Rebooting the Political: Cheap Labor, Costly Living, and a Decimated Environment

Ecocide isn’t simply the fault of “humanity.” Rather, it is caused by capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit: cheapening labor, making life more expensive, and decimating the environment. Countering this, we need a new kind of collective political subject to arise, Carme Arcarazo and Rubén Martínez argue in their contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


When we hear the word “ecosystem” we often think of a set of harmonious relationships, something like a forest teeming with life. In our imaginary, ecology often coincides with an idealized picture of “nature” where fauna and flora coexist with hardly a trace of human life. For if there’s a threat to this balance, it’s our frenetic urban activity.

Based on this account, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that nature and its life forms are in opposition to the world developed by humans. Nature is the opposite of our society. The key element of this plot is that humanity is endangering nature, which, despite the sheer quantity of poison pumped in, struggles to maintain its original state. Heat waves, tsunamis and the extinction of species offer proof of our unreasonableness and, at the same time, come like an angry cry from nature, “Humans, enough is enough!” Finally, the moral of the story comes: humankind isn’t just the cause of the ecological crisis, but also of its own extinction. What began as a fraternal encounter between pine forests, wild boars, and heather ends up as a second-rate horror series: “humanity is a plague of locusts… and they’re cannibals to boot!”

This narrative throws in a few truths to reinforce a message that, certainly in good will, some consider necessary in order to bring about change. However, the result is a homily filled with fetishizations and biblical plagues. In truth, neither is “humanity” in general to blame for the ecological crisis, nor can nature and society be considered separate. Working class bodies are actually just as exploited as the rest of nature. For the sake of clarity, let’s look at a tangible case. Let’s talk about Barcelona.

Tertiarization of the economy

The Metropolitan Area of Barcelona covers 636 km²; it has 3.3 million inhabitants, accounting for almost 50% of the population of Catalonia. Interaction and dependence on the Llobregat Delta and the Serra de Collserola Natural Park is part of our territory’s ecosystem, but the set of relationships that make up its extraordinarily complex metabolism extend far beyond this. Can it be that the process of urbanization, controlled by capital and public power and stretching over decades, has not changed our ecosystem?

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

The relocation of manufacturing activity and the design of specialized service environments has completely reorganized the territory. As is often the case in modern cities, places for living, working, and leisure tend to be physically separated into mono-functional spaces. A large nucleus, Barcelona, gets created; it needs a huge input of water, energy, and food – which travels thousands of kilometers to reach our tables – and ejects an enormous amount of waste. The regional as well as the transnational peripheries have been turned into Maquilas, food storage, and dumping grounds for the urban core.

At the regional level, the dynamics of urban segregation have been accelerating over the past few decades, increasing the separation of social groups into different neighborhoods and, to an even greater extent, municipalities, according to their origin and income. The growth of tourism is tied to the privatization of the territory, the opening of land markets, the acceleration of fossil fuel consumption, and the exploitation of cheap labor, with salaries at around half the average wage. The tertiarization of the economy and the structural precariousness of work force us to live on cheap food, to be constantly on the move from one area to another, and to consume more energy.

Politics of housing

For over half a century people have been insisting that real estate investment is how you climb the social ladder; in fact, in order to pinpoint the cause of the ecological crisis and to show how ridiculous separating nature and society is, it’s worth looking at one of the commodities that has the biggest social and environmental impact. Let’s talk about housing. In the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona, expenses related to rent or mortgages account on average for 37% of a household’s income. When you add water, electricity, and gas bills, living under a roof eats up 50%. If we include the things we need to live, like food, clothing, and home refurbishment, and for working, like transport and a telephone, almost 90% of that income is being spent on survival expenses.

It’s this domestic consumption that is the second largest CO2 emitting sector, after transport, which is indispensable for living and working in a region with high rates of internal and external mobility.

It turns out that working over eight hours a day, including paid and unpaid hours, barely guarantees a precarious life embedded in a model that exceeds the biophysical limits of the planet. This isn’t the fault of “humanity.” It’s the ecology produced by capital in pursuit of relentless profit: cheapening labor, making life more expensive, and decimating the environment. And so, working class bodies are just as exploited as the rest of nature. While the environmental impact increases by 6% for every 10% growth in global GDP, the share of labor income in national income has been falling since the 1970s.

At the same time, unpaid care-related activities, predominantly carried out by women, continue to be the mainstay of capitalist appropriation: in Spain, they add up to more hours per year (43 billion) than those reported in paid employment (38 billion).

Reproducing the web of life

Vulnerable dispossessed bodies, endangered species, monopolized declining raw materials, and energy: this is all part of the same unit of exploitation. The ecological crisis is a climate crisis linked to labor exploitation, colonial appropriation, and millions of unpaid hours of reproductive labor. Nature and ecology cannot be separated from society and capitalism. As environmental historian Jason Moore points out, capitalism is a bundle of ecosystemic relations embedded in the web of life, and aside from being neither harmonious nor sustainable, they fail to produce decent ways of life for the social majority.

Capital isn’t just money, it’s also a process based on relations of exploitation and appropriation that are embedded in extraordinarily conflictive ways into the ecosystemic continuum that makes up planet Earth. The problem isn’t that capitalism “destroys nature” or that 100 oligopolies generate 60% of emissions. The problem is that the process required for money to be revalued entails the exploitation and appropriation of all of nature and comes with the condition that capital doesn’t pay its bills. “Nature” isn’t an external resource that capital mistreats; it’s internal to the circulation and accumulation of capital.

Some claim that this model’s days are numbered. The problem for capital, or to be specific, for those who claim capitalist property rights and subjugate other humans and the rest of nature, is that surplus value extraction and unfettered plundering have spiraled into ever-increasing expense. The global warming that threatens life on Earth is also a threat to capitalist accumulation itself. The limits that put the brakes on accumulation are set at the point at which different kinds of nature get physically and socially exhausted. Capital runs up against this huge contradiction: it exhausts and destroys its own sources of wealth.

Towards a new political subject

However, this doesn’t mean we’re blithely heading towards a desirable, sustainable, just way of life. Even a world without capital isn’t synonymous with a world without domination and exploitation. The processes of cheapening labor, making life more expensive, and devastating the environment may well continue in a world with further social polarization and a plutocratic rule of scarcity. Afterall, doesn’t this appear to be the way the current regime of war is heading?

The ecological crisis shows us that we need a new kind of political subject, one that does something about the ongoing plunder of our working time, the essential resources for subsistence, and the entire biophysical ecosystem. For a start, formulating a desirable ecological transition means organizing to face and challenge the transition already being driven by competition between carbon and post-carbon capitalists.

It won’t be easy, and all kinds of contradictions will have to be faced, but there are mistakes that can be avoided: this new political subject in question cannot rely on the account that separates “society” and “nature” positioning labor struggles and access to housing as separate from environmental and reproductive labor struggles. We need strategies to enable the rise of a political subject far removed from the single-issue imaginaries that compete to defend their political centrality. We need a popular environmentalism, an environmentalism of the poor. We need to organize and push for an environmentalism embedded in class struggle and a fundamental questioning of the dominant economic mode.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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