The Spirit of Capitalism vs. the Spirit of Traditional Rural Life by Carol P. Christ

marika's rakiIn this picture, Marika from Skoteino Crete toasts our group and downs a glass of her homemade raki. Marika, who is best friends with Christina who makes lunch for us, has just returned from her home next door with her gift of a glass of raki for each of us.

Marika, who has little, is eager to give to us. Hers is but one of many gifts from the heart we receive on the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Why is it that we who have so much do not give as spontaneously?

One answer is that capitalist individualism has taught us to count our worth by how much we have and to fear for the day when we will have nothing.

These words may be a cliché, but they hold a profound truth nonetheless.

Heide Goettner-Abendroth tells us that in matriarchal societies with small-scale sustainable agricultural economies, people did not hoard or save for a rainy day. With the labors of their bodies and minds, they took only what they needed from the land. When there was a surplus, they gave parties, sharing what they had with others. Even with the coming of patriarchy, ancient matriarchal customs of generosity survived among rural farmers.

In a  recent FAR post Sarah E. Robinson discussed a critique of Indian scientist Vandana Shiva’s activism against the capitalist exploitation of rural India. Shiva’s work to stop Monsanto’s genetically modified crops is a part of her larger campaign to change western development programs which she renames “maldevelopment.”

According to Shiva western development programs in India (and around the world) are based in the spirit of capitalism which counts the value of work according to the criterion of profit. By capitalist standards, rural sustainable agriculture economies are considered “unproductive” because they produce for local consumption but not profit. But these economies are not valueless. When not threatened by war, racism, or excessive taxation by overlords, small scale agricultural economies have fed and clothed people and provided them with all they needed to live for millennia.

Traditional rural economies were not capitalist. They did not use money as a form of exchange. They did not have banks. They did not encourage saving as there was no money to save. When times were hard, people pulled together and helped each other. Trade has always been a part of rural economies. But traditional economies were not based on the idea of producing excess products, to be sold to others at a profit. No one got rich on the backs of others.

While the capitalist mindset defines traditional rural economies as unproductive, Shiva and other environmentalists view them as living examples of the productive, sustainable, and bioregional relationship to the land that visionary environmentalists struggle to imagine.

Development programs in India (and elsewhere) disrupt and destroy the environment, damming and diverting rivers and cutting down forests for large scale farming of crops that can be sold for profit. The idea is that money placed in the hands of a few will eventually be spread around so that everyone’s standard of living will be improved. In truth, as Arundhati Roy states, in India “800 million . . . have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us [the 300 million members of the middle class].”

To see value in traditional rural economies requires a transformation of capitalist values. It requires us to see the meaning of life in terms other than making enough money to buy more and more things.

arundhati roy

In the small village of Tylissos in Crete, Maria lives in a small home centered around a courtyard with a kitchen garden to one side. She now has an electric stove and refrigerator; her modern bathroom is next to her bedroom rather than outside; and she can communicate with her children by telephone. But she must still go into the courtyard to get to her kitchen, and in the summer she often cooks over an open fire.

Maria’s son and daughter have moved to Heraklion, and since her husband died, she lives alone. Her children beg her to live with them in the city. But she insists that she will not. When we ask her why, she tells us, “When I am in Heraklion the walls close in on me and I cannot sleep. Here, I have my courtyard and my garden and I can breathe.”

Like, Marika, Maria is generous with what little she has, offering tea, coffee, and her own golden raisins to our group.

In order to understand why Shiva and Roy are fighting against western development programs in India, we must be able to see value in a way of life not based in saving, hoarding, and trying to get more. Surely rural life is improved with telephones, electricity, and flush toilets. But that may be all the development that is needed. The maldevelopment programs Shiva and Roy are fighting displace people from their villages, creating urban poverty and destroying sustainable relationships with the environment passed down over the centuries.

So much is being lost. So much is already lost.

carol at green party 2014 croppedCarol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter) spring and fall–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Turning to the World: Goddess and God in Our Time. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.

Categories: Activism, Ancestors, Earth-based spirituality, Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, environment, General

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16 replies

  1. Thank you Carol – succinctly put. The message is unambiguous –


  2. This is all much too dualistic for me. Funny how crude Marxism infects a lot of feminist and ecofem writing and thought. A more evolutionary frame and I do NOT mean Darwin would recast alot of what is said Does anyone here recognize that Shivas fans are primarily westerners ? yes I included an excerpt from Staying Alive in Tewaeaning the world after I met her in Coventry the summer of 1987 just after the spring 1987 ecofem conf in LA however the world has changed much since then and so my ideas have as well. I haven’t used the term eco feminism now for many years and it has taken quite a while to develop the frame for feminine ecology which does not rely on the Marxist reductionism of shiva and others which is factually dead wrong when it comes to down to the basics of human innovation as the planet turns


  3. I should have added that I discuss both feminine ecology and depth feminism in the book I am finishing which is now simply titled Comocracy: Governance and Free Feminine Voices. Liking for a good agent I might add


  4. I love this post, Carol, because you state the case for valuing the old women of Crete (and elsewhere in the world) who still live by sustainable values. These old women are so often the ones least valued in society, and yet in places like the Greek villages you & I are lucky to live in and visit, we see how they keep alive a precious and ancient worldview which might just yet have the power to save us all. Meeting Maria & Marika in Skoteino, and receiving their saved hospitality, was one of the highlights of your Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. You describe so beautifully just why meeting them and glimpsing their way of life is so important.

    I am so grateful that my research into traditional women’s dances allows me to spend time with wise women like them in many places in Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor. In my view, they, and the songs, dances, rituals and customs they still preserve, embody the ethic of community, sustainability, generosity, mutual support and connection to the earth which is our living legacy from matriarchal times.


  5. how they keep alive a precious and ancient worldview which might just yet have the power to save us all–indeed


  6. Bless Marika’s beautiful heart! And thank you for her beautiful photograph, Carol.


  7. Thanks for your many-faceted compassion at FAR, Carol! Just a comment on the value of existence, where you say: “It requires us to see the meaning of life in terms other than making enough money to buy more and more things.” I absolutely agree, but there’s another side to it. Because the cost of living keeps rising, for the elderly who are poor and living on fixed incomes, the older they get, the tougher it is to make ends meet. The worry, just in terms of financial survival, or whether they will even have enough for their basic needs, becomes then the meaning of life itself.


    • Yes of course you are right Sarah, but the people you are talking about are living within the capitalist system, not in the traditional economy. We who live in the capitalist system in countries that do not provide for social welfare, do have to worry. But development programs do not have to destroy what is left of traditional economies and we could learn from them about how to restructure advanced capitalist economies if we had the will as a people or a country to do so.


  8. Thank you for this, Carol. I’m currently reading Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s book, “Matriarchal Societies,” which was translated into English last year. She has researched societies with matriarchal patterns that are socially egalitarian, economically balanced, and politically based on consensus decisions. I think that these models are the only hope for humanity. Another book worth reading is Jerry Mander’s “In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations.” He explained (back in 1992!) that “models for restoring our relationship with the Earth exist in the cultures of native peoples, whose values and skills have enabled them to survive centuries of invasion and exploitation.” But, how do we begin to make the necessary changes? How do we inspire people to change?


  9. After seeing the musical Ragtime recently, I read Vivian Gornick’s biography of Emma Goldman (who is a character in the musical and in Doctorow’s book). Emma (1869-1940) preached against capitalism in the first half of the 20th century, and when she refused to stop speaking, she was deported. That didn’t shut her up, either. Gornick calls her a “born refusenik.” What if we all turned into Emmas? Or maybe she was too loud, too impolite. We’ve all seen the cartoons of the early 20th century capitalists–huge, huge, huge, greedy men. Today they look more like us.


  10. I agree with you, Carol, that capitalism — at least as it’s practiced in most of the world (maybe the Scandinavians do it differently) — is a big part of the problem that we face these days. When people talk about the political will to make the changes needed to become sustainable, they forget that Western politics and therefore our political will is founded on a number of unspoken beliefs, one of which is the need for (capitalist) growth. For example, Iin the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Dubya told Americans that they should fulfill their patriotic duty by “going out there and buy.”


  11. When you think how easily a few billionaires have convinced our society that they”NEED” smart phones, ipad, pods, etc. it doesn’t seem possible to me that our society will ever see any value in the type of environments and people you describe. Even our religions have bought into “bigger is better” and the more we can get the better off all will be. I have only hinted at suggestions that we might think about what we are doing but NO-ONe even hears me.



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