Toward an Economics of Caring
A Lecture by Riane Eisler
It is truly a pleasure for me to be here with you tonight and to be in such distinguished company. I have, for example, never met Elise Boulding and here she is. I’m very grateful to meet her and to see so many others of you dear friends and colleagues, colleagues that I’ve known and others who are also working toward a partnership way of living. It is also a particular pleasure to be here at the Center. It has been a delight to work with the people on the staff here; they’re truly caring. So that’s very appropriate, isn’t it, for my topic with you tonight?
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we usually don’t think of economics and caring in the same breath? Now I think that’s rather strange, considering the fact that, after all, economia is supposed to be for the management of the human households and for human welfare. And, of course, a huge element of human welfare is caring. In fact, without caring and caregiving, none of us would be here: there would be no household or economy, nothing. But, as I said, we don’t think of it that way. And what I want to do with you tonight is to look at some of the reasons why this strange anomaly should still be so embedded in our economic models and our popular way of thinking. I also want to look historically at what has happened here as we’re trying to move toward a different economics and then to explore some of the foundational issues that are not part of the discourse on economics that we need to address if we are to indeed move toward the kind of economic system that is not only environmentally sustainable but more equitable. Yes, I am speaking of a system that will support the giving of caring and caregiving and that will also support the meeting of our basic human needs; not only our material needs but our emotional and spiritual needs. I’ve been outlining a course for partnership economics and tonight I’m going to try to do this in 45 to 50 minutes, so some of it is going to be a bit nonlinear.
What I would like to suggest to you — because I have to give you a gestalt — is that if we are to move toward the kind of economics that we want, first of all, we need to start looking at economics not in isolation but contextualized it in a larger system of beliefs and institutions. Secondly, I would like to suggest to you that it is time that we start thinking of moving past the conventional systems of economic classification: capitalism versus communism. Indeed, we need to move past all the conventional systems of classification: religious versus secular, right versus left, and even pre-and post-industrial versus industrial. When we come to economics we are really talking about a form of human relations. It isn't the goods that relate, it is the people, right? So let’s focus on that tonight as we think about economics. Over the last three decades, I have been looking at human society from a perspective that looks at the whole of our relations. That would mean our family and intimate relations as well as the so-called economic and political relations. This perspective looks at the very large database that is the whole of our history, including our prehistory, and — yes — at the whole of humanity, both its female and male halves. This is rather unusual, because most studies are very compartmentalized. What I began to see is that underlying many different kinds of social arrangements are two basic models, two patterns, for relations. One I called “the domination or dominator model,” and the other one “the partnership or mutual respect” model.
Now, when we talk about relationships, we’re always talking about the kinds of systems that support different kinds of relations. Specifically, whether they support relations that orient primarily toward a partnership or dominator model of belief and social structures, structures which include families, education, religion, economics, and politics. So let’s be very clear here that this is not just about being nice to each other. We’re talking about specific structures. So I’m going to contextualize my remarks in my conceptual model, which looks at history as the tension between these two ways of structuring relations, institutions, and beliefs. These two models are two basic attractors — to use the language of nonlinear dynamics — that are in tension with each other.
If you look at the last few hundred years of history, you begin to get a sense of what I mean by the dominator and partnership model. As we move along, you will see something very interesting. We have had one organized challenge after another to entrenched traditions of domination — be it the so-called divinely ordained right of kings to rule over their subjects or, the to some people still divinely ordained right of men to rule over the women and children in the “castles” of their homes; whether it was the abolitionist movement challenging the idea that one race should rule and enslave another; or whether it’s the environmental movement challenging the notion of the conquest and domination of nature. As you think about this, you begin to get a much more holistic picture of history as the tension between the forward push toward the partnership model and tremendous resistance and periodic regressions. I happen to have been born into such a period of massive dominator regression, the rise to power of the Nazis in Europe. Indeed, it was a return to the dominator configuration, the core configuration of top-down authoritarian rule, be it in the family or the state, the ranking of the male half of humanity over the other half, and a great deal of socially condoned and officially perpetrated violence. There you have the core configuration. You see it was not by accident that getting women back into their traditional place was one of the leitmotifs of the Nazi rise to power.
During the same period, and even going back further, we also saw some movement away from a pure dominator economics. For example, consider that the societies of ancient Greece and Rome that we so idealize in our Western European history were not only slave societies but WHERE the status of the female half of the population, whether free or slave, was pretty much the status of A slave. Women were owned by the male head-of-household. Gradually, we saw, at least in Europe, a movement to abolish slavery. But we then got into feudalism, didn’t we? Instead of slaves, there were serfs. When that began to change, we began to see mercantilism. Once again, this gave the monarchs of the day control over immense amounts of treasure, of land, of property, and of people. This was the system that the moral philosopher Adam Smith was challenging. He challenged it with the notion that if we only had the invisible hand of self-interest in a system of free trade, of a free market, if everybody were to simply look out for their own best interests, then somehow it would all work for everybody’s benefit because of the invisible hand of the market.
Well, we never did see a free market. The concentrations of wealth continued, and so did the economic advantage of those on top. But even if we had, it seems doubtful, just stepping back a little bit from economic dogma, that somehow if everybody is purely selfish, it’s going to work out great for everybody else. Nonetheless, that thinking is still embedded in many of our economic models. Well, by the 19th, early 20th century, we got the robber barons. Again: dominator model economics, a brutal model with no labour rights. But slowly that began to soften.
So you begin to more clearly see the tension in the economic area between these two attractors, the dominator and partnership models. Because of the robber baron capitalism, you began to see other ideas surface, such as anarchism. Those of you who are economists know very well that anarchism has nothing really to do with everybody doing what they want or with violence, but that the primary idea behind it has to do with decentralized cooperatives. At the same time, socialism sprung up and, of course, communism.
But that too did not work out. Within the Soviet Union, you began to see state capitalism, with another elite class of managers. Some of them were the old feudal lords, the aparatniks. And then, the famous dictatorship of the proletariat turned into just that, a brutal dominator society. At the same time, the Scandinavian nations began to also do some experiments with the welfare state. It’s very interesting. They influenced capitalism a great deal through policies such as healthcare for the people, childcare and so forth. In other words, they constructed economic safety nets and more caregiving policies. But when the Soviet Union fell and China started to move more towards the old model of capitalism with some of the old communist party functionaries becoming “new capitalists.”
So what we see today is the hegemony of a globalized capitalism that in many ways is regressing toward the old robber baron days, but on a global scale. We have policies which I would submit to you are economic inventions that inhibit caring, such as structural adjustment or massive cutbacks in social services. These policies are exacerbating many of the world’s problems in the name of economic globalization. We’re also seeing other problems that make it very clear that the present economic models are ineffective and unsustainable. We still have hunger and poverty on a huge scale as population keeps rising exponentially. We are beginning to have pandemics like AIDS, tuberculosis, violence, and alienation. Above all — because it’s finally becoming visible — economic systems in the service of the old “conquest of nature” are doing possibly irremediable damage to our habitat.
At the same time we’re seeing technological breakthroughs, biological technologies, that give us the power that was once believed to be only in the hands of God, the power to create and manipulate life. And these technologies are being commercialized and used helter skelter. We are also moving into the so-called post-industrial information economy where we hear so much talk about "high quality human capital." But no attention whatsoever is given to how we might produce that high-quality human capital, which of course requires caregiving, doesn’t it? How many of you are familiar with the work showing what psychologists have long told us: that the neurological and biochemical pathways of the brain are laid after birth; we’re not born with them. And how these pathways, and with them, basic traits and behaviours, develop is, to a much larger extent than even psychologists previously thought, a function of the kind of caregiving that children receive. To use my shorthand, you get very different brain structures depending on whether a child is raised by dominator child rearing, with fear and force, or in a partnership model, with respect, more caring, and more gentle ways of helping that child come forth to learn and flourish.
