Historically, workers have been seen, first, as the central productive force most capable of overthrowing the capitalist system and, second, as the most exploited, and therefore most interested in actually revolting. Since this option could make a decisive contribution to overcoming the climate crisis, we need to ask, as social theorist Max Haiven suggests in his contribution to the “Allied Grounds” text series, how the (climate) workers of the world could actually unite.
In their most recent provocation the Berliner Gazette challenges ‘us’ to imagine the scope for solidarity and action if ‘we,’ workers of the world, in all ‘our’ diversity and with all ‘our’ divisions, come to see ‘ourselves’ as co-creators of the climate. Here, co-creation is not a voluntary or intentional process, at least not yet. Today, ‘our’ cooperation on a global scale is mediated and largely commanded by capitalism. It is this capitalist world system that shapes ‘our’ scope of action, that provides incentives and punishments that constrain ‘our’ agency and arrange ‘us’ into hierarchies of power and privilege. In so doing, capitalism conditions and even leads ‘us’ to destroy the life support systems of the planet and also the lives of most people.
It is this assemblage of human and non-human life support systems and human socio-economic spheres that the authors of said provocation have in mind when they speak of the climate. In this sense, the climate is not only the literal gaseous atmosphere that enfolds the planet, where concerns about greenhouse gasses and other pollutants have captured our attention and fear in recent years. Additionally the climate is, seen through a kind of intersectional lens, those shared but segregated spheres that ‘we’ all inhabit and shape through politically and economically interconnected systems of which ‘we’ are each a product, and producer and a part.
In this sense, ‘we’ climate workers of the world are producing the climate even when we engage on social media, or go shopping, or build new forms of neighborhood-level mutual aid. This is especially so as capitalism expands to consume ever more of the life-world and seeks to transform nearly all human activity into some form of work: activity mediated or shaped by market forces. Ultimately, this work, as it is embedded in relations of production that privilege the endless accumulation of capital, can never be sustainable. Accordingly, even the ‘by-products’ of such labor (whether waste, dirt, or heat) increase the negative effects on the environment in general and the climate in particular. These systemic “ecological” crises, in turn, exacerbate the imbalances and divisions in “our” social, economic and political spheres from which they emerged. A vicious circle.
“How can the global proletariat emerge from new class struggles that derive their vitality from the multiplicity of laboring subjects – from gig jobbers in Bucharest, agricultural workers in the eastern region of Ghana, electronics manufacturers in Zhengzhou, coders in Mumbai, illegalized migrants in Berlin, Black and Latinx cleaners in Los Angeles, sex workers in Nairobi, care workers in Barcelona, teachers in Tehran, and ‘no-bodies’ managed as a surplus population and disposable labor pool in detention centers, hotspots, and camps around the world.”
The theoretical conjecture here is tantalizing. If ‘we’ could reconceive ‘ourselves’ as not only exploited workers but also co-producers of so many overlapping and intertwined spheres that co-constitute the climate, what alternative spheres could ‘we’ create? If ‘we’ could emerge as a global climateriate, what transformative power might ‘we’ manifest? Could such an approach be a path to a fabled ‘diagonal’ approach, that could finally and satisfactorily join the non-hierarchical, emergent, horizontalism of grassroots social movements (the commons) to some kind of vertical strategy that could provide the discipline and organization to allow ‘us’ to, once and for all, mutiny against the ghost ship of global capitalism?
If these questions point to a radical potential for ‘us’ mobilizing around the notion ‘we’ are all climate workers, regardless of the work ‘we’ do (paid or unpaid, formal or informal), then I would like to constructively challenge the underlying optimism in what follows. To this end I will look at what has made the labor movements of the past strong and what, in contrast, makes the climate workers of the world look rather weak. This said, I am not nostalgic for the workers’ movements of the past: they had many failings and ‘we’ are in a very different moment, a moment where ‘we’ have to truly think and act on a planetary scale. However, in bringing up those qualities that previous ‘workers of the world’ possessed, I want to open the door to future conversations about what ‘we’ contemporary climate workers of the world might have to do.
Affective connections and common enemies
In the heyday of the labor movement in Western Europe, during the rise of industrial capitalism, workers had a great deal in common, including their enemies. Unlike today, when many workers sympathize with their bosses or believe that, if they work hard, they too could be a boss, in those earlier days class antagonism was rather sharp. Workers often lived in decrepit tenements owned by the same individuals who owned the factories where they toiled (or to people who belonged to the same private clubs). Class stained almost every aspect of life: not only how people worked or where they lived or where they lived, but also what they ate, how they entertained themselves, how families were organized, what love and sex looked and felt like, how people talked, joked and expressed emotion. Hatred of the owning class was palpable, only tamed by religious indoctrination (usually in churches controlled by the ruling class), a sense of isolation and futility, and racism – “the British working class,” for example, emerged from a racialized order, as Cedric Robinson has shown.
Labor organizers did not need to convince workers they were being oppressed and exploited but, rather that they could do something about it, and that there were millions of other oppressed people just like them around the country who could rise up together. If they did so in unison or in solidarity, they would be unstoppable. If they did so internationally, they would transform the world. There was more than a small element of revenge in these narratives, and justifiably so: most workers had seen friends or family killed or maimed in machines and would have first hand experience of the sneering impunity of bosses and overseers; sexual exploitation was rampant. Workers could literally look across the shop floor at their exhausted co-workers and see their common cause, could witness, first hand, how their creative and cooperative energies were being channeled and drained by factories that operated purely in the interests of private profits.
Today’s climate workers have no such clarity. Certainly, most of the world’s working population continue to labor in factories or extractive operations where hostile relations with bosses and corporations are palpable. However, today, corporations that are owned by thousands of anonymous shareholders do most of capitalism’s dirty work, offering no clear villain. An increasing number of people also work in the formal or informal service sectors, or in public sector jobs where ‘the boss’ is less clear. Further, the global individualistic neoliberal revolution has encouraged most people to see themselves not as an oppressed worker but an entrepreneur. Many workers in the Global North also have pension, bank or other investments, which on some level make them petty owners of capitalist firms, or own houses which they see as investments. Beyond this, given the vast inequalities within the international division of labor, it is difficult for workers in enriched colonial countries and impoverished post-colonial countries to see eye-to-eye, especially given that the labor of those in the Global South in everything from mining to food production to manufacturing to services (like caregiving) tends to enrich the lives of white Northerners, though some benefit much more than others.
Further, while the workers of industrial capitalism in Western Europe, could watch their time and energy transmuted by capitalist institutions into profit, could bear direct witness to the alienation of their own powers, ‘we’ climate workers of the world hardly recognize ‘our’ own powers to collectively produce the climate. It is hard even in theory to make clear that ‘we’ all possess an abstract alienated cooperative power to generate the climate, let alone to make this power tangible to all workers. Older notions of the working class were frequently built on the physical experience of exhaustion, unfairness, and class hatred. What are the shared, embodied experiences of climate workers on which organizers can build? I suspect that what we share is terror at being on the ghost ship of capitalism that, in areas as diverse as inequality, international nuclear conflict, climate chaos and AI development threatens to destroy life on earth. Can you mobilize a global movement on the basis of a common dread?
This brings me to the final point: ‘we’ climate workers have no clear common enemy. Certainly there are convenient climate villains: the CEOs of fossil fuel corporations, for example, or the executives of the banks or the politicians who enable them. But each of these individuals would claim, not without justification, that they are simply following the rules of the globally competitive market and responding to consumer demands. Each knows they are completely and immediately replaceable and thousands of competitors are waiting for their chance to do the same or worse. Further, although it’s clear consumer activism is an utter dead-end, there is a truth to the rejoinder that ‘we’ all, to different extents, bear some culpability for the climate crisis because ‘we’ are all enmeshed in a consumer capitalist system that forces us all to participate in ‘our’ own collective destruction whether we want to or not, often in ways ‘we’ don’t even know about.
Such a critique rarely rises above the level of moralism, and has also been shaped by a neoliberal culture that sees the individual consumer or economic actor as the only source of meaningful agency. Still, however, it makes the question of responsibility blurry. It presents a considerable challenge for thinkers and organizers who would try and show ‘us’ how all ‘us’ climate workers share a single common struggle. Often we default to naming capitalism itself as the guilty party, but capitalism is not a thing with motivations or beliefs: it is a set of socio-economic relationships, a kind of vicious feedback loop within the circuitry of society, or perhaps a kind of virus that is quickly devouring its host. But how can ‘we’ climate workers of the world be mobilized to rebel together against a system of which we ourselves are a part?
Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx provided an influential theoretical framework for understanding the labor movements during the rise of industrial capitalism. And while their primary concern was with workers in the industrialized Global North, their writings became important to various figures in the Black Radical Tradition, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney, Cedric Robinson, who appropriated historical materialism as a theory of decolonization in the Global South. It is not my goal here to rehearse these important discourses, and even less to provide an inventory of the theoretical problems and mistakes. Rather, I am interested what the framework of historical materialism offered with regard to previous ‘workers of the world’ and what in turn could be useful as food for thought for today’s climate workers of the world.
First, it is necessary to ask what it is that makes the class-organized social system, capitalism, so special and so vulnerable. In other class-based systems (for example European feudalism or the medieval Hindu caste system) there was certainly also a tiny ruling class that organized and benefited from the work of the vast majority. But there the working class was profoundly geographically divided and had difficulty recognizing itself. Further, these earlier systems were not animated by the same spirit of relentless modernizing capitalism, which was, during Engel’s and Marx’s life, transforming nearly all aspects of life including farming, industrial production, household management, logistics, global trade, communication, and transportation. But in order to be so dynamic, capitalism was forced to rely on its own ‘gravediggers’: industrial workers. Rather than peasants or serfs isolated on estates, millions of industrial workers were crowded in slums and factories, increasingly in metropolitan cities in Western Europe.
Isolated peasant and plantation uprisings have been common around the colonial world, but were relatively easily repressed through brutal violence, leaving the blood-soaked land to be harvested the following year by their replacements. By contrast, uprisings of urban industrial workers not only saw coordinated action among thousands of workers but also often destroyed the technology and infrastructure of capitalist production. Further, capitalism’s relentless economic and technological ‘progress’ meant that large numbers of workers were routinely thrown out of work. It’s economic volatility led to price and wage fluctuations that threatened to starve workers. This led to unprecedented uprisings.
As Harry Cleaver notes in his famous worker-centric “Reading Capital Politically,” Karl Marx wrote “Das Kapital” to place a weapon in the hands of the industrial working class. It explained how capitalism was different from all class systems in human history, and how its characteristics made it vulnerable to the very people it exploited: mass workers. Indeed, at the time Marx and Engels wrote “The Communist Manifesto” they were relatively solitary in seeing the mass, deskilled, hyper-exploited, often migrant worker as having truly structural revolutionary potential, even though at the time there were seen by many radicals as a reactionary force, willing and even eager to break the strikes of skilled workers in their desperation for wages.
Attempting to show how the industrial working class had the power already within their hands, Engels and Marx were seeking to demonstrate how capitalism depended on this class, and therefore how this class’s protagonism could bring down that system while preserving its technological advances in the name of a future, classless society. In short: From one fundamental contradiction within the system crucial strategic possibilities emerged: capitalism was destined to generate a working class on which it was dependent, and that could destroy it.
Do ‘we’ climate workers of the world have any such narrative or theory? Certainly, ‘we’ can say that climate-chaos capitalism depends on harnessing our creative-cooperative powers as workers to maintain social, political, and economic spheres that, by and large, deliver profit to capitalists at the expense of everyone and everything else’s well-being. But this is not quite the same, especially at a moment when it capitalism’s technological push threatens to make it possible (though rarely profitable) to replace human workers with robots and artificial intelligence.
In recent years, theorists informed by Marxist feminism have encouraged us to shift our attention to capitalism’s primary reliance on the reproductive labor typically forced onto women, both the caring labor done in the home to reproduce life as well as in the formal and informal labor market as more and more acts of care are commodified and rendered services. Decolonial theorists and activists have drawn ‘our’ attention to the way capitalism has always relied upon racial and geographic hierarchies to render up cheapend labor and resources. These have both been efforts to refocus ‘our’ attention on what is often framed as the strategic lynchpin of capitalist accumulation, which can inform ‘our’ priorities in theorizing and organizing against capitalism. It remains an open question if the climate crisis can provide such a lynchpin, and to what extent the term climate workers names a strategically significant category around which we can mobilize. (In “Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet” Matt Huber focuses our attention on the crucial role of highly-unionized energy sector workers. But this is a much more limited notion of both ‘workers’ and ‘climate’ than the Berliner Gazette has in mind.)
Is there some special power in the strike or riot or refusal of ‘climate workers’ that strikes deep at the heart of capitalism? If so, what is it? If not, is ‘climate worker’ just one more identity among many to be taken up voluntarily by people (and which people?), and therefore perhaps just as easily cast aside at the end of the day when a new identity feels more appropriate or when a new crisis looms larger on the horizon? Perhaps it is that ‘the climate’ represents one of the truly unified existential threats to the future of all workers. But then ‘we’ are back at where ‘we’ started, with the problem of whether and how to mobilize the climate workers of the world around fear. In fact, there is probably nothing about workers dread that would in and of itself cause capitalism to crumble – probably quite the opposite as such anxieties are easily and tragically mobilized by reactionary and fascist forces promising stability and revenge.
A prophetic narrative?
For over a century, Marx and Engels’s theories have been adopted, adapted, and developed to inform militant and revolutionary working class agitation (and its reformist rump) as well as strategic analysis. It was not simply that these theories showed the weak points of capitalism, they also promised the near inevitability of proletarian revolution. Capitalism’s industrial workers not only could overturn capitalism, they were, in this view, uniquely situated in world history to liberate humanity from class altogether and create the first truly classless society. It offered theorists and organizers a prophetic narrative that helped create movements capable of tremendous ambition and self-sacrifice. And my concern here is with what such a narrative makes possible in terms of theorizing and organizing, and if the suggested approach to see ourselves as climate workers of the world has or needs any similar prophetic narrative.
Today, the only thing that feels inevitable about the climate catastrophe is that it’s going to get worse. Most projections into the future see life getting harder as crops fail and ‘natural disasters’ plague vulnerable populations, leading to greater migrations and hardships for billions of people. We are asked to take action not for a bright and promising future, but simply to mitigate the worst impacts. Can such a grim narrative mobilize a sufficient number of people around the world, or even in any one jurisdiction, to take the considerable risk of fighting for a revolutionary change? Nothing less than a revolutionary change is needed today, though what form that revolution will take is uncertain.
This gloomy narrative certainly pales in comparison to those of previous ‘workers’ of the world.’ Triumphant prophesies foretold the proletariat’s destiny to seize upon its unique world-historical mission and overthrow capitalism and liberate that system’s technological and productive apparatuses for the common good. In the most mystical reaches of Marxism this historic task was nothing less than messianic: the redemption of the dreams of the dead, the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. Russian cosmism even anticipated a horizon where the liberated sciences of communism would allow the dead to live again alongside the living, among the stars. While these may seem outlandish, they indicate the kind of modernist optimism that was so inspiring not only to workers themselves but intellectuals who saw in the proletarian struggle the only escape from the deadlock of capitalism. Anti-colonial thinkers and organizers took up these ‘scientific’ methods to demonstrate how decolonization was inevitable and thereby inspire a generation of freedom fighters.
For workers themselves, this narrative not only served to justify incredible risks and self-sacrifice, it offered a heroic and triumphant vision of collective action. Even if you were to fall in revolutionary struggle (even if you were to fall to the machinations of your own overzealous comrades), your life would have been part of the redemption of humanity, the world-historical overthrow of exploitation once and for all. When this narrative of sacrifice became folded into Stalinist or Maoist statecraft, it became one of the most oppressive and terrifying weapons in the hands of leaders, who could use it to justify profound injustices. Many people still have resentful memories of being force-fed this dogma.
Yet I wonder, aloud, if a new narrative focused on climate worker protagonism could ever generate such a narrative, and if it should? Can we do without it? The dominant narrative today is tragic, it promises a life of struggle among ruins or, at best, a vague future of degrowth that offers to exchange the unequally distributed material gratifications and fatal ease of capitalism with a more just and sustainable rationality. Has any movement in history mobilized around such narrow and grim horizons? It’s not just that the future on offer appears lean and hard, however. That problem is less important than another: A triumphant, heroic narrative dignifies itself and its protagonists. In a world where ‘we’ are systematically devalued, it can give ‘us’ a story that valourizes ‘us.’ This can potentially give ‘us’ incredible courage and conviction, and fill ‘us’ with a spirit of sacrifice and potential. It’s less about concrete hope for this or that future. It’s more about embodied feeling in the present, a sense that you have value, that your life has meaning, that the struggle is worth it not because it will deliver a better world but because it fills you and transforms you. Can ‘we’ climate workers of the world ever generate such an empowering narrative? And can we succeed in its absence?
Note from the editors: This article 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