Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ecological Politics for the Working Class

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We are reposting this article by Matt T. Huber from Jacobin’s theoretical journal Catalyst because I think it’s one of the best discussions I’ve come across of the political problems facing the environmental movement. The gist of Huber’s argument is that “climate change is class struggle”, as the title of a follow-up article by him puts it. The more urgent the climate crisis becomes, the more essential it is to grasp that basic truth and organize around it. As Huber rightly argues, only the working class has the social leverage capable of rescuing the planet from ecological catastrophe. 

But this is far from how the environmental movement has been doing politics. It is overwhelmingly a middle class movement that “is often directly antagonistic to working-class interests.” Perhaps the best thing in Huber’s article is his analytical breakdown of that movement. He distinguishes two strands: what he calls “lifestyle environmentalism” which amounts to a moral condemnation of consumerism, and an offshoot from this that he calls “livelihood environmentalism” which fetishizes a supposedly direct relation to the environment by poor and racially marginalized communities. 

Basic to both strands is “ecological footprint analysis”, which ties consumption to ecological impacts, and has become a staple of political discussions about the climate crisis, often devolving into an exercise in making people in general (which is to say, mostly working class people) feel guilty for driving a car or eating in a restaurant or flying on an airplane. Here Huber asks exactly the right question: “Is an individual consumer’s ‘footprint’ all their own? The difference between humans and other organisms is that no other organism monopolizes the means of production and forces some of those organisms to work for money.” 

I’ll leave off any further summary but I want to raise a couple of concerns. First, an obvious gap in Huber’s analysis is any discussion of Green Party politics. We’ve now had more than a generation of Green parties in the so-called Western democracies. While they began in the Seventies as upstart political movements, they have since become pillars of the political establishment in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, and smaller but well-established players in France, Canada, Britain etc. (In the US the Greens are marginal players politically, which may explain Huber’s ignoring of the issue.) In Austria the Greens just brokered a deal with the right-wing People’s Party to become junior partners in a coalition government. Tellingly, they are in effect stepping in to replace the neo-fascist Freedom Party, whose coalition with the People’s Party broke down because of a corruption scandal. This is a stark but by no means unique example of how Green parties function as props for capitalism – and how this fatally undermines their reason for existence. 

My second concern is about politics as well, but this time working class politics. Huber wants, as the title of the essay states, to create an “ecological politics for the working class”, but the latter is hardly a blank slate politically speaking. The essay contains some useful discussion of the Green New Deal, but nothing about the stranglehold of the duopoly that dominates American mainstream politics. In a follow-up review of an essay collection by Naomi Klein, Huber delves somewhat deeper into the issue, noting the inadequacy of a ‘movement of movements’ approach that figures like Klein favored in the past, and how class has to be the central axis of the climate change fight, not just one of a list of ‘isms’. There is some discussion of fissures in the trade unions over climate change policy but it is superficial. It isn’t just that the building trades are opposed to climate action while those in the education and service sectors are supportive – this makes it seem as if the problem is with the workers themselves. Unions have their own deep class contradictions, expressed most clearly by the role of their bureaucratic leaderships, often corrupt (e.g. the UAW) and almost uniformly committed to capitalism. Shortly after Huber’s article was posted, Jacobin ran a report on how AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka and the (seemingly eternal) head of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, were undermining the fight for Medicare for All. If union bureaucrats are bridling even about that reform, how conceivable is it that they will ever be on side for the mammoth effort to head off climate catastrophe? An “ecological politics of the working class” means not pulling any punches with workers: only revolutionary political change is adequate to meeting the gravity of the climate crisis. 

Frank Brenner

Ecological Politics for the Working Class

By Matt Huber
The climate and ecological crisis is dire and there’s little time to address it. In just over a generation (since 1988), we have emitted half of all historic emissions.1 In this same period the carbon load in the atmosphere has risen from around 350 parts per million to over 410 — the highest level in 800,000 years (the historic preindustrial average was around 278).2 Human civilization only emerged in a rare 12,000 year period of climate stability — this period of stability is ending fast. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests we have a mere twelve years to drastically lower emissions to avoid 1.5 C warming — a level that will only dramatically increase the spikes in extreme superstorms, droughts, wildfires, and deadly heat waves (to say nothing of sea-level rise).3 New studies show changing rainfall patterns will threaten grain production like wheat, corn, and rice within twenty years.4 A series of three studies suggest as early as 2070, half a billion people will, “experience humid heat waves that will kill even healthy people in the shade within 6 hours.”5
You don’t have to be a socialist to believe the time frame of the required changes will necessitate a revolution of sorts. The IPCC flatly said we must immediately institute “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”6 The noted climate scientist Kevin Anderson said, “… when you really look at the numbers behind the report, look at the numbers the science comes out with, then we’re talking about a complete revolution in our energy system. And that is going to beg very fundamental questions about how we run our economies.”7
The radical climate movement has long coalesced around the slogan “system change, not climate change.” The movement has a good understanding that capitalism is the main barrier to solving the climate crisis. Yet sometimes the notion of “system change” is vague on how systems change. The dilemma of the climate crisis is not as simple as just replacing one system with another — it requires a confrontation with some of the wealthiest and most powerful sectors of capital in world history. This includes a mere 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of the emissions since 1988.8 The fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive sectors of capital (steel, chemicals, cement, etc.) will not sit by and allow the revolutionary changes that make their business models obsolete.
Like all other such battles, this confrontation will take a highly organized social movement with a mass base behind it to force capital and the state to bend to the changes needed. Yet, as Naomi Klein argues, this is really “bad timing” because over the last several decades it is capital who has built formidable power to neutralize their main challenges like a regulatory state, progressive tax structures, and viable trade unions.9 The history of the nineteenth and twentieth century shows that the largest challenge to the rule of capital has come from organized working-class movements grounded in what Adaner Usmani calls “disruptive capacity” — particularly strikes and union organizing. 10 It is the working class that not only constitutes the vast majority of society, but also has the strategic leverage to shut down capital’s profits from the inside.11
Yet, herein lies the main dilemma. A movement up to the task of bringing about the changes needed will not only have to be massive in size, but have a substantial base in the working class. In its current form, however, environmental politics has little chance of succeeding in this. Its ideological and strategic orientation reflects the worldview of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich called the “professional managerial class” that centers educational credentials and “knowledge” of the reality of environmental crisis at its core.12 This is not simply a problem of the kind of people involved. Middle-class environmental politics is often directly antagonistic to working-class interests. It grounds its theories of ecological responsibility in ideas of “ecological” or “carbon” footprints that blame consumers (and workers) for driving ecological degradation. This approach centers on the appeal that we need to live simply and “consume less” — a recommendation that is hardly likely to appeal to a working class whose wages and living standards have stagnated for almost two generations.13 When seeking examples of emancipatory environmental politics, radical academics imagine real environmental politics as a form of direct livelihood struggles over natural “use values” like land, resources, and the body itself. While livelihood struggles are very important, professional-class environmentalism sidesteps how such a politics could appeal to the tens of millions of workers who do not directly access nature in “use value” form. In this essay, I argue for a working-class ecological politics14 aimed at mobilizing the mass of workers to confront the source of the crisis — capital. In order to build this kind of politics, we needs to appeal to the mass of the working class who has no ecological means of survival apart from access to money and commodities. This politics centers on two major planks. First, it offers a much different story of class responsibility for the ecological crisis. Rather than blame “all of us” consumers and our footprints, it aims its focus on the capitalist class. This kind of politics can channel already existing anger and resentment workers have toward their boss and the wealthy in general to explain yet one more reason why those antagonists are making their lives worse.
