Book Reviews

The Real Wealth of Nations

For decades, American social scientist Riane Eisler has been tirelessly insisting that before this world can become a better place we urgently need to restructure our economy.

Eisler is founder-president of the Centre for Partnership Studies (CPS) where researchers have found that it is no longer possible to ignore the connection between economic prosperity and the status of women. CPS was born in 1987 to put Eisler's ideas into action and to change consciousness, promote positive personal action, encourage social advocacy and influence policy.  

"We have a choice. We can keep complaining about greed, fraud and cut-throat business practices. We can put up with the daily stress of unsuccessfully juggling jobs and family. We can tell ourselves there's nothing we can do about policies that damage our natural environment, create huge gaps between haves and have-nots and lead to untold suffering. Or we can join together to help construct a saner, sounder, more caring economics and culture," she says.

Eisler's call is for partnership structures, values and relations. The four components of the partnership system are described as: a democratic and egalitarian family and social structure; a low level of abuse and violence; equal partnership between the male and female halves of humanity; and beliefs and stories that support relations based on mutual benefit, accountability, and caring that shape all social institutions and relations, including economic ones.

Eisler has put down marvellous ideas about a caring revolution, and how to build societies on partnership in 'The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics'. This, her latest book (released in April 2007), is about money. It completes the trilogy that began with 'The Chalice and The Blade' about power; and 'Sacred Pleasures' in which she focused on the role of sex. 

Power, sex and money are the most fundamental human motivations and Eisler has devoted a lifetime to understanding them. She describes much of her life as a quest. "In the course of my quest, I looked for answers in many areas, from psychology, history and anthropology to education, economics and politics. And again and again, I came back to economics because I saw that we have to change present economic systems if we, our children and future generations are to survive and thrive," she writes in the introduction to 'The Real Wealth of Nations'. The title is both inspired by and in defiance of Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish economist whose 'The Wealth of Nations' remains the bible of capitalist theory ever since 1776. 

Throughout the 900 pages of 'The Wealth of Nations', Smith argues that the primary engine for building a better society is the market. 

Eisler critiques Smith's vision of the future as optimistic and a step forward from the feudal values of his times but adds that the real wealth of nations is not found in the market but in households. 

She also quotes from 'The Theory of Moral Sentiments', a book by Smith that is lesser known but in which he recognizes kindness and caring as the positive side of human nature and the need to nurture it. She is appreciative of the fact that Smith's ideas contributed to creating a middle class that eventually defied the monarchy and gave birth to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who later proposed scientific socialism as a solution to the problems of their day. Together, Marx and Engels challenged Smith's earlier faith in the market and saw it as an outdated concept.

Today, both the capitalist and the socialist theories seem incomplete models of economics as Smith, Marx and Engels failed to recognize the importance of the life-supporting activities of the household, the unpaid community economy, and nature. 

In 'The Real Wealth of Nations', Eisler proposes an economy of partnership. "In the course of evolution, both men women developed an enormous capacity for caring, creativity and consciousness, and that rules and practices that encourage rather than inhibit this capacity are foundational to an economic system that works for all," she says. 

The fact that worldwide poverty and hunger disproportionately affect women and children is neither accidental nor inevitable but a direct result of political and economic systems that continue to be dominated by men. Probably the most inefficient and destructive aspect of economics and politics dominated by men is that they artificially produce scarcity. 

Even 20th century theorists such as Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith focused largely on markets but at the same time expressed concern about human welfare. Galbraith calls women "crypto-servants" even in the democratic West in his 'Economics and The Public Purpose' published in 1973. 

However, economic systems will not change by just focusing on economics. For economic systems are embedded in larger social systems. Eisler examines the contrasting structures of the partnership system and the domination system by giving real life examples of societies to show how each of these systems directly impacts economics. 

Amongst the Teduray, the indigenous people of Southern Philippines, all human beings - men, women, adults, children, the finest shaman and the most ordinary basket weaver - are considered of equal worth and of equal standing in society. This is not to say that partnership works only in technologically underdeveloped cultures: the Nordic nations are extremely successful precisely because of their partnership orientation. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Nordic countries were extremely poor, with a low standard of living and a very low life expectancy. Their economic success is often attributed to their relatively small populations. However, in smaller and even more homogenous societies - such as some oil-rich Middle Eastern nations where absolute conformity to one religious sect and one tribal or royal head is demanded - there are large gaps between the haves and the have-nots and other inequities characteristic of the domination system. 

Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, who once said that we must become the change we want to see, Eisler writes that we should not mistake what is habitual for what is normal. 

Many of our economic habits are shaped by warped stories of human nature and an economic double standard that gives little or no value to the essential work of caring and care-giving. We were not born with unhealthy habits. We learnt them. We can also unlearn them, says Eisler, in her inspiring book.

The only problem is that the solutions offered by Eisler are so practical and so simple that people, now habituated to the twisted and complicated ways of the world, may find it difficult to believe that it is really up to them to create the kind of life that they want to live.   


More by :  Mehru Jaffer

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