visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Women and Work in a Sustainable Society
Mies, page 1 - 2 - 3 - 4

by Maria Mies

At the time of the 1995 consultation, Maria Mies was Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Cologne, Germany. Section headings:

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1. Introduction

dot.gif (101 bytes) 6. Megatechnology, Commodification of Life and the End of Ethics
dot.gif (101 bytes) 2. "Add 'gender' and stir?" dot.gif (101 bytes) 7. The Need for an Alternative Perspective
dot.gif (101 bytes) 3. Colonizing women, nature and foreign peoples - the secret of permanent growth or accumulation dot.gif (101 bytes) 8. New Priorities
dot.gif (101 bytes) 4. Women's Work in the Global Economy dot.gif (101 bytes)

9. References

dot.gif (101 bytes) 5. Employment or Work?


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1. Introduction

When I received the invitation of the Visser ‘t Hooft Foundation to present a background document to the theme of the consultation "Work in a Sustainable Society" from a "gender-specific" perspective, I was initially a bit hesitant. Because both terms: "sustainability" and "gender" are used these days in an inflationary manner which rather confuses than clarifies our understanding of reality. But when I received the booklet "Sustainable Growth - A Contradiction in Terms" I felt that it was worthwhile to contribute to this debate on the present contradiction between "economic growth and an environmentally sustainable society".

Because when I read "Our Common Future" (1987) of the Brundtland Commission it became clear to me, that in spite of the correct analysis of the causes and manifestations of environmental destruction, namely permanent economic growth, the authors had no intention to really criticize and abandon the basic philosophy behind this growth model. They do not propose a new framework for a concept of economic, social and ecological sustainability. The definition of "Sustainable Development" as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations" therefore hangs in midair, as Hilkka Pietilš put it (Pietilš, 1990). It is indeed a contradiction in terms.

As a solution to the global problems the Brundtland Commission proposes more global economic growth:

"If large parts of the developing world are to avert economic, social and environmental catastrophes, it is essential that global economic growth be revitalized ... this means more rapid economic growth in both industrial and developing countries, free market access for the products of developing countries, lower interest rates, greater technology transfer and significantly larger capital flows, both concessional and commercial (Brundtland Commission 1989).

This insistence on further, more rapid, economic growth, both in the industrial and the poor countries, is evidence of the fact that the authors are obviously not ready to see the connection between growth on one side and impoverishment on the other, between progress and regression, between over development and under development. They are still wedded to the linear, evolutionist philosophy of unlimited resources, unlimited progress, an unlimited earth and to an economic: paradigm of "catching-up development". This means the rich industrial nations of the North (North America, Europe, Japan) remain the image of the future for the poor countries of the South. "Global Economic Growth" is seen as the engine that will bring them up to the same standard of living, the same consumption patters which prevail in the North.

The latest publication of the Club of Rome ("The First Global Revolution", 1991) is even more explicit in describing the global ills of our planet and time. The authors openly admit that the affluent societies of the industrialized North are consuming the bulk of the world's resources, particularly of energy. Whereas before the Industrial Revolution the per capita consumption was more or less the same in the North and the South, the per capita consumption of energy and resources in the North is now 40 times that of the South (Club of Rome, 1991: 32-33). It is also well known that these societies produce about 80 per cent of the CO2 emissions and an increasing amount of waste, including toxic waste. Here, too, the growth mania shows its effect.

The Club of Rome points out that the concept of "sustainable development" is incompatible with the rate of growth in the industrialized countries, suggested by the Commission. in other words, the authors seem to be quite aware of the fact that the stimulation of permanent economic growth cannot be reconciled with a concern for conservation of scarce resources and a sustainable ecology and society. They are also aware of the fact, that the present level of consumption, prevailing in the affluent countries of the North, cannot be generalized. They ask: "Is the present level of material wealth in the rich industrialized countries compatible with a sustainable global development, or, put differently, has a world economy which derives its dynamic from the stimulation of consumers’ demand still a future?" They even admit that, sooner or later, governments will have to address the question of consumption: "We believe that consumption cannot survive in the present form - not only with respect to objective reasons, but even more so with respect to human values".

But does this all amount to a radical critique of the basic philosophy of the market economy and its dogma of growth? One paragraph further we read:

"Here it should be emphasized that we are not in favor of zero-growth. According to our conviction it is indispensable to promote economic growth in the South while the industrialized North on its road to the post-industrial society rather needs qualitative growth" (Club of Rome, 1991:35).

This means, growth, permanent economic growth must be, quantitative growth of material commodities in the South and of qualitative non-material commodities in the North. As the northern markets for durable consumer goods are largely saturated, new markets have to be created for non-material goods, like services, culture, therapies, religion, tourism etc. The North wants both, the material cake and the spiritual (cultural) icing on top of it (Sacker 1987). The South needs the material cake first. Does this not amount to the same philosophy of "catching up development"? Or can we interpret this document as a first step towards a new "moral economy"? The ambivalence of the Club of Rome with regard to the basic philosophy of the market economy, of capitalism, comes out most clearly in the last chapter about a New Strategy. There is, indeed, not much new in it, only a stronger demand of a basic change of values which orient our societies. The authors do admit that egotism, aggressiveness and competition are the basic values that drive on the market system and that these values are responsible for injustice and ecological destruction. They deplore that the old religions, which so far, were able to mitigate and control these destructive tendencies to some extent have lost their attractiveness They even make a case for a reintroduction of ethical values - like solidarity - into politics and economics and even see the necessity of a reduction of consumerism in the rich countries. But this appeal to more ethics, more responsibility, different values does not mean that they question the basic philosophy of competitive, egotistic capitalism.

2. "Add 'gender' and stir?"

There seems to be consensus among us regarding the incompatibility of true sustainability and further economic growth. Many people do not even see or admit that there is a contradiction between the two.

I am not so sure, however, whether all those who wrote the document on "Sustainable Growth" will agree with my further analysis. I wonder, for instance, whether the concept of a "sustainable society" does really go beyond the basic philosophy of the dominant, growth oriented industrial system. Nowadays, even TRANSNATIONAL corporations like Hoechst or AEG use the concept of "sustainability" in full-page advertisements in national dailies like Frankfurter Rundschau and try to convince people that they are the ones who guarantee both employment and a healthy planet for "our children".

This co-optation of the language of protest or resistance by those against whom it was/is directed is even more pronounced in the case of the term "gender" Originally coined by feminists to eliminate once and for all the notion that biology and not history and culture is the root-cause of oppressive man-woman relations, the term gender is now being used world-wide to make real, live women and their concrete situations again invisible. The "gender discourse" has removed the discussion on problems of women within a patriarchal and capitalist society onto a totally abstract and hence politically meaningless and irrelevant level. No one who is interested in the continuation of the status quo need to be afraid of this talk of "gender".

Particularly since "gender' is usually simply added on to whatever issue is being discussed, whatever policy is being planned. It seems that people think that any analysis and strategy is all right as it is, but that there is still a kind of blind spot or gap which has to be filled by "gender" ("Doing gender" - of course means in reality to talk of women and their relations in our patriarchal society.) Some feminists have characterized this method of just adding the "gender aspect" or as I heard it once - the "women's component" as "adding ‘gender’ and stir". This approach is typical for a mechanistic, atomistic, linear, reductionist theory of society. it is also typical for the dominant paradigm of science.

But we feminists - at least those with whom I have worked for the last 15 years - have right from the beginning emphasized that the "woman question" cannot simply be added on to any other liberal or positivist or Marxist theory of society, but that, if taken to its logical conclusions, will revolutionize all existing paradigms and relations, particularly those of capitalist and socialist industrial patriarchy. As I still stick to this position I want to make clear that "adding gender and stirring" will not do for my analysis of the relationship between work and sustainability. If we take both concepts seriously - namely the concept of ecological, social and economic sustainability and that of non-exploitative, non-oppressive relations between women and men - then these concepts cannot simply be added on to the analysis of an overall exploitative, unjust destructive global system. They have rather to be put into the centre of our analysis and politics. But in order to be able to do this we need a different framework, a different view of our economy and society. In the following I shall first give a brief summary of this theoretical framework.

