• Notes on Nature, Crisis, and Domination

  • By Uta von Winterfeld | 09 Feb 16
  • In preparing for this congress,[1] I thought back to a paper I delivered together with Adelheid Biesecker in 2014 on multiple crises and social contracts.[2]Our point of departure was that political responses to these crises are firmly rooted in old rationality paradigms. And since these paradigms are one of the causes of the crises, the responses cannot see beyond the logic of the present.

    The concept of a multiple crisis is frequently used today to grasp contemporary phenomena as a whole: the ecological crisis encompassing the loss of biodiversity, scarcity of resources, exhaustion of the ecological carrying capacity, and climate change – synthesised also as the loss of the productivity and reproductivity of nature and its natural regenerative capacity. The total process also encompasses the social crisis in the form of the loss of care and social services, as a crisis of the welfare state or the loss of ‘good work’, and also as the loss of social solidarity and social cohesion. The notion of social depletion as the loss of the capacity for social regeneration has been used to capture the full breadth of the phenomenon. And the crisis includes the financial crisis – speculative finance capital tends to overshadow the real economy, draining and exploiting the latter – leading to economic burnout and state bankruptcies. And, finally, another principal component is the cultural crisis as the loss of plurality with a new tendency to devalue or liquidate the Other due to the loss of recognition, the fear of expropriation, and the growing feeling of being an alien in one’s own society.

    The core of the crisis, as Adelheid Biesecker and I understand it, is a crisis of the regenerative or regenerative capacity. The major future projects, the proposed solutions, for example the 2011 report of the German government’s Advisory Council, World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability (aimed particularly at overcoming the climate crisis), largely overlook this aspect of the crisis.[3] In so doing, the new proposed solutions time after time stay within the old rationality paradigms and are fundamentally not pertinent to a Great Transformation. And in constructing a new social contract feminist critiques are once again ignored.

    In 1988, the feminist political scientist Carole Pateman[4] studied the way in which the social contracts of classical social contract theory are underpinned by a gender contract: Before free and equal brothers conclude a (fictitious) contract with each other they have already secured the right to control the bodies and labour of women. But women are not simply left in a so-called state of nature. They are, instead, needed as something that is dissociated, that can be had use of, without having its own worth and voice – they are involved as something dissociated. From this we concluded that externalisation is not just a matter of dissociating the costs; rather, there is need of something that is valueless so that value can come into existence: A capitalist economy requires externalisation – social feminine labour and natural productivity – as a principle. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of this in the context of imperialism theory,[5] and for some time now the idea has become associated with the concept of colonisation, out of which the Bielefeld subsistence approach developed the concept of ‘housewifisation’.[6]

    As I was preparing for this congress and thinking about the possible strength of my critique, I was attracted to the idea of connecting our analysis with two strands of the critique of domination.

    One of them is my study of the contemporary roots and traditions of the domination of nature, ‘Nature Patriarchies: The Emergence and Dilemma of the Domination of Nature in the Works of the Intellectual Fathers of Modernity’.[7]  As Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker put it in his preface, I am trying to track the roots of destructiveness. I studied the natural philosophies of René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno – as well as the witch persecutions that took place during the lifetimes of all three. This history overwhelmingly plays out in the 17th century (as Carolyn Merchant showed in The Death of Nature already in 1980[8]), at the dawn of modernity. Much of what is hard to perceive today in the complexity of social differentiation, or is already made out of date by the dizzying speed of innovation before it can even be recognised, was more transparent at the beginning of the modern age. It was a period of emerging nation-states, the rise of capitalism, and the beginnings of modern science. It was in this period, for example, that Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan,[9]theorised a justification for the authoritarian state and its security policy: in a state of nature (which for Hobbes is also a state of war) people are afraid of each other; life without a social contract is poor, nasty, and brutish. The constant fear of being murdered leads people to surrender their rights of self-determination to a strong sovereign who in turn guarantees their protection and security. In a state of nature, people are little inclined to peace because they are constantly contending for scarce goods. In his theory of possessive individualism, Crawford B. Macpherson argues that, with his scarcity postulate, Hobbes essentially equates the emerging capitalist market society with a state of nature.[10]

    Alongside my own approaches to the critique of domination and the history of ideas there is my excavation and salvage work of recent years. I encouraged my old dissertation advisor Wolf-Dieter Narr not to let his 1989 work on domination fall into complete oblivion. And as a result we worked on his book ‘Nobody’s Domination: Introduction to the Difficulty in Understanding Domination’, a sort of anachronistic political-science textbook.[11] ‘Nobody’s Domination’ is inspired by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The common thread is that there is no one, nobody who is responsible, there is no door on which we can knock, no political entity where responsibility is located or which could keep track of history. There is only a bureaucratic, abstract nobody’s domination.

    I find that in order to develop critical strength the most attractive strategy for me now is to relate these two backgrounds to each other, and so in this light I will try to add something in what follows: The linking of the domination of nature to nobody’s-domination with respect to specific categories.

    First note: On the identificatory as the primary principle of domination

    Narr establishes the identificatory as the primary principle of domination. The identificatory sorts what is political from what is not political, and what is economic from what is not. It is the principle that identifies what is Self and what is the Other; it operates primarily by including or excluding what does or does not belong.[12]

    In my postdoctoral thesis,[13] I developed the idea that modernity has an inherent incapacity to relate to the other. It can only exterminate it (witch hunts, genocide, etc.), subjugate it (colonisation, the harnessing of nature and other peoples to one’s purposes, etc.), or attempt to make it similar to itself (assimilation). I saw this most clearly in the case of Descartes. His concept of Reason can be defined as reason based on the logic of identity – I think, therefore I am. A doubting self, self-assured with divine help, a self for which everything that it is not appears as alien, restricting, and threatening. This is conspicuously the case with witch persecutions – a demonisation of the Other or the Others, in which the story has in part to be so told that men separate out from themselves what they deny in themselves: their evil flesh-and-blood nature.

    The free, equal, fraternal man is identified as political. In classical social contracts he gives birth to so-called political life. Nature is seen as pre-societal, as society’s Other. That which is economic is the competitive action of men with commodities in the market. Value arises because nature is transformed through labour into private property, according to John Locke (who is still regarded as the father of liberal democracy) in chapter five of the second of his Two Treatises of Government.[14]

    Through the principle of the identificatory, politics and the economy have created what in relation to them is the Other, the invisible, caring feminine force within private space as the precondition for the politically active man in the public sphere; she is the entity in the home that is responsible for regeneration, as a precondition of capitalist economic activity in the marketplace. The identificatory is also what makes nature into a means to an end without its own end – nature for us, a resource. The identificatory is furthermore well-suited to legitimation purposes, for there is no need to take account of human rights or fairness when it comes to evil ‘rogue states’ or lazy ‘welfare freeloaders’. But sustainability calls for another narrative. Inter-generational justice means taking account of other, future generations whom we cannot yet know; it means capacity to relate to the Other instead of eliminating it.

    Second note: On separations, dualisms, and objectification

    From the outset, through a domination-driven sorting process, an identificatory-based separation takes place. The two sides of what is separated do not confront each other on an equal footing but are hierarchically ranked. Thus for the dualist Descartes, there is a thinking substance (res cogitans) and extended substance (res extensa). He sees the latter as mechanical and without a soul.[15] Descartes needs this dualism in order to ground the immortality of the soul. By connecting the superior thinking substance, animated by a soul, to the Divine, he can provide the unattached self, which is in itself weak and doubts everything, with an immortal soul. And nature, seen as a mechanism, becomes measurable and controllable.

    Bacon distinguishes a mind, conceived as male, from nature conceived as female and would like to see the bridal bed adorned for both.[16] At his time, the marriage contract was a submission contract. For example, women could have property but not the use of it, and that is the distinction Bacon draws in order to accommodate the logic of domination. For him, the Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’ becomes ‘I act, therefore I rule’. The new science was to be an active one – may the mechanical arts win in the competition with nature! It is the mechanical arts, today’s technology, and it is male fire, that brings the world progress and intervenes in self-sufficient, nourishing nature, the female earth. This technical progress, which can force nature to serve human objectives and convenience, justifies human intervention into nature.

    In the new modern science, nature became an object of the dominating knower and the active researcher. Narr indicates that the mode of objectification first became established in the natural sciences.[17] A central element in this science is the dominational order of subject and object. This mode has now been developed to the absurd extent that it could destroy itself – for, as Narr points out, if everything is objectified, if there is no longer a recognisable subject, then the objects also become unknowable.[18]

    Despite all objectification and all appropriation of objects, something else happens that Theodor W. Adorno deals with in his Negative Dialectics.[19] The dominational separation leads to the researching subject becoming blind and deaf to the object being researched. Narrating history differently requires the capacity to get close to the object and hear its voice.[20] This brings movement into what has been rigidly separated – not in the sense that now everything is one (with no differentiation of subject and object), but that the relations are different and less dominational. This is where Val Plumwood [21] intervenes to criticise the Cartesian self, the male conception of an unbound, dominating-knowing, autonomous self and counterposes a ‘self in relation’.[22] Plumwood sees the conception of the human self separated from nature as the broad, overarching problem. It is tied to an instrumental view of nature. In this perspective, Others can only be regarded as resources. They do not have value for their own sake but because of the profit they generate.[23]

    Third note: On instrumentalisation and abstraction

    The sorting that is carried out by the process of domination, as its fundamental identificatory principle, the dissociative thinking in dualisms and especially objectification, are in themselves close to being instrumentalisation. In terms of the theory and practice of domination it is legitimate that the Other, the object that is in itself worthless and inferior, the lifeless, soulless thing, is reshaped, used, and exploited. But instrumentalisation does not stop at the limits of the separation process; it does not commandeer the Other and leave the active self free. Instead, the instrumental permeates all, both technical-instrumentally and in the form of instrumental scientific rationality.[24] I would like to illustrate this with examples from developments in the world of scientific work.

    We are living in the age of science’s refinanceability. Women scientists, therefore, are compelled to refinance their own jobs. In this situation, what is valued is not thought for its own sake but results and their utility. Projects include project management, which today is carried out electronically through project-management systems. In accordance with the zeitgeist, this software language has no place for concrete individuals. What it manages are abstract resources without characteristics or quality, which have nothing of their own, nothing particular, but are simply available for use. The instrumental aspect of science is growing – it occurs through abstraction, scientific mathematisation and modelling, economic calculation (money, costs, and the continually intensified, indeed totalising dictate of cost efficiency), and the political nobody’s-domination, all of which is embedded in bureaucracy. A bureaucracy that increasingly does not recognise the particular, the special, the specific, things that have their own characteristics. An increasingly automated bureaucracy, without concrete people (because salaried bureaucrats are too expensive, and personal clients with their individual concerns too labour intensive). The abstract nobody’s domination bureaucracy and its fill-out form have long since ceased to live exclusively in the office place. It is everywhere and shapes and determines everyday life and activity.

    Thus the modern, abstract domination of nature, the rewriting of natural history in the language of mathematics, commandeering, and instrumentalisation are not limited to the spheres of the (technical) domination of nature that are, apparently, divorced from society. Instrumental and abstract nobody’s-domination means that people cannot become themselves and do so with others. The person as such becomes insignificant for society; what counts is his or her capacity to produce exchangeable value.

    The interconnectedness of societal domination and the domination of nature is not a new theory; it was developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1969).[25] What is important now is to apply it to the critical analysis of the current crisis from the angle of socio-ecological transformation processes.

    For example, we are not in good shape when it comes to the ongoing challenge represented by the Other and the capacity to take the Other into consideration. The loss of recognition, the fear of expropriation and the growing feelings of alienation in society are breeding grounds for prejudices, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. The crutch of self-realisation through the devaluation of others is increasingly used; plurality is constantly diminishing. It is therefore time to tell another, a critical and feminist history of sustainability with others.


    1. This paper was presented in German at the International Congress ‘The Strength of Critique: Trajectories of Marxism-Feminism’, Berlin, March 2015, organised by the Feminist Section of the Berlin Institute for Critical Theory (InkriT) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation with the participation of transform! europe and SDS.Die LINKE. The German version appeared in the journal Das Argument, November 2015.
    2. Adelheid Biesecker and Uta von Winterfeld, ‘Notion of Multiple Crisis and Feminist Perspectives on Social Contract’, paper at the Eighth International Interdisciplinary Conference ‘Gender, Work & Organization’, 25 June 2014, Keele.
    3. Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen, Welt im Wandel. Gesellschaftsvertrag für eine Große Transformation (Berlin, 2011), <http://www.wbgu.de/en/flagship-reports/fr-2011-a-social-contract/>; note that the German title quotes the title of Karl Polanyi’s book ‘The Great Transformation’.
    4. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.
    5. Rosa Luxemburg, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (1913), Gesammelte Werke 5, Berlin: Dietz, 1981, pp. 314f, 363.
    6. For further details see Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, Maria Mies, and Claudia von Werlhof (eds), Frauen, die letzte Kolonie. Zur Hausfrauisierung der Arbeit, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988 (1983); see also Adelheid Biesecker, Sabine Hofmeister, and Uta von Winterfeld, ‘Draußen? Zur Dialektik von Enteignung und Aneignung und zu deren aktuellen Erscheinungsformen’, Das Argument 303,4 (2013), pp. 522-38.
    7. Uta von Winterfeld, Naturpatriarchen. Geburt und Dilemma der Naturbeherrschung bei geistigen Vätern der Neuzeit, Munich: Oekom, 2006.
    8. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980.
    9. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, ed. Ian Shapiro, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
    10. Crawford B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
    11. Wolf-Dieter Narr, Niemands-Herrschaft. Eine Einführung in Schwierigkeiten, Herrschaft zu begreifen, ed. Uta von Winterfeld, Hamburg: VSA, 2015.
    12. Narr, Niemands-Herrschaft, p. 63.
    13. Winterfeld, Naturpatriarchen.
    14. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government: and a Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
    15. René Descartes, Discourse on the Method, and Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. David Weissman and William Theodore Bluhm, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
    16. Francis Bacon, Instauratio Magna Part II: Novum Organum and Associated Texts, eds and trans. Graham Rees and Maria Wakely. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.
    17. Narr, Niemands-Herrschaft, pp. 62ff.
    18. Narr, Niemands-Herrschaft, p. 315.
    19. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik, 1966 (Gesammelte Schriften 6), Frankfurt/M, 1997, pp. 7-408.
    20. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (pp. 24, 36, 56 of the German edition: Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Philosophische Fragmente (1944), Gesammelte Schriften 3, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1997).
    21. Val Plumwood, ‘Nature, Self and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy and the Critique of Rationalism’, Hypathia 6, 1 (1991), pp. 3-27.
    22. Plumwood, ‘Nature, Self and Gender’, p. 20.
    23. Plumwood, ‘Nature, Self and Gender’, p. 10.
    24. Narr, Niemands-Herrschaft, p. 13, 37.
    25. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.