Transcription of a video by O. Ressler,
recorded in Cologne, Germany, 26 min., 2005
I'm Maria Mies, a retired sociology professor. I started
working at the Fachhochschule here in the Department
for Social Pedagogy in 1972. I am also quite active
in various social movements: initially in the women's
movement, but then also the ecology movement became
part of these activities, the peace movement, and recently,
since 1997, I've been active in the anti-globalization
First of all, I have to say that we are not talking
specifically about subsistence economy. When I say "we,"
I am referring to my two friends Claudia von Werlhof
and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, with whom I developed
this approach in the mid-1970s. We aren't speaking of
a subsistence economy, but of a subsistence perspective.
That is to say, it's not an economic model, but rather,
a new orientation, a new way of looking at the economy.
That means something entirely different. It doesn't
just apply to the economy, but also to society, culture,
history, and all other possible areas. The second thing
is that a lot of people ask: what do you mean by subsistence?
I usually say: for us, subsistence is the opposite of
commodity production. Commodity production is the goal
of capitalist production, in other words, a general
production of goods, everything that there is, has to
be transformed into a commodity. It is possible to observe
that today, especially in the course of globalization.
Subsistence production has an entirely different goal,
namely, the direct satisfaction of human needs. This
isn't accomplished through money and the production
of goods. For us, quite essential is that it is a direct
production and reproduction of life. That's why we talk
of "life production" rather than "commodity
I would also like to add that we discovered this perspective
- that's what we really have to call it - at a point
when we were just beginning to deal with housework in
the women's movement. At the time, a worldwide discussion
was going on, feminists everywhere were involved. The
issue was: what does housework mean in capitalism? Why
isn't this work seen as work? Why isn't it paid? Why
is it non-paid labor? We recognized that in capitalism
this work can't be paid, because if it were, the accumulation
model would collapse. That doesn't mean that there wouldn't
be any capitalism anymore, as some thought, but that
it would definitely be much too expensive if all of
the work done in the household were paid for: bearing
children, raising them, reproducing the man - as it
was called at the time - taking care of the old and
the infirm. If that were paid labor that had to be paid
like regular paid labor, then it would be impossible
to pay for it and that would fundamentally alter the
entire model of capitalism. So we arrived at the concept
- which actually doesn't stem from us, since the subsistence
concept is an old concept - that what we call life production
is actually necessary as a prerequisite for all types
of paid labor. At the time, we stated: without subsistence
labor, there would be no paid labor. But without paid
labor, there is still subsistence labor: it is the undying
prerequisite for not only every type of life, but also
every type of work - that food, housing, and immediate
life concerns are taken care of. This work is extremely
valuable, but it is never paid for monetarily. That
was the point where we saw this connection. And then
we also saw that, in addition, housework is not the
only type of work that is exploited in this way at practically
no cost to capitalism. Instead, there is similar work
among small farmers who, everywhere in the world, work
for their own subsistence. They sell things at the market,
too, but they aren't wage laborers. And what is interesting
about this, is that they are just as absent as women
are in the gross national product or gross domestic
product. They don't count, as one of the women from
New Zealand, Marilyn Waring described in "If Women
Counted" - if women counted, what then? A very
interesting book. And then we discovered, third, that
the small farmers' work also has something to do with
housework and both have something to do with the work
in the colonies. Then this concept emerged, as all three
of us were in the Third World for extended periods.
I was in India for many years, my two friends were in
Latin America, and so we realized: if entire countries
hadn't been exploited as colonies for long periods of
time, then there wouldn't be any capitalism. And if
they were treated equally today, all of the work in
the "colonies" - I still call them "colonies"
- well, then there wouldn't be much to accumulate. And
that's why we call all of these relations colonial relations.
The man-woman relationship is colonial, the relationship
between the small farmer and industry is also colonial,
and naturally, the colonial relationships between metropolises
and colonies are definitely colonial.
First of all, I would like to emphasize that the subsistence
perspective and the subsistence societies and economies
didn't disappear by themselves, but instead, that was
done to them, those were entirely intentional policies.
Subsistence societies existed all over the place prior
to World War II, both out in the country and in the
city. Here, in Germany, the small farmers were the ones
who produced the majority of the foodstuffs and supplied
the population. But then again, to my surprise, there
was also a wide range of subsistence production in the
cities, even in the U.S. An American feminist did research
into that and discovered that until the 1960s, a great
deal of subsistence activities continued to exist in
the neighborhoods in major industrial cities. First,
there was the neighborly, mutual aid. This principle
of mutual assistance, of reciprocity was in place. Vegetables
and fruits were preserved; either one had a little garden
somewhere or you bought the produce inexpensively at
the market and preserved it. This was mainly a household
activity and the same goes for tasks such as sewing,
small repairs, whereby a neighbor or a friend always
helped out. The working class would probably not have
been able to survive in these cities without the prolonged
presence of these forms of reciprocity. But then the
American government implemented from above an entirely
new economic model with the newly emerging Fordism.
First, wages for industrial workers went up. If you
compared what you could buy for these wages with what
you could make yourself, well, there was a huge difference.
So people gradually stopped making things.
Through certain measures, the farms then gradually went
into debt and could no longer be maintained. At the
time, people said - you can't live off of farming anymore,
I'm leaving. These same policies continue today. The
other thing is that there was a push to change the entire
agricultural business to monoculture, mass production,
chemical fertilizers, and pesticides; to bring in big
machines, as that was again something that promoted
industry. All of this was based on petroleum. The farmers
were meant to mass-produce milk, butter, meat, eggs,
etc., and so we now have these huge agrarian factories
everywhere. They then got subsidies in order to produce
a surplus and this surplus was subsequently dumped on
the Third World, as we all know. This opportunity barely
existed for the Third World. The same agricultural policies
were implemented there, for example, with the Green
Revolution, and the small farmers lost their land or
they had to sell it because they couldn't compete with
the large ones or because they couldn't pay back debts.
But when they moved to the cities, then they landed
in the slums. And there they practiced subsistence production.
That was, by the way, the starting point for our interest
in the idea of subsistence. At this conference in Bielefeld,
it was about subsistence production in the Third World.
A lot of people had observed what people did in the
slums in Africa, and in a number of other countries.
The people had to survive somehow, but they didn't have
any land anymore. They did everything they could, like
casual labor, and they stole, too; they did this and
that or they were servants somewhere. No one really
paid attention to them. There was no social net to catch
them, and there still isn't today. What that means is
that subsistence production was necessary in the rural
areas to be able to pose resistance against all of these
policies, and in the cities it became a politics of
Now you ask me, quite justifiably, how can a life, which
is often so wretched, provide a perspective for a better
society? At first it sounds a bit absurd. But if we
look closely at how people survive and everything that
they do then we discover that the old principles I spoke
of previously were reactivated: there is mutual assistance
and people are again willing to do everything they possibly
can do by themselves. That is a new and positive perspective,
since with these activities - even if they take place
at a very low level - people rediscover their sovereignty,
their own authority to produce their lives, as we call
it. That is no shortcoming, it is something very positive
to discover, that we are entirely capable of collectively
producing and organizing our lives together, with others.
Naturally, you also need money. I don't want to deny
that at all, but exclusively working for money is not
the best thing - that is only one side of it. The other
is that subsistence production, or subsistence orientation,
satisfies needs in a much more comprehensive way than
purchased products ever could. These purchased goods
actually don't contain anything. It is dead labor that
is materialized there. They are used, then they're gone,
then you have to buy new goods and people are never
satisfied. That is, namely, the point. That begins with
all of the appliances and technical achievements: first
you have a black and white television, then that isn't
enough, then you have to have a color television, then
you need a computer, then a cell phone, now children
have to have cell phones and it goes on and on. But
can we say that we have a happy, satisfied society?
I've heard of a movement in the U.S. that is searching
for the good life. That is an old economic concept,
already established by Aristotle as the goal of the
economy. The goal of the economy is the good life. The
people in the U.S. say, we work and work, but the good
life never arrives. Where is the good life? That's why
we say that that is the goal of subsistence. Subsistence
is not shortcoming and misery, as we are constantly
made to believe. If it is understood correctly that
is, and not as individual subsistence - which is not
possible - then you always have to get together with
others to do something, not only to survive, but to
live well. Then it is actually possible to create the
good life. You experience that you are your own authority,
that together with others, you're sovereign. That is
an entirely different type of satisfaction than when
you have your eight-hour day behind you and perhaps
also earned quite a bit. The good life is meant to arrive
at the age of sixty-five, but even then it doesn't come.
I think that is one of the reasons why people in our
society are so unhappy. The alienation of paid labor
can't be neutralized by even such great sums of money.
But in the subsistence perspective, that is entirely
possible. And I can prove that based on a few examples.
Friends of mine in Bangladesh began to defend themselves
against what the major multinational concerns were doing
in the agricultural industry. They found out that the
soil is destroyed, that the water is full of arsenic
and the yields are sinking. The promise of the Green
Revolution was that in monoculture everything would
be produced in great amounts. They found out that that
wasn't true. Then they realized that earlier, it wasn't
the case at all. And they founded a new farmers' movement
called Nayakrishi Andalon, started by women. The women
realized that since the Green Revolution, the men had
started to beat them. They hadn't known such violence
before as they were the guardians of the seeds. The
seeds were in their control, they stored them, told
the farmers when it was time to sow, etc. So they got
together and decided they wanted to change things. The
entire initiative was started by women to regain a fulfilling
and happy life. That was their first explicit goal.
We want to have a happy life! If you ask the farmers
in this movement, then all of them will tell you that
they want a happy life. Just ask a farmer here in Germany
if his work makes him happy
The first thing the
women said was that there would be no multi-national
corporations allowed in. They declared the villages
as non-toxic villages. No multi is going to come in
here with all of the poisons that they spray. I forgot
to say that many of the women, because they were so
unhappy, committed suicide by drinking the pesticides
that were standing around and poisoning themselves.
Now today, the same principles are back in practice
again, actually, old principles, but also new ones allowing
agriculture to be fruitful and productive without putting
in all of the inputs from industrial countries. There
are a lot of things that they rediscovered, such as
diversity. They aren't practicing monoculture, they
use their own compost, they help each other, and they
don't purchase seeds anymore. In almost all villages
they have seed houses, and these are again under the
control of the women who store and preserve the seeds.
They are sovereign again; they have what the Via Campesina,
an oppositional, worldwide small farmers' organization,
calls nutritional sovereignty. I think that all subsistence
begins with nutritional sovereignty. That is an example
and that's now a huge movement in Bangladesh.
There are also many examples here, in our country, which
aren't so well known. There are the communes, those
are more well-known, such as Niederkaufungen or Longo
Mai, that have already worked for a long time as communes
in a subsistence lifestyle. But what impressed me most
are the communal international gardens that have existed
in Germany for some time now. They were founded by refugee
women in Göttingen. The first ones were planted
in Göttingen when the women said that they weren't
happy there and didn't want to just get charity the
whole time. A social worker asked them what was missing,
what do you want most? They said that what they missed
most were their gardens. Then they got land from the
Evangelical Church and began to garden together. Not
allotment plots, but communal gardens where the different
groups of migrant women and men (men joined in later)
do their gardening. Meanwhile, there are already seventy
of these communal, international gardens in different
cities in Germany. There are also a few in Cologne.
It is very, very essential that we look at the whole
picture nowadays. We can't just set up a little subsistence
island somewhere in a village or in the city and then
be satisfied with that. Instead, we need to maintain
a global view since today we have a globalized economy.
That is simply a fact.
There are a few principles that are just as modern
today as they were before. I have already mentioned
a few of them. If these principles were at the center
of the economy rather than individual egoism, as is
the case today - all of economics is based on the assumption
that at the center is individual use, individual interest.
If instead, there were something there such as mutual
aid, reciprocity, communality, collective work, and
also collective enjoyment, then that would be another
matter. When consumption and production are no longer
so strongly separated, then that is also another matter.
Those are thoughts that first must enter our minds.
That is not so simple, and I can see that myself. It
is difficult to step down from this consumption model
that we have now, although people know that it hasn't
made us happy.
If we had a subsistence orientation, then we would
need different technology. Built everywhere into our
technology is wear and tear, work stress is built into
the technology and as I always say, our technology is
not system neutral. It is capitalist. Apart from that
it is patriarchal, but I don't want to go into that
now. We need a different way of thinking about technology.
We have to also ask what type of technology we need
to actually make our work easier and not to simply throw
more goods onto the market.
The idea that industrial society and industrial monoculture
are the most productive systems continues to dominate.
That applies not only to agriculture, but also to all
other forms of monoculture, that this type of work is
the most productive and subsistence production is entirely
unproductive. That's why it isn't included in the gross
national product, for example. It is not productive;
only what can be measured monetarily is productive.
Of course that's not true even with this well-known
productivity concept, which is much too narrow to grasp
the true productivity of labor and of subsistence production.
This diversity, this symbiosis between various forms
of life - animals, plants, and people - all living together
in a certain area, all with their livelihood and good
life, you couldn't achieve that by putting together
as many monocultures as you like.
Translated by Lisa Rosenblatt