But instead of paying attention to the kind of caregiving that would be needed to create this much bandied about “human capital” — not my favourite phrase by the way, but nonetheless it’s out there — for the post-industrial economy, what do we see education focusing on? Computer education. Well, we do want kids to know how to use a pencil, and the computer is like the next generation of the pencil. But it’s not education. The post-industrial economy requires people who are flexible rather than rigid, not people who only know how to obey orders or give orders, because that’s what they have learned, but people who are able to relate and work in teams. If children are raised in the dominator model, we then see people who have a lot of problems with impulse control, particularly violent impulse control, and people who are not creative because it’s hard to be creative if you’re scared to make a mistake.
You can see the influence of our basic economic policies — because the education policies we’re seeing today are also economic policies. Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a lot of influence on education from the economic sector and this is getting us deeper and deeper into problems, at the same time that all kinds of yearnings for something better are getting stronger and stronger. So we are in a period of great disequilibrium.
The good news about that is that it is precisely during periods of great disequilibrium — and new technologies cause disequilibrium — that you can have fundamental change, transformational change. For example, my cultural transformation theory parallels the chaos theory in chemistry, showing that it is during these periods of instability that you can see a transformation of the system. Change is a constant, but the issue is whether the change is still within the dominator system, or if we shift toward the partnership system.
One of the major issues for whether we will see this transformation relates to our economic models, our economic rules, and our economic patterns of valuation. Basically, economics is about what we value. We value gold. You can’t eat it, but we still think it is valuable. So economics revolve largely around the question of what a society values. So what I am suggesting to you is that if we are to change the economic system, first of all we have to look at the larger social system in which it is contextualized. We have to look at our values, and also at our social institutions. In particular, I’d like to suggest that we should look at the configuration that I’ve just briefly sketched of the dominator model and what keeps it together. We should also look at the fact that all economic models are human creations, based on social valuations. This means they can be changed because they are human inventions.
The economic rules that we still have to a very large extent, as you gleaned from my seven-minute survey of thousands of years of history, are inherited from earlier times that oriented more closely to the dominator model. These dominator rules we inherited are still very embedded in present economic systems, be they capitalist or communist.
One of the mainstays of this dominator model is the ranking of one half of humanity over the other. Of the male half over the female half, as we’ve seen historically, although matriarchy and patriarchy, conceptually at least, are two sides of the same dominator coin. One rules, the other one doesn’t. One is controlled, the other one controls. But historically, we’ve only seen patriarchy as a dominator model. Because earlier societies, which are sometimes mistakenly called matriarchy, were really oriented toward the partnership model. But that’s another lecture.
Given that this ranking of the male half of humanity over the female half is so basic, we have to ask ourselves a question. What are the systemic effects of a system that ranks one half of humanity over the other half? And very specifically now, what are the systemic economic effects? I’m going to very briefly go through some of the many systemic effects with you.
To begin with, if you look for a moment at this whole issue of caring and caregiving and ask why our economic system does not value that work, you can see something immediately. The work of caring and caregiving is associated with women, with the female half of humanity. I would like to submit to you that this has a great deal to do with some of the irrationalities of the market economy. I’ll stay for a moment in the formal or market economy where, for example, we find that we pay more to the person to whom we entrust our car--the parking lot attendant--than we pay to the person to whom we entrust our child--a childcare worker. Now you’re going to say to me, that’s crazy! But this has nothing to do with logic or sanity. This has to do with a system of valuations that is deeply embedded and has profoundly affected economics from A to Z.
There is also another aspect that I’ll touch upon, which is that the mass of the poor and hungry people; the poorest of the world’s poor and hungry, are women and children. We talk about poverty in great generalities, but this is the reality. But we should talk of it in specific terms, so that we can recognize how it relates to the ranking of one half of humanity over the other.
