A cow for Hillary: Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt_Thomsen’s “The Subsistence Perspective”

Published online 20 January 2007.

This is a short reading of Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen’s The Subsistence Perspective in light of the worsening news about global warming.  This book roots political ecology in the simple truth that “life comes from women and food comes from the land” (80).

Frightening intro:

Well, the IPCC report is due to come out any day now, as the early drafts circulating pretty much say we’re doomed if we continue on our current consumption path.  Read carefully the portion of the article where it says “4 to 8 degrees.”  Now remember that Mark Lynas was telling us all on his blog that if the Earth heated up six of those degrees, then we would all be toast.  (That’s what “runaway global warming” means: we’re toast.)  Lynas should have a new book out in about six weeks that will explain his position fully.  But when you read “4 to 8 degrees,” you should consider that the average of those numbers, 6 degrees, would be a catastrophe, and we’re talking 35 years at the most.

At any rate, this diary isn’t just me holding up a sandwich board proclaiming that the end is near.  Because it isn’t.  There is still plenty of time for the so-called “First World” to fold up its high-intensity consumer society (along with its death-dealing capitalist pretext) and adopt what Saral Sarkar calls “ecosocialism,” which is to say, a global, ecologically sustainable, society.  You all want to avoid DIEOFF, right?  Sarkar, by the way, is the husband of professor emeritus Maria Mies, one of the co-authors of an important book about the economy of the future: The Subsistence Perspective.

(Oh yeah – there’s a great picture of Mies here)…

The book:

The Subsistence Perspective begins with a cute anecdote.  In April of 1995 Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, was visiting Bangladesh to “observe the success” of the Grameen Bank.  Some women from a village in Bangladesh were talking with her:

‘Apa [elder sister], do you have cows?’

‘No, I have no cows.’

‘Apa, do you have your own income?’

‘Well, formerly I used to have my own income.  But since my husband became President and moved to the White House I have stopped earning my own money.’

‘How many children do you have?’

‘One daughter.’

‘Would you like to have more children?’

‘Yes.  I would like to have one or two more children, but we are quite happy with our daughter Chelsea.’

The women from Maishahati looked at each other and murmured.  ‘Poor Hillary!  She has no cow, no income of her own, she has only one daughter.’  In the eyes of the Maishahati women Hillary Clinton was not empowered.  They felt sorry for her. (1-2)

Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen’s point, here, is that these village women in Bangladesh are not eager to rush out to beg Americans for some small taste of the American way of life.  “They do not need a supermarkete full of imported commodities,” the authors report.  The women are not naïve, we are told: they know that Hillary Clinton “comes from a ‘rich’ country, and that she must have heaps of money.” (2)  These women, say the authors, have adopted the subsistence perspective, according to which “what is important is what secures an independent subsistence.” (3)

Now, most of this book, The Subsistence Perspective, outlines an alternative vision of economy, one in which work that maintains life is valued over and above work that maintains one’s standing in the money economy.  The authors complain, for instance, that the money economy devalues “women’s work” through a process they call “housewifization” (in which women are made the guardians of this work).  Some of this discussion is also covered by writers such as John McMurtry (see, for instance, “Unequal Freedoms: The Global Market as an Ethical System.”)  But, basically, their point is that not everyone who lives “the periphery” wants to join the high-consumption lifestyles of “the core.”  As the authors argue:

The concept ‘subsistence’ is usually associated with poverty and backwardness.  In this book, however, we want to show that subsistence not only means hard labour and living at the margins of existence but also joy in life, happiness and abundance.  Such an understanding of subsistence requires that people, particularly women, stop devaluing their own – their own work, their own culture, their own power – and stop expecting the good life to be handed down to them by those ‘on top’.  This devaluation of one’s own is, of course, a consequence of forced colonization and degradation.  But it has been internalized by all colonized people, including women.  This devaluation is further maintained by the delusion of what we call ‘catch-up development’ and ‘catch-up consumerism’.  It is upheld by the promise that eventually all the colonized people at the bottom of the social pyramid will reach the level of those on the top.  In this book we want to show that more and more people are rejecting this model of a ‘catching-up’ economy – not only the women of Maishahati. (5)

Interludes throughout the book illustrate the stories of a number of people throughout the world who have adopted the “subsistence perspective”: the women of Kenya resisting the IMF (214-216), potato growers in urban Cologne (222), the “New Agricultural Movement” in Bangladesh (223-226), female taro growers in Belau (in Micronesia) (207-208), students in Papua New Guinea (145-149),

Here it is argued that the “poor” of the world do not really need a handout from the rich, but rather that

various kinds of oppressors get off their backs: patriarchal men in their own country, transnational corporations (TNCs), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with their structural adjustment programmes, national bureaucracies who follow the orders of the guardians of international capital.  Empowerment can only be found in ourselves and in our cooperation with nature within us and around us. (5)

The authors come at this “subsistence perspective” with a viewpoint we would recognize as feminist, post-colonial, and mutualist. Their argument is specifically pro-rural, and anti-urban (one subheading is titled “The city – a parasite” (125).  They are not strictly anti-market; one subheading titled “Market and subsistence are not necessarily contradictory” argues that “so far, there has been little analysis of exchange relations in modern societies which, though producing commodities, escape cost-benefit calculation or the M-C-M’ schema of the passage of capital from money through commodities to a greater sum of money” (111).  The sort of exchanges they have in mind is, more or less, exchanges of the type commonly pursued in pre-capitalist societies; barter, gift, “invented” types of money like coupons, and so on.

The authors are not primitivists, as the emphasis upon feminism and post-colonialism would indicate.  They do, however, seek to “take agriculture and the peasant economy on board” (81).  Principally, they seek to re-open a “commons” for the sake of a sustainable society, and to use technology in support of that, rather than regarding technology as a support for capital accumulation.

The situation:

So here is the situation: look, if nothing changes, we’re likely to heat up the planet six degrees in the next thirty-five years.  Kiss your grandkids goodbye.  If the entirety of the so-called “third world” has been converted to the “more is better” philosophy, and that the only alternative to their current, exploited, conditions is the American Way of Life, then nothing will change.  “Voluntary simplicity” will do us no good if it does not also encourage the rest of the world to abandon the “growth” juggernaut.

What Mies’ and Bennholdt-Thomsen’s book does, uniquely, is it roots the idea of a global, ecologically sustainable society in a set of practices that are tied directly to natural processes.  It doesn’t stop with the demand that more such practices happen, as Teresa Brennan did with Globalization and its Terrors.  It doesn’t merely chronicle; it advocates.  And it addresses issues of gender and of patriarchy as forming alongside the development of capitalist discipline.

So here are the big questions:

How do we promote freedom in the context of global capitalism?  Is freedom the consumer privilege of those with money, or is freedom a cow for Hillary?  If freedom is a consumer privilege, then how do we explain the debt traps that litter our planet?  Is there anything left of anti-materialism in today’s youth, or are they all just addicted to “stuff” (and their lives are stuck in the debt trap they’ve made to pay for this “stuff” anyway)?  Can you envision a life of “subsistence” that would be a life of joy and not one of “poverty”?  How can we best promote and support those who have “gotten it”?

I am sure that each reader of this diary has a different answer to each of these questions.

Importantly, how do we get ahold of government so that it does not have to be any longer the purveyor of more consumption ’round the world?


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