Mary Mellor's search for an eco-feminist socialism

August 14, 1991

Mary Mellor — feminist, environmentalist and socialist — believes the left urgently needs a reinvigorated vision. Today, she says, the concept of socialism evokes either the collapsed command-and-administer regimes of Eastern Europe or the bankrupt Western Social Democracy.

She advocates a fundamental re-evaluation of socialist theory in the light of theoretical insights from the green and feminist movements.

Socialism, she says, has failed to articulate "a future anyone could believe in.

"I think feminists and greens have brought the charter for equality in a green and pleasant land. They brought something the socialists had lost", she told Green Left.

Mellor, who was a featured speaker at the July 18-21 Socialist Scholars Conference in Melbourne, has two books in preparation. Breaking the Boundaries: Towards a Feminist, Green Socialism is due for release by Virago, and she is co-author with A. Dordoy of a forthcoming book on a green and feminist perspective on sociological theory.

She is a founder member of the Red-Green Network and Women for Socialism, two projects associated with the Socialist Movement, a unity initiative of socialists both inside and outside the British Labour Party. She is also a member of Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other environmental organisations. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Applied Social Science at Newcastle Polytechnic.

"Theoretically, we don't seem to be moving", she said of the socialist movement's record on women's issues. "Women are still an add-on: 'Yes, Marxist theory can cope with women'. It shouldn't be like that. Marxist theory should be feminist. It shouldn't be coping with women, or relating to women or bringing women in in some way."

Mellor suggests this impasse can be broken by rejecting "economistic" theories, including the idea that the economy is, in Althusser's words, "determining in the last instance".

Three bases

She argues that there are three different material bases to human societies.

"One lies in the economic analysis that Marxists have traditionally identified; one lies in the natural world and the relationship the whole of human society has with the natural world; and the other is the material basis of human development that lies in what women have contributed to society."

There are four theoretical insights — two from the greens and two from feminism — that Mellor identifies as significant to the left: the green idea that there are physical limits to growth; the green concept of bioregionalism; the feminist idea of imposed altruism; and the feminist idea of the unboundaried nature of the use of women's time.

Physical limits to growth, says Mellor, finally "nail" the promise of capitalism that, eventually, the system would bring progress and freedom to everybody.

"Although socialists could show how capitalist economic relationships produced inequalities, they could never nail that particular promise, that there was a path of development that would eventually come to everybody, the trickle down effect.

"The green message is that we are close to or at least within sight of reaching the physical limits of development. That development process will never be completed. The inequalities capitalism has now are forever.

"That gives socialism its chance to say: 'What do you want? Do you want the grasping greed and individualised grabbing of capitalism, or do you want us as a human community, collectively and in the spirit of equality, to work out how we're going to sustain ourselves for the future?'"

Bioregionalism involves the idea that existing administrative boundaries — be they county councils, nation states or entities such as the European Community — are inadequate to deal with ecological phenomena.

Borders should not, for instance, run along rivers, because a river, its tributaries and catchment area must be considered as an ecological whole. If the artificial boundaries between human societies and the environments they inhabit are not broken down, "then we are going to have to fight over them", says Mellor. "We either have human cooperation at a super-national level, or we fight."


Imposed altruism involves the idea that for any human community to exist, "there has to be a certain level of performance of social tasks, tasks that have to be done in order to reproduce the conditions of human existence and sustain people through their

lives". This involves physical maintenance and subsistence, emotional support, caring, nursing, nurturing and so on.

"We have not acknowledged how fundamental to the very existence of society that work is", says Mellor. "For complex reasons society — and by that we must read men, because men control power relations in society — has imposed that work on women."

Mellor calls this work altruistic "because it has to be done regardless. There is no use relying on it being paid for. It will be done. If capitalism can't afford to nurse the sick, if you can't find a charity to nurse the sick, then somebody must do it.

"The reason I'm a socialist, and not prioritising feminism when I say this, is because I think that only a socialism that recognises the incredible contribution of all this work will relieve women of that burden."

A related concept is that of women's time. The way time is used is, for Mellor, one of the central mechanisms in the power relations between men and women.

"Women's lives are based on the idea of unboundaried time. Somebody has to be available, always has to be willing to drop all they are doing, drop their own needs, in order to take care of the needs of others. And it's not just the doing of the task; it's the availability."

While health, education, nursing and so on can be calculated economically, it is impossible completely to calculate availability — which men take for granted.

"Men can say: 'I go to work at this point. When I finish that work I stop, and I have no obligation until I next go to work.' Because women can be left with this unboundaried time, men can actually leave behind the limitations of being human, which are to do with everything that needs to be done to keep us sustained.

"Therefore men can behave and act to construct society as if we are not biological creatures, as if we don't have needs which can occur at any time.

"And therefore they construct a world that does not take account of that. As a consequence, that world has been able to develop mechanisms, structures, that are destructive of human existence and destructive of the natural world."


The idea that women could achieve liberation through beginning to experience the world in a way similar to men — through relief

from domestic work through technology and involvement in paid work — has been an inadequate one, says Mellor, because this ignored the "sustaining" work that needs to be done in any human community.

A theoretical impasse of socialism, she says, is that it "never transcended the male experience", the world of production. By working with the theory of the sustaining work done by women's unboundaried time, Mellor hopes to bring the two different experiences of the world together theoretically.

Mellor's believes that structures of patriarchy predate the advent of class society. In pre-class societies, she says, "women certainly had more autonomy", including access to economic resources and the means of subsistence.

But, says Mellor, economic independence was not matched by political power. Men were in the strange position of being economically dependent on women for day-to-day subsistence while at the same time having final decision-making powers.

"Women influenced decision making, but in the end men took the final decisions notionally in the men's house.

"Now, the fact that it was notional and they had to listen to women doesn't matter; the structures of power were in men's hands. So when colonialists came and asked to speak to the leaders, who were the leaders? The men's house was already there. Men were the final point in decision making. They had ceremonial power, which could easily be converted into political power."

The idea that patriarchy existed before class society leads Mellor to argue with what she sees as a traditional Marxist idea about being able to "finally resolve conflict".

For Mellor, there can be no such resolution. The tensions in the relationships between men and women, and between human society and the environment, are bound up with "the problem of the social relationships to do with nurturing and caring" and with the continuing impact of human development on the environment. These dynamics "won't go away".

"Therefore it is going to have to be a political response", she says. "A continuing political response, a conscious control of human history, and there I thoroughly agree with what Marx was talking about. We have to take control of those processes and politically respond to them, and decide how we as rational, thinking, analytical human beings can actually produce structures that will prevent power relations developing on the basis of sex, prevent pollution and the depletion of our resources.

"Our recognition of this is going to be a symbol of our maturity as a species."

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