Contribution to GTI Roundtable Feminism and Revolution

Arturo Escobar

I am very glad this discussion of the role of diverse feminisms is happening as part of thinking about the GTI. I think that overcoming patriarchy, masculinism, heteropatriarchy, dominant sex-gender systems, male domination, and so forth—and I am aware that these concepts are not equivalent—has to be central to any transition. As Latin American decolonial feminists adamantly state, there cannot be decolonization (including the overcoming of white supremacy, heteronormativity, and modern/colonial hegemony) without depatriarchalization.

My intervention will be restricted to commenting on what could be called an ontological reading of patriarchy. In doing so, however, I hope it complements Julie Matthaei’s eloquent text in two ways: by pointing at a dimension of the transitions that goes beyond (in fact, underlies) the economy and by bringing into consideration contributions to these debates by Latin American feminists and some European and Australian feminists, whose works are not sufficiently known in the Anglo-American feminist landscape. In my comments below, for brevity’s sake, I will consider these works as a whole, without reference to particular authors, with a few exceptions. I am not implying that there is complete convergence among all of these authors; in fact, there are tensions and disagreements among them in many ways. In weaving some elements of their diverse works into a sort of shared concern among them, however, I am suggesting that there might be an important research agenda embedded in these authors’ works. Let it be a hypothesis for now.1

What many of these authors have in common is a broad reading of patriarchy, beyond the commonly accepted meaning of the rule of the father, or male domination. No matter where the various authors locate the origins of patriarchy, there is agreement in considering that patriarchy goes well beyond the exploitation of women; it entails the systematic destruction of life. Conversely, matriarchy is not defined by the predominance of women over men, but by an entirely different conception of life, respectful of the relational fabric of all life. With modernity, the patriarchal program transmuted into the search for endless progress and the promise of a ceaselessly “better” world. Monotheistic religions have been a main component of this program, with the Pater as god-like figure.

According to several Latin American feminists, the origin of patriarchy’s last phase is to be found in the Conquest of America and the instauration of the modern/colonial world system. Looking at this historical process from the perspective of patriarchy is essential to understand the transformations ushered in by modernity. It was thus that the “low-intensity patriarchies” of indigenous communal worlds gave way to the “high-intensity patriarchy” of capitalist modernity. There is agreement among the growing cadre of Latin American autonomous, decolonial, and communitarian feminists, that it was on the bodies of women that humanity learned how to dominate, but also that what needs to be analyzed today are the entanglements of diverse forms of patriarchy, from the autochthonous to the modern, and of these with all other forms of oppression (an expression of intersectionality). Claiming “equality” within the same life-destroying patriarchal regimes, from this perspective, is a limited goal. What is needed is a politics for another civilization that respects, and builds on, the radical interconnectedness of all life.

These views resonate with the comparison between “European patriarchal culture” and “matristic cultures” by Humberto Maturana and German psychologist Gerda Verden-Zöller. As the feminist writers just discussed, these authors adopt an ontological conception, within an overall perspective they call “the biology of love”: “In a patriarchal culture both women and men are patriarchal, and in a matristic culture, both men and women and matristic. Matristic and patriarchal cultures are different manners of living, different forms of relating and manners of emotioning, different closed networks of conversation that are realized in each case by both men and women.”2 Patriarchal culture is defined as characterized by actions and emotions that value competition, hierarchies, power, growth, appropriation, procreation, the domination of others, violence, and war, combined with the rational justification of it all in the name of truth. In this culture, which engulfs most modern humans, we live in mistrust and seek certitude through control, including the control of the natural world. Far from a moral value, love is defined by these authors as “the domain of those relational behaviors through which the other arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself.”3 As such, it is a basic fact of biological and cultural existence. As they add: “Love is visionary, not blind, because it liberates intelligence and expands coexistence in cooperation as it expands the domain in which our nervous system operates.”4 They counterpose this biology of love to patriarchal existence in appropriation and control. Patriarchal modern societies fail to understand that it is emotioning that constitutes human history, not reason or the economy, because it is our desires that determine the kinds of world we create.5

