Faye, a 78 year old Inuit woman, was one of three elders left in the village of Wales, Alaska when Gretel Ehrlich visited there in midwinter of 2007. One evening Ehrlich braved the blasting snow and a windchill of 40 degrees below zero for a dinner at Faye’s house. Faye’s son provided the transportation: a snow-go (snowmobile) trip through town. Faye served a dinner of boiled reindeer meat and fermented bearded seal on pieces of cardboard. The beverage was meltwater from a nearby pond served in plastic cups. Dinner might as easily have been walrus or polar bear, year round staples provided by subsistence hunters. Reindeer meat is also a local staple, as domesticated reindeer were introduced to the Inuit by Christian missionaries in the late 1800s. Flounder was another menu possibility for midwinter dining, but Faye would have fished for the flounder herself. She described her fishing technique to Ehrlich. She’d go out onto the ice and build a small igloo to keep the wind off her back, then lay out flat on the ice with her head over a “lead”, an open lane of water, and spear the fish as they passed by. (See Empire of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich.)
Inuit woman ice fishing near Nome Alaska in early 20th century
Dinner at Faye’s house, like the rest of Ehrlich’s stay in the Inuit village of Wales, was an odd mixture of Inuit tradition with the U.S. dominant culture, of a subsistence economy with the capitalist mainstream. An expensive gas-guzzling snowmobile delivered Ehrlich to a traditional dinner dish of fermented bearded seal served on throwaway cardboard that must have come from corporate activities in the village. This pattern was repeated throughout the village. The women still pick wild greens and berries and preserve the greens in glass jars filled with seal oil – a classic mix of subsistence and industrial goods. Subsistence hunting is still a major focus for part of the community, but it has become expensive. Hunters need to pay for snowmobiles, four wheelers, outboard motors and gasoline. Only a few dog teams are still used. There were still four full whaling teams that would set out into the Bering Strait for the spring and fall whale migrations, but instead of traditional skin boats, the whalers now used outboard motors. The whaling is more dangerous nowadays, though, because the ice is changing due to climate change. And some whalers speak only English, a language without the words needed to talk about subtleties in the changing ice.
The dominant culture has won out more completely in some sectors. As in other parts of Alaska, airplanes are the principle form of long distance transportation. You can, for example, order a pizza from nearby Nome and have it delivered to Wales by air on a regularly scheduled flight. Since the closest modern health care facilities are in Nome, the women of Wales fly there a month before they are due to give birth and stay until delivery. Midwives used to deliver the babies of Wales at home. The high school in Wales is a modern facility with central heat, flush toilets, computers, moviemaking equipment, a biology lab and art-making facilities. Most of the young people are far more enamored with electronic devices than they are with learning subsistence skills. But, the wealth of the dominant culture does not extend very far into this town of the Far North. There is little food available in the stores. Most homes and buildings are not insulated. Flush toilets are uncommon.
The Inuit peoples had a fully self-sufficient subsistence economy prior to the invasion of westerners. The villages like Wales in the (relatively) low latitudes had particularly rich cultures as life was somewhat warmer and easier there than in the extreme north. Now, the people of Wales live with a very mixed economy: part subsistence economy and part the economy of the dominant culture.
The indigenous economies of the Far North are not alone in being a mixture of subsistence and the capitalist market economy. As Rauna Kuokkanen says:
“Today’s indigenous economies often are mixed economies in which subsistence production continues to play a considerable role. Mixed economies are characterized by a mix of activities such as subsistence, commodity production, wage labor, transfers (social assistance, unemployment insurance, welfare, pensions, and other statutory or fiduciary payments), and enterprise.” (Kuokkanen, “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 221) )
In indigenous societies, the subsistence economy always predates the capitalist one which was inevitably imposed through nefarious means: conquest, colonialism, and “free trade” agreements between nations. The two economies often become well integrated. For example, cash from wage labor may be used to purchase materials and equipment needed for subsistence activities. Or, a hunter might trap and hunt animals for food (a subsistence activity) while simultaneously serving as a paid guide for outsiders (a wage-based activity). On the Upper Missouri River Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara women collect commodity foods and welfare benefits and then redistribute them throughout their communities. Sharing is a key feature of subsistence economies and these Native women continue that practice even though the goods come from the dominating economy.
