethical theory of social change, in particular focusing on transformative practices based on civic society as a precondition for realization of the normative claims of the political theory of care.


Another group of papers dealt with the question of how the key concerns of care can be translated or implemented in policy and what is the role of the state in promoting care ethical concerns in practice. Helena Stensöta presented her original idea of a public ethics of care and argued for more fine grained connections between the idea of democratic care for all and the institutions of the contemporary welfare state. Petr Urban followed up Stensöta’s proposal with a reflection on caring institutions, in particular he defended the view that even large bureaucratic institutions can be caring. Several other papers, on the contrary, demonstrated how contemporary states have failed to promote care concerns in their policies: Lizzie Ward criticized the growing marketization of publicly funded social care in the UK, Yayo Okano and Satomi Maruyama demonstrated the dysfunction of the state with regard to the invisible poverty and homelessness of women in Japan, Tammy Shel, Vít Pokorný and Adriana Jesenková finally analyzed different forms of the care deficit within the state education system in Israel, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Kanchana Mahadevan’s thoughtful analysis of Indian health care worker migration foregrounded the global dimension of the political theory of care and raised the question of assigning responsibilities for care in the cosmopolitan context of current globalization.

The scope of the conference was however not limited to the approaches drawing solely on the perspective of care. Several papers explored the relationship between the political theory of care and other ‘sister vocabularies’ opposing contemporary neoliberal and neopopulist politics. Brunella Casalini drew attention to the points both of convergence and difference between Tronto’s political theory of care and the current feminist approaches centered around the notions of ‘social flesh’ (Beasley and Bacchi) and ‘affective equality’ (Lynch). The contribution by Veerle Draulans and Wouter de Tavernier provoked a vivid discussion about the relationship between care and recognition (Honneth), while the paper by Justin Clardy introduced the idea of civic compassion (Nussbaum) and drew a parallel between care and tenderness as a public emotion.

Despite its wide scope, the conference could of course neither cover every important topic in the political theory of care, nor represent the entire research community of the field. The attendees missed e.g. the papers submitted by Sophie Bourgault (Canada), Lenart Škof (Slovenia) and Marion Smiley (US), who had to cancel shortly before the event. The organizers especially regretted the fact that they had not received any paper proposal from French care scholars. The meeting has also left many research questions open. In her closing remarks, Tronto mentioned the question of what form of democracy would facilitate democratic care best, or what research methods are most useful and appropriate in the political theory of care. Nonetheless, the conference demonstrated clearly the viability of the political theory of care worldwide and fostered its further reception and development in the Central and Eastern European region. The meeting enabled to establish and deepen contacts among care theorists across three continents and inspired new initiatives, including the plan to publish the conference proceedings with a major publisher and apply for a joint European collaboration funding within the EU COST program.

See the full program and the CfP of the conference

About the author: Petr Urban

Petr Urban

Petr Urban (1977) is a senior researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague where he leads the Department of Contemporary Continental Philosophy. He has published widely in the areas of phenomenological philosophy, care ethics and applied ethics. He is author of the books Geburt der Phänomenologie (2010), Phenomenology of the Body (2011 in Czech), The Early Husserl and the Philosophy of Language (2013 in Czech) and How do We Understand Others? (2016 in Czech). He was a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Graduate Center CUNY with Virgina Held (2013/14) and a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (2013).

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