Conversely, historical matristic cultures were characterized by conversations highlighting inclusion, participation, collaboration, understanding, respect, sacredness, and the always recurrent cyclic renovation of life. With the rise of pastoral societies, the transition from one culture to the other started and has not ceased ever since. Matristic practices persist in contemporary cultures, despite prevailing patriarchal ways. They survive, however partially and contradictorily, in mother or parent-child relations, in love relations, and in democracy. For Claudia von Werlhof, matriarchy exists today as a “second culture” within patriarchy, consisting of the remnants of matriarchal traditions still surviving.6

Matristic cultures arise and thrive within this biology of love; they take place “in the background of the awareness of the interconnectedness of all existence.”7 Hence the need to cultivate coexistence through the equality of all living beings within the ongoing, recursive, and cyclical renovation of life (a notion that is dear to many indigenous cultures). The ethical and political implications are clear:

Hence, if we want to act differently, if we want to live in a different world, we need to transform our desires and for this we need to change our conversations. This is possible only by recovering matristic living. The matristic manner of living intrinsically opens up a space for coexistence where both the legitimacy of all forms of existing and the possibility of agreement and consensus on the generation of common projects of coexistence are accepted. Patriarchal living (on the contrary) restricts our understanding of life and nature because it leads us to the search for a unidirectional manipulation of everything, given the desire to control living.8

Retaking this “neglected path” implies reversing the devaluing of emotioning in relation to reason, which inevitably undermines social coexistence. For von Werlhof, the implications are equally momentous:

It turns out that—whether we want it or not—we cannot continue living within modernity because it robs us of the very basis for life, including our mere survival! There are two alternatives: to go deeper (within modernity) or to exit from it, to reform it or to revolutionize the situation, towards an alternative to modernity, rather than of modernity. But we know well that this is the greatest taboo all over the world, that is, to leave behind the so-called Western civilization, because it means leaving patriarchy as such behind. This rupture is almost unimaginable anywhere, except within the indigenous worlds.9

As GTI readers know, this notion of civilizational change is seriously entertained by many transition theorists and visionaries, from ecologists and climate and indigenous activists to spiritual teachers. The Great Transition implies coming to the realization that a civilization based on the love of life is a far better option that one based on its control and destruction. Some indigenous peoples in the Americas see themselves as engaged in the Liberación de la Madre Tierra (the liberation of Mother Earth), precisely for this reason.

Patriarchal ways of being are central to the historicity of our being-in-the-world at present; other ways of being are open to us in the archives of non-patriarchal practices, and many others are yet to be invented. Views of this sort are often dismissed as essentializing, romantic, or ahistorical. It would take much longer to demonstrate that this is not the case. For now, I hope some readers will be curious enough to venture into this literature. If, as Julie Matthaei well says, the goal is to end all forms of oppression, this should include the oppression exercised on all living beings by the dualist ontology that has accompanied the dominant form of modernity—the same ontology of separation that many transition writers and activists (such as Joanna Macy and Charles Eisenstein), and many indigenous and Black activists throughout the world, have been exposing for quite some time.

Paraphrasing the J.K. Gibson-Graham’s wonderful summoning on us all to cultivate ourselves as subjects who desire a non-capitalist economy, one might ask, what politics of resubjectivation are needed for actively and effectively desiring non-patriarchal, non-dualist, and deeply relational modes of being, knowing, and doing? In other words, we need to dis-identify ourselves actively with capitalism, with patriarchalism, and with the ontologies of separation that are an integral part of most, if not all, forms of oppression in the world today.

