Transforming Economics: Caring Economy Leadership

Riane Eisler

Riane Eisler

Riane Eisler

All around us are signs that the old economic approaches are not adaptive. Gaps between haves and have-nots are again widening globally, poverty, unemployment, and debt are mounting even in the more affluent regions of our world, and no solutions are in sight for our rapidly accelerating environmental problems.

Yet the current economic discourse is still stuck in the old debate of capitalism vs. socialism, right vs. left, and free markets vs. central planning – an antiquated debate that fails to recognize that the current shift from the industrial to the post-industrial era requires new thinking. Not only that, current measures of economic health such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) pay no attention to poverty, hunger, or the human and environmental damage caused by a large portion of the activities included as “productive.”

For example, in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for no less than 70 percent of GDP, much of what is produced and consumed is known to cause disease – even death. This is true of multi-billion industries, from the chemical pesticide and fast food industries to the cigarette, alcohol, and gun industries. A growing segment of GDP consists of activities that produce no real value – financial speculations that make a few people rich and endanger the savings of the middle class. Appliances, electronics, and other products deliberately manufactured for planned obsolescence clutter up our landfills – and that is only a small part of the devastating environmental impact of current patterns of production and consumption. On top of this, most people’s incomes in the USA are shrinking at the same time that much of the work as we have known it is being taken over by automation and robotics – making it even more doubtful that economies driven by consumer spending are sustainable.

The Center for Partnership Studies addresses the urgent need to change how we think about and structure economic systems. It offers women and men the leadership skills and resources to join a growing international movement for a more effective and more humane economic system: a caring economy that takes into account the enormous economic value of the work of caring for people and the planet, especially as we move from a manufacturing to a global knowledge/service economy. It contextualizes economies in their larger social and historical context and offers a way of exercising leadership that is more congruent with partnership rather than domination systems.

Partnership and Caring vs. Domination and Control

The old model of leadership was appropriate for a system of top-down rankings: orders were given and had to be obeyed. This domination system held sway in all aspects of life – from families, schools, and workplaces to politics and economics. We still see it in cultures that seem completely different from the perspective of conventional social and economic categories. To illustrate, Hitler’s Germany (a technologically advanced, Western, rightist society), Stalin’s USSR (a secular leftist society), Khomeini’s Iran (an Eastern religious society), and Idi Amin’s Uganda (a tribalist society) all share the key characteristics of domination systems: 1) an authoritarian structure in both families and the state or tribe; 2) rigid male dominance, and with this the valuing of “masculine” qualities and behaviors such as “heroic” violence and “manly” dominance rather than “feminine” ones such as caregiving and nonviolence; and 3) the acceptance and even idealization of abuse and violence, from child-and- wife-beating to chronic warfare.

The partnership system also transcends conventional categories. Its core interactive, mutually supporting components are: 1) a more democratic and egalitarian structure in both families and the state or tribe; 2) a more equal partnership between women and men, flexible gender roles, and a high valuing, in both women and men, of qualities and behaviors such as nonviolence and caregiving denigrated as “feminine” in the domination system; and 3) abuse and violence are not accepted or idealized as they’re not needed to maintain rigid rankings of domination, be it man over woman, man over man, religion over religion, or race over race.

The partnership system’s configuration supports relations of mutual respect, accountability, and benefit. This does not mean that there is only cooperation in partnership systems; people cooperate all the time in domination systems: monopolies cooperate, terrorists cooperate, criminal gangs cooperate, invading armies cooperate. Moreover, there are also hierarchies in partnership systems, there have to be: every society needs parents, teachers, managers, leaders. But rather than hierarchies of domination where accountability, respect, and benefits only flow from the bottom up, partnership systems have hierarchies of actualization, where power is not used to disempower, but to empower others.

If we look at history in terms of the tension between the partnership and domination systems as two underlying social possibilities, we see patterns in what otherwise seems random and disconnected. We see that over that last centuries one progressive movement after another has challenged traditions of domination, from the “divinely-ordained” right of despotic kings to rule their “subjects,” the “divinely-ordained” right of men to rule women and children in the “castles” of their homes, the “divinely-ordained” right of one race or nation to rule over another to, most recently, the “divinely ordained” right of man to dominate and conquer nature.

But every one of these movements was met by fierce resistance. And even when gains were made, they were often reversed by regressions.

For example, neoliberalism can best be understood in terms of the foundational components of domination systems. The policies advocated by this recent iteration of unregulated capitalism are designed to reconsolidate wealth and power in the hands of those on top. While neoliberal rhetoric is about freedom, what this really means is freedom for those on top to do what they wish, free from government regulation, including the devastation of our natural environment. Its “trickledown economics” is a return to the “traditional” order where those on bottom are socialized to content themselves with the crumbs dropping from their masters’ opulent tables. The neoliberal promotion of the “preemptive war” against Iraq continued the traditional reliance of domination systems on violence. And the neoliberal’s alliance with the so-called religious right reinforces still another core component of domination systems: a “traditional” highly punitive family where children learn that it is very painful to question orders, no matter how unjust, and where the ranking of one half of humanity over the other half is presented as normal and moral – a mental and emotional template for equating all differences with either superiority or inferiority, dominating or being dominated.

With this ranking of male over female comes another distinguishing feature of neoliberalism: its contempt for the “soft” or stereotypically “feminine,” as in the vitriolic attacks on what they call the “nanny state.” Accordingly, a key neoliberal requirement is that government programs designed to care for people, such as healthcare, childcare, and aid to poor families, be defunded both in the United States and through “structural adjustment policies” in the “developing” world. In short, neoliberalism is really domination economics.

Countering these kinds of social and economic regressions requires new leaders who understand the underlying dynamics of domination and partnership systems: partnership leaders who can inspire and empower others to also take leadership in transforming social and economic systems in a partnership direction.

Transforming Leadership

The good news is that leadership is today beginning to be redefined in ways appropriate for partnership rather than domination systems. Terms such as ethical leadership, transformative leadership, values-guided leadership, partnership leadership, and servant leadership are coming into use. In the management literature, we are told that the manager should not be a cop or controller but instead embrace a more nurturing leadership style that supports greater creativity and productivity.

This shift in views about leadership and management has not happened in isolation. It is part of the shift toward a partnership rather than domination system. And a key factor in this shift has been the gradual rise in the status of women.

Indeed, these trends are inextricably intertwined. If more men are finding it possible to adopt “feminine” values and behaviors, it is largely because the status of women and, with it, men’s attitudes toward what is stereotypically considered “feminine,” are changing. An example is the trend toward men redefining their role of fathering to include some of the nurturing behaviors stereotypically associated with mothering. This trend is not unrelated to the movement toward more “feminine” or nurturing management styles for both men and women. For it is only as women and the “feminine” rise in status that men increasingly respect — and adopt – “soft” of “feminine” attitudes and behaviors.

Yet even now most books and management training programs that prescribe nurturing rather than coercive management styles have only implicitly, rather than explicitly, related these shifts to changes in gender stereotypes and gender-linked values — much less to anything that has to do with the socioeconomic status of women.

I want to emphasize here that this is not to say that all stereotypically “masculine” traits and behaviors should be left behind as we move toward partnership leadership styles. Certainly some traits defined as “masculine” in domination systems (conquest, domination, and the suppression of empathy and caring, along with “effeminate” aesthetic sensibility) have had extremely negative social and economic effects and stunted men’s full human potentials. However, other qualities that are also considered “masculine,” such as decisiveness, assertiveness, risk taking, and so forth, are appropriate for partnership leaders – whether in women or men.

In sum, it is up to both women and men to redefine leadership – just as it is up to both women and men to change how we view, and structure, economics.

Developing Caring Economy Leaders

The Caring Economy Leadership Training Program has already trained women and men from all world regions – from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa and Kenya to France, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States – to engage deeply with the principles of caring economics, build meaningful connections with other leaders, acquire presentation and facilitation skills, and increase their confidence in speaking about the vital economic role of care and caregiving.

For example, for her practicum experience in the program, author and consultant Olivia P. introduced the Caring Economics material to a local Meetup group that gathers monthly in the Philadelphia area. Bolstered by the positive reception to her presentation, Olivia now plans to book a 350 seat auditorium to host a larger-scale conversation involving people from the Occupy Philly movement and others.  Her presentation also led to an invitation to participate with other community leaders and members of Congress in an initiative to create a new constitutional congress in Philadelphia.

Tara W., a Professor of Business and Leadership in Madrid, Spain, introduced Caring Economics principles to 120 MBA students as part of her practicum work, and looks forward to further integrating Caring Economics concepts into her teaching.

While in the program, Andre C. hosted a Caring Economics conversation for 25 college students, professors, and community members at his university’s Culture Club.  He is now heading to Sweden to further his studies of community-based approaches to economic sustainability.

One of the most important aspects of Caring Economy Leadership is that it prepares us to ask – and answer – critical questions:

Why can’t our policy-makers seem to find money to care for people and nature? Why are we told we can’t raise taxes on the rich, but must cut wages for teachers, nurses, child-care workers and others on whom our future depends? There is no evidence that lower taxes on corporations and millionaires “raise all boats,” or that massive cuts in social services have ever helped people in developing nations rise from poverty. The opposite is true. It is countries like Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland that have made commitments to caring for future generations that have risen from poverty to prosperity.

Why are we told that cutting social programs is the road to prosperity, when our past prosperity was the result of the very opposite? At the beginning of the 20th century, except for the super-rich, the United States was what we today call a “developing country.” Our general living standard was abysmal: child and general mortality rates were extremely high, as was poverty. Then we invested in prenatal and child health care such as vaccines; abolished child labor; mandated not only primary, but also secondary public education; and promoted college education through the GI Bill for returning soldiers. These kinds of government expenditures, along with Social Security, Medicare, Head Start and other government programs to care for and educate our people had a huge return on investment for our people and nation. By contrast, largely as a result of retrenching in such public expenditures, today the U.S. has higher child mortality, maternal mortality, and child poverty rates than any other developed nation. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that poverty afflicts roughly one in six American children—some 13 million youths, a figure that’s expected to rise as gaps between those on the top and bottom of our economic hierarchy continue to widen.

Why do conventional discussions of poverty ignore the glaring fact that the mass of the world’s poor and the poorest of the poor are women and children? For example, in the United States women over the age of 65 are according to Census Bureau statistics twice as likely to be poor as men of the same age. Part of the reason is of course job discrimination, but a major reason is that these women are or were for most of their lives either full or part time caregivers in their families — and their reward for this indispensable work is an old age of poverty.

Why do politicians and the media continue to ignore the fact that nations such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland that invest in caring for their people, starting in early childhood, through measures ranging from generous paid parental leave to stipends for families to help care for children and high quality early childhood education have low poverty and crime rates, high longevity rates, and regularly rank high not only in international student achievement tests but also in the United Nations annual Human Development Reports in measures of quality of life as well as in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness reports?

Why do politicians, academicians, and the media still ignore the research showing that in nations such as the above, where the status of women is higher and women are almost half the legislature, fiscal priority is given to stereotypically feminine activities such as caregiving – whether performed by women or men?

Why do we continue to rely on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure “economic health” when this measure pays no attention to poverty, hunger, or environmental damage and instead includes activities that actually cause damage, such as selling cigarettes and the medical and funeral costs from smoking? Why do these indicators fail to include the caregiving activities in households that contribute the most to human well-being and economic success, despite statistical surveys showing their enormous economic contribution? Why do they pay no attention to the fact that the most important factor for the post-industrial knowledge/service economy is what economists call “high quality human capital” – or to findings from neuroscience that whether this high quality human capital is, or is not, developed largely hinges on the quality of care and early education children receive? In short, why don’t we have economic indicators that include the value of the work of caregiving – measures that accurately measure both our economic and social wealth?

Taking Leadership in Transforming Economics

These are the kinds of questions – and answers – still missing from the political and media conversation. It’s up to us to take a leadership role in changing that conversation by:

  • Making the case for the more accurate and inclusive Social Wealth economic indicators CPS is developing to effectively measure the health of our human and natural infrastructures;
  • Showing why investment in human growth and development is the key to economic success in our new economic era;
  • Proposing specific cultural and policy changes that are critical to economic success and higher quality of life
  • Explaining why the status of women and girls is a stronger predictor of a nation’s long-term economic success and quality of life than GDP;
  • Inviting others to join us and to take action to make caring and caregiving more visible and valued.

There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Our priorities should be exactly what policy makers are today putting on the chopping block: programs that support good care for children, high quality early childhood education, good training and pay for teachers, good elder care, and other investments in caring for people.

A caring economy is not only more humane; it is essential at this critical time. As Einstein said, we can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them. The current implosion of economic systems worldwide offers us the opportunity to introduce a new, realistic, long-term perspective on what is, and is not, a sound economic investment. The human capital deficit created by cutting social programs will be irreparable. By contrast, benefits to individuals, families, businesses and society at large from investment in human infrastructure will accrue for generations.

Based on The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics Caring Economy Leadership  is part of the Center for Partnership Studies’ Caring Economy Campaign dedicated to building a more just, sustainable, prosperous, and caring economy. The other major parts of the Campaign are the Caring Economy Campaign Coalition, composed of organizations representing millions of people, and  the Social Wealth Economic Indicators public policy program, based on the findings and recommendations of The State of Society: Measuring Economic Success and Human Well-Being—a 2010 Urban Institute report commissioned by the Center for Partnership Studies that showed that even new indicators being developed as alternatives to GDP still fail to give adequate visibility and value to the essential work of caring for people, starting in early childhood — despite the enormous economic and social return from this investment in our human infrastructure, especially as we move from the industrial to the post-industrial knowledge/service era.

Change is inevitable. The only question is the direction change takes. The answer to that question depends on us.

About the Author

Riane Eisler, PhD,  is a social scientist, attorney, and author whose work on cultural transformation has impacted many fields, including history, economics, psychology, sociology, and education. She is internationally known for her bestseller The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, and her newest book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics – hailed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as “a template for the better world we have been so urgently seeking,” by Peter Senge as “desperately needed,” and by Jane Goodall as “a call for action.”  She is a founding member of the General Evolution Research Group (GERG), a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and World Business Academy, a Councilor of the World Future Council, and a commissioner of the World Commission on Global Consciousness and Spirituality, along with the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders. She is co-founder with Nobel Peace laureate Betty Williams of the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence (SAIV), and president of the Center for Partnership Studies,,  Eisler has written over 300 articles in publications ranging from Behavioral Science, to The Christian Science Monitor and the Human Rights Quarterly.  Dr. Eisler is the only woman among 20 great thinkers including Hegel, Adam Smith, Marx, and Toynbee selected for inclusion in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians in recognition of the lasting importance of her work as a cultural historian and evolutionary theorist. She invites you to join her and become a Caring Economy Conversation Leader.