A contribution to an exchange on Feminism and Revolution: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
I am reading what Julie Matthaei and responders have written and feel enriched by the depth of engagement and the questions being raised. I don’t see a way to attend, with the depth I would aim for, to all of them. Thus I am picking up the ones that for whatever mysterious reasons stand out to me.
What Is Patriarchy, and Who Is Affected?
When the debate about patriarchy devolves into questions about equality between women and men, I hear two assumptions that trouble me:
- That the goal is to bring women to where men are, and as long as there are individual access points measured as “rights,” then the problem of patriarchy is solved.
- That it’s even possible to create full equality between women and men without changing the fundamental structures of our world.
Both of these assumptions are, to my mind, firmly rooted within an individualist framework that is itself the product of patriarchy and its core offspring capitalism.
Also, understanding patriarchy as "the rule of men" tends to generate defensiveness. I, instead, see patriarchy as the principle of separation, scarcity, and control, based on a negation of continuity, flow, and life. I understand it to be the rule of the father principle rather than the rule of men. While we always know who the mother is, it is only through controlling women that it can be totally known who the father is. I have a deep intuitive sense that patriarchy is an event, not a fate—a response of humans to specific conditions of severe collective trauma that led us to revert to earlier evolutionary phases of dominance and submission prior to biological emergence of what Humberto Maturana and Gerda Verden-Zöller call the “biology of love.”1
I see gender, gender norms, or even the relations between men and women and children as outcomes of the re-imposition of the principle of dominance and submission, still genetically possible, on human societies as a collective fight-flight-freeze response to severe climatic disruptions or, later, to invasions by groups that had already made the patriarchal shift. These collective trauma patterns could then be reproduced through the accumulation and passing on of wealth that were made possible by the agricultural revolution (though not caused by it).
Patriarchy shapes, first and foremost, the structures of society and the structures internalized within individuals which emerge from them. Patriarchy results in an extreme and growing degree of separation from self, other, life, and nature.
Patriarchy results in the brutalization of men to prepare them for the location in society that gives them, in general, more access to resources, more respect, and more ease in attending to certain needs than to women. As much as I suffer from living under patriarchy as a woman, I wouldn’t want to trade places with any man I have met and experience the early and acute assaults they so often endure on the very core of their young beings's sense of self.
This is part of why I fully join with Julie Matthaei when she describes how “targets shift from the dominant group—i.e., ‘men (or the 1% or whites) are the enemy’—to the social concepts, practices, and institutions that create and perpetuate a particular structural inequality.” Instead of working for rights within the system as it is, I am much more motivated to understand and transform the social concepts, the practices, and the institutions that make it possible for patriarchy to reproduce itself now for about 7,000 years even though we all suffer.
Patriarchal Training: Obedience and Shame
Within this context, I want to put right front and center the irreducible significance of how we treat our children, and how much our very ability to survive as a species that continues the biology of love depends on understanding and transforming the ways we parent. To quote from an earlier article:
Love thrives in the context of freedom and belonging. Love shrinks in the context of obedience and shame. Love is intertwined with gifting, and thus withers away in transactional contexts. From this perspective, I boldly claim that our survival depends on finding ways to preserve love, and that this entails putting human needs at the center. This is a radical departure from existing paradigms of child-rearing.2
If indeed patriarchy emerged from trauma, and we have never since had the necessary conditions for digesting and metabolizing and healing from this trauma, we are then individually and collectively primed to pass on the fear and shame that we endure generation after generation. When such individual internalization is reinforced by structures of exchange, accumulation, coercive governance, competitive economics, and war, even our attempts to create change are encased within patriarchal thinking.
From Rights and Fairness to Needs and Care
One of the early results of patriarchy was the creation of significant inequality, posing a moral and existential dilemma for human societies: since our evolution has prepared us to be part of small bands of people who collectively care for everyone’s needs, such inequality makes no sense. This is my hypothesis about the origin of the concept of “deserve”: a way of convincing us that people who have more deserve what they have, and those who don’t, accordingly, deserve not to have enough.
