The ongoing (sub)urbanization and industrialization of land use and oceans (agriculture, fishing, forestry, land and deep sea mining) threatens to wipe out life on this planet. This process is often accelerated by toxic monocultures, because focusing the development of a city or an entire region on one extractive activity degrades other ways of life, eventually leading to “ghost towns” and “sacrifice zones.” To dismantle such monocultures, we should explore the many connections between rural and urban communities and reinvent social and environmental struggles, as mirko nikolić argues in his contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds.”
“750 miners striked for whole thirty days. That fact, for those aware of the whole, excellently demonstrates the determination of our comrades. With boundless trust in the Federation of miners they with discipline kept up the struggle until the end. The conduct of comrades from the surrounding villages deserves special attention.” (Radničke novine [Worker’s news], 28 February 1936)
In the strike organized by the workers of Sisevac, a coal mine in eastern Serbia, which began on January 24, 1936, “considerable material help in the form of provisions” was provided by the peasants from the villages. This is a common feature of many miners’ strikes of that period, which often included blockades lasting weeks and months. To illustrate the horizon of these struggles, we can remember how in 1908 in the Belgian-owned coal mine in Vrška čuka, after 118 days of strike, with great local and national support, the majority of the workers left the mine. In 1935, a peasant-led rebellion shut down the French-owned smelter in Bor for a month, demanding just compensation for the ecological destruction caused by its acid smoke.
In fact, these militant resistances were possible in large part because of the close coordination between industrial workers and peasants, or more precisely, between those living in the “mining colonies” and their surrounding areas. With the infrastructure of the time, mines were often isolated, and it was impossible to strike without securing food and other supplies. In addition, both workers and unions had very limited strike budgets, and what little savings they had would quickly disappear.
These struggles took place in the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where the political and capitalist elite waged harsh anti-labor campaigns. From 1920, the Communist Party had to operate illegally, as it was banned by decree. Access to workers’ journals was controlled, and there was constant repression of trade unions, even where they were legally allowed. The kingdom’s industrial bourgeoisie was closely tied to multinational investors, and the majority of capital invested in the mining sector was foreign. Despite these difficulties, there was an uninterrupted series of fierce strikes and many victories for the workers’ movement, including the actual establishment of a federation based on workers’ self-management.
Today, we are witnessing in the region the relentless expansion of extractive industries and the continuation of large-scale coal mining, now backed by predatory local elites (a mix of neoliberal and illiberal governments) and multinational corporations. The plunder of workers and nature is not unlike that of a century ago. As the new elites have consolidated their power, privatized and sold off as much as they could, the last decade has seen a wave of movements against small hydro, air pollution, lithium mining, etc. across the post-Yugoslavian space. They have forged unlikely rural-urban alliances, and agricultural workers and peasants are at the forefront of many movements. There have been many local victories and many setbacks.
Breaking the vicious cycle
In order to break out of the extractive and predatory capitalism we are currently witnessing in the region, and to respond to the climate and biodiversity crises with translocal impacts, it is clear that systemic change is needed. Significant parts of the current economy need to be transformed beyond recognition, and many segments need to be shut down. This is not just about one industry or energy policy. Colonial capitalism existed long before fossil fuels and can well survive a transition to “renewables.” In fact, what forms the backbone of the climate and ecological crises at all scales are the supply chains of metal and mineral extraction, the fossil and electric vehicle industries, the advertising and lobbying for material-intensive lifestyles, the road and construction industries, agribusiness, intensive forestry, IT manufacturing, and the tech giants. There are key questions of scale and agency here. To refocus, there are very concrete manifestations and nodes in the region.
More specifically, in order to break out or even survive at this point, it’s necessary to abolish the constitutive extractive and colonial dynamics: racism, sexism, patriarchy. Here I can only mention one related dynamic: enclosure and expulsions from land, theft of commons, and involuntary resettlement and migration (to slums and cities). These operations prepare the ground for the extraction of value from the peripheries to the cores, and for the massive destruction of nature. Simply put, the command and conquest equation of city/core vs. countryside/periphery, capital vs. nature, must be abolished.
