[Note to the Reader: This piece is going to be very multi-layered. It’s a very complex argument with multiple pieces. It’s also something I’m stretching into mentally. It’s by no means a fully worked out thesis. So please consider it in that exploratory light.]
In this piece I want to explore the interconnections between regenerative ecology, matriarchy, and the failure of much contemporary social justice activism. So buckle up.
I’m going to start with the notion of regenerative ecology. As wikipedia has it regenerative ecology/design is related to but ultimately distinct from the more commonly understood notion of sustainable development.
Here's Wikipedia on the topic:
Regenerative and sustainable are essentially the same thing except for one key point: in a sustainable system, lost ecological systems are not returned to existence. Alternatively in a regenerative system, those lost systems can ultimately begin "regenerating" back into existence.
Organic farming versus permaculture would be a concrete example of this difference. Organic farming is more sustainable while regenerative (permaculture-like) food growing would involve attempts to regenerate the soil, incorporate animal life into the farming, and produce a diversity of crops.
Or consider the example of green power. In that context a sustainability approach would be aiming for zero carbon emissions. In other words in sustainability there’s an emphasis on not being a consumer or drain on the existing energy supply. Whereas a regenerative approach would actually seek to become a net producer of energy (aka, a "prosumer").
So that’s an extremely short introduction to regenerative design/ecology. But please keep that distinction between sustainable vs. regenerative in mind. I need to layer in one more element, namely matriarchy, before we can start applying these ideas to the contemporary scene.
Matriarchy as such has never existed in human history and does not currently exist. If by matriarchy you mean a society in which women rule over men then there’s no such thing as a matriarchal society in that sense, neither historically nor presently. In contrast there certainly have been (and currently are) societies in which men dominate the public sphere and women are relegated to a private sphere--that is patriarchy.
So if matriarchy did not mean women ruling over men publicly what precisely did matriarchy involve? What distinguishes matriarchal (or as is more commonly used now matrilineal) societies from patriarchal ones was that in a matriarchy there was some balance of expression & power in the public sphere between women and men.
That last part is very important there were various forms of public power (emphasis on public) apportioned in some, more or less balanced or fair way, between women and men.
Now it’s very important to understand however how this balance played out in matriarchal societies. This point is an extremely subtle but crucial one that I’m going to be coming back to throughout this piece. The balance within matriarchal societies was not 50/50. Many forms of contemporary feminism, as we'll see, assume balance to be a 50/50 split (see here for example). In matriarchies this was not often or even necessarily the case.
In fact these matriarchal cultures typically promoted a very different idea of balance. The contemporary liberal progressive vision consists of “gender parity” or “gender balance”, meaning something more like 50/50 man/woman representation in public roles—emphasis on public roles. (Incidentally this approach runs into a whole area of difficulty when you start considering humans who don’t identify along a strict binary of man or woman but for the moment I’m not going to focus on that but will mention it is a very important issue to consider).
In contrast to both patriarchy and contemporary liberal progressive regimes, in matriarchal societies there were multiple expressions and levers of public power. There were multiple forms of legitimated public influence and power. And of those multiple kinds of power there was some equitable distribution of authority between women and men.
Pre-modern patriarchies still retained multiple forms of public power it’s just that those forms of power were across the board controlled by men: e.g. governance, religious/sacral authority, military affairs, economic power, etc.
In matriarchies there wasn’t necessarily equal shared partnership within various areas of power, though there could be. It didn’t have to be a 50/50 split within a specific arena of public power. A classic example would be a culture in which women controlled the realm of birth and men controlled the realm of death. Both birth and death were therefore considered sacred dynamics and there was a spiritual form of public authority within each domain bequeathed to women and men but there was strict separation between women and men within their respective spheres. A man wouldn’t have authority in the realm of birth and a woman wouldn’t have authority in the realm of death.
In other situations there could be mixed female-male representation, for example on wisdom councils or elder circles. Those wisdom councils themselves would often exist in relation to other forms of public power—they might have an advisory role to say a chief or military leader.
The key point is that in matriarchal cultures there were a) multiple points of public authority and power & b) some more equitable distribution of those powers between men and women.
Keep those points in mind while I bring in another important piece to the puzzle courtesy of Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology. Weber’s work demonstrates that one of the core components of modernization is these older pre-modern models with multiple forms of recognized public power are all reduced down to a unitary theory of power. For Weber all the different aspects of society started to follow the same basic process of rationalization and bureaucratization. (It’s worth noting that Foucault came along later and extended Weber’s basic insight, showing how the routinization and bureaucratization had a specific aim of disciplining and controlling society.)
The result of which from the modern era to our contemporary postmodern era is that public power has been narrowed down to only one form of power—namely money. Wealth is the only valued means of status. Whereas previously in matriarchal societies there were multiple forms of legitimated public power there is now in our day only one: wealth status.
Which is why in our day activists pursuing agendas of racial, sexual, and gender diversity are often speaking of a “balance” and by balance they mean the 50/50 model cited. There’s little to no meta-awareness of power having become reduced in the first place in modernity (and this I think is a huge and terribly consequential mistake).
The key point is the reductionistic reality of modernization is assumed or simply occluded. From there the attempt is to balance the unitary power between women and men but this automatically brings up a problem. Once power has been reduced in the way that it has to a single, unitary understanding of what constitutes legitimated power, then all parties involved in these balancing efforts are playing a zero sum game.
In other words for one group to gain, one must lose.
In the 50/50 “balance” theory that means men have to lose relative power in order for women to gain. Or in a racial diversity context whites must lose power in order for persons of color to gain.
Now you might well argue that the overall agenda being advanced is worth it and that is simply the cost of that work. Or it could be argued that is the rebalancing necessary to address prior injustices against marginalized peoples. I think those arguments are worth considering. I don’t think they should be dismissed out of hand.
That being said, what this approach does is inevitably set up the reality of backlash because it’s an inherently zero-sum game. The alt-right is the most obvious example of such backlash against gender and racial diversity and inclusivity programs in our day. It’s always worth remembering that the alt-right is the shadow or bizarro stepchild of the social justice warrior left.
In this light it’s easy to understand why the alt-right is dominated by white men, particularly younger white men, most especially working class and anxiety worker type white males, who lose the most (relatively speaking) within a context that promotes gender and racial inclusivity within this overall paradigm of modernist “balance” (i.e. balance = 50/50).
Which brings us back to the initial quotation about sustainable versus restorative ecology.
Regenerative and sustainable are essentially the same thing except for one key point: in a sustainable system, lost ecological systems are not returned to existence. In a regenerative system, those lost systems can ultimately begin "regenerating" back into existence.
So to make a huge leap here—and again these are provisional, experimental thoughts—I think most of the contemporary gender and racial inclusivity & diversity programs are essentially sustainability oriented rather than regenerative in nature. Furthermore, I believe that is a serious problem.
In other words, “lost systems are not returned to existence” in a sustainability-oriented mentality. The lost system I’m interested in here is the older matriarchal idea of multiple forms of public, social power. The mainstream of gender and racial diversity work is not trying to regenerate or revive a more ancient process of multiple forms of social power that could be variously dispersed between women and men (as well as those who identify as neither.)
Sustainability work in ecology assumes the destruction of species, the pollution of the earth and then seeks to create a better more harmonious system going forward. One that is sustainable, durable.
Similarly (I argue) typical gender inclusivity and racial diversity work assume the destruction of the modern era—the rationalization, the bureaucratization, and the reduction of power to a unitary form of wealth status. From there it’s trying to create a more durable, sustainable way forward.
Just so it’s clear I’m not against those policies as such. I’m raising some questions about what I perceive to be their blind spot. I’m critical of what I believe to be their sustainable, i.e non-regenerative, bias.
Consider sustainability environmentalism itself. Sustainability does not require a hard accounting of the underlying causes of the pain that really got us into the environmental mess in the first place. In addition it creates one of two responses from the non-sustainable conventional world: 1. outright attack 2. co-opting it (“greenwashing”). The oil industry has actually done both for example. Because again in sustainability it’s a zero sum game.
With the push for liberal progressive gender and racial diversity type programs you see the same dual counter response. The attack/backlash clearly being the alt-right. The co-opting being the corporatization of these programs.
As an example of the latter there's California's new law mandating women be put on corporate boards. In this case the very nature of corporate boards as such is left unchallenged (and their significant issues, like the legal fiction of a corporate personhood). This reflects the modernist reduction of multiple forms of social legitimacy and power reduced down to one. That reality is then occluded or assumed and from there there's a push to use the power of the state to enforce companies to put women on their boards, assuming again balance is something along the lines of 50/50 within a unitary power dynamic (again sustainability not regenerativity).
Regenerative social design (in this context) would take a very different approach. Namely it would attempt to generate more overall power. It would actually try to increase the total amount of power across the board such that there’s enough power on offer for all involved—across distinct gender, racial, ethnic, sexual expressions and identities.
I’m not suggesting that a contemporary version of regenerative politics would need to be a complete revival of matriarchal dynamics. I do think what we should be looking to create are multiple forms of social power. I’m not sure they need to be so neatly or rigidly apportioned to specific genders or biological sexes as was the case in many matriarchal societies.
Nor am I here romanticizing matriarchal cultures and societies. I’m not imagining they had all the answers to problems we are facing because a lot of those problems are not ones they faced. I do however find this idea of multiple forms of public power and distribution occurring within that paradigm very intriguing and potentially a major advancement over our current situation both in its conventional oppressive sense and it’s mainstream activist sense.
That’s why I believe a regenerative approach which can seek to “bring back lost systems” in the ecology of human relations is really crucial. We need to be creating more forms of power not spending all our time looking to redistribute the existing unitary form of power to a more representative cross section of a culture.
The latter is understandable and not altogether wrong. Again I’m not here advocating some alt-right or neo-libertarian ideas about how if we just go back to “fair play” and “individual rights” and then let everybody express themselves and then the invisible hand of the market will by default reveal the winners and losers. Not at all.
I’m simply pointing out that progressive liberal inclusivity and diversity programs must assume a zero-sum game and therefore will initiate antagonism (see Trump, Donald). Moreover that in generating its own antithetical opposition it’s leaving itself open to either being outright overthrown (an alt-right takeover) or, more likely in my view, the state comes in as the seemingly benevolent neutral 3rd party to become the new synthesis to save the situation (aka controlled dialectics). That latter move would take place with liberals arguing it's either their corporatist "progressive" "inclusive" regime or a full fledged return to patriarchy--a point I've argued elsewhere in criticizing liberals love of A Handmaid's Tale.
That these more progressive programs help ameliorate certain structural injustices I understand but they don’t go far enough in my view, insofar as they do not criticize the critical component of there now being only one form of social power (namely wealth).
Admittedly that is much harder, much more radical work. But I do think it’s work that needs doing. Namely how to apply insights from practices like permaculture and other regenerative-design type processes to the question of human relations, gender, sex, and power in organizations, relationships, and social dynamics.