Towards An Integrated Progressive Agenda
Riane Eisler | March 15, 2017
The Roots of Domination
Economic insecurities, calls for change, false news, voter suppression, Russian hacking, and the media’s constant coverage of Trump were certainly factors in Trump’s victory. But the real question is why so many people elected a would-be strongman who condoned violence at his rallies, claimed he alone had all the answers, incited scapegoating of immigrants and other minorities, bragged about his sexual assaults, and debased women? Why did he paint women as disgusting, as in his “blood streaming” screeds, and as untrustworthy, as in his call to “lock her up”? Was that really about the emails? Or, was it about punishing Hillary Clinton for aspiring to powers “rightfully” belonging to men, as indicated by his talk about a cabinet appointment of General Petreus who, unlike Clinton, actually breached email security?
To answer these questions, we have to go deeper than the pundits. Voting behaviors, like many other actions, are not just consciously motivated. Findings from both psychology and neuroscience show that what children experience and observe early on impacts nothing less than how their brains develop – and hence their beliefs, feelings, and actions, including how they vote.
This dynamic has been documented by studies going back to the work of Else Frenkel-Brunwick on the authoritarian personality in the 1940s. Investigating why so many people were susceptible to Hitler’s messages of hate, scapegoating, and oppression, these studies showed that growing up in authoritarian families where the normative ideal was male dominance and children were harshly punished was typical of highly prejudiced people who admired “strong leaders.”
More recent studies have focused on how families impact the kinds of policies people support. For example, Michael Milburn and Sheree Conrad found that in the United States people who grew up in authoritarian, male-dominated, punitive families tend to vote for “hard” punitive policies, such as funding for weapons and building prisons, while voting against “soft” or caring policies – that is, policies they associate with the feminine.
Families that are highly punitive and male-dominated make many people vulnerable to denial and deflecting their fear and pain into scapegoating and election of authoritarian, strongman demagogues.
My multidisciplinary, cross-cultural analysis of societies, from ancient to modern, takes these kinds of studies into account. One of its findings is that families that are highly punitive and male-dominated make many people vulnerable to denial and deflecting their fear and pain into scapegoating and election of authoritarian, strongman demagogues. This not only serves to keep women “in their place”; it also distorts political choices by privileging “hard” or “masculine” policies over “soft” or “feminine” ones. In addition, the ranking of male over female is a template children internalize for other kinds of in-group vs. out-group thinking – be it of different races, religions, or sexual orientations.
Regressive leaders – be they secular like Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union or religious like Khomeini in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan – have intuitively recognized these connections. They have an integrated agenda that recognizes that domination, injustice, and even violence in gender and parent-child relations is foundational to their social agenda of political and economic domination, injustice, and violence.
By contrast, for most progressives, gender and parent-child relations are still peripheral – to be taken up after “more important matters” have been addressed.
We have to change this to prevent further regressions and move forward rather than back!
New Thinking, Categories, and Agendas
Einstein famously observed that we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them. For new thinking, we need new social categories that do not split off matters still generally considered women’s and children’s issues from political and economic issues. This is a key finding from my study of human societies.
One outcome of this study, which draws from a wide data base that includes studies from psychology and neuroscience on the impact on how the brain develops of what children experience and observe early on, was the identification of two underlying social categories: the domination system and the partnership system. These categories describe connections that repeat themselves cross-culturally and historically, but are invisible through the lenses of older social categories such as right vs. left, religious vs. secular, Eastern vs. Western, and capitalist vs. socialist, which pay hardly any attention to the social construction of gender and parent-child relations.
Societies adhering closely to the domination system – be they secular like Nazi Germany in the West and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea in the East or religious like ISIS in the Middle East and Boko Haram in Africa – have the following core configuration:
- Authoritarian rule in both the family and state or tribe, with rigid hierarchies of domination;
- Ranking of the male half of humanity over the female half, and highly valuing so-called “hard” or “masculine” traits and activities like domination and violence;
- A high degree of institutionalized or built-in violence, from wife and child beating to war and terrorism, since fear and force ultimately maintain hierarchies of domination – be it man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, and so forth;
- Normative stories that present domination and violence as divinely or naturally ordained.
In societies that orient more to the partnership system – be they ancient like Catal Huyuk and other prehistoric Neolithic cultures or modern like Sweden, Norway, and Finland – we see a different configuration:
- A more caring and democratic organization in both the family and state or tribe, with hierarchies of actualization where power is used to empower rather than disempower;
- The equal valuing of women and men, with high valuing of so-called “feminine” or “soft” values such as caring and nonviolence (which are considered “unmanly” in domination systems);
- A less violent way of living, since violence is not needed to maintain rigid rankings of domination, be it in families or the family of nations;
- Beliefs that present relations of mutual respect, accountability, and benefit as natural, and support hierarchies of actualization, where accountability and respect flow both ways rather than only from the bottom up, as in hierarchies of domination.
No society is a pure partnership or domination system. It is always a matter of degree, of where a society falls on the domination-partnership social scale. But those pushing us back to a more autocratic, violent, and unjust social system uniformly work to maintain or impose rigid rankings of domination in gender and parent-child relations.
So while regressives have had an integrated domination agenda, progressives have not had an integrated partnership agenda. Progressives have focused on dismantling the top of the domination pyramid: political and economic injustice, domination, and violence. They have paid far less attention to injustice, domination, and violence in gender and parent-child relations – the relations from which children first learn what is considered normal or abnormal, possible or impossible, moral or immoral.
Consequently, the base on which the domination pyramid rests has remained in place in many cultures and subcultures. And it is on this base that domination systems have kept rebuilding themselves in different forms – be they religious or secular, Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern.
It is up to us to bring progressives together to develop and implement an integrated progressive agenda focusing on four cornerstones that form the foundations for a more equitable, less violent, sustainable future.
Four Cornerstones For An Integrated Progressive Agenda
Regressives have intuitively recognized four cornerstones for either domination systems or partnership systems: childhood relations, gender relations, economic relations, and narratives/language. They understand that these are the basis for what kinds of political systems and policies we have. It is our job to make progressives aware of these cornerstones, and work to rebuild them to support more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable cultures worldwide.
At this point, in the United States we must focus on the state and local levels, and bring both grassroots and national leaders together for this long-term strategic work.
The First Cornerstone: Childhood Relations
In the United States, regressives have used slogans such as “family values” to reinforce traditions of domination, injustice, and often violence in families. Unfortunately, they have been very successful at countering the scientific knowledge we today have about the harm this causes. Yet most progressives have not understood the social and political implications of this regressive strategy, which has over the last decades pushed our culture back toward the domination side of the social scale.
Neuroscience shows that the neural pathways of our brains are not set at birth: they are largely formed in interaction with a child’s early experiences. If family relations based on chronic violations of human rights are considered normal and moral, they provide mental and emotional models for condoning such violations in other relations. If these relations are violent, children learn that violence from those who are more powerful toward those who are less powerful is an acceptable way of dealing with conflicts and/or problems.
Fortunately, some people reject these teachings. But, especially since they resonate with traditions we inherited from more rigid domination times, unfortunately many replicate them, not only in their intimate relations but in all relations.
Regressives have invested heavily in propagating parenting guides that teach people that they must use fear and force lest they “spoil” their children, advocating that 18 month old babies be forced to sit without fidgeting in their high chairs so they learn their parents’ will is law. They have also invested heavily in training their people to run for school boards and other influential local and state offices.
We must now vigorously work on the state and local levels to make caring, egalitarian, nonviolent, authoritative rather than authoritarian parenting the norm. There are excellent resources for this, including the Center for Partnership Studies’ Caring and Connected Parenting Guide, endorsed by top pediatricians and Nobel Peace Laureates, that you can download in English or Spanish at www.centerforpartnership.org.
We must now vigorously work on the state and local levels to make caring, egalitarian, nonviolent, authoritative rather than authoritarian parenting the norm.
We have to train and elect school board members who will promote parenting and other relational education in our schools, as well as state officials who will enact laws that provide adequate support for parents and other caregivers, like paid parental leave. Here there is model legislation from states like California, as well as many resources provided by the Center for Partnership Studies’ Caring Economy Campaign – some of which I will describe in the section on economics.
Seeing that laws criminalizing child abuse are enforced is essential. So is engaging progressive spiritual and religious leaders to take a strong stand against intimate violence – the violence that every year blights, and often takes, the lives of millions of children and women worldwide, as documented in my chapter in a recent Cambridge University Press book, Protecting the Majority of Humanity, and other resources available from the Center for Partnership Studies’ Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence (SAIV).
The Second Cornerstone: Gender Relations
Women’s gains during the 1960s and 1970s were achieved because feminists were able to bring “women’s issues” into the political and media discourse. Today, after the backlash against feminism that defeated the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, many young women have been so brainwashed that they feel uncomfortable even talking about gender.
So taboo has this topic become that when the 2016 election results came in, TV commentators did not even mention sexism when reporting that the most qualified presidential candidate in history lost to a nasty bully with no government experience.
Just imagine if a similarly experienced black man had been defeated this way. Talk about racism would have been center stage. Yet so deeply embedded has the vilification of any talk of sexism as “anti-male feminist propaganda” become, that not even PBS commentators mentioned the elephant in the room: that Trump’s appeal to sexism was a major factor in his campaign.
Also ignored was that, shortly before the election, a group of political scientists found that the number one indicator of a vote for Trump was hostility toward women. Specifically, they found that this hostility was most virulent against women who espoused ideals of gender equality across the board.
Shortly before the election, a group of political scientists found that the number one indicator of a vote for Trump was hostility toward women.
None of this means it was a mistake to nominate a woman. On the contrary, the more women assume positions of leadership, the more the status of women rises. And with this, so also does the value accorded by both men and women to traits and activities still generally associated with women, such as caring, caregiving, and nonviolence.
We dramatically see this in nations such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland, where half of national legislators are women and a woman head of state is common. It is not coincidental that these nations pioneered caring national policies such as universal healthcare, supports for family caregivers, and generous paid parental leave. Not only did women vote for these policies, but so also did men – because as the status of women rose, men could embrace the once devalued “feminine.”
These nations have also invested heavily violence-prevention and in caring for our natural environment. These are not coincidences. They are the directly related to the fact that these nations have moved more closely to the partnership side of the partnership-domination social scale.
We have statistical evidence of this dynamic. For example, Women, Men, and the Global Quality of Life – a study based on statistics from 89 nations conducted by the Center for Partnership Studies – found that in significant respects the status of women can be a better predictor of general quality of life than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the conventional measure of a nation’s economic health. Since then other studies, such as the World Economic Forums’ Gender Gap Reports, have confirmed this correlation between the status of women and a nation’s economic success and quality of life.
We must bring this kind of information to progressives so they recognize the need for an integrated agenda that gives priority, as regressives do, to the cultural construction of gender roles and relations.
Of course, when I say gender, I am not talking about anything inherent in women or men. Nor am I talking only about women’s roles. Indeed, as long as boys and men learn to equate “real masculinity” with violence and control, we cannot expect to end the arms races that are bankrupting our world and the terrorism and aggressive warfare that in our age of nuclear and chemical warfare threaten our survival.
We must work more effectively with educators, policy makers, and both social and conventional media to show that how a society constructs the roles and relations of the two basic halves of humanity – women and men – not only affects both women’s and men’s individual life options; it shapes families, education, religion, politics, and economics.
Resources showing these connections include The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (now in 26 languages and over 30 US printings), which introduced the partnership and domination social classifications and showed that gender equity has ancient roots; Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body, which looks at sexuality, spirituality, and politics through this gender-holistic lens; The Power of Partnership, outlining a partnership political agenda to ensure people are no longer susceptible to the lure of “strongman” saviors, scapegoating, and other domination pathologies; Tomorrow’s Children, which provides a blueprint for partnership education; and The Real Wealth of Nations, which introduces a new economic model that goes beyond both capitalism and socialism: a caring economics or partnerism.
I will next discuss economics, but want to first touch on an important area for changing domination gender stereotypes: bringing more women into leadership positions. A fertile place for this is the corporate world, since many studies show that having more women in leadership positions is very good for business. Again, CPS has materials to open corporate doors, such as fast fact sheets showing the ROI from paid parental leave that you can download at www.centerforpartnership.org.
The Third Cornerstone: Economic Relations
Because current economic systems endanger our natural life-support systems, the environmental movement has gained ground. Because the gap between haves and have- nots has again been widening, movements for economic parity have also gained some ground. But they cannot succeed unless we move to a partnership-oriented economic system.
If we reexamine the critique of capitalism as unjust and exploitive from the perspective of the partnership-domination social scale, we see that it is actually a critique of domination economics – be they ancient or modern, Western or Eastern, feudal, monarchic, or totalitarian. Long before capitalist billionaires amassed fortunes, Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors hoarded their nations’ wealth. Indian potentates received tributes of silver and gold, while lower castes lived in abject poverty. Middle Eastern warlords pillaged, plundered, and terrorized their people. European feudal lords killed their neighbors and oppressed their subjects. Today’s “trickle-down economics” is a replay of earlier domination traditions where those on the bottom must content themselves with the scraps dropping from the opulent tables of those on top.
Changing these injustices and effectively addressing our unprecedented environmental and economic challenges requires that we go beyond capitalism and socialism. This is not only because both came out of early industrial times centuries ago and we’re well into the post-industrial era; it is also because both came from times when the West still oriented much more to the domination side of the social scale. So neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx considered the indispensable work of caring for people, starting in early childhood, and caring for our environment “productive work.”
The Caring Economics or Partnerism introduced in The Real Wealth of Nations is a new economic paradigm that gives visibility and value in its metrics, policies, and practices to the essential work of caring for people and our Earth.
To begin with, adequately rewarding this work is essential to cut through cycles of poverty. This is not only because children need good care and early education to develop their potentials, but because the disproportionate poverty of women and children worldwide is largely due to the fact that women still do the bulk of caregiving for very low wages in the market and for free in homes. It makes no sense to talk of ending poverty in generalities when the mass of the world’s poor and the poorest of the poor are women and children. Even in the rich United States, women over the age of 65 are, according to U.S. Census statistics, twice as likely to be poor as men over 65. A major reason is that most of these women are, or were, caregivers.
We must redefine what is, and is not, productive work.
In the second place, we are now in the post-industrial era, when economists tell us that the most important capital is what they call “high quality human capital.” And we today know that whether of not this is developed largely hinges on the quality of care and education children receive early on. So we must redefine what is, and is not, productive work. This is a crisis – but also an opportunity.
The Center for Partnership Studies’ Caring Economy Campaign (CEC) was founded to take advantage of this opportunity. It demonstrates the enormous return on investment from caregiver tax credits, Social Security for caregivers, subsidies for childcare, and other policies that support caring for people, starting in early childhood. The CEC’s new Social Wealth Economic indicators show the enormous economic value of the work of care and early education, as well as focusing attention on marginalized populations, such as people of color and immigrants in the United States. The CEC also offers online resources, training, and advocacy opportunities, including an online leadership training program.
But the Caring Economy Campaign is not only a strategy to empower women worldwide by ending the devaluation of the “women’s work” of caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. It is also a strategy to change the gendered system of values that has held progressives back by elevating the “hard” or “masculine” over the “soft” or “feminine.”
Today, when automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence have already replaced millions of jobs, and predictions are that this will escalate exponentially, redefining “productive” work is more urgent than ever before.
People need meaningful work. A negative income tax or guaranteed income for doing nothing is no solution to the increasingly jobless future predicted in our age of escalating us of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Such a stipend should be linked to doing the most important and meaningful work: caring for other humans, particularly our children and our growing elderly population, as well as for our natural environment Giving value to caring and caregiving imbues work with meaning. It also gives work a spiritual dimension, as at the core of spiritual traditions are compassion and love.
The Fourth Cornerstone: Language/Narratives
An integrated progressive agenda must include more accurate narratives about human nature and human possibilities. This will require a concerted effort through the arts, music, literature, science, and education.
Religious stories about “original sin” and secular stories about “evolutionary imperatives” claim that humans are innately sinful and violent – and therefore must be rigidly controlled. These stories ignore findings from neuroscience demonstrating that. while we humans have the capacity for cruelty, oppression, and violence, we are actually “wired” more for empathic, mutually beneficial, caring relationships. For example, studies show that the so-called pleasure centers in our brains light up more when we share than when we win.
Other common narratives teach us that dominating or being dominated are our only alternatives – that this is how it has always been and always will be. These stories ignore the fact that for most of prehistory the majority of cultures oriented more to the partnership side of the social scale. As detailed in The Chalice and the Blade, Sacred Pleasure, and other works, there are no signs of warfare in the archeological record until a few thousand years ago; houses and burials do not reflect large gaps between haves and have-nots, and, as Ian Hodder (the archeologist now excavating the large Neolithic site of Catal Huyuk notes, these earlier societies were neither patriarchies nor matriarchies but cultures where women and men were equally valued.
Archeology and myths also reveal signs of a major cultural shift toward the domination system during a period of great disequilibrium in our prehistory – a shift that we have been trying to reverse, especially during the last several centuries, when one progressive social movement after another has been challenging traditions of domination during the disequilibrium brought by the shift from the agrarian to the industrial and now post-industrial age.
However, this movement toward partnership has been fiercely resisted and punctuated by periodic regressions – and we are in a time of such regression today. This is why we need an integrated progressive agenda that focuses on replacing the foundations on which domination systems have kept rebuilding themselves in different forms.
Implementing this agenda requires the new thinking made possible by the new language of the partnership system and domination system. We must show that the struggle for our future is not between religion and secularism, right and left, East and West, or capitalism and socialism. It is within all these societies – between traditions of domination and a partnership way of life.
We need an integrated progressive agenda that focuses on replacing the foundations on which domination systems have kept rebuilding themselves in different forms.
These changes in language and stories have enormous implications for every aspect of our lives, not only families, politics, and economics but also for spirituality and morality. Rather than being used to coerce and dominate, morality in partnership systems is imbued with caring and love. And spirituality is no longer an escape to otherworldly realms from the suffering inherent in a domination world, but an active engagement in creating a better world right here on Earth.
To move forward, we have to recognize the connections revealed by the contrasting social configurations of partnership systems and domination systems – especially between, on the one hand, whether a society is peaceful and equitable or warlike and inequitable, and, on the other hand, how it structures the most fundamental human relations: the relations between the female and male halves of humanity and between them and their daughters and sons.
I invite you and your organizations to take leadership in forming a coalition to develop, disseminate, and implement the integrated progressive social/political agenda that is today more urgently needed than ever before. Now is the time for the long-term work to:
- Engage progressive leaders and organizations
- Bring journalists, filmmakers, and other media on board
- Blog, tweet, and saturate social media
- Offer webinars and organize online meetings
- Enlist educators from pre-school to graduate school
- Use branding, PR, and other communications experts
- Hold town hall and other meetings on the state and local levels
- Train progressive women to run for state and local offices
- Involve foundations and obtain funding
- Energize millennials to be leaders in the partnership movement
- We have deep, long-term work to do, work that requires focus and sustained attention. We have to be ready when the disastrous policies resulting from the 2016 election make it clear that new thinking and policies are essential. We have to show that empowering women does not disempower men.
With an integrated progressive agenda focused on the four cornerstones of childhood, gender, economics, and narratives/stories, we can build the foundations for a world where all children can realize their capacities for consciousness, caring, and creativity – the capacities that make us fully human.
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