The Real Wealth of Nations, by Riane Eisler

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n.b. I read and reviewed this book as part of my coaching program, hence the references to coaching throughout this post.

Subtitled “Creating A Caring Economics”, Riane Eisler’s book is a fierce attack on the capitalist economy many of us take for granted. Her thesis is that we think that economics is a “matter of supply and demand”, but “current economic policies and practices often artificially create scarcities” in supply by encouraging overconsumption and wastefulness whereas “demand is largely determined by cultural beliefs about what is and is not valuable”. In particular, masculine work with its measurable productivity is valued more by our culture than feminine caring work, and so working in a factory is paid but caring for children or the elderly is unpaid despite taking similar amounts of effort.

The key distinction she identifies for economic systems is not capitalism vs. communism, but domination vs. partnership relationships.

  • In a domination system, the most important component of every relation is who is dominant and who is being dominated. The system is designed to “benefit those on top at the expense of those on the bottom”, leading to economic inequity.
  • Partnership systems, in contrast, are characterized by mutual respectful and caring relations. There are hierarchies, but she considers them hierarchies of actualization: “Leaders and managers facilitate, inspire, and empower rather than control and disempower” as is characteristic of hierarchies of domination.

I really liked her observation that our market economy reflects our household culture. In the home, the mother’s “job” is to take care of her husband and children and subordinate her needs to theirs. “This male-superior/female-inferior model of our species is a template that children in dominator families learn early on for viewing relations of domination and submission as normal and moral.” This gendered economic double standard, where masculine work is valued economically and paid for, and feminine caring work is seen as owed for free to the men in the family, is so embedded in our culture that Eisler calls it “the invisibility of the obvious”.

One takeaway from this book is how we must look at the whole system before making a change. Eisler insists that domination economics (which includes both capitalism and communism) can not be fixed without addressing the embedded cultural assumptions. When coaching an organization or person, how do I find those assumptions that have become invisible and unspeakable? Such cultural constraints must be addressed before the organization or person can get unstuck and move forward (analogous to The Fifth Discipline’s systems thinking to find balancing processes).

Eisler notes one way to do this in identifying new metrics and indicators that value the whole system. In her example, we must create economic indicators that account for the value of unpaid, caring work; as she puts it, “the real wealth of a nation lies in the quality of its human and natural capital”. This also includes measuring long-term impact rather than focusing solely on short-term easily measurable results like Wall Street earnings. Investing in a child will not show results for decades, but may have higher long-term value to society than investing in production capital. My takeaway as a coach is to define clear outcomes for client success that account for their holistic development as a person, rather than just the narrowly defined culturally normative measures of success.

I appreciated Eisler’s clarity in describing how a field as theoretically quantitative as economics is built upon deeply embedded cultural and gendered assumptions. Even a few years ago, I was thinking about economic inequality in a more “objective” unemotional manner, unable to see the ways in which I had been culturally trained as a male in this culture to discount the value of emotions and caring. By examining those embedded assumptions, Eisler imagines the possibility of a caring economics that moves beyond a domination mentality that only values masculine labor and thinking and expects all else to be done as a free service for those that do “work”, to a partnership mentality, where all work (and especially caring work) is valued equally, and all share in the benefits of such work.

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