‘Out of the Spheres of the Private and the Moral’

Social anthropologist Minh Nguyen analyses, how care is organized under market socialism. Care, she states, must be analysed as public and political.

Since 2019 Professor Dr. Minh Nguyen, Social Anthropologist at Bielefeld University, has been working on the project “Welfare for Migrant Factory Workers: Moral Struggles and Politics of Care under Market Socialism” (WelfareStruggles), funded as Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon research and innovation program. From 26 to 27 March the final conference of the project will take place at ZiF. The conference which Minh Nguyen convenes together with Sociologist Dr. Jingyu Mao from Edinburgh University is called “The Politics of Care under Market Socialism. Labour Mobility, Global Capital and Changing Welfare Systems in Vietnam and China”. In this interview, Minh Nguyen draws first conclusions of her project.

How did you become interested in the question of care under market socialism?

My research has always had something do with care in one way or another, from my doctoral research on paid domestic service and my post-doctoral research on household organisation of care by rural migrants in Vietnam, to my later research on rural welfare and the ERC funded research on welfare provision for migrant factory workers in China and Vietnam. The research questions I ask are often about how different groups of people approach care from different social positions and in different power constellations, as citizens, as individuals, and as members of a community.

My understanding of care has broadened from an earlier focus on caring and being cared for as part of interpersonal relationships, for example between family members or between domestic workers and their employers, to a notion of care as central to social, political and moral life as concepts of justice and freedom. In this approach, care does not merely refer to what is needed by the sick, the aged, the infirm – in other word the activity of caring for others and the distribution of the labour involved, or Pflege in German – but to complex processes shaping the institutional and individual arrangements of care giving and receiving in human society.

Building on the scholarship on the ethics of care, Joan Tronto, Roberta Zavoretti and I have defined care as processes of creating, sustaining and reproducing bodies, selves and social relationships[1]. This definition brings care out of the spheres of the private and the moral, where care is deemed to belong as a feminine coded set of activities, into the public and political spheres. As we decry the prevalent notion of the autonomous and self-interested economic man, the homo economicus, ethics of care scholars underscore vulnerability and interdependence as that which define us as humans and the need for democratic deliberations and institutions in building the political and social foundations for care. At the same time, we also recognise that care is a moral value that the state and the market alike actively deploy for purposes of authoritarian control, marketization, and exploitation. That’s why we commonly hear authoritarian states or exploitative corporations claiming to be caring for their citizens or their workers, customers and the environment. So, it is a complex field of politics in which different conceptions of personhood, social relationships and societies come into tension with each other.

Professor Dr Minh Nguyen, exploring the politics of care under Market Socialism, convenes the final conference of her ERC-funded project WelfareStruggles at ZiF. Photo: Universtät Bielefeld.

Welfare is at heart a relationship of care, and our research project on the provision of welfare for workers employed at global factories in China and Vietnam has been guided by the notion of politics of care as the central concept for the inquiry. It refers to the negotiations and power dynamics at the societal, the institutional and the personal levels that go into shaping the care of the labour force. For example, how differing conceptions of labour, whether a part of the social person or as a commodity, a means of production, shape welfare arrangements; or how the individual ethics of self-responsibility and self-enterprise lead ordinary people to adopt marketised care solutions such as private life insurance.

I am an anthropologist, and ethnographic fieldwork is very important for anthropological research – our empirical work often involves long-term occupation and interactions with the lives and social worlds of the people we study in specific settings. My fieldwork so far has mostly been in Vietnam and China, but increasingly I am interested in including Laos as another context of market socialism. 

What is the most important difference in the politics of care under market socialism and under liberalism/capitalism?

This is a very good question, but not so easy to answer, because we are talking about political economic systems that do not stay the same, while the politics of care also evolve along with changing societies and human conditions.

Market socialism is the political economic system now adopted by China, Vietnam and Laos, all of which remain under the political rule of their Communist parties while pursuing a deepening course of marketisation and privatisation. In this context, Communist party politics and neoliberal economics are blended together, resulting in a high level of state control over political and economic life at the same time with the growing dominance of market competition, private accumulation and individual consumption. There is a concerted effort at the policy level to deploy capital, capitalist institutions and logics for the agenda of these party states for nationalist rejuvenation and economic growth as the basis of their political legitimacy. Yet, the political legitimacy of these Communist parties has always been premised on caring for the wellbeing of the people. That’s why we have seen the rapid introduction of new kinds of universal welfare programs offering basic social protection, for example cash transfers, health insurance or voluntary pension schemes, at the same time with the increasing privatisation of public goods and services and the much greater emphasis on self-responsibility and familialism in care and welfare.

To varying extents, these dynamics also occur in contexts other than market socialism, including a broad range of countries in the Global South, where welfare systems are designed in ways that facilitate citizen’s market participation to increase national competitiveness in the global economy. In market socialism, however, the dominant discourse of the caring state and the Communist party’s firm control of political life mean that there is not much space for public deliberations of political alternatives or recognition of the unequal arrangements of care emerging from marketisation and capitalist exploitation. For example, there are major restrictions in terms of what civil society organisations or labour unions can advocate for in terms of better conditions in the care of factory labour.

