Riane Eisler: Shifting from societies of domination to partnerism (ep318)
“There are four cornerstones that we really must work on to shift from domination to partnership: childhood, gender, economics — going past capitalist and socialist theory to a caring economics of partnerism — and different stories and language.”
— DR. RIANE EISLER
Why are the major social binaries inadequate in explaining the basis of our varied injustices? What is needed to translate our relational shifts from domination to partnerism into structural shifts in our societal configuration?
In this episode, we welcome Dr. Riane Eisler, a systems scientist, futurist, attorney, and macro-historian whose research, writing, and speaking have transformed the lives of people worldwide. She is president of the Center for Partnership Systems (CPS), Editor-in-Chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies at the University of Minnesota, and author of Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future (co-authored with anthropologist Douglas Fry), showing how the social and biological sciences, especially neuroscience, support the findings from her research. Her other books include The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, Sacred Pleasure, and The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, hailed by Nobel Peace.
The musical offering in this episode is Coming Home by Annalie Wilson.
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Note: *The values and opinions of our diverse guests do not necessarily reflect those of Green Dreamer. Our episodes are minimally edited, and we encourage further inquiry, seeing our dialogues as invitations to dive deeper into each topic and perspective. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Kamea Chayne: I would be curious to begin by hearing about the pivotal moments in your personal life that sparked your interest in exploring power dynamics and social configurations — that, of course, later gave way to your immense contributions to our understanding of cultural history and transformation.
Dr. Riane Eisler: I think of my life as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together, but my passion for this work is really rooted in some pivotal experiences. I was born in Vienna, Austria, at a time when a regression to a domination system — the rise to power of the Nazis — was happening. From one day to the next, my whole life was wrenched asunder. The gang of the Cybermen came to our house and dragged my father off. I saw cruelty, insensitivity, destructiveness.
But I also saw something else that night — what I call, today, spiritual courage, the courage to stand up against injustice, out of love. My mother displayed that courage. She recognized one of the men that came as a former errand boy for the family business, a young Austrian Nazi. She got furious and she said, “How dare you do this to a man who has been so kind to you? I want him back.” She could have been killed. But she wasn’t, my father was released, and we escaped that night, carrying what we could carry.
My parents were able to purchase entry permits to Cuba, so I grew up in the industrial slums of Havana, where I experienced and observed another injustice: the immense gaps between haves and have-nots. There was dire poverty around us, in Havana at that time. These led me to questions that my work is designed around and does answer:
Does it have to be this way — does there have to be so much cruelty, insensitivity, destructiveness? How can we build a culture, a world where that is different — is that possible? The answer is, absolutely, yes.
But to do so, we have to really think differently about human societies.
Kamea Chayne: What I find really refreshing about your work is that it transcends a lot of the binaries that we typically get stuck in or that spark a lot of divisiveness between people — when one way of thinking, one ideology, or one way of being is pit against its opposite.
So in what ways do you see these conventional social categories as being insufficient in understanding the deeper roots of our varied injustices?
Dr. Riane Eisler: We’re taught that binary categories like right or left, religious or secular, eastern or western, northern or southern, capitalist or socialist, are our alternatives. But in reality, there have been oppressive, repressive, violent societies in every one of these categories.
None of them really answer my question: What kind of society will support human capacities for caring, consciousness, creativity, rather than requiring that we express our capacities for insensitivity, cruelty, destructiveness?
These categories either ignore or at best marginalize the majority of humanity: women and children. The architecture of our brains and hence how we feel, how we think, what we think is normal, and how we act, is really a function. Much of our early childhood experiences occur in domination systems, and we’re socialized to rigid gender stereotypes: “A real man is not being like a woman” — here you have the devaluation of caring, caregiving, nonviolence, which are associated with women and the feminine.
What I observed looking at the span of our history, including our prehistory, and looking cross-culturally, were configurations and social patterns that kept repeating themselves. I called one the domination system and one the partnership system. The status of women and children is very integral to these two human possibilities.
There’s a connection between how societies structure parenting, gender roles, and relations, and whether it is more peaceful, more egalitarian, more sustainable.
Kamea Chayne: On that note, in your work with your coauthor, Douglas Fry, you explore how forager communities were the original embodiment of partnership systems. So it leads me to wonder whether communities rooted in partnerism, by extension, naturally have this reflected in their relationships with the land — where it’s not about domination and extraction and control — and whether it’s still possible for human communities of partnerism, where there are relationships of mutuality among human beings, to still act in human supremacist ways against other forms of life.
Dr. Riane Eisler: Yes, and you see this in the modern and contemporary nations that have moved more to the partnership side.
If you really look at our history, and this notion that war is human nature… actually, what archeology shows is that war is at most five to ten thousand years old. It’s a drop in the evolutionary bucket.
And if you really think about modern progressive social movements from this new perspective, you see that they’ve all challenged the same thing: a tradition of domination, including, of course, our once-hallowed conquest and dominion over nature.
Kamea Chayne: And that this norm that we know today is just a drop in the bucket… I think that really puts things into perspective. And it also leads me to be curious about what it was that flipped the switch for humanity, from the ways that it was — without the forms of institutionalized violence and war as the norm — into this current reality that we know today.
Dr. Riane Eisler: There are many theories about the shift, but the one that I subscribe to is that a period of enormous climate changes, and dislocations poured upon a horde of nomadic herders in Europe.
I want to emphasize that my work draws from new ways of looking… About how complex living systems maintain themselves, and how during times of great dislocation and disequilibrium, they are capable of fundamental transformation — like chaos theory, non-linear dynamics, self-organizing theory. And we are going through such a period today.
In fact, the progressive social movements arose starting with the 18th-century so-called rights of man movement challenging the so-called divinely ordained right of kings to dominate, to rule over their subjects; and then the feminist movement challenging, again, the so-called divinely ordained right of men to rule over women and children; the movement to change the so-called divinely ordained right of a “superior race” to rule over “inferior ones”; all the way to the environmental movement challenging our once-hallowed conquest and dominion over nature… these all happened during times of disequilibrium, like the industrial revolution, starting in the eighteen-hundreds.
Now we are in a very rapid period of enormous environmental, economic, social dislocation due to the shift from the industrial to the post-industrial knowledge-service age, and the high technology that we today have informed and driven by an ethos of conquest and domination. We live on a finite planet, and it is impossible to sustain unless we shift more quickly and in a more coherent and organized way, to the partnership side of the spectrum. And that does start with what I’ve proposed are four cornerstones, which begin with childhood and gender.
Kamea Chayne: You’ve shared that we need to tell different stories that illustrate partnerism so that we’re able to envision alternative ways of organizing ourselves. If domination is all we know, we might just keep replicating that in different forms without realizing it.
I was thinking about storytelling and what stood out to me is that from an entertainment industry standpoint, with their profit and viewership motive, things like drama, conflict and power struggles and oppressed protagonists triumphing in the end by defeating their oppressor… It feels like these types of stories embedded within domination systems are more sellable, dramatic, interesting, and also more relatable for the majority of us who have our struggles tied to our major system of domination.
I wonder if you’ve thought about the challenges of us being able to tell and embody new stories as the mainstream — where partnership is the norm. And also, I wonder what conflict would even look like within partnership systems, because I can’t imagine that meaning an absence of conflict or violence.
Dr. Riane Eisler: This is a real challenge, and we have been socialized to expect that adrenaline surge. The films that get the most audience are these epics where, as you say, it’s a fictional story that good will triumph in a system that is designed to actually suppress people, rather than the other way around.
But there are stories that tell of people struggling against climate change, against the eradication of other species… Black Lives Matter is a story of people struggling, mostly through peaceful means, through nonviolent means, to fundamentally alter an oppressive system… the #MeToo movement… these are real-life stories, aren’t they?
Kamea Chayne: And while on the topic of how stories influence the power dynamics that we embody, coupled with, as you mentioned earlier, how greater societies and familial dynamics influence whether we’re guided towards partnerism or domination, do you think religion can play a role in solidifying certain ways of being and thinking? Because there are certain religions rooted in stories of hierarchy, established order, dominating power and punishment by a superior, as opposed to, for example, Indigenous stories that are rooted in the co-creation of life.
So is it possible that our worldviews, which may be guided by the creation stories that we’re told, can still shape our ideologies of ideal social dynamics, which then may inform our politics and visions of the future that we want to either maintain or work towards?
Dr. Riane Eisler: Yes, absolutely. Religions have failed in really in two things. I think it is really essential to bring in religious leaders from all denominations, to really sort out the partnership and domination teachings in our scriptures. At the core of most world religions, even the ones that have become these terrible hierarchies of domination and violence, etc., are partnership teachings, like, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
But the religious denominations that are more partnership-oriented have failed to point out the reality, which is that the people who call themselves, for example, in the United States, fundamentalist Christians, they’re hardly Christian in the sense of the teachings of Jesus, of caring, of empathy, of nonviolence.
And there’s also something else that we really need to understand.
What we’re dealing with is like an old, beautiful painting that’s been painted over with domination teachings. This project is an essential project: we not only need to deconstruct but reconstruct. We must start really emphasizing the partnership teachings.
Kamea Chayne: In exploring different forms of power with my recent past guest, Daniel Lim, where he discussed supremacist power as opposed to liberatory power, which reflects the dichotomy you’ve explored between the power that comes from domination over and the power that’s practiced in partnership with, this question came up for me that I’m curious to hear your answer to — which is that if you had a community rooted in domination next to a community rooted in partnership, where the one rooted in domination may have an inherent interest in expanding to conquer and dominate and own, even more, is it inevitable that domination will become the major social force across our global society?
And perhaps an example of this would be when Native Americans generously shared knowledge and gave resources to the initial European colonizers who ended up just taking advantage of that to take over and to conquer — because the stories they may have been embodying were ones of domination and not partnership.
Dr. Riane Eisler: I absolutely do not think it’s inevitable. And it’s for the simple reason that even people within the organizations that are structured around the top-down domination system are beginning to understand that in our post-industrial economic era, these hierarchies of domination are not effective. And people have to know that there is a possible reality, that in bits and pieces, we’re moving toward a partnership rather than domination organization.
But people have to have this conceptual frame. Because as long as the environmental movement is in one place, and then the #MeToo movement is in another, and the Black Lives Matter movement is in another place, and the LGBTQ movement is in still another place, the domination systems maintain themselves through fragmenting our consciousness.
Kamea Chayne: So you think it’s really important to weave the threads between all of these different movements that, at the core, are fighting the same dominating structure?
Dr. Riane Eisler: Absolutely. And to make people who consider themselves progressive [aware] that gender, for example, is not “just a woman’s issue”… that it is a key social issue. This thinking of an in-group and an out-group, of us versus them, starts very early in domination families, with this model of our species.
There are two separate, different forms in our species: the female form and the male form. And we know today that there is a spectrum in between. But if you have a mental model of rigid gender stereotypes, where the male form — which is characteristic of all domination systems — is superior, and the female inferior, you equate all differences. It becomes a ready-made model for maintaining domination systems that are based on scapegoating.
These people who are brought up in domination cultures or subcultures, as mediated largely through families, religion, education, economics, are more comfortable with top-down rule, with a gendered stereotype of the “strong male leader”, so they are going to feel more comfortable voting for somebody like Trump, for example. They really are being told by their authority figures a complete alternate reality story.
And denial is really very much part of that mindset, whether it’s climate change denial, whether it’s election result denial, whether it’s COVID-19 denial… this is not coincidental. If the authority figure says that, that’s how it is, that’s how it is made.
And that starts in the early years, which is why I’ve come up with these four cornerstones that we really must work on to shift from domination to partnership: childhood, gender, economics — going past capitalist and socialist theory to caring economics of partnerism — and different stories and different language.
And I would like to really emphasize something here about gender. It isn’t only this model of equating difference with superiority and inferiority, dominating or being dominated, being served or serving.
We have a hidden system of gendered values, in which anything, stereotypically in domination systems, relegated to women and the so-called feminine, like caring, caregiving, and nonviolence, is devalued. And the stereotypical male, masculine, so-called masculine categories — which fortunately today are being identified as dysfunctional and toxic — the entitlement, the violence, the domination are elevated.
We have to really unpack that. It’s not enough to say we should be nicer to each other. We have to understand that we’ve all been socialized, including progressives.
In our educational system, in our so-called higher education, which is seen as important as knowledge and truth, where are the women? Where are the children? It was only fifty years ago that we even had women’s studies, and then men’s studies, and then gender studies. And they’re still marginalized in the academy — which is very siloed rather than multidisciplinary.
So we are really talking about making some fundamental changes, and it can be done. We had this shift from partnerships to domination. We’re in the process of trying to shift towards partnership again. But as I said, if we don’t understand what’s really going on, then the temptation, as it has become in some of these movements, is in vying with each other for the scraps. We fight each other… and that is not going to get us there. We have to understand that these movements are all related.
Kamea Chayne: To me, it speaks to how no matter if we’re talking about a free market system or one that is more controlled by people within the system in a more socialist manner… none of that really matters if we are fundamentally undervaluing care within the system, because you’re still going to end up with a skewed dynamic of domination in the end.
And I do think a lot of people also conflate free market with freedom and liberation, when I think the ultimate goal, for me, is how can we achieve collaboration so that we can work towards a system that is more grounded in relationships of reciprocity and partnerism.
With all this said, it’s clear to me that from your work, we do need a collective consciousness shift, a sort of awakening to the relational changes that we need to make among ourselves. So with this, my question is, what if those being oppressed — which are the majority — experience these relational awakenings and even might be practicing them in mutual aid and community building, but those with the greatest power to influence society’s direction are still stunted and corrupted by their ability to dominate and control? So in other words, what do you see as being necessary to translate our deeper relational shifts into actual societal structural shifts in our configuration?
Dr. Riane Eisler:
One thing that’s essential is to make the people who have control, who dominate the resources, understand that what they have is a first-class cabin in a sinking ship. A lot of people are beginning to realize that.
There’s a change in consciousness that’s happening, but, and this is a big but, we have to change the economic reward system. We, at the Center for Partnership Systems, are developing new metrics. You have to have interventions that fundamentally alter consciousness. Unlike GDP and unlike most so-called GDP alternatives, the social wealth economic indicators we launched in 2014 (and we are now with a team of economists in process of updating and condensing into a social wealth index) focus on showing the economic value of the work, of caring for people, starting at birth, and caring for our natural life support systems. That is what we have to do. We have to really change the rewards.
Even though the term “caring economics” got co-opted and is now being used to just mean the care economy, at least it’s entering. When I first wrote The Real Wealth of Nations and introduced the concept of caring economics, just putting, “caring” and “economics” in the same sentence was like, what? And now you hear it all over. So we are seeing some change. But I, again, want to emphasize that as important as all of these actions are, without a coherent alternative world view, which is this domination-partnership scale, we really aren’t going to understand that. We absolutely are talking about a massive social, economic, cultural shift.
Kamea Chayne: This conversation really reminds me of my recent conversation with Dr. Bayo Akomolafe, where we talked about the limitations of our language and the dangers in grounding our realities in the limiting frameworks that we have already constructed — because Earth and all of its ever-changing complexities can’t be reduced and framed.
So, in a sense, reductive language can be incarcerating in fixing us into the present system, its dynamics, and ways of being, which definitely poses a challenge for us when we’re trying to shed the layers of our current reality in social, economic, and cultural ways to take on entirely new forms.
And I know you’ve shared similar concerns as well, but what exactly does this look like for you going forward? Do we need to invent new words and language? Do we need to perhaps learn the language or learn from cultures rooted in partnerism to better understand what that complexity can look like, or otherwise, how do we work with the constraints that our current language imposes on us?
Dr. Riane Eisler: This is so fundamental. I cannot emphasize it enough. One of the four cornerstones is narratives and language, because linguistic psychologists have told us that our language, the categories provided by our language, channels our thinking, so it’s almost impossible to see alternatives. Think of matriarch and patriarch, right? It’s a father’s rule or a mother’s rule. There is no partnership alternative. So I’ve introduced a new language, partnership system, domination system, partnerism, hierarchies of actualization, rather than hierarchies of domination. We need this new language, and we need to understand that the old categories are coming full circle.
both capitalism and socialism came out of more rigid domination times, out of the seventeen-hundreds and the eighteen-hundreds. We’re now in the 21st century, the post-industrial age. You would think that people would understand that we need a different way of looking at it.
But change can happen fast in a time of disequilibrium like ours. So if people like you spread, not just in this conversation but in other conversations, terms like partnerism, terms like the hierarchy of actualization, terms like a caring economics of partnerism, people start changing their consciousness, because they have words for another future.
Kamea Chayne: And for me, a lot of this has been questioning the values that we center in the dominant language that we use. So, for example, how we define advancement and progress and what we center that on, or how we define growth and whether we can recenter that on life and biodiversity. There are so many different layers to this. And I think it’s it’s very affirming to contextualize this with history, because it shows us that we’ve only been this way, again, just for a drop in the bucket. And so we can change. We’re not stuck in this current status quo.
And before we go into our lightning round closing questions, what additional thoughts would you like to add to this discussion that I didn’t get to ask you about? And what are your calls of action or calls to deeper inquiry for our listener?
Dr. Riane Eisler: The Chalice and the Blade was the first book that I published, based on the findings from my multidisciplinary, cross-cultural, deep historical study of human societies. We’ve got to read this into the mainstream media. We have to get people to understand that there is a partnership alternative. But once people get it, they become creative. And we need an educational global campaign. Since we now have new forms of media — well, we’re on one of them — we can begin to share these alternative ways of understanding, what our real choices are, that it is up to us to change things.
*** CLOSING ***
Kamea Chayne: What’s an uplifting social media account or publication you follow or a book that’s been really profound for you?
Dr. Riane Eisler: My husband, Dr. David Lloyd, is an authority on Darwin. And he says that Darwin has been used as the 800-pound gorilla to say that dominations systems are inevitable. But if you look at the whole of Darwin’s writings, you see, including his book on human cultural evolution, The Descent of Man, you’ll see that there’s a whole ignored part of Darwin that supports partnerism.
Kamea Chayne: What do you tell yourself to stay motivated and inspired?
Dr. Riane Eisler: I’ve met wonderful people through this work, of course. But it isn’t just that. It is the feeling of contributing, the feeling of making a difference and of having something that… I mean, we’re now talking with Meridian University about starting a whole concentration for a master’s degree in partnership studies. We also, by the way, at the Center, have online courses that we’re now converting to on-demand. So education, changing our consciousness, understanding that there is a new frame, I really invite everyone to take advantage of that and then to become, what you already are in so many ways, active agents of transformation from domination to partnership.
Kamea Chayne: And finally, what makes you most hopeful for our planet and world at the moment?
Dr. Riane Eisler: I always have to come back to what Nurturing Our Humanity shows again and again based on neuroscience, that the story that we’ve been told about what is human nature is, is false, that the so-called pleasure centers in our brains light up more when we share and care, than when we win and dominate. So we have that going for us: this human yearning for care and connection.
Kamea Chayne: Dr. Eisler, thank you so much for joining us on the show today. Really appreciated this thought–provoking conversation that also is extremely grounding in showing that there there are alternatives that we can work towards. What final words of wisdom do you have for us as green dreamers?
Dr. Riane Eisler: The truth is that so many of us, unless we’ve been completely brainwashed, know that there is a partnership way, that there is a better way, and that it is not only more fulfilling — I mean, we get endorphins when we care, not only for a friend or for a lover or for a child, but even for a pet — but that it’s also more effective, as many organizations are learning now. So I just think that’s the wave of the future. We need to name it. We need to build it.