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Kaarina Kailo, Oulu University


Social Movements, the Gift Paradigm and Deep Alternatives to Capitalist Patriarchy

To be published in: Towards sustainable city and environment -- global challenges and local responses in Africa and Asia. 55 Years after 1955 Bandung Asian-African Conference. Book Project / Special Issue of a Journal. Editors: Darwis Khudori and Yukio Kamino.

As stated by Darwis Khudori and Yukio Kamino in the Terms of Reference for their environment seminar held in October 2010 “over 99% of human generations survived with a holistic-and-balanced Paradigm of gatherer-hunters, who did not radically separate the 1) material vs. spiritual, 2) present vs. future, 3) human vs. non-human, 4) male vs. female, etc. Yet, the last millennia saw the rise of a dualistic Paradigm in which the Material, Present, Human, Male, etc., have been made in opposition to, and placed above, their counterparts.”  Ecofeminists and Indigenous scholars would not only agree with this analysis, but concur that these sum up their core beliefs. Indeed, the current Western way of dualistic and hierarchical thinking and the concomitant ordering of reality is far from universal or timeless—societies have existed and thrive even today that honor life, peace and balanced relations between all living beings rather than practising and naturalizing violence, domination and power-over structures.

It is high time to rethink the world’s dominant one-track economistic values and political beliefs, and to transform them to re-recognize the archaic and modern gift economies and their mode of responsible ecological and social sustainability. The West has everything to learn from non-western cultures and women’s ethics of care in this regard. It is no longer a matter of gender- and ethnosensitive justice but a matter of survival for the human and other species. In this text, I wish to clarify and deepen what our movement means by “deep alternatives” in the context of the crises of Western civilization—a crises that is expanding from the South now to the North as capital investors seek to extend their tentacles ever deeper into all forms of human activity.

Feminists for a Gift Economy

I have belonged to the international network, Feminists for a Gift Economy, for over ten years, and find it to be an exemplary ecological and social movement of transformation and paradigm shift. It is aimed at articulating or making visible already existing solutions to the planet’s crises of ecology, food shortage, financial power games and other politics of domination and non-sustainability. I find it necessary, at the same time to underline an important fact: as appropriation of women’s insights, wisdom and culture are the core of patriarchy, credit must be always given where due—in this case to the ecofeminists of the deep alternative or gift perspective whose theories and practices must not be incorporated as so much white or androcentric “green theory”.

Although the end result—the transformation of the global village towards a more just and eco-friendly way of life is what counts--the politics of appropriating women’s culture, theory and knowledge must also end. The ends cannot justify the means. Diversity, justice and respect do not thrive under ego-oriented politics of appropriation, of any sort. Robbery, greed and privatization are all connected. Privatization is today’s key concept and the core threat to sustainability. It is worth remembering its etymology (Lat. privare= to rob, to deprive someone of something). Neoliberal patriarchal capitalism can be summed up as the following nefarious undertaking: to ensure continued profits by a) creating false needs to stimulate consumption, b) depriving people of their basic needs for water, food, land and housing to enforce dependency, submission and humility before the “invisible hand of the market”. The current glorification of “freedom of choice” is all the more pathological as the world-wide-wedge between the have’s and have-nots has only deepened as a result of the market god.

The insights I quote at the beginning of this piece have been a central, if much-maligned core of ecofeminist theories since the eighties and the current theories on masculation (Vaughan l997), theories of the gift and of matriarchal cultures  (eg. Göttner-Abendroth 2003, Werlhof 2000, 2004, 2007, 2011, Kailo 2008). Indeed, the movement to which I belong would agree with Kamino and Khudori that “Globalization emerged from the materialistic, tempo-centric and anthropocentric aspects of the modern Western Paradigm, which it is therefore essential to counter.“

