The labor(s) of degrowth

By Stefania Barca*

In the first post of the Ecology after capitalism series, Stefania Barca argues that degrowth has potential to facilitate the discussion and practice of an emancipatory ecological class-consciousness, provided it engages with the centrality of work and class in the transition to a post-carbon and post-capitalist paradigm.


Ecological economist Giorgos Kallis’ response to John Bellamy Foster’s writings on Marxism and Ecology brings the discussion on degrowth directly to the core of my main research and theoretical concern: the place of labor in the politics of socio-ecological revolution.

Kallis and Foster agree on advocating for an ecological socialism that might be able to democratically regulate the much needed decrease in social metabolism, the latter term referring to the flows of materials and energy that occur through society-nature relations. The central issue here is how to carry out the social transformations that will lead to this decrease.

While Foster emphasizes the need for a new ‘ecological revolution’ inspired by the Communist manifesto and by a historical-materialist approach to earth-system science, Kallis asks which institutions will enable democratic control over social metabolism. Both authors also put forward a list of radical ‘policy proposals’ that they consider achievable under the present conditions and necessary to ‘mobilize the general public’, as Foster puts it.

In order to move along this common plan, I believe that what is missing is a clearer vision of what political subjects, and which processes of political subjectivation, can make it happen. In other words, rather than presupposing a ‘general public’ as the recipient of any political strategy, we need to build such strategy upon a more solid analysis of the social forces involved, their mutual relations and their possible common interests. In what follows, my contribution reflects on the place that labor movements and working-class people can and should have in degrowth politics and in the transformation of social metabolism in general.

The Growthocene: environmental violence and alienation

Kallis’ main argument that growth of biophysical throughput is still possible in a non-capitalist, or even socialist economy, is a useful starting point. The argument touches upon an important issue of interest to all those who connect ecological struggles to an anti-capitalist perspective, from Naomi Klein to eco-socialists. It is reinforced by the observation that real socialism has shown levels of environmental devastation fundamentally similar to those of the capitalist world. In this sense, some authors have come to argue that, rather than Capitalocene, the Anthropocene should be actually renamed the Growthocene. Materialist or other ecological critiques notwithstanding, and especially with the development of nuclear power and synthetic chemicals in the post-war era, both systems followed the imperative of economic growth, which can be seen as the leading cause of ecological unsustainability and ‘environmental violence’.

My point is that if the problem we are dealing with is the predominance of the growth imperative – with consequent continuous increase of social metabolism – in both really existing socialism and capitalism, then we need to clearly identify what the two systems have in common to be able to envision a meaningful way-out. I believe that what the two systems have in common is, basically, alienation: i.e. the lack of control over the labor process and product on the part of the workers. My hypothesis, in other words, is that alienation is what leads to unsustainable ways of producing and reallocating the surplus.

In this sense, the emphasis on workers as decision-makers on surplus allocation is misplaced. In state socialism, decisions on how to use the surplus have been alienated from workers as much as (if not more than) in capitalism. The Soviet experience tells us that too much of the surplus was directed towards military and bureaucracy expenditures. In capitalist systems, the surplus tends to be reinvested in increased production (but also in conspicuous consumption, charity, control of the media, etc.). In both cases, workers have little to no democratic control over the allocation of the surplus produced through their labor. Thus the degrowth debate cannot easily dispense with the issue of alienation and its opposite, the commoning perspective.

We cannot have a meaningful discussion on degrowth or eco-socialism without taking into account the perspective of those millions of workers who are dependent on fossil-driven economic growth, whose voice rarely makes it to degrowthers’ ears. While I was writing this article, one of those voices reached me. It was that of a Mapuche oil worker from Patagonia, who told a sad story of dispossession and destruction of local agriculture by Argentina’s powerful oil business sector. Together with a history of racial discrimination and state repression, this left him and thousands of others no choice but to join the extractive industries. Working in the oil fields for twenty-five years, he came to know first-hand the devastating impact this had on his community’s land and bodies, and lost two family members to cancer due to the widespread contamination of water. Despite all this, he considers himself to be fortunate to have a job that allows him to pay his bills and medical expenses, and to buy bottled water – especially when comparing his situation to that of local farmers who are literally on the verge of starvation. This gives us a measure of how difficult it is for many workers to even consider the possibility of losing their job, no matter how dirty and dangerous, in the absence of viable alternatives.

“We care for the environment”. Sign on a shale gas field in Patagonia, Argentina, ancestral homelands of indigenous Mapuche communities. Source: The Leap

In his experience, environmental violence was inextricably linked to alienation: once hired, workers in the oil industry are made to sign a confidentiality agreement ‘that gives away (their) right to speak out publicly’. In addition, they are trained in environmental safety, which means that whatever disaster may happen, the blame is immediately shifted on their supposed errors. The truth is, however, that disasters occur almost invariably (in this as in many other cases) because management orders workers to keep production on despite reported faults or potential leaks, and if they question choices internally, they face all sorts of repercussions. This tells us that weak unions and virtually non-existent enforcement of labor regulations play a major role in determining the environmental impact of production.

Nevertheless, this worker – and I have reason to believe this applies to most people in his position – is perfectly aware of the root causes of this situation, and of the negative balance left behind by promises of prosperity based on oil extraction. He asks the very same political question that the Degrowth movement poses: ‘we, as people, have to question and ask ourselves: what gives us more prosperity?’. The answer for him is in the development of a flourishing and diversified agriculture without oil, based on the rich natural resources of the country, rather on soy and other soil-eroding monocrop plantations. In his view, the question is that of ‘having and pursuing a vision of a country’, based on equality and dis-alienation: ‘I don’t want a country with five billionaires and five million people in misery. I want a country that gives people opportunities, that gives them what’s theirs’.

Struggles for (de)alienation: working-class environmentalism and degrowthers

The centrality of (de)alienation in a discussion of degrowth becomes even clearer when we analyze the concrete historical examples in which dis-alienated workers have been able to enact sustainable modes of production, i.e. of working-class environmentalism. While the history of 20th century environmentalism is ridden with conflicts between environmental activists and workers, it also shows important – if less well-known – stories of labor environmentalism, some of them opening the possibility for truly emancipative ways of organizing the social metabolism.

Probably the most well-known example is that of the rubber tappers’ struggles of the 1980s which initiated the emancipatory conservation experience of the Amazon ‘extractive reserves’. Other stories can be dug out of oblivion and other voices heard from working-class environmentalism: one recent example is that of the occupied factory Ri-Maflow in Italy, a former producer of auto components, which went bankrupt and laid off more than 320 workers in 2009. After the new owners had dismantled and taken away all machinery, a group of former workers organized a coop and occupied the space, with the idea of re-appropriating it as a starting point for building new forms of production, consumption and waste disposal. Adopting the slogan ‘Re-use, re-cycle, re-appropriate’, these workers have initiated a workshop of computer and appliance repair, a flea market, and the processing and distribution of local farmer’s produce. They also run the place as a space for community music and arts activities and social events, and for hospitality to refugees. Their plan is to collect enough resources to be able to turn these and other activities into a stable form of income: in other words, to build dis-alienated forms of work and production.

Source: Rimaflow

These two stories tell us something important about what possibilities might open for a meaningful dialogue between degrowthers and working-class people around a perspective of emancipation from current modes and relations of production. However, even though degrowthers have made an effort to build dialogues with a variety of other perspectives and movements, labor’s voice is still missing from the debate. So the question is: what kind of relationship do degrowthers want to build with labor?

The matter is complicated by the fact that, even when they claim to be sensitive to climate and environmental issues, trade-unions and labor parties in the capitalist world are mostly locked in the growth paradigm. Their proposals for Green New Deal or Just Transition get trapped into the idea that a green capitalism is possible, by which they mean a set of public policies that would reduce carbon emissions while stimulating the green economy and producing ‘decent’ jobs. In other words, they aim for positive changes that would address the current multiple crises of ecology, economy and social inequalities without waiting for some systemic change that is difficult to envision and to agree upon.

I believe this perspective is not to be dismissed too easily, as it does represent the official position of large labor confederations and so-called blue-green alliances, which have the possibility to orientate union policies at the national and local level, or to influence public investment choices among alternative options, e.g. between coal and solar power. Consequently, degrowth policy proposals must include concrete proposals for dealing with those foreseen lay-offs, sustaining the livelihoods of working-class communities in the transition process, and replacing fossil-generated wealth with different forms of income and welfare. All this compels us to engage with the discussions and positioning that are expressed by organized labor at different levels. Simply dismissing organized labor as a non-relevant actor in the transition to a post-carbon, post-capitalist, or degrowth society, will not do.

When taking into consideration the workers’ perspective, we also need to be aware of the limited extent to which labor organizations represent the global working class, and of the differentiations and fractures that cross the non-homogeneous world of both organized and non-organized labor. One clear example is the Keystone XL pipeline controversy in the US, where 5 national trade unions have expressed vocal support, 2 have openly declared their opposition to it (both representing domestic workers, mostly women with an immigrant status), while the remaining unions have adopted a ‘none-of-our-business’ attitude. This has caused extreme uneasiness and contrasting attitudes on the part of the base (union locals and individual workers) for it has often posed them on the opposite side of the struggles conducted by their communities against the pipeline (see Sweeney 2013).

Keystone XL pipeline. Source: Washington Post

Similar examples could be drawn, such as the One Million Climate Jobs campaign in South Africa. Here exacerbating economic and climate inequalities has led to an alliance between parts of the labor movement with environmental justice and green movements. This alliance has been able to reclaim the Just Transitions strategy, filling it with radical anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal content: from a simple claim for jobs in a green growth agenda, the campaign has moved to advocate for public disinvestment from the fossil and nuclear sectors, coupled with energy democracy and food sovereignty at the community level.

Source: Alternative Information and Development Centre

What these cases exemplify is the fact that there exist, at this historical conjuncture, concrete possibilities for articulating degrowth and labor politics in new ways, via grassroots mobilizations in community-unionism and social-movement unionism, pushing labor organizations towards a radical critique of the growth paradigm. This articulation is a crucial starting point for developing new forms of political-ecological consciousness that go beyond the current divisions between organized labor and degrowth and environmental justice movements. In fact, they would allow the development of an emancipatory ecological class-consciousness, premised upon a re-conceptualization of work in the sense of dis-alienation and commoning, which is a necessary prerequisite for a socially just degrowth strategy.

Climate change is class war: emancipatory ecological and feminist class consciousness

This articulation of degrowth and labor politics towards an ecological class-consciousness implies the important task of reconsidering ideas of class in general, and of working-class in particular. Class is still an important reality for most of the world population, even as it intersects with multiple other social differentiations. Also in this case, simply ignoring class politics will not help degrowth, as it will obscure the (largely) white middle-class nature of the movement and thus its possibilities for political action.

In order to reconsider class and its intersection with degrowth, I believe a good starting point is enlarging the concept of class relations beyond the wage labor relation, and towards a broader conception of work as mediator of social metabolism. Biophysical throughput is largely the result of work done in the factory, the field, the office, the retail center, and the household, but workers have very limited control over the process. In capitalist societies, wage relations and growth-oriented state politics alienate workers from both the labor process and product. As eco-feminist political economy has abundantly shown, production takes over and dominates reproduction, the surplus is accumulated or reinvested in the infinite expansion of the system – with negative consequences over the quality and quantity of resources available for the reproduction of life, and over the entire biosphere. Consequently, working-class people – those who are located at the bottom of the global labor hierarchy and who pay the higher price to its social costs – have a vested interest in the subversion of this system. This is what I call an emancipatory ecological class consciousness: the awareness that climate change is the newest form of class war – as always, articulated with gender and racial domination – and that it needs to be combated via struggles for de-alienation (or autonomy) and commoning.

I am convinced that, in order to incorporate an ecological class consciousness, degrowth (and eco-socialism) need to be more firmly grounded in an eco-feminist political economy perspective. Especially in its articulations with eco-feminism and feminist political ecology, a feminist political economy perspective has offered invaluable contributions for a re-thinking of work, class, and the ‘green economy’ more generally, and is intersecting in new ways with the degrowth debate. Cross-fertilizing itself with post-colonial studies, this literature has produced a thorough critique of GDP and development politics as inextricably linked to undervaluation of subsistence economies and reproductive (mostly women’s) work, what Ariel Salleh has named ‘meta-industrial labor’. In a Marxist perspective, reproduction work is mostly non-alienated labor carried on outside of capitalist relations, but inextricably linked to them via the constant need for capital to appropriate this work in order to sustain production and accumulation.

Eco-feminist scholars see the ecological crisis as a global manifestation of the gendered division of labor, and thus a major cause of the crisis of social reproduction. What eco-feminist and feminist political economists have in common is the identification of reproduction as a crucial terrain for anti-capitalist struggle and ecological revolution, as Carolyn Merchant and Silvia Federici eloquently detail. Christa Withcherich aptly synthesizes these perspectives, which inspire more recent debates within feminist political ecology, into three key concepts: ‘care, commons, and enough’. Overall, what eco-feminist political economy tells us is that combating the capital/state appropriation of the reproductive and care labor carried out by the global meta-industrial working class is a crucial step towards a de-alienation of the labor process and towards taking control over the surplus in a global commoning perspective. In this sense, degrowth should listen to the voices coming from the emancipatory ecological class consciousness that is already guiding the struggles of many women-led movements on the margins of the global political economy.

Care worker mobilization. Source: Plan C

Ultimately, my argument here boils down to a single overarching question: what is the political subject of a degrowth revolution? I think this subject should not be confined to an ecologically-minded global middle class, willing to reduce consumerism and work-addiction, and/or to engage in direct action to express its disappointment with economic/environmental policies. This has historically played an important avant-garde role in raising consciousness on the degrowth perspective, and in allying itself with a variety of other movements and ideas, but will remain politically weak unless it manages to dialogue with a broadly defined global working-class – including both wage-labor and the myriad forms of work that support it – and their organizations. This is a very difficult endeavor in the present conditions, but it might become a concrete possibility if we accept to reflect on the implications of degrowth for working-class people, and if the degrowth debate takes on a clearer direction towards emancipation from both the alienation of wage labor and from the capitalist (or State) appropriation of reproductive labor. This is what is needed in order to decrease social metabolism while increasing social wellbeing and equality.

*Stefania Barca is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal and a member of ENTITLE collective.

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