‘Ecofeminism’: a talk about hard work and great joy

by Joris Leverink on May 22, 2014

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In this interview, Maria Mies – a feminist activist scholar – talks about patriarchal capitalism, the ‘good life’ and how ecofeminism can inspire the movement.

Recently, the UK-based publisher Zed Books launched its Critique Influence Change series, which “brings together pivotal texts by notable academics and activists from Zed Books’ publishing of the last thirty-five years”. Over the coming weeks ROAR will publish a series of interviews with some of the authors from this varied and inspiring collection of critical analyses and theories. We will look not only at what inspired the authors at the time of writing their influential works, but also at what they believe is the relevance of their ideas in bringing about change in the context of the current wave of global uprisings. For this first part of the series, ROAR editor Joris Leverink interviews Maria Mies about her work Ecofeminism, which she co-authored with Vandana Shiva.

Maria Mies is a feminist activist scholar who is renowned for her theory of capitalist patriarchy, one which recognizes women and nature as colonies of both systems. She is a professor of sociology at Cologne University of Applied Siences, but retired from teaching in 1993. Since the late 1960s she has been involved with feminist activism. Before she and Vandana Shiva decided to write Ecofeminism together, she had already written Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, which was published by Zed Books in 1986. She gave Vandana this book when they met around 1990, after which Ecofeminism appeared for the first time in 1993.

ROAR: The core idea of ecofeminism, I believe, is the idea that man’s domination over nature parallels that of man’s domination over women. Therefore feminist and ecological struggles are inherently linked to each other. For our readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of ecofeminism could you give a brief historical overview of ecofeminism and its core ideas, and explain why it appealed to you?

Maria Mies: The insight that man’s domination over women parallels that of man’s domination over nature dawned on me when I first began to ask: ‘What is the social origin of the hierarchical relation between men and women?’ I, like most feminists in the years around 1980, were not satisfied with answers like: ‘men are physically stronger than women, therefore women have to be protected by men’, or ‘women have to bear children therefore they are more home-bound, men are more intelligent than women’.  Even our great Sigmund Freud explained the difference between men and women with his famous dictum that “Anatomy is destiny”.

Many feminists rejected this biologism. I tried to find an answer to our question by studying the history of the sexual division of labour. While this question I discovered that a woman’s work when she gives life to a baby is not considered as work but as the “natural” function of her female body or an act of nature. That means the process of birthing happens without consciousness and without former knowledge about this work — a knowledge which since the beginning of time has been in the hands of “Wise Women”, of midwives. In English the birth pains of a birthing woman are still called labour. In German they are called Wehen, pains.

Here we have already the biologistic understanding of the work of both women and nature. According to this understanding the production of life happens just instinctively. The truly “human element”, namely consciousness, is absent from the creation of life. This understanding implies, right from the beginning, a relationship of dominance of men over women and nature.

Around the same time feminists began to ask why women’s work in their house: cooking, cleaning, washing the clothes, taking care of the children, nursing them when they are ill, serving the husband when he comes home from work, in short: all the housework she is doing, is not considered as work. Why is this work not paid for? Why don’t women who have only been housewives get a pension in their old age?

Some of us began to study Marx to find out what his concept for this work was. We learned that for Marx the decisive difference between the work of a housewife and that of a factory worker was that the work of a man who produces commodities for the market is “productive”, whereas the work of a housewife and mother is only “re-productive”.  He understood that the “re-productive” work of women was necessary to “reproduce” the male labour power from day to day and from generation to generation. But he did not understand that the capitalists were not only exploiting the male wage earners but also the wage-less housewives.  He also did not understand that the profits the capitalists made were based to a large extent on this “free labour” of women.  Women’s work in the house was and is as much a “free good” as nature’s work is for capital.  My two friends Veronika Bennholdt Thomsen and Claudia Werlhof and myself had been in the “Third World” for some time. While we discussed the role of housework and of nature under capitalism we realized that also the colonies are treated more or less like women and nature, namely as “free goods” which can be exploited by White Man almost without costs.[1]

ROAR: What is the ecofeminist perception of the ideal society, and in what ways do ecofeminist theorists attempt to achieve this goal? Also, in this context, could you elaborate on the concept of ‘subsistence perspective’?

