Building a Caring Economy and Society* Beyond Capitalism, Socialism, and Other Old Isms

5. Domination Systems

The configuration of the domination system supports relations of top-down rankings: man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, nation over nation, and man over nature. From the perspective of conventional categories, Hitler’s Germany (a technolo- gically advanced, Western, rightist society), the Taliban of Afghanistan and fundamentalist Iran (two Eastern religious societies), and the would-be regime of the rightist-fundamentalist alliance in the United States seem totally different.

But all have the three mutually supporting core components of the domination system:

• top-down control in both families and states or tribes;
• rigid male dominance — and with this, the devaluation by both men and women of anything stereotypically considered “feminine,” including care and caregiving;
• the acceptance, even idealization, of violence as a means of imposing one’s will on others

If we re-examine the critique of capitalism as unjust and exploitative from this perspective, we see that in reality it is a critique, not of capitalism per se, but of the beliefs, institutions, and relationships inherent in domination systems – be they ancient or modern, Western or Eastern, feudal, monarchic, or totalitarian. We see that long before capitalist billionaires amassed huge fortunes, Egyptian Pharaohs and Chinese emperors hoarded their nations’ wealth. Indian potentates demanded tributes of silver and gold while lower castes lived in abject poverty. Middle Eastern warlords pillaged, plundered, and terrorized their people. European feudal lords killed their neighbors and oppressed their subjects. In all these pre-capitalist times and places, the gap between haves and have-nots was huge and the mass of people had little if any chance to improve their lot. In short, they were all rigid domination systems.

So, neo-liberalism can best be understood in terms of the foundational components of domination systems. To begin with, the policies advocated by this recent iteration of unre- gulated capitalism are designed to reconsolidate wealth and power in the hands of those on top.11 While neo-liberal rhetoric is about freedom, what this really means is freedom for those on top to do what they wish, free from government regulation.12 Its “trickledown economics” represents a return to the “traditional” order where those at the bottom are socialized to content themselves with the crumbs dropping from their masters’ opulent tables.

The neo-liberal promotion of rushing into a “preemptive war” against Iraq continued the traditional reliance of domination systems on violence. And the neo-liberals’ alliance with the so-called religious right reinforces still another core component of domination systems: a “traditional” highly punitive family where children learn that it is very painful to question orders, no matter how unjust, and where the ranking of one half of humanity over the other half is presented as normal and moral – a mental and emotional template for equating all differences with either superiority or inferiority, dominating or being dominated.

With this ranking of male over female comes another distinguishing feature of neo-liberalism: its contempt for the “soft” or stereotypically “feminine,” as in the vitriolic attacks on what they call the “nanny state.” Accordingly, a key neo-liberal requirement is that gover- nment programs designed to care for people, such as healthcare, childcare, and aid to poor families, be defunded both in the United States and through structural adjustment policies in the “developing” world, with “austerity,” a code name for defunding such programs and instead funneling billions to big banks, insurance companies, and automakers that need “bailouts.”

From the new perspective of the domination/partnership continuum, we can also see that Smith developed capitalist theory at a time when the ranking of “superiors” over “inferiors” was still the general norm – be it of kings over their “subjects,” trading companies over colo- nized peoples, “superior” races over “inferior” ones, or men over the women and children in the “castles” of their homes. In other words, capitalism was developed in times that still oriented much more to the domination side of the partnership/domination continuum.

Similarly, while Marx’s theories came out of times when there were already organized challenges to these rankings, they too reflected and perpetuated dominator assumptions – including the devaluation of women and anything stereotypically associated with women, such as care and caregiving. Moreover, when Marx’s goal of a “dictatorship of the prole- tariat” was realized in the former Soviet Union and China, it was in cultures where a rigid domination system had long been established. So, not surprisingly, authoritarianism, violence, and male dominance still remained the norm.

6. Partnership Systems

The partnership system’s configuration supports social and economic relations of mutual respect, accountability, and benefit. This does not mean that there is only cooperation in part- nership systems; people cooperate all the time in domination systems: monopolies cooperate, terrorists cooperate, criminal gangs cooperate, invading armies cooperate. Moreover, it does not mean a completely flat structure. There are also hierarchies in partnership systems. But rather than hierarchies of domination where accountability, respect, and benefits only flow from the bottom up, partnership systems have hierarchies of actualization, where power is not used to disempower, but to empower others.13

Societies orienting to the partnership side of the partnership/domination continuum can also be very different in terms of conventional social categories. For example, they can be tribal, such as the Teduray of the Philippines studied by the University of California anth- ropologist Stuart Schlegel.14 They can be agrarian as the Minangkabau people of Sumatra, studied by the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday.15 They can be industrialized, as we see in Scandinavian or Nordic countries.16

But these otherwise very different partnership-oriented societies all share the same core configuration:

• a more democratic and egalitarian structure in both the family and state or tribe;
• equal partnership between women and men, and with this, a high valuing in women and men as well as in economic policy of traits and activities stereotypically considered feminine such as care and caregiving;
• a low degree of abuse and violence, because they are not needed to maintain rigid rankings of domination.

Figure 3: The Partnership & Domination Systems
Reprinted from Riane Eisler (2007) The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a CaringEconomy, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

For example, in nations such as Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, we find more democracy and equality in both the family and the state; a higher status of women (approximately 40 percent of their national legislators are female); and concerted efforts to leave behind traditions of abuse and violence (they pioneered the first peace studies, enacted the first laws prohibiting physical discipline of children in families, and have a strong men’s movement to disentangle “masculinity” from its equation with domination and violence).

These are not ideal societies. But supported by this more partnership-oriented social configuration, these nations enacted economic policies that combine positive elements of socialism and capitalism — but go beyond both by adopting economic inventions that give priority to caring for people and nature. They have government-supported childcare, universal healthcare, stipends to help families care for children, elder care with dignity, and generously paid parental leave.

These more caring policies, in turn, were key in these countries’ move from extreme poverty (famines in the early 20th century) to regularly ranking high in the United Nations’ annual Human Development Reports in measures of quality of life as well as in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness reports today.17

These nations have a generally good living standard for all. They have low poverty and crime rates and high longevity rates. Because they also provide good family planning and encourage women to enter the paid labor force, their support for raising children has not led to a population explosion.

They pioneered environmentally sound industrial approaches such as the Swedish “Natural Step” and are ahead of most nations in meeting their goal of environmental sus- tainability. Some of the first experiments in industrial democracy came from Sweden and Norway, as did studies showing that a more participatory structure – where workers play a part in deciding how to organize tasks and what hours to work—can be extremely effective. Moreover, Nordic nations have a long history of business cooperatives, jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprises that have included concern for the community in which they operate as one of their guiding principles.

With the ascendancy of neo-liberalism and the globalization of unregulated capitalism over the last decades, Nordic nations too began to move toward more privatization. Nonet- heless, they have been able to maintain most of their caring policies and hence their high rankings in international surveys of quality of life—ranging from environmental and human rights ratings to infant mortality rates, where the U.S. by contrast fell behind every industrialized nation and even poor ones like Cuba.18

A basic reason is that these nations continue their investment of resources in caring for people and nature. Indeed, these nations contribute a larger percentage of their gross dome- stic product than other developed nations to caring for other nations and races: to fund and carry out programs working for fair economic development, environmental protection, and human rights.

It has sometimes been said that Nordic nations have a greater investment in their human and environmental infrastructure because they are relatively small and homogeneous. But their investment in helping people from all world regions contradicts this claim. Moreover, in smaller, even more homogeneous societies such as some oil-rich Middle-Eastern nations where absolute conformity to one religious sect and one tribal or royal head is demanded, we find huge gaps between haves and have-nots along with the rigid subordination of the female half of humanity and a heavy reliance on fear and force to maintain their domination systems.

So, we have to look at other factors to understand why Nordic nations have a more caring and equitable economic system. One of these factors, still ignored in mainstream economic analyses, is greater equality between the male and female halves of humanity, as illustrated by the fact that women can, and do, occupy the highest political offices and comprise a large percentage of national legislatures. And while this was certainly not the only factor, the higher status of Nordic women has had important consequences for the values that guide Nordic policies.

In domination-oriented systems, men are socialized to distance themselves from women and anything stereotypically considered feminine, lest they be tagged with humiliating labels such as “wimp,” “sissy,” or “effeminate.” By contrast, in partnership-oriented cultures, men can give more value to care, caregiving, non-violence, and other traits and activities deemed inappropriate for men in dominator societies because they’re associated with “inferior” femi- ninity. So, along with the higher status of Nordic women, many men and women back more caring policies—policies that give value and visibility to the work of caring for people and nature.19


11. D. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); D. Harvey, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
12. Ibid.
13. Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations.
14. S. Schlegel, Wisdom from a Rainforest (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).
15. P. R. Sanday, Women at the Center (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).
16. Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations.
17. K. Schwab, ed., The Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2010).
18. CIA, The World Factbook, Country Comparison: Infant Mortality Rates, 2011.
19. R. Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007).



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