Ecofeminism and the subsistence perspective: fostering cooperation, not competition

Ecofeminism sees parallels between the exploitation of nature and the exploitation of women, parallels that are understood in the context of patriarchy. One particularly vigorous ecofeminist analysis stems from the work of Claudia von Werlhof and Maria Mies.

Claudia von Werlhof has considered the standard Left analysis of capitalism, and she finds it inadequate, especially in its failure to address issues of patriarchy. The Left’s position on patriarchy, she says, assumes that it is a “quasi-irrational historical remnant” that will eventually be discarded by capitalism and overcome by ‘progress’. However, for von Werlhof, patriarchy is the foundation or ‘deep structure’ of capitalism and cannot be discarded by it.

She gives the example of science and technology to illustrate this point. Modern capitalist patriarchy knows no technological restrictions and, as the instrument of capital, modern science and technology sets out to ‘substitute’ (ie extinguish) life and death, the creation of life, humanity, women and mothers, the earth, plants and animals, and matter itself. This is a profound expression of the patriarchal urge to dominate and control. Since the Left does not advocate forsaking technological progress, its analysis is deeply compromised.

Thus the Left is unable to present a real alternative to the ecologically and socially destructive system we are living in. So – what is the ecofeminist alternative to capitalism that von Werlhof and her colleagues propose?

Maria Mies presents a vision for an alternative ecological society developed from the ecofeminist critique outlined above. She describes this vision as the ‘subsistence perspective.’ This is not to be confused with the usual understanding of a subsistence economy – it is not an economic model; rather, it is a new way of looking at the economy. It is a called a subsistence perspective because it focuses on the creation, recreation and support of life and the living, and it has no other purpose than this. It is life that stands at the centre of this vision, rather than money, economic growth or profit, and as such it requires the rejection of capitalist industrial society.

Even in the 1960s, Mies says, the working class in the cities of the western world engaged in many subsistence activities: growing vegetables, preserving fruit, sewing clothes, repairing household items. In the rural economy, small farms produced the majority of foodstuffs and supplied the urban population. Overall, there was considerable reciprocity, communality and mutual assistance, collective work and collective enjoyment. While city life and the rural economy is much changed, many of the elements of a subsistence perspective are not beyond living memory.

The subsistence perspective also addresses the deep sense of alienation caused by paid work, which cannot be overcome even by large amounts of money. The purpose of the economy is, supposedly, to make the ‘good life’ available to us – this idea goes all the way back to Aristotle; yet we work, we work and the good life never arrives. The subsistence perspective is all about making the good life a reality. This emphasises that the goal of subsistence is not a return to the misery of a medieval existence, as we might otherwise imagine by the use of the word ‘subsistence’. It is about creating a lifeworld outside of paid employment.

In a conference address given in 2005, Maria Mies outlined some of the principles of a society based on the subsistence perspective, as follows:

1. The economy must be re-embedded again in to society: Mies argues that we must recognise that the economy is just one of the human activities helping to bring about a good life for all – for humans and nature everywhere.

2. The concept of a good life must be redefined: A new concept of the good life cannot be based on the existing production and consumption system. It cannot mean the continual abundance of cheap commodities from all over the world in our supermarkets. Instead we must ask ‘What do people really need? And what is possible for all on a limited planet?

3. All dominant social relations will have to change: New non-hierarchical relations must be created between intellectual and manual labour and between producers and consumers. All exploitative, dominating colonial relations must be transformed into reciprocal, respectful, mutual ones.

4. A new society must eliminate all patriarchal, violent and militaristic relations: Mies sees this goal being achieved only through a total revolution of capitalist society, necessary in order to liberate women and men from patriarchal structures and violent ideologies. For example, she argues, we need to redefine the concept of ‘work’ so that all work, including the work of housewives, subsistence peasants and artisans, is considered valuable. The concepts of ‘productive work’ and ‘productivity’ will have to be liberated so that they promote the good life for all.

5. A life-centred subsistence economy and society can only permit technology that serves life: Technology is not value free. For example, the fast obsolescence of goods to maximise sales of new goods, which triggers the continuous production of scarcity, means that waste is built into economic growth. A life-oriented subsistence society and economy would produce a different philosophy of science as well as a different, nonexploitative, antigrowth-oriented, nondominating, nondestructive technology. Technology also shapes human relations and human communication. Modern computer technology atomises the workforce on a global level, creating worldwide competition among workers, to lower labour costs. In a subsistence society, workers would be encouraged to combine their efforts through communal ownership of the means of production. Subsistence production shifts away from organising and ordering life based on competition; instead it fosters cooperation to achieve rich, fulfilled lives for all.


Claudia von Werlhof (2007) No critique of capitalism without a critique of patriarchy! Why the Left is no alternative. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 18(1), 13-27.

Maria Mies (2006) CNS conference keynote address: “War is the father of all things” (Heraclitus) “but nature is the mother of life” (Claudia von Werlhof). Capitalism Nature Socialism, 17(1), 18-31.

O. Ressler (2005) Maria Mies: The subsistence perspective [film transcript].



Filed under capitalism, David, green politics

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