Being ‘selfish’ vs. Being ‘productive’: The Politics of Care


Welcome to ‘Decolonizing our Practices: Conversing about Care’, a three-part blog post series. This series is a culminating conversation between Tangent MHI and One Future Collective as a part of our collaborative initiative, which was undertaken in October of 2021, to work towards decolonizing the perceptions and practices of mental health in India.

This is the first post of this series – ‘Being ‘selfish’ vs. Being ‘productive’: The Politics of Care’. Read on to see why we think care is a political conversation and what informs our understanding of care. [Please note that for the purpose of readability, the speakers’ responses have been divided into paragraphs.

Each new response begins with their name (Ankita and Anvita), followed by their initials (A.B and A.W, respectively).]


Disclaimer: Before you go ahead, we would like you to remember that this conversation is informed by the personal and professional stances of the speakers, by their respective socio-political locations, and by the resources, they have been able to access. We recognize that this is not the only way one can think about the ideas mentioned here. We would encourage you to bring your perspectives, share your thoughts, and any other resources in the comments below!


Ankita [A.B.]: As we were thinking about the idea of care and when we came upon this topic, which is politics of care, something that, uh, I was discussing with my team and with Anvita is, what are some of the things–or what are some of the stories that come to mind whenever I think about the term, “politics of care”. I realized that it’s very hard for me to settle down on any one story or one thing that I can point out as, ‘Okay, this is what informs my thought when I think about politics of care’, because even the terminology in itself, has many layers and meanings that you can reach into. Whichever perspective you take, there’s plenty to uncover and speak about. So I’ll just try to summarize my thoughts. 


A.B.: The ideologies around the politics of care and particularly self-care, come from different personal/professional lenses. Something that I’ve noticed in my work with clients, especially over the last year and a half, is that when speaking about ideas of care, there is a sense of guilt that takes up space. This guilt may sound like, “Am I being selfish if I’m choosing to care for myself?” or “Am I being selfish if I’m choosing to set boundaries?” Even when there is a realization that these are necessary for an individual, it’s always underlined with guilt. However, if we switch the conversation with the same individuals and ask them to look at people in their life who might be debating about the importance of care – they do not hesitate to point out its importance. 


A.B.: Care can take different forms and at the end of the day, it is essential for the person to just be able to exist in society. This is what speaks to the idea of the politics of self-care – what are we learning to prioritize and why am I being taught and told by the system that if I end up prioritizing myself, I’m being selfish or jeopardizing something/ someone by putting myself at the top of this list.


A.B.: If I were to step out of the role of a mental health professional, I also can say that I am one of the people who struggle to care for themselves. We need to recognise that care can appear different for each individual and even for the same individual under varied circumstances. How I like to take time off when I’m by myself is different from how I would like to do it when I’m with somebody. That being said, I would like to hear your thoughts on this. 


Anvita [A.W]: Wow, thank you, Ankita. I agree that, oftentimes, anything around self-care can be perceived as selfish. And I think even for me, one of the first things that came to mind when I thought about the politics of care was that we can see it through so many different lenses; and how in different spheres of life, care is perceived in different ways. 


A.W: Even caregiving as a mental health professional–this is a formalized, professional way of providing care. But what about the kind of care work that home-makers do without being paid for it? You know, it’s not like they aren’t working, it’s just that unpaid care provision is not being formally recognized and valued as work. And not only do standard economic measures overlook this form of care, but often, we take it for granted in our own homes. In my household, we still automatically place certain care-related expectations on my mom that we just don’t put on my father or my brother; and I’m also guilty of doing this.


A.W: In this context, caring for others is equated with being selfless. It ends up becoming a form of sacrifice. It’s almost as if the sacrifice is what makes it meaningful and worthy of appreciation. But, of course, for centuries we’ve been placing these expectations on certain people or certain communities. And if they don’t conform to the norm of putting everyone above themselves, they’re perceived as selfish–which they’re taught is the worst thing they could possibly be. This affects their health, their social life, their autonomy—their very sense of self. What does ‘self-care’ mean for them, then? 


A.W: When I think about more formalized approaches to providing care…I completely agree with you about the notion of productivity. It also makes me think about our Sharing Circles, in which one of Tangent’s team members had mentioned that even therapy–even though it’s a form of care–ends up becoming this pursuit of productivity because, in our heads, we’re trying to meet certain goals to be ‘better.’ And that can give rise to all this pressure and, of course, so much guilt. 


A.W: I think, we’re currently in an age and in a culture where, you know, not sleeping or forgetting to eat or relying on caffeine to make it through the day is almost glorified. Uh, not always in an overt manner, but often in subtle ways; and even if it’s not glorified, it’s normalized to a certain extent. And when these behaviours become the norm is when they become a cause for concern because then we don’t question them; we just go along with them despite how they affect us. Even though we realize that they’re unhealthy. ‘Cause if you’re not conforming to the norm, then you’re not good enough to be in the system. Again, I am not immune to this. There are days when even if I have worked for a long time–for like, you know, hours and hours, and then I take a break for 10 minutes, all I think about for those 10 minutes is how I’m not being productive anymore and I’m wasting time, or like, I’m not doing my best, or something like that. And I think a lot of my self-worth is also related to being productive. This really affects how I seek and receive care. 


A.W: Yeah, these are some things that immediately come to mind. Would you like to share any reflections that may have come up, and perhaps we could also explore the next question? 


Ankita [A.B.]: Thanks Anvita! There were quite a few things that I resonated with, but there is one in particular that I would like to talk about. You mentioned how in the present system(s) we’re a part of, our worth is equated to productivity. The more productive a person is, the more they can contribute to the system. In association with this idea, I would like to mention a post I came across on Instagram. The post was made by the CEO of an organization, where they were talking about two of their employees who are very good at their job. Even so, this person is unhappy as these employees stick to time and do not stay beyond work hours. The CEO was quite aggrieved about how to address this ‘issue’ with them. From how I see it, this instance highlights your point around worth and productivity.


A.B.: If I could speak from personal experience, I am a stickler for keeping to time. My teammates will account for this! However, I also know that my association with punctuality is heavily influenced by the idea of perceived productivity. My desire to be punctual isn’t just motivated by respect for other people’s time but also by personal (sometimes overwhelming) anxiety. This anxiety further drives the idea of being an ‘ideal’, um, colleague/employee/student–whatever an ideal individual looks like. I think it’s only now that I can question the anxiety and understand if it comes from within or if it’s one I’ve learnt from the system. That is what came to mind when you were sharing. And I think I just wanted to kind of put it out there. Um, is there something that you’d like to add? Would you like us to move to the next question? 


Anvita [A.W]: I’d just like to share this one thought: what if someone actually needs that extra time? And I absolutely relate with you; I also have this thing where I try to be there before time or go out of my way to make sure that I’m not causing an inconvenience to someone because of my own learnt anxiety. 


A.W.: But also…what if the reason for someone being late is not because they don’t respect our time? What if someone genuinely needs that time because they have a mental health issue or a physical impairment or a disability? What about working people that also have to carry out unpaid caregiving duties at home? What about people who have to balance multiple jobs to make ends meet? Even the idea of a 9 to 5 workday is patriarchal. I’d come across this tweet that explained how these work hours and productivity norms were designed by men and for men during a time when their wives did all the behind-the-scenes work for them—from cooking to copy-editing. Workplaces still don’t account for the gendered division of domestic work. What if someone needs accommodation for reasonable purposes? Would they hold space for that? And I’m actually saying this from a place of privilege, too, because I don’t do most of the domestic work at my house. And considering these norms, I know I wouldn’t be able to manage to study and work if I did; and I shouldn’t have to. Nobody should.


A.W.: Also, if you don’t meet this standard of work, you’re automatically thought of as lazy or as slacking off. But these standards are defined by people who are able-bodied or who don’t have to do as much domestic labour or who aren’t working round the clock to survive. If our idea of ‘normal’ and ‘standard’ is being defined by people who have all these privileges, how does this affect those who don’t? They are constantly having to keep up, and understandably, falling short because the world wasn’t designed keeping their needs in mind. And so, what would ‘care’ look like for all of them in this unequal world, you know? That’s why the idea of care is not simply a personal matter; it’s a political issue. It’s a rights-based issue. 


A.W.: Yeah, this was a small thing that I wanted to add!

Thank you for accompanying us on Part 1 of our dialogue around care! This conversation continues in the next blog post. 

To access resources that have shaped our ideas of care, please find our resource list here. You can also find the summaries of our Sharing Circles 1, 2, and 3 with Mental Health Professionals here, here, and here, respectively; and that of the Participatory Workshop for Mental Health Users/Survivors here.


About the Speakers


Anvita Walia is a student, researcher, and eternal learner. She is a Senior Program Officer at One Future Collective, a feminist social purpose organisation with a vision of a world built on social justice, led by communities of care. To know more about OFC’s work, please click here

Ankita is a listener, a mental health professional and one of the co-founders of Tangent Mental Health Initiative. Tangent MHI began in 2020 and works in the field of mental health service and advocacy. Their work is informed by the values of intersectional feminism, inclusion and accessibility. To know more about Tangent MHI’s work, you can click here.

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Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

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Mutual Aid in the Pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of mutual aid, a practice that has existed throughout our history, primarily in marginalised communities. 


What is mutual aid?

Mutual aid is an integral part of all sustained social movements. Lawyer and trans activist Dean Spade, who works towards racial and economic justice, explains mutual aid as a “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them,” in his book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next). A New York magazine defines the term loosely as, “a form of solidarity-based support in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves.” Mutual-aid groups are non-hierarchical, with equal control over resources. They are egalitarian in nature and designed to support participatory democracy, equality and consensus-based decision-making. 


This is survival work done along with demands for systemic change and justice, Spade explains. Therefore, mutual aid’s approach is two-fold: to coordinate and provide immediate relief, and to raise consciousness and fight the systems that create these crises in the first place. These approaches necessarily go together as every struggle against such colluding forces of power is long-drawn. The oppressor, whether a company, the state, university board, or all these together makes every effort to tire, demoralise, and humiliate the resistance with delays, violence, silence, threats and more. Mutual aid and care of all kinds are therefore essential to sustaining movements, and these manifest in various ways. 


The term ‘mutual aid’ originates from Peter Kropotkin’s work in 1902,  Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution, arguing that human cooperation and not competition facilitated our survival. He also posited that the best system of economic and social organisation would be based on mutual exchanges rather than coercion and the profit-motive, as explained in this ROAR Magazine article. This reflects what BIPOC, queer-trans, disabled and other minority communities have known, which is made clearer as we face the continuous effects of colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism – all of which not only impede but directly oppose our collective survival. 


Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha adds key characteristics to these definitions in her powerful book,  Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. She sums up previous writers’ descriptions of the term as “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid, as opposed to charity, does not connote moral superiority of the giver over the receiver,” adding that, “White people didn’t invent the concept of mutual aid—many pre-colonial (and after) Black, Indigenous, and brown communities have complex webs of exchanges of care.” We see mutual aid in all movements, regardless of scale or issue – in persecuted Maruti Suzuki workers in Haryana organising funds for the families of their jailed comrades, the setting up community kitchens during the migrant worker crisis brought on by the government, and more.  


The historic farmer’s protest against the proposed farm laws, labour codes, and the corporatisation of agriculture, as well as the anti-CAA sit-ins led by Muslim women in various cities in India, are recent examples of movements in which the process of resisting violent power structures also led to the creation of alternative modes of living together based on solidarity. Communities came together to sustain themselves, and alliances were built across struggles – not only through the powerful acts showing up together in resistance but also by meeting each other’s basic needs of food, water, safety, shelter and warmth, amongst other things. These were complemented by consistent education and information sharing across struggles through libraries, speeches, cultural events, art, and discussions. 


Divorcing direct action from collective care and education in the mainstream is another way to maintain the status quo. Painting a negative picture of protesting communities through misleading headlines and misinformation campaigns is often an attempt to obstruct public solidarity. At the same time, philanthropy and charities, whose wealth is usually based on violating vulnerable communities, obstruct self-organising by donating small fractions of their wealth or offering services. Such charity is based on the idea that rich people are morally superior to poor people, and therefore deserve their privilege, while poor people brought poverty upon themselves. This tends to create dependencies to further legitimise these bodies and their wealth, and strengthen inequalities and power hierarchies in the long run. A crucial aspect of mutual aid is, therefore, self-organising and collectivising in solidarity, which is a major threat to a fascist state or company. 


Why is mutual aid necessary?

There are several reasons for this. Much like with social movements in general, in the world we’re striving towards, mutual aid should ultimately not be necessary, as our rights and wellbeing would be provided for. 


In India and every state that is based on oppressive hierarchies and capitalism, mutual aid highlights that the reason people are in dire circumstances is that the government deliberately abandons its duty and is unwilling to ensure the safety and health of all its citizens. Corporations and the state make profits by creating scarcity, withholding resources from the majority, while a minority are excessively wealthy, and taking away most people’s power to access these. Capital, therefore, accumulates with a few when in reality there is enough for everyone — which mutual aid shows in practice. To maintain this system as well as systems of Brahmanism, racism, ableism, and patriarchy that mutually benefit each other, the state is brutally violent towards most of its citizens, and actively works to make living as difficult as possible for them.  Marginalised communities are facing violence in all forms, either directed by or encouraged by the state. Mutual aid is required to help meet the safety, health, and economic needs of people under these conditions, while simultaneously organising to overthrow such regimes.


Dean Spade explains why mutual aid is important in our current economic system, by caring and supporting each other rather than competing and occasionally providing charity or philanthropy:

We are put in competition with each other for survival, and we are forced to rely on hostile systems — like health care systems designed around profit, not keeping people healthy, or food and transportation systems that pollute the Earth and poison people — for the things we need. In this context of social isolation and forced dependency on hostile systems, mutual aid — where we choose to help each other out, share things, and put time and resources into caring for the most vulnerable — is a radical act.” (Spade, 2020).