Let me call this dis-identification, following Mexican feminist sociologist Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, a politics in the feminine: that centered on the reproduction of life as a whole, along the care-conservation axis, in tandem with the social re-appropriation of collectively produced goods (postcapitalism), and beyond the masculinist canons of the political, linked to capital accumulation and the state. Or let’s speak of it, with Argentinean anthropologist Rita Segato, as a politics than ends the “minoritization” of women that has accompanied the de-communalization (radical individuation) of modern worlds, in favor of a re-communalizing autonomous politics that reclaims the “ontological fullness” of women’s worlds, from which women might then interpellate the world as a whole.10 Reweaving the communal and relational fabric of life means, as she puts it, that “la estrategia a partir de ahora es femenina” (the strategy, from now own, is a feminine one).11 This is a feminist politics I fully endorse.

1. Among European feminists, I have in mind primarily the works of Claudia von Werlhof, Maria Mies, and Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen but also Silvia Federici, Barbara Duden, and Frédérique Apffel-Marglin. Related perspectives are found in the work of Vandana Shiva, Carolyn Merchant, Australian ecofeminists Ariel Salleh and Val Plumowood, and political ecologist Wendy Harcourt (see also her contribution to this forum). Some of their approaches increasingly dovetail with Latin American decolonial and autonomous feminisms. Among the latter (including Black and indigenous feminisms), see particularly María Lugones, Rita Segato, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Betty Ruth Lozano, Sylvia Marcos, Aura Cumes, Julieta Paredes, Aída Hernández, Yuderkis Espinosa, Diana Gómez, Karina Ochoa, Brenny Mendoza, Rosalba Icaza, Karina Bidaseca, and Ochy Curiel. I describe some of these works in a recent book: Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). It should be noted that these authors’ research program and perspective is quite independent and distinct from the established critical feminist theories in much of the Anglo-American and French academies, largely influenced by poststructuralism.
2. Humberto Maturana and Gerda Verden-Zöller, Amor y juego. Fundamentos olvidados de los humano (Santiago de Chile: J. C. Sáez, 1993); Humberto Maturana and Gerda Verden-Zöller, The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2008).
3. Maturana and Verden-Zöller, The Origin of Humanness, 223.
4. Ibid., 138.
5. Maturana has maintained an original research and action project on matristic cultures and the biology of love in Santiago de Chile for many decades. See his Matríztica School blog and organization, co-founded with Ximena Dávila Yáñez, Verden-Zöller’s work centers on the determining role of mother-child relations in early life from the perspective of play, defined as a corporeal relation in which the mother or parent is absolutely present to the child, fundamental to all successful future coexistence by the child. The Brazilian psychologist Evânia Reichert has written a fine book on child pedagogy based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, Vygostky, Piaget, Naranjo, and Maturana’s biology of love: Ivânia Reichert, Infancia, la edad sagrada (Barcelona: Ediciones La Llave, 2011). The implications for the practice of child-rearing are enormous (needless to say, they go against the grain of most approaches to it at present!).
6. Claudia von Werlhof, “New Matriarchies,” in Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Federico Demaria, Arturo Escobar, and Alberto Acosta, eds., Pluriverse: A Postdevelopment Dictionary (Delhi: AuthorsUpFront Publishing, 2018); see also her 2015 book, Madre Tierra o muerte!. Reflexiones para una teoría crítica del patriarcado (Oaxaca, México: El Rebozo). Some of the essays in this Spanish-language collection can be found in von Werlhof, The Failure of Modern Civilization and the Struggle for a “Deep” Alternative (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011).
7. Maturana and Verden-Zöller, Amor y juego, 47.
8. Ibid., 105.
9. von Werlhof, “Madre Tierra o muerte!,” 159.
10. Raquel Gutiérez Aguilar, Horizontes comunitarios-populares (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2017); Rita Segato, La Guerra contra las mujeres (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2016).
11. Segato, La Guerra, 106.

Arturo Escobar
Arturo Escobar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina and the author of Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds.

Cite as Arturo Escobar, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Feminism and Revolution," Great Transition Initiative (June 2018),

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

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