Mies: When we were looking for an alternative to the existing capitalist-patriarchal society we called it the Subsistence Perspective. We did not speak of an ideal society, because subsistence is not “ideal”, but necessary. Most people criticized this concept. They said: “Does this not mean that we have to go back to the middle ages? Do we have to become small farmers again? Do we have to use spade and hoe to get our livelihood?” Many people believed that subsistence production is impossible because modern technology has enabled us to have a better life. Moreover, it was believed that population growth forces the world to develop more efficient technology to feed the growing number of people. Our subsistence perspective was written off as a nice romantic dream which cannot be realized in this world.

In this book I first defined, rather abstractly, what I understand by subsistence production:

Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose. Subsistence production stands in contrast to commodity and surplus value production. For subsistence production the aim is ‘life’, for commodity production it is ‘money’, which ‘produces’ ever more money, or the accumulation of capital. For this mode of production life is only, so to speak a coincidental side effect. It is typical for the capitalist  industrial system that it declares everything that  it wants to exploit free of charge to be part of nature. …  

But we also showed by a number of examples from all over the world that people had already begun to organize their life according to subsistence principles, like, producing only as much as is necessary; creating new commons; producing and consuming what is locally or regionally possible and necessary, thus avoiding long distance transport of food and of other necessary goods for our everyday life; taking care of nature and keeping in mind that the next generations also have enough to live.

Today the whole western world, particularly southern Europe is hit by economic crises. In Greece, Spain, Portugal and also Italy unemployment of young people has risen up to 25 per cent. The state is not in a position to provide jobs or pay unemployment benefits. In this situation “going back to subsistence” is no longer a nostalgic affair but a necessity. Many young people go back to their grandparents’ farms in the countryside or build up some kind of a subsistence production in the cities in order to be able to survive.

Instead of ideal society I use the concept of good life to describe what I mean by subsistence. I also do not speak of a happy society, which the king of Bhutan has declared as the aim of his politics. To measure the degree of happiness of his people he created the index of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Good life does not mean that we are always happy. To illustrate what I mean by good life and subsistence I rather tell you two short stories:

My mother who had born twelve children and had worked all her life on our small subsistence farm died at the age of 87. Some years before she died she looked back at her life and summed up this life by saying: “Wasn’t that a good life! Of course, there was a lot of work. But I liked to work.” For me this sentence of my old mother expresses what I understand by good life. I wish that everybody on earth can say before she or he dies: “Wasn’t that a good Life!”

I learned what subsistence means — not only for the individual but for the whole world — when I was invited to a conference which was organized by the Association of Catholic Rural Women. I was supposed to speak about subsistence. I was a bit at a loss. What should I tell rural women about subsistence? When I entered the conference hall I saw that the women had put all kinds of fruits and vegetables on the platform: cabbage, potatoes, carrots, apples, pears and some flowers too.

And above these fruits of their labor of a whole year they had hung up a banner with the theme of the conference: ‘The World is Our Household!‘ What more could I say about subsistence now! If all people on earth, women and men, would take care of this world as their own household  the world would be a different, a better place.

ROAR: One of the key features of ecofeminist thought is that patriarchy is foundational to capitalism, and not – as is often suggested – an effect of it. In your book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor you argue that because patriarchy is not a product of capitalism, it will not disappear with the overthrow of capitalism. You state that sexual exploitation is the fundamental basis of patriarchal exploitation, and that this division of labor arises from the so-called ‘Man-the-Hunter’ model. In this light, I would ask you which struggle you believe has priority: the struggle to overthrow capitalism, or the struggle for appreciation of women’s productive labor?

Mies: The connection between patriarchy and capitalism is not a question of what came first and what came later. It is the exploitation and oppression of women by men which is the fundamental base for both systems. Today I would not talk of two systems but rather as one capitalist-patriarchal system. I also do not use the model of “Man the Hunter” any more to express how these two systems are related. I rather think that capitalism is the latest avatar of patriarchy. Therefore one cannot separate the struggle against patriarchy from the struggle against capitalism.

The struggle for appreciation of women’s productive labour is certainly necessary. But if this struggle is limited to demand only equal wages for women and men one does not necessarily reach the deeper levels of patriarchy. The manifestations of patriarchy today are of course not the same as some thousands of years ago but their essence is still the same: violence against women, degradation of women, and exploitation of women. For instance, mobbing of women at their workplace is only one of the modern manifestations of patriarchy.

It is important to understand what the secret of the domination of men over women is. It is not the anatomic difference between the two genders, as Freud believed, but violence. Men are not destined by their genes to be warriors, rapists, killers or Rambos. They have to be trained to become killing machines. They must learn to overcome their natural inhibition and fear to kill. They must be trained to become pilots of drones and to throw rockets  at human “targets”, i.e. unknown people on the ground. After the trauma of the lost Vietnam war, young American men  did not want to go to war again. Then the film Rambo appeared in the cinemas. Rambo is a man in a war uniform, fully armored from head to toe, with weapons of all sorts hanging on his body, a Kalashnikov in his hands, fighting against an enemy and killing him. This film became very popular in America and many young men were ready again to go to war. Today the defence ministries do not need extra films to turn young boys into Rambos again. This job is done more effectively by the flourishing games industry.

ROAR:  One strand of ecofeminism is known for its spiritual inclinations, suggesting that women are closer to nature than men, and that scientific innovation serves the continued domination of culture (rationality / male) over nature (emotional / female) and is thus to be disposed of if a truly equal society is to occur. Where do you stand on this topic, and could you elaborate on the dichotomy between material and spiritual ecofeminism?

Also, how would you respond to critiques of ecofeminist ideology which suggest that through its vernacular and its advocating of fundamental differences between men and women it is reproducing the very dichotomy it attempts to overcome?

Mies: I do not share the views of some “spiritual ecofeminists”, who think that women are closer to nature than men and that rationality is the domain of men whereas emotionality is the field of women. It is true that the modern progress of science and technology was largely the work of men. But this is not because their genes determine them to be inventors. Men are both emotional and rational and so are women. Hence there are no fundamental differences between them. The fact that today men are considered to be more rational than women is the result of a social process which started with the renaissance after the knowledge of “Wise Women”, the midwives who knew how to help women to bring forth a child, was violently crushed during the witch hunts in Europe.

The “New Man”, as Bacon called him, was supposed to rule the world by objective science. His duty is to destroy all “wild nature” to tame her, civilize her and force her into the service of “rational man”. If we look at the results of this modern, reductionist science we see that it has not made the world a better place.  Nuclear energy, reproductive and gene technology, the inventions of biotechnology and other technologies to “improve” nature have rather destroyed her. The struggle against these new inventions brought us, Vandana Shiva and me together. We did not learn our lessons by sitting in a library and reading books about ecology and feminism but by participating in the struggles against global capitalist patriarchy and its neoliberal strategy to get control over nature and people for the sake of profit.  Ecofeminism is the outcome of our common struggles.

With regard to my stand on the dichotomy between material and spiritual feminism, I declare that I am a material ecofeminist. Spirituality alone cannot exist. It has to be embodied in a material being. This dichotomy between the material and the spiritual has its roots mainly in the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  An invisible immaterial God who is pure spirit creates a man out of earth. Then he sends his spirit to make him alive. That means, nature, the earth by herself cannot create life. She is dead matter. Moreover, this dead matter is unclean and sinful. The dichotomy between the good-but-immaterial spirit and the bad, unclean, material world has its parallel in the dichotomy between men and women. As was said before: “Man is the bearer of intelligence and rationality, woman is nature, earth, which has to be “inseminated” by man to bring forth his progeny, particularly sons.”  Spirit is the life-giving element and is of course superior to matter. This world-view has created our western civilization: its ethos; its culture; its science, and its religious, social, political and economic institutions. Even the enlightenment and the secularization of religion have not changed this dichotomy between good spirit and bad matter.

Yet for me matter matters. Matter is not dead. Our planet is not a dead ball of different chemical substances. But she is a living organism who continues to create life. She is the mother of life. The so-called dichotomy between spirit and matter goes far beyond the difference between spiritual and material ecofeminism.  If we really want to free ourselves from this dualistic thinking we must look at the world from a different perspective. This other perspective still exists among many indigenous peoples who venerate the Earth as their Mother. We are all, women, men, animals, plants children of our Mother Earth. We have only one mother. We must respect and protect her.

ROAR: Could you provide us with an ecofeminist perspective on the current wave of popular uprisings across the globe, which despite its many individual differences have in common a demand for real democracy and a rejection of Neoliberal capitalism? What is in your opinion lacking in the demands and actions of the contemporary activist movements?

Mies: When I, as an ecofeminist, look at the contemporary uprisings in the world: the Occupy movement in the USA, the uprisings in the Arab world (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia), in Turkey and in many other countries of the world, I realize that in most of them the central goal is only “real democracy”.  I feel that this goal is too short sighted. The aim of most of these struggles is only to get rid of a dictator and to establish a different regime. I have not heard that the protesters also fought against capitalism, the destruction of the ecology and for an alternative economic system.

The Occupy movement in New York did break the taboo not to speak of capitalism. The activists attacked neoliberalism, the big banks and global corporations. But there was, as far as I know, no direct criticism of patriarchal capitalism.  In the TV news on the struggles in Egypt and Turkey I saw that many women participated in the protests, some with and some without a headscarf. For most people in the west the question whether a woman is emancipated or not is a question of whether she covers her head or not. The headscarf has become a political and religious symbol. Except for Turkey I do not have personal contacts to women in the Middle East. Therefore I cannot say what women think about the goals of these struggles, whether there is a debate on the “woman question” in these uprisings; on what the men think about women’s liberation.

I do know that in Turkey feminism is an important issue in the protest movement. Two of my/our books have been published in Turkey: Women, the Last Colony and Patriarchy and Accumulation. Turkish friends told me that they are widely known in Turkey. This shows that the popular uprisings in the world, in spite of the shortcomings of their strategy and their theoretical foundations, may lead to deeper questions like: In what system do we live? Is the western model of life really something worth fighting for? What will be the relationship between men and women in future? Why have wars become so common today?  What role do religions play in these new wars?  What are the alternatives?

ROAR: Finally, I would like to ask your opinion on how ecofeminist theories could enrich the contemporary activist movements?

Mies: I think ecofeminism could play an important role in the contemporary uprisings of the young all over the world, because the struggle to protect nature and liberate women is on the agenda everywhere. The theoretical insights we old ecofeminists gained during our global struggles can teach young people that it is worthwhile to stand up and say NO to the powers who rule the world today. Our theories emerged from the experiences we had during these struggles, we learned them through practice. We could never have written Ecofeminism before we, Vandana from India and I from Germany, had met and discovered that our concerns were the same irrespective of our geographic, cultural and age differences. This was a great and inspiring experience. It showed us that all these differences do not divide us, because we have a common cause. Therefore we founded a movement called: Diverse Women for Diversity (DWD). We emphasized that the protection of diversity between human beings as well as between plants and animals is the only way to preserve life on this planet. Monoculture kills life.

My advice to the young activists from various countries is to organize international meetings where people can meet and share their diverse experiences, difficulties, ideas, theories and thus create an international community around a common cause. We have organized and participated in hundreds of such international ecofeminist, ecological, anti-globalization and peace meetings. In these meetings women and men were present. The “gender problem” did no longer exist. Such international meetings are necessary if we want that people know each other, trust each other and become friends. Without such direct meetings of people a movement will become sterile — digital communication is no substitute for such a living movement. I hope that the re-publication of Ecofeminism will inspire and enrich activists to see that to struggle together for a better world is not only hard work but also a great joy.



[1] See Maria Mies, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Claudia von Werlhof (1988) Women: The Last Colony.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom Brookes May 23, 2014 at 13:37

Some good points and ideas in here – but it strikes me as slightly contradictory to say: ‘feminists reject the biologism of Freud’s ‘anatomy is destiny’…’ and then: ‘having babies is the reason for this domination, it’s seen as natural, not work’ – almost in the same breath.
Is that not more or less the same critique? Both biologically and anatomically based… she’s saying ‘I reject that’ – by accepting its core premise – social contrivances built atop anatomical differences. I get the parallel she’s driving at with the patriarchal ecological domination paradigm; though this ‘naturalistic’ thesis doesn’t seem very original – and she later says that violence is the secret of male domination. Cumulatively this seems a bit confused.
The idea she glosses over – of encouraging domestic work and productive work to be seen as indistinct and gender-neutral – is one of the more progressive feminist ideals I’ve heard of late. It’s something the rise of the house husband and gay parents force into being, though I don’t think she mentions this – or Finland’s remarkable gender-neutralising drive.
Calling Rambo and Call of Duty subliminal military-industrial complex training is simplistic and patronising. She doesn’t seem to consider that, maybe, most men know the difference between fantasy and reality – and indeed if that critique were accurate surely the sales of such games would go down, not up, year on year as droves of brainwashed men joined the army.
And it seems a bit standoffish to call the Arab spring ‘short-sighted’ for focussing on democracy not patriarchy – if dictators aren’t the apotheosis of patriarchy and violence I don’t know what is. Surely it’s farsighted to try and overthrow a dictator and democratise; this is much more likely to lead to gender equality. It strikes me as shortsighted to expect everything from one uprising or protest. And perhaps I’m being churlish, but surely Occupy was around long enough for an ecofeminist or two to join in, or send a critique.

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