The personal is political; care in an age of spectacle.

Are we really surprised that the BBC’s  Panorama has again uncovered  poor quality care and abuse in a home for older people?

We know the roots of this, and I have previously argued that this is a political game. This is also personal because, and this point has been made many times  before, I will be old one day and may well require care. Therefore I do not want to be treated like sh*t as a resident on the Panorama  film stated. It happens because the care sector is undervalued, invisible, ‘women’s work’ and it is thought by some  that it can be done by those with little training, poor supervision, risible pay, poor patient ratios, no professional development and inadequate management.

Individuals will of course be blamed and sacked citing ‘accountability’ as if it is the holy grail of quality care and patient safety.

What to do? The first is to recognise that this personal trouble is a political issue and nurses are front line staff in the trenches. In the UK for far too long nurses have been reluctant to use union power to address these fundamental issues. Yet, just when we need it, union membership across all employment sectors have dropped as workforces became more docile in the face of deregulated labour markets. Faced with the ‘flexibility’ requirements demanded by employers, resulting in the growth of zero hours contracts, part time working, minimum wages as targets rather than base lines, workers have become more pliable generally. Nursing, being a gendered occupation with its emphasis on self sacrifice and care, has historically shied away from exercising any worker power while simultaneously picking up the crumbs from the medics table (doing their ‘skilled’ tasks for nowhere near the pay) and now bowing to the control of their work as dictated by management.

In California, in the US, nurses are joining Unions and have a staffing ratio law of 5:1 for med/surg, 2:1 for ICU, and Psych 6:1 meaning five patients with 1 nurse. CA AB394 came about by the CA Nurses Association to implement their RN Staffing Ratio Law. William Whetstone (Professor of Nursing California State University)  states “Staff nurses were sick and tired of being abused, putting up with crappy workloads, incompetent nurse administrators and managers, and on and on. I can remember when I did staff nursing dealing with a patient load of 10 to 12 patients with no thought to their acuity. As a result, CA became the first state through the effort of the CA Nurses Association to establish RN-to-patient ratios. The law was successfully implemented January 1, 2004”.

Is this an increasing phenomenon? Are we finally seeing a backlash against the dominant political hegemony that does not want to pay for care? We can study this until forever, but that fact remains – care costs. It costs a lot, requires skill and adequate ratios.

In California it seems nurses have had enough, got organised and agitated for change. They have looked beyond the representations of nurses as caring angels and seen themselves as the exploited.  They have plucked the imaginary flowers from their chains and acted.

Consumer capitalism would not want this happen because care is seen, in this context, as a cost to be born not by society but by individuals and families. Consumer capitalism instead wants to fill our heads with distractions and representations using the ‘spectacle’.

News and other media constantly feed us representations of the world that actually do not exist; they are constructed for news and or as entertainment. Panorama falls into that trap because it represents poor care in a particular way and is unable to drill down to the root causes. The TV itself is a medium of the representation of actuality and can lull us in to classifying the poor care we see as almost entertainment; the lines between truth and  fantasy become blurred.

 

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (Debord 1967).

Consumer capitalism has ripped the citizen role from the heart of nursing and replaced it with consumerism in which we are presented daily with ‘the spectacle’ – representations of reality that are without form or substance but which service to make sacred the profane. The spectacle specifically aimed at women include the array of women’s magazines which preach that you can never too thin or that your breasts require surgical enhancement; thus are we distracted about what is truly real by a false representation, within care employment contexts that are precarious, undervalued and invisible. Feminists know this, critical theorists know this, those with a sociological imagination know this, many women actually feel the cognitive dissonace that this engenders. In California,  nurses have acted as citizens, able to see pass the distractions for long enough to see exploitation as it really is. In the UK those nurses who can see the reality, need to the support to take charge of care in this country.

Ordinary citizens need to organise their frustrations and anger over health and social care and cohere into a viable opposition. Unfortunately UKIP are currently presenting another false representation with the spectacle of Nigel Farage presented as an ‘ordinary bloke’ that nearly 30% of the electorate are falling for.

We saw a spectacle of poor care again last night, lets not allow it to become entertainment for its shock value, lets instead urge action by all of us to provide the care older people deserve.

 

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