One way forward and out of the perpetual fight about who deserves what is to transcend the language of civil or human rights and re-embrace the awareness of needs. The language of rights is a human creation, still rooted within the paradigm of separation and scarcity: my rights give me a claim, and you and I can debate and ultimately go to war about whose rights are more fair. Rights don’t open our hearts and don’t restore the flow of generosity. Needs, rooted in biology and relationships, bring us together.
Economics: Putting Needs at the Center
Following Genevieve Vaughan, I see the move to put needs at the center as a restoration of the mother principle of giving simply and unconditionally in response to needs that exist, without exchange or expectation of getting something back.3
We all went through unconditional receiving as infants before encountering exchange later in life. This, as Genevieve Vaughan proposes, is the seed of restoring the gift economy by which so many indigenous cultures have lived and which continues to exist in invisible pockets that the exchange economy rests on and without which it would collapse.
When Julie Matthaei calls on us to envision what we want, not only what we oppose, I wholeheartedly align myself. My vision is of a world based on restoring the mysterious endless flow of energy and resources, through generosity and willingness, from where they exist to where they are needed. That is the way life cares for all that lives. My vision is of restoring connection with self, other, life, and nature through the practice of caring for needs at all levels. This is a radical principle with entirely practical consequences.
From Solidarity to Liberation for All
I very much appreciated Julie Matthaei’s analysis of the inception and challenges of identity politics, the complexities and benefits that intersectionality brings to the mix, and the imperative of solidarity politics. I particularly appreciated the framing she provided about the agent of transformation—“a set of interconnected and mutually determining social movements.” I was touched and even inspired as she continued to flesh out her choice: “This agent of transformation sees an issue from the point of view of all of the oppressed—not just a privileged subgroup—making it appropriate to the task of deconstructing and transforming the multiple, interdependent forms of inequality and oppression that characterize our current global capitalist system.”
I want to take the vision of transformation a step further with two questions: liberation for whom, and liberation for what?
What I want is liberation for all, regardless of my own position within the power/oppression map of the world (a position that is utterly complex as a female, immigrant (to the US), Israeli Jew in voluntary political exile with multi-ethnicity within the Jewish internal map, highly educated, property-less, 62-year old person who actively dis-identifies in action with modernity and with capitalism).
Liberation for all is both a path and a goal. Human societies have had two fundamental and simple visions. One is the vision of a world that works for all (the term was coined by Shariff Abdullah). The other is a vision of a world that works for all the good guys. The latter is the one that separates. The former is the one my heart longs for.
I see the framing that Julie Matthaei offers as still separating the world, leaving only the “ally” role for those who are closer to the centers of power. I reiterate: I want liberation for all. As I embrace feminism and work to liberate female persons around the world, however different they experience oppression based on so many other dimensions, I also at the same time want to liberate male persons around the world. Because patriarchy and its multiple offspring, including centrally capitalism, racism, and colonialism—rob all of us of our human dignity, our freedom, our communities, our place in nature, and our capacity to care for the whole, not only some of us.
When Julie Matthaei speaks of “meeting the needs of women and their families,” I want to speak of meeting the needs of all people and all life. Patriarchy set us on a collision course with life by aiming to control life. We are now running towards extinction, possibly, of all life on the planet. My own sense is that nothing short of liberation for all will sufficiently restore the flow of life that we were once part of.
This, then, is my answer to my second question: A world in which we all value people and life and participate in a flow of generosity. A world where sharing our gifts and the mundane tasks of life are both done with wholehearted willingness, free of coercion. A world where attending to everyone’s needs is the organizing principle.
