Neo-subsistence Movement

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Scarcity: the Neo-subsistence perspective = video-interview

Transcript at


Most of the world population has lived for most of the time, in a subsistence economy. If we ever face a crisis of natural scarcity again, there's a lot we can learn from them, in order to develop a neo-subsistence based econonomy, as argued by Maria Mies.

1. On the discovery of the subsistence perspective

"The issue was: what does housework mean in capitalism? Why isn't this work seen as work? Why isn't it paid? Why is it non-paid labor? We recognized that in capitalism this work can't be paid, because if it were, the accumulation model would collapse. That doesn't mean that there wouldn't be any capitalism anymore, as some thought, but that it would definitely be much too expensive if all of the work done in the household were paid for: bearing children, raising them, reproducing the man - as it was called at the time - taking care of the old and the infirm. If that were paid labor that had to be paid like regular paid labor, then it would be impossible to pay for it and that would fundamentally alter the entire model of capitalism. So we arrived at the concept - which actually doesn't stem from us, since the subsistence concept is an old concept - that what we call life production is actually necessary as a prerequisite for all types of paid labor. At the time, we stated: without subsistence labor, there would be no paid labor. But without paid labor, there is still subsistence labor: it is the undying prerequisite for not only every type of life, but also every type of work - that food, housing, and immediate life concerns are taken care of. This work is extremely valuable, but it is never paid for monetarily. That was the point where we saw this connection. And then we also saw that, in addition, housework is not the only type of work that is exploited in this way at practically no cost to capitalism. Instead, there is similar work among small farmers who, everywhere in the world, work for their own subsistence. They sell things at the market, too, but they aren't wage laborers. And what is interesting about this, is that they are just as absent as women are in the gross national product or gross domestic product. They don't count, as one of the women from New Zealand, Marilyn Waring described in "If Women Counted" - if women counted, what then? A very interesting book. And then we discovered, third, that the small farmers' work also has something to do with housework and both have something to do with the work in the colonies. Then this concept emerged, as all three of us were in the Third World for extended periods. I was in India for many years, my two friends were in Latin America, and so we realized: if entire countries hadn't been exploited as colonies for long periods of time, then there wouldn't be any capitalism. And if they were treated equally today, all of the work in the "colonies" - I still call them "colonies" - well, then there wouldn't be much to accumulate. And that's why we call all of these relations colonial relations. The man-woman relationship is colonial, the relationship between the small farmer and industry is also colonial, and naturally, the colonial relationships between metropolises and colonies are definitely colonial."

2. Subsistence as an alternative

"Now you ask me, quite justifiably, how can a life, which is often so wretched, provide a perspective for a better society? At first it sounds a bit absurd. But if we look closely at how people survive and everything that they do then we discover that the old principles I spoke of previously were reactivated: there is mutual assistance and people are again willing to do everything they possibly can do by themselves. That is a new and positive perspective, since with these activities - even if they take place at a very low level - people rediscover their sovereignty, their own authority to produce their lives, as we call it. That is no shortcoming, it is something very positive to discover, that we are entirely capable of collectively producing and organizing our lives together, with others. Naturally, you also need money. I don't want to deny that at all, but exclusively working for money is not the best thing - that is only one side of it. The other is that subsistence production, or subsistence orientation, satisfies needs in a much more comprehensive way than purchased products ever could. These purchased goods actually don't contain anything. It is dead labor that is materialized there. They are used, then they're gone, then you have to buy new goods and people are never satisfied. That is, namely, the point. That begins with all of the appliances and technical achievements: first you have a black and white television, then that isn't enough, then you have to have a color television, then you need a computer, then a cell phone, now children have to have cell phones and it goes on and on. But can we say that we have a happy, satisfied society? I've heard of a movement in the U.S. that is searching for the good life. That is an old economic concept, already established by Aristotle as the goal of the economy. The goal of the economy is the good life. The people in the U.S. say, we work and work, but the good life never arrives. Where is the good life? That's why we say that that is the goal of subsistence. Subsistence is not shortcoming and misery, as we are constantly made to believe. If it is understood correctly that is, and not as individual subsistence - which is not possible - then you always have to get together with others to do something, not only to survive, but to live well. Then it is actually possible to create the good life. You experience that you are your own authority, that together with others, you're sovereign. That is an entirely different type of satisfaction than when you have your eight-hour day behind you and perhaps also earned quite a bit. The good life is meant to arrive at the age of sixty-five, but even then it doesn't come. I think that is one of the reasons why people in our society are so unhappy. The alienation of paid labor can't be neutralized by even such great sums of money. But in the subsistence perspective, that is entirely possible."

3. Subsistence in action: the Bangladeshi Nayakrishi Andalon movement

"Friends of mine in Bangladesh began to defend themselves against what the major multinational concerns were doing in the agricultural industry. They found out that the soil is destroyed, that the water is full of arsenic and the yields are sinking. The promise of the Green Revolution was that in monoculture everything would be produced in great amounts. They found out that that wasn't true. Then they realized that earlier, it wasn't the case at all. And they founded a new farmers' movement called Nayakrishi Andalon, started by women. The women realized that since the Green Revolution, the men had started to beat them. They hadn't known such violence before as they were the guardians of the seeds. The seeds were in their control, they stored them, told the farmers when it was time to sow, etc. So they got together and decided they wanted to change things. The entire initiative was started by women to regain a fulfilling and happy life. That was their first explicit goal. We want to have a happy life! If you ask the farmers in this movement, then all of them will tell you that they want a happy life. Just ask a farmer here in Germany if his work makes him happy... The first thing the women said was that there would be no multi-national corporations allowed in. They declared the villages as non-toxic villages. No multi is going to come in here with all of the poisons that they spray. I forgot to say that many of the women, because they were so unhappy, committed suicide by drinking the pesticides that were standing around and poisoning themselves. Now today, the same principles are back in practice again, actually, old principles, but also new ones allowing agriculture to be fruitful and productive without putting in all of the inputs from industrial countries. There are a lot of things that they rediscovered, such as diversity. They aren't practicing monoculture, they use their own compost, they help each other, and they don't purchase seeds anymore. In almost all villages they have seed houses, and these are again under the control of the women who store and preserve the seeds. They are sovereign again; they have what the Via Campesina, an oppositional, worldwide small farmers' organization, calls nutritional sovereignty. I think that all subsistence begins with nutritional sovereignty. That is an example and that's now a huge movement in Bangladesh."

See also the neo-subsistence perspective of the Open Source Ecology initiative,

More Information

See our entry on Neosubsistence