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The Crisis as a Chance: Exodus from the Accumulation Logic

The crisis may be a chance for alighting from the capital logic. Marie Mies, emeritus professor sociology in Kolon, Germany points to examples of the subsistence economy, the women in Rio, the seed war in India and the Seikatsu-Club in Japan.
The Crisis as Chance:
Exodus from the Accumulation Logic

By Maria Mies

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Maria Mies is an emeritus professor of sociology in Koln, Germany.]

The title suggests that I expect the collapse of the present system so that something new can develop out of the chaos. Such an attitude would be cynical in view of the sacrifice required by this crisis. Rethinking is most difficult for those who imagine themselves relatively secure in the centers of capitalist industrial society. Creative new thinking can be found among persons most affected by the crisis, the poor from the "Third World", above all poor women. Experiences in the struggle for survival of such groups encourage seeing the crisis as a chance for alighting from the capital logic. Since the crisis is global, struggles for survival also take place in the centers of the rich North. It is high time to learn from the examples in so-called Third World countries.

Reflecting on the character of the present crisis is necessary before iluminating the hopeful alternatives. What is the crisis? What dimensions of our life are affected? How far does the crisis extend?

What is called crisis today is an economic crisis, not only one of those cyclical economic declines that will be superseded by an upswing according to the teaching of neoclassical economic theory. The economists assure us - just in time before the Bundestag election - that the world economy is going forward again. The crisis goes deep and reaches further.

Strictly speaking it is a permanent crisis since capitalism existed and does not first appear now. First of all it is an obviously economic crisis which despite increasing gross national product is manifest in the collapse of firms, in growing or stagnating unemployment, shriveling markets for durable goods and a mad competition on all markets. Although politicians and economists seek to reassure the people that the crisis is temporary and will be overcome by investments in "future technologies" like bioengineering, people no longer believe this. The paradigm of unlimited growth is not only ecologically a catastrophe but economically is not sustainable neither in the South nor in the North.

Poverty has visibly returned in the centers of the rich North. In Germany for example, the number of homeless has risen to one million. In the winter of 1992/93, 30 persons froze to death in Germany and there are more and more beggars. In London, people spend the night in cardboard boxes. The number of unemployed has increased enormously in the last years particularly in eastern Germany and stagnates more or less despite an apparently improved business cycle. The new phenomenon of this crisis is the continuance of economic growth in industrial countries while at the same time the indebtedness of the "Third World" has soared. In 1992 it was estimated at $1.343 trillion. In the sub-Sahara, the indebtedness was four times as great as the gross national product of all Third World countries together.

Obviously women are much more strongly affected by unemployment and this "new" poverty in the industrial countries than men and the older more intensely than the young. Many single mothers already live under the poverty tine like receivers of social security and we are accustomed that this is "normal". The prognoses for the future as calculated by the Prognosis Institute for the year 2000 plan an economic growth and the continuance of unemployment and underemployment. What economists call "jobless growth" arises. Hickel and Priewe describe these expectations as too optimistic since they start from east German's successful re-industrialization which is not occurring any more in their opinion. Instead they expect a further division of society according to the model of the two-thirds society with 6 million unemployed. The return of poverty in industrial countries assumes even more drastic forms in the richest land of the world, the US. A "third-worldization" of the land is decried here.

That no other strategies occur to the "responsible" in the economy and politics than those proposed unsuccessfully in the past to the "Third World" is even more astonishing. Since Keynesianism and full employment seem finally at an end, the "informal economy" should be expanded. The German economics minister Rexrodt recently proposed the formation of a low wage sector within Germany where wages are lower, working hours longer and industrial safety is be3low what the unions gained for the formal sector. This corresponds to the so-called deregulation model operational for a long time in the "Third World". Women should work in this low wage sector, the minister recommends. At the same time, cuts in state expenditures occur in the social area in which many women are active and on which they depend. Funds for kindergartens, women's shelters and housing assistance are cut. Those affected by this strategy are mainly poor women as in the indebted countries of the South suffering under the regime of the structural adjustment program of the International Monetary Fund.