None of us know how to bring about the transformation, or we would be doing it. For now, in this conversation group, I am hoping for mutual support in learning collectively how to bring about liberation for all. The framework that Joanna Macy provides for the great turning speaks to me in its simplicity: a combined approach of consciousness transformation, creating alternatives, and strategic campaigns to halt the harm in the most critical places. This combined approach can address the wrenching puzzle in which we live: regardless of how much personal growth work we have had, or the strength of our vision and values, we are immensely prone to recreating patriarchal ways of being.
What does this look like in practical life?
Parenting for Freedom and Belonging
Although it is enormously difficult to parent children against patriarchal norms, small pockets of such parenting are growing.4 Nonpatriarchal parenting within the context of a supportive community strong enough to withstand the objections is a simple and exacting practice: no coercion, no shaming, no fundamental interference with the child’s unfolding, and the willingness of parents to state their own needs and collaborate with children of all ages to find solutions that work for all. Children then learn, organically, that other people also have needs while having their own needs honored. Children then learn responsibility and care while learning to trust themselves and ask for the support they need.
Nonpatriarchal parenting goes way beyond transcending gender norms or even the patriarchal categories or masculine and feminine. Nonpatriarchal parenting is about raising a new generation of people who experience love the way that Maturana and Verden-Zöller understand it: the possibility of resting in trust of comfort, acceptance, and mutual pleasure.
Creating Islands of Transformation
Our task, as individuals and as members of groups and organizations, is to move as far as possible and slightly beyond in the direction of our boldest vision. In my experience, this requires relentless vigilance to keep from dropping right back into the sea of patriarchal conditioning from which we are aiming to emerge.
Individually, this means rigorous practices and vast networks of support to compensate for the continual pushback from everywhere. My compass for my own person is always full inner freedom: the capacity to choose my responses from my purpose and values rather than from scripts, fears, or obligations.
Relationally, this means remembering that our relationships are embedded within patterns of separation and scarcity, and finding the willingness to remain lovingly engaged even when it’s difficult. My compass here: speaking, always, the deepest truth I know about myself with the most care possible for the other, and listening with an open heart to what comes back.
In groups and organizations, this means recognizing that our collaboration muscles have atrophied, and setting up systems, i.e., sets of agreements, that anchor our commitments, especially those that could easily falter in the presence of power differences of any kind. This includes how we make decisions, how we allocate resources, and how information flows. My compass here shows up also as systems: how we give and receive feedback so that we can keep learning, and what we do when conflicts emerge.
Globally, this means to me reclaiming the commons. The so-called tragedy of the commons is one of the most condensed embodiments of patriarchal thinking, and has been refuted by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom. We are designed by evolution to engage collaboratively with each other and nature to care for life. We have forgotten, and we can restore this capacity. Permaculture is just one of many untold developments that pave the way forward into a collaborative future that encompasses nonhuman life.
Any aspect of life that isn’t consciously institutionalized along the vision and values we have will too easily revert to patriarchal norms of either/or, separation, scarcity, and punitive responses to conflict. Even as we prepare and consider how to encounter and transcend the inevitable resistance from the centers of power, we have much to learn and to embody in order to become ever better at living the future into being.
1. Humberto Maturana and Gerda Verden-Zöller, The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2008).
2. For more details, you are invited to look at my full article: “From Obedience and Shame to Freedom and Belonging: Transforming Patriarchal Paradigms of Child-Rearing in the Age of Global Warming,” 2017, http://thefearlessheart.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/From-Obedience-and-Shame-to-Freedom-and-Belonging.pdf. At their most pointedly violent, patriarchal paradigms of child-rearing are depicted with immense and compelling power in Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983).
3. Genevieve Vaughan, For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange (Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 1997).
4. See Inbal Kashtan’s Parenting from Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice (San Diego: Puddle Dancer Press, 2004).
Cite as Miki Kastan, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on Feminism and Revolution,'" Great Transition Initiative (June 2018), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/feminism-revolution-miki-kashtan.
As a forum 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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