This situation differs from the societal dynamics that led to the  emergence of the welfare states in Western Europe through the different social democratic movements in which the care of labour evolved into broader concerns with the quality of life and social citizenship for several decades following WWII. But across the board in capitalist welfare states in recent times, we see how neoliberal restructuring and a similar emphasis on self-responsibility and self-enterprise as the basis of care and welfare are chipping away at the social state that had been built up through the hard struggles of these earlier movements.

So if we look at the current state of things, perhaps the difference is not so great after all – whereas under market socialism, there is a repression of political alternatives to building democratic institutions and societies that adequately care for people, under capitalism, the political reasoning for them has been “hollowed out”, to use the words of anthropologist Laura Bear, through the undue dominance of market logics of growth, efficiency and competition over both private and public life.

How did you experience the interdisciplinary cooperation, what was challenging or unexpected and what was maybe easier than you thought?

Although my PhD was an ethnographic study and I am very comfortable with my professional identity of an anthropologist now, I was trained in an interdisciplinary PhD program at the University of East Anglia, where I attended research classes and seminars with professors and peers working in economics, political science, geography, development studies, and so on. So I was already socialised into seeing the value of not making too much out of disciplinary boundaries in knowledge production and the need to look at social realities from different perspectives.

However, I believe that disciplinary competence and expertise are the foundation of good interdisciplinary work – one can only understand what interdisciplinary cooperation really means when one is strongly grounded in one’s own discipline and is aware of its strengths and weaknesses in relation to those of the other disciplines. That’s why I often reach out to colleagues who I feel are both strong in their own disciplines and open to collaboration with the others. They are not so easy to find, given the tendency for ever narrower specialisation of sub-disciplines that turns them into self-referential tribes speaking languages that only insiders can understand. That said, I have been lucky in this regard so far and often found colleagues from other disciplines with whom I have productive collaborations. This workshop is a good example.

This is the final conference of a longer ERC-funded research project; can you already say something about your most important findings?

The workshop participants in front of ZiF. Photo: Universtät Bielefeld.

We are finalizing the publication of the research findings in two PhD dissertations, one monograph, and a series of journal articles by the former and current team members of the project, including Jingyu Mao, who is co-convening this conference, Jake Lin, Yueran Tian, Ngoc Luong and Huy Tran. Below are some of the findings – the issues of course are much complicated than what I can briefly present here.

First of all, in this political economic landscape in which Communist party states are pursuing dual goals of market liberalization and socialist control, differing visions of the good life and conceptions of labour are constantly in tension with each other, generating much contradiction and ambivalence in the struggles around the care of labour. However, there is increasing tendency towards what we call “recommodification” of labour, namely how the social policies and welfare schemes put in place to protect the workers from the whims of the market in fact help to expose them further to market risks.

Secondly, the labour of the millions of rural migrants employed by the many global factories in these countries has been kept relatively low thanks to their household registration systems, which tie migrant workers’ access to welfare and social services to their villages, for many decades externalizing the social reproductive costs of the labour to the countryside.  We found that the state’s control of labour mobility through the household registration system has been transformed into something that no longer just embodies the divide between the rural and urban areas as before, but also a divide between regions with varying levels of development and wealth, especially in China. Household registration in Shanghai for example, is granted to those who score high in terms of educational and professional merits, practically denying it to labour migrants often from rural areas in other provinces. Increasingly, the system has turned into an institution enabling privatised forms of social provisioning and subsidising global capitalist reproduction at the expense of migrant workers.

In contrast to the earlier trajectory of labour migration from villages to factories, we found emerging patterns of labour mobility associated with the land restructuring induced by the relocation of global factories from the wealthy provinces to hitherto rural areas for the sake of lower wages and greater investment incentives. The economy of these areas had relied on a mixture of self-subsistence agriculture and labour migration, with households having access to rural land as a source of subsistence and security. The arrival of the global factory draws local labour into the global production system, inducing what we call “commuterisation” of factory labour (a term coined by Yueran Tian), at the same time that local families have to give up agricultural land for the development. Although a rental market for migrant workers brings new sources of income for families around the global factory, the disappearing welfare function of rural land and the quasi-privatisation of public goods and services deepen the precariousness of the labour.

Curiously, there emerges a popular preference for flexible and unprotected employment, either overtime or seasonal work. This is because low-waged workers increasingly require cash incomes to meet immediate needs while there is a low level of trust in existing welfare schemes. Meanwhile, the prevalence of highly flexible work is also the result of global companies’ different strategies to reduce the number of formally employed workers. For example, the company we worked on in Vietnam constructs formal employment in its core workforce as a highly prized scarcity, whereas the one in China turns it into something much less desirable than casual seasonal work with cash bonuses.

Are there open questions remaining for future projects?

In the context of more flexible work and precarious labour, ordinary working people increasingly reach out for financialized solutions for their present and future needs, from commercial loans to life insurance, informal and online credits, in many cases also to realise their aspirations for a self-determined life away from the production line. Since financial products are becoming widespread as a choice for ensuring wellbeing and as the tools to realise aspirations, the risk of indebtedness and default threatens to undermine the basis of livelihoods and wellbeing for many. Therefore, one of the arising questions that I would like to explore in greater depth in my future research is how financial risk enters into social and political life in this particular context, what that matters for the people, states and market socialism as a political economic system itself.


[1] See paper at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17496535.2017.1300308.



Cite this blog post
Manuela Lenzen (2024, March 26). ‘Out of the Spheres of the Private and the Moral’. Interdisciplinarity. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://zif.hypotheses.org/1267

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