3. Colonizing women, nature and foreign peoples - the secret of permanent growth or accumulation

It is usually assumed that "progress" is a linear, evolutionary process starting from a "primitive", "backward" stage and, driven by the development of science and technology, or in Marxist terms: of "productive forces", to move up and up in unlimited progression. In this Promethean project, however, the limits of this globe, of time, of space, of our human existence are not respected. Therefore, within a limited world aims like "unlimited growth" can be realized only at the expense of others. Or: there cannot be progress of one part without regression of another part, there cannot be development of some without underdeveloping others. There cannot be wealth of some without impoverishing others. Concepts like "unlimited growth" or capital accumulation, therefore, necessarily imply that this growth (progress, development, wealth) is at the expense of some "Others", given the limits of our world. This means "progress", "development" can no longer be conceived as an evolutionary, upward, linear movement but as a polarizing process, following a dualistic worldview (Plum wood 1994).

Rose Luxemburg has shown that capital accumulation presupposes the exploitation of ever more "non-capitalist' milieus and areas for the appropriation of more labour, more raw-materials and more markets (Luxembourg 1923). I call these milieus and areas colonies. Colonies were not only necessary to initiate the process of capital accumulation in what has been called the period of "primitive accumulation" in the beginning of capitalism. They continue to be necessary even today to keep the growth mechanism going. Therefore we talk of the need for "ongoing primitive accumulation and colonization" (Mies, v. Werlhof, Bennholdt-Thomsen 1988).

There is no colonization without violence. Whereas the relationship between the capitalist and the wage laborer is legally one of owners (the one of capital, the other of labour power) who enter a contract of exchange of equivalents, the relationship between colonizers and colonies is never based on a contract or an exchange of equivalents. It is enforced and stabilized by direct and structural violence. Hence, violence is still necessary to uphold a system of dominance oriented towards capital accumulation.

This violence is not gender-neutral; it is basically directed against women. It is usually assumed that with modernization, industrialization and urbanization, patriarchy as a system of male dominance would disappear and make way to equality between the sexes. Contrary to this assumption, it is my thesis that patriarchy not only did not disappear in this process, which is identical with the spreading of the modern capitalist world economy, but the ever expanding process of growth or capital accumulation is based on the maintenance or even recreation of patriarchal or sexist man-woman relations, an asymmetric sexual division of labour within and outside the family, the definition of all women as dependent "housewives" and of all men as "breadwinners". This sexual division of labour is integrated with an international division of labour in which women are manipulated both as "producer-housewives" and as "consumer- housewives".

With the global world system getting more and more into a crisis we can observe an increase of violence particularly against women, not only in the "Third" but also in the "First World", which is supposed to represent "Civil Society". As this violence is part and parcel of a political-economic system based on colonization and limitless growth it cannot be overcome by a strategy aiming only at "gender equality". Within a colonial context "equality" means catching up with the colonial masters, not doing away with colonialism. This is the reason why feminists cannot be satisfied with an "equal opportunities" policy but must strive to overcome all relationships of exploitation, oppression and colonization, necessary for the maintenance of global capitalist patriarchy (Plum wood 1993).

When in the late seventies we began to ask for the root causes for the ongoing oppression and exploitation of women, for the ongoing violence against women even in the rich, democratic, industrialized societies of the North we not only rediscovered that patriarchy continued to exist as a social system but also that it is intrinsically linked to the capitalist system with its aim of ongoing growth of goods, services and capital or, in Marxist terms, of extended accumulation. We realized that the secret of such ongoing economic growth was not, as is usually assumed, the intelligence of scientists and engineers who invent ever more labour-saving machines and thus make labour ever more "productive", and by the same mechanism ever more redundant. Permanent growth or accumulation could also not be fully explained, as Marx had done, by the fact, that the capitalists pay back to the workers only a share of the value they have produced by their work, namely only that share which is necessary to reproduce their labour power.

We discovered that women's work to reproduce that labour power did not appear in the calculations either of the capitalists or of the state, or in Marx's theory. For all of them the grown up - usually male worker - appears in front of the factory or the office to sell "his" labour power for a wage. This labour power, however, he has not produced himself alone, but usually his mother or wife.