Crises of Western patriarchal capitalism

The dismantling of Nordic welfare states is the latest victory in capitalist patriarchy’s strivings to dispossess also Northern women of the tax-funded public services that they need more than men (to be employed in decent waged labour, and to be able to combine family and work). The push towards the paradoxical socialization of private risk-taking and the simultaneous privatization of profits have resulted in an unprecedented redistribution of the world’s resources, led by the financial elite of speculators. By limiting free access to health services, knowledge and education, by fencing the “Commons” and creating new forms of scarcity, neoliberalism creates demand and markets for elite profiteering. The world’s free-flowing and predatory capital is looking endlessly and greedily for new investment opportunities and profit-making deals. The idea that land, nature, animals and vulnerable populations are there to be taken, appropriated and colonized for financial gain results from the dominant utilitarian ethic of domination that is philosophically a far cry from the cultures honouring modes of interconnectedness, mutual dependency and the gift logic that seeks to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. Although our network combines numerous diverse perspectives, insights and contributions to the “deep alternative”, I focus on Claudia von Werlhof’s recent writings, as I feel she well captures both what blocks and what heals the ecosocially sustainable future. A member of our movement and initiatior also of the Planetary movement for mother earth, she has stressed that one must theorize and analyze patriarchy AND capitalism together: failing to perceive their interconnections has resulted in the inability of mainstream and even feminist scholars to identify the core of the western crises (2004, 2011). After all, she points out, the two not only share a time of being together on this earth for 500 years now, but are deeply related to each other as modes of masculated competition, ego-centeredness, individuality and a short-sighted emphasis on “progress” and “development” (see also Bennholdt-Thomsen, von Werlhof & Faraclas 2001).

Patriarchy, like capitalism, is rooted in mastery over nature, over women and life-oriented worldviews, and has through gradual historical mind colonization and the manufacture of consent (Chomsky 1999) also developed a dominant form of consciousness, “the master imaginary” (Kailo 2008). Of course, the advocates of this world view and order conceal their agenda as “progress”,  “a better future” or in the case of the Church “rewards in the after-life”. Citizens are manipulated to be flexible, patient and to submit to endless down-sizing projects, cost-saving deals and weaker worker rights in the name of “a better future”, an improved competitiveness or other abstract goals that have not turned out to benefit the middle and lower classes. The bank and loan crises of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and soon the US epitomize the contradictions of securing the banking sectors’ “competitiveness” by sucking European taxpayers. These sacrifices merely serve to make the rich richer and more competitive, at the expense of those gullible enough to tighten their belts for the global elite. The plan for a permanent mechanism of financial stability at the EU following the debt crises is nothing less than a massive private project of seizing tax-payer money by the European banks and the IMF.

Recent studies of matriarchal societies or “societies of peace” by our network (eg. Göttner-Abendroth 2003, 2007; Vaughan, ed. 2004, 2007) suggest mainly four things: patriarchal society as we know it, did not exist “as such” and independently from, or even before, matriarchal society. It began to develop after the armed invasion, violent conquest, and systematic destruction of matriarchal societies by armed hordes that had lost their own originally matriarchal culture after having been exposed to “catastrophic migration” (forced migration due to climatic changes and other catastrophes) (von Werlhof 2011). As Gimbutas (l994) has outlined, this process is reported from the fifth millennium B.C. onwards—concerning the “Kurgan” people and the other Indo-European migrations in general. As Werlhof sums it:  “The development of patriarchal society is 2related to the invention of something that from then on has been called ‘war,’ and since then this world order has been dependent on the ongoing existence of war(s) even in so-called ‘peace times.’” For Werlhof, the logic of patriarchy is that of war and subjugation, which means that all the social institutions from socialism to capitalism invented by patriarchy are principally drawn from and modeled on war experiences (2004). War is nothing less than an economy based on the plunder of other peoples’ property, and on an always more systematic exploitation of those colonized or without real say in their lives.

One example. The reason for the disrespectful and abusive treatment of elderly women in western societies results from the patriarchal politics of appropriation and reversal—all of the values, beings, people(s) and practices associated with life-oriented cultures have been incorporated and systematically turned to their opposite. The manifestations of the matriarchal sacred have been recoded and labeled as agents of “pollution” (Douglas 1966), whence the stereotype of the “evil mother-in-law” or “the old witch”. Clan mothers in matriarchal society had (and in many cultures like the Iroquois still have) control over the means of production, were the producers and distributors, the providers of concrete wealth and healing, life, food, and security. They were responsible for the integration of everyone into the community (Mann 2000). The initiator of our network, Genevieve Vaughan, argues that furthermore, patriarchy invented “masculation” as a mode of psychology and language that naturalized two gendered but not biologically determined logics, that of masculated, competitive, ego-oriented exchange and of the more woman-oriented if not female exclusive gift giving, aimed primarily at fulfilling needs and establishing bonds with the other (Vaughan 1997).

