The Good Mother Earth
Repeatedly in history, conceptions of nature have served as ideological justifications for political theory. The most obvious example is the Hobbesian state of nature against which even the most oppressive government appears perfectly legitimate. Whereas in most cases of political theory, nature looks like an incompetent savage or unreliable tramp, some anarchist lines of argument instead offer versions of nature as infinite, loving, or otherwise better than the artifices to which it is implicitly opposed. Whether for or against nature, depictions of the natural world in political theory
consider it in cultural units of meaning, a combination of icons and stereotypes that change not only our understanding of nature, but also of the units of meaning being referenced. In the early twentieth century journal Mother Earth
, a construction of nature comes together, in a publication interested mostly in anarchist and feminist goals, that worshipped nature as a huge, consuming, feminine super being. Certain traits in the construction of nature in this journal form an account of nature as a particular type of femininity to be admired, a move laden both with direct strategic value and creeping implications for the idealizations of womanhood.
In order to establish the desirability of the journal’s goal of a world without artificial systems of control, the opposition of nature and artifice is a crucial first step. While it may seem tempting to define these terms, this neglects the primary function of both as catchalls with nebulous referents and amorphous structure defined only by their opposition to one another. The process of dividing the categories begins in the very first issue of the publication, in the foundational article ”Mother Earth”. The article mythologizes that “Man issued from the womb of Mother Earth … out of his efforts there arose the dreary doctrine that he was not related to the Earth, that she was but a temporary resting place for his scornful feet and that she held nothing for him but temptation to degrade himself.” This creation story of the present political situation clearly opposes the natural, which was original, to the artificial, which is only an egoistic and recent edifice. Nature as mother, of course, means artifice must be opposed, and thus becomes child, making the entirety of the anarchist argument parallel to motherly chastisement. In the same issue, “Without Government” bemoans government solutions as inevitably late and insubstantial, suggesting an analogy with illness where “the symptom of the disease was hidden” and only on its appearance would the government act. In this metaphor, artificial solutions to the world’s problems are only attacks on a flurry of symptoms as they slowly manifest themselves in increasingly visible ways, thus the profound animosity the journal expresses towards ‘Comstockery’. Regulation of sexuality becomes a direct example of the child trying to limit what mother had given to her children. Volume three number five offers an analogy for group resistance of bees on a tree branch, “it is only needful that one bee spread its wings, rise and fly, and after it the second, the third, the tenth, the hundredth, for the immobile hanging mass to become a freely flying swarm of bees." The writing makes humans already bees in a thoroughly naturalized world upon which systems of domination such as the state and religion have only been imposed in a superficial sense. All we need to do, in this account, is realize the situation, and spread our wings to fly back into an expansive and beautiful nature. This fetishization of nature provides a clear contrast between the world of that which the anarchafeminist politics of the publication oppose and the ‘real’ world of nature that underlies and surrounds the injustices of artificial living. The question then becomes, in order to prove the insufficiency and downright failures of artifice by comparison, what is the character of nature?
To begin with, nature is big. In the first issue’s article “Mother Earth”, the history of the world seems laid out in a quasi-mythical tale. “Earth was but one of a myriad of stars floating in infinite space.” The whole of the universe, with which nature remains implicitly identified, exceeds our abilities to measure, let alone comprehend - a myriad in infinity. Even in this cosmic understanding, that which is natural and surrounded is still itself huge. In an article in the first issue called “Try Love”, the argument concludes, “Let us be broad and big. Let us not overlook vital things, because of the bulk of trifles confronting us.” The natural is large; problems from artifice can be numerous, but each is only of trifling size - thousands of children surrounding one huge mother. Beyond being large to begin with, the maniacal focus in the publication on freeing nature and being freed into nature also revolves around a hope for future growth. As if ‘we’ were already failing to be “broad and big” enough, “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation” proclaims: “Salvation lies in an energetic march onwards towards a brighter and clearer future. We are in need of unhampered growth out of old traditions and habits” as if nature and life in nature knew no limits. The image is of not just a sprouting weed, but a whole forest growing out of a street. This rhetorical strategy of associating the concept of nature so crucial to driving the arguments of the journal with hugeness seems strangely sympathetic with and to industrializing urges of the time. The conflict between the temptations of big machines with big outputs and direct material gain versus little anarchic communities with little to offer but some vague sense of satisfaction can finally be resolved in an anarchy run by a big nature figure, a loving cow mother replaces the cruel leviathan father. This solution gives all the benefits and reassurance of something so-big-it-must-work and avoids all the downfalls readers would consider so endemic to ‘modernization’ .
Beyond simple scale, nature is inescapable. While a big nature appeals to childlike demand for an oversized mother who will ensure safety and grant all desires, the journal also shows nature as generally inevitable. Relying on one of many references to scientific certainty, “Liberty”, in the second volume, issue number three, reminds us: “the natural law of a social organism is as certain as, though less known than, the force of gravity. Like the latter it antedates, and is independent of, our knowledge of its existence, or of the law of its operation.” The natural law, suggesting the order inherent in ‘free’ ways of life, does not even need to be proven preferable to artificial laws so long as it is inevitable, the rhetoric suggests. No matter how much one tries to fight it, they can only impede the natural order of things, but never change it. Indeed, this sentiment, in argument form, makes up the bulk of the rest of the article. The natural law not only frames what is and is not tyranny, but even ‘proves’ the futility of passing any laws through the government.
And men, brought up in law-abiding communities in the deepest respect for the law, will, under the changed conditions of life, not merely condone the infliction of a penalty in excess of that provided by law, but will themselves assist, virtuously satisfied with their conduct because the society of which they form a part has decided that horse-stealing shall be so punished. On the other hand, there are numerous laws on the statute books, still unrepealed and unenforceable because the acts treated of are no longer held to be offences against morality. In other words, the morals of a people can be regulated only by themselves.
The trick is very simple, if a law is natural there is no reason to legislate about it, and if it is not natural no one will obey it. The rhetorical construction of nature as unavoidable already renders artifice more than avoidable - it is always already avoided. Rhetorical implications become argument: it would be impossible to describe any part of government’s power as belonging to government itself, because people only act based on nature. The closest government comes to legislation in this model is to prescribe behavior people already exhibit. The gist of this construction of nature is most clear in the case of a poem in volume three, number two entitled “The King”. In it, a dead king rots in nature, covered in lizards and “vile spineless things”, literally consumed by the overpowering feminine in his afterlife. “Faith lit his pathway with her loveliness; / Fair Hope’s voice called him from his barren fen; Love vainly strove to lure him with her grace.” As a feminine entity, nature is here the omnipresent mother, she tracks down her children and is always there for them to return to. Inescapable nature not only sets up a comparison in which government and artifice can never win, but simultaneously constructs the role of a feminine presence that is ineradicable and impossible to resist. The good mother
must be always present and forever accepting of even her most lost children.
Also, nature has youthful beauty. In the first issue of Mother Earth, the flagship article explains the history of nature in terms that make Earth unmistakably a young mother, “she renewed herself, the good mother, and came again each Spring, radiant with youthful beauty, beckoning her children to come to her bosom and partake of her bounty.” Nature’s youth not only implies a relative trait against which all human-made construction can never appear more - almost sexually - attractive. The attempt to make nature look nice is nowhere so transparent as in this attempt to cast it as actually young and beautiful. Indeed, even its temporary failings can be excused by Earth’s renewal each spring. If some part of nature is dangerous or undesirable, it will soon be corrected in the regular course of the seasons. In volume five, number six, “The Esthetic Side of Jewtown” explains,
Life is too strenuous in Jewtown to preserve the bloom of youth. Among the younger ones there are some who are very beautiful beneath their coating of filth, with the clove skin and large, soft, black eyes. They give themselves a coquettish appearance.
The truly horrid part of life in the Ghetto, we learn, is that it covers or takes away the natural beauty of women. Artifice cannot destroy nature, because nature is big and inescapable, but it can blemish its beauty temporarily. This identification of nature with youth and beauty combined with the opposition of nature and the state sell anarchism almost exactly the way one might sell diet soda: government is actually too ugly to appreciate, gorgeous young women prefer anarchy.
In classic advertising style, Mother Earth also describes nature as saturated with love. In the first issue, when describing a budding relationship crushed by the coldness of artifice and modern living, “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation” explains that “poetry and the enthusiasm of love cover their blushing faces before the pure beauty of the lady. [Her admirer] silences the voice of his nature and remains correct.” The article condemns his correctitude as exactly the basic problem of modern living - its disconnect from love and contact. Tragically, the beauty of the lady, just as that of the kindly mother Earth, has been tainted to block the “poetry” and “enthusiasm of love” the article considers natural. In contrast to the authentic state of love the various ‘systems’ of which anarchism complains give us poor simulations of affection: marriage and the nuclear family. In volume 3, number five, the article “Light and Shadows in the Life of an Avant-Gard”, we learn
The poor women, thousands of them, abused, insulted, and outraged by their precious husbands, must continue a life of degradation. They have no money to join the colony in Reno. No relief for them. The poor women, the slaves of the slaves, must go on prostituting themselves. They must continue to bear children in hate, in conflict, in physical horror. The marriage institution and the "sanctity of the home" are only for those who have not the money to buy themselves free from both, even as the chattel slave from his master.
Nature offers real love, civilization offers a slavery titled love. These stark terms of opposition function to set up an understanding of a loving motherly nature that makes it obviously superior to the uncaring childlike cruelties that comprise the artificial world.
As is often thought, nature is also connected with freedom. It is quite arbitrary to say that those things to which a life in ‘nature’ is conducive represent the content of freedom. For instance, in nature one is not free to vote or go to work, and yet this is considered irrelevant to questions of liberty. In volume two, number three, of Mother Earth, the article “Liberty” proclaims that “whatever may be the form of social institutions, if it does no more than to declare and enforce well-known rules of natural justice, then I am free.” The simplistic opposition between the compromises of ‘artificial’ life and the freedom of nature is best exemplified in the pithy quote “Liberty escaped into the wilderness” from the journal’s founding article. This unbounded freedom seems excessively unrealistic as a description of a mother, and yet it is precisely the freedom that mothers lacked that the journal constructs nature as having in spades.
At the same time, the infinite youth, beauty, and inescapable freedom in and of nature primarily complement its fundamentally orderly state. Perhaps in one of the most bizarre fixations of anarchist literature, the journal seems careful to point out the extreme orderliness of life in anarchy. In this kind of reconciliation of total freedom and total justice one can actually see the neurosis of liberalism tentatively suggest what it most wishes simply come true: good freedom and good order. The very first issue, in the article “Without Government” we are told that, there are qualities present in man, which permit the possibilities of social life, organization, and co-operative work without the application of force. Such qualities are solidarity, common action, and love of justice. To-day they are either crippled [sic] or made ineffective through the influence of compulsion; they can hardly be fully unfolded in a society in which groups, classes, and individuals are placed in hostile, irreconcilable opposition to one another
Again, like an orderly housewife, nature maintains a world that works, but without even so much as a broom. Instead, nature works through qualities always already present in people, as natural beings. It is through this sort of argument that anarchism can define government into such a position that it doesn’t even make sense to consider, having already had all its greatest advantages stolen over to the side of nature.
Simultaneously, nature’s great assets will be willingly sacrificed to her children in cheerful martyrdom. Like the constructed role of a ‘good mother’, nature “sees the bleeding feet of her children … hears their moans, and she is ever calling to them that she is theirs” beginning in the founding article of Mother Earth. The article continues to encourage the exploitation of nature because nature is asking for it, here with increasingly vivid maternal imagery. Mother Earth keeps sources of vast wealth hidden within the folds of her ample bosom, extended her inviting and hospitable arms to all those who came to her from arbitrary and despotic lands--Mother Earth ready to give herself alike to all her children. But soon she was seized by the few, stripped of her freedom, fenced in, a prey to those who were endowed with cunning and unscrupulous shrewdness.
The rapaciousness of artifice and modern civilization becomes its primary characteristic when put in the terms of a kindly mother fallen prey to vicious quasi-Oedipal domination. Here, again, the journal’s construction of nature as feminine serves the direct political function of discrediting political opponents such as the state, capitalism, and religion. However, the indirect effect of such a construction may be more historically significant, as the natural world becomes increasingly feminized in particular ways. It is impossible to simply associate nature with feminine, because there is too much to each category. Here the generality is retained on the term of nature - to the degree that it’s distinction from artifice can be kept plausible - and specificity is given to the feminine. Mothers should, in this account, sacrifice everything to their children, no matter how abusive they may be to her. Indeed, every praised trait of Mother Earth is a thinly veiled suggestion for mothers to fulfill. That Mother Earth is huge, inescapable, free and orderly says, at some level, that all good mothers are this way. Thus we end with a political theory laid out in Mother Earth that various artificial systems are bad because they are inferior to a young, beautiful martyr of an omnipresent loving mother who provides both freedom and order.
In conclusion, the journal Mother Earth deployed rhetoric in various forms to craft a particular feminine version of nature that explicitly worked to delegitimize particular systems of oppression and implicitly functioned to worship an ideal maternal version of womanhood. The journal’s preoccupation with issues of concern to women, such as marriage, prostitution, birth control, and sexuality coincided with its normalizing urge to encounter (some) people as children of nature who could frolic freely within the limitless provisions of their mother’s great world. However, there are actually two possible roles for a subject here, children or mother herself. Politics and men immediately appear infantilized against the mother of nature, supplying a ready-made excuse and index for predicting their actions as irresponsible yet lovable children, but for many women Mother Earth was not their mother, but to be their role model. Nature was a mother whose private sphere expanded to one large planetary home and material limitations in age and restriction were erased by scientific appeal (and pure fiat) to render life in nature simultaneously completely free and problem-free. As a solution to the troubles of political theory, the journal instead invented a superhero character to replace the tired images of a drudging, used up, and insensitive nature with a glossy new young, beautiful cover girl - Mother Earth.