The Precariat and Climate Justice in the Great Recession
The Precarious Question and the Climate Struggle
Fighting for Social and Ecological Justice. Because Climate Change Makes All of Us Precarious.
by Alex Foti
Precarity in the Great Recession
The Great Recession is making millions of precarious workers unemployed. Millions of precarious youth, women, immigrants are being made redundant. The crisis is swelling the ranks of the precariat, the new class created by neoliberalism which is the sum of those who are either unemployed or working under non-standard, temporary, part-time contracts in service, creative, knowledge industries. Those responsible for the crisis — big banks, investment funds, free-market economists and governments — whitewash and greenwash without shame hoping to go on with business as usual. Governments are giving trillions to the bankers and peanuts to the precarious. Riots and protests are spreading as a result, also resisting rising securitarianism and racism, but the fight against political and economic power to defend society and nature has just begun.
This historic crisis parallels the Great Depression in scope, if not in depth (extraordinary monetary expansion has so far cushioned the blow of the financial crisis), and will have similarly far-reaching socioeconomic and political consequences. From the ashes of early 20th century free-market liberalism, the Fordist-Keynesian mode of regulation emerged, ensuring working-class economic inclusion into mass consumerism via high wages and social integration via extensive welfare-state provisions. From the ashes of early 21st century free-market liberalism, a new form of social and political regulation of the economy will have to emerge if the crisis is to find a democratic solution. In fact, just like in the interwar period, especially in Europe, the danger of authoritarian and xenophobic solutions to the Big Crisis is significant.
Today’s crisis marks the end of Neoliberal-Hayekian regulation, as imposed over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the seminal political work done by Reagan, Thatcher, Deng, Pinochet in the two hemispheres. But this once-in-a-century crisis occurs in the scary geoclimatic setting of Anthropocene, the man-made geological age triggered by the extremely rapid burning of fossil fuels in order to feed capital accumulation. The climate crisis is becoming frighteningly apparent, from polar caps to river deltas, from temperate plains to tropical forests. Millions of species are dying, millions of people are being displaced by droughts and floods. From the likes of Gore and Stern it’s hard to expect a veritable solution to the causes of climate change, since this would mean to confront the major carbon emitters, such as energy conglomerates, manufacturing corporations and their logistics, the aviation industry, fast food and agribusiness, mass tourism, in essence to shelve global, free-trade capitalism as we have known it since the Fall of the Wall. Turned liberals, most greens today just lack the political teeth needed to confront squarely corporate capitalism for its double responsibility in the economic and ecological crises. If anything, they are for green capitalism. So it falls onto the anarchists, feminists, precarious, immigrants, on those radical actors that have a stake in subverting the present financial order, to fight for real climate justice, to bring the economy back under the control of polities and communities, so that bioregional and atmospheric balances and constraints are respected.
The Great Recession, just like the Great Depression three generations ago, is a major demand crisis leading to mass unemployment and underemployment. It won’t be solved until the collective fruits of social productivity finally accrue to the employed and unemployed instead of managers and financiers. This requires massive fiscal redistribution from the tiny élites to the precarious multitudes. Free public health and education, basic income and leisure expansion, green jobs and new labor and property laws are the first-aid tools to address the crisis and ferry us toward a postcapitalist society, where corporations and investment banks are dismantled, credit is socialized, copyright is abolished, culture and knowledge are freely shared, the global economy is regionalized, food distribution networks are localized, energy production is decentralized, and political power is federalized, in regional and transnational federations of autonomous cities and liberated lands.
The issue of the distribution of productivity is crucial. The structural cause of the Great Recession lies in the failure of neoliberalism to distribute the productivity growth afforded by the digital revolution to large strata of society, who then had to take on debt to finance consumption of the new informational goods and services. Green capitalism wants to solve the economic crisis via green jobs and a new welfare system, but it will succeed in its task, only if it manages to widely redistribute what Negri and Hardt call “common wealth” i.e. the backlog of collective inventions, creations, relations and desires presently appropriated by Gates, Murdoch, Berlusconi, and the like.