On the contrary, in all economic theories and models this life-producing and life- preserving work of women appears as a "free good" or a free resource, like air, water, sunshine. it appears to flow "naturally" from women's body. "Housewifization" of women is therefore the necessary complement to the proletarianization of men.

We began to understand that the dominant theories about the functioning of our economy, including Marxism, were only concerned with the tip of the ice-berg, raising above the water, namely only capital and wage labour. The whole base of that iceberg under the water was invisible, namely women's unpaid housework, caring work, nurturing work, or, as we then called it: the production of life or the subsistence production.

But as my friends and myself had lived in "Third World" countries for a long time, we immediately saw, that not only women's unpaid housework and caring work was part of this invisible base of our economy, but also the work of small peasants and artisans in still existing subsistence economies in the South, the work of millions of small producers, who produce for local needs.

And finally we saw, that nature herself, was considered to be a free good, to be appropriated and exploited with no or little costs for the sake of accumulation. Therefore we called all those parts of the submerged "hidden economy" which are under the water in our iceberg-metaphor: nature, women and colonized people and territories the Colonies of White Man  White Man stands here for the western industrial system (Mies: 1986 Mies, Bennholdt-Thomsen, v. Werlhof: 1988).

With regard to the growth paradigm it is our thesis that permanent economic growth or capital accumulation can continue only as long as there are such colonies which can be exploited free of costs or with very low costs. These are areas for "externalization of costs".

Meanwhile more feminists have tried to bring this submerged economy to the surface, particularly with regard to women's work (Waring: 1988 Henderson:1993 Steinem: 1993). Particularly Marilyn Waring has tried to show, what it would mean if women's work counted, if their work was included in the GDP. In my view, the most interesting part of her analysis is her tracing the history of the GDP as an indicator of economic growth, which was/is considered equivalent to "well-being".

Not only was this indicator developed by British economists like Keynes, Stone and Gilbert during WW II (Waring: 1989) in order to find out whether the war was economically profitable, after the war this indicator was universalized in the UNSNA (United Nations System of National Accounting) to measure the achievements, i. e. the growth of all national economies in the world. It is characteristic for this indicator that it excludes not only women's work in the household, but also all other non-wage work for subsistence, particularly that of small peasants in the South. It also excludes the "work" of nature; her regenerative cycles are taken for granted. Not the destruction of nature is counted, but only if the repair of this destruction involves further wage labour, investment, industry, profits. Only the labour that contributes directly to the generation of profit is called productive labour. And only the labour that produces commodities is counted in the GDP. Hence, the GDP is still an indicator which rather measures destructive production than the well-being of people. This is quite evident if one looks at the environmental and social costs of what still is called "development". As a recent example I want to mention the gigantic dam project on the Narmada in India, known as the Sardar Sarovar Project. 3,000 dam projects are planned which are supposed to serve for irrigation, power generation, drinking water collection. But this "development", meant mainly for urban and rural middle classes, will destroy the livelihood of more than 200,000 people - mainly tribals, who are being evicted from their traditional habitat in the forests. It will destroy huge areas of primeval forests with their wild-life, their species variety, and it will also destroy a large number of temples on the river banks, cultural centres since ancient times. The promoters of this project, the World Bank (which meanwhile has stopped its credits) and the Indian Government simply argue, that in the process of development always some people will have to suffer. Of course, those who have to suffer are never those who reap the fruits of this development.

Media Patkar, the dedicated woman leader of the anti-dam movement, has calculated that the damage done to the environment and to the tribals is much bigger than any benefits they could get from this "development" (Shrivastava: 1994). Even economically speaking, the project will use up much more money than it will yield.

But not only in the South does the destructive side of the growth model become evident. Also in the rich countries of the North the social and ecological costs of industrialization and growth can no longer be externalized, i.e. exported to colonies. One could even say that increasingly there is an inverse relationship between GDP growth and the quality of life. The more GDP grows, the more the quality of life deteriorates. It seems that with the globalization of the economy the old strategy by which growth was made possible in the centres, namely the dualistic or antagonistic division of the world into centres and colonies, and the colonization of nature, women and foreign lands, has reached its limits. Ecological destruction can no longer be kept outside the centres where accumulation takes place.

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