Ways of Being Otherwise: Fabulating the Intersection between Labor and Environmental Struggles

For the present discussion of the links between labor and environmental struggles, several historical moments can be used as teaching material. Movements such as those that erupted in the Battle of Seattle in 1999 show that these connections are not as difficult to make as they sometimes seem today. In his contribution to the “Allied Grounds” text series, editor Marc Herbst shows what else we can learn from the Seattle episode.


As I’ve have been reevaluating my own editorial practice along similar lines, I was drawn to the following section of the “Allied Grounds” editorial essay, made in relation to climate change. “Above all, the conventional political forms of social movements… 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 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?”

Through a circuitous discussion, I circle around to a best possible though mistaken response. “Mistake” because at the scale of the “Allied Grounds” inquiry – one that addresses the universal subject – we are bound to make errors. I ask for some grace regarding my errors for the sake of coalescing movements in order that “we…seize the means” of our subjective production. I understand that “we” as us – the likely readership who identify as part of the multitude – that variable body in abject relation to law and governance. I am an editor by trade, and as the multitude is subject position that cannot fully own, I assume here too that I will make errors.

In 2001, I co-founded the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest as a critical instrument of the alter-globalization movement. The “Allied Ground” project’s inquiry coincides with my interrogation of why it is my current interests involve intimate social practice and play, when my 1990s practice was as an anarchist involved in organizing spectacular public protest.

Where EarthFirst! met Reclaim the Streets

This was the movement that reached a zenith with the “teamsters and turtles” World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999. The WTO protests aimed at stopping a non-democratic global plan to establish global corporate-driven economic governance that would harm both labor rights and the environment. The plan had support from the US’s mainstream Democratic and Republican parties, and there was little mainstream media critique. Meanwhile anarchist and punk circles were abuzz with critique. During the protest, what caught headlines were images of “teamsters and turtles,” countering (false) narratives about labor and environmental always being at odds. Legacy news featured images of Sierra Club greens in turtle drag marching down Seattle’s Capital Hill with AFL-CIO union members.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

What made the event actually newsworthy was that confrontational protests were effective: the WTO meeting was canceled, and its worst plans were stopped. While many union and mainstream environmentalists followed their Democratic Party-supporting leadership away from the protest’s center, a resistant public space occupation organized through social practice developed over the previous decades by the hodgepodge anarchist left held its ground. Prefigurative public protest, where EarthFirst! met Reclaim the Streets, won the day for labor and the environment. The state had not expected this kind of effective resistance.

Unforeseen difficulties

Conceptually, labor is not at odds with the environment, organized labor regularly participates in public movements. North American labor turned out in huge numbers for the half a million strong 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. Researcher Lauren Contorno polled union march participants to assess their understanding of the environmental crisis. She found that many rank-and-file workers understood the risks of climate change, but lacked a wider systemic analysis. “These interviewees mentioned no inherent tension between current economic arrangements and sustainability, and but rather were confident that state investment in renewable energy jobs would stimulate ‘green growth,’ thereby averting both ecological and economic crisis.”

Autonomist Marxism is critical of organized labor’s collaboration with state capitalists. Mario Tronti said, “the existence of a class of capitalists is based on the productive power of labour.” Life is not dependent on formal hierarchy; labor does not need the capitalist class. The “workplace” can be the site of conflict that the “Allied Grounds” project hopes it to be only when we open the shop to fabulation. Fabulating social and labor relations is an ongoing and autonomous process; to rely on the workers that Contorno interviews and march behind the Democratic party leaves us vulnerable to the eventuality of governmental failure. Governing forces will fail to address the full scope of climate change. There will be unforeseen difficulties. Whatever non-insurgent labor does is already baked into the cake.

Labor, whether organized or not, currently plays a role in formal responses to climate change. State, labor, and environmental carbon counters are installing infrastructure for the “green energy transition.” Electricity rather than petrol is wired to stand-alone filling stations, located at public access points. The relatively rapid transformation of quasi-public space demonstrates how labor/“green”/state entanglements move with ease with shared interests. I assume this is a good development, though the development’s ease demonstrates little regarding how these entanglements manage adversity.

Subjective production” and “the workplace”

We can interrogate, for example, the governing timelines regarding climate change and see to what extent technological changes are actually responsive to the crisis. We can ask whether organized labor should align with this or that infrastructural project. But a question I ask regards my capacity to engage “subjective production” related to electric workers. I don’t have an access point. Beyond targeted tactical media, most critical creative work I can do addresses the general subject – a general subject that might be an electrical worker – or a migrant, a baker, or school kid, a therapist. Thus, assuming governmental failure and populations that governments most often fail, my focus is on social practice in relation to contingencies and failures.

Thus, I elide the worker and the multitude. Regardless of decisions made by formal entities, as multitude we are left outside the halls of power, working autonomously as individuals and collectives to, for example, find functioning electric car charging ports. As multitude, we can’t figure it out, can’t pay, are still driving a gas-guzzler, or simply have no car. Some of us are starving. We are left to deal with the real limits we have in relation to whatever infrastructure and changes there are.

My interest is in an expansive definition of the “workplace”, defined by the work of being human despite capitalism in the grinder of climate change. Here I mean human, in the sense articulated by Sylvia Wynter. We relate, metabolize, and nurture relations. Our workplace is the place for being human that is defined by the quality of our general relationships with one another and the varying physical and cultural institutions that we somehow rely upon and that also subjectify us.

Acting collectively on who we want to become”

Earth First! played an important WTO role because they were a point of emergent prefigurative social practice through the 1980s and 1990s. This, because they operated in the shadows of media and cultural attention. They provided people, not paid employees, with stability to take protest risks. They, along with the marginal 1990s US left developed the use of affinity groups, activist convergence centers, horizontal communication platforms, lock-boxes – social and protest technologies that facilitated social reproduction through precarity.

EarthFirst! was one hub in a global platform of transnational, antifascist, rural, and urban labor and ecology groups, including the Zapatistas, Reclaim the Streets and web1.0 lefties. EarthFirst! blossomed under the diffused guidance of committed Surrealist Judi Bari whose ecological sensibilities developed while also organizing timber through the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She found interest from clearcut lumberjacks who recognized how unsustainable corporate logging practices were for their communities.

A lot has changed since the late nineties. Precarious organizations’ social practices have been both integrated into neoliberal business and urban practice and minimized through being accounted for as marginal dissent. Nevertheless, it is at the margins of systemically accountable formal relation, life continues to be collectively worked over, with people organizing ways of being otherwise. I am willing to be wrong, but the only shadows where practices develop today are the ones we purposefully create. In an article we published in 2008, multitudes theorist Michael Hardt and El Kilombo organizing collective critiqued the routinization of globalization era protests, saying, “we have to be careful to note here that community never pre-exists this process of self-constitution; and creating a community is not simply the process of recognizing people as they are, but rather acting collectively on who we want to become.”

To produce subjectivities is to be concerned with recomposing preexisting relationships. We work in a world that functions as it does because of how existing realities are recognized. Discussing transformative practice, activist artists Jay Jordan and Isa Fremeaux say, “attention is an organizing principle of reality.” It is by describing the world differently that we rearrange existing relationships. When we state, “we are all feminists now,” or “we must attend to non-individualistic care,” our theses spell out different considerations of a terrain we already think we know. In broadcasting ideas towards more universal affects, there is a magical aspect at play. This kind of organizational magic has a theory to it, and we call this theory “culture.”

New modes of interaction

As culture has been considered an object of the citizenry, I recognize its differing face towards the multitude. But in the spirit of Luce Irigary and other theorist writing about working in dynamic with instituting force, it’s important to remember Mario Tronti’s saying “Culture in fact, like the concept of Right, of which Marx speaks, is always bourgeois.” Like my collective’s journal, doesn’t the Berliner Gazette primarily function to negotiate abstracted ideas? This is counter to means-tuned unions, parties, governments, and businesses. For organizational efficiency, these kinds of organization’s social practices ensure follow-through with leadership decisions.

In reflecting on US anarchist practice from the 1957 until 2007, David Graeber identified an organizational tendency where groups “see themselves as a kind of breakaway fragment of the administrative elite.” I buckle against this tendency, unsure of how proper analysis alone leads to political victory. Rather, fabulating workspaces are where general bodies relate to the world and serve as test vessels for social transformation. Graeber identifies another more effective left whose work is “the continual creation and elaboration of new institutions, based on new, non-alienating modes of interaction – institutions that could be considered ‘prefigurative’ as they provided a foretaste of what a truly democratic society might be like.” (Graeber 127-128)

Also, the bad moods of Extinction Rebellion and Ende Gelände (when they both display angry “anti-social” behavior) seem appropriate to this time of day. Meaningful collective fabulation as social practice, with ambivalent relation to power is the long-game for political organization. History demonstrates that movements emerge unexpectedly, at the convergence of governing errors and miscalculations, surprises, and actual social capacities that are elsewhere developed.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de

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