is ecological struggle class struggle?

25 06 2010

Rob Kirby spoke at the London Commune forum in May on the question ‘is ecological struggle class struggle?’:

The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that practically, the consequences of ecological policies will be negative for the working class, and theoretically, that ecological ideology expresses the interests of groups other than the working class.

It’s worth saying at the outset that I’m not a climate change denier – I accept the fact that humanity is adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and that is probably causing warming, and that pollution is generally a bad thing. However, my critique is a political one; I think environmentalisms’ one-sided focus on the negative aspects of industrial civilisation won’t help us solve environmental problems, and won’t help us advocate working class politics.

I suppose the first point to make is that there is one, central fundamental difference between ecological thinking and Marxist thinking; that environmentalism sees social problems as natural. One of the constant refrains we hear from green activists is that climate change will cause the poorest will suffer. Fair enough, that is true, but the question seems to be never asked – why are the poor poor? The people who will supposedly die of the consequences of climate change will actually be dying of poverty; but greens one-sidedly advocate cutting carbon dioxide, not developing poorer countries to a state where they can thrive despite a potentially harsher climate. Humanity’s relationship with nature is mediated socially; so seemingly perversely, burning more carbon dioxide might have the consequence of making climate change less severe for humanity.

To illustrate this point you just have to look at the differences in impact that natural disasters have at the moment. Compare the impact of the recent earthquake in Haiti, a massively underdeveloped country, with similar earthquakes in places like Japan or California; where tens of people die rather than tens of thousands, as their buildings are sturdier and their emergency services more capable of responding to such incidents. Likewise, compare Bangladesh and Holland; both largely below sea level – but industrialised Holland is much more able to deal with flooding than largely rural Bangladesh. Whilst there is much disruption and suffering involved, people from the third world themselves are choosing to develop an industrialised, carbon producing society, rather stay in rural poverty, becoming proletarians rather than peasants– a massive change in the way the world is organised as large and as full of potential as that occurring when Marx and Engels were writing.

Despite this, in the green movement, there is a general kneejerk reaction against any form of new technology that might enable us to deal with climate change, or lead more prosperous lives, instead preferring to bleat about the need to maintain a balance with nature. Just look at the furore around Craig Venter’s creation of artificial life just a few weeks ago. Despite this technology’s immense potential to solve environmental problems, amongst many other things, groups like Friends of the Earth immediately came out to condemn it. Likewise, despite nuclear power being a cheap and clean alternative to fossil fuels, it has taken decades for some greens to come around to the idea; others still are opposed to it. The focus instead is on reducing consumption, changing lifestyles; basically seeing environmental challenges as a metaphysical one about the hubris of humanity, rather than a practical, technical one that can be solved through science and technology.

One of the most pernicious elements of green thinking is to divide up working class jobs into “good” clean ones and “bad” dirty ones. So you saw climate activists flocking in solidarity to the Vestas occupation; but they’re not so prevalent at other labour struggles. In fact, groups like plane stupid actually want to shut down polluting industries, such as coal and air travel; leading to the obnoxious sight of trustafarians trying to put workers out of a job.

Those activists who do try and balance this contradiction, such as the group Workers’ Climate Action, end up in contortions, with actions like their flying bike picket in support of BA workers – simultaneously trying to claim victory for defeating the third runway and offer solidarity to workers who’d be out of a job if they followed their policies through to their logical conclusion. There are a lot of noises made about “just transitions”, but ultimately greens advocate moving away from industrial society that has brought some degree of prosperity to the mass of the population, to a utopian future of composting toilets that in reality will be much poorer and more difficult for ordinary people.

Just as workers’ jobs are often seen as horrible and polluting, so is their consumption. Flying abroad, going to football, eating meat or fast food, and driving to work are all problematised by environmentalists. Ethical consumption however is lauded; the ultimate commodity fetish, whereby green commodities personify the moral worth of their consumers. This contradictory attitude towards consumption is the expression of environmentalism’s middle class nature; a petty bourgeois response to the cheapening of commodities, and the allegedly vulgar tastes of the working class.

Practically, environmentalism is an ideological justification for the counter-crisis measures that the capitalist class is currently enforcing on the working class. It artificially inflates prices, and demands legal measures to force down consumption through things like taxation on flights. Now that workers’ consumption is problematic for capitalists profits, it also mysteriously becomes problematic for the planet, and natural laws demand that we limit it. Likewise, when overproduction threatens capitalists’ social position – not just since the recession; witness the intellectual property laws designed to enforce scarcity – then overproduction becomes interpreted as responsible for the end of the entire world. Finally, conveniently, when Western societies now rely on low-carbon financial services, and their international competitors in the developing world are starting to outcompete them, CO2 needs to be strongly regulated by international agreements. Environmentalism is providing the intellectual cover for the reestablishment of western protectionism and economic nationalism.

In conclusion, Marxism is and always has been about developing beyond capitalism, stripping its material and industrial gains from the social relations that hold them back; rather than regressing from capitalism, and turning our back on the benefits that it has given us.

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14 responses

25 06 2010

‘At the economic level, the critique of consumerism and materialism of the US working class has ideologically cleared the way for the capitalist use of austerity since the mid-70′s… Now that poverty in the US has become a mass reality on a scale unprecedented since the Depression, we can see the political fallacy inherent in these accusations. We can see that eating one hamburger less in the USA does not add one hamburger to the well-being of the ‘underdeveloped’ countries, as their increasing pauperization daily shows. Weakening the position of the workers in the US does not help the Third World. It only strengthens capital, giving it more power to discipline both. Today the hamburgers we don’t eat, the cars we don’t buy, buy instead the weapons used against the rebellions in El Salvador and Guatemala, and pay for the massacres in Lebanon as well as far more jail and surveillance at home.’
Midnight Notes No.7: ‘Lemming Notes’
published in… 1984 (!!!)

26 06 2010
Frank Fisher

I would say that the enviromentalist movement is largely (often wilfully) deaf to and ignorant of the very concept of class struggle, despite often having an amorphous and generally vague anti-capitalist tinge, except in the shape of the influential Ecologist magazine which is a nakedly class war against the workers tendency within the wider movement.

However; we do need to recognise that many decent and committed working class fighters from trade unionists to community campaigners are attracted to popular environmental struggle, and that in itself is enough reason to engage with the issue, in order to if nothing else at least put forward a clear class based perspective – that engages with their concerns from a constructive and realistic standpoint.

Secondly; there is a genuine ecological catastrophe taking place at the moment. The climate change dispute may merely be a sideshow, a staged row between to rival wings of capital, but it is no exaggeration to say that we are living through an unpreccedented in recent epochs period of massive degredation of our environment, we are living through the early days of a mass extinction event. Not only that but significant sections of the ruling class recognise this, and are scared, and other sections are delighted at the opportunity to screw our class even further with the myth of austerity, not only that but the two sections will unite in supporting and enforcing this approach.

Thirdly; we certainly need to oppose the argument that technology or production per se are bad, and infact put forward the point that technology is a fantastic medium, which in the right hands (ours) can put forward unlimited solutions to the current ecological problems. Not to mention that a communist system of production and distribution would be automatically sustainable.

To sum up, it is vital that we organise around the ecological issue, and that means not only putting forward arguments within any mass popular struggles that arise, but also putting forward a clear, “green”, technological, libertarian, and communist position within the current popular green movements.

26 06 2010
Pete Shield

I think the comrade is painting with a very broad brush here, the ecological ‘movement’ is very broad, from right through to hard left. Some is anti-technologist, other parts embrace technology, some are distinctly Malthusian others see the issue as how capitalism works not the number of people, there is a conservationist tendency and a development tendency, some embrace nuclear power other reject it totally. Transition towners- a form of community activism- and state lobbying NGOs, militant feminists, and budding green capitalists. There’s militant vegans, and organic beef farmers, small holders and large land owners, buy yourself green yuppies and frugal recycle, reuse lite footprinters, and a thousand bits of all. The of course there is the Dark Mountain crew which seem to believe everything si screwed and time to retreat into self sustaining hamlets. Unlike Marxists there is no single set of ideological texts that form the foundation of “Green thinking”. It makes slagging off greens rather easy as ether is always someone who calls themselves Green that takes a position you dislike.

From a left wing point of view the most important thing to bear in mind that in general there is an anti-capitalist element that runs through most of green thinking, some of it is a critique of capitalism as it exists now, and that a Green New Deal / green orientated Keynesian approach can set profit on a sustainable road, but within that there is the green left/left green tendency that is in the process of developing a stronger and more militant critique of capitalism in general.

For Left Greens and Green lefties the issues of social justice and environmental justice are integrally connected. The reality is that the most environmentally destructive force in society is the all consuming materialism of the capitalist system personified by the heavy carbon footprint of the lifestyles of the rich elite. It is the capitalist mode of production and consumption that is at the heart of unsustainable path that the human race has got itself stuck in. To move to a sustainable system capitalism, and its profit driven materialism has to be overturned.

Take housing, the property owning culture with all its energy and material inefficiency, not alone the debt/credit financial system it depends on, means that a sustainable society requires affordable public housing which is cheap to rent and cheap to run energy wise. Same applies to transport, an energy efficient public transport system is so much more sustainable than the present car owning culture. Only a public transport system can build an integrated train, tram, bus network. Food security and public health is best served by replacing the chemical dependent inefficiencies of agro-business, with its huge transport infrastructure, be replaced by smaller, local and more efficient organic farming. Equally by freeing up people from debt linked to housing and cars food prices can reflect its true worth and not as present the industry’s drive for low price and manufactured nutrition rich in trans fats and sugars. The health system needs to be orientated to preventative approaches which means looking at the quality of lives, only a public health system can pull together all the link from education and food in schools, to sport facilities and opportunities to work habits and communities that such a system requires.

There needs to be a continual dialogue between the greens and the left to build up both trust and understanding- there is a huge potential for the Left to socialise the Greens, just as there is for the Greens to educate the Left on the relationship between society and the sustainable resource management.

As for Green Left/ Left Greens supporting workers in struggle- I find it perfectly acceptable to argues in support of decent workers rights in industries that ultimately I would like to see wound down- nuclear industry workers should have the highest standards of health and safety- even though I do think that a renewable energy infrastructure will provide many more long term jobs. Cabin crew should have decent pay and conditions- the alternative is Ryanair, and I want air travel to be reassuringly expensive, but equally I think that a European wide TGV network would provide more jobs as well as a sustainable transport network.

28 06 2010

Hello, I thought this group which focusses around such questions might interest. I have copied the thread so far and you may be able to follow further discussion in the archives.

The enviromental (anti)racism tendency which seems big with latino, black and indigenous groups seems very strongly based in working class concerns, protests against the effects of living next to factories pollution, sick environments, toxic land … might be worth looking into. As far as i am aware nothing similiar exists in the UK…

28 06 2010
Nathan Coombs

@ woooo

“The enviromental (anti)racism tendency which seems big with latino, black and indigenous groups seems very strongly based in working class concerns, protests against the effects of living next to factories pollution, sick environments, toxic land … might be worth looking into.”

This is exactly the right kind of environmentalism. Very different to the anti working class, anti climate change agenda promoted amongst the middle class left.

29 06 2010
Pete Shield

Nathan, Woo- its not just a developing world issue. Pick up a town plan of most UK towns and look where the working class areas are compared to the Middle class areas, then look which way the prevailing winds blow. Whether it’s Middlesbrough or London you will find that the middle classes always live up wind of the industrial plants.

29 06 2010

“the anti working class, anti climate change agenda…”

is the latter always the former? how confident are you that the working class will not suffer from climate change?

30 06 2010

..and while we are refining concepts, how is a cultural concept like the ‘middle class’ comparable to a more fundamental capitalist relation like working class?

The so-called middle class is anything but an actual material class in the sense Marx meant it, and ignores any actual analysis of class composition as it currently exists. Its a lazy designation for a series of cultural formations and tendencies prevalent amongst certain sections of the working class. i.e., the working class includes the middle class, if the middle class could be said to exist at all. It’s a shame that the fetishization of certain kinds of ‘authentic work’ and certain kinds of ‘authentic working class culture’ still exist in the left. It leads to confused pieces like the one above.

1 07 2010
bill j

The middle class certainly is a material class, but it consists of different components.
There are supervisors/managers who oversee the production process and receive privileges in return.
There are skilled workers who are allowed significant elements of control over their labour process and receive privileges in return.
There’s the traditional petit bourgeoisie, small shop keepers, small manufacturers, self employed and farmers.

On the question of whether climate change is a working class issue, my opinion is, of course it is. Climate change directly effects workers particularly in the third world now and has potentially catastrophic long run effects. Why wouldn’t workers want to control the environment for their benefit as with every other sphere of life?

1 07 2010

What material relation binds all of those diverse ‘sectors’? I would suggest that there isn’t a common relation between them at all, and that if we look at work today (waged work that is – unwaged work makes things even more complicated and the idea of a ‘middle class’ even less tenable) we find that neo-liberalism has generalised management (with the proliferation of line managers, team leaders, project and activity leaders, etc); it has created a whole series of contractors (read small businesses and petit bourgeoise) out of skilled labour (from plumbing to IT) out of previously mass processes (post-fordist production); it has created entirely new forms of production that require a significant degree of creativity and autonomy and it has woven financial services ever deeper into everyday life. In short, there is no ‘core’ working class that lies untouched by managerialism, financialisation or contractualisation – this is the reality of class composition today. And it is because of these shifts that harking back to a ‘working class’ that exists somehow in opposition to a ‘middle class’ makes no sense whatsoever.

Communism entails the abolition of the working class by the working class, not the dominance of the working class – however defined – over all others. In this movement, the alienation of people from the world in which they live – as well as each other – must necessarily be overcome. Ecological struggles are always-already fundamentally concerned with capitalism. The question is, as with any struggle, what direction do they take us in.

1 07 2010
bill j

What are the material relations that binds these diverse sectors? Good question. That’s why they’re known as the middle class. That is a class that floats between the working class and bourgeoisie and at their extreme ends merges into those respective classes.
The fact that the material class has no united common single interest does not mean that it does not exist. There clearly is a “class” or a stratum or a layer whatever you want to call it, that exists between the working class and the ruling class.
The working class definitely does exist in opposition to the middle class, which is corrupted in the sense of not have a clear class interest, in as much as its role in the production process and privileged position means that it has a vested interest in the maintenance of the capitalist system to a greater or a less degree.
Indeed communism does require the self emancipation of the working class by the working class. What’s that got to do with it?

1 07 2010

But that avoids the difficult questions entirely – all you’ve done is say that its a class that isn’t a class,and what makes it this “not-class” is that it isn’t the working class or ruling class. My argument is that the working class, which has always been a problematic concept full of tension and conflict (what the various social movements of the 70s brought out and which the left has yet to resolve), must include those diverse people who constitute ‘the middle’ if it is to make any sense as a Marxist concept at all. I’d go further and say ‘middle class’ as a designation stems from a reification of the ‘working class’ – that the working class has ceased to exist as a social relation for many of the left and has become some form of cultural identity. Hence all the talk of people who, following any decent Marxist analysis, as something other than working class’.

re: communism, I didn’t say emancipation, I said abolition. the project of a working class for itself must be to abolish its very existence as a social relation. And the current configuration of this social relation intimately includes a destructive relationship to the world in which we live. Unmaking and remaking ourselves will necessarily include struggles that are ‘ecological’.

1 07 2010
bill j

Well I don’t think the working class is a problematic concept particularly and I don’t think I did avoid the question.
The working class, middle class and ruling class are defined like all other classes by their relationship to the means of production, specifically does it own it or not own it.
The bourgeoisie own the means of production.
The working class do not own the means of production.
Once you have these two antimonies its not difficult to situate the middle class.
They are the class between the working class and the ruling class, who do not own the means of production, but who manage or control it on behalf of the ruling class.
They are also the labour aristocracy who control large parts of the labour process.
etc. as I’ve already said.
Now of course whether or not people identify themselves as working class, middle class or ruling class is a separate question. That is their subjective rather than their objective definition, whether they are a class in themselves or for themselves in Marx’s terms.
But like all these social categories they are graduated, people who are exceptionally rich, say managers of big corporations, are also members of the ruling class, they usually own shares, have millions of pounds etc. as well as their jobs.
Low paid supervisors, with minimal responsibilities on the other hand may stand very close to the workers.
The working class has to abolish itself sure. But only by emancipating itself. One is the means to the other end. To counter pose them is to confuse the beginning of the process with its completion.

2 07 2010

If we narrow down the definition of middle class to controlling class there are still two problems. First, quite a lot of workers have some management or control as a part of their work. What’s the cut off point? Is a team leader in the public sector a manager or worker? Is someone who manages contracts for a company (i.e. deals with contractors) a manager of other peoples labour – like a PA or secretary for example? Is a plumber who works by contract a small business owner or member of the working class? What about builders who work job by job? What about line managers – where do they come in? More to the point, if we are talking about management and control, how does this not move the definition of working class to a conflation with unskilled or simple labour? That is one of the oldest historical struggles between labour and capital – over the monopolisation and control of skills and the labour process. The more complicated the task, the more it involves a high level of knowledge and skill, the more control a worker has over it (think IT).

The second problem is that if your definition of the middle class is managerial, then that takes out a whole range of people who are currently considered middle class – there are loads of skilled workers and professionals who are not managers at all – this comes back to the question of skilled workers (or, more precisely, workers who’s skills are valued and who’s creative and intellectual work is not made invisible).

We can talk about the composition of the working class, and draw out the nuances that mean we can understand how different work relations, as well as other relations to state and governing institutions, can shape this composition. But that doesn’t mean that skilled workers, or those with varying levels of ‘control’ are not part of the working class.


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