Today two stellar pieces of writing were published that speak deeply and intelligently on subjects that “the left” at times falters on: the relationship of class and capitalism to both feminism and environmentalism.
First, in Jacobin, “Rank-and-File Environmentalism” describes the fallacy of the “jobs vs. environment” debate, drawing on the history of the Miners for Democracy (MFD) caucus of Appalachian coal miners in the ’60s and ’70s:
Jobs, the MFD insisted, were not at odds with the environment. The caucus suggested that any miners displaced by a national ban on strip mining or enforcement of anti-pollution laws be given other (union) jobs working to reclaim land that had been destroyed by coal companies or building up the infrastructure in their home states which had often been bypassed by state and federal development projects.
The MFD shifted the terms of the debate. Instead of a choice between jobs and environment, they argued for different priorities: people and land before profit.
As when people disparage organic food as “classist,” they often ignore that the people most harmed by pesticides are agricultural workers (many of whom are trafficked and/or children), so too with those who use populist rhetoric to defend pipelines and fracking — or, blame energy workers for such environmentally destructive projects going through:
Many who include workers as part of the problem forget that workers tend to be among those who suffer the most from the destruction their work inflicts. The concentration of energy production in places where few other job opportunities exist means that workers often take jobs that inflict ecological destruction they oppose. Women who occupied a strip mine in 1972 to stop the destruction of their mountains reported that “miners sympathized with the demonstration. These men said they would not be strip mining if there were other jobs available.”
This is one of the key reasons I support a Job Guarantee. Not only would it give workers the ability to refuse work they feel is exploitative — of the land or the people– but it could help us more justly transition to a society where at times human labor may have to replace fossil fuels. In other words, do we enter a post-petroleum world by viciously exploiting segments of the population? Or do we figure out ways to divy up whatever work needs to be done in fair and humane ways?
The former is the obvious extension of the system we have today. Work is far less “automated” than many a blogger/columnist would like to think; nimble human fingers are still often cheaper than machines, provided you don’t have to pay a living wage. If new, sustainable, technologies soon eliminate the need for human labor, great! But rather than bet on that happening before we irrevocably destroy the environment/run out of oil, I’d like to focus on ways that agriculture, construction, sanitation, etc., can be made to operate with fewer fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals, while still providing safe working conditions and fair compensation. There is already a wide range of “appropriate tech” and sustainable agriculture techniques that substitute human labor for fossil fuels. The key is to make sure there are enough workers, enough worker protections, and ample compensation to ensure such labor is safe, dignified and not miserable. “Many hands make light work,” as they say. There is a massive difference between 10 farmers working 5 hour days and 5 farmers working 10 hour days. Of course, if it turns out there just isn’t that much work to be done, we could all just work less.
Second, in The Nation, is this roundtable “Does Feminism Have a Class Problem?”, which similarly emphasizes the importance of understanding labor and class, this time in the context of feminism:
It is no accident that the societies ranked as having the most gender equality are the European social democracies, which tend to have the most economic equality, as well. It is also hardly coincidental that in America over the past twenty years, feminism has stalled while economic inequality has skyrocketed. Both feminism’s halt and inequality’s surge are connected to the rise of the neoliberal capitalist state, with its deregulated workplaces, its deep cuts in social services and its reliance on the unpaid labor of women to provide care.
Nearly everything I said about the job guarantee & green jobs above could similarly be said for the job guarantee and care work. Instead of three elder care workers doing back-breaking eight hour shifts, why not twelve care workers doing four hour shifts? And paid well, like the skilled professionals they are!