One effect of the dominator model, which ranks the male half of humanity over the female half, is that it leads to what I just touched upon and will return to: the devaluation of the work and activities stereotypically considered feminine. Another effect is that, aside from the devaluation of these traits and activities, we find the devaluation of the human beings who happen to be female. The fact that we talk about issues that affect the female half of humanity as just a women’s issue should give you a clue as to just how conditioned we all are to view women as secondary.
By the way, whatever you take away from here, this has nothing to do with anything innate in women or men. We’re talking about dominator roles where men are socialized to form their masculine identity as not being like a woman. The worst insult to a boy or a man is, “You’re a sissy” or “You’re like a weak sister.” Of course, men can be just as caring as women. In fact, some men do caregiving much better than some women. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Now, for a moment, I will take you into the poorer areas of our world where, because of lack of resources, this devaluation of the female half of humanity comes much more into focus. For example, in Southeast Asia or China, despite the fact that women’s life span is longer than men’s, women have a shorter life span. This is due to systematic economic discrimination at the most basic level against female children. It’s not a pleasant subject, but I’m going to have to give you some statistics. Consider the comparative rates of mortality for boys and girls ages 1 to 4 in Bangladesh. These are the 1995 statistics, the year of the first United Nations Conference of Women, when a lot of these statistics were finally publicized. At that time, it was 15.7 deaths for girls out of 1,000 live births and 14.2 for boys. In Pakistan the ratio was 9.6 for girls versus 8.6 for boys.
In the normal curve, we know that women and girl children have a tendency for greater survival. But here, instead of that, it’s reversed. In Egypt the mortality rate was 6.6 versus 5.6. Even in Singapore, which at the time had a very strong economy, the ratio was .5 for girls versus .4 for boys. In India’s rural Punjab, 21% of the girls in low-income families suffered from severe malnutrition compared with only 3% of boys in the same families. Low-income boys actually fared better than upper-income girls. In Bangladesh 77% of pregnant women from middle-income households, and more than 95% of those from low-income households, weighed less than the standard 50 kilograms.
This is bad for girls and women. But consider the systemic effects. You deprive girls and women of the same healthcare and the same nutrition as you do boys, and what you get is what anybody who has ever even considered the effect of maternal malnutrition on offspring will tell you is a horror story. You get boys and girls, not just girls, who are artificially deprived of their birthright, of the possibility of full physical development, full mental development, and all because of this ranking of one half of humanity over the other. This obviously has huge economic implications.
Where do you hear about this? There’s a curtain of silence. We did a study at the Center for Partnership Studies that compared measures of quality of life with measures of the status of women, using statistics, because we live in a world where if you can’t quantify it, it is not considered significant. There were overlaps, but we teased them out and I think we did a pretty good job. We found something fascinating: in some regions the status of women is a much better predictor of general quality of life than GDP. For example, we compared France and Kuwait, which have the same essential GDP. Infant mortality, however, which is a primary measure of quality of life, is double in Kuwait in comparison to France. Kuwait of course orients much more to the dominator configuration. Kuwait is not the worst of them by any means, but it still is a monarchy with top-down rule where women are subordinate. The dominator model is always a matter of degree, we’re never talking about a pure partnership or dominator model. But the implications for quality of life are enormous. Take Singapore and Finland and you find the same thing. These countries have approximately the same GDP. But maternal mortality is double in Singapore compared to Finland.
So, one begins to see the systemic effects of depriving women and girls of equal healthcare and of equal nutrition, not to speak of equal education. And who is the first person who shapes the famous human capital we today hear so much about? Mostly, as the world still goes, it’s women. This is beginning to change for the better, but certainly not in all regions. Here in the United States and in other places, men are becoming more involved in the caregiving work, which is very important.
I want to get back now to another systemic effect that occurs because of this ranking of one half of humanity over the other half, and of the work and traits stereotypically associated with women rather than men in dominator thinking. We have professions where caregiving is integral like nursing, teaching little children, and childcare. And we have mostly women in those professions. We also have whole professions where caregiving doesn’t play a role at all, like engineering, law, and plumbing. These are professions where men are still heavily concentrated. Of course, it’s beginning to change. Now you are way ahead of me already, aren’t you? What are the pay scales? What are the comparative pay scales?
We cannot move towards an economics of caring as long as we do not value caring and caregiving. And until we recognize how deeply and systemically embedded this value system is, and how linked it is with the devaluation of the female half of humanity, we can’t move to a more equitable economic system.
Marx wrote about the alienation of labour, about the devaluation of the work of the laborers. I write about the alienation of caring and caregiving labour, about an even more fundamental devaluation. Without changing this, I don’t see how we can move to more equitable economic systems. We must make this visible. Consider that when the work of caring and caregiving is done in the informal economy, in the household, it is not even included in measures of economic productivity such as GDP and GNP. It is totally invisible. Now that again is crazy, isn’t it? But consider where this came from. If you start from the model of the rigid dominator household, the work that women perform — both their labour and also their labour of giving birth, by the way — is not measured. And if it is not measured, it does not count.
We must move into what can we do. Obviously, the first thing that we must do, I believe, is to make this hidden labour count. What I’ve been talking to you about is like the tip of an iceberg. It’s a bad joke because it’s at the expense of men, but I used to say women would never have created nuclear waste with no idea of where to put it. But that’s not because men are bad people. It’s because in the dominator model men are brought up to think that you can make a mess and somebody, namely a woman, will come around and clean it up for you. So why should you be bothered with such details?
Fortunately, that’s changing. We’re seeing a movement towards gender partnership, towards men assuming the caregiving roles, and men no longer having to suppress that part of their humanity that they have been taught is their feminine side. That too is nonsense, of course, the idea that caring and caregiving are only feminine. I wish we could throw this whole New Age Jungian notion of an essential feminine and an essential masculine into the ocean because it locks us in again. It’s not men’s feminine side; it’s men’s humanity. Just as when I access my logic and my assertiveness, I’m not accessing my masculine, I’m accessing a part of me.
We have to make all of this visible. We have to certainly work to change the system of valuations we inherited from more rigid dominator times through education. I have written about this in my new book, Tomorrow’s Children: A Blueprint for Partnership Education in the 21st Century. Among other features of partnership education is complete gender balance woven into the entire educational fabric, the entire learning tapestry. It’s no good to just have Women’s History Month. We’re so happy because we didn’t even used to have that. But one month for half of humanity?! And besides, kids get it, you know? If it’s not part of the main event, it is not important, it is not valued. I believe that caring for life, caring for self, caring for others, and caring for our Mother Earth should be another strand woven through the educational tapestry. I propose this in Tomorrow’s Children. But, more importantly, what I’m proposing in Tomorrow’s Children is that we unravel and reweave our educational assumptions and strengthen those that are partnership assumptions while leaving dominator assumptions behind. Using the partnership and dominator templates, I’m proposing an integrated approach to education of process, content, and structure, not one more add-on.
We obviously also need new systems of accounting. We can all help move policy makers towards that,. And more than anything else we need new economic inventions that give visibility and reward to the work of caring and caregiving. Remember that everything in an economic system is an economic invention. A bank is an economic invention. Slavery, sweatshops, they’re dominator economic inventions, aren’t they? Some of those new rules that we have, the so-called structural adjustment rules, they are dominator economic inventions. And by the way, who do you think those measures impact the most severely? You’ve got it: women, because it’s the women who do the soup kitchens; it’s the women who drop out of education and get the extra job or the second job. It’s the women on whose shoulders the transfer of social services is placed by these policies. It is a pure dominator regression. When you have to play by those economic rules, you have to deaden your caring and empathy. You have to be in denial, don’t you? How else can you impose rules that cause so much suffering?
But we can also have economic inventions that give value to caring and caregiving. Paid parental leave, for example, is an economic invention that gives visibility and value to the work of caregiving. Universal healthcare gives value to caring. But we have to go much deeper. Think of elder care. There are many things happening, for example, in Great Britain, the government pays people to take care of the elderly in their homes, which makes a lot more sense than paying only if you put them in some dreadful facility. That’s the market, and if we only think of economics in terms of the tiny little segment of economic activity, of the market, we’ve lost the game. This is something that is fundamental.
Let me just tell you about an idea I have for an economic invention, and then I hope that you will all start thinking of these. Keep in mind that people invent these things. It isn’t some Martian that shows up, it’s us.
We have training programs to show people how to kill, soldiers. And the government, the community, pays for this training. And we give these people a pension, which is an economic invention to say this is valuable. But even though we know so much from both psychology and now neuroscience about what is and is not good childcare, we do not have government-supported programs for training people to do the caregiving work. Does that make sense? Of course not. This is irrational.
In pure dollar and cent terms, it would be the most absolutely profitable economic investment that a society could make for some of the reasons that I have just touched upon. Even in pure economic terms, never mind the human terms. I think that we need to move to a time where not just cosmeticians, or the people who do your nails, have to get some kind of training, but people who do caregiving. We have to move toward parenting classes in schools but also teaching this everywhere, and we also have to have childcare workers who are given emotional tests. We give them to police, for goodness sakes. Think about a moment about where we place our financial investments. It’s always on the punishing end, isn’t it? The armies, the police. It’s dominator economics; there’s a pattern here.
So, we need public financing for caring and for prevention of violence and for helping every child realize her or his human potentials.. We need to make childcare work one of the highest paid of all professions. It will pay for itself a thousand-fold. And we can also have the people who are so trained do an internship for a couple of years to pay back that community investment for little pay. All we really need is to start thinking in different ways.
Some people may ask, how are we going to measure this and make sure that the work is good? It’s very interesting, because there’s absolutely no way of measuring how well people learn how to kill as soldiers, but we still provide training. We can of course give caregivers the same kinds of tests that they give in the army, measuring comprehension and skill, but we still don’t know whether in practice they’ll really do it. So that is not the problem. The problem is that we’re not used to thinking about childcare or other forms of caregiving this way.
So what I ask you tonight is to think outside that box that we hear so much about. Take an issue that along with the people with whom it’s associated, has been considered just a women’s issue and think of it as a central, economic, and yes, human issue for us all. I think that if enough of us begin to understand the systemic connections I have touched on tonight t we can move toward a partnership model of structuring all institutions. We can move toward a society where there is more economic as well as political democracy, where there is more equal partnership between the female and male half of humanity, and where you don’t need so much built-in violence because you don’t have all these rigid rankings, be it man over woman, man over man, nation over nation, race over race.
I want to close with one thing. Whatever you go away with, partnership does not just mean cooperation. People who work in the dominator model cooperate all the time to do terrible things to one another. Yes, there are hierarchies in the partnership model. But they are what I call “hierarchies of actualization” rather than “hierarchies of domination.” In these kinds of hierarchies, power is empowering rather than disempowering.
The good news is we don’t have to start from scratch. There’s a lot of movement toward partnership in the air and on the ground. I hope that what I’ve shared with you will help you become involved in creating a partnership economics, an economics of caring. I thank you.
Riane Eisler is a cultural historian, systems theorist, and the author of many books including The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future; Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body; The Partnership Way: New Tools for Living and Learning (with David Loye); and Tomorrow’s Children: A Blueprint for Partnership Education in the 21st Century. She is president of the Center for Partnership Studies and frequently consults on the application of the partnership model and cultural transformation theory to all aspects of life. “Caring,” she maintains,” is the key to partnership – not only on the individual level, but also on the level of social and economic rules and practices.” For more information go to: www.partnershipway.org.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue