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…


Thomas Cain said...

Frank (or Alex),

Do you have an opinion on the WSWS's ongoing dispute with the New York Times' 1619 Project?

Anonymous said...

If you don't have a positive opinion on the above, how do you explain the 180 degree difference between the WSWS's view and the comments made by Trotsky to Arne Swabeck at Prinkipo some 86 years ago? I'm assuming you see eye to eye with the WSWS on this topic because I recall a pamphlet on Black Nationalism expressing the same view when you guys were leaders of the Workers League. Maybe you guys had a change of heart on that topic as well?
Trotsky: "But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights."
Are Black workers able to defend their elementary rights, 86 years after these lines were written? If yes, where's the evidence, if no, why not?

Alex Steiner said...

Both Thomas Cain's post and that of anonymous have nothing to do with the topic of the article they are commenting on. You can write to us offline with general questions by using the contact form.

Don't you think that the topic of environmental politics is worth consideration?

Thomas Cain said...


You're right. I was incredibly off-topic, and I apologize. I do, however, find your question at the end of your comment to be patronizing. A simple request to be on-topic would have been enough.

The short answer is that I do think that environmental politics are important. But I get no sense of what those would look like in the context of building a revolutionary party, because the piece promotes bourgeois trade unionism and working with Democrats as the solutions. It's typical Jacobin fare; it gives an adequate description of what an environmental politics would look like, but only in a context of bourgeois trade unionism and allying with Democrats (its torch-carrying for the imperialist liberal Ocasio-Cortez is disgusting). It must also be emphasized that the Green New Deal is itself a *capitalist* reform program that is designed to preserve the profit system. I don't think there's anything progressive about it. See, for instance, this article on how the GND is open to cap and trade policies:

So what would a *revolutionary* approach to the environment look like? How could That is the question I'd like to have answered. What program, according to the logic of the Transitional Program, would we elaborate? Because, truth be told, I have no idea. I have no expertise on any of it.

Anonymous said...

Alex, you may not want to address the 1619 Project debate, but I don't think it is all that off topic in light of Trotsky's comment to A. Swabeck and the following comment in the article. "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)." The WSWS and the WL have always given short shrift to the concerns of "racialized marginalized communities". While housing in the Bronx was going up in smoke during the 1970s, the WL never tried to organize people around that crisis.

Mark said...

I also thought it was curious that the author omits Greens. He presents the "environmental movement in its current form" as a movement "dominated by middle-class professionals" with two branches, "lifestyle" and "livelihood" environmentalism, I think this is doing somewhat of a disservice to the environmental movement to the extent that it has directly based its reforms on scientific and ecological understanding and not merely blaming environmental problems on consumption. It has long been understood by the scientific community the impact of greenhouse gasses on warming the atmosphere leading to climate change. The proposal of the Greens has been to consider greenhouse gasses as a form of pollution, giving that pollution a cost in the form of a carbon tax in order to put economic pressure on the producers and consumers of fossil fuels. This is a whole topic that should be explored on its own, why have the various international agreements and proposals for carbon taxes (e.g. the cap and trade system) failed to curb emissions of greenhouse gasses?

Just on the topic of carbon emissions this article really falls short on analysis, I think we need an analysis of the sources and growth of carbon emissions and what we could do to supplant carbon based energy production. I'm sure that the data and analysis is available in some form, but it is a task to put that in a form that is easy to understand and how it relates to policy, that could be that starting point for critiquing the Green New Deal and other proposals. About the Green New Deal, at least as I understand Sanders's version of the proposal is far more detailed that what was initially proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and derserves examination.

Overall, I would comment that bourgeois politics has been at an impasse for many years on so many issues effecting the working class from the environmental degradation, to healthcare access and costs, the cost of imperialism (endless wars, ect). Of course these problems are often interrelated and I would agree that they demand the intervention of the working class into the politcal sphere as the only way to confront them.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I think you're being a bit unfair to Huber. His article was focused on the class basis of environmental politics rather than specific proposals. And I think his key message is that the specifics are always going to be skewed until we get the class orientation right. In fact the specifics you mention - carbon pricing, cap and trade - are good examples of precisely this problem. These are CONSUMPTION TAXES - and as such are ANTI-DEMOCRATIC in the same way sales taxes are. The reason why is simple: they impose an equal tax burden on rich and poor alike, that is to say, an equal burden on unequal individuals. This is what happens when the political focus is on consumption instead of production. It's not hard to imagine an alternative approach where the focus would be on income taxes - i.e. taxing the richest 10-20 percent at a much higher level and expropriating the billionaire class entirely - and using that wealth to make, for example, electric cars cheaper than cars that run on gas, or to carry out a mammoth WPA-style program to retrofit existing housing stock with electric or solar-powered heat. In other words, you give working class and middle class people the resources they need to make the right decisions about climate change instead of punishing them for their 'bad' consumption habits.
Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...

Greetings from the UK.

I have briefly read the comments and feel they are attacking the article on a very superficial basis where the comment is the topic. The other topic of the NYT 1619 project is a perfectly valid topic to discuss but perhaps not on the back of the Environmentalism topic and I don't believe Alex was being rude but just brief.
So far I see something really lacking in the commentary and for me the elephant in the room is not acknowledged. Capitalism is a crisis over OVERPRODUCTION! A programme that wants to consider the environment, the working class and its interests isn't a purely a programme of appropriating the means of production and redistributing surplus value back to the workers so we can all buy more crap?? There is overproduction, home wear, textiles, auto industry, housing, pharma, cosmetics, clothing, food so on so forth. Workers down your have something to lose.........YOUR PLANET. Taking over production will also mean a huge rejection of what we are currently producing. A healthy person is a person based on being and not having. It is a programme that also exposes the falsity of unchecked consumerism. When I was made homeless for a brief period I lived in a refuge..........I was given an allowance shall we say of £40.30. I survived quite easily for I rejected that which I didn't need and I was happy. I didn't have to WORK for that money it was government relief and I survived. The environmentalism of today in it's current form essentially ignores the crisis of overproduction and that's the premise on which we Marxist Revolutionaries) should build a programme. That's how I essentially see the problem. It will mean make common our resources and to give up what we truly don't need and to improve the quality ten fold of the products or items that we do need. It will require thinking about what is universal and not wholly on individualism which is the bourgois way of thinking. example here.....every community has a well stocked Creative hub. It is full of the finest musical instruments that anyone can use. They are shared in common. Not everyone that owns or plays.........plays 24 hours a day. What a lot of idle instruments under capitalism, and bot aren't you lucky if you can play your instrument for 8 hours a day while others are toiling a 40 hour week. We need to make common. Just think of all the energy and resources that went in to a really shitty $60 guitar on amazon. Why are we doing that when we could be making a Gibson and Les Paul??
Why are we diving for dear life when we could be diving for pearls??

Mark said...

Frank, I think you are right to the extent that a carbon tax is implemented as a regressive tax, however Huber doesn't really address the fairness of exisiting environmental regulations or really the past efforts of systemic regulatory environmentalism at all, except for brief mentions the Clean Air and Water Acts which doesn't really fit within his intellectual framework besides being the domain of professional classes. I'm not really sure how to confirm his thesis, however I'm skeptical because for one the Green New Deal is not really a new thing, something of its kind was actually part of the Green Party platform for many years, also I find this narative of the environmental movement to be selling it short to the extent that it has played a progressive role through science and ecology in enacting environmental protections. For sure the "lifestyle" environmentalism is a real thing and might actually be the mainstream form of environmentalism practiced today for all I know, this type of environmentalism has been promoted by the likes of Al Gore and of course corporations marketing "green" products. The systemic form of environmentalism, on the other hand, can only be accomplished by the means of politics and creating laws which might find a resurgence with proposals like the Green New Deal comming into the mainstream.

Ruth Hutchinson said...

Lets also think about what trotsky said. He envisaged that after a few generations of socialism that the average human being would be able to develop to the level of Geothe, Aristotle........... To be able to develop the mind the hand needs to be freed from degrading useless toil.......and that needs to be reduced to the absolute bare minimum I have always worked with my hands............a lot of what I do is manual labour. However, My manual and intellectual labour are in unison. I do not glorify intellectual labour nor do I diminish the manual aspects of my work. I perform simple yet valuable surgery after all. But it can not be performed correctly without great manual skill or little understanding. Imagine that we transform the production process so that there is much greater unity between the different forms of labour and when we want to abolish private property we also include copyright. The worker that contributes to the production of a product that oozes quality that is commonly owned and shared is a much different activity to producing an item that has no longevity, has built-in obsolescence, is utterly inferior and devoid of human possibility. I think we need to start dreaming..............and as Lenin wrote before me.........there is unfortunately very little in our movement including Huber. He wouldn't know where to begin with a transitional programme. I believe framing the question in the context of capitalist mode of production with its crisis of overproduction is the start. The next stage is to imagine a different sort of production or have none of you ever worked in a factory or cleaned toilets to earn some extra cash. I have..........and I've never been too proud to get on with it. I had a material need to meet and that was all that was on offer. My ex SEP friend would simply say...........well in the future we'll get robots to do it?? Yeah right.....that socialism idea that you have no blueprint for........
Socialism is about creating the conditions for humanity to flourish. It is about each according to his ability and each according to his need. But there is the question of all the false need that capitalism generates. We need to look at the cause and not treat the symptom. When I have had to perform what on the surface was a job that I was looked down upon for........... I managed to hold my nerve and dignity for "“Every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.” The jobs that I have had to perform are socially necessary, but they can be transformed. And all that is human is not alien to me! I don't believe in the right to be lazy, and I don't believe in the right to work............we are far from the stage where we can do as we please. First we have to eliminate useless toil and waste........that is how you win the working class and I'm actually from that class!. Ask a female worker who produced bombs under Eisenhower in a documentary about the industrial/military complex? She said she would much prefer to be producing toys for children. We workers are not indifferent to our labour and how it is used. Do you think chinese workers actually like producing total rubbish or any worker for that matter?? Anyone agree? Or have anything to say?

Mark said...

Overproduction is not the the same as overabundance, at least in Marxist terminology. The tendency for overproduction, not finding a market for products leading to unemployment and loss of profits, for Marx was one of the factors in the crisis of capitalism. Why do we have an overabundunace of cheap things in the developed world? I think that points to capitalist expansion in the developing world as a source of cheap labor with less regulations, also counteracting the tendency of the falling rate of profit, another factor in the crisis of captialism. Cheap products, ones that are poorly made, break, have built in obsolence, ensures that there will be future demand for those products thus averting overproduction.

Of course socialism can do much better, I woud expect we would have better products, ones that can repaired, that age well so that we don't have to replace them as often, ect, this would have an enormous impact on the environment. The less resources spent on the production of the necessities of life, the more time that be spent on leisure, cultural and intellectual development. Keep in mind this is a huge shift in culture, for some this be immediately appealing, but it seems the masses in developed countries are still entralled with cheap, shinny, new things which keeps the system going.

For those concerned with the climate crisis, do we have have to wait for the masses of the world to come around to the idea socialism or are there immediate steps that can be taken? I was looking up data on this, actually many developed countries participating in Paris agreement have reduced their emissions, but then you look at China where a huge capitalist expansion has taken place, the rise in emissions has been enormous. I'm sure many countries have made improvements in efficiency and greatly exanded the use of renewables, but are there not other cases where we are simply shifting energy intensive production to other parts of the world?

I think politics is an art, Lenin and Trotsky were very aware of this, it's not enough for a program to be "correct" in some orthodox sense, the masses have to accept it. The Green New Deal, which originated over a decade ago in the Green Party by the way, ties together many threads while engaging the working class with the guarantee of health care and jobs. While it's a nationalist program (how could it be any other?), I think would have a enormous impact on the world given the economic and cultural weight of the US, so a least that is encouraging to see this come into the mainstream.