Second, it offers a political program meant to directly appeal to the material interest of the working class. It is relatively straightforward to insert ecologically beneficial policies within the already existing movements around the decommodification of basic needs like “Medicare for All” or “Housing for All.” The climate crisis in particular is centered upon sectors absolutely vital to working-class life — food, energy, transport. The goal should be to use this scientifically declared emergency to build a movement to take these critical sectors under public ownership to at once decarbonize and decommodify them. The emergent politics of the Green New Deal, although far from perfect, does exactly this. It not only offers a solution at the scale of the problem — aiming to revolutionize the energy and economic system — but also offers clear and direct benefits to the mass of the working class (e.g., a federal job guarantee). Although there is much consternation about the anti-environmentalism amongst established building trade unions and fossil fuel industrial workers, a working-class environmentalism could better align with rising militancy in more low-carbon care sectors like health and education. These campaigns’ focus on anti-austerity politics and “bargaining for the common good” can also address the expansion of a public response to ecological breakdown.15
Part 1. From Lifestyle to Livelihood: The Limits of Environmentalism
The environmental movement in its current form is dominated by middle-class professionals. Along with the expansion of higher education, this class exploded during the post-WWII boom — itself a product of mass working-class struggle and union victories in the 1930s and 1940s. Out of these historical conditions emerges what I will call “lifestyle environmentalism,” the essence of which is to seek better outcomes through individual consumer choices.16 Yet this desire comes from a deeper source of anxiety about the forms of mass commodity consumption wherein middle-class security is equated with a private home, automobile, meat consumption, and a whole set of resource- and energy-intensive commodities. As such, lifestyle environmentalism sees modern lifestyles — or what is sometimes called “our way of life”17 — as the primary driver of ecological problems. This, of course, makes a politics of material gains inherently ecologically damaging. Since lifestyle environmentalism blames commodity consumption — and the vast majority of society (i.e., the working class) depends on commodities for survival — it only appeals to a very narrow base of affluent people who not only live relatively comfortable middle-class lives but simultaneously feel guilty doing so. Under neoliberalism especially, the bulk of the population does not feel guilty or complicit in their consumption, but constrained by severe limits on access to the basics of survival.
Lifestyle environmentalism also produces an offshoot, a distinct and seemingly more radical alternative vision of ecological politics prevalent in academic scholarship. This form of scholarship accepts the premise of lifestyle environmentalism that modern “consumer lifestyles” are inherently damaging to the environment. As such, radical ecological scholars look to the margins of society for a more authentic basis for environmental politics. This is what I will call “livelihood environmentalism,”18 or what is sometimes called “the environmentalism of the poor.”19 This form of scholarship argued the proper basis for environmental mobilization was a direct lived experience of the environment. I will cover two critical fields. First, political ecology broadly seeks examples of struggles over direct “use value” reliance upon land or resources for subsistence among often peasant, indigenous, or other marginalized communities (usually in the Global South). As such, this scholarship often romanticizes what are seen as anti-modern subsistence livelihoods on the margins of global capitalism. Second, environmental justice focuses more on the uneven effects of pollution and toxic waste as deadly threats to livelihood in racialized marginalized communities (usually in the Global North). Often critical of mainstream environmentalism’s focus on wilderness or wildlife preservation, environmental justice scholars bring to light how poor and racially marginalized communities make “environment” a question of survival. Yet, again, those struggling directly against the poisoning of local communities are often on the margins of society as a whole. Struggles like this (e.g., the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan) are obviously important matters of survival for those involved. Yet the strategic question of how to translate local livelihood concerns into a broader mass environmental movement able to take on capital remains unclear.
Livelihood environmentalism is often seen as the opposite of lifestyle environmentalism, but its academic focus emerges from the foundations of the latter. It is the disaffection with the mass commodity society that sends the radical academic’s gaze to the margins of society looking for “real” environmental struggle. Livelihood environmentalism is indeed a much more attractive form of politics rooted in the material interests of specific groups. By fetishizing the direct lived relation to what is seen as the real environment (land, resources, pollution), it sidesteps how we might build an environmental politics for the majority of society already dispossessed of land and dependent on money and commodities for survival…