Rexrodt not only proposes a low wage sector in Germany to counter the competition from the low wage countries of the South - and now the East - and migration of German capital to other low wage countries. He propagates a dual economy with a formal and an informal sector and also promotes - particularly in the "Third World" - the private household as a standard for the new jobs in the service area. He obviously does not think of men as workers in this realm but of women or housewives. The private economy, Rexrodt declares, is "attractive employment, particularly for women with small children where they can fully use their experience".

This statement shows that politics and the economy in the rich countries today can follow no other strategy than "women as housewives" as we described in our 1982 analysis of capital accumulation in the "Third World" ( Veronika Bernhold-Thomsen, Claudia von Werlhof and Maria Mies). Through this strategy, women are edged out of the formal sector. The necessary social services for children, the sick, the aged and so forth will not cost the welfare state too much. In the future, more men will become housewives with the persisting crisis.

In her essay "The Proletarian is dead, Long live the housewife", Claudia von Werlhof wrote at the beginning of the eighties that "the generalization of housework is not the dream of all capitalists". "There is no cheaper, more productive, more fruitful human work that can be forced without a whip. The restructuring of the economy becomes an attempt to instill feminine work abilities in men... The wage earner does too little. He can only do what is paid and what is contractually agreed. He does nothing beyond that and has no idea of human production. He functions de-emotionalized as a robot, as an appendage of a machine... He works too little and is too quickly exhausted. He has no reason to be innovative and no motive for work. He cannot be mobilized as a whole person. The male work capacity is much too inflexible and "unfruitful". What was clear to us on the basis of the non-paid labor of the housewife and the subsistence producers of the "Third World" is also true for the rich countries of the North: work becomes housewife work.

The present crisis is not only an economic crisis but is combined with a series of additional crises. In other words, the current crisis has different dimensions bound together: ecological, social, political, ethical and psychological dimensions beside the economic. We are confronted with an enormous crisis of thinking, an erosion of common sense, a confusion of perception and a deficiency in orientation and perspectives.

The ecological crisis was given special emphasis in the last years. Enough was written about its causes. In the meantime it is admitted worldwide that this crisis is caused by the growth- and progress-oriented industrial system, allied with resource consumption, exploitation of the "Third World" and a wasteful lifestyle in the North. Instead of annulling the dogma of permanent growth and drastically changing consumer styles, the economy and politics under the slogan "sustainable growth" insist on further growth, on more "quantitative" growth in the South and more "qualitative" growth in the North. This is obviously like trying to square the circle within a limited planet. The Club of Rome in its current positions also represents this growth model. The term "sustainable growth" was immediately confiscated by multinational conglomerates to appear to solve the ecological crisis. For example the German multinational Hoechst recently published a full page advertisement in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" with the title: "Sustainable growth - so our children have a future".

This "green capitalism" relying on environmentally-friendly technology should bring new growth to the economy and new jobs to the unemployed. Nothing should change in the exploitative conditions between men and women, classes, rich and poor countries: a typical strategy of the white man for solving crises. The economic crisis seduces to block or even cancel the modest beginnings of an ecological return from the traditional growth model.

The social and psychological dimension of the crisis can be seen in the collapse of social peace in the metropolises of industrial countries. This is usually summarized with catch-phrases like increased criminality, violence, suicide rates, drug consumption among others. The so-called "civil society" is today the place of an enormous brutalization of day-to-day life, an increasing "ramboization" of men affecting women and girls and a hardening toward human values and feelings. The two boys who killed a two year old child in Liverpool imitated what they saw on violent- and horror videos. In its competition for markets, the home entertainment industry has no reservations about poisoning the imagination of adolescents and children and creating a climate of social darwinism where only the most brutal survive. At the end of this century, the philosophy of Hobbes, Darwin and Adam Smith will be practiced in the middle of the "civil society", not only "outside" in the colonies. Values like solidarity, respect, responsibility, sympathy or concern for others disappear from day-to-day life. The struggle of everyone against everyone else - the basic Hobbesian assumption - remains.

