Note: see the recording of the full panel on Facebook.
Come back to see my next post, where I share about my experience of writing and sharing this speech and the phenomena of individualization.
Reclaiming Gift Flow through Mutual Mothering in Community
Every one of us, no matter our culture or socioeconomic background, is alive today because someone took care of us when we were not capable of caring for ourselves.
In the womb, everything our forming body needs is given to us instantly, through our umbilical connection with our mother. Without even asking, without deserving or earning it, our needs are given to by Life.
At birth, we come into the world with the functional trust that our needs will be lovingly responded to. For our large brain to fit through our mother’s pelvis, our growth happens outside of the womb, so, unlike other mammals, human infants are not able to hold their heads up or walk. We are dependent on our caregivers. Why wouldn’t we, as infants, assume care? What else could life be, but nurturing, safe, and responsive, as it was in the womb? This is the essence of mattering: trusting that we will be given to without having to earn it or reciprocate.
The nonverbal communication that happens between caregiver and child is an example of gift-flow. We attune to facial expressions and flow gifts of smiles and mutual enjoyment. Even crying is collaborative. It’s an expression of trust in life, trusting that someone will respond. Without the infant’s expression of needs, the caregiver may not know how to respond. Without attuned responsiveness, we stop expressing our needs. Babies are born knowing how to do this, it’s wired into our brains as the foundation for our capacity for life-long collaboration.
In The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love, Gerda Verden-Zöller and Humberto Maturana suggest that our evolution into the human species is rooted in our physical dependence on mutual care. Adults’ needs, less immediately dependent on others, haven’t become any less urgent. Researchers have found chronic loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely.
At every stage of life, we depend on gifts flowing to our needs, on mutual giving and receiving, on trust in each other and in Life itself.
Every day, whether we acknowledge it or not, we practice the functional trust that our needs will be responded to by Life. We fill our lungs with air that was produced millions of years ago. It is one of the few gifts from Nature not yet commodified. We paid no money for it. No one earns the right to breathe. Air is not withheld from us when we mess up or offered as a reward for good behavior. Air is given to us because we exist on this planet. With every inhale, we functionally trust Life to give to us the air we need to continue living.
And yet by the time we are adults, most of us, in most of the world, don’t experience trust in Life. What happens to us, individually, that leads us to lose this trust we were born with? What happened to us, collectively and over the generations, to bring us to such massive loss of trust in Life that we are now destroying it?
For 97% of our existence as humans, evolving over a few million years, our ancestors retained their trust in Life and in each other into adulthood. Whole societies were built on a foundation of trust that there is enough for everyone, that life will give us what we need and that we will take care of each other.
In The Chalice and The Blade, Riane Eisler presents compelling archeological evidence that the societies that existed in Neolithic Europe were based on this maternal egalitarian principle. About 7,000 years ago, around Mesopotamia and the Eurasian Steppes, multiple groups simultaneously shifted from trust to trying to control the flow of resources. We don't definitively know what happened, but there is some evidence that the Black Sea, previously a lake, rapidly became connected to the Mediterranean. The resulting flooding was immense, possibly the source for Biblical stories. The trauma from this natural disaster was more than could be collectively processed and may have caused their initial loss of trust in Life.
As documented by Marija Gimbutas, these groups turned to war and invasions to control life. These invasions likely became the initial “loss-of-trust-trauma” for the attacked groups and they, in turn, repeated the shift to attempted control. This cycle continued and intensified through the establishment of empires, followed by capitalism, which relied on multiple, intersecting forms of oppression to be established and self-perpetuate.
To turn a free person into a slave, they must be removed from their community and from the land, as David Graeber showed in Debt: The First 5000 Years. When we are connected to community and to land, we revolt. We do what we can to take care of our loved ones, even in the face of violence. In order to establish and maintain control, we must be removed from community with the Natural world, from human communities, and from the community of ourselves.
To separate us from the community of the Natural world, we have experienced scorched-Earth war techniques, we have been traumatized by the enclosure of the commons, and we have been forced to convert from Earth-based, indigenous spirituality. To sell us materials freely given by the Earth, we must believe manufactured scarcity and that the Earth is lifeless.
To separate us from our homes, communities, and cultures, we have been stolen from Africa, trafficked across oceans, forced to attend boarding schools, forbidden to use our native languages or practices, exposed to violence against children and mothers, and more.
To separate us from the community of ourselves, those parts of ourselves below the neck, we have been cut off from our feelings and trained to ignore our needs. This enables us to either comply with oppression or to be able to oppress others without experiencing the very real agony of harming another person.
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici shows how colonizers celebrated finally convincing the indigenous in North America to hit their children for the first time, while at the same time, women were being burnt at the stake in Europe. Federici’s research suggests that, rather than religious persecution, accusations of witchcraft were used to slander female leaders of anti-capitalist communities, who actively opposed the establishment of capitalism. Calling a woman a witch is still used to undermine her leadership today. Murdering women for “cavorting with the devil in the woods” successfully removed the leader of the opposition while simultaneously discrediting community gatherings in public places.
To continue reproducing capitalism, community living remains the “devil” to scare us away from. By removing us from our communities, we are reduced from a “we” to “an individual', reduced to workers and consumers.
Even now, we are removed from community, through frequent moving, divisive politics and rhetoric, and disconnection from our ancestors. Community living is seen as a “hippy thing” or even a “cult”, to be avoided. When we are directly meeting each other's needs, we can revive the commons and subsistence economy, which then means there won’t be enough workers and enough consumers to keep the market economy going, and the system will crash.
As Federici explains, capitalism was established through the destruction of community living in Europe and elsewhere, made possible by enclosure of the commons, colonization, the slave trade, and the murder of women accused of witchcraft, all designed to increase the pool of cheap labor and access to raw materials, and to put down resistance. The work of community building is key to the work of reversing capitalism, it is the work of liberation. Liberation, as defined by Erica Sherover-Marcuse, is both undoing the effects of oppression and eliminating its causes. Community living accomplishes both.
For guidance, we can turn to Gandhi’s “constructive program”, where they built an alternative to what they wanted to change, in addition to nonviolent resistance. It required 2 components: the alternative must meet a real need and it must be possible for anyone to do it. Community living meets both.
We urgently need contexts where people can become childlike again, with authentic expression of their needs and the capacity to receive unconditionally. Where, because we trust so wholeheartedly that our needs matter, we have no hesitation to give unconditionally to others’ needs. We need communities building concrete social structures that draw out our innate mutual-mothering, that foster and reclaim need-based flow of resources.
Anyone can begin practicing giving without receiving and receiving without earning or reflexively giving back. Anyone can build community, starting now, where we are, with those we live and work with. We can find more direct ways to meet our needs, moving from buying our food at the store, to buying directly from a farmer, to growing food with others for our community. We can recreate the commons where we are, take down our fences and build cooperatives. We can join what's already happening in our area, or invite our closest friends to live with us and co-parent our children with support beyond what's available in the romantic partnership.
Across the world, people are already forming communities. Governments of the world can help us by making it logistically and legally easier for intentional, live-in communities of all sizes and locations to form and co-exist. Governments could create legal structures making it possible for groups to share commonly-held resources, offering women an alternative to marriage. Undoing the barriers to community living could be a form of reparations for the atrocities committed during the establishment of capitalism.
Community living based on the resurgence of the maternal gift economy is inevitable, a necessary path to avert human extinction. It’s people who have become again a “we” who will find the inner resources to face the huge task of responding to the crisis of our time.
Note: see my next post, where I share about my experience of writing and sharing this speech, and the phenomena of an interdependent process being individualized.