Capital must appropriate natural and social resources in order to make them productive. Since the mode of this appropriation is based on endless accumulation, it is inevitable that these resources will be consumed and destroyed in the short or long term. The logic of capital thus clearly contradicts the logic of life, as can be seen from the fact that more and more parts of the planet are being turned into wastelands, and more and more parts of the world’s population are being turned into ghosts of capital. If we want to resist the destruction of life on the planet, we must defend living labor, Stephen Bouquin argues in his contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” making proposals that go far beyond a mere defense project, calling rather for the emergence of a global collective subject.
In Europe, the ecological crisis has long been separated from working society, perhaps less in the sense of a complete decoupling of ecological and social issues related to work, but rather as an alienation between workers and environmental activists. In the 1970s and 1980s, André Gorz’s critical ecological thought focused on the transformation of work, particularly the reduction of working hours and the goal of a guaranteed citizen’s income. In the decades that followed, ecological criticism focused mainly on the destructive effects of mass consumption and the logic of productivism, which led to massive pollution, a monumental accumulation of waste, and the depletion of natural resources such as fisheries and arable land. The ecological movement criticized a wide range of productive activities as destructive to the environment and toxic to human beings. This critique was understood, rightly or wrongly, as targeting the “wealthy workers” employed in steel mills, oil refineries or the chemical industry. Certainly, this approach has widened the gap between the environmental movement and the traditional labor movement.
From 2000 onwards, the urgency of the ecological crisis, and in particular the increasingly tangible climate crisis, shifted the focus to the need for sustainable development and growth. As policymakers finally took the climate crisis into account, the goal of reducing greenhouse gases found an institutional response in the form of a “Green New Deal.” The greening of jobs was put on the agenda, spurred on by almost unfulfillable promises of market-based and technological salvation, such as emissions trading, vehicle electrification, or carbon capture.
By bringing the global economy to a standstill, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly raised awareness of the highly problematic nature of an economy driven by the logic of unlimited growth based on supposedly inexhaustible resources. The sharp decline in greenhouse gas emissions during these two years has highlighted the extent to which the globalized production and consumption of goods is harmful to the ecosystem. Nevertheless, stopping ecocide and finding a way out of the capitalist system remains a very elusive prospect. However, the experience of the pandemic, with its successive lockdowns, has also had the effect of raising awareness of the centrality of human labor, first in terms of what has been called ‘indispensable’ or ‘essential’ labor, and more broadly, the primordial importance of reproductive labor. If the centrality of human labor has been confirmed in practice, both on the side of consumption and on the side of production, it is also true, but much less recognized, that capital depends on living labor to extract surplus value and to accumulate itself.
Rethinking living labor in relation to the ecological crisis
Of course, many if not all of these empirical lessons will fade away unless they are integrated into the conscious action of large organized sections of the population. A small but important step in this direction requires us to rethink living labor in relation to the ecological crisis and a systematic critique of the capitalist system. For this reason, I propose to consider living labor not as a peripheral aspect, but as a central and internal component of the ecological struggle, both on an objective (analytical) and subjective (political) level.
The concept of living labor has long been mobilized on the margins of ecological analysis. This is particularly evident in Oskar Negt’s work on working time and the social organization of working time as an ecological issue in itself. For Negt, heteronomous working time is antagonistic to life. Accordingly, defending living work means taking up the cause of life and acting for a radical reduction of working time; in other words, acting for an extension of time sovereignty, both individually and collectively. As many have experienced through the high performance work systems and the tense creative work ethos, the pressure to work harder and longer is inherently humiliating, whereas the will to free oneself from the necessity to work can be driven by the vital impulse to live a real life, i.e. not to be subject to labor subsumed to capital. Following this approach, we can say that the massive mobilizations in France against the extension of the retirement age are driven by an ecological demand for living work in order to live.
But there is more. Living labor can be conceived, as Karl Marx suggests, in contrast to dead labor, the latter meaning labor provided by machines and automated devices. Understood in this way, living labor is an analytical category that refers to human beings, workers or laborers, as the bearers of labor power – as opposed to dead labor, which does not produce wealth by itself, but needs the commitment of living labor to squeeze out surplus labor and internalize it in the circuits of accumulation.
Moreover, the social reproduction of society requires a certain amount of (socially necessary) labor. The concept of living labor therefore refers not only to the living character of labor power that is sold, as is the case in capitalism, but also to the ‘social fabric’ that makes workers capable of working day after day because they have been able to reproduce their capacity to work. This social fabric includes domestic work, as well as social institutions such as health care, education and care, which, contrary to any logic of life, are increasingly being commodified and marketized. Thus, addressing living labor brings to the fore socially necessary work that is needed by society, and therefore reveals the use value and social function of labor. And this is precisely not the case with categories such as labor power to be sold on the market, which continue to view labor and work from the perspective of capital, as a resource to be exploited to the point of exhaustion, as long as there is no definitive exhaustion.
“In conflict with the imperatives of life”
Recognizing the centrality of reproductive labor leads us to a critique of capitalism, which instrumentalizes and commodifies life for ends other than life itself, whether it is the maintenance of power relations or the imperative valorization of capital. Today, reproductive labor is increasingly subject to commodification and rationalization, both processes by which it is incorporated into the circuits of capital accumulation. Capitalism thus mutilates the potential for improving life by transforming reproductive labor and care into instruments of accumulation and sources of profit. These processes exhaust caregivers as living labor (formally acknowledged as workers or not) before leaving them exhausted in terms of their physical and mental resources. The same can be said of the natural environment, which, if not exploited, turns into wastelands or dead zones, as illustrated by the acidification of entire ocean areas. As Tithi Bhattacharya aptly summarized, “The pursuit of profit is increasingly in conflict with the imperatives of life itself.”
It should also be recognized that living labor is a ‘corporeal’ reality with a socio-biological (living) organic nature, since humanity is part of nature and nature lives within us. However, in our capitalist world system, this ‘corporeal’ natural dimension is expressed in both negative and alienated ways. The unhealthy housing, the imperative need for mobility, not to mention the unhealthy food and the toxicity of working conditions are realities that occur more frequently at the bottom of the social ladder, along with racialized and gendered relations of segregation and discrimination.
To a large extent, the defense of living labor and decent living conditions is an ecological struggle in itself. Of course, it would be futile to think that the greening of employment is enough to solve the ecological crisis. In fact, everyone can easily imagine green jobs, i.e. with decent and healthy working conditions, which is not truly sustainable work but rather an activity that is harmful to the environment. Likewise, one can easily imagine ecological activities such as recycling combined with non-ecological (unhealthy) working conditions for the workers involved. By extending the equation, we can also identify configurations where both labor and productive activities would be sustainable, as well as the opposite, where neither labor nor productive activity would be sustainable or “green.”
To solve this equation in a way that is not destructive for the environment as well as for workers (of any kind), it is necessary to link living labor with production and the purposes that govern it. This is precisely one of the central propositions of Franck Fischbach in “Après la production. Travail, nature et capital” (2019): “What capital manages to make productive is always the result of a certain form of ‘labor’ that brings into play natural forces that go far beyond mere human labor. Indeed, labor refers not only to human involvement in the production of goods or services, but also to the ‘labor of capital,’ which also relies on the ‘labor of nature.’” Fischbach reminds us that the first characteristic of capital is its capacity to make productive for itself the widest possible range of natural forces, whether human or non-human.
The second characteristic is that it cannot do so without destroying those same natural forces, for it cannot make natural forces productive for itself without turning production into destruction. The same can be said of human labor and of the naturally fertile and fruitful power of the soil, which it cannot make productive without exhausting them. The reason for this is not only on the side of the immanent striving for an accumulation without limits, but also in the fact that “the capitalist process of production, as a process of valorization of capital, is always actualized and realized as a process of consumption.” It therefore makes natural and social forces productive only by appropriating them, and appropriates them only by consuming and destroying them in the short or long term.
“Humanity must regain itself as a collective subject”
Therefore, the unconditional defense of living labor necessarily leads to the overcoming of an economy under the control of capital with “the emergence of an economy of living labor and a rational and democratic organization of the common good,” to use the words of Oskar Negt. This notion of the common good, and more broadly of the commons, is a sufficiently open and at the same time precise programmatic resource that allows reflection and action to be directed in the right direction. The notion of the commons links the object (the real substrate) to the human being who shares its use with the institutions and rules that govern and should preserve these commons. Therefore, the commons should be kept outside the market, and the rights to access or benefit from them in an equal and democratic way must be universally guaranteed.
The main resources that humanity should pool in common are not only water, energy, food, education, health and housing, but should also include nature and the whole ecosystem as such. In order for these commons to be truly sustainable and accessible to all, they must be excluded from private ownership and the process of valorization and marketized exchange. This is also Kohei Saito’s argument for “degrowth communism,” when he sees the commons as the basis for the idea of “commonizing” the entire social organization. Capitalism destroys the commons through primitive accumulation, the commodification of land, water and everything else. It is a system dominated by the logic of commodification. In Saito’s vision, communism is the negation of the negation of the commons, which leads us to the decommodification of the means of mobility, the banking and credit system, the production of energy. This decommodification should be carried out in relation to the restoration of a sustainable equilibrium of nature as much as possible, and can only be done in a democratic way, far from bureaucratic rule.
Thus, these processes of decommodification, communization, and commonization are necessarily bottom-up, grassroots, democratic processes that require the living labor of all of us. This need reminds us of the subjective level of living labor, since it includes the vast majority of workers, men and women, as (wage or unwage) workers as well as peasants or caregivers. In other words, living labor appeals to and names a broad social class as an objective reality in such a way that its members can identify themselves, individually and collectively. The resulting global class of living labor, as one could call it, defines the broad contours of a collective identity and potential historical subject that has many, if not all, reasons to be structurally antagonistic to the capitalist system and, not least, to overcome the divide between the environmental and labor movements.
As Theodor Adorno said, humanity must regain itself as a collective subject, fighting for its common life, defending the continuation of its natural conditions of existence by transforming society and its relationship to nature as well as preserving the natural conditions of life. But as critical as he was, he also wrote very clearly that “even if it remains to be seen whether humanity is capable of preventing a global catastrophe, it is also true that the global social constitutions of humanity will threaten its own survival if a self-conscious global subject doesn’t develop and intervene. The possibility of progress, of avoiding the most extreme and total catastrophes, has migrated to this one global subject. Everything that implies progress must crystallize around it.”
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds