an individualist approach to self-care

Austerity and the Apolitical Act of Self-Care

“This country fosters the idea of competitive individualism. In other words, he divides people, he tells people to ‘be an individual and do your own thing’. You can not do your own thing if your own thing is not the right thing! You have to understand one of the most counter revolutionary slogans out of last year was ‘do your own thing’. That’s what Black people have been doing for years! You can NOT do your own thing! If your own thing does not happen to be a thing that’s right for the struggle, then it’s incorrect!”

Imam Jamil Al Amin, The Politics of Education

Western misleadership and mishandling of COVID-19 has resulted in a widening of global inequality and inequities. US sanctions on Russia have backfired resulting in billions of people, worldwide, struggling to cover their costs (from energy to fertilizers to exports) while the rich are getting richer; profiting from; what can be argued, manufactured price gouging by corporations. 

Recently, President Biden said U.S citizens will have to stomach high gas prices, “as long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine.” Since February up to $55 billion dollars has been sent to Ukraine’s Nazi Regime as public infrastructure and institutions in the US continue to collapse. No resolution for rising rents across the country, lack of affordable healthcare during a pandemic (and now monkeypox), no increase in federal wages and no student loan forgiveness. Build Back Better is dead. And what does Biden do to resolve this? Sit down with former US treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers. who advised Obama to “bailout Wall Street not Main Street.” Summers told Biden that the jobless rate would need to increase. As workers continue to attempt to unionize across the country, Summers advises “5 years of unemployment above 5% to contain inflation.” This economic crisis incited by Biden’s commitment to the proxy war in Ukraine is ultimately being used to punish the steady effectiveness of a growing labor movement. 

Yet, the austerity heightened by the Biden administration’s policies are occurring in the backdrop of a very increased push of individualism. Across the internet, individualist concepts through popularized iterations of “self-care” are encouraged. Sure, Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,” but she also understood it to be “an act of political warfare.”  The latter is not emphasized in Instagram posts from the coasts of Tulum, Mexico or Kingston, Jamaica. 

Self-care, as a result of this consumerist society under this current economic crisis, has become synonymous with “treat yourself.” There is seemingly no understanding of Lorde’s critiques of the colonial healthcare system or the white supremacist state, et large. There’s little to no interrogation of the material results of a misdirected politic centered in individualism. Nor does the popularity of the sentiment does not take into account who actually gets to indulge in self-care consumerist culture and who is locked out —- the workers providing the services. Incidentally, this is part of the problem with the blanket advice for people to rest to avoid burnout.  A class analysis is severely disregarded. As such, there’s no interrogation of the inherent shallowness of it nor of what happens when the tenets of radical/ left politics manifests into pure liberalism.

Experiencing joy and finding release from the constraints of internal colonialism is not the issue. Neither is what people are choosing to engage in under the concept of “self-care.” There is an unchecked culture of petite-bourgeoisie individualism, however, that underlies the co-opted and deradicalized sentiment.

When thinking about current emphasis on “self-care” in the context of a global labor movement unseen in decades — from Sri Lanka, to Poland, to Ecuador, to Ghana, to Pakistan to the US —  with millions taking to the streets to condemn their governments and media asking that citizens adjust to economic crisis in the name of democracy, who and what does individualism serve? In the context of the U.S. and unmasked fascist attacks not only from neonazis, but the state, who and what does individualism serve? Furthermore, when exactly does caring for one’s self become that “act of political warfare” Lorde talks about; what drives a person from moving with only the self in mind to moving with collectives — the people — in mind? 

We stress organization because we understand that an organized masses can not only help move the people towards liberation and away from counterrevolutionary concepts of individualism during the most dire of times, but also fill in those gaps where self-care becomes necessary. Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly writes about the Theory of Mutual Comradeship and defines it as, “Radical African descendants’ ethical practice of collaboration, reciprocal care, and learning in community rooted in political work on behalf of the racialized, colonized, and oppressed. It entails dedication of time, energy, and resources to radical causes; mutual support for radical organizations, institutions, and periodicals; the provision of jobs and income for persons whose politics deemed them undesirable as employees; and protection from and defense against state repression.”

But that, of course, must be built and can only be effectively built through organization. 

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.