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The Environmental Strike?

November 19, 2012

Slowly, painfully, I’m studying Russian revolutionary history.  I know it’s important, and I wish I could tell you I was enthralled, but the truth is I’m mostly confused by all the terminology (“defencists?”), slightly jumbled chronologically, and easily distracted by Facebook and the neighborhood kitten outside my apartment.  Plus I’m sick, as evidenced by the Everest of crumpled tissues on my coffee table.  (Don’t worry; I’ll clean it before you come over.)

Clockwise from top left: general strike in Indonesia; miners’ strike in South Africa; WalMart strike in U.S.A.; strikes in Egypt; Cambodian garment workers’ strike protesting sexual harassment.

Anyway.  One of the things I’m learning in my intermittent reading bursts is the difference between economic and political strikes.  Far as I can tell, economic strikes are the more common ones, where workers stop production in order to force owners to give them higher wages, or health care, safer conditions on the job, the firing of a racist or sexist manager, etc.  Economic strikes generally happen within a specific company, since you’re trying to lessen the acuteness with which that company exploits you.

Political strikes, on the other hand, have to be bigger, because the target isn’t just one company, but broader policy or the government itself.  Strikes for the 8-hour work day, ending child labor, or trying to force a government to end a war, change regimes, or block austerity measures must necessarily grow huge and widespread to have a chance of succeeding.  Only then can “organized labor become a political actor.”

This is basically what I gather, and in Russian history they have these pretty cool charts showing the breakdown of economic and political strikes around the time of revolutions in 1905 and 1917.  Moreover, the two types are related: at least according to Lenin, political strikes need a strong foundation of tangible economic gains in order to win popular backing from the working class.

In a political strike, the working class comes forward as the advanced class of the whole people. In such cases, the proletariat plays not merely the role of one of the classes of bourgeois society, but the role of guide, vanguard, leader. The political ideas manifested in the movement involve the whole people, i.e., they concern the basic, most profound conditions of the political life of the whole country. This character of the political strike, as has been noted by all scientific investigators of the period 1905–07, brought into the movement all the classes, and particularly, of course, the widest, most numerous and most democratic sections of the population, the peasantry, and so forth.

On the other hand, the mass of the working people will never agree to conceive of a general “progress” of the country without economic demands, without an immediate and direct improvement in their condition. The masses are drawn into the movement, participate vigorously in it, value it highly and display heroism, self-sacrifice, perseverance and devotion to the great cause only if it makes for improving the economic condition of those who work. Nor can it be otherwise, for the living conditions of the workers in “ordinary” times are incredibly hard. As it strives to improve its living conditions, the working class also progresses morally, intellectