Macrohistorian” is a term used to describe thinkers whose study encompasses the totality of human events, from our earliest beginnings to modern times, in search of patterns and laws of social change. Riane Eisler is such a thinker, one whose ideas have the potential to both transform public policy and alter individual consciousness. She is the only woman and the only living member among twenty great thinkers including Hegel, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Arnold Toynbee, featured in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians as a result of her lasting impact as a cultural historian and evolutionary theorist.
Anthropologist Ashley Montagu referred to Eisler’s 1987 international bestseller The Chalice and the Blade as the most important book since Darwin’s Origin of the Species. In her latest work, The Real Wealth of Nations, Eisler examines the fundamental assumptions underlying our economic systems and the potential of a future based on partnership rather than domination. As a lawyer specializing in Constitutional law, a sociologist and a systems theorist, Eisler brings a formidable set of skills to her research, which supports the idea that placing equal value on work traditionally associated with women is ultimately economically beneficial for everyone.
In addition to running the Center for Partnership Studies in Pacific Grove, California, Eisler is also the co-founder of the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence along with Nobel Laureate Betty Williams. A vocal advocate for women’s rights globally, she is the author of more than two hundred papers and journal articles. Eisler is a founding member of the General Evolution Research Group a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and World Business Academy, and a commissioner of the World Commision on Global Consciousness and Spirituality, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. She spoke with SuperConsciousness about partnership, economics, and the future.
SC: You suggest that our historical model of economics is based on a system of domination. How does that system work?
RE: We have inherited a system in which basically, those at top are privileged and those at the bottom get the droppings from the table. It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s an alternative, what I call a partnership system, and historically, that has ample precedent. As a matter of fact, there is a very strong trend in that direction. That system is not only more effective in human terms and environmental terms, but in economic terms.
SC: An underlying assumption you talked about in your book is the belief that placing an economic value on caregiving is an impediment to productivity. What have you found in your research?
RE: That it’s just the opposite, of course. But let’s come back to that assumption, because it’s very important to put it on the table and look at it. It’s very interesting that we in the market economy pay professions that don’t involve caring and caregiving work, like plumbing and engineering, much more than those that entail, in the work itself, caring and caregiving.
The most obvious example is childcare, but also elementary school teaching. In this country people think nothing of paying a plumber fifty to one hundred dollars an hour, but according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the childcare worker, the person to whom we entrust our children, gets only an average of ten dollars an hour, with no benefits. And of course people insist that the plumber be trained; how could we entrust our pipes to someone that isn’t? But we don’t insist that all childcare workers be trained. Obviously, this isn’t logical. It’s pathological, but it’s built into the really invisible system that I call gendered values, in which anything that is stereotypically associated with women or the feminine, whether it’s in a woman or a man, is devalued.
People insist that the plumber be trained; how could we entrust our pipes to someone that isn’t? But we don’t insist that all childcare workers be trained. Obviously, this isn’t logical. It’s pathological
Economists will say that the market determines value, but the underlying and largely invisible cultural values are much more powerful. So we’ve got that assumption and it is very strong, but in reality, investing in caring and caregiving is much more effective, never mind in human or environmental terms, but in simple dollars and cents.
In the market economy, studies show that companies that appear on the Fortune 500 lists and Working Mothers lists of the best companies to work for have a higher return on investment. These are caring companies. One study that I particularly like to cite was of four companies that invested in child care. People say, “We can’t afford that, and anyway, it’s sort of a frill.” Within four years these companies had a five hundred return on investment.
There was less absenteeism, more retention, less turnover, people are present, but above all people work harder because they want the company that is caring of them and their families to succeed.
SC: One of the most appalling charts in your book was related to spending. It was a pie chart that showed the 2005 budget, and the percentage of military spending relative to education, health care, early childhood development. There’s this argument that, “Oh, well, obviously we can’t afford that,” yet clearly we can afford more weapons.
RE: It’s so fascinating, because we’re told that big government and huge deficits are just fine when it comes to wars, to weapons, to prisons, but somehow we can’t afford it for childcare, for healthcare. Again, this is not logical, it is really pathological. So the first thing is becoming aware, but then we have to do something about it.
Poverty is intractable as long as you ignore the data. At the Center for Partnership Studies, we did a study comparing data from eighty-nine nations of the status of women and the general quality of life and even there we found a strong correlation. Really, what’s good for women is good for everybody.
In reality, investing in caring and caregiving is much more effective, never mind in human or environmental terms, but in simple dollars and cents.
If you create training for caring jobs, training for childcare, education for parenting, you are going to put a huge dent in poverty, which is what the Scandinavian nations have done, using precisely that approach of really subsidizing childcare, of very generous paid parental leave, of stipends for families that take care of children. In Norway, you get social security credit for the first seven years of caring for a child. Yet here in the United States, women over the age of sixty five are twice as likely to be poor as men over the age of sixty-five, and obviously many of them were or are caregivers. It doesn’t have to be that way.
SC: Some people in the United States would have a knee jerk response that that sounds like socialism. You’ve said that what you’re talking about is transcendent of both socialism and capitalism. How is it different?
RE: It’s different because, first of all, these nations are not socialist. They are a mix of free market enterprise and central planning. So the issue isn’t really socialism, and these nations don’t call themselves socialist. They very often use the term “caring societies.” That’s what we need, to use the partnership elements in both capitalism and socialism, leave the domination elements behind, and move to what I call partnerism.
SC: You have a six-part model of economics where there traditionally seems to be three pieces. What’s included in your model that’s missing from the domination system?
RE: If you look at both capitalist and socialist theory, those models came out of times when, first of all, they were totally in the industrial society and economy, and also times that were oriented much more to the domination system, centuries ago. Nothing about the natural economy, nothing about the household economy, nothing about the volunteer community economy. These are the life sustaining sectors, without which there would be no workforce – frankly without which none of us would be here. I propose what I call a full spectrum economics that no longer fails to include these basic components of a wellfunctioning economy that have been so ignored and hence so neglected.
I propose what I call a full spectrum economics that no longer fails to include these basic components of a wellfunctioning economy that have been so ignored and hence so neglected.
SC: What are some things that are happening right now that are moving us into a partnership model?
RE: We’ve been moving in that direction for several centuries. If you look at the European Middle Ages, with the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch burnings, women had no rights, children were brutalized, it looked a lot like the Taliban. The good news is that this shift didn’t happen by itself. It was accelerated by the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. But it was people, people’s changes in awareness and their actions, that made it happen.
The problem is that one of the core elements of the domination system is this gendered system of values. Unfortunately, we still see it in the job creation plan. President Obama wants to invest mainly in jobs to build bridges and roads, and invest in the green economy. All of this is very good – the material infrastructure and the natural infrastructure, but we need much more focus on the human infrastructure. The jobs for investing in the human sector are to a very large extent the early childhood jobs, the primary teaching, the hands on healthcare, where women live. That needs to be a much larger part of the job-creation program, especially since women and children as a group are the mass of the poor.
SC: What would life look like under a partnership system?
RE: It looks very different. The first thing we would see is far, far more investment in caring for people starting in early childhood. That is really essential, along with sound family planning. Notice that the Nordic nations have invested in this. That’s one of the reasons that although they were very poor at the start of the century, today they’re very prosperous. It has to go along with family planning, and that in turn goes along with raising the status of women with more equality. Women in the Nordic world are about forty percent of the national legislature.
It’s a society where women and men share more. So both women and men are more able to realize their full potentials in both the household economy and the market economy, but there’s much more investment in the front end rather than the back end.
President Obama wants to invest mainly in jobs to build bridges and roads, and invest in the green economy. All of this is very good – the material infrastructure and the natural infrastructure, but we need much more focus on the human infrastructure.
SC: How would this affect our relationship with nature?
RE: Completely. Today, the thinking is that we can mess up nature and somebody is going to come and pick up the pieces. It’s ridiculous. Remember, we now have economic thinking that is full spectrum, that includes the natural economy, the household economy and the volunteer economy and they’re all included in measures of what is productive.
SC: You mentioned that legislating changes in the nature of corporations could possibly offset a lot of the damage that’s being done.
RE: Absolutely. The corporation doesn’t have to be irresponsible and uncaring if we have the right rules. The argument is that we can’t regulate because it will inhibit innovation. Look at these “innovative” credit swaps, not to mention outright stealing, very “innovatively.” It doesn’t work that way. You either have caring values, and then innovation becomes creativity, and beneficial and exciting or you have uncaring values. As long as caring and caregiving are devalued, it’s not realistic to expect more caring policies and practices. We’re talking about systems dynamics, about connecting the dots, and that’s what my work’s about.
SC: What can we as individuals do?
RE: The first thing is changing consciousness. If we begin to understand some of what we’ve been talking about, we can act on it. One of the main devices for doing this is changing the conversation, not only the internal conversation, but the conversation we have about economics with our friends, with our colleagues, with our policy makers. Start talking about caring economics, about the real wealth of nations being the contributions of people and our natural environment. Therefore we need what we haven’t had, investment in caring for people starting in early childhood and caring for nature. This is more effective.
Lobby for better childcare. Talk to your PTA people and see how they can really influence the government to change its priorities so that they don’t cut the important things. Also, state grants are really needed right now from the federal government out of this job creation program to raise the pay of childcare workers, to educate people for elder care. One of the first acts of the new President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, when she took office was stipends and training for poor caregivers. It can all be done.