Exchange as both a patriarchal and a capitalistic form of logic and rationality, values masculated realms of action, being, ways of living while looking upon women and nature as the other. The masculated order of society has involved a break with the matriarchal or gift giving social rules, traditions, and ways of living, which had existed from time immemorial.  This “masculation” or assimilation to the master imaginary and its competitive values is more typical of western white boys’ socialization (the norm of the ‘homo economicus’), but has gradually been extended to all humans in most non-western cultures. Still, Indigenous, non-western and female culture offer even today the strongest opposition to this logic and way of carrying on commerce or living. This form of “rationality” is a central instrument of the assimilatory, mind colonizing practices characterizing corporate, neoliberal patriarchy.

Today we face the maldevelopment (Shiva in Mies & Shiva l990) of eco- and other crises which are the direct result of the “new colonization of the world” (Mies 2004, qtd. in Werlhof 2011), one that has been undemocratically pushed by governments since the l980s adoption of neoliberal restructuring. This policy consists in a “continuing process of primitive accumulation” (Werlhof 2004, 2011) that leads to a forced economic growth through the direct expropriation of the peoples of the globe and the globe itself. In For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange, Genevieve Vaughan states: “In order to reject patriarchal thinking we must be able to distinguish between it and something else: an alternative” (1997: 23). We have, indeed, sought to make visible the many cultures and wo/men who still identify with giving as a means of community creation, collective survival and needs-satisfaction rather than ego-centric exchange and hierarchical structures of domination (Vaughan 1997, 2000, 2007, Göttner-Abendroth 2008;

Motherless creation

We can fortunately find vestiges of former matriarchal or gift circulating societies as a more hidden or unrecognized “second culture” left over or newly re-organized after patriarchal-capitalist appropriation of its worldview. This logic of other-orientation, solidarity, interdependency and communal responsibility can be observed everywhere. It contradicts, complements and gets used by the patriarchal order, but also helps it to exist, because a society without any matriarchal relations could simply not survive. However, currently patriarchy is seeking to complete the long process of negating matriarchy and societies of peace in order to replace them with itself, a “pure” patriarchy, a pathological, destructive fiction and motherless utopia which is dragging all of us to the brink of extinction. For von Werlhof capitalism is the tool for the linear process of history in which women, nature, and life in general will finally be successfully replaced by the artificial products of capitalism and industry: gifts by exchange; subsistence goods by commodities; local markets by a world market; foreign cultures by western culture; concrete wealth—gifts by money, machinery, and capital—the new abstract wealth; living labour by machines; the brain/rational thinking by “artificial intelligence”; women by sex-machines and “cyber-sex”; real mothers and/or their wombs by “mother-machines”; life energy by nuclear energy, chemistry, and bio-industry; and life in general by “artificial life” like genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The only problem that remains today consists in how to “replace” the elements and the globe itself and von Werlhof calls this race to the bottom “west end”, the end point of a long process of patriarchal “alchemy” to usurp nature and reproductive labor and turn it into technological innovation (2004).  

The telling symptoms of motherless creation from destruction are cloning, the very idea of reproductive technology, Franken-science with the short-sighted, commercially motivated gene manipulations and the unthinkable invention of such “male babies” as the atom bomb and terminator seeds (Corea 1980). The overwriting and appropriation of gift economies as forced gift provisioning to serve the wealthy is one of the main reasons for the depth of the crisis of in contemporary civilization. Since  the norm of the human being as motherlike (Sumatra’s minangkabau), as caring, maternal humanity is replaced by the harsh, me-first values and ways of “homo economicus”, those positioned as subaltern must assume more and more of the care and gift labor that capitalist patriarchy both idealizes and abuses to its ends. While the gift logic’s value is being eroded as “second class activity”, the morality of the species is being destroyed in the name of unsustainable greed, short-sightedness and self-interest. Asian, Indian, African and other non-western cultures are under attack for their traces or full-blown gift economy values. Thus the matriarchal Mosuo of China are targets of predatory tourist colonialism; when the gift logic is turned into exchange, capitalist patriarchy can step in and destroy the vestiges of woman and nature-friendly ways of life.  

