Capitalist domination works by separating and devaluing most people. This actively limits the common ground between the exploited and the oppressed. Strategically, therefore, rather than looking for common ground, it might make more sense to look for allied ground – space for debate, experimentation, or bridging single issues of more complex struggles, argues Anna Saave in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, focusing on how ecofeminist understandings of labor enable us to embark on this project together.
The moment we are living through is confusing and “heavy.” Rising fascism in many places and continued climate coloniality make it difficult to achieve sustainable, emancipatory and just societies. These urgent phenomena are only a reflection of a deeper strategic challenge for left politics. Multiple socio-ecological crises have many faces, which often appear isolated. We know that the metabolism of fossil capitalism is degrading ecosystems and the climate, and we know that fossil capitalism is at the root of the crises because of its tendency to produce external environmental and social costs. Yet it is difficult to catalyze this systemic understanding into political alliances.
In seeking an antidote to this strategic challenge, I am inspired by analysis rooted in lived experiences of living on a viable planet in caring societies. Such experiences are hard to come by, especially in the climate crisis, but they do exist. As an academic, my understanding of providing solutions requires that I bring a piece of knowledge that can unlock transformative struggles, the forces of reproduction, and abolitionist social movements. I will try to participate in this project by drawing on the tradition of radical materialist ecofeminism, although I’m sure that what is needed is not written on a page.
To respond meaningfully, we must focus our attention and energies on the interconnected project of healing ourselves, healing in community, which includes struggles over care and reproduction, and healing on a planetary scale to build alternative ways of living and doing. And for this, the tradition of radical materialist ecofeminism offers a rich source of inspiration.
The common ground between divided people
My goal here is to argue that a politics rooted in a narrow understanding of the economy is doomed to fail in terms of environmental and social justice outcomes, no matter how well-intentioned a focus on wage labor and market-based provisioning may be. To transcend the realm of the “official” economy and strengthen truly sustainable outcomes, we need new alliances: Alliances that transcend the divisions between formal and informal work, paid and unpaid labor, social provision on and off capitalist markets. We need alliances that fight together to stop the offshoring of costs to devalued realms – alliances that seek to minimize externalization. When a border is established, spatially or between groups of people, costs in whatever form can be externalized are moved across that border into another, demarcated, seemingly non-economic realm. This ranges from the offshoring of environmental hazards to the peripheries to the externalization of the social costs of reproducing workers into the realm of the private. We need alliances committed to moving beyond these logics of organizing the economy and rejecting the symptom-based solutionism of green growth.
Such alliances would bring together climate activists, unpaid care workers, racialized, and more privileged wage workers. It’s hard to say what their allied ground might be. After all, domination in capitalism works by separating people and devaluing most of them. This actively limits the common ground between divided people. Capitalism relies on “cheap labor” created on the basis of racial, gender, and many other kinds of divisions that make people seem less worthy. Therefore, the project of uniting struggles is thwarted by the fact that groups of people are constantly pitted against each other. Instead of looking for common ground, it may be easier and more strategically useful to find allied ground – space for debate, experimentation, or bridging single issues of more complex struggles. If it is difficult to identify common interests based on one’s positionality in the global division of labor and work under capitalism, at least a common desire can become allied ground.
In what follows, I want to explore the ways in which radical materialist ecofeminism has already prepared the ground for creating allied grounds, and to propose that ecofeminist understandings of labor are our allied ground.
Constructing allied grounds
Radical materialist ecofeminism points to activities, processes, and resources that are often called reproductive and on which capitalism depends beyond the wage relation. It thus calls for a more accurate, expanded account of the socio-ecological metabolism, including reproductive labor and ecological processes. Particularly from the perspective of centers of capital in the Global North, the range of causes taken up in left politics must be dramatically expanded: feminist struggles, abolitionist struggles, anti-border politics, and climate decolonization must all become core parts of building allied grounds. Such a more holistic approach also requires new understandings of labor.
In a 2009 interview, Maria Mies, the influential ecofeminist thinker, was asked what a feminist concept of labor looks like. Mies argued that “[a] feminist concept of ‘work’ cannot be based on domination […]” and must “replace the predatory economic relationship between humans and ‘nature’ with a cooperative one.” This shows the shift in perspective needed to build allied grounds: Can it become a common desire of climate activists, caregivers, precarious, and more privileged wage workers to be free of domination and to practice cooperation?
Ariel Salleh has coined an ecofeminist concept of labor that offers guidance for this transformation. It is called meta-industrial labor and refers to “workers nominally outside of capitalism whose labor catalyzes metabolic transformations – be they farmers, foragers, or parents.” Meta-industrial labor is labor that is more comprehensive than labor in industrial capitalism because it mediates human and natural cycles. It surrounds industrial labor, providing the conditions for its reproduction and the absorption of the damage it does.
Although meta-industrial labor does not take the form of formal wage labor and is not considered to contribute to “the economy” in mainstream economic theory and practice, it is ubiquitous and valuable. Meta-industrial labor is performed by everyone who collects, tends, or maintains. While ubiquitous, this labor is unequally distributed globally and is highly gendered and racialized. Despite the real entanglements of peasants and parents in the global capitalist economy, a strength of Salleh’s concept is that it can connect people working in very different places and contexts and still show their commonalities vis-à-vis capitalist wage labor, most importantly that they are all facilitators of reproductivity. The concept of meta-industrial labor is a tool for uniting different struggles and inspiring an ecofeminist class consciousness. Rethinking labor is itself a way of entering allied grounds.
The politics of meta-industrial labor
Meta-industrials are a key to overcoming the socio-ecological crisis not least because their practice is more (re)productive and life-sustaining than what petrocultures and fossil capitalism prescribe. However, meta-industrials can be, and often are, drawn into the circuits of capital accumulation. Under these circumstances, their ability to mediate human and natural cycles enables capitalist continuities. The left needs to keep in mind that meta-industrial labor cannot realize sustainable outcomes if it is tied through social organization to exploitative or extractivist forms of organizing the economy.
Let me point out some propositions that follow from knowledge of meta-industrial labor. Of course, much remains to be learned. Knowing about the capitalist society-nature metabolism that reinforces social, spatial, and temporal inequalities calls everyone in the Global North to become more aware of climate coloniality; to become aware that climate justice scares the rich classes more than climate change; to become aware that technologies, especially those meant to enable carbon sequestration, will not save the climate but rather make us forget that sustainable ways of living and doing together will; and, last but not least, to explore how one’s struggles can be aligned and radicalized through joint efforts, for example with abolitionist movements.
If ecofeminist understandings of labor are our allied ground, then we need to promote labor subjectivities that are anti-master, that is, to work toward livelihoods and labor subjectivities that are capable of refusing to maintain systems of domination. An ecofeminist class consciousness is fueled by the awareness that climate change and environmental violence are, as Stefania Barca points out, “the latest form of class warfare – as always, articulated with gender and racial domination.” Building an ecofeminist class consciousness begins with knowing who the meta-industrialists are. It is a misconception that they are only people like peasants or mothers of very young children whose whole bodies are tied up in reproductive work. Radical materialist ecofeminism makes the capitalist social metabolism with nature and the logics behind its organization ever more explicit: “Work is a (gendered and racialized) mediator of social metabolism,” and in capitalism, work mediates the social metabolism in capitalist ways. The ecosystem services we need are the product of mediated relations of maintenance, care, and co-production.
An allied ground inspired by radical material ecofeminism is also deeply informed by a politics of reclaiming time. Since time for caring is scarce in both paid and unpaid settings, reclaiming time needs to be more centrally recognized as an important building block in the mosaic of creating alternative economies: Time to care, time to be cared for, time to do things differently, and time to mourn and remember.
Transformation in this sense is about daring to demand a different social metabolism, with low external costs but abundant reproductive qualities and plenty of time, and daring to strategize to make this the default for organizing the economy. Becoming meta-industrial, i.e. materially exiting wage-labor relations for sustainable labor relations, means demanding, for your own health, to exist and work in settings where our external costs are low and contributing to reproductivity becomes easy.
Such healing involves becoming aware of your own exhaustion from not having enough time to care or be cared for on multiple levels. It means learning to recognize when it is time to receive and when it is time to give care to others. For a united struggle on allied grounds, we need the thorough analysis that radical materialist ecofeminism offers regarding the structural link between capitalist growth imperatives, ecological crisis, and the devaluation of (re)productive, meta-industrial labor. This is not a question of guilt or loss of individual autonomy, but a question of true freedom.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds