Establishing and politicizing links between environmental and labor struggles means, not least, re-establishing the connection between ecological catastrophes and the economic and social systems that caused them. As author and activist Alexander Behr argues in his contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” a further development of intersectional approaches under the sign of planetary alliance politics and a solidarity-based division of labor is fundamental for this.
The concept of the imperial mode of producing and living (Brand/Wissen) essentially states that most people in the global North, i.e. in the rich, Western industrialized nations, as well as a growing number of people in the so-called emerging countries, live at the expense of the majority of humanity, as well as at the expense of the climate and the environment. Thus the imperial mode of living also produces and consolidates growing inequality within the countries of the Global North.
To counter this, different emancipatory strategies should interact productively. Or to put it another way: We should find a solidary division of labor. Grassroots movements, progressive civil society and NGOs, trade unions, left-wing religious communities, journalists, cultural workers, activists at universities and in progressive parties can – despite all the differences in the choice of methods and approaches – develop synergies and create reliable structures of exchange and action. This is often uncomfortable and often leads to conflict. But it is precisely in the productive resolution of these conflicts that great potential lies.
Successful struggles in the Global North can increase the scope for action in the Global South. Social scientist Ingar Solty argues, for example, that class struggle in the Global North reduces the external pressures of free trade and imperialism. This includes, for example, every successful defense of the welfare state, every minimum wage increase and every successful wage dispute. According to Solty, they are structurally anti-imperialist because they tie up surplus capital, reduce export orientation, and thus give the countries of the Global South more ‘breathing space.’ In this sense, according to Solty, a new anti-imperialism would have to include forms of de-globalization (Walden Bello) and enlightened protectionism (Hans-Jürgen Urban). Solty points out that such a reform program does not overcome capitalism. On the contrary, it could stabilize it to a certain extent. But as a conflict-oriented, anti-neoliberal program, it improves the fighting position of the social-ecological movements for further anti-capitalist strategies.
A solidarity-based division of labor in transnational organizing processes can also mean that organizations in the Global North provide material and symbolic resources to activists in the Global South who do not have access to them.
Movement politics crossovers
Moreover, a solidarity-based division of labor means that different struggles for freedom, equality and solidarity are combined and not ‘hierarchized’ according to their supposed importance. Martin Birkner, director of the book series Critique & Utopia at Mandelbaum Verlag in Vienna, reminds us that the concept of the multitude, which was introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century, can be used to think about today’s conflicts: “For today’s conflicts, the concept of the multitude can be used to think about a form of collectivity that does not aim to unify its internal differences, but rather to recognize them. It is only through this recognition that political commonality and, as a consequence, a common strategy can be developed.”
A politics of the multitude, according to Birkner, “first transcends the apparent antagonism between interest and identity politics. […] It is in the irrevocable intertwining of (economic) exploitation and (‘cultural’) oppression that a politics of the multitude finds the force of its radicality.” Thus, it is always important to look for synergies in the various social and ecological struggles and not to play them off against each other.
A very successful and repeatedly cited example of this cross-spectrum solidarity is the support of a 1984 miners’ strike in Great Britain by queer activists of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support Miners). Here the division between class and identity politics was virtually overcome. The LGSM raised money and visited the strikers in the South Wales village of Onllwyn. Their efforts subsequently moved the British Union of Mineworkers to become more vocal about queer rights, and resulted in sexual equality becoming part of the Labour Party platform. Thirty years after the solidarity action, the 2014 film Pride became a major box office success. Today, the filmed story of LGSM has inspired a new organization, Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. It not only raises money for migrant projects, but has also made a name for itself with spectacular solidarity actions, not least the blockade of a plane that was to deport refugees in the summer of 2018.
These movement-political intersections are lived solidarity. As in the example above, they can ensure that the workers’ movement does not only deal with the field of contradiction between labor and capital. They can also prevent movements for the rights of LGBTIQA people from being co-opted by the much-cited “progressive neoliberalism” (Nancy Fraser). Sustained and vital links with the labor movement and global solidarity movements embed one’s own demands in a larger context that can be crucial to achieving goals.
In the best case, this cooperation allows the different groups and milieus to approach each other and to defuse and reduce reservations and resentments. Of course, this is not always conflict-free, but that is no reason not to try. Or as Naomi Klein puts it with regard to the necessary intersectional orientation of the climate movement: “For a long time, we were presented with policies that separated ecological disasters from the economic and social systems that caused them in the first place.” However, according to Klein, racism and sexism, capitalist exploitation, poverty, and the destruction of biodiversity and the climate are not separate events, but inherent structural components of our system. They are interdependent. The search for alternatives can only be successful if it takes this fact into account.
Friederike Habermann describes another impressive example of solidarity-based division of labor and movement crossovers in her portrait of the extremely powerful 54,000-member Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW): It is a union that “has allied itself with the marginalized of this world for decades, co-sponsors affordable childcare, flies an Indigenous flag on National Day, has occupied Toronto’s banking center before, went on strike years ago for a ‘climate-neutral socio-economic structure that leaves no one behind,’ and for which the community takes over the picket lines. [CUPW seeks a 100 percent renewable energy economy, but one that also reduces inequality and empowers communities to better organize and create change.” The union also supports the protests of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, who reoccupied their traditional territory in northern British Columbia in early 2020 to block the proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline, which would bring natural gas from the northeast of the province across their territory to the coast.
To return to the striking miners in England: Between 1992 and 1995, in the midst of the Yugoslavian war, British activists organized aid convoys to the city of Tuzla in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. The convoys were not intended as humanitarian aid, but as an attempt to support local workers: Many of them refused to be pitted against one another because of their perceived ethnicity. Tuzla is located in a mining area with a long history of worker resistance dating back to the 1922 miners’ strike. In 1984 and 1985, miners in the region donated one day’s pay per month to their striking British colleagues. In 1992, British miners responded to an appeal to reciprocate that solidarity.
Such gestures of solidarity are not always successful. They are usually highly conditional and require persistent and patient alliance work. Sometimes it simply takes a good moment. But searching for points of solidarity allows us to look beyond our own horizons and strengthens our own movement. Solidarity-based division of labor also means that different actors within the respective movements should use their specific access to different milieus. It is important to have open communication corridors and spaces for discussion, which can be established and consolidated, for example, through joint conferences, actions, camps or demonstrations.
One example of this was the first climate and anti-racist “double camp” that took place in Hamburg in the summer of 2008 and involved more than 2,500 people. For the first time, the camp consciously combined climate and anti-racist demands, bringing together different actors from different activist milieus. Joint actions included the blockade of the access roads to Hamburg airport, the occupation of the construction site of the Moorburg coal power plant, and the blockade of a supermarket in downtown Hamburg. The motto of the camp was: “For a completely different climate – global social rights for all!” Since then a lot has happened.
Various alliances have emerged and slogans such as “Antifa for the Future” or “Burn borders not coal” have established themselves. These bridges reflect the necessary intertwining of climate movements and anti-fascist or anti-racist struggles. A solidarity-based division of labor between different protest milieus also takes place in actions against road or power plant construction, for example, when local citizens’ initiatives meet with autonomous groups and NGOs. Although the forms of organization and the corresponding forms of interaction are clearly different, this can lead to productive complementarities. Again, the skills and resources of different actors can open doors to different milieus.
The task of radical solidarity work is above all to be in solidarity with those who risk the most in their social-ecological struggles. When it comes to struggles for climate justice, activists in India, Brazil or Indonesia risk far more when they take to the streets or engage in civil disobedience than activists in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.
With their special privileges, access to media, educational and powerful political institutions, financial support and more, activists in the Global North can help defend them. They can publicize struggles, do translation work, and direct resources where they are needed. When necessary, they must ensure that activists find refuge and asylum. This also means that the struggle against environmental and climate catastrophe must no longer be defined in the abstract as a “struggle for the future,” but as the present struggle for survival that it has long been for many people. Campaigns like “Shell must fall” offer concrete points of departure for what global solidarity could look like.
Here are three names of activists who have paid with their lives for the protection of biodiversity, climate, and social justice: Berta Cáceres from Honduras, a champion of indigenous rights and environmental protection; Marielle Franco, a feminist city councilor in Rio de Janeiro; and Paulo Paulino Guajajara, also from Brazil, an environmental activist in the state of Maranhão. Global solidarity means keeping their memory alive, naming streets and squares after them, and making sure they are included in history books and school curricula. But global solidarity also means carrying out our struggles with the awareness that the courageous actions of countless activists, who also paid for their commitment with their lives, have never been known to the general public.
Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the English version can be found here. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de