The deep ecofeminist alternative

In contrast, the deep ecofeminist alternative emerges from the ashes of the kind of capitalistic patriarchy that hails “creative destruction” as the motor of the creed of eternal growth, supposedly the mark of progress. This thinking, a masculated fantasy now shared by increasing numbers of western and non-western men and women needs to be replaced by indigenous cosmovisions and “rematriation.” This indigenous concept opposes the Western repatriation with “rematriation” as the “reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, mother Earth” (Muthien 2011). Indeed, we need to return our collective consciousness to the values and worldview of radically ecosocially sustainable interconnectedness, the good circle and mode of life that appreciates traditional ecological knowledge, oral stories, herbal medicine and grassroots healing, the natural rhythms of nature, local food production, ceremonial life, the arts, and rituals aimed at consolidating mutuality and eco-friendly living.  

Language is not just a vehicle for communication but partakes itself of the ways in which we perceive each other and nature. The deep alternative we need is thus linguistic, discursive, political, and psychological and we can chart the path towards the gift-based affinities across gender, species and culture only by combining all these strategies of transformation.

What is needed in the view of our network is nothing less than a “re-version of a perverted parasitic society and (wo)mankind” (Werlhof 2004) and a radical re-valorization of the sustainable gift economy as a logic and mode of living. Ecofeminists have been critical of the very notion of “cyborgs” (Haraway 1991), whereby the human-animal connection has been replaced by the human-machine representation, as if it really could liberate women from the nature that liberal feminists shy away from (Kailo 2005, 2007). The patriarchal “mother-father” as a “cyborg,” which is the alchemical materialization of a metaphysical fiction has to be replaced by human norms that bring us back, rather than even further, to the body, the spiritual, the earthly. Werlhof outlines the following preconditions for the deep alternative: “de-constructing patriarchal institutions, policies, economies, technologies, and ideologies; making visible matriarchy as the second culture and the gift paradigm, and recognizing their importance in everyday life; giving up the metaphysical Gnostic worldview, including the belief in patriarchal religions and the patriarchal philosophy of idealism-materialism; re-gaining a matriarchal spirituality that leads again to a recognition of the interconnectedness of all life; not defining technology/progress any longer as having to produce a substitute for life, women, and nature in general; not defining economy any longer as having to produce a “value” and a profit; recognizing that the paradise which is supposed to be invented, is already here” (2004). Werlhof sums up what most ecofeminists concur on: “It is the earth as the only planet in the known universe that is full of life and the only one on which human beings can survive … liberating ourselves from the idea that “material” [physical] life on earth is unimportant, sinful, humble, and something that has to be overcome; liberating ourselves from the delusion and the hubris that there can ever be a substitute for life and nature on earth…learning instead to live in commonality and organizing around egalitarian principles; taking seriously what we are doing in and to the world, and accepting our responsibility for the maintenance of life on the planet; learning to rehabilitate and love life, including our own, and the life of the earth; seeking creative ways for the maintenance and culture of life on the earth; acting in favour of and not in contradiction to them…learning that women can teach us a lot; giving up belief in patriarchy and joining with others in order to stop it; listening instead to the joyful song of mother earth” (Werlhof 2004).

This brief outline of the visions of one social movement cannot do justice to the individual richness of vision and the practical ways in which many of us already practice the gift. Still, I hope to have captured the essence of our shared beliefs across the divides of culture, continent, class, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Unassimilated women of the South –those with the most expertise of survival under patriarchal capitalism and colonial conditions – are in my view the best spokespersons for the Gift Paradigm as a deep alternative. It is something we cannot afford not to heed—if we do not wish to have patriarchy have its cake and eat it too—complete the centuries of matricide and self-destruction that can only lead to another realm patriarchy loves—death, annihilation, the planetary-end.


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