Urban domination is one of the ‘monocultures of the mind’ – of course, there are many types of cities, and not all are colonial and extractive, but here I am looking at the current dynamic in Europe. To undo the domination of the urban upper classes over the land requires consistent resistance on the frontlines of rural extraction and alliances with the urban precariat. Traces of this can be seen in the “ecological uprisings” in Serbia, as well as in the protests of agricultural workers. At the same time, there are protests by miners and other public electricity workers in Serbia against privatization, and large protests against similar tendencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as analyzed by Svjetlana Nedimović. Significantly, these worker protests were supported by environmental justice activists and allies.
Mixed rural-urban workers
Here I would like to add to this emerging tendency by pointing to another type of worker that I believe is essential to understand: mixed rural-urban workers, those who perform multiple jobs and activities at the same time, and especially those who work across the divide between urban and rural, industrial and natural, monetary, and subsistence economies. In the Husino uprising of 1920, the Bor uprising of 1935, the Sisevac strike of 1936, and many others, the story of solidarity between miners and peasants hides a deeper story: many, if not most, miners were in fact peasants.
In a study published in 1955, the sociologist Cvetko Kostić analyzed the phenomenon of the “peasant-industrial worker,” estimating that in the mining sector of the time, three-fifths of all workers were “itinerant workers,” still tied to the land by an “umbilical cord,” commuting daily, weekly, or seasonally between industrial plants and the land they farmed for their livelihood.
This ideological framework is symptomatic of post-war modernization, but Kostić is also very clear about the ecological debt that Bor’s industry has left on its surroundings, especially the pollution caused by French “capitalist colonial” ownership. Then, as now, with a Chinese-owned conglomerate, there was an unresolved tension between the land/villages and the industry/city. Without romanticizing any of the many personal histories of the peasants-industrial workers, their existence can be seen, against the grain, as a psycho-social individual but also collective search for a more sustainable, fair and equitable settlement between wage labor and self-sufficiency or autonomy, which for many means a patch of land or access to the commons – a way of life closer to nature.
The linear paths of state socialism and capitalism have not erased this class formation. There are still many workers living this life today, and it is as difficult as it was decades ago. In another space, we can discuss and perhaps imagine forms of “mixed” labor organization between the labor market and land-based activities, especially through cooperatives and commons. What I want to argue here is that the experience and knowledge of these rural-urban workers is essential, as they are acutely aware of when development models or technocratic ‘solutions’ collide and hurt other ways of life. Indeed, there are parallels to be drawn here with worker-activists of all stripes, e.g. urban or rural workers who, in addition to their day jobs, invest their remaining waking hours in the ‘manual labor’ of climate justice.
Converging rural and urban worker struggles
Despite capitalist modernity, and because of its discontents, there are still many rural-urban workers. Many of us who live in cities across the Balkans and beyond have first-hand or second-hand connections to the land, multiple belongings and commitments. These connections, however, may be rapidly breaking down as mines expand, privatizations and land grabs continue at this pace. There are real obstacles to organizing due to patterns of access to and ownership of land and wages between urban cognitive and industrial workers, between the urban and rural precariat. But let us not forget that a hundred years ago, under arguably much worse conditions, rural and urban workers managed to unite. The current inequalities should be at the heart of organizing, as they are a direct result and the engine by which capitalism reproduces itself, alongside more far-reaching inequalities between our region and communities and areas downstream, since Southeast Europe is a semi-periphery, with both extraction zones and higher levels of value creation based on importing (and exporting) raw materials and now even labor from elsewhere.
By centering the connections between rural and urban life and seeing them as issues of environmental and social justice, we can begin to undo the core-periphery axiomatics of exploitation and effectively take back or shut down activities that cost workers their own health and that of their families, and that cost us the earth. What must be abolished is the full and unquestioning allegiance, inevitably forced or imposed in some way, to any kind of monoculture of mind and land use. No, the factory, even a self-managed one, is not the city. The plantation is not the forest or the field. The countryside is not the treasury of the city. Clean air, water and soil are not for sale.
There must be room for many worlds, and capitalist and colonial monocultures leave no room. When the urban and industrial precariat coordinate with rural communities linked by mixed rural-urban labor – as they have done many times in history and are now even supported in this effort by environmental justice activists – the impossible today can become possible tomorrow..
Editor’s note: This article, an outgrowth of the author’s postdoctoral artistic research project funded by the Swedish Research Council and hosted by the Department of Culture and Society, Linköping University, is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds/