Common Labor Struggles? The Eco-Social And Decolonial Question Of Climate Crisis

The means of production have become the means of climate production, so how can we – all kinds of exploited workers around the world – seize these very means and address both the eco-social and decolonial question of the climate crisis? “Allied Grounds,” the Berliner Gazette project 2023, will explore this bundle of issues, as Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki explain.


International cooperation is more needed than ever in a globalized world. After all, the challenges and problems here always have a transnational dimension and can therefore only be addressed and tackled by way of cross-border collaboration. But states are preoccupied with themselves and with an increasingly ruthless competition among each other. Grassroots movements, associations, solidarity communities, and workers’ initiatives find themselves weakened after three years of pandemic and rising inflation, thrown back to local struggles for survival. International organizations are also overwhelmed by the challenges; the UN, for example, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded us once again, seems incapable of acting upon imperial aggression and unable to put the imperialism of the great powers in its place.

Meanwhile, the livelihoods of a growing number of the world’s population are at stake as basic means of survival and the commons at large are being destroyed. The Arctic is seemingly remotely related, but nevertheless representative of this tendency. Its melting is caused and accelerated last but not least by imperial powers who are striving to open up new sea lanes and capture raw material deposits, even though the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines this space as a commons, and though international climate protection programs aim to preserve the Arctic to prevent – most notably – uncontrolled sea level rise with devastating consequences for coastal areas around the world.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Ethically speaking, inter-state and inter-imperial struggles should be coming to a halt and immediately replaced by international cooperation. Yet, as the logic of capitalism dominates the world, these struggles intensify, thereby exacerbating the economic-ecological crises and causing impoverishment and precarization to increase rapidly practically everywhere. Right-wing populists who pretend to want to save “the people” and “the nation” instrumentalize this development and contribute in their own way to internationalism falling behind.

What does it mean to practice transnational solidarity and to fight for universal commons under these conditions? Where do internationalist horizons run? What kind of organizations could enable international cooperation? The Berliner Gazette (BG) annual project 2023 “Allied Grounds” intends to explore these questions together with activists, researchers, and artists. Building on past projects, including “More World” (2019), “Silent Works” (2020), “Black Box East” (2021), and “After Extractivism” (2022), “Allied Grounds” will expand the dialogue previously initiated between political economy and political ecology through the lens of work.

Key to the project is a text series that will be divided into three sections (I. internationalism/transnational solidarity, II. commons, III. organizational forms). Each section addresses a specific set of questions, but all three are linked by a common concern: To explore and construct connections between environmental and labor struggles. The former are usually discussed in the field of political economy. However, as recent debates such as that under the headings just transition and climate class war indicate, we are challenged to consider labor struggles in the context of political ecology as well. The questions of internationalism, commons, and (re-)organization raised by the BG Project 2023 will serve to profile and give perspective to this broadening of the discussion.

I. Who? An Internationalism of all

The Internationals of the late 19th and early 20th century placed workers at the center. But who could be the collective subject of today’s International? Consider this: The livelihoods of a growing number of the world’s population are at stake. Due to toxically interlocking and mutually fueling economic and ecological crises caused by imperialism and capitalism – most recently: pandemic, food shortage, summer of horrors (heat waves, floods, etc.), energy emergency, stagflation – more and more of us are losing the means necessary to make life worth living, to ensure survival, to fight the battle for survival. Butthis is despite the fact that we, whoever “we” are, are working every day. And it seems that we are lacking awareness of our critical situation not least because we are constantly working – in one form or another, in paid or unpaid, formal or informal, voluntary or involuntary arrangements.

Of course, it is problematic to lump together labor that is productive or reproductive, waged or unwaged, compulsive or free, manual or cognitive, formal or informal, illegalized or invisibilized, machine-aided or semi-automated – and say that we are all in the same boat. After all, the danger in glossing over the different responsibilities and inequalities is to over-emphasize the anxieties and troubles of the white middle and working classes in the Global North. Why then would one still want to consider all of the above forms of work together?

Take for example ostensible non-labor, e.g., self-affirming activity (via posts on social networks) that generates information about us and our desires, and that is being subjected to what has been called form-of-life mining (Brian Massumi et al., 2017). Or CAPTCHA routines that are disguised as a mere security measure, asking users of “free” web services to identify themselves as human beings; this differentiates these users from bots, silently forcing users to do jobs intelligent machines cannot yet do (Jose M. Calatayud, 2020). Enabled by energy-intensive and environmentally-damaging cloud infrastructure, both cases remind us that ever more often we are being deployed as laborers, or as providing labor power, without giving our consent, without developing an awareness (as laboring subjects), and, in an increasing number of cases, without getting paid. Now, calling this to mind is not simply to raise the issue of payment. Rather, it is to emphasize that in a previous historical moment it might have been possible to separate “work” and other “life-making activities,” while we cannot do this today. Now, everything is both. Furthermore, it means to put into perspective the increasing imbalance between worker consciousness and old as well as new forms of capitalist exploitation of labor and nature. In short, while capitalism adapts, diversifies, and expands its mechanisms of exploitation, the individual and collective consciousness of exploited workers is not keeping pace. Moreover, as it stands now, we do not emerge as a collective subject (say as global proletariat) from being lumped together in capitalism’s machineries of exploitation.

There are many reasons for this. One of them is that the unboundedness of work (Kathi Weeks, 2011) – especially in the centers of capitalism – manifests itself in the fact that we ourselves have begun to define ourselves by symbolically (but not necessarily also economically) upgrading whatever we do as work. Partying, parenting, posting: everything is becoming work. In today’s capitalism and its derivative forms, e.g., in China, even the most intimate and unconscious realms of our existence are intended to operate according to the metrics of the market. We are more or less unconsciously internalizing the capitalist regime’s compulsion for surplus and profitability – a process that is mirrored in our growing inability to think ourselves outside of work. In the course of this, we are subjected to the self-(interest-)centered ideology of work, manifesting itself in ways as diverse as self-sacrifice, self-preservation, and self-optimization. Accordingly, the capitalist world of work divides us. And it does so all the more successfully because it is not least a system of racialized social segregation.

Martin Luther King was one of the people who tried to teach us the lesson that racialized divisions are constitutive for capitalism, suggesting that it is the workplace where the racially discriminated can develop their biggest power by striking. Tellingly, King got shot one day after visiting garbage collectors. Walter Rodney, in turn, tried to teach us that we must rethink what it means for the proletariat of each country to struggle against its own bourgeoisie, because for the workers in colonial countries this would be impossible without first addressing the colonial question that divided the world’s working classes into hostile camps. Rodney’s legacy, especially his influential book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” (1972), reminds us that, as we work towards a decolonial, post-imperialist, and post-capitalist future, a genuine internationalism of an expanded working class can only emerge if we address the social divisions caused by capitalism on a global scale and, in particular, challenge colonial dependencies. Last but not least this means addressing the ecological-economic after-effects of imperialism and capitalism, such as the circumstance that countries in the Global South, even though they have contributed the least to the causes of the climate crisis, are hit hardest by it, leading to mass displacements of all kinds of workers (Harsha Walia, 2021) .

Now, if extraction of labor power occupies a central place in capitalist economies, and alliances among the exploited potentially produce friction and blockage of capitalist accumulation, and if, consequently, isolating workers is key to the functioning of capitalism, then shouldn’t all of us, whoever we are, and however and wherever we work, be able to contribute to changing the world through work by rethinking how we can work together? What would it mean for us to redefine social relations outside the self-(interest-)centered ideology of work and within the rationale of care and solidarity? And what social practices will help us doing so?

If we, as an expanded working class encompassing all kinds of exploited workers around the world, are scattered and segregated, how then could we embark upon common labor struggles, so that common interests could be composed in and through these very struggles?

If the boundaries among working people are not simply reinforced but also redefined, reconfigured, and blurred, how can this destabilization of boundaries be used against itself and for the redefinition of class struggle, going beyond the traditional fixation on the white male blue-collar worker? What role do movements against racial capitalism play in this context? What legacy do or could King- and Rodney-inspired movements have today, were they to develop their true strength as a transethnic and transnational workers movement not reducible to issues of national and racial identity? 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 (Denise Da Silva Ferreira, 2009) managed as a surplus population and disposable labor pool in detention centers, hotspots, and camps around the world.

If not merely one new collective subject but many new worker collectivities are challenged to emerge, then what could our strategies be in the face of a globally interconnected adversary that challenges us to come up with new collective responses?

Taken together: How could struggles linked to the workplace go beyond a defense and consolidation of the condition of the working class? What does it mean to rethink the liberation of labor away from the notion of “workers’ power” as just the complementary counterpart of the power of capital, meaning: the power of reproducing workers as workers? If today’s economies are not least about producing workers as commodities, that is, a certain relationship to ourselves, each other, and the world, then what does it mean to undo this production of subjectivity? Is it possible to work differently under the present conditions and thus to show and open the perspective of a democratic and solidary society beyond capitalism? If it were possible, would it still be “work”?

In short: How can we liberate ourselves as workers? And what does it mean to liberate ourselves from being nothing more than workers – that is, from being subjected to an ethics/ideology that defines our entire existence according to our worth as laborers? How can we advance an internationalism that derives its common denominator from our shared experience of separation? And how can we make this experience productive and transform it into a project dedicated to human, non-human, and more-than-human solidarity and thereby turning the ecological-economic downward spiral on its head?

II. What? Universal Commons

Ecosystems populated or controlled by humans and increasingly devastated by toxically interlocking and mutually fueling economic and ecological crises (e.g. in the form of pollution, precarization, and fascization) are often experienced and studied as isolated panic sites. However, our task is to face seemingly unrelated sets of pressing questions in adjacent and interconnected fields.

Going about this can only mean moving beyond the fixation on nationalism and individual freedom (read also: self-interest) and rediscovering solidarity and care as practices that enable us to reinvent sociality outside the dominant ideologies and power structures. This also means that we need to resist the proto-fascist calls to practice solidarity only with those who are the same and similar. Instead, pursuing a politics of the everyday (Asef Bayat, 2013), we need to practice solidarity and care with people with whom we do not share a common socialization, race, gender, origin, and, ultimately, workplace. What potentially amounts to unconditional solidarity (Lea Susemichel et al., 2021) and unconditional care (Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, 2021) can help us undermining said ideologies and power structures and create a basis for tackling and challenging them, too.

Doing this together, confronting the emergencies of the day together, we can reboot our profoundly fragmented and desolidarized societies. This means, last but not least, getting back to tackling those co-existential problems that responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contributed to erasing from the agenda of governments and many civil society actors, most importantly the climate crisis and the ongoing enclosure (also read: privatization and capitalization) of the commons. Not coincidentally, as fueling the climate crisis and enclosing the commons are key to the predatory expansion of capitalist frontiers into the natural and social world and the excessive exploitation of labor and nature (Carme Arcarazo et al., 2022), the two are among the most urgent but most neglected problems of our day.

Built around cheap nature and cheap labor (Raj Patel et al., 2017), the colonialism and imperialism of capitalist centers has turned the Global South into a permanent crisis zone, ever further burdening regions that are already among the most indebted and worst hit by extreme weather events, floods, and drought – and the least prepared to deal with them. As the cycle of economic and ecological crises continuously speeds up, cheap nature and cheap labor are being “discovered” anew. Next to focusing on offshoring, EU investments are now being made in nearshoring (primarily in Eastern Europe) and US/Canada investments in onshoring (Jessica Dempsey et al., 2022). This enables making long-distance logistical supply chains shorter and making capitalist accumulation cycles faster as well as ostensibly safer. This, in turn, requires constructing phantasmagorical El Dorados of cheap nature and cheap labor within reach. For instance: “Asia at the doorstep,” as EU players have come to construct countries like Ukraine (Yuliya Yurchenko, 2017), Romania or Serbia (Mira Wallis, 2021). In the course of this, privatization, property speculation, and extractivism are being reinforced in regions already traumatized and devastated by either colonization (America) or post-1989 neoliberal shock therapies (Eastern Europe). Ultimately, this brings a new quality of crisis production “home,” of which war and extreme weather events (e.g., heat waves or floods) are only the most scandalous and least understood expressions, appearing “all of a sudden” no longer merely to happen “out there” but also “here” – i.e., in the middle of Europe. Expressions of said crisis production that in turn tend to be invisibilized are debt, pauperization, homelessness, and mass death due to lacking safety nets and protection infrastructure in an increasingly hostile environment produced by and productive of the climate crisis.

For us as workers the bottom line is that the means of production (and circulation) have become the means of climate production (Holly Jean Buck, 2019). Thus, capitalism is toxic at multiple levels: as we are working in a sickening and outright poisonous environment, we at the same time massively contribute to producing this very catastrophic environment through our work, complementing the disastrous job of extractive machineries directed at our species and at inorganic matter such as minerals, as well as animals and other non-human life forms. Hence, the question of what it means to reclaim the economy (J.K. Gibson-Graham et al., 2013) needs to be expanded to or focused on the following set of questions: What if we – the workers – seized the means of production (and circulation) as the means of climate production? What if we put those means in the service of environmental needs and justice? Ultimately, what if we – in the course of this – abolished the power structures of the racial capitalocene (Françoise Vergès, 2017), organized the grounds for a proletarocene (The Salvage Collective, 2021) to arise, and began building the planetary commons?

What if we emancipated work in general, and specifically life work, earth work, and work for the commons dedicated to human, non-human, and more-than-human care, solidarity, and cooperation, from being valorized, exploited, and captured by capitalism? What conditions would have to be created so that all of us not only benefited from but also contributed to enabling universal basic services (housing, education, health care, food, transportation, etc.) and a relational ecosystem based on mutual respect among all humans, all forms of life, all species of animals, and all varieties of matter? What would be the first steps towards such a world? And what clues can we take from post-growth (Bengi Akbulut, 2022) or even eco-socialist (Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, 2021) proposals and practices?

III. How? (Re-)Organization

As the complex of toxically interlocking and mutually fueling economic and ecological crises generates ever more frictions in the world of work, these frictions have been echoed in various social movements in the beginning of the 21st century, including EuroMayDay (2001 et seq.) and Clash City Workers (2009 et seq.). Their central concern was (and is) to give expression to the most diverse forms of precarization in work and life. However, as important as social movements have been in assembling collective energies and counter-power at large, there is reason to assume that social movements cannot fully account for the problems in the world of work, nor provide a complete map of potential solutions for these very problems. Why? Above all, the conventional political forms of social movements – protesting on the streets, occupying squares, etc. – tend to channel the desire for civil liberties and privileges, rather than the struggle against exploitation of labor power and class structures at large. In this sense, should neither the street nor the square but the workplace (Felix Klopotek, 2021) be taken as the (coming) workers international primary battleground? But can “the workplace” actually be understood as a universal category, free from exclusions and omissions?

Traditionally, unions are supposed to represent and organize workers. Often unions have organized campaigns and demonstrations coupled with strikes, sometimes endowing worker masses with the appeal of a revolutionary multitude. Yet, should all of our hopes be focused on unions as platforms of emancipation? Over the course of the 20th century, unions were attacked by governmental, military, corporate, and organized crime actors. This led to their violent crushing, systematic suppression or more or less silent co-option. Where they do exist, unions increasingly function as mediators and tamers of angry workers, ensuring that extraction, exploitation, and instrumentalization of labor power can continue in undisturbed fashion. The latter is particularly noteworthy vis à vis the solutionism of green capitalism – a governmental-corporate response to the ecological-economic cycle of crises that helps opening up new spaces for capitalism rather than challenging it as the dominant economic mode responsible for our dire predicament (Magdalena Taube et al., 2021).

Thinking about the limits and limitations of unions, it is crucial to note that those who are increasingly losing the means necessary to ensure survival and to fight the battle for survival in the face of ecological-economic crises are often those very workers who never were and likely never will be represented by a union, either because they are considered “too marginal,” like female cleaners in 1970s Great Britain (Berwick Street Collective, 1975); or because they are illegalized, like mobile workers from Eastern Europe in the EU (Polina Manolova, 2021) and undocumented workers who have fled unlivable conditions in countries in the Global South, seeking but never finding asylum and protection in Europe; or because they are working without payment and are consequently not considered workers in the first place, like social reproduction workers or social media users virtually all over the world. 

Looking for organizational models, we should not forget the TriContinental. This understudied global justice alliance emerged in Havana in 1966 at a conference that was one of the largest gatherings of anti-colonialists, anti-imperialists, and anti-capitalists in the world. Compared to the Bandung Conference (1955), of which it was in a sense a continuation, the TriContinental Conference was more radical in its attempt to challenge capitalism. Compared to the Non-Aligned Movement, the TriContinental was less fixated on nation-states and more engaged with liberation movements that had not yet achieved state power. Organizing gatherings, publishing educational material such as an influential magazine, combining Afro-Asian solidarity with Latin American solidarity, and, most importantly, supporting anti-colonial struggles on symbolic, diplomatic, and logistical levels, the ultimate goal of the TriContinental was to develop a communist organization that was to work towards international revolution. The struggle of the TriContinental against global capitalist exploitation has engendered a powerful strand of black internationalist thought and organizing that could be vital to the future of transnational political resistance (Anne Garland Mahler, 2018).

So, where to start? If social movements only partially suffice to express and catalyze labor struggles, and if unions likewise offer only partially adequate representations of workers’ interests, then the growing friction of and in the world of work does not seem capable of fully unfolding its productive political potential in those organizational forms. Our challenge is to scrutinize anew how said friction can be turned into a political moment which existing political forms such as unions and social movements – were they reinvented or at least repaired and expanded – could account for. In order to do that, the BG project “Allied Grounds” suggests looking at conventional forms of political organization in dialogue with informal and non- or post-institutional networks, including those in the realm of reproductive and illegalized labor, as well as alliances such as the TriContinental. It is crucial that the latter is an anti-school (which holds true even for the successor organization Tricontinental Institute for Social Research (Daniel Whittall, 2018)) and it is also important that especially with regard to capitalist structures of exploitation, racism, and inequality, here learning unlearning has been key.

In this spirit, we should go back in history and reassemble the archive of political organization in the field of work, revisiting, for instance, the workers of the Caucasian Railway at the end of the 19th century (Evelina Gambino, 2021), the workers’ councils emerging in 1905 (not to be conflated with works councils), the factory and workplace occupations beginning in 1920, the invisible organization pioneered during the FIAT strikes in 1959, the general strike declared by the Situationist International in Paris and the worker struggles during the Prague Spring in 1968, the experience of the political factory committees in Italy in the 1970s, the emergence of Solidarność as a mass movement of male and female workers in 1980 (Ewa Majewska, 2021), the independent unions emerging during the Covid-19 pandemic in Eastern Europe (LevFem, 2021). And we should explore how these episodes relate to comparable moments in the Global South as different as the armed uprising of slave workers in Haiti in 1794, the struggles of indentured contract workers from Asia in colonial Africa in the end of the 19th century, the post-World War II anti-colonial insurgencies seizing the means of production, Argentina’s worker-recovered enterprise movements starting in 2001, the worker revolts during the Arab Spring in Egypt (Anne Alexander, 2021), and the riots of unemployed youth in India in 2022.

Researchers and activists studying the field of unacknowledged laborers have pointed out that more and more workers are not able to turn their desperation and wretchedness into fights for their official status, interests, and rights. Not so much due to a lack of a political consciousness, but rather because an increasing number of workers are far too exhausted and depressed (Tanja Petrović et al., 2021). After two years of pandemic, social fragmentation, economic decline, and accelerated environmental devastation, there is reason to assume that this dilemma is not limited to the field of unacknowledged laborers. Although there are hopeful signs of resistance and collective mobilization all over the world, the crises are always carried out on the backs of workers, and the costs are passed on to them. In the course of this, losing capacities to organize as a counter-power are not only the proletariat, but increasingly also the cognitariat. Intellectuals, still a relatively privileged group and potentially capable of acting as intermediaries of class struggles, are progressively becoming subjected to precarization and pauperization. But are intellectuals consequently becoming indistinguishable from the exploited masses at large? Can intellectuals still operate as interlayer (Ilya Budraitskis, 2022) between the exploited classes? If so, how can intellectuals contribute to revamping existing political forms and perhaps inventing new ones along the way?

Bottom line

The “Allied Grounds” project will further pursue and deepen the issues of the BG annual project of the previous year, “After Extractivism.” The latter initiated a dialogue between political economy and political ecology guided by the question of how we can build our future on the legacies and claims of those who have been struggling most with the existential impacts and threats of toxically interlocking and mutually fueling economic and ecological crises caused by imperialism and capitalism.

Approaching the political economy/political ecology dialogue from a new, fresh angle, the “Allied Grounds” project intends to revisit and explore further so-called sacrifice zones (Amy Walker, 2022) and transition countries (Tsvetelina Hristova, 2022), zoom in on struggles for labor and environmental justice, re-energize visions and efforts to emancipate “cheap labor” and “cheap nature” from capitalism’s grip, and, ultimately, probe the organizational practices and potentialities of these very struggles.

Our guiding question will be: If the means of production have become the means of climate production, then how can we – all kinds of exploited workers around the world – seize these very means and address both the eco-social and decolonial question of the climate crisis?

Note by the editors: This text is an introduction to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. The references of the text are listed here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here:

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