Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, Subsistence and globalised economy, 1997

Maria Mies, 2011

Introducing their book The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies tell us what they learned from a conversation between women in a Bangladeshi village and Hillary Clinton, which they then use to explain their perspective on subsistence, a perspective “from below”. Here are some excerpts.

A cow for Hillary

In April 1995, some months before the beginning of the UN World Women’s Conference in Beijing, Hillary Clinton, the First Lady of the USA, visited Bangladesh. She had come to find out herself about the success stories of the Grameen Bank projects which were said to have so empowered rural women in Bangladesh. For the Grameen Bank and development agencies, “empowerment of women” means that a woman has an income of her own and that she has some assets.

When Hillary Clinton interviewed the women of Maishahati village about their situation, the women answered: Yes, they now had an income of their own. They also had some “assets”: some cows, chicken, ducks. Their children went to schools. Ms Clinton was satisfied that the women of Maishahati were obviously empowered. But she was not prepared when the village women turned round and asked her the following questions:

“Apa [elder sister], do you have cows?”

“No, I have no cows.”

“Apa, do you have your own income?”

“Well, formerly I used to have my own income. But since my husband became president and moved to the White House I have stopped earning my own money.”

“How many children do you have?”

“One daughter.”

“Would you like to have more children?”

“Yes, I would like to have one or two more children, but we are quite happy with our daughter Chelsea.”

The women from Maishahati looked at each other and murmured:

“Poor Hillary! She has no cow, no income of her own, she has only one daughter.”

In the eyes of the Maishahati women Hillary Clinton was not empowered. They felt sorry for her.

Our readers may ask why we tell this story at the beginning of our book on the subsistence perspective. What has the First Lady of the USA, the most powerful state in the world, to do with subsistence? What is the connection between her and the village women of Maishahati who feel empowered because they have a cow, chicken, children? Why do these “poor” women pity Hillary Clinton? Hasn’t she got everything she wanted? Are these women just naïve or ignorant?

We do not think so. They know well that Ms. Clinton comes from a “rich” country and that she must have heaps of money. But that is not what they would call empowerment.

We use this story to demonstrate the difference in perspective between Hillary Clinton and the village women of Maishahati. Theirs is a “perspective from below”, from what is necessary; theirs is a subsistence perspective. Looking at the world from this perspective, all things and relations appear in a different light, particularly the concept of what constitutes a good life.

Most probably the meeting in Maishahati was a kind of culture shock for Ms Clinton. The women did not adopt Hillary’s “from above” perspective. In their interview they show that they have a different concept of wealth and poverty. They do not need a supermarket full of imported commodities. They demonstrate how absurd our concept of poverty, wealth and good life are.

Although we also live in a rich country, like Hillary Clinton, one where the concept of the “good life” is a supermarket full of imported commodities, we no longer accept this model of wealth. This is not only because it cannot be generalised for the rest of the world, but more because of the destruction the pursuance of the concept of “the good life” leaves behind: destruction of nature, of foreign peoples, of people’s self-reliance and dignity, of children’s future, of anything we call humanity. We believe a radical break with the dominant paradigm and the search for a new perspective, a new vision, are necessary.

Pride, dignity and courage

In our effort to draw the contours of the subsistence perspective the women from Maishahati and many other such women will be our teachers.

  • The first lesson is the view from below. This means that when we look at reality, we start with the perspective of women, particularly rural women and poor urban women in the South. This view enables us to demystify the delusions created by the minority ‘on top’ that their life and lifestyle are not only the best possible ones but also the image of the future for everybody on this planet.
  • Second, the Bangladeshi women teach us that the realisation of the subsistence perspective depends not on money, education, status and prestige but primarily on control over the means of subsistence: a cow, some chicken, children, land, also some independent money income. This means that what is necessary is the capacity of communities to produce their life without being dependent on outside forces and agents.
  • Third, this awareness of their own capacity to subsist independently gives the Maishahati women the pride, the dignity, the courage and the sense of equality to address the First Lady of the USA as “elder sister”. They are not beggars, they are not subservient, they can stand on their own feet.
  • The fourth lesson we learned is that the mindset behind the women’s interview reveals that they do not believe in the sentence Frederick Engels formulated at the end of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, namely: “What is good for the ruling class should be good for the whole of the society with which the ruling class identifies itself”. Instead, the questions of the women of Maishahati suggest the opposite: “what is good for the village women of Bangladesh should be good for the whole society”.
  • Fifth, we shall abandon the schizophrenia that divides the world up into a “first” and “third” part. The Bangladeshi women know that this division exists but they do not accept this division and the differential valuation that goes along with it as something natural. For them, Hillary Clinton is first and foremost an “elder sister”.

View from below

We share the opinion of the village women of Bangladesh. A subsistence perspective is not only good for so-called developing countries and classes. It can only be a new perspective if it is equally valid for the so-called developed countries and classes – two dualistically and hierarchically divided and ordered economies are no longer acceptable. Of course this challenges our common understanding of what “economy” means. If an “economy” is defined as a system aimed at constant expansion of industry, of production and consumption of commodities and of capital accumulation, then such an “economy” is incompatible with a subsistence perspective. There exists a different conception of “economy” which puts life, and everything necessary to produce and maintain life on this planet, at the centre of economic and social activity.

The concept “subsistence” is usually associated with poverty and backwardness. We want to show that subsistence not only means hard labour and living at the margins of existence but also joy in life, happiness and abundance. Such an understanding of subsistence requires that people, particularly women, stop devaluing their own work, culture and power – and stop expecting the good life to be handed down to them by those “on top”.

This devaluation of one’s own is a consequence of forced colonisation and degradation, but it has been internalised by all colonised people, including women. It is further maintained by the delusion of “catch-up development” and “catch-up consumerism” – the promise that eventually all the colonised people at the bottom of the social pyramid will reach the level of those on the top.

The view from below of the globalised, expanding, patriarchal-capitalist economy does not lead to despair, as some might fear, but helps us to reflect again on what we really mean when we look for the good life, and where the true sources of empowerment are to be found. What rural women in Bangladesh and in other countries of the South really need is that various kinds of oppressors get off their backs: patriarchal men in their own country, transnational corporations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund with their structural adjustment programmes, national bureaucracies who follow the orders of these guardians of international capital. Empowerment can only be found in ourselves and in our co-operation with nature within us and around us. This power does not come from dead money. It lies in mutuality and not in individualistic self-interest and jealousy. This power also lies in our recognition that all creatures on earth are our relatives.

The present dominant economic system is not the outcome of some immutable natural law, but it was constructed by some men some centuries ago and can be changed. We believe that subsistence is the alternative. Moreover, it is important to understand that what is called globalisation of the economy today is not a totally new and extraordinary feature but that it constitutes the necessary, continuing colonisation and “primitive accumulation” that has been part and parcel of capitalist patriarchy right from its beginning. Today, however, this ongoing colonisation and its consequences are also felt in the industrialised countries of the North, where the Third World is returning to the First, manifested not only in the growing gap between rich and poor in the North, but also in the financial and economic crises that are now also hitting the industrialised world.

All of a sudden people in the North are forced to realise that they are not so far away from the village women in Bangladesh. The present crisis situation forces people to understand that all these affirmations of the stability of the dominant economic system are such hot air. In fact, the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few people is accompanied by growing poverty and joblessness of ever more people, even in the North.

If one looks at the world from the perspective of the village women of Bangladesh – and they represent the majority of people in the world – then one is immune to this mood of apocalyptic despair. This despair, which is the luxury of a pampered minority in the North, hinders people from understanding that their privileges are based on loot, and that a good life for all does not need such privileges. People who share a subsistence orientation also do not expect big social changes from agencies from outside and above them. They are aware of their own power and can act as individuals and in a community.

Those who are ready to look at the world from this perspective will themselves discover many such subsistence stories, old and new. Because the subsistence perspective is a perspective, a conversion of our view. It is not a new economic model.

Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, Introduction to The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy, Zed Books Ltd, 1999.

Original German edition: Eine Kuh für Hillary: Die Subsistenzperspektive. München: Frauenoffensive, 1997.

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