Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics: Creating a New Political Realm

Written by Janet Biehl. Excerpt from Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1991), pp150-157.

Social ecology distinguishes between statecraft, as a system of dealing with the public realm by means of professionalized administrators and their legal monopoly on violence, on the one hand, and politics, as the management of the community on a grassroots democratic and face-to-face level by citizen bodies, on the other. The libertarian municipalism of social ecology provides a framework for recreating political life as a participatory democratic process. [1] Thus, the political sphere is not only preserved and widely expanded, but the concept of politics is reformulated to bring decision-making as close to the people as possible-that is, to the most grassroots level that is politically attainable, such as popular assemblies.

The struggle to contest the private interests that are destroying the biosphere must be a political struggle. It must be organized around the creation of this new oppositional political realm of face-to-face participatory democracy. Indeed, the importance of a vital public realm for ecological politics is incalculable. Nothing less than the elimination of capitalism and the nation-state—indeed, the restructuring of society into decentralized, cooperative communities—will make a healthy, concerned public and private life possible. The democratic political realm—as opposed to the statist public realm—is the only realm we have that has the potential to contest both the private interests that are destroying the biosphere and the public hierarchies that attempt to degrade and instrumentalize human beings. Even as ecofeminists seem to be writing the polis out of their community in favor of the oikos, they are eliminating the one arena that can seriously challenge hierarchy in both the public and private realms: participatory democratic politics.

The libertarian municipalist approach of social ecology advocates local solutions wherever they are possible. Decentralized social arrangements would make it possible to assure individuals, male and female, have complete access to political life. In this new political realm, any conflicting private interests that exist within a community can be confronted and argued in full view of every citizen. This polity is held together not by religion but by a common political ideal and an educated citizenry, whose very raison d’etre is discussion and debate, argumentation and agreement, clashes of ideas and concerns, and decision-making – by the majority needless to say, with minorities free to publicly dissent. As part of the community, a local face-to-face democratic polity would be embedded in the mutual interdependency of its citizens. To the extent that both women and men come into their fullness as public and private participants, they infuse political life with concern as well as affection for those with whom they have worked so hard, and those with whom they are avowedly interdependent.

As municipal democratic political arenas are expanded and strengthened by popular participation, they can join together to constitute a dual power to the authority of the state. This dual power would be strong because it emanates from popular institutions, institutions in which citizens maintain their democratic freedoms. Thus we would see the embodiment of the communitarian ideal in a new, enlightened form.

Clearly, the interests of capital transcend even the boundaries of the nation-state, let alone those of the community. Fighting large economic entities that operate even on the international level requires large numbers of municipalities to work together. To address macrosocial forces like capitalism, the political communities, according to a libertarian municipalist approach, would restore the principle of confederation —a principle that for centuries has been advanced by radical thinkers as an alternative to the nation-state. Lest we forget this great historic tradition and its clash with statecraft, confederation is the grassroots linkage of communities on neighborhood, citywide, district, county, and regional levels in such a way that power flows from the bottom up rather than from the top down as it does in the nation-state. In a confederal society, the “higher” we go in coordinating our efforts to administer society, the more the right to formulate policy becomes diminished, until the highest confederal councils have no power but those of coordination and administration. The formulation of policy, in short, is made at the grassroots level of society, and its administration is executed by confederal councils. Needless to say, in a truly democratic polity, people are free to argue their individual views in a face-to-face manner, not assign their rights to representatives who may or may not be subject to the pressures of particularistic interests. Policy decisions are made by the people, not by representatives.

As such, democratic citizenship in the political realm has its own distinct virtues, its own distinct ways of behaving, its own distinct relations, as Mary Dietz has pointed out. “Its relation is that of civic peers; its guiding virtue is mutual respect; its primary principle is the ‘positive liberty’ of democracy and self-government, not simply the ‘negative liberty’ of noninterference” [2]. Insofar as citizens in a democratic polity are engaged in dealing with issues of public concern, they would find it very difficult to allow their private interests to deflect them. At the very least, one’s attention would be directed outward, not only inward to purely spiritual or intimate concerns. Democratic process involves the acceptance of objective, external political procedures, which can mean the deferral or postponement of private, particularistic interests that are not supportive of the public welfare as a whole.

Let me make it quite clear that I do not contend that personal life must be sacrificed to political life. Quite to the contrary, I believe that the two of them have to coexist in a balanced. rational, and truly ecological manner. Attention to the personal in itself is and always will be of great individual as well as social concern. Human beings have vital needs for self-expression, love, play, a relationship with a particular place, with nonhuman nature, as well as intimate relationships with other people. They have a vital need for a spiritual dimension in their lives – in the broadest sense of the! word “spiritual’’—a dimension that is sorely lacking in our society. All of these needs have strong social implications and cannot be isolated from the kinds of institutions, communities, and forms of association we should establish in an ecological society.

But we must also recognize that certain distinctions do exist between the personal and the political in this sense. The intimacies that we develop in personal life cannot be carried over wholesale into the relations we must establish in a democratic politics. Not everyone can know everyone who makes up a sizeable community – certainly not to the extent that one knows the members of one’s family, one’s lovers, one’s personal friends, and other intimates. It should be clear that a certain amount of objectivity is necessary for conducting political affairs that involve individuals who are not one’s intimates. Beyond the circle of one’s intimates, political institutions must be established that involve the participation of sizeable numbers of people, especially if we seek to attain a participatory democracy. The precondition for such a democracy is the delicately formed institutional fabric through which dissent as well as agreement can be adequately expressed. In short, there must be organized and coordinated structures that make both political and personal freedom possible.

In any democratic polity worthy of the name, one is accountable to one’s fellow citizens, not only to one’s friends and lovers. Even in the political life of a local community, a certain amount of objectivity is unavoidable – for example, to assure that everyone is free to exercise her or his rights, or that decisions have been properly carried out, or that no favoritism has been shown, or that minorities may freely dissent. A certain objective framework must be established in order that the interplay of conflicting views can be expressed in a creative and educational manner. Citizens cannot be expected to learn of others’ views or answer challenges to their own if their differences are muted by a moral tyranny of consensus-seeking or by the growing belief that all ideological conflicts are forms of violence, Even if one were to adopt a consensus process of decision-making, one would at least require an objective facilitator. This objectivity is not a matter of alienation or an absence of concern or caring, nor is it a matter of “controlling and regulating nature,” to use Plant’s formulation. [3] It is merely a matter of behaving in a mature, responsible, and fair-minded manner in which everyone has the opportunity to fully express her or his ideas.

The virtues, relations, and practices that are necessary for a participatory democracy are not “male” or “masculine” ones but human ones. As political creatures, human beings as such can manage the affairs of the community so that individuals within it can fulfill themselves. Political movements depend on the willingness of clear-thinking, critical, individuated citizens to fight for principles – sometimes above and beyond their persona needs. Instead of working to replace the virtues of the point with those of an oikos that has historically oppressed them, women in ecological movements must become involved in the political world as part of a truly liberatory politics and claim citizenship for themselves. They must at long last break out of the oikos – whether that is the literal oikos of the household or the figurative oikos of “women’s values” – and work to expand the full range of their human capacities. This does not mean that women cease to be women, with the full recognition of their own uniqueness and qualities, but that they transcend the suffocating restrictions that have been long placed on the development of their capacities as people by patricentric society.

Their human capacities – including the capacity to reason are quite equal to those of men. Women’s biology is not simply a matter of reproductive organs – it is a matter of their minds and the intellectual capacities those minds provide. Their minds are part of their human nature, and make them fully capable of ration thought and of political participation, as well as a wealth of other sensibilities. Moral and political agency on the part of both women and men gives them the revolutionary potential to challenge not only “biology as destiny” but also whatever oppressive social constructions and sociopolitical structures they encounter. Admitting “woman = nature” social constructions that enforce patricentricity into a movement that calls itself feminist is a Trojan horse. For an ecological feminism to be liberatory for women, it must be committed to expanding the range of their choices against deterministic forces, whether biological, cultural, or economic, not to the narrowing of politics to an “intimate private” domain. If women in ecology movements are to “find their way,” it must be a way that brings them out of the oikos, not one that thrusts them back into it in the name of a domestic ethos of “ caring,” “nurturing, and the evocation of a cryptic and mystical “biologism” in the name of organic or tribal ties.

History clearly belies any assertion that women are congenitally unsuited for political life, or that the Western democratic ideal is hopelessly compromised by its emergence from a sexist culture. Indeed, the very logic of democracy demands the inclusion of women, that any counterposition of a “female” oikos to a “male” polis be overcome. Women’s crucial and massive involvement in social movements, in grassroots political work, and in revolutions such as the French Revolution and the Paris Commune of 1871 – has long expanded the circle of their inclusion in the political realm, We must treasure these legacies of political revolt and seek to expand them with the full participation not only of women but of people of color and all other formerly excluded groups. Democratic practices and virtues are inherently neither gender-bound nor race-bound. Indeed, their very logic calls for a more all-inclusive community of human beings than any we have ever seen in the past, including the Neolithic village. Far from demanding women’s subordination, participatory democracy presupposes their inclusion to the full capacity of their beings.

It is unfashionable to speak of “human nature” in the 1990s. The present radical political culture, to the extent that one exists in the 1990s, most often rejects the universal in favor of the particular and parochial. But the fact is that women alone do not make up a community. The very breadth of the ecological crisis is such that it affects everyone, not women alone. Toxic dumps, nuclear power plants and wastes, polluted water and air, toxic substances in households and workplaces threaten the health and well-being of present and future generations of both sexes wherever they live and work. Moreover, the capacities of reason, language, culture, and consociation for choice and decision-making, for ethical and political behavior, as well as for affection and nurture – are all capacities that people have as human beings, whether they are women or men, gay or straight, of African descent, Caucasian, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, Native American, or any combination thereof.

Social ecology provides a basis for the recognition of our common humanity by virtue of our shared natural history in the course of biological evolution or first nature. It is the potential of the ecology movement to become a general interest that crosses gender lines. What many ecofeminists claim as an interest of particular concern to women is in fact a general interest – with the community as the locus of struggle, incorporating and going beyond the best democratic aspirations of the classical polis and the Enlightenment.

The local “forms of freedom” so necessary for an ecological society in which all domination is ended – forms like neighborhood assemblies, town meetings, and confederal forms of association – are increasingly losing ground to centralized state governments. As European and American governments have become increasingly centralized in this century, the vitality of local political life has increasingly dwindled. Base-democratic institutions will have to be fought for if they axe going to survive, or be created where they no longer exist. In a time of massive privatization we cannot permit what remains of the democratic political sphere to be vitiated further by inward-looking privatistic, particularistic, or oikos-oriented tendencies. We must reclaim the political tradition of radical democracy and fight to preserve and expand it.

Such a goal would indeed provide the coordinates for a radically new feminist and social ecology movement in which women together with men can find their way out of the morass that threatens to bog down the vast project of ecological and social fulfillment. It is bad enough that we are all less than human today, that the realm of second nature after thousands of years of progress and perversion has reached the cruel impasse that marks the present era. If women have a “calling,” it is not the particularistic – even elitist – one that ecofeminists assign to them. Rather, it is the challenge to rise to a generous ecological humanism, so underlying to the principles of social ecology, and to an all-embracing sense of solidarity, not only with nonhuman life, but with the men who form an integral part of humanity as a whole. To heighten specious gender differences – ironically in the name of an ecological ethos – is to taint ecology and the authentic goals of feminism alike.

Here all thinking women stand at a crossroads. Will they mystify the domestic virtues of the oikos, emphasize their particularity, defame the most generous traditions of democracy as “male” or “patriarchal”, and ultimately degrade whatever progress humanity as a whole has attained in the course of its development? Or will they pursue amoregenerous approach by joining with others – men no less than women – in a common project of liberation and ecological restoration? This common project can never be formulated merely in terms of domestic values, of atavistic mystical retreats to the “tribalistic” virtues of the Neolithic village; or of direct or indirect denigrations of reason, science, and technology as “male” or “patriarchal”. In the ecology movement, thinking women must, if only to realize their own human potentialities, either join with tinking men in developing a new politics, rationality, and science – not to speak of those qualities that make us humane as well as human or they are likely to follow the ecofeminist path toward a narrow parochialism, primitivism, and irrationalism that will ultimately mystify and support the status quo rather than transcend it by achieving a free ecological society.


[1] On libertarian municipalism, see Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books), 1987

[2] Mary Dietz, “Context Is All: Feminism and Theories of Citizenship”, in Daedalus (Fall 1987): pp14-15.

[3] Judith Plant, “The Circle Is Gathering…” in Healing the Wounds, ed. Plant, p248.

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