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Politics and ‘the totality of natural relations’

by Ariel Salleh on November 15, 2017
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The crises of capitalist globalisation manifests as worker precarity in the industrial world, the extractivist threat to rural livelihoods in the global South, epidemic levels of domestic violence, regional wars and global warming. But people’s political responses to this world-systemic compromise of life-on-Earth tend to be limited by their own experience and vantage point. Even the social movements speak to each other from what dialectician Bertell Ollman calls different ‘levels of generality’.

To see how these seemingly disparate movements – socialist, decolonial, women’s, and ecologicalare internally related to each other, tools of analysis are needed that go all the way down to the materiality of our bodies.

Today, socialists observe working class politics disoriented by job losses to offshore manufacturing zones, as well as by the so-called ’emancipation’ of women into part-time employment. The automated AI future is unlikely to de-materialise into justice and sustainability. Environmental policy resting on market formulae and the tech fix of ecological modernists is superficial and circular. As Barry Commoner, one of the world’s first eco-socialists noted: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’.

Productivist instrumentalism inevitably cuts through nature’s metabolic web leaving disorder and entropy behind. In our times, capitalism meets its limit – in ‘nature’. The possibility of a fairer world, indeed, the future of life-itself, is highly uncertain now. Marx noted that capital destroys its own material basis as it goes – what James O’Connor named the ‘second contradiction’. But does the master discourse of political economy do justice to questions of race, sex-gender, or species difference? Not really. Eco-socialist theory remains largely eurocentric, androcentric, and anthropocentric in framing.

In fact, eco-socialism has a very old pivot; a primary contradiction in the ideological dualism of Humanity over Nature and its corollaries – man over woman, white over black.

Ecological feminists have been challenging the Humanity/Nature rift for decades. They began in the 1970s with women’s organised opposition to nuclear power, deforestation, and toxic agroindustry. Connecting local with global politics, these struggles were transnational and they defied established notions of progress. German women built on theoretical foundations laid by Rosa Luxemburg. On other continents, the idea of ‘an ecofeminism’ occurred spontaneously, as women tried to protect the conditions of everyday life from the collateral damage of militarism and economic growth.

Speaking out from diverse ethnicities and classes, these grassroots activists borrowed various languages to make sense of their new politics – from Gaia or Pachamama imagery, to ecriture feminine, to socialism. With insights empirically grounded in daily care labour, ecofeminists contested both ‘equality’ feminism, as well as the explanatory adequacy of deep ecology, unreflexive marxisms, and not least, the liberal academic field of environmental ethics.

So the book Ecofeminism as Politics: nature, Marx, and the postmodern was written; inviting thinkers and activists to focus less on the interface of ‘labour with capital’ and more on the interface of ‘labour with nature’.

In a time of system crisis, the standard androcentric and eurocentric concept of labour must be problematised; the more so, if eco-socialists seek unity with women’s and decolonial movements. Hitherto existing socialist theory focused on relations of production, but this vantage point must be extended to include structurally unspoken ‘relations of reproduction’. Ecofeminist thought is indispensible to building such political bridges; it embodies them, having emerged from the crux of worker’s, decolonial, women’s, and ecological struggles.

In the 1970 to 1980s, a ‘domestic labour debate’ among socialist feminists from Mariarosa Dalla Costa to Heidi Hartman unmasked the role of unpaid housework in providing use values, and contributing directly to surplus value. Their efforts were ignored by accumulation scholars. Ecofeminists would re-scope the geopolitical extension and temporal scale of the old domestic labour debate. Now reproductive labour gets defined more broadly, with human society embedded in the totality of natural relations. The quantitative dialectic of socialist feminist political economy is qualitatively sublated by the adoption of an ecocentric lens.

This embodied materialism highlights the free appropriation of women’s labours, indigenous labours, and all ‘naturalised’ matter-energy flows subsumed by global capital.

The capitalist patriarchal system has traditionally positioned and silenced women as ‘closer to nature’ – mere caregivers and food growers, outside of exchange value. Yet these reproductive labours – ‘natural and social’ – are foundational to any society. Through such hands-on work, a parent in the global North learns to sustain cycles of biological growth in small bodies. Similarly, the skillfull subsistence labours of peasants and gatherers in the global South attune to living cycles in the landscape. This protection of ‘metabolic value’ in natural processes is both identical, and non-identical, with the creation of use values to meet human needs.

In thermodynamic terms, the destructive linear logic of industrialisation is countered by the circular logic of reproductive work. The latter’s inter-generational time frame is intrinsically precautionary; its intimate scale maximises responsiveness to matter-energy transfers in the human-ecological fusion. Socio-economies that dovetail with the totality of natural relations do not externalise waste as pollution, or costs on to ‘others’ as exploitation. Meta-industrial labour at the domestic and geographic peripheries of capital is an irreducible prerequisite of its functioning. However, such labour is in principle, autonomous and eco-sufficient.

Workers who catalyse life-on-Earth, discover and internalise a vernacular epistemology, one that will be enacted structurally and strategically as a ‘meta-industrial class’.

Exemplars of metabolic regeneration are everywhere. In Brasil, a vibrant Landless Workers’ Movement practices food sovereignty. From Indonesia, the peasant union Via Campesina claims ‘our way of life is cooling down the Earth’. English housewives and grandmothers volunteer repair of the Thames River catchment. US lesbians tackle global warming by promoting veganism. In India, Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya School saves seeds from pharmaceutical patenting and in Africa, a network of anti-extractivist villagers write their own ecofeminist manifesto for the COP climate summit.

Right now, the vantage point of peasant and indigenous peoples in the global South is the most energised perspective in the movement of movements against corporate globalisation. Projects like the World Social Forum, Systemic Alternatives, and Radical Ecological Democracy, testify to this historical agency. Moreover, middle class environmentalists are taking inspiration from Ecuador’s legislation of Mother Earth Rights. There is a new wave of feminist awareness too, despite a repressive neoliberal divide-and-rule that makes girls compete against each other for the ranks of privilege. A ‘rediscovery of care’ and the ‘green economy’ is readily absorbed into the logic of GDP.

Unless there is a critical trans-valuation of the totality of natural relations, women’s lib or decolonial moves will express a defensive self-serving ‘identity politics’.

Capital is ideologically pragmatic and promiscuous, but it adheres faithfully to the Humanity over Nature myth that legitimates masculinist entitlement and western technological domination. Such hegemonies are nurtured by individual minds over centuries of libidinal dissociation and sublimation. Ecofeminists use transdisciplinary tools to trace the lived phases of this discursive power from – unconscious embodiment – to conscious subjectivity – to individual action – to class positioning – to economic institutions – to cultural narrative – and back again into the unconscious. Marx’s structural dialectic is necessary, but not sufficient for deconstructing our conjuncture in its several orders of generality.

The tough call is that thinking across disciplines collides with the securitisation or social containment agenda of the bourgeois university and its departmental hierarchies. Sociologists may assert their field is ‘sui generis’ and read talk of human embodiment in nature as biological reductionism! Political economists may eschew professional attention to individual experience as ‘moralism and unscientific’! Yet it is important not to reify ‘structures and systems’; these are simply abstractions distilled from the observation of personal attitudes and actions.

A failure to triangulate knowledge-making in a way that mediates different vantage points and conceptual levels, risks the mystification of positivist economics.

So to conclude: an ecofeminist emphasis on the totality of natural relations opens the way for a respectful conversation between the social movements. It does this by throwing new light across given Marxist constructs of class, labour, and value. Situated at perhaps the deepest level of generality – that is to say, at the material interface of human ‘labour with nature’ – meta-industrials offer a critical epistemology and a political praxis that is immediate. Here is a model of relational care and sustainable provisioning to learn from.

Ariel Salleh

Ariel Salleh is a Research Associate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney; Visiting Professor, Nelson Mandela University; and Senior Fellow in Post-Growth Societies, Friedrich Schiller University Jena: www.arielsalleh.info. Other recent work includes a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Ecological Economics; journal articles in International Critical Thought; in Globalizations; and a forthcoming Post-Development Dictionary co-edited with Ashish Kothari, Fede Demaria, Arturo Escobar, and Alberto Acosta.

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