WOMEN, ECOLOGY AND CULTURE
[Source: Bangalore Theological Forum No. 1 (1989), pp.1-29]
Facing the ecological and cultural crisis
In grappling with the crisis of ecology and of culture, we face two questions of great depth and magnitude: One, the problem of survival and identity; secondly, the problem posed by the limits of physical and spiritual endurance. The ecological crisis forces itself on our attention in the daily reports of droughts and floods, starvation deaths, poisoning through pesticides and chemical industries, soil salinity, water logging. The cultural crisis surfaces daily in communal and caste clashes, in the struggles of dalits and adivasis, in the whole debate about secularism and freedom of religion.
It is no exaggeration to say that both the ecological and the cultural crisis have affected women more deeply than men. It has been pointed out again and again that women are the worst victims of ecological deterioration since their working day has been drastically lengthened by scarcity of water, fuel and fodder, and their traditional skills and occupations have been adversely affected by new technologies in agriculture, artisanal work and marketing, while new opportunities have not been sufficiently developed. It has also been documented that women are adversely affected in situations of communal riots and that the whole communal battle about personal laws, freedom of religion etc. is largely fought out on the backs and at the cost of women.
However, there are two new moves which have to be taken into account in the debate: From the side of the women’s movements, we are raising today the question how to go beyond victimisation, how to draw on vital experiences and skills of women to reverse the situation. The over riding question is how to create a mode of production which does not depend on the exploitation of nature and labour power but which, in harmony with nature, provides for the survival needs of all. we also ask, how we can create a counter-culture which arrests both the trends towards uniformity and towards fragmentation, and the growing communalistion of daily life. Women have practical skills and mental resources which need to be discovered and mobilised for this vast task. The second step, which logically follows from the first one of mobilising women’s material and spiritual skills, is to work out the connection between the ecological and the cultural crisis caused by a development model which is neocolonial, capitalist, patriarchal and violently assaulting the base for human material and spiritual survival and which is destructive of both nature and culture. This connection has not been made sufficiently because the feminist analysis has been focusing more on reorganisation of material culture. At the same time, the cultural debate on de-colonisation, religion and secularism has been ambiguous as far as the women’s question is concerned. Ashish Nandy, who has raised many relevant questions on the model of science and technology underlying the prevailing development concept, has run into trouble by taking a cultural stand which could be co-opted by violently anti-feminist defenders of sati, a company not of his choice but nevertheless raising questions of accountability.
My contention in this paper is that tackling the ecological crisis and the crisis of culture is a survival issue, not only because environmental destruction is close to reaching a level where it is irreversible but also because the cultural crisis can lead either to fascism or to fragmentation and disintegration, both of which would be destructive of any liberation movement. It is also crucial to tackle both these crises together because they are connected in their root-causes. My contention is also that a feminist perspective can give important impulses for a deeper analysis of class, caste and environmental destruction and for reconciliation with nature.
Ecological crisis, Capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism :
In the recent debate, a clear connection has been established between ecological crisis, capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. This not to deny that ecological crisis also exists with equal gravity in socialist countries but it is based on the insight that the predominant concept of industrialism, and of science and technology, originated in the over developed capitalist Western countries and has largely been imitated in Eastern Europe. Even in the People’s Republic of China, where appropriate technology was more developed, technological and scientific options were taken under the pressure of military conflict with the USSR and alliance with USA. The events cannot be understood without the history of fascism and Stalinism, of hot and cold war. I am not saying this by way of apology for socialism but to draw attention to an important factor in the analysis of material reality.
Actually, the two books of Maria Mies and of Vandana Shiva, on which I am going to draw, do not really go into this overall context. Maria Mies, in Capitalism and Accumulation on a World Scale goes into a global analysis which is pre-occupied with the overriding question of how it is that Feminism and women’s movement have, to a large extent been co-opted by capitalist government and development policies and how such co-optation can and must be resisted since capitalism being not only classiest but also inherently patriarchal, cannot deliver the goods. She also analyses the origins of sexual division of labour, and the role of violence, and connects these aspects with colonial division of labour, and the role of colonial and sexual violence in capitalist accumulation. She also goes into problems of violence against nature going together with patriarchal and colonial violence, and ends with a perspective of a feminist, ecologically viable society which will also be classless, decentralised, anti-consumerist, largely self sufficient and based on a different science and technology.
The book by Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive, gives us a history of the Chipko movement within the context of a very thorough study of the connections between forestry, agriculture and water management. She shows, through an evaluation of a large number of studies in the different fields, how a technocratic approach to development, which she flatly calls maldevelopment, has fragmented and separated these spheres and has been destructive of nature, of women’s skills and expertise; of the survival base of the poor and of sustenance of life as a criterion for production. She emphasises strongly the colonial and patriarchal character of this imported development concept and projects a feminist indigenous culture which she expresses in terms like “feminine principle” Shakti and prakriti, and characterises by features like holism, decentralisation, plurality and inter-dependence. She also raises the question of the relocation of the sacred, and emphatically demands that the sacredness of life has to replace the sacredness of science and technology, and of developmentalism. She sees the pseudo-worship of modernity and “progress” as more harmful than the traditional worship nature and life-sustaining forces.
Though both Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva do not go into this connection, it is important to keep in mind that communalism as political phenomenon is both, a result of colonialism and a backlash against it, and goes together with the development of capitalism and parliamentary democracy. It has often been pointed out in the discussion on communalism and secularism that both the claims to universalism and nationhood are actually alien to Hinduism and a foreign import. They are often taken to connote a certain “Semiticization” of Hinduism. I have heard this term “Semiticization” which I consider a misnomer from people as different as Romila Thapar, M.M. Thomas and Ashish Nandy. I consider it a misnomer because such a term plays on existing anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiment, and characterises these religions as predominantly conquering and militant. Though both religions have an ideology of Holy War in their scriptures, Judaism has not had a corresponding history until Zionism turned communal under the impact of fascist liquidation of Jews and British divide and rule policies, while Islam has had long and fruitful periods of non-militarised peaceful co-existence with other religions in many parts of the world, including the south of our own country. What has indeed happened today is that Hindu religion which had its own dialectics of plurality and universalism in the fragmentation of sects and castes, alongside of religious tolerance as long as these fragmentations remained accepted, has turned communal, in a situation of neo-colonial impact which was trying to overcome caste by sanskritsation and class conflict by appeal to religious nationalism. This leaves capitalism and existing development concepts intact while it obscures the reality of the increasing neo colonial dependence by offering a pseudo-religious identity surrogate.
The extent to which communalism is patriarchal can be seen in the blatant anti-women statements of communalist organisations, in the communal battle against a gender-just secular family law and in the recent attempts to use women in the forefront of communal struggle even though such struggles are a direct attack on women’s anti-communalist unity in the women’s movement.
Science and technology as a patriarchal colonial project :
In order to understand Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva’s contribution better, it is crucial to go into their critique of modern science and technology as a patriarchal colonial project. This is an important contribution to the debate on the question whether modern Western science and technology is “universal” and “neutral”, implying that the only crucial question is who controls and uses it. The latter position has been taken by Marxist parties in power or close to them like Shastra Sahitya Parishad. That science and technology as ideology can be highly authoritarian and oppressive in great contrast to its claims of enlightenment, was pointed out in detail by members of the Frankfurt School. Of course, the protest against industrialism itself was alive among machine-storming Luddies, Utopian Socialists critics and reformers like William Morris and, very importantly, in the anti-colonial struggle of the Gandhian Movement. It was the Nehruite ideology of the scientific temper which destroyed this heritage after independence. A critical Indian Marxist voice of science and technology is today rediscovered in D.D. Kosambi who, despite more orthodox approaches in various other fields pleaded powerfully for developing solar energy instead of nuclear energy. The authoritarian and fragmenting colonial character of Western science and technology, and its inherent violence, has also been worked out at length over many years by Ashish Nandy. That Asian scientific and technological discoveries have been in greater harmony and interdependence with nature and thus, are more conducive to a holistic ecological approach has been convincingly established by Claude Alvares by contrasting them with colonial concepts. What is new in the approach of Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva is the strong emphasis on the patriarchal character of Western science and technology which was much less evident in the earlier studies. They show how substitution of an organic perception of life by mechanistic, technocratic paradigms has contributed to exploitation of nature and displacement of women. They also establish more clearly the connection between ecological destruction and the capitalist “growth” concept as a patriarchal project. This contribution is crucial since it gives a final blow to the myth of neutrality, objectivity and universality of scientific categories and methods of experimentation. However, there is a certain drawback in their conceptualisation as well.
Since both Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva draw heavily on Western Feminist research on the renaissance and the industrial revolution, and since they are preoccupied with pinpointing colonial connections-which is in itself an extremely important contribution! – they end up virtually suggesting that patriarchy, as a full-fledged mechanism of exploitation, is a product of the renaissance and scientific revolution. This is particularly true of Vandana Shiva’s line of argument.
While the connection between witch-hunting and the development of modern science is extremely important , it should not obscure the much earlier roots of patriarchy in antiquity and in our own civilisation, in Vedic and pre-Vedic culture. Also, it is important to emphasise with Maria Mies that earlier forms of patriarchy are not just a cultural category resulting from religious ideology but that they had a material base in the organisation of production of life from very early times. The way Vandana Shiva has taken Mies, analysis and reduced the problem to the Renaissance and to scientific imperialism is not enlightening for the understanding of the development of class, caste and patriarchy in the India context. Both Mies and Shiva are in danger of contributing for an ideology of patriarchy reductionism which resembles the class reductionism of the traditional left in reverse. They also have a tendency to externalise patriarchy as a primarily Western and modern category, which leaves out the age-old connection between patriarchy and caste in Indian society. Despite such words of caution, I feel that both Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva have given a very crucial impetus to the debate on science and technology and on ecology, not only by showing the destructive effects of a fragmented reductionist approach but also by drawing on the traditional skills of women. This is very inspiring in Vandana’s narration of the Chipko Movement, in which the skills of integrating forestry, agriculture and water management are combined with a philosophy of nature and of knowledge which poses an alternative to modern specialisation and the promise of technocratic mechanistic solutions.
Vandana Shiva also makes an implicit contribution to the debate on women and religion by describing the ferment of local religious culture in the Chipko movement which enhances women’s dignity and allows them to express their creative relationship with nature. As the same time she singles out the Shakti-aspects of religion, but does not mention any of the religious controls over women. Neither does she go into the problem that, what she describes as the religious “feminine principle”, is largely expressed in Hindu terms which coincide with Sankhya philosophy. This leaves open the question, what the feminine principle may imply for dalits, tribals, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians etc. One would also need to include in the debate communal attempts to appropriate ecological and women’s issues and how to counter them. Also: When do religious interpretations of such issues turn communal? Heated debates on this issue arose during the Save the Western Ghats March, between the contingents from Kerala and from Karnataka, once the march had entered South Kanara where RSS forces are very active in the environmental movement.
Another point which strikes one is the fact that there was a historical alliance between chauvinistic patriarchal religion and patriarchal science and technology during the witch-hunts could be catholic or protestants or enlightened scientists, their ideologies were complementary to one another in controlling women, depriving them of skills and even killing them.
We can observe a contemporary version of such an antiwomen alliance in the current debates on sati and on amniocentesis. If the Shankaracharya of Puri advocates sati and asks: “If bodies are not equal, how can rights be equal?” , then, he is fundamentally in the same boat as modern enlightened scientists who offer sex-determination and sex-preselection, as a technological “pro-women” solution to social discrimination, cheerfully contributing to further decimation of an already “scarcer half”. It is for this reason. That women’s organisations in Maharashtra are at present preparing for a Nari Jeevan Sangharsh Yatra (Women’s Life Struggle March) to be held from the end of April to mid May next year, where all such survival issues will be taken up together, confronting reactionary religion together with patriarchal science. The patriarchal character of state can be seen in the fact that both the central legislation on sati and the Maharashtra Act against sex-determination punish the women victims together with those who subject them to the crime. This connection between religious fanaticism and “modernity” does not manifest itself only in women’s issues in the narrow sense but also operate in counterposing RSS virility vs. Gandhiji’s “feminity”, and brahman values vs. Shudra values in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, as Ashish Nandy has repeated pointed out.
Reconceptualising productivity : the production of life vs. the production of profit.
Apart from deepening the feminist dimension of the debate on science and technology, both Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva have contributed in an important way to the debate on productivity, redefinition of labour and reassessment of subsistence production. This debate had earlier focussed on emphasising “production of life” vs. the concept of “reproduction” , and it also finds expression in the debate on the “invisibility” of women’s work since it often cannot be measured in cash terms. Maria Mies traces the capitalist concept of productivity to the predatory ideology of “man the hunter” and points out that this type of productivity, which is based on violence, is actually only a form of appropriation of nature and of other people’s labour, while the subsistence labour of women, slaves and subjugated people is often enough not acknowledged as “productive” at all. However, she maintains that capitalist productivity cannot be sustained without the subsistence labour of women, and of contract labour and peasants in the colonies.
Once can state the insight in even much simpler terms: without production of life, production of commodities is impossible; people have to live in order to produce and consume. Therefore, the criteria for production and consumption needs to be the production and sustenance of life. Use value of products has to override exchange value. Obviously, our economy is not organised according to such criteria. Substantial parts our resources go into the production of means of destruction and other substantial parts into the production of consumer-goods which are superfluous to the sustenance of life, wasteful of energy and natural resources and thus, harmful to the environment.
All over the world, woman have been the mainstay of subsistence economy and of production of life, and Maria Mies shows how the destruction of subsistence economy in Europe goes together with the creation of the ‘housewife’ concept. While, in the West, middle class women are turned into consumers, housewifization in the Third World takes the form of capitalist exploitation of household based production in the Informal sector. Even in socialist societies, the “housewife” concept, and thus sexual division of labour, has not fully been overcome despite larger proportions of women participating in the extended production process. Maria Mies, focussing on Western societies, sees it as strategic to fight housewifization and consumerism and proceeds from there to plead for a society of much more labour intensive, need based, decentralised and largely autark units of production in which sexual division of labour, class and the polarisation between head and hand could be overcome. However, it is not entirely clear how she envisages the overthrow of the dominant development and growth concept.
Vandana Shiva, in her analysis of the Chipko Movement and in her evaluation of forest – agricultural and water policies goes further in the reconstruction of a vision of what production of life, in the sense of an ecologically viable subsistence production, means materially as well as spiritually. The situation is movingly depicted in a scene of confrontation between Chipko-women and forest officials, in which the women have brought along a lantern in bright day-light. Asked about its purpose, they explain that they have to make the forest officials see the light. The male experts need to be taught forestry. The forest officials, of course, scold the “ignorant” women who do not understand that the forest is a source of profit resin and timber but the women obstinately chant in return:
“What does the forest bear?
Soil, water and pure air
Soil, water and pure air
Sustain the earth and all it bears.”
In order to understand more fully how production of life has been ousted by production of profit I think it is important to understand a bit more deeply the interaction of class and patriarchy. Since patriarchy by definition operates to upgrade men and downgrade women, it crates a class within the class and, thus, has a certain impact on the question of class and class alliances. The argument that women’s struggles divide the working class has to be countered by the argument that it is patriarchy which divides women and men of the working class, while struggles against patriarchy unite the working class. Patriarchal working-class men tend to make certain class alliances with the exploiter as can historically be seen in the struggles over “family wage” which accounts for unequal wages and assume women to be “housewives”. While women are often accused of spreading “middle class values” when fighting patriarchy the line of alliance for women is, on the contrary, one of de-classing while the line of alliance for men, if they uphold patriarchy, is one of alliance with the upper class in the Chipko situation, it is the men who opt to be contractors and thus side with the profit motive, while it its the women who Protect subsistence production and ecology by upholding the rights of women and nature, and the right to life for all.
The State uses this interaction between class and patriarchy by trying to co-opt both women and ecology struggles into the existing development concept. Women are promised upward mobility and ecological crisis is tackled by technocratic means. One of the problems is indeed that, since working class men have a vital interest in women’s subsistence labour, they have accepted the predatory concept of labour and productivity. The assumption that, it is only wage labour which creates value, neglects the invisible subsistence production of women and the labour of nature as well. It also ignores the fact that the labour of nature can only be sustained if human labour is organised in harmony with nature. Interestingly, it was Marx who, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, vehemently protested against the statement: Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture”. He said, “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such, that material wealth consists!) as labour which itself is only the manifestation of force of nature – human labour power of nature – human labour power”. a He saw it as a bourgeois deception to ascribe “supernatural creative power” to labour. The industrial concept of dominating and controlling nature, to which much of the working class movement has also subscribed, comes to an end and it will be an end with terrible convulsions of ecological disaster and lethal fights over dwindling resources. It is therefore crucial that the working class struggle incorporates the survival issues of women and nature, and that ecological and women’s struggle resist the upward mobility syndrome and orient themselves towards the poorest and most exploited sections like adivasis, dalits and the workers of the unorganised sector, of which women anyway form the majority.
The assertion of middle class and upper class patriarchal values and concepts in the field of production connects with a corresponding development in the field of religion and communalism. Communalist ideology and organisation has started as a patriarchal, urban middle class more precisely, petty bourgeois, phenomenon but it spreads out into the country side and attempts to co-opt even dalits and adivasis, and it now tries to co-opts women. It also becomes more and more an explicit ideology of the ruling classes. Apart from offering identity in a situation of uprootedness, it projects perspectives of upward mobility. This upward mobility, of course, is largely a deception since the existing development concept by its very nature secures privileges only to an elite, while the survival needs of the masses and long term survival needs of nature are not met.
What makes the situation more complicated is that today communalism not only manipulates working classes and women but it does this by superceding and reasserting caste at the same time. The attraction for low-caste, law-class people is the fact that caste is played down while, at the same time, upper caste values are asserted. Further, these middle class/upper caste values serve to co-opt and domesticate women. This is important when it comes to spiritual values like those projected by Vandana Shiva. As long as the religious connotation of Prakriti, Shakti etc. is safely in the hands of the Chipko women, they may indeed express a feminist ecological perspective and the concept of Sacredness of Life. Picked up by the cross currents of caste and middle class ideology, such concepts are open to communal manipulation and can even be used to manipulate women and ecological issues from a middle class perspective. Patriarchal manipulation of women’s power concepts is, anyway a sad chapter in the history of religions. The assertion of goddess religion and Shakti aspects is full of ambiguities which need to be probed much more deeply. In the Western situation, the “return of the Goddess” remains a middle class and fairly academic affair, ‘safe in the sense that goddess religion has ceased to have a material base in subsistence agriculture and in actual organised worship (temples) for centuries. No petty-bourgeois communal manipulation is on the agenda. From a psychological point of view this trend may be quite healing. Here, in India things are much more complex, it is good and well to point out that there is a class component in the difference between the Devi as an independent female power-principle and the spouse Goddess the more domesticated, patriarchal version of the goddess as Lynn Gatwood does. What she analyses is indeed something like the process of housewifization in the religious field, which certainly needs to be resisted. To go into these differences is important. However, we also know that there is a middle class, communalised version of undomesticated, ‘upspousified’ devi, projected by some of the terrorists in the freedom struggle and, today, resurrected by communal organisations. There is definitely a world of a difference between “The Coming of the Devi” as an integral part of an adivasi uprising during the freedom struggle in Gujarat which David Hardiman has so perceptively and movingly recorded in his subaltern studies” and the goddess worship projected by martial communal organisations. The communalist manipulation of the feminine principle is an area which needs more exploration.
Superfluous to say, goddess worship and projection of a certain middle class type of feminine principle has even turned lethal to women in the practice of and debate on sati. Middle class values, loss in caste status, economic insecurity, - all these are cross currents manipulating women, even coopting them and enforcing both patriarchy and class together. Sati is the supreme logic of housewifization mobilised against the shakti of women as independent producers organised in Chipko, production of profit versus production of life.
The Energy Question:
From Shakti as feminine principle, we have to come back to energy as a productive force in the material sense because both are deeply connected. Besides, the kind of economic system which puts production of life at the centre and which overcomes sexual division of labour, class, and dichotomies between head and hand as projected by both,Maria Miesw and Vandana Shiva, will need to undo and reconstruct existing socio-economic and political structures to an unprecedented extent. The strength of Vandana Shiva’s argument is derived from the fact that she shows that the survival of nature, women and the poor is acutely threatened by the existing policies and that ecological intervention is an immediate question of survival. She does not deal with the energy question in a long term perspective because she considers it virtually a “Western problem.”
However, the question of energy use and energy resource arises in the daily struggles for survival of the marginalised masses in the traditional sector as well. I was alerted to this by a paper of John Kurien presented at a recent seminar on Energy organised by ICRA in July 1988. This paper uses the example of the traditional fishermen to illustrate that ecological balance is a question of the kind of technology. he argues that over fishing, and thus depletion of the sea, has been caused not only by trawling but, more so, even by outboard motorisation of small fishing boats. This means, technology needs to respect the time perspective of nature’s growth processes, that there is a limit to “harvesting” of the sea by more labour-intensive technology closer to nature, depending on the traditional knowledge and skills of the fishermen. He argues, among other things, with the law of entropy. Since he describes processes which are extremely similar to those which Vandana Shiva describes for agriculture, I felt compelled to read up on entropy and felt, that this perspective in fact needs to be essentially integrated into the ecological perspective since it strengthens very much the perspective which Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies are trying to develop. It is the perspective of entropy which gives a final blow to the myth of unlimited growth.
I will draw, in the following, on the popularising presentation of the problem by Jeremy Rifkin, though of course a much more complicated and wider discussion on the subject has been going on. There are two important aspects in Rifkin’s book which have a fundamental bearing on our discussion. First, he deals with the first and second law of thermodynamics in order to show that an unlimited growth concept is simply an ideological attempt to negate some basic insights of physics. Second, he shows that history, the organisation of society and changes in mode of production, and science and technology, have been marked by what he calls “energy watersheds”. The last energy watershed before capitalism coincided with the Renaissance and the beginning of the industrial revolution; and the present ecological crisis is seen as the expression of another energy watershed; the transition from fossile energy to the solar age.
The first law of thermodynamics simply states that the energy content of the universe is constant. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one form into another. If this were all, there would be no problem. However, the snag is with the second law of thermodynamics which says that entropy is ever on the increase. This means, with every transformation of energy certain amount of energy changes from an available or free state (i.e. available for work) into a non available or bound state (i.e. some kind of disorder). Rifkin connects entropy directly to the ecological crisis: “That unavailable energy is what pollution is all about. Many people think that pollution is a by-product of production. In fact, pollution is the sum total of all the available energy in the world that has been transformed into unavailable energy. Waste, then, is dissipated energy. Since according to the first law, energy can neither be created nor destroyed but only transformed, and since according to the second law it can only be transformed one way – towards a dissipated state – pollution is just another name for entropy; that is it represents a measure of the unavailable energy present in a system.”
This, in itself, shows the absurdity of a developmental approach which sees low per capita energy production (and consumption) as a sign of backwardness. Of late, great effort is invested in the promotion of more nuclear plants in order to combat this kind of backwardness. However, from the perspective of entropy, energy conservation and low energy use are a sign of hope. Rifkin goes in great detail into the devastating effects of high energy use in overdeveloped industrial society. However, even in our own society, certain types of high energy use lead to environmental destruction. This is not only a question of cement factories and chemical industries but also of much less centralised technologies like the outboard motors of fishermen or the techniques of green revolution. With a certain type of energy use, renewable resources like fish, forest, water, soil, become non-renewable.
This has to do fundamentally with the energy watershed at the end of the middle ages when the economy switched from wood to coal, from renewable resource to non-renewable fossile fuel and massive use of non-renewable mineral resource.
What Rifkin describes as energy watershed coincides with the industrial revolution, rise of capitalism, development of patriarchal science and technology, replacement of an organic world-view by a mechanistic one and patriarchal destruction of women’s traditional skills. While Rifkin does not go into the analysis of class and patriarchy and of colonialism, he deals with most of the aspects which Vanadan Shiva has worked out: specialisation and reductionism, the diminishing returns of technology, the self-defeating logic of input intensive agriculture and reformulation of knowledge and science. Since he lacks political analysis, he sees transformation toward the solar age more in terms of individual conversion in life-style and collective experiments in natural agriculture. He also pins his hopes on Third World countries which may not subscribe to Western development model. Besides such shortcomings, Rifkins’ vision of the ecological society in the solar age comes in fact very close to what Maria Mies envisages in her final chapter, and her argument would have been greatly strengthened by the inclusion of the perspective of entropy.
One of the crucial junctures on the road towards an ecologically viable society will be the battle against the multinational corporations which have already monopolised seeds and technologies, and will try to forge ahead in capturing the market for bio-technology and bio-mass based energy resources. This has been seen very clearly by both Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva but the future forms of struggle need much more exploration. Maria Mies makes a strong plea for consumer resistance and the politicization of consumption, appealing to women to refuse their expected consumer roles. A much wider question for women is how to recapture production and to assert the production of life concept as the central concept for the reorganisation of the production process.
While trying to do this it will also be essential to extend the debate on population and decision making on birth. The present resistance against population control techniques which are violently anti-women, and the struggle against targeting, has to be complemented by ecological struggles which will safeguard children’s survival (eg. availability of drinking water) and a critique of the existing pattern of family which makes marriage and childbearing virtually compulsory. To have and not to have children needs to be a matter of socially responsible choices in interaction with nature. Social support structures which form an alternative to the patriarchal family need to be developed.
The Caste Factor :
While grapping with the question how production of life could have been ousted by production of profit and how the law of entropy could have completely been obscured by a blind faith in an unlimited potential for growth, how the feminine principle is being appropriated and manipulated by patriarchal ideology, caste is an important mediating factor to be analysed. Caste is another cross current in the interaction between patriarchy and class. Caste has had an impact on division of labour which is otherwise determined by class and patriarchy; it has mediated the control over resources and it has vastly encouraged the polarisation between labour of head and hand. I have earlier argued that sexual division of labour and sexual violence are among the root causes of ecological destruction and I uphold this argument. I think this aspect is neglected by Vandana Shiva who, in her enthusiasm for the feminine principle sees women’s monopoly over subsistence agriculture as a sign of patriarchal extraction of subsistence labour. I am now trying to connect this earlier position of mine with caste as a mediating factor.
Unfortunately, most studies on caste do not apply themselves to the question of patriarchy; they simply take it for granted as a given, similar to the rising and setting of the sun. Also, the older studies do not normally take ecological aspects into consideration. It, therefore, requires some effort to connect existing caste studies with the focal concerns of this paper: women, ecology and culture. However, as far as the ecological dimension is concerned, the work of Morton Klass is of some help. It is obviously impossible here to go into definitions of caste, the relationships between varna and jati or the debate on the origins of the caste system. Four our present purpose it may be useful to follow Morton Klass who shows that the one operational unit which maintains the caste system more than all other aspects (e.g. occupational criteria, hierarchy, purity and pollution) is the functioning of caste as marriage circle. This endogamous body has the power to control the behaviour of the membership. It reflects both territoriality and kinship, and has its own leadership and internal control submitting to no higher authority. It has the power to expel as well.
Caste as marriage circle has heavily depended on patriarchy and even in case of intermarriage, caste has been maintained by subsuming women under their husbands’ caste. This principle has most clearly been expressed by the principle of hypergamy which is, in itself, an anti-feminist principle since it co-opts women into patriarchal upward mobility and undercuts feminist solidarity of declassing. Since production of life has been controlled by this marriage circle, there has been an in-built mechanism in caste to alienate women from their original skills and to “uplift” them through ritual upgrading and its ensuing restrictions. Even among dalits caste as marriage circle has been in operation and basically it is only among adivasis that production of life has been organised in a different way. This is not to say that patriarchy is absent among adivasis but among them it takes different forms, which cannot be explored here.
Since production of life is fundamental to all production, it is also obvious from what has been said above that caste is not just an ideological phenomenon of the super-structure but has a material base to the extent that it continues to function as marriage circle. Of course, there are other material aspects as well to caste, and that is the aspect of appropriation of resources for survival, be these in the form of material or economic resources or in the form of political leverage. These wider aspects often go beyond the marriage circle and extend to jati or groups of jatis. Besides, under present conditions, even caste as marriage circle, especially if it follows hypergamous rules, also serves ongoing original accumulation of capital with dowry as a form of plunder, as Maria Mies has pointed out.
In his chapte5r “The Economy of Caste”, Morton Klass develops an argument which enables us to come closer to identifying, the functioning of caste in an ecological perspective. Here it is not possible to go into the intricacies of his argument which draws on Marvin Harris study on the sacred cow (ecological anthropology) and Polanyi’s characterisation of socio-economic interaction as reciprocity, redistribution and exchange which Klass modifies into: reciprocal exchange, redistributive exchange and market exchange. Klass also follows Leslie White who sees social systems as “energy-capturing systems” bound by the laws of thermodynamics and then applies all these insights to the analysis of caste with the help of Neale’s application of Polanyi’s categories to the study of a North Indian village, comparing it with a study of Kathleen Gough of a village in South India.
To simplify his complicated analysis, we can say that Klass, together with Neale, sees the caste system in traditional village India as “a redistributive exchange system in which the dominant caste in a village, under the authority of the government, controls the production of the crop, the distribution of it, and ...even the allocation of services”. Participation in this system is not by individuals but by castes in the sense of marriage circles. Each of these marriage circles articulates with the total economic system by providing or controlling access to a specific set of commodities or services with the dominant caste of the village serving as allocative caste for the redistributive exchange. Klass emphasises that this system remained largely outside the market, regulated an agricultural production which integrated a vast cattle population and was ecologically wholesome. It depended on the supervision by the dominant castes which were themselves not involved in agricultural labour. Since he is interested only in the origins of caste. Klass does not go into the question, what has happended to the caste system under colonialism, and he does not trouble himself with the question, how agriculture could have degenerated from an ecologically eminently viable system to a disastrously destructive one.
If one tries to relate all this back to Vandana Shiva’s analysis of traditional agricultural skills controlled mainly by women and maintaining an undisturbed ecological balance, one stumbles over questions which cannot be answered. From Vandana’s book one comes away with an impression of a democratically organised collective agriculture dominated by the “feminine principle” while from Morton Klass, and the many field studies he quotes, one identifies a hierarchical, patriarchal system which was, nevertheless, ecologically functional as long as it did not succumb to the onslaught of market forces.
I find it earsier to explain how the model which Klass describes could be superceded by technocratic patriarchal, Western development concepts than to understand it from Vandana Shiva’s analysis which treats caste factors as non-existent. In the model which Klass describes, agriculture is carried out under patriarchal, high caste supervision: head-labour controls hand-labour. Such a system, under the on-slaught of an energy watershed, i.e. substitution of renewable by non-renewable resources and replacement of natural agriculture by chemical inputs, can easily betray the feminine principle to which it was not committed in the first place. The compartmentalised Brahmin mind has a natural affinity to the reductionist Western mind, with the sole difference that it can resort to reintergration in the spiritual field. This is one of the reasons why the March into the Twenty-First Century is put forward as going along with Indian spirituality.
There is another factor within the functioning of the caste system which has a bearing on women and ecology. As Louis Dumont has pointed out, purity and pollution in the traditional system was measured by the degree of interaction with organic life. This why involvement with agriculture and with child birth, including menstruation which is related to fertility, is most polluting. There is, thus an in-built commonality between Dalits, Shudras and women from this point of view. While death is also ritually polluting, the martial castes, who were professionally death-dealing, were not ritually polluted by their occupation. They were ranked above only those involved in production of life. This is ecologically significant because it connects with the pseudo-productivity of the predatory approach which Maria Mies describes Vs. the production of life carried out by women, dalits and shudras. In an ecologically viable mode of production, interaction with organic life will be of the greates importance, and this is an additional reason why the recapturing of the feminine principle will have to happen in alliance with the struggles of adivasis, dalits and Shudras. This also implies that dalits and adivasis have to fight patriarchy in their own quarters if they want to avoid either cooptation by upper caste communal forces or communalisation of their own demands.
An attempt to explore such alliances between adivasis, dalits, shudras and women was recently made in the second conference on Dalit, Adivasi, and Rural Literature in Valva, Sangli District. Though women’s participation in this massive conference (about 3500 participants) was 50% yet their impact was not strong enough to assert a feminist perspective which could have swept away the clinches of male dominated literature.
Having said all this, I hasten to add that I do not suggest a position of unity between adivasis, dalits and all “minorities” which is “anti-Hindy”. Such a position has been floated by various groups as something particularly radical but consider it to be potentially communalist and bound to create a communal backlash. Even “anti-Brahmin” is a label which does not sufficiently express what the struggle is all about. All these are externalisations of the problem of caste and patriarchy which obscure the fact that the enemy is in our own midst. Casteism and patriarchy, as well as communalism, operate in all of us and we have to tackle this from within. Even the women’s movement, the Dalit movement or the ecological movement, are not free from patriarchal, casteist and communalist attitudes.
The struggle is much more complicated. This can be seen from the debate on the sacredness of the cow. If cattle is as crucial to India agriculture and as ecologically useful as Marvin Morris, Morton Klass and Vandana Shiva assert with a lot of documentary evidence, then it has to be admitted that there is more to cow protection than meets the eye. One has then to distinguish cow protection and worship as a popular belief in an agricultural setting from cow worship as a middle class ideology which may turn communal or anti-women by promoting a docile mother-image of infinite patience. I whole-heartedly agree with David Hardiman when he says: “All religions consist, to a large extent, of assimilated folk beliefs. It is this which gives them their mass appeal and great pertinacity over time. Religions are highly ambiguous, with seemingly identical sets of doctrines being made to serve quite contradictory causes. It is an elite form of socialism which can view religion as merely an imposition from above.”
This means the debates on sacred cows, sacred forests, vegetarianism and many other issues have to go on their own rights, while everyone involved tries to use ecological criteria and to fight patriarchy, caste and middle class values from within. There is no ready-made, unambiguous, ecological or feminist folk-tradition to fall back on. The process is dialectical and very painful.
Towards a sustainable feminist classless society :
To summarise, we can return to the initial questions: (1) What the material and cultural skills of women are which will be important for building a new society and (2) How the ecological and the cultural crisis can be overcome together.
As far as skills are concerned, it is indeed women’s intimate knowledge of forestry, agriculture, water conservation, seeds, herbal medicine which needs to be mobilised against the monopoly of government planning, educated elites, industrial vested interests and multinational corporations. Under the present onslaught of development policies on the countryside, and with the rapid spread of TV, such skills can easily be devalued and destroyed. To preserve them and to make them instrumental to policy which focuses on production of life is an urgent task. How this can practically be done needs to be explored. Beyond this, women who are still able to transmit such skills need also to be drawn into the debate on multi-nationals and the coming onslaught of bio-technology and food processing, which will be ecologically and culturally ruinous in many ways. Food processing will not only drive out traditional subsistence crops but will further deskill women, impoverish local diets and destroy cultural identities, apart from creating new health hazards. Incidentally, many of the traditional skills of women which are ecologically important are very labour intensive. This aspect reinforces my earlier point that overcoming sexual division of labour will be crucial, not just in the sense of coopting women into male occupations but for teaching traditional labour intensive skills to men also.
A study needs to be made of the different skills of women in the informal sector of what they do to the environment and what they do to women as workers. Where such skills are ecologically harmful or violating women’s integrity and health, this needs to be taken up by unions in the unorganised sector. Where such skills are ecologically useful, they need to be strengthened. Any form of mechanisation has to be evaluated under similar aspects. The question of consumer resistance which Maria Mies raises, is an important one in our situation as well, not only in a middle-class context but even among the poorer sections where middle class consumer values are spread through media influence. A debate on synthetics and plastics is needed, and consumer resistance has to be built against ecologically damaging goods.
There are also cultural skills, in the more narrow sense of folk forms of song and dance, which need to be re-thought in a movement context. In the Tamil Nadu situation, I can think of simple skills like the Karagattam, which is a dalit folk-art carried out by women who dance with water ports on their heads. This is associated with Shakti and water and, thus, with profound production of life symbolism. Today, this dance has become a mere tourist attraction. It has been deprived of meaning, commercialised, and has become a vehicle of sexual objectification and exploitation of women. Do we just write such skills off or can they become part of a counter-culture? In the light of what Vandana Shiva writers on the popular religion of the Chipko women, and of the ongoing cooptation of ecological issues and women’s concerns, the debate on religion needs to be carried further along the lines developed in this paper. Despite being oppressive structures in many of their organised forms, religions have also given inner spaces to women and ecological spaces to larger communities. These aspects need to be rediscovered and weighed against potential communal manipulation. Active struggle against communalism needs to be an integral part of women’s movement, working class movement, ecological movement and dalit and adivasi movements. This struggle has to go beyond a narrow bourgeois concept of secularism which can see religion only as a “private affair”.
Finally, there needs to be a more integrated debate on violence and non-violence since the perception of this question is different in class organisations, in the struggles of dalits and adivasis, in the women’s movement and in an ecological perspective. However, this debate cannot be carried out in the abstract but needs to be developed in concrete struggles.
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