Image credit: Nonviolent Global Liberation. Click the image to enlarge.
This article is abridged and modified from a longer piece called “Feminism as Power and Love: Realigning Humanity with Life.”
We live in dark times. Putting forth the idea that humans can live well with each other and all of life is taken as naïve. Suggesting that this may be how we lived before patriarchy, that this is our evolutionary makeup, and that we can realign humanity with the deep principles of life without any coercion or imposition is, in many contexts, an active invitation to not be taken seriously. Such ideas challenge the basic tenets of patriarchal thinking and the steady diet of bleak views of human nature we have been fed for a long time: that we have a “dark” and “base” side; that our nature is selfishness and competitive; that violence is inevitable; and that needs and feelings cannot be trusted, because, when left to our own devices, we only care about ourselves.
When we are in the grip of patriarchal systems and conditioning, our vision is stunted and replaced, all too often, with the belief inculcated in us that there is no alternative or that what we have is the best option even if it’s flawed. In defiance of this, we can embrace the radical possibility of shifting from the patriarchal social order built on scarcity, separation, and powerlessness to living, again, in alignment with life’s flow. I offer, here, a feminist vision of a global maternal gift economy and describe pathways to moving towards it from exactly where we currently are, both collectively and individually.
A peek into our pre-patriarchal past
In speaking about this past, I draw on two bodies of work that describe what such societies might have looked like and how some few remaining ones still function. These frameworks point to what I believe is still imprinted in us on the cellular level, perhaps our true human legacy: love and embeddedness within the web of life.
The biology of love. Humberto Maturana Romesin has been a pioneer in terms of reshaping our understanding of how evolution works, proposing what I see as a feminist path that is profoundly relational while remaining consistent with genetic theory, aiming to reclaim our earlier orientation to life and nature and integrating it with modern science. He collaborated with psychologist Gerda Verden-Zöller in writing The Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love, where they argue that we evolved separately from chimpanzees, forming a different lineage which conserves the loving nature of mother-child relationship into adulthood, while for many mammals the prevalent mood of adulthood is one of dominance-submission relationships.
The maternal gift economy. Genevieve Vaughan’s work emerges from the existential clarity that infants cannot survive without the gift of mothering. In pre-patriarchal societies the mothering principle of orienting, from within trust in life, to the needs of others is central, revered, and paradigmatic. Such societies have no structural differences in access to resources. Power is based on entrustment of those with natural authority, often “the person who cares the most for everyone.” Everyone’s needs are included when allocating resources. Intricate and ongoing cooperation is the foundation of life. The early and indispensable unilateral giving orientation towards the young continues into adulthood and forms the basis of all social arrangements.
The possibility of peaceful, loving, collaborative societies thriving in balanced relationship with all rest of life and each other, where women, men, and children live in relaxed trust of self and other, is a challenge for modern human sensibilities. This is so even though this was what settlers encountered in North America, even though Iroquois self-governance, based on nonviolent and cooperative principles, has been in continuous operation for a thousand years within extreme conditions imposed by colonial settlers in the US.
The impacts of patriarchy
Patriarchy, at its very core, is a negation of the biology of life and the mystery of the mothering principle. I see it as unfolding and reproducing itself in relation to how we care for our material needs, more so than based on ideas or specific arrangements about gender.
Individually, patriarchy is reproduced through socialization. Through systemically created traumatic experiences in early life, all of us, to one degree or another, lose trust in life and in our own flow and accept the mindset of scarcity that is the root of patriarchy: there isn’t enough for all of us. This fear weakens us and we more easily accept the separation within patriarchy. Once separate from life and from each other, we lose the elemental belief in the power of our actions and in our own mattering to bring about outcomes that work for us. Additionally, we experience the shock of discovering exchange after being, early on, the recipients of unilateral and unconditional giving. Tragically, we end up accepting the negative view of life and of human nature, often including our own nature, that patriarchy rests on.
Collectively, patriarchy is reproduced through explicit and implicit political, economic, and cultural agreements that maintain and reinforce scarcity, separation, and powerlessness. These include private property, accumulation, and exchange as primary mechanisms for allocating resources. Instead of resources flowing to where needs are, they flow to where resources already exist to be exchanged for what the needs are. Needs themselves have lost their power. With the appearance of capitalism, relational and communal bonds are severed, leaving us to fend for ourselves as individuals outside of the thick web of interdependence for which we evolved.
Vision: a global maternal gift economy
Understanding patriarchy as an experience of individual and collective trauma that repeats itself intergenerationally is key to understanding how humans, formed in the lineage of the biology of love, live in chronic war and aggression. Without this understanding, any vision would clash with our views of human nature and could only proceed through force, which is precisely why so many revolutions that have started with inspiring visions ended up with recreating horrors and only changing who inflicts it on whom and in the name of what.
Given where we are, we need a vision that is strong enough to carry us through mourning the unspeakable gap between the evolutionary makeup that shaped our past and our current extractive mode leading to environmental degradation, social divisions, and massive suffering. We also, I believe, need a vision that is material and practical rather than ideological.
Here’s one version of it that particularly appeals to me and which I see as fully consistent with our evolutionary makeup while being at odds with our patriarchal ways of living.
Image by Sabrina Kley. Click on the image to enlarge.
The biology of love is restored. Humanity is functioning as one interconnected whole. We meet our material and non-material needs as members of a global interspecies web through maternal gifting in regenerative communities and in reverence for life.
We all have full opportunity to participate directly in all decisions that affect us locally and through various mechanisms that feed into less local circles and more complex decisions. We share resources locally and through intricate mechanisms of matching resources to needs across regions globally. We have access to any information from anywhere in the world that is relevant to our needs. We live in an ongoing web of learning and attunement through local and inter-regional impact sharing and other forms of feedback. And we continually increase our capacity to attend to existing conflicts and reduce their prevalence through engaging locally, regionally, and globally.
Instead of money, exchange, accumulation, ownership, and thinking about who deserves what, resources move from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world based entirely on what’s needed, what’s available, and the impacts of moving resources from where they are to where they are needed. Whenever we have more resources than we need locally, we make them available, rather than any of us storing them away. We encounter finitude collaboratively and none of us stretches to give beyond our willingness.
With the shift from technologies of protection, control, destruction, and distraction to mobilizing our collective human ingenuity to attend to human needs within planetary limits, we have found ways to have enough food, water, and shelter for all of us. Aggregate requests rarely exceed aggregate availability. When it does happen, we handle such instances as emergencies if the discrepancy is about a basic life-sustaining resource and as deep calls for creative learning if what’s at stake is less essential needs.
Moving towards vision on the material plane
We cannot, ever, go back to life before patriarchy, only forwards, in conscious evolution in response to patriarchy. Even though collectively bridging the gap between current reality and feminist vision seems unlikely to happen given the formidable external obstacles and the deeply entrenched internalized patterns, imagining what this transition would entail is part of reclaiming vision, without which movement towards vision is less likely.
Restoring the life principles of flow, togetherness, and choice means shifting features of patriarchal systems into elements of the vision, offering a path of realigning with life instead of only opposing and criticizing:
- Rekindling our trust in life, so we can shift from ownership and private property to recognizing that we belong to the earth.
- Orienting to the intrinsic value of all that lives and beholding with awe the enormously intricate nature of the mechanisms that sustain life, from the minutest creature to the giant mammals of the sea and to the largest organisms that extend over kilometers, so we can shift from exchange value to reverence for life.
- Re-learning to care for needs directly, in relationship with each other and all of life, so we can shift from money-based supply and demand to matching resources to needs.
- Finding, again, a relaxed and trusting attitude towards finitude, so we can shift from thinking about who deserves what to caring for everyone’s needs within the means of the planet.
- Doing things for intrinsic reasons based on the natural unfolding of generosity in response to needs so we can shift from incentive to wholehearted willingness.
When we can ground ourselves in these shifts, we can begin, at any scale, to set up transitional practices. This means making information about needs, impacts, and resources available and accessible so it can support us to ground choice within togetherness rather than as mutually exclusive with it. To get anywhere without coercion, we are called to be rigorous about staying within capacity and willingness. We can then restore our most amazing human capacity, what our big brains were designed for: solving complex problems in collaboration with others.
Preliminary notes on starting where we are as individuals
There is hardly anything we can do, as individuals, outside of communities that consciously embrace the maternal gift economy, to make a dent in the global systems of late capitalist patriarchy. Simultaneously, the moment we can accept with compassion that all of us have internalized scarcity, separation, and powerlessness, we can begin to take tiny steps within and around us in the direction of vision.
Embracing the soft qualities
Patriarchy, emerging from the scarcity that came after we lost trust in life, resorts to control to ground domination and submission. Patriarchy functions in separation, leading to either/or frameworks, right/wrong thinking, and blame and shame as core motivators. Within patriarchy, the soft qualities are looked down upon. Moving towards vision, the deepest essence of feminism as I understand it, rests on the power of the soft qualities to transform patriarchy. This is the power of nonviolence, integrating courage, truth, and love.
Vulnerability supports courage. Embracing it softens the habit of protection that interferes with choice. It is a surprising source of strength that invites togetherness. And it allows rather than interferes with the flow of life.
Humility supports truth. Embracing it reminds us to celebrate our strengths and to bring tenderness (another soft quality) to limitations so as to increase choice. Humility removes barriers of superiority to enhance togetherness. When we accept the limits of what we know, we can then surrender to mystery and flow.
Mourning supports love. Embracing it makes it possible to face the gap between our beloved vision and present reality without numbness or rage, and thus deepens choice. Mourning with others brings us together with others in remembering what we love. Accepting and mourning what exists regenerates our energy as we surrender to life’s flow.
Leaning into the soft qualities overall supports us in making visible the degree of violence and trauma that has gotten every last one of us wounded. None of us was born to harm. Taking this in, at the cellular level, we are less likely to judge self and other when our actions, choices, and ways of being make visible our low capacity and resulting impacts.
Image by Sabrina Kley. Click on the image to enlarge.
Starting where we are, we can aim to align our lives with the vision of a global maternal gift economy. This includes restoring gifting by uncoupling giving from receiving and making each unconditional, reducing our consumption to align with planetary limits, and choosing deaccumulation to restore flow.
Restoring our capacity for unconditional giving reconnects us with generosity and frees us from instrumental tit for tat relationships. Restoring our capacity for unconditional receiving, without giving back, exposes what exchange hides: our needs and our dependence on others to fulfill them. In this way, it restores us to the truth of being part of the interdependent web of life on this planet.
Shifting our patterns of consumption and reducing our dependence on the market restores relationships and aliveness and reminds us of our resilience. Deaccumulation is the most direct path to increasing circulation and restoring flow. For those of us who have accumulated beyond what we actually need to sustain our lives, it is a challenging practice with unexpected rewards. At the deepest level, deaccumulation both leans on and restores trust in life, the loss of which is the deepest layer of trauma from which patriarchy arose. Deaccumulation reorients us to our actual needs and entails shifting from ownership to stewardship of resources, giving away all that we have and don’t need. Deaccumulation is a surprising entryway into releasing attachments.
I hold a deep sense of reverence for small-scale experimentation that focuses on releasing us from dependence on market and state. Even when material conditions are challenging and even if the rest of the world continues unchanged, when we begin to depend on non-monetary means to attend to our needs in direct relationship with land and people, and as the web of interdependence begins to weave intimacy and care around us, a sense of freedom and well-being may arise that can give us an early taste of what, with grace, may be in store for us as we collectively integrate what we have learned from patriarchy and realign with life: surrendering to finitude, to where our needs encounter reality, naked and unadorned, and engaging with each other to find creative pathways to care for all.
 The quote is from a member of one of the few remaining present-day matriarchal societies, the Mosuo in China. See Heide Goettner-Abendroth,Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, 108.
Teaser photo credit: Mosuo girl weaver in Old town Lijiang. By Gisling – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9383745