The debate is open among leftists about whether green capitalism is economically sustainable (possibly so), and if so, if will lead to ecological sustainability (hardly so). Ecomarxists, for whom the labor theory of value is dogma, believe that the ecological crisis entails a squeeze in the rate of surplus value and thus a tendency for the rate of profit to fall*. Empirically, if productivity declines because of the ecological crisis, due to increases in the cost of energy or to the internalization (inclusion in the business cost of products and services) of the environmental damages caused by the economic process, then ecomarxists are right and green capitalism is unsustainable due to falling profits. If, conversely the ecological crisis triggers a green technological revolution, the rate of profit can stay equal as wages rise, so that green capitalism can create its own demand. In simpler words, if green capitalism is just greenwashing, i.e. marketing hype unsupported by hard facts, ultimately the ecological crisis will end up endangering capitalist accumulation leading to the the common ruin of today’s contending social classes: the global élite and the transnational precariat. If, on the other hand, green capitalism is the harbinger of a fourth industrial revolution (first: steam and textiles; second: electricity, steel, chemicals; third: electronics, networking; fourth: genomics, greenomics), productivity will rise and this would create a favorable context for victories on wages and labor conditions, as well as ease political resistance to income redistribution via progressive taxation (when taxes hit the rich proportionally more than the poor; under neoliberalism taxation has instead been regressive). Another way of looking at this is to consider the fact that the price of a good is equal to the wage rate divided by productivity (production per hour worked) multiplied by one plus the rate of profit, the margin that rewards the entrepreneur and pays interest to the banker. At constant prices, if productivity increases because of a rise in energy efficiency, either the wage rate rises or the rate of profit must increase, or a combination of the two factors§.
Contrary to what Marx predicted, improvements in wages and living standards have been made possible under capitalism thanks to the combination of much-sweated technological innovation and hard-fought social redistribution. Have these improvements come at the cost of bankrupting the biosphere? It will end up like that if social resistance to capitalism is not strong enough to decarbonize the economy. In other words, if climate anarchists lose the incipient struggle with green capitalists. If movements lose the fight for climate justice, Earth might become like Venus. From the experience of the poor and precarious of New Orleans, we know the horrors that lie in store when climate disaster strikes a class-polarized urban society. The climate question conceals a social question, because the precarious stand to lose the most in the biocrisis. On the other hand, precarious need to be empowered to be effective antagonists to global financial élites; only if they secure income and leisure, they can have the freedom to erect the postcapitalist society. Precarious-to-precarious community solutions to urban habitats, energy, food production and social housing will have to become increasingly common as answers to unemployment and environmental crisis. Whole cities can be redesigned by expanding self-organized groups of precarious ecohacktivists living from their collective labor and the sharing of what’s produced and exchanged in their social networks.
If climate justice movements lose the battle that is taking tens of thousands to Copenhagen in December and thus fail to impose their collective will onto government and corporate technocrats, then by the middle of this century most of us will be either drowned or toasted. What’s at stake is neither the survival of capitalism nor industrialism, but of digital civilization and the promise of the universal access to information, knowledge and culture that the switch to postindustrialism has made possible.
Industrialism, informationalism, green capitalism
Green capitalism cannot be simply liquidated as a marketing ploy. It embodies the faction of the global bourgeoisie that understands the reality of climate change and of its own declining political legitimacy in the face of the banking crisis and the consequent end of neoliberal/monetarist hegemony. Capital does seek now to be submitted to a light top-down, as opposed to bottom-up, form of regulation, which, while warranting the survival of megabanks and megacorporations, tries to accommodate ecological imperatives and social needs. Fossil capitalism, on the other hand, is purely reactionary. It has long denied the existence of man-made planetary heating and it is now lobbying to seize upon the spaces opened by geopolitical (Iraq, Sudan etc become up for grabs) and ecological (the North-East and North-West passages are open) disasters. It has spawned the growth of an oil-military complex that is the biggest threat to the peace and welfare of humankind. The open defeat of Bushism by Obama’s civil society (young, women, Blacks, Latinos, churches, unions, community movements) signals the decline of petromilitarism and the rise of green capitalism. The new US administration is a definitely a friend of global capitalism and to ensure its viability is putting forward a set of policies amounting to eco-keynesian regulation lite, to salvage what’s left of the hegemony of US banks and corporations over the world economy. Obama’s economic policy is keynesian because it provides a demand stimulus via deficit spending: in a deep recession, banks are not lending, firms are not investing, consumers are not spending, so the state must step in to provide spending power and capital for investment. But it is eco- in the sense it provides incentives to augment energy efficiency of the economy and de-carbonize part of its power production.
Original Fordist keynesianism was incredibly wasteful in energy terms. Oil was made so cheap and consumer goods so abundant that the biosphere was trashed in the short space of three decades (1945-1975). The Soviet bloc, placing an increasingly oblolescent emphasis on heavy industry and lacking societal counterbalances to communist policies of industrial might, was proportionally more wasteful, producing a larger share of nuclear and environmental disasters. In their ideological competition, both the US and the USSR strove to empower their working classes as loyal citizens, producers and consumers. Industrialism was their common structural base. However, it will be wrong to look at the present ecological crisis as the crisis of “industrial society”. In fact, over the last three decades, informationalism has replaced industrialism as the dominant system of accumulation. Indeed the failure of command economies to perform the transition from industrialism to informationalism, from the electrical engine to the electronic chip, is viewed by contemporary sociology as the structural reason behind the implosion of the Soviet Union. Now the inherited neoliberal form of informational capitalism is morphing into green capitalism. The evidence for this is mounting: from Silicon Valley becoming a hotbed for solar to green sectors soon surpassing aerospace and defense in economic weight, according to a recent study made by the international bank HSBC. Industrialism is dependent on oil, coal and other hydrocarbons in a way that informationalism is not. Steel needs coal, the Net doesn’t. The problem with green capitalism is that the scale effect is likely to more than offset any improvements in energy intensity, so that emissions continue rise. Left to its own instincts, green capitalism would be ecologically unsustainable. A steady-state market economy can only come into being through extreme regulation from below and above.
Yet, economic growth only has a meaning if measured in money terms, not in physical terms. So, in principle a socially regulated form of capitalism can be envisaged that still grows in dollar terms (and this overcomes the economic crisis), but not in entropic terms. A stage of the economy where immaterial growth becomes the norm, along with the maximization of collective knowledge and social well-being, rather than corporate profit or private wealth. An economy where people mostly exchange immaterial services rather than material goods. In other words, a world where there’s money to be made in the economy, because informational as well as green jobs are available in large and increasing numbers. The question of growth must be reconsidered, and is in fact being reconsidered by economists and politicians in the light of the crisis: GDP will be soon replaced by alternative indicator of economic performance and socio-environmental progress.
Today, the décroissance approach is likely to fall on deaf ears, because it preaches parsimony to a population which is being precarized by the global recession. Climate justice is definitely a stronger rallying cry for all the forces resisting capitalist domination today, one that already resonates from North to South. If the overdeveloped North must certainly decrease material consumption, the recovery from the crisis can only occur if there’s more effective demand in euro, dollar, yuan terms in the hands of those with less money in their pockets and thus likely to spend it when given the opportunity: the poor, women, precarious and/or immigrant youth. Social regulation must ensure that this extra money is not spent at the mall but in ways that are thermodynamically sound: into sustainable mobility, local agricultural produce, reforestation, and renewable energy deployment, for example. Social spending must be used to strengthen the social networks of solidarity within and across generations and lands. The precarious strata and the informal, marginal sectors of society are the ones that stand to benefit the most from fiscal redistribution. Only generalized conflict can emancipate the precarious and lead to sharp increases in social spending.
Like the wobblies a century ago, the precarious must organize across genders and ethnic groups to create their own unions and fight for a much larger slice of the pie. If the pie’s shrinking like Latouche wants, as people save more and consume less, many more will be made jobless and the precariat is gonna end up in an even more precarious condition than under neoliberalism. It’s true that capitalism is addicted to growth, but this is monetary growth, not necessarily an increase in the amount of “stuff” produced.
The distinction between bounded material growth and unbounded immaterial growth is useful to conceive a social scenario that is postcapitalist and progressive. Politically, this would also be a society where the different aims of anarchosyndicalists (constructing a postcapitalist egalitarian commonwealth) and anarchogreens (creating a thermodynamicist society of peers on a biodiverse planet) can be reconciled. It’s a social scenario where the autonomous, pirate, queer practices of the immaterial precariat are able to defeat the political offensive of green capitalism and drive the transition toward postcapitalism, an economy meeting ecological and social targets where grassroots experimentation is encouraged and regulation is horizontal and bottom-up, rather than vertical and top-down. To address both the economic and ecological crisis in my view we would have to push for a service, relational, commons-based peer-production economy, whose aim is the growth in knowledge, leisure and culture as opposed to the growth of goods and material wealth. This would be a society based on ecological remediation, immaterial accumulation and the maximization of happiness among its participants, rather than on material opulence for a minority of people.
Synopsis so far: we have an economic and ecological crisis of capitalism where class and climate struggles become central. The social actors of class struggle are new, since capitalism is no longer industrial, but has become informational. They are the precarious, those whose rights and talents have been immolated on the altar of labor flexibility and financial profit. The precarious in the informational economy must embrace the climate question, because the solidaristic postcapitalist welfare society they demand can only be achieved if the ecological struggle fought by the climate anarchists is won. Since the precariat is the new anticapitalist social subject, radical ecology shall become its ideology.
Anarchist movements and postcapitalism
The death of communism two decades ago and the birth of the antiglobalization movement a decade ago have brought anarchism to the fore as the only plausible anticapitalist ideology, online and offline. But what’s anarchism today? Or more interestingly, who are the anarchists? I think they mainly come in three types: anarchogreens, anarchosyndicalists and anarchoautonomists. One could add the anarchoinsurrectionists, but Julien Coupat in theory and the Greek rebellion in practice have created a new hybrid category, dubbed anarcho-autonomie in France, which is highlighted by the insurgent, antiauthoritarian practices spreading across the dissident/immigrant youth of Europe and North America. Increasingly, the Italian and German traditions of autonomia are intertwined with anarchist, antifascist and antiracist strands to form an anarchoautonomist synthesis across Europe. A generation totally oblivious of 20th century ideological disputes does not distinguish between anarchist and autonomous resistance: on the barricades, all you see is black hoodies fighting state repression and corporate domination. The comparative table below portrays the three major anticapitalist tendencies at work today, and the spectrum of resources for conflict they offer to the disaffected youth of the metropolises of the planet. It will be interesting to see how the various discourses of anticapitalism and radical ecology will mesh into direct action between December 11 and 16 during the COP15 Climate Summit targeting fossil capitalism, policed borders, agribusiness, indigenous peoples’ sovereignty, and the very legitimacy and effectiveness of the conference itself.
Anarchy, Autonomy, Ecology: A Trinity for Anarchists?
|Aim||Defend Earth||Subvert Economy||Smash State
|social inequality||political domination|
|Ideology||radical ecology||revolutionary unionism
|wildcat strike||urban riot|
|Actors||ecohacktivists, vegans, animalists, indigenous peoples||precarious/migrant workers, landless, unemployed||p2p multitude, immaterial labor, multiethnic underclass|
|Movements||Earth First!, Climate Camp, KlimaX, MCJ||IWA-AIT, SUF, CNT, euromayday||Dissent, Indymedia, No Border, Antifa networks|
It’s vital for anarchist and libertarian tendencies to look out to the wider world, while keeping themselves open to the queer and creative influences coming from contemporary society and popular culture. Ideological purity and historical fidelity are usually obstacles to political effectiveness. What’s important is not showing our lack of complicity in the self-destruction of human civilization, but to prevent it. The fight is not to return to pre-industrial nature, whatever it was, but foster a postcapitalist natural environment, where ecosystems, water, trees and bees are the most precious forms of common wealth.
The solution to the precarious question is not going to be found in the return to the old speculative, overindebted, overdeveloped, ecocidal, supremely unequal consumer economy of yore, but in the fight for a new economic and welfare system built around the environment’s priorities and the social needs of the precarious sectors of society. Redistribution can be achieved thanks to massive strike movements and via capital, corporate and carbon taxation to pay for universal health and education, basic income for all adults and finance a reduction in worktime such as the 4-day week, provide everybody with free access to online knowledge, supply economic incentives for commons-based peer production and sharing, subsidize green housing and green job creation for all unemployed wishing to work, socialize banking to fund renewable energy and sustainable living community projects, promote urban and labor rights of solidarity striking, self-organization and self-unionization, and most of all end the scandalous discrimination and persecution of immigrants and asylum-seekers. The politics of the common and the struggle around commons — and especially of the most precious common of all, the atmosphere — cannot but start from the collective defense and expansion of our own urban commons: squats, social centers, radical associations, alternative theaters, self-managed parks and gardens etc. Social cooperation needs to find its own organizational resources and political strategies to prevail over capitalist enclosures of immaterial assets and privatizations of social space.
Redistribution of wealth and power toward the precarious, growth of immaterial knowledge, cultural enrichment of society and massive expansion of leisure are fundamental social preconditions for the horizontal eco-social design of a resilient postcapitalist society, freeing the time to pursue ecohacktive and permacultural activities, giving the time and money back to precarized people to work for environmental remediation and think collectively about their own future, cutting the need for quick consumption and instant satisfaction. A strongly relational and solidaristic economy would fulfill many of the needs today obviated by individualized market transactions. The multigendered and multiethnic precariat can be the social driver for local low-carbon economies of cooperation, exchange and mutual aid, food and energy production, just as the immaterial precariat has so far been the core constituency of the climate camp movement. After all, in a networked information economy, it’s the anarchists not the capitalists that control the strategic means of production — the computing power of connected PCs — enabling the distributed elaboration and production of information, culture and knowledge through networks which is making the age of mass media obsolete. Immaterial labor puts a new, non-market and non-proprietary sector at the center of wealth creation. But capitalist domination strongly resists the encroachment of p2p cooperation on its hitherto unchallenged prerogatives (directing production and marketing innovation) and has parliaments and tribunals squarely on its side striking at the growing commonalism of the precarious class.
To conclude, capitalism destroys environments as it precarizes peoples. The climate anarchists of the world and the precarious of europe must come together in Copenhagen to unmask Barroso’s and Obama’s carbon trading and government bailouts for the rich. We must fight for that money to go to social transfers, green jobs and renewable energy instead, ‘cos the Recession don’t do discounts and the Earth won’t do bailouts.
* In algebraic terms, S/V, the ratio between surplus and variable capital (wages and fuel), goes down. The rate of profit is equal to surplus value over total capital invested C+V, which is turn the sum of fixed capital, plant and equipment, and variable capital, wages and raw materials. As V rises, the rate of profit decreases (divide numerator and denominator by V to verify it is so). The same occurs as K rises, which is the case originally considered by Marx.
§ Mark-up price equation: P = w/ π (1 + r) where p is the price level, w is the hourly wage, π is hourly productivity, and r is the rate of profit. Introducing energy costs, the equation gets transformed into P = (w/ π) (1 + r)/( 1 – θpE) where θ is the energy requirement per unit of output and pE is the relative price of energy (the price of energy divided by the general price level P) and 1 > θpE . If θ decreases, because of a rise in energy efficiency, this has the same effect as an increase of productivity π: in order for prices to stay constant, either w or r must rise.
µ The conflict between the two versions of American capitalism is still unfolding. See for instance the recent exclusion of Van Jones, the prophet of green-collar jobs, from Obama’s circle of close advisors, after the negative campaign orchestrated by the neocon TV channel Fox News.
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