This struggle must now be waged increasingly by atomized individuals since the communities that functioned in the past - family, neighborhood, relations, community - have largely broken down. In other words, a more or less intact retreating area for psychic reproduction as represented by the traditional family with the housewife is no longer available for male workers' reproduction.

The political dimension of the crisis is closely connected with the economic and ecological. The crisis is diverse and multilayered. The "people", the electorate, has less and less power to organize political affairs. This is clearer and clearer in industrial countries on account of the new economic-political blocks like the EU, NAFTA and APEC which annul national democracies, not only an increasingly intractable bureaucracy. In addition, there is the new mafia-like politics and corruption in party democracies as in Italy. The power games of those "at the top" become increasingly inscrutable for many who turn disgusted from politics with the attitude "Nothing can be changed."

These feelings of powerlessness become clearer with the so-called new future technologies as for example genetic engineering.


1. If I rightly understand you, can little consumers and base communities build producer-consumer cooperatives?

Maria Mies: In India there are at least a million people who defend the production method of the subsistence economy. I would not call that a small group.

In Europe a majority of people are interested in ecologically safe foods but not many are interested in how they are produced. Participation in the production process in harvests for example - as practiced in the Seikatsu clubs in Japan - would be unthinkable for us now. In Japan people successfully resisted increased food imports from the US and insisted that export of computers and cars be slowed down in favor of food security for their country.

Urging this in the "industrial position Germany" would be the sheerest blasphemy! Whether a chance is seen in the crisis created by capital is not a question of numbers. What is central is violating the basic structure of capitalism in these movements and initiatives.

2. Progressive circles like the "Third World Network" believe that the share of jobs shifted to low-wage countries only amounts to one percent of all jobs... A social clause would include special defensive regulations. Now the provocative question: What is so terrible if for example Swissair does its accounting in India and accordingly creates good jobs?

Maria Mies: The shift of jobs follows the logic of capital accumulation. Therefore a social- and environmental clause of the WTO could not prevail. The solidarity of workers is destroyed; workers are set against workers who are split in two antagonistic camps.

When some have jobs, others don't. The French unions are up in arms against this new international division of labor. Traditional union policy which only referred to paid laborers in one's own country is no longer adequate for countering this globalization strategy.

3. This antagonism between workers in the "Third World" and workers in industrial countries has existed for a long time.

Maria Mies: In the past, events in the colonies were completely faded out from union discussions. The unions in England and Japan were even against de-colonialization. They feared that India's or Korea's independence would worsen their situation. The question of a material basis for international solidarity has been generally ignored up to today in the left and should be included in the political discussion.

4. What are the chances of forms of self-organization like the Brazilian women or the farmers in south India? Aren't they only tolerated as long as they don't represent a serious nuisance element for the interests of multinationals and otherwise would be eliminated? I see no way out of this economic system.

Maria Mies: I tell these "success stories" because I believe in the possibility of a change. The women's movement has gained some things like specific women's shelters, to name one example. Within the cooperatives in Japan, housework was brought into the public discussion on the division of labor. The farmers' movement in south India represents a source of disturbance for the multinationals that should be taken very seriously. The Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS) stormed the office of the seed and food multinational Cargill in Bangalore, burned up and cast the papers on the street. Cargill and other multinationals are urged to leave India because they treat India like a neo-colony in the style of the old East India Company of the English. The Indian government cannot do anything against this massive farmers' movement since it signed the GATT agreement and supports the free trade policy. This movement against GATT and economic liberalization in India led to a defeat of the Congress party last December in two Indian states Karnataka and Andhara Pradesh. The government of Narasimha Rao must fear for its survival today.

I have not received any further reports about the self-organization of poor women in Brazil. Still I find it remarkable that persons most affected by the crisis invest no hopes any more in the continuance of this world economic system but ask directly about the actual foundations of their and our existence and begin organizing themselves.

Those impacted by the crisis among us, for example the unemployed, are still miles away from such a discovery. They still demand securing the foundations of life from capital and the state - by money - while they create this security themselves.

5. Is the demand for a redistribution of paid and unpaid work only a strange illusion?

Maria Mies: As far as I see, money certainly cannot remain a foundation of existence. Everything cannot be paid, not even by the state. In addition our understanding of the foundations of existence should be clarified. This includes satisfaction of basic needs for food, clothing, housing, protection, knowledge, acknowledgment, love and so forth (cf. Mies/ Shiva 1993) which are the same in all societies and at all times. These needs are met by human labor in cooperation with nature and other people. However in capitalism they are increasingly satisfied particularly in the metropolises by the production and consumption of goods. People need money for that. Here - not everywhere in the world - money has become the foundation of existence on the basis of exploitation and robbery.

The demand for "housework wages" is also not fulfilled. In my opinion only another gender division of labor remains as an alternative, namely that the unpaid and priceless but socially necessary work (for example looking after children, caring for the elderly and sick, doing ecological clearing work and so forth) should be done by men and women.

If such a redistribution does not occur, the women here demand payment for all their work including housework to remain on the same level of prosperity. This is only possible when nature and the "Third World" are further exploited and colonized.

6. Women in Central Europe are most intensely exploited by the world economic system. "To alight from capital" is problematic for us who must do the work. The interests of entrepeneurs prevail when people exclude themselves from paid work.

Maria Mies: The majority of women are now and will remain in the future - typically - in unprotected wage conditions. Honorary contracts, the cottage industry, a little tip here, a little homework there - that is the low-wage sector. The dual economic form, the formal and informal sectors with many employees in precarious working conditions will continue.

This is in the interest of entrepeneurs. When we "alight from capital" - women and men - this means more than merely functioning in the dual economy. Withdrawing a market from capital is important, not only practicing more self-sufficiency and self-organization (subsistence). What is involved is not a moral call to women to do the dirty work in the social rearrangement but recognizing that what women do, namely producing and preserving life, has a greater value than the production of surplus value.

7. The gainful biographies of the genders must be "adjusted" to one another. Men also increasingly have interrupted gainful biographies on account of further training, not because of family work. Do women have a chance on the paid market here?

Maria Mies: In Germany, above all in eastern Germany, women after a family-determined interruption of paid work often cannot find a paid job despite offers of continuing education. All this is a bluff. What sounds very beautiful does not function.

The goal cannot be chasing after capital and the latest technological developments while always adjusting to the newest innovations. We do not determine ourselves the production of what we need. The universal supermarket with total consumers arises in a world market in which products are brought from places of cheapest manufacture and sold where there is most money. This causes the lack of perspective among youths. Everything is already there; they only need to have money. However there will never be enough money for everyone to buy what is produced worldwide for the global supermarket. The retrained who must adjust to every new technology trend also have too little money. On top of that, capital and technology are the only subjects of history and we people only react to them.

It is our right to begin something rational and meaningful with our bodies and our minds and not only react to the exploitation pressures of capital. We must turn the whole system inside out.

Change has Begun: The Subsistence Principle

Change has begun through reflection on the subsistence perspective and self-organization. The following examples show that criticism of the global supermarket and the search for alternatives are hardly only matters of leftist and/ or feminist academics but are shared by different groups, initiatives and mass movements.

1. The Women of Rio

In 1992 women in Rio organized a workshop in the context of UNCED where they rejected the capitalist-patriarchal world economic system and its model of development. The fruits of this development are poverty, hunger, development refugees, violence, mountains of waste and decimated nature. "Basta (enough) to the economic model!", they exclaimed.

Instead of further "development", they demanded genuine land reform, breaking through the isolation of women in the city and the countryside and development of direct exchange relations between different producers rather than production for an anonymous world market. They already produced what they needed, they declared. Why export these things?

"Long live abundance!" was one of their slogans. They proposed that unions join small farmers, rubber tappers, fishers, coconut gatherers and small producers in the city - who were all at this workshop - and thus create a real "sustainable economy".

2. The Neem Campaign and the Seed War in India

In south India, a broad farmers' opposition arose, a million people who struggle against the free trade policy of GATT, enforced export orientation and "Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights" (TRIPs). Through the GATT and TRIPs, the Indian agricultural market and the seed sector are opened up for the mammoth agricultural and seed multinationals. In the wake of the expansion of bioengineering, it is now possible to issue patents on plants, plant- and animal genes, plant properties and seed and thus to privatize, monopolize and commercialize the knowledge of farmers which ahs existed for millenia. The best known example of this new bio-piracy is the patent issued for Neem to the American Larson and the firm W.R. Grace. From time immemorial, this tree has been used on account of its pest-control properties in leaves, branches, seeds and so on. Now it is exploited industrially. The knowledge of its effectiveness now belongs to the patentees. The Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS) resists this robbery of indigenous knowledge which was part of our common heritage and transporting all seed to multinational conglomerates like Cargill and compares Cargill Seeds (India) with the old colonial East India Company. The movement demands that Cargill and other multinationals leave the country, the right to produce and sell their seed themselves, the right to the self-sufficiency of the country, better prices for agricultural products and real land reform. The farmers are committed to produce mainly for the Indian market and not for the world market.

3. The Seikatsu-Club in Japan

The Indian farmers movement against GATT, TRIPs and free trade was supported by the Seikatsu-Club in Japan which also struggles for self-sufficiency, self-reliance and food security. This Seikatsu-Club is a producer-consumer cooperative that arose after the Minameta disaster - the contamination of fish by mercury - and through a milk cooperative. The club was founded by housewives who wanted to be sure of what they served their family as food. Eight households teamed up in a Han which directly organized contacts to farmers. What was central to the Seikatsu-Club was not only fair prices but food security, changing consumer behavior, another relation between producers and consumers and breaking the capital logic so that farmers and other producers only produce as much as is needed. Thus there is no over-production for an anonymous market.

Since the Seikatsu-Club was originally founded by housewives, the question of housework was thematicized. This discussion led to acceptance of a different concept of work than the conventional idea in capitalism which only refers to paid labor. Besides the Han, "workers' collectives" were established in which all necessary paid and unpaid works were distributed evenly. Care of the elderly, sick and care of children were included in these works alongside actual housework.

In the meantime the Hans and "workers' collectives" have joined together in larger entities that are represented in local councils and parliaments. The Seikatsu-Club which understands it strategy as anti-capitalist has achieved a politization of the consumer sphere which has led to Japan bowing only half-heartedly today to the pressure of the US to import American and Thai rice.

Consumers simply refuse to buy foreign rice. They insist on food safety. In 1989 this collective had a quarter million members.

4. Germany: The SSK (Socialist Self-help of Koln)

This movement arose during the student movement. Originally it built communes for runaway youths and psychiatric patients. Taking no money from the state and living from their occasional work were part of its concept.

After Chernobyl, groups concentrated intensely on the ecology question and developed a new container recycling process. Some of the groups succeeded in signing contracts for composting household waste with communes in mountainous areas. Afterwards they acquired land and began a new subsistence agriculture with the goal of self-sufficiency. The group has largely reached this goal. However it has always understood this battle around subsistence and waste as a political struggle and demands today for example that contracts with the large waste corporations be cancelled and all household waste be composted according to their method.

Like the SSK, numerous communes in one way or another are oriented in a subsistence perspective as a strategy for overcoming accumulation logic and pursuing ecological, communitarian and feminist goals.

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