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Democratising Class Theory

by Ariel Salleh on April 13, 2015
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A glance at emerging forms of resistance in the current era of globalisation and ecological crisis suggests that the appropriate ‘agents of history’ may now be ‘meta-industrial workers’, rather than the industrial proletariat. In exploring this thesis, I will not spend time on exegesis, sifting through definitions of class or revisiting old debates in socialist feminism or left anthropology. For, as Bertell Ollman has pointed out in Dialectical Investigations: even Marx did not define class, but varied his usage of the term according to the context of his discussion. So, in daring to speak of ‘a meta-industrial class’, I take courage from this pragmatic attitude. Even so, I do adopt a rule of thumb on class as—a material relationship, and often a self-conscious joining together, of people who share a similar place in systems of production or reproduction.

This post destabilises reified Marxist notions of class that have prioritised productive labour and marginalised socially and ecologically reproductive activities. Most analyses of capitalism have tended to treat workers as waged white men, whereas reproductive labour is deemed to be supplementary – the province of the unwaged – women domestics and carers, peasant farmers, and indigenous hunter-gatherers. However, the latter meta-industrial groupings, nominally outside of the economic system, actually constitute the majority of workers in twenty-first century of global capitalism.

The meta-industrials

The case for recognising meta-industrial workers as a ‘class’, and even as ‘agents of history’ in the current conjuncture, rests on at least six interlocking assumptions:

  • wall-street-banquet-1928Dominant discourses from religion to economics are culturally hierarchical, and devalue meta-industrial workers, by ideologically positioning reproductive labour at the lowly interface of humanity with nature.
  • Meta-industrials reproduce necessary biological infrastructure for all economic systems, but under capitalist globalisation this labour is undertaken at ever increasing cost to that living material base and its self-reproduction.
  • A phenomenological analysis of meta-industrial practices, whether household, farming, or hunter-gathering, highlights their ecologically benign quality, as forms of human provisioning which sustain metabolic linkages in nature.
  • This hands-on reproductive labour interaction with habitat creates lay knowledges of an economic and ecological kind. It represents a thoroughly reality-tested and ‘embodied materialism’.
  • Observation of the alternative globalisation movement and similar grassroots forums indicates that despite cultural differences, reproductive labour groupings have a common material stake in challenging capitalist notions of development.
  • A shared meta-industrial class perspective can provide a basis for unifying socialist, feminist, postcolonial, and ecological concerns. This politics is synergistic, addressing class, race, and gender, injustices, as well as species survival and habitat, simultaneously.

From international diplomacy to academic theory, the human relation to ‘nature’ is now a central preoccupation. Geo-politics is morphing into ‘eco-politics’. Eco-Marxists, social ecologists, and deep ecologists, each offer unique readings of the contemporary conjuncture, but debates about the humanity-nature problematic often provoke public confusion, even intellectual hostility. The fact that once self-sufficient meta-industrial labours are indispensable to the infrastructure of global capital was established long ago by ILO statistics. But sophisticated meta-industrial economies and resourcing techniques remain invisible to the Eurocentric eyes which frame World Bank development or UN climate policy.

At the World Social Forum and COP summits, the insurgent grassroots global opposition to the neoliberal ecological crisis receives little help from academic theory. Marxists like Peter Dickens in Reconstructing Nature: Alienation, Emancipation, and the Division of Labour suggest that the difficulties educated people have in thinking about the humanity-nature connection result from the modernist industrial division of labour and its inevitable knowledge fragmentation as people lose a sense of their own embodied organic nature. Environmental abuse is an effect of this disembedding. Thus, the abstract professional knowledges informing modern labour processes become fetishised. Information technology, genetic engineering, even public policy, and environmental economics are instances of this. Under capitalism, this so called ‘expertise’ is traded as a commodity, dislocated from its material ground.

Nature and ‘Caring Labour’

Materialist ecofeminists like Maria Mies in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale and Vandana Shiva in The Enclosure and Recovery of the Commons carry the analysis further, focusing on complex synergistic interactions between economics, sexuality, race, and the environment, and their critique of the Eurocentric scientific hegemony that privileges embodied knowing. Certainly, Marxist or eco-socialist analyses of nature’s commodification can deal with the humanity-nature metabolism, but in ecofeminism there is a shift of interest from production to reproduction – of economic relations, of cultural practices, and of biological processes. The Marxist theory of labour by which humans negotiate their social relation with conditions of production is suggestive, but not sufficiently articulate on the functions of reproductive labour. This has led to absurd sociological claims like Jürgen Habermas’ surmise in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that ecology and feminism belong to civil society and are, therefore, not class-based movements.

During the 1970s, socialist feminists engaged in the ‘domestic labour debate’, tried to explain the precise character of reproductive or ‘caring’ labour as an essential component of capitalist accumulation based on surplus value. But their efforts were largely ignored. Moreover, they still reasoned in terms of industrial growth and redistribution of the social product. Since then, environmental crisis and postcolonial struggles have broadened the emancipatory agenda, such that concern for equality needs to be integrated with cultural diversity and with sustainability.

SallehIn this new historical context, the subsistence perspective in ecofeminism has emerged, interrogating the very foundations of Marxist materialism and its supposedly transhistorical concepts of history, nature, contradiction, and labour. Ecofeminists ask whether there might not be deeper causal structures, general processes and particular contingencies, formative of old gender-innocent Marxist understandings, as argued in my book Ecofeminism as Politics: nature, Marx and the postmodern. At the same time, the notion of a meta-industrial class defies given sociological constructs of gender, class and race. Both women and men from all societies will undertake reproductive labour—economic, cultural, biological—at some stage in their lives.

The argument therefore, is not about romancing ‘mothers’ or the ‘the noble savage’, its focus is entirely materialist. Self-managed Aboriginal economies generate lay knowledges that are not only environmentally benign, but creatively social. Besides subsistence, they foster learning, participation, innovation, ritual, identity and belonging. Indigenous peoples are known to achieve a high quality of life with only three hours work a day. On the other hand, the engineered satisfiers of modern industrial societies like bureaucracies or cars, cost much time and energy, often sabotaging the very convenience they were designed for. While reproductive labour is a metabolic bridging of human and natural ‘cycles’, productive labour is ‘linear’ and pursues a single goal regardless of collateral damage—whether in agribusiness, mining, manufacture or ‘controlled’ laboratory science. This Eurocentric instrumental rationality collides with complex patterns of material and energetic exchange in nature, leaving disordered environments and human poverty in its wake.

It is my contention that the basis for an alternative twenty-first century socialist vision exists already across the earth in the myriad of meta-industrial practices that remain uncaptured by either market or plan. Alongside the models of bien vivir offered by indigenous and peasant movements from the global South, many in the North are setting up bioregional economies based on commoning, subsistence, LETS schemes, or eco-villages, designed around the principles of diversity, reciprocity, and precaution.

The site at which reproductive labour and its lay knowledges physically mediate humanity and nature is the best vantage point for framing an ecologically literate class politics. Here, strategies for ecology, feminism, postcolonial, and socialist movements find common ground. Given the insurgency of meta-industrial voices in the alternative globalisation movement, their global majority status, their pivotal role in capital accumulation, and their uniquely rational models of sustainable provisioning, this meta-industrial class may well be the most appropriate ‘agent of history’ at this time. The claim for these groupings constituting a ‘class’ is surely overdetermined.

Ariel Salleh
Activist and social theorist, Ariel Salleh has worked at the interface of socialist, feminist, indigenous, and ecological politics for several decades. She is a Research Associate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney; Visiting Professor in Culture, Philosophy and Environment at Nelson Mandela University; and Senior Fellow in Post-Growth Societies at Friedrich Schiller University Jena.

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