Tired of capitalism? Try ecofeminism

Economies undervalue ‘women’s work’ – but are men to blame?

‘Just paying for housework isn’t going to rebalance human lives’

‘Just paying for housework isn’t going to rebalance human lives’


There is an emerging consensus from economists across the political spectrum that the current model of capitalism is broken. What is less clear is what might replace it.

Left-wing thinkers have lost faith in the age-old policy of the redistribution of wealth and are seeking a more fundamental change. Among the strands of thought emerging is “ecofeminism” – a philosophy that combines feminism and environmental awareness with a dose of socialist economics.

As Mary Mellor, emeritus professor in sociology at Northumbria University, explains, ecofeminism has been around since the 1970s. There is a recent revival of interest, and Mellor – who was in Dublin this week delivering the annual guest lecture of the UCD School of Social Justice – has injected her own critique of the “gender-based economy” and its figurehead, “Economic Man”.

What is needed, she says, is for women’s work to be properly accounted for, but also to be remunerated through a “public money” system that is managed by the state rather than by the banks. Mellor’s idea is summarised thus: “Economic Man claims a false transcendence of ‘his’ existence in nature.”

What is ecofeminism?
Mary Mellor: “It’s the idea that there is a link between women and nature. But this can be construed in several different ways. Some people think of women as nurturing earth mothers with a kind of sympathetic awareness of nature that men don’t have. That’s not my position, but I can understand where people are coming from. A lot of the early ecofeminists were poets and theologians. They were already in that sort of romantic and spiritual field.

“I see it in much more material terms, and the way in which there is no economic accounting either for the damage to the natural world or for what I call ‘women’s work’ – work around the body and in the community that sustains us in our lives.

“The concept of ‘economic man’, this kind of rational agent, couldn’t exist – and, of course, doesn’t exist, because it’s a construct – without all the work that is done under the title ‘women’s work’, and the work of the environment in sustaining and dealing with the damage that our human activities do.”

Can men do ‘women’s work’?
“Yes, but it is seen as broadly women’s responsibility to sort out domestic support, even if they don’t do it themselves. ‘Economic man’ can be female, but if a woman wants to join the rat race she has to play by the rules; she has to be a kind of honorary man. She has to behave as if she doesn’t have domestic responsibilities.

“So ‘economic man’ can be a woman, and ‘women’s work’ can be done by men but usually it’s done by men for one of two reasons. Either they are low-status men, so they end up doing service-type, cleaning, catering jobs, or because they do it out of conscious choice and it becomes a higher-status thing – it’s seen as ‘Good on him, he’s a really good dad’.

“I am not saying ‘all men bad, all women good’. All I’m saying is that the way the economy is constructed is with the idea that workers don’t have family responsibilities, don’t need to sleep, don’t get sick, never get sad, never have children, never grow old. What the economy wants is healthy, able-bodied, unencumbered people for the hours of the day it wants them, and it doesn’t take responsibility for the rest of people’s lives.”

So is the answer to put an economic value on work in the home?

“Just paying for housework wouldn’t be an answer; it isn’t going to rebalance human lives. What we have got to do is integrate life and work.

“I talk about the difference between a two-step and a one-step economy. A two-step economy is where you do whatever you can to get the money you need, and many people spend their lives doing jobs they can’t stand. A one-step economy is where what you do with your life is as close as possible to what you need.

“If it was a more one-step economy we could think about things like a citizen income, where people have a basic income and then have a secondary decision: ‘Do you want extra income on top of that?’ It would give people flexibility where they don’t get trapped into styles of life where they have to segregate being either ‘in work’ or out of work.”

How might this be financed?
“When people talk about basic income, they assume it’s a redistribution of tax. For the sums of money involved, you’d need a tax rate of about 70 per cent so it wouldn’t be feasible. But if you used public money as a basic of citizen income, that is a different thing.

“We should have quantitative easing for the people rather than creating all this money and circulating it for the banks. And if you get a balance between public, private and social money systems then you can think about ways you can invest money and create wealth, employment and wellbeing.

“For instance, in the care system we are desperately in need of elderly care. You can raise investment through banks, buy a care home and run it as a commercial venture, but there’s no reason why you can’t use public money to set up a care home and pay the people under a public-money system.”

Surely printing money to pay wages will drive up inflation?
“Commercial money is just as inflationary. Look at house prices. Any money system can create inflation if it’s left unchecked, and what you use to check the
public-money system is taxation; you retrieve the money you’ve circulated through tax.”


Question: To iron or not to iron?

Simone de Beauvoir replies: “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”

Twitter: @JoeHumphreys42

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