“Subsistence is often considered the most reliable form of economy in the long run, whereas other forms are usually more short-term and unpredictable.” (Rauna Kuokkanen)
According to Kuokkanen, “subsistence is often considered the most reliable form of economy in the long run, whereas other forms are usually more short-term and unpredictable.” (Kuokkanen, “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 222) Not surprising! Capitalism’s goal is making a profit, not making sure everyone has their needs taken care of. But, subsistence economies generally provided all the basic needs of communities and a good life for all until capitalism interfered.
Most of the highly industrialized nations that currently dominate the rest of the earth are considered to have capitalist economies, but this is not an accurate belief. A great deal of subsistence activity takes place in every human community, not just amongst indigenous peoples. Even the wealthiest world economies are actually mixed economies and very dependent on subsistence.
What Is the Subsistence Economy, Anyway?
Gardening at Cedar Hill, an important subsistence activity. Jeanne got this wheelbarrow in the mid 1970s when she was stabling several of her horses behind her house. We're still using this capitalist-made wheelbarrow in our garden and for hauling wood, water and everything else, in part, because nothing for sale at any of the stores we've looked at can compare. We've done major and minor repairs on it over the years.
As Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen explain, “Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation, and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose.” (The Subsistence Perspective by Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, p. 20) Subsistence activities include the production of necessities like food, but also the work involved in bearing and raising children and maintaining households. In industrialized societies profit-based enterprises typically take over many or most forms of production and, increasingly, many services (e.g. auto maintenance, hair care, dog boarding). But, even in the wealthiest capitalist economies, household tasks and the work of raising children are usually done in the subsistence economy. You can easily tell whether an activity is subsistence or not. If there is no formal exchange (of money or barter), then an activity is almost certainly subsistence.
Just think about all the work you do to keep yourself and your family functioning and that no one pays you to do! All of these tasks are part of the subsistence economy. You may buy groceries, but if you ever cook a meal at home,then the cooking is a subsistence activity. Other unpaid work you do yourself to keep your household running is likewise subsistence work: housecleaning, yard work, washing clothes, house repairs or improvements, and so on. Like the Inuit, you may at times use technology arising from the capitalist economy while performing subsistence labors (e.g., using a dishwasher or vaccuum).
If you are a woman and become pregnant, all the work associated with your childbearing and nursing is unpaid reproductive work and part of the subsistence economy (though the midwife or doctor you hire to assist in childbirth is part of the dominant economy). You would not be alive at this moment if your mother had not done the subsistence work of birthing you. You may do the many, many tasks associated with raising children: nurturing, feeding, playing, toilet training, teaching skills like catching a ball or knitting, providing transportation, and on and on and on. You may provide care for a family member or friend who is sick, aged or has a disability.
You may plant and tend a vegetable garden and provide fresh food for your household and perhaps even for your friends and larger community. Maybe you sew your own or your children’s clothes. Perhaps you have a “hobby” in which you create useful tools, furniture, quilts or other goods for friends and family. Or you hunt and fish and supply much of the food your family eats. Maybe you forage for wild foods: berries, cattails, acorns, hickory nuts, pawpaws.
Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, is reported to have asked a group of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, “How productive do you think your work force would be if it was not toilet trained?”
If you work a paying job, you still do plenty of productive and unpaid activities on your time off. Think, what do I do that is outside the capitalist marketplace and that keeps my life and the lives of the people I love working well? Unless you are very wealthy and able to somehow obtain all your needs and desires from servants, employees, prostitutes, and corporate-provided services (a very lonely and dependent existence), your well-being, even your survival, depends on your own and/or someone else’s subsistence work. Some subsistence activities may by repetitious and boring (as are many of the jobs in the capitalist economy), but the work you do for yourself and the people you love can be deeply satisfying.
Relationships within the capitalist economy are always motivated, at least in part, by concerns such as making a profit, making a sale, keeping a job or advancing in the workplace. Only in the subsistence economy, where the only purpose is the creation, re-creation or maintenance of life, can relationships be authentic. This doesn’t mean that relationships are always wonderful in the subsistence economy – many are marred by patriarchy, white supremacy and other forms of domination – but they can be. Sharing and cooperation are central to subsistence and these practices build strong bonds between people and within communities.
Capitalism: The Parasite on the Subsistence Economy
The Subsistence Perspective by Maria Mies and Veronika Benholdt-Thomsen critiques capitalism and argues for an alternative: the subsistence economy and way of life. This is a classic feminist text.
Individuals in any capitalist economy are dependent on the underlying subsistence economy. But, the capitalist economy and the continual economic growth it requires are likewise dependent on the subsistence work of women and peasants and other supposedly “free” resources. In The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy, Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen explain this dependence, as I’ll describe over the next several paragraphs.
Marx theorized that capitalism originated following a period of violent acquisition, that this “primitive accumulation of capital” was the pre-condition for capitalism. For Marx, once capitalism was established, capital grew thru the exploitation of wage laboriers. In the 1920s, Rosa Luxemburg argued that Marx’s analysis was inaccurate and that capital accumulation depended not just on wage labor, but on the continual exploitation of non-capitalist resources, specifically peasants and artisans. Once the colonies were established, capitalism became dependent on colonialism.
Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen extended Luxemburg’s ideas further. While Marx accounted for ongoing capital accumulation and economic growth as due to workers being paid only enough to “reproduce their labor power”, and not the full value of their work, he did not take into account all of the life-producing and life-preserving work women did to create and maintain “labor power”. Women’s work appeared to be a free resource to Marx, other economic theorists, capitalists, and the state. Thus, capitalism depends on the “free” labor of women.
Based on their newfound understanding of what they called “housewifization” together with Luxemburg’s insights, Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen went on to develop their “iceberg model” of patriarchal capitalist economies. In the iceberg model, the visible economy of capital and wage labor (GNP) cannot exist without an invisible base of unacknowledged work and resources including: workers without a labor contract (e.g. homeworkers, informal sector, child labor), subsistence peasants’ work, women’s reproduction work and housework, colonies of the global South and North, and nature. Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen called these invisible elements at the base of the iceberg economy the “Colonies of the White Man”, with “white man” signifying the western industrial system. These Colonies of the White Man provided labor and resources free or nearly free of cost. The exploitation of these Colonies of the White Man was the only reason economic growth was possible. Thus, capitalism is only able to accumulate capital and create economic growth by the forceful conquering, acquisition and destruction of traditional subsistence economies and the ongoing exploitation of people’s subsistence work, including everything from housework, childbearing and child rearing to subsistence farming and production of handicrafts. Where would capitalism obtain its workers if women did not bear and raise children? Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen’s analysis makes it clear that capitalism is a patriarchal system. Without the ability to exploit women’s reproductive capacities and other labor, capitalism could not grow or even exist.
Every so-called capitalist economy is a mixed economy, but this does not mean that capitalism and subsistence are two equal economies, peacefully co-existing. Instead the capitalist economy dominates the subsistence economy and exploits subsistence work, but does its best to keep people unaware of the domination and unaware even of the continued existence of the subsistence economy. Capitalism pretends to be the only economy while simultaneously smearing subsistence as dirty, old-fashioned, and able to provide only a bleak, sad, deprived way of living. The strategy is to make people dependent on the capitalist economy and simultaneously unaware of the of how dependent capitalism and everyone in it are on subsistence.
Capitalism pretends to be the only economy while simultaneously smearing subsistence as dirty, old-fashioned, and able to provide only a bleak, sad, deprived way of living. The strategy is to make people dependent on the capitalist economy and simultaneously unaware of the of how dependent capitalism and everyone in it are on subsistence.
Meanwhile capitalism is continually expanding, taking more and more from the subsistence economy, people all over the world, and nature. Capitalism has been effective in its global quest to take land from rural people, forcing them out of their self-sufficient subsistence ways of life and into a life of poverty within the capitalist economy. Even where rural people in former colonies are able to remain on their land, they are often forced or enticed to grow cash crops for the world markets, instead of growing crops to feed their own families and local economies. The growing service economy is an example of capitalism’s tactic of increasing its scope within industrialized societies, this time by luring us into paying for work our parents and grandparents did for themselves. The capitalists want you to eat at McDonald’s instead of cooking your own meals. They want you to pay for a manicure, pay to have a party catered, and pay for your dog to go to Dog Party USA. As the service economy grows, the power of capitalism expands and the economy that produces life, the subsistence economy, diminishes. As capitalism sucks more and more people more and more deeply into its profit-making machinery, it is at the same time chewing up more and more of nature and churning out increasingly short-lasting, barely useful products.
Women’s Economy, Core Economy, Subsistence Economy?
This photo from Survival International is of Bushmen being forced to rely on watermelons for vital fluid because of lack of access to boreholes on their ancestral land. Diamonds have been found on their lands and the Botswana government has done everything it can to keep the Bushmen off the land, including denying access to water. The contrast between a so-called 'primitive' society, the Bushmen, who live by giving gifts and a modern state that is so stingy it won't let the people indigenous to the land have access to water holes is eye-opening. The Survival International web site provides updated information on the status of the Bushmen's struggles and also tells you how you can help.
The subsistence economy has been called by many different names: the women’s economy, gift economy, love economy, and core economy. Each of these names emphasizes a particular aspect of what I call the subsistence economy. The names, gift economy and love economy, let us know that the economic relationships that take place in subsistence economies are based in caring and community, not hierarchy and profit. Gift giving builds goodwill within a close-knit local community, but also between communities. For example, the Ju/wasi (Bushmen) of the Kalahari in southern Africa traditionally gave each other gifts (xaro) to create ties within their own bands but also between different bands who, in times of need, depended on each other’s material support and goodwill. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explains just how extensive the practice of gift giving was among the Ju/wasi: “With the possible exception of certain articles of clothing (the Ju/wasi did not have spare clothes), almost every object in Nyae Nyae was subject to xaro, received as a gift from someone else, to be given as a gift to another person later.” (The Old Way: A Story of the First People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, p. 220)
The name, women’s economy, points to the way that capitalist economies typically employ men as workers, or producers of cash crops, while leaving women to carry out their traditional roles inside the subsistence economy – doing the work of the household including child raising, housework and subsistence gardening or farming. This dynamic, used in the capitalist takeover of many different cultures, has put money and power in the hands of men and increased women’s dependence on men, though also, in some instances, freed women to resist capitalism. I like the name, women’s economy, but it is time to end the men’s capitalist economy. Men are going to have to pull their weight in carrying out the work of maintaining Life, of subsistence. Hopefully, as men who are now deeply immersed in the dominant culture become grounded in subsistence economies, they will learn to relate using power-with, not power over, and regain connection to the natural world.
But, the women’s economy is also so-named by feminists because it is an economy of gift giving and nurturance, and nurturance is often the province of women. As Genevieve Vaughan explained in Ms. magazine in 1991,
The present (capitalist) economic system is based in “exchange, which can be described as giving in order to receive. The motivation is self-oriented since what is given returns under a different form to the giver to satisfy her or his need…This seemingly simple human interaction of exchange, since it is done so often, becomes a sort of archetype or magnet for other human interactions, making itself – and whatever looks like it – seem normal, while anything else is crazy… Exchange puts the ego first and allows it to grow and develop in ways that emphasize me-first competitive and hierarchical behavior patterns. The ego is not an intrinsic part of the human being, but is a social product coming from the kinds of human interactions it is involved in… The alternative paradigm … is nurturing and generally other-oriented. It continues to exist because it has a basis in the nature of infants: they are dependent and incapable of giving back to the giver…Since a large percentage of women nurture babies, we are directed toward having an experience outside exchange. This requires orientation toward interest in the other… Our satisfaction comes from her or his growth or happiness, not just from our own.”
Thus, the exchange relationships basic to capitalistm are ego-based and most comfortable to people with a “me-first competitive and hierarchical behavior” pattern – mostly men. An economic system based in gift giving and sharing suits people comfortable with nurturance – mostly women. Capitalism, based in exchange, domination, exploitation, and profit-making is an economic system that could only develop within a male dominated system – patriarchy.
Recently, the name “core economy” has come into common use, popularized by Edgar Cahn, the founder of the Time Bank movement. With his use of the word “core”, Cahn makes it clear that the subsistence economy is not a vestige of an outdated world, but is at the very center of the capitalist economy. According to Cahn, economists estimate that 40-50% of productive economic activities take place outside the market, within the core economy.
The name, “core economy”, obscures the power relationship between the capitalist economy and the subsistence economy. As Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen make so clear, the capitalist economy exploits the workers of the subsistence economy, making the capitalists wealthy at the expense of everyone belonging to capitalism’s invisible base. We need to shrink and then end capitalism, but some reformers in the Left want to find ways to use the “core economy” to help underfunded social services help people within a failing capitalist patriarchy. In Britain, for example, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) promotes “co-production,” a way for social service professionals and “clients” to work together to provide assistance in a community. The “clients” become peer providers. As explained by NEF:
“The need is clear – how to recognize the hidden assets that public service clients represent, and make public services into engines that can release these assets into the neighborhoods around them – and to do so even when public sector budgets are severely constrained whilst avoiding people becoming cynical about the role and motivation of the state.” (Co-Production: A Manifesto for Growing the Core Economy, New Economics Foundation)
The intentions of NEF seem good. They want to help people and strengthen the core economy:
“The idea of co-production points to ways we can rebuild and reinvigorate this core economy and realise its potential, and how public services can play a part in making it happen.” (Co-Production: A Manifesto for Growing the Core Economy, New Economics Foundation)
But, social services and social service professionals, like it or not, are part of the dominant economic system. Within that system, professionals inevitably have power over “clients” and power-with relationships are impossible. Social service workers cannot rebuild the core economy because, at least in their professional roles, they are outside the core economy. The core or subsistence economy can only be rebuilt by grassroots efforts and any efforts to utilize it by professionals may help some individuals, but co-opts subsistence and extends the power of the dominant economy. The dominant economy would like to fool people into thinking it is benevolent. But, we can’t afford to fall for that ploy. We must stop capitalism, not make it a little bit nicer. With the word, subsistence, we aren’t confused, thinking we just have two nice wonderful economies – core and capitalist – and isn’t it nice they can co-exist so well, ignoring the power relationships between the two and the devastation wrought by capitalism.
Subsistence is a word of power! Those of us ensnared in capitalist economies fear subsistence because we have been subjected to a lifetime of propaganda against subsistence. I use the word subsistence because it makes people in the industrialized world uncomfortable. As Starhawk points out in Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics: “the words we are comfortable with, the words that sound acceptable, rational, scientific, and intellectually sound, are comfortable precisely because they are the language of estrangement.” Estrangement is the consciousness of separation, separation from nature, other people, parts of ourselves. Estrangement is the consciousness that creates and allows domination, power over relationships. The subsistence economy is a gift economy and a women’s economy. These are all excellent names and should be used often. But, at a time when the runaway consumption of a crazed capitalist economy is creating rising seas, deadly droughts and razed mountaintops, a focus on subsistence, on an economics of Life is critical.
Conclusion: Ecofeminist Transformations in Troubled Times
Compost is one of the critical needs of an ecofeminist society. If we want life to continue we need for each of us to do the subsistence work of building the soil. We can caretake the earth, each of us helping to restore small areas of land and eliminating toxic industrial agriculture. The pitchfork is the same vintage as the wheelbarrow pictured earlier.
As Bennholdt-Thomsen explains, “Subsistence is the sum total of everything that humans need to survive: food and drink, protection from cold and heat, caring and company. If subsistence needs are met, life can continue.” The globalized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy continues to take more and more from our planet, more than she can possibly give, and convinces many people in the middle and even working classes that we each need more and more. We have taken so much that we are now in great danger from climate chaos, deteriorating ecosystems, and a failing economy that can’t be trusted by ordinary people. If you pay any attention to all to the mainstream discussion of climate change, you’ll notice that much of the talk is now about adaptation to climate change, making communities more resilient in the face of an unknowable future of climate disasters and repercussions cascading across the globe. Because most governments in the industrialized world have failed for close to 30 years (and are still failing) to stop use of fossil fuels, the looming question is how do we survive the forces that have been set in motion. We need to focus on survival, not on getting more and more stuff. Meeting survival needs – and meeting them well – is what subsistence economies are made to do.
We are fortunate that we do have mixed economies and aren’t just stuck with capitalism! We don’t have to start from scratch and re-invent a whole new economy. We already have a great base – the subsistence economy – to work from. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism. But as Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen tell us, “Subsistence is the alternative.” The task at hand, economically speaking, is to grow our existing subsistence economies and shrink capitalism down to nothing.
We can each of us start right now. We make dozens of choices every day about what we buy and do – and don’t buy and don’t do. We can choose: capitalism or subsistence economy? Capitalism or subsistence economy? What do you want? As individual women we have great power to make changes.
But, that power can be magnified by working together to rebuild our subsistence economies and local communities. A grassroots Transition movement is currently afoot globally to make the shift off of fossil fuels in local communities and pare down consumption. But, we can use ecofeminist values and understanding to create Ecofeminist Transitions that rebuild local communities and restore nature, eliminating domination in all its many forms. Obviously women must take power if we are to eliminate patriarchy. But, the power we take must be that of power-with, not power over, so that the communities we build are liberated from white supremacy, male domination, scarcity and wealth inequality, and all the oppressions we presently suffer. Building the subsistence economy and our ability to survive and survive well is key to the Ecofeminist transformation of society.