The crisis of the current pandemic emphasised the problems that already existed due to our economic and social systems. A myriad of issues brought about by wilfully careless state responses has led to countless deaths, severe mental distress, and economic ruin across the globe. In India,  most migrant workers with informal contracts were fired since everything was closed, many were evicted and unable to pay rent, as well as stuck without transport in foreign states in this condition. The government facilities provided in various states were of deplorable condition and several workers died in the process of making it home on foot (Chattopadhyay & Pandit, 2021). 


Non-migrant street-based and informal sector workers were also put out of work, with little government support in India. Meanwhile, labour regulations were modified against the interests of employees and several businesses cut pay, exposed workers to unsafe working conditions as well as fired people at will. Across the world, people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and other immunocompromised conditions are at higher risk and therefore further isolated at home, forced to work or otherwise be at risk. The exclusion of these groups is exacerbated by those flouting COVID rules without good reason, and influential politicians and bodies holding rallies and gatherings involving large numbers of people. COVID protocol itself was misused in India as it granted the police another way to target Dalits, Bahujans, Muslims and poor people. 


Mutual aid became essential in the face of these circumstances and has been practised in various countries since. Christian Ikeokwu explores how mutual aid groups often serve as informal self-organised financial collectives, especially in areas and communities that cannot adequately access banking facilities and don’t have financial safety nets. With the soaring unemployment of the pandemic, the people who needed such safety nets the most were often those who didn’t have them. Rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs), informal credit like in lending clubs, informal insurance like in risk-sharing networks, amongst other collectives, become a way to address these issues through self-organising and care. These ideas are not new but play an important role in addressing survival needs during the pandemic. Meeting these needs through one’s own community is a step towards agency-taking and self-determination, that can facilitate organising for wider systemic change.


The health risks of the pandemic bring unique problems to mutual aid workers, however, collective decision-making and participation enable work to be structured according to people’s abilities without excluding anyone or placing any one aspect of the work above another. In general, it values care and support work without making it profitable and exploitative or seeing it as lesser  “women’s work” as is often the case. Examples of mutual aid during the pandemic abound beyond previously cited examples, such as the Trans Community Kitchen in Chennai, the Workers’ Dhaba in Delhi, work done by Migrant Workers Solidarity Network, Women and Transgender Joint Action Committee in Hyderabad, and more. Significantly, Hong Kong’s protest movement handled the onset of the pandemic solely through mutual aid organising, in the face of the government’s apathy and harmful policies.  


Commonly faced issues in mutual aid work

Mutual aid requires group work and the elimination of internal hierarchies. However, power structures are so internalised in us that we often see them reproduced in movement spaces, such as patriarchy within communist movements, casteism in feminist movements, and similar biases that skew the movement’s priorities and decision-making, while also causing harm to its participants. Mutual aid work needs to be extremely cognizant and must work to eradicate these ingrained biases, especially in South Asian contexts where caste and gender often determine the kind of work you do and the value assigned to it. In line with these biases, it is imperative to question and eliminate the saviour mindset and ensure the work is led by the people it is meant to benefit. 


Dean Spade elaborates on similar issues in detail and provides options for how to tackle them in Mutual Aid. Some of these include handling money and being wary of institutionalising the work and applying to funding organisations, overworking and burnout in an ableist culture of productivity and competition, conflict, perfectionism, and pressure. 


Mutual aid is a powerful practice based on “solidarity, not charity”. It harnesses the power of people choosing to care for and help each other materially and emotionally. Doing this across movements builds crucial solidarities through understanding and forming bonds with people who do not have the same issues, and, as history has shown, creates a powerful threat to an oppressive state. 



Emancipatory mutual aid: from education to liberation | ROAR Magazine 

Mutual Aid and Self-Organization in Anti-CAA and Farmers’ Protests 

So You Want to Get Involved in Mutual Aid 

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi, (2018). Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, Arsenal Pulp Press.

Marcel Fafchamps and Susan Lund. 2003. Risk-sharing networks in rural Philippines. Journal of development Economics 71, 2 (2003), 261–287. 

Catherine Cross, (1987). Informal lending: do-it-yourself credit for black rural areas. Indicator South Africa 4, 3, pp. 87–92. 

Spade, Dean (2020). Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next), Verso. 

Saayan Chattopadhyay & Sushmita Pandit (2021). Freedom, distribution and work from home: Rereading Engels in the time of the COVID-19-pandemic, tripleC,  19 (1),


Written by Tara Rai, Programme Officer, Knowledge at One Future Collective

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice