Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 6, No. 11, November 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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The Economics of Natality:
How to Act in the Household World

Ina Praetorius
Kirchenrain 10, CH-9630 Wattwil, Switzerland
From Equality to Reconstructing the World

Paper presented at the General Assembly of the
Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women (EFECW),
Loccum, Germany, 25 August 2010
Reprinted with Permission


This paper is a reflection on modern economic theory and practices. Key points for consideration:

  • Humans do not come into the world as autonomous, adult market players.
  • "Economy" originally means "law of the household" (oikos = house, household, nomos = law, teaching).
  • Today the consequences of confusing primary and secondary realities, which is notorious in patriarchal societies, are clearly visible.
  • What we need is an economic theory and practice that refocuses on the satisfaction of real needs.
  • In order to launch this kind of thinking it is helpful to remember one's own birth.
  • Whoever rethinks economics beginning with human babies will realize that the patriarchal hierarchical separation of markets and households doesn't make sense.
  • Three proposals are offered for rethinking economics:
    • To give top priority to basic human needs and the realities of households, nursing, and agriculture.
    • To reinforce the movement for a unconditional basic income with good gender-sensitive arguments.
    • To reform official resource allocation policies that perpetuate the patriarchal order and priorities.
From the perspective of sustainable development, these are urgent and unavoidable issues that must be faced.

What is commonly called "economy" has kept us all in suspense in recent years and months. Although perhaps we should better stop calling "economy" what has kept us in suspense. For, literally translated from ancient Greek, "economy" means "doctrine of the household”. And, in fact, it was not the households that got us worried, but banks, shares, financial products, mergers and all those strange things that nowadays are at work somewhere beyond real needs.

Some of us have lost their gainful employment. For others the money they had saved for their old age has simply melted away. Still others have to pay for family members who have lost their income. Many are glad that there is still a garden somewhere to grow vegetables and potatoes. And some are simply afraid because they do not know what else to expect: Will their jobs be pared down? Will everything become much more expensive, because the central banks have thrown too much cheap money into the market? Will the Euro be saved? Does anyone know at all what is going on and what to do?

All this confusion takes place, mind you, in the context that our true foundations of life, that is the amount of soil, water, plants, air, homes, roads, love, etc., remain the same. Sure, there is what we call the "environmental crisis", too, and this is far more threatening than money crises because it is about real things such as contaminated water, destructive storms, polluted air etc. The financial crisis has disturbed the money system "only”, ultimately a human invention that, basically, has nothing to do with what we actually need. For millennia, mankind lived without money, or in a way that money was a minor side issue. Today money has become a kind of "foodstuff” even though it still cannot be eaten. As nowadays almost all of humanity depends on money, financial crises seem as threatening as environmental disasters.

This is really strange: a human creation that, in principle, we could do away with bothers us so much. Why is this so?

Sit down! Think!

It is good to take some time to thoroughly reflect on these kinds of questions. I think that, at the moment, there is in fact nothing more important than this: to sit down in peace and think about the whole thing again, from the beginning!

Of course I know that many people, especially women, are convinced that thinking is secondary while first we have to act: We should, for example, start running straight away and set up an alternative currency, organize a demonstration in Brussels or create a helpline for people affected by poverty.

For three reasons, I believe that this female activist reflex is out of place:

Firstly: Those who sit and think on the one hand do not destroy anything and on the other will no longer nourish the illusion that the damage can be simply repaired. For centuries women have tried to heal, maintain and restore what others have damaged, but they have not been able to prevent the crises we now have. Women that sit there quietly and reflect, send a different message into the world, namely: We are no longer servants that clean up where others throw their garbage.

Secondly, women have worked enough in the past centuries. They deserve rest.
And thirdly: Before we act we need a proper analysis, and this does not exist yet. Although an army of experts tells us that they know the solutions, many of the critical issues are still not raised and therefore lack an appropriate answer.

So, the best thing to do is: think it all over again in order to find out what economy is meant to be and should accomplish.

Birth as the starting point

I begin with one of the most fundamental questions of all: who are we as human beings?

My answer is: All men, women, black, white, red, yellow ... come into the world as bloody slimy shitting and hungry babies from the mind-body of a woman of the previous generation. For a while, we inhabit the earth, along with currently about six and a half billion other born people and countless non-human fellow creatures. For a certain time we are able to act, that is to actively shape the world. Throughout our lives we are, in varying degrees, dependent and free at the same time. At some point, maybe tomorrow, each and every one of us go back into the earth, mostly after a period of dependence that is comparable to childhood.

This is the reality from which the economy – and everything else - should be reconsidered.

In fact, opening any textbook of economy, I find a reasonable definition of the economy that refers to the fact that people from the beginning to the end of their lives are needy and free at the same time. For example, this one: "... Economy is the social institution that is meant to meet human needs, the preservation and the quality of life.". Or this one: "It is the task of economics to examine how the means to satisfy human needs are produced, distributed and consumed."

These generally accepted definitions of the economy and economics – theory and practice - are reasonable. I will stick to them in my further deliberations. Next, I would expect that the economist is concerned about questions like these: What do people actually need and how can the economy satisfy those needs? So, in the economic textbooks questions would have to follow such as: What does a baby need to safely grow into the world of adults? Or: How can old, frail people be cared for, even if they are no longer able to take responsibility for their living?

However, these questions are interestingly left out in the textbooks. Rather, after it is clear that the economy has to satisfy needs, the authors turn to a small part of it, namely to what we call the "market", ie the exchange of goods and services for money.

So, having generally defined his subject area, the economist jumps directly into a specific institutional sphere: the market. We know in the meantime that he thereby skips a lot of real satisfaction of needs. In fact, he or she skips all the areas of human society in which needs are satisfied without using money as a medium of exchange, in particular the private households and many other sectors of the society, where money does play a role, but not the dominant one: neighborhood, subsistence farming, volunteer work and all that feminist economists now call "care work". Without providing a plausible explanation the economist identifies real needs with what he calls "demand", ie those specific needs that are able to appear on markets and can be exchanged for money.

Why is this so? How can we explain this gap? I will again begin to think from the start, this time from the beginning of the Western history of ideas:

Economics as a "lower" area

The term "economy" means, as I said: doctrine or law of the house(hold). It is composed of two ancient Greek words: oikos and nomos. Oikos means house or household, nomos means doctrine or law. We have to imagine here the ancient large households, in which all members of a family, including slaves and livestock, lived and, supervised by the father-leader, had to produce what they needed to stay alive.

When the concept of oikonomia was devised in Ancient Greece, a few centuries before Christ, it was still clear: To say "economy" actually meant to deal with the satisfaction of real human needs: food and drink, clothing, protection etc. In fact, agriculture and craft were part of the oikos. Food, fabrics, clothes, tools, musical instruments etc. were produced there, mainly for the use of the household members themselves. Surplus only was traded on the market in exchange with the surpluses of other households, or for money already. It was still clear that products had to fulfill the basic needs of household members before they were exchanged on markets. From this original structure we understand that still today economics is defined as the theory of the satisfaction of human needs.

However, if we want to understand, why today's economists, contrary to their own basic definition, skip households and think about money and markets only, we must see who in Ancient Greece was allowed to produce theory: In the society then almost exclusively free male native citizens were allowed to publicly philosophize. They, and not their wives, children or slaves, created what we call "theory". Theorein is an Ancient Greek word, too. It means to contemplate and describe the world, namely: to do what I have just recommended to do: Sit down! Think! So, to be a theorist means to create concepts that describe reality as it is – or sometimes as the theorist wants it to be. Thus, those who originally created the term oikonomia, were themselves not an active, but a contemplative, consuming  and commanding part of it. They defined themselves as "free", that is, above all, as exempt from the task of actively satisfying human needs. This exemption from what we call "everyday work", made it possible for them to describe the world in a certain way that served their interests. Aristotle, for example, the philosopher who has influenced Western thought and history more than any other, would hardly have thought about taking a floor cloth or a wooden spoon in his own hands. As a "free theorist" he considers the economy to be somewhat "lower" than himself, as a burden that we must throw off or have already dropped. To satisfy real needs in his view is the task of lower, non-free people: slaves, women, children, prisoners. The free Athenian male citizen considers himself to be born for "higher" things: for theory and policy above all, that is to design and organize human coexistence from above. To illustrate this split perception Aristotle, in his book "Politeia", quotes a line from Hesiod, the poet:

"Now first and foremost a house and the woman, and the plowing ox." In this line the poet tells us what the "free man" needs to possess in order to lead a liberated life beyond economic activities: land with a house, a dependent wife, who brings up the next generation, and working animals. We realize that the household is subordinated to a higher realm. This higher sphere is called the "polis". It is defined as the area in which free male "equally" well provided citizens are debating with each other at eye level, making theory and policy. The division between the spheres of oikos and polis, which has much to do with war and violent repression, is the beginning of the bipartited worldview that shapes our minds still today.

To sum up: in the classical Greek period economy has been defined as the area in which human needs are satisfied. At the same time it is considered somewhat lower and secondary to a higher realm in which free male thinkers define and control the lower sphere that cares for their needs but in which they are not active themselves.

Do we now understand why economists, contrary to their own basic definition, don’t speak of the satisfaction of real needs but about money and markets only? Partially. We understand that the "free" man seems to be somewhat embarrassed that as mundane things as hunger, thirst or shit are part of his reality. He would indeed prefer to be an infinite pure spirit without a body, which is why antique philosophers love death and hate birth and, as far as possible, focus on intellectual activities while delegating the satisfaction of all the embarrassing human needs to subordinates.
However, we have not yet understood why the modern descendants of the free citizens of Athens love to study economics and even declare it a master discourse. What has happened in the meantime?

The division of the economy

We have seen that the theorists and practitioners of what is still called "economy" nowadays simply talk about money - and the mysterious laws of its multiplication: about interest and discount rates, investment, profits, financial products, etc. And this despite the fact that on the first page of each of their textbooks there is still written that economy is related to the satisfaction of human needs. Another "higher" sphere seems to have been put into focus: money, and with it the market mechanism of supply and demand.

So, the bipartition of the world as such has survived, but has changed its content. The higher sphere of alleged male liberty does not any more contain politics, theory and science only, but in addition: money, and with it the seemingly infallible mechanism that seems to assume that needs are satisfied "automatically": the free market! The higher economic law! Eureka!

In the 18th century, Adam Smith had this glorious idea that every free citizen only has to follow his own profit interests in order to ensure that all needs are satisfied, as it were by themselves. This idea was the decisive turning point. From now on money and its reproduction moved into the focus of economic thinking and action. From then on, economists have told us, we no longer have to think about real hunger, thirst, need for protection etc., but about money and our own advantage only. Yes, we even harm the incomparably elegant market mechanism by merely considering what people actually need. Which finally brings us to the strange leap that economists make, after having defined their scope: Considering all those needs that cannot be fulfilled on the market as low, naturally functioning "women’s business", they nourish the illusion that the market is primary or even that there is no economy outside the market. Another "higher, free, male" sphere has been established: the market. In the meantime the base of the bipolar construction remains all in all the same. Today this sphere is mainly composed of family households that are dependent on a money income and in which unpaid wives or poorly paid servants care for the immediate satisfaction of needs, cooking, cleaning, washing, bearing and educating children, caring for elderly and sick people etc. It is also, on a worldwide level, composed of small subsistence agriculture and lots of nearly invisible niches where people struggle to survive while others fulfill their so called "needs" for more and more superfluous goods and more and more money on aloof luxury markets.

It is interesting to realize in this context that the word materia is derived from the Greek and Latin word mater which means mother, and the notion nature from the Latin word nasci which means to be born. Materia, the maternal has been subordinated to pure mind, natura, all that cannot be made made by men has been subordinated to so-called civilization.

To sum up, the bipartition of the world has, over the centuries, changed its content, yet, as such, has been maintained or re-erected. Today, however, it falls more and more in a crisis, for two main reasons: Firstly because women, the supposedly naturally functioning "matter”, and other formerly subjugated people increasingly refuse to work as an invisible service to uphold the two-part order. And secondly because it turns out that nature, our limited habitat, is no longer able to tolerate the destructive consequences of the supposedly "independent" and "higher" spheres of reality.

The end of the bipartited order

What follows is nothing but logical: We rethink and reorganize the whole thing on this side of the unrealistic division of higher symbolically male and lower symbolically female realms. This brings me back to what I said at the beginning: as human beings we are all born.

What does it mean to be born? It means: We come from a matrix, in a narrow and in a broad sense. The basic meaning of "matrix" is "the womb". In various sciences, for example in mathematics, biology, geology, this term is common. It means an ambiance, a setting, something in which or from which something else emerges and gets its meaning. In biology, for example, "matrix" is the substance between the cells. Interestingly, the concept of the matrix plays no major role in philosophy, and in economics, as far as I know, none at all. The praetoriushomepage thinkers are hardly concerned with what surrounds us humans, where we come from and where we exist until our death. And when a thinker was concerned with the real matrix of our existence, it was usually in order to make it disappear intellectually. We have already seen it: At a certain time in human history certain people have, violently, created living conditions, in which they were able to believe in what they later called "independence". These conditions - slavery, separation of oikos and polis, symbolic equation of femininity with non-free materia etc.– made it possible to put certain "higher" things into the focus forgetting the "lower" matrix, which of course never really disappeared. A part of the matrix, namely the immediate satisfaction of needs in households, has been delegated to subordinates, especially to women's unpaid work, but also to churches, nursing homes, rural subsistence farming etc. And what surrounds this man-made matrix has been stowed away in notions such as "creation" or "nature". More and more the abundance, from which we all live and without which no economy is ever possible, is being removed from theory by being defined as mere "resource", from which the expansion of human civilization can operate indefinitely.

The fact remains, however: We all come from a nurturing ambiance, without which there could be no thought, no action, no system, no market. Certainly, the umbilical cord is cut after birth. The newcomer then enters directly, rather than through the medium of the womb, into the world of human relations, at first by breathing, crying, eating, defecating. Over the years, we are guided towards what we call "independence". Increasing independence means that we become able to sit, to stand, to walk away, to say "I", "You", "We", "Yes" and "No", to act, for example to guide another new generation into the world of adults. Self-reliance, however, never means independence in the very sense of the word, as we always remain enmeshed in the matrix world. Nobody can survive five minutes without air, or a week without water. How long can a person survive without language and morality? How long without love? These would be interesting questions which, however, would require a postpatriarchal redefinition of terms such as "morality" or "love."

Aristotle said that there were, on the one hand, people who are born for their own sake and for freedom, and, on the other hand, humans who are destined by nature to serve and to submit to others. The first category includes free male native citizens, including himself, the second women, slaves and "barbarians”. This anthropological axiom has so far been rejected by many, for example some prophets of the First Testament, Jesus of Nazareth, monks and nuns with their liberating motto "ora et labora", Immanuel Kant and many other mothers and fathers of the human rights tradition. Yet, the bipartite order is, as we have seen, still very much alive and effective. This has above all to do with the fact that a large proportion of those engaged in theory still belong to the category of white property-owning adult males. And that the relationship between so-called "general" issues and the gender and power issue is still continually obscured.

And now we understand why we have to think and organize the economy all over again. Not only in order to understand the financial crisis, but also to make the vital connections between economic, environmental, gender and many other problems and to create viable alternatives.

The economy of natality

What would the economy, i.e. the theory and praxis of the satisfaction of human needs, be like if I rethink and reorganize it beginning with real born human beings?

Entering into the continuous satisfaction of needs, humans are by no means grown up and independent. On the contrary, they are extremely fragile and dependent on care and love. They come from the matrix womb and rely on the matrix world that consists of the sensitive shell cosmos, physical and spiritual nourishment, protecting buildings and materials, caring and sense-making individuals and communities. They remain needy and dependent, now on the matrix world that must protect them just as the first matrix from which they are cut off.

Fortunately, even Jesus of Nazareth taught the anthropology of birth: He called a child to him and had her stay among them, and he said: I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven at all. (Mt 18:2 ff). Rethought from the real beginning economy begins with the placental exchange between mother and fetus, continues in breast feeding and other early food, in language teaching and various caring acts. The life support and quality of life primarily depend on the matrix world - roughly speaking on air and love - only secondarily on goods bought on a market. First comes the immediate satisfaction of needs in the household, and only after that, as Aristotle already knew, comes the market. The market has, by definition and by its origin, the task of organizing the exchange of surplus goods, i.e. those items which are not consumed by the members of the oikos itself. And it is, like households and other economic institutions, surrounded and nourished by the not man-made part of the matrix that theologians call "creation" and many other people call "nature". That markets necessarily fail, if they are put into the center of the economy, we can, for example, realize by the fact that, in a market-driven global economy, thousands of people die daily of starvation. These are people who have neither access to the market nor any fellow humans who feel responsible for the satisfaction of their basic needs.

The economics of natality thus breaks through the improper confusion of first-rate and second-rate realities. Recognizing us humans as born beings it restores the matrix as center of the satisfaction of needs. The household as the place of primary interest moves back to the center, while the market is recognized for what it was from the beginning: a useful and indeed necessary, but secondary instance for the distribution of surpluses. This "cleaning up" up of the various instances of the satisfaction of needs has profound consequences not only for theory, but also for the practical conduct of human societies.

The practical consequences of the bipartited economy

We all know the consequences of the bipartited economy. I list some of them only:

  • Firstly, the primary work in so-called private households is still provided mainly for free. This means that parents, especially mothers, and their children who cannot count on a classic so-called breadwinner, are systematically driven into poverty. Secondly, bankers that exchange money for money only and have lost the connection to real needs, get - I deliberately do not say "deserve" - disproportionate amounts of money that they usually invest in money again.
  • Thirdly, people who perform the much needed caring work, for example geriatric nurses, educators, cooks, cleaners etc., are notoriously underpaid, often even "working poor", although, as recent studies demonstrate, the social utility of their work by far exceeds classical well-paid labor.
  • Fourthly, traditional subsistence agriculture, especially in the south, is defined as underdeveloped and systematically repressed by the global food market. This often destroys sustainable cultures and skills and exposes lots of people to global speculation - with serious consequences for food security and sovereignty.
  • Fifthly: The lifestyle of young urban global players who consider themselves independent is considered to be cool, clever and desirable. However, provided the caring mothers, nurses and farmers would express their real power, the cool global player that thinks to be independent through the possession of money, would appear to be extremely dependent on the care and the skills of those who have not lost contact to the earth. This dependence can remain invisible and establish itself as a desirable way of life only as long as it is not unmasked as parasitism.

The list of consequences of the failed division of our social life goes on. And now, having theorized long enough, I finally turn to the question of good, meaningful and effective action in our large household world. I make three proposals that every willing person can join in his or her context:

Concrete action. Three proposals:

Firstly, together with a group of theorizing friends, I have recently started a project called Theory, Economics and Ethics of Shit (provocation intended). This project is an important part of the economy of natality I have just presented in its basic features. Theory, Economics and Ethics of Shit means that we take a closer look at those areas of the economy that have to do with real shit. Roughly speaking there are three areas: household, nursing and agriculture.

Our hypothesis is that these three areas are hidden from the mainstream of the economy and systematically undervalued for an obvious reason: the higher being "free citizen" still does not want to deal with his stinking legacy and in particular does not acknowledge that he is dependent on people who deal with his or her excretions. So, consequently in order to reveal real dependencies and mechanisms of repression we must focus on all the shit-areas at once. We believe that this approach will have lots of impacts on our thinking and living because it provokes, it brings forth a repressed truth about our mode of existence and links various economic sectors and social movements that so far have been analyzed and operated separately, mainly agriculture, ecology, recycling, energy supply, care, (post-) colonialism and questions of race, class and gender. We welcome people who join us in developing the comprehensive Theory of Shit.

Secondly, the movement for a unconditional basic income has grown rapidly in recent years, for one simple reason: To bring the economy back into balance and to its actual core task, it is important that the seemingly obvious connection "pay for performance" is called into question and, consequently, the livelihood security is decoupled from employment. The best example that benefits are not automatically linked to pay, is unpaid housework and similar care services. To free all the people who carry out vital work in these areas without being paid adequately from their existential fears, the unconditional basic income is a good means, even if it does not solve all problems. At the same time this form of income frees us all from the constraint to constantly be profitable. We could gain or regain the freedom to do things that make sense instead of money, and this kind of freedom is urgently needed. So I think it is a good idea to join the already strong movement for a basic income and to feed it with good gender-sensitive arguments. The best example that benefits are not automatically linked to pay, is unpaid housework and similar care services. To free all the people who carry out vital work in these areas without being paid adequately from their existential fears, the unconditional basic income is a good means, even if it does not solve all problems. At the same time this form of income frees us all from the constraint to constantly be profitable. We could gain or regain the freedom to do things that make sense instead of money, and this kind of freedom is urgently needed. So I think it is a good idea to join the already strong movement for a basic income and to feed it with good gender-sensitive arguments.

Thirdly, we should begin to point out that the usual departmental allocations of official policy continue to reflect the patriarchal order and must be reorganized urgently. What we have are economic and financial ministries with great influence, which are surrounded by the aura of importance and almost always in the hands of males. In addition – or rather below them – we have the ministries for "Social and Family Affairs” that are usually headed by women. What we need would be a merger of the department for "Social and Family Affairs" with that for State Economy. For so-called family issues are not mere social, but economic issues. The new department, which could, for example, be called "Household and Market Department" would be strictly placed over state finances. For, as we have seen, money is beneficial only if it is placed in the service of real needs. I believe that an internationally coordinated proposal to reorganize state departments in this manner would at least cause vivid critical discussions. And these debates would move us a step closer to the necessary postpatriarchal reorganization of our societies.

There is still much more we can do once we have understood the economy of natality. I leave it for the time being and look forward to the discussion....

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