As the global economic-ecological crises intensify, the spread of racist nationalism accelerates. In the course of this, dividing the working class into “white workers” and “non-white workers” is being reinforced. This poses a major problem for all of us: The divisions weaken internationalist multiracial worker struggles. More than that, workers are turned against each other rather than challenging the exploitation and expropriation of all kinds of workers and the environment at large, as scholar-activist Harsha Walia argues in her contribution to the BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.
Right-wing nationalism – pitting whites against racialized people, migrant workers against unionized workers, refugees against citizens, the West against the rest – is a ruling-class ideology. Right-wing nationalism purports to defend the working class but is vehemently anticommunist. It breaks internationalist solidarity, lowers the wage floor for all workers, and maintains extractivism and exclusion in a warming world.
The politics of fear fueled by right-wing nationalism is a distracting cover for inequality and is a material basis for the disenfranchisement of racialized communities and exploitation of racialized workers. White supremacy within the working class is not simply misdirected rage about economic anxiety, nor is gendered racism extricable from class formation. Interpellations such as “white working class” or “national working class” exist at the expense of all working people, especially racialized immigrant women workers who comprise the working-class majority in the US.
Deconstructing the “white working class”
Half of the fastest-growing jobs in the US are in the feminized care sector of social reproduction, like nurse practitioners and home care aids, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, one in three jobs held by women was designated as essential. Racialized women are, not coincidentally, overrepresented in the underpaid care and essential services sectors. Nurses, cleaners, teachers, domestic workers, grocery clerks, service workers, single mothers, and land defenders leading political struggles during the pandemic, and well before it, have trenchantly asserted that inequality is a product of austerity and also of differences made through nationality, race, gender, sexuality, and ability, which are co-constituents of class relations.
Whiteness is a possessive force and a system of patronage affording white people the full status and protection of citizenship, as well as income-bearing value and asset inheritance for white workers. Meanwhile racialized workers are enmeshed in the property relations of racial capitalism. The nostalgia for a union-wage-based, Fordist industrial economy ignores how such an economy has always been subsidized by both colonial extractivism and the racialized, gendered, low-wage, service economy. Ultimately, an obsession with analyzing the exaggerated trauma of the white working man ends up reinforcing patriarchal whiteness, invisibilizes the disproportionate impoverishment of racialized women workers, and undermines antiracist, feminist leadership in class struggles.
Robin D. G. Kelley points out, “The idea that race, gender, and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender, or sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.”
This is why the identity formation of the “white working class” is in explicit antagonism to a multiracial class identity, and is a modality of race-making at the expense of all working people. Of course, not all white workers identify with the category of the “white working class,” white workers are not necessarily more racist than the white ruling class, and low-income whites are not the main beneficiaries of racial violence. However, since racism is a manipulative tactic of divide-and-conquer and the basis of material social relations, whiteness marks more than just a privilege. Whiteness is a public identity politic including class convergence around white supremacy.
Concretely, unions that call for border enforcement against migrant workers in the interests of “citizen workers” (itself a problematic term) not only reinforce white nationalism, they also misunderstand the role of the border and capital. The border cannot protect the working class against neoliberal globalization because immobilized labor generated by the border serves the interests of free capital. Racial capitalism and racial citizenship require bordered labor.
Thus, we need a robust and internationalist struggle committed to dismantling the conjoined forces of capitalism, the state, racism, and all hierarchized relations, while nurturing a kinship of relationality and place-based stewardship. However, this has become even more difficult since the rise of eco-fascism – another alarming weapon in the arsenal of nationalism.
Dismantling eco-fascist borders
The Christchurch killer railed that “continued immigration into Europe is environmental warfare,” and, across the ocean, the El Paso killer announced, “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.” Malthusian theories blame high birth rates and immigration for environmental degradation and food scarcity, while green nationalism weaponizes the threat of climate devastation and the myth of human (not corporate) carrying capacity to argue that racial exclusion is necessary for survival.
Exclusionary projections of who belongs and has the right to life uphold ruling-class and right-wing nationalism, thus breaking internationalist solidarity and solidifying global apartheid. Eugenics and immigration controls are the bedrock of Darwinian lifeboat theories, fueled by apocalyptic nihilism and race war fantasies. These are also masculinist savior ideologies, which merge saving the “pure” race with “guarding” a fragile earth. Even as far-right politicians are considered climate crisis deniers, they dive into the burgeoning field of “climate security,” prioritizing militarized borders and eco-apartheid on the warming planet. Protecting the life styles, privileges, and profits of a global minority, the “border crisis” is produced as to hide that it is in fact a crisis of displacement and immobility for millions of people, preventing both the freedom to stay and the freedom to move.
Today, far-right politicians increasingly link the “migration crisis” to the climate crisis, and shutting down “climate migration” has become their pressing concern. Marine Le Pen in France, for example, campaigns on an exclusionary ecological localism, where immigrants are compared to foreign invasive species, and her party puts forward screeds such as “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet.”
Meanwhile, global warming accelerates existing inequalities created through colonialism and capitalism. These inequities are solidified in colonial responses to climate refugees. After the devastating earthquake in 2010 displaced one million Haitians, the US responded by ramping up interdiction, opening up a detention center, and broadcasting an aerial message across Haiti: “If you leave, you will be arrested and returned.” The US has also launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast, a standing task force of marine interdiction and deportation of Caribbean passengers in the aftermath of disasters. When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in 2019, hundreds of survivors were blocked from boarding evacuation ferries to Florida. A US Pentagon-commissioned report encapsulates this hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.”
Liberal representatives of the ruling class barely offer any moral opposition to this eco-apartheid. They avoid the core issues of mitigating the climate crisis, ending forced displacement, and ensuring the rights of climate refugees. Instead, they turn displaced people into a humanitarian cause or a funnel of temporary labor migration. We know that if the environment were a bank, the ruling class would have saved it. Instead, ecosystems and displaced people are considered superfluous, while the ruling class – including those who publicly present as climate deniers – save themselves by weatherproofing their mansions, hoarding water, investing in climate-disaster technologies, and fortifying their green oases with gated communities and militarized borders.
Rejecting the false solutions of liberalism
While eco-fascist views are an extremist tendency, they are an outgrowth of the limitations of liberal movements struggling for the environment as a “white sanctuary.” The Sierra Club was embroiled in vicious debates about immigration and population control throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Like those on the left who inaccurately believe we can fight austerity through border controls, Sierra members advocated immigration restriction as a method of environmental protection.
Environmental liberalism is steeped in such false solutions, evident in the rise of Elon Musk-style techno-solutionism. We are also presented with attempts to greenwash industrial extractivism and corporate profiteering with propaganda for carbon markets, natural gas, and clean coal by corporations interested in sustaining their windfall profits, not the earth. The CEOs of these toxic corporations are boosted by G7 governments providing one hundred billion dollars in oil, gas, and coal subsidies. We are all assigned individual responsibility to recycle and change consumer habits, even though just one hundred corporations are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions and the poorest half of the world are responsible for only 10 percent.
Even environmental movements advocating for conservation, biocarbon sequestration, biofuel production, and alternative energies are often complicit in greenwashed colonialism. Even more progressive proposals such as the Green New Deal have become trapped in imperialist imaginaries of rich countries as white sanctuaries and gated communities. These litany of false solutions stems from environmental liberals’ blind spots to militarism, capitalism, and environmental racism – from ignoring the disproportionate impact of climate crisis on racialized communities around the world to land-grabbing conservation efforts erasing Indigenous jurisdiction and perpetuating colonial terra nullius.
Instead of individualist, incrementalist, and imperialist liberalism, we must tackle the climate crisis and the impending extinction of one million species as emerging from extractivist colonialism and capitalism. Decarbonizing would necessarily require demilitarization, decarceration, and decolonization because the climate crisis is a symptom and not the cause of our existential crisis.
But what does it take to oppose the escalation of eco-fascism and the far right? This escalation cannot be overcome by or through the settler-colonial nation-state because eco-fascism is not a racist aberration of an otherwise-humane system. Instead, decolonization and Indigenous liberation are the strongest and longest front lines resisting commodification and degradation of land and water. Indigenous people comprise less than 5 percent of the world’s population but steward 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity and, as a result, most acutely experience the impacts of ecological genocide. Eriel Deranger emphasizes, “The complex interrelations between energy poverty, the price of food, access to clean water and climate change disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples.”
Yet, just as white workers express resentment toward migrant workers for stealing their jobs, workers in extractive industries are often hostile toward Indigenous land defenders for ruining their (settler) economy. Working-class identity as settler-worker identity and the characterization of Indigenous lands as “public” lands in an expression of terra nullius elide the colonial theft of Indigenous territories as an indispensable subsidy to the settler polity and the industries workers are laboring in. The positioning of workers against Indigenous environmentalists also invisiblizes land defenders and water protectors who labor in highly skilled, noncapitalist Indigenous economies of hunting, gathering, fishing, cultivation, and harvesting. Indigenous land defenders are, in fact, working to protect a way of life and reciprocal relations with the land and all its creations.
Two essential anticolonial reorientations for settlers laboring on Indigenous lands are required: First, the recognition of Indigenous land defense as generative labor and, second, solidarity with Indigenous blockades as picket lines preventing state and capital’s expropriation of land by asserting legitimate Indigenous jurisdiction. This is urgent because in this time of frontier extractivism, the price for Indigenous caretaking labor and land stewardship is high. Across Turtle Island, warriors in the Idle No More, Protect Mauna Kea, Standing Rock, Stop Keystone XL, Tiny House Warriors, and Wet’suwet’en movements have faced the intensity of armed state repression. Worldwide, the horrific murders of environmental land defenders, overwhelmingly Indigenous resisters, has doubled over the past fifteen years, with four people killed every week, and land defenders making up 40 percent of targeted killings of all human rights defenders in 2019.
Rebooting class and worker struggles
Far-right revanchism is, in conclusion, inseparable from the making of class identity through race, the scapegoating of foreigners solidifying anti-migrant xenophobia, and the reproduction of settler entitlement. State formation, class relations, extractivism, and social hierarchies are generated through each other. The conditioning of environmental movements and class struggles through citizenship reinforces the logic of scarcity upon which austerity and carceral governance depends, maintains the international division of labor and a lowered wage floor upon which capitalism relies, and aligns with far-right racism and ruling-class extractavist ideology. Therefore, we must unequivocally discard class struggles structured through racist nationalism and environmental justice movements animated through eco-fascism.
A political and economic system that treats land as a commodity, Indigenous people as overburden, race as a principle of social organization, women’s caretaking as worthless, workers as exploitable, climate refugees and migrant workers as expendable, and the entire planet as a sacrifice zone must be dismantled. Labor movements must align with migrant worker organizations demanding an end to a system of indentureship that establishes highly racialized, gendered, and nationalist labor pools and regimes of citizenship. As interdependent and interwoven societies, our fiercely internationalist struggle is not against “foreigners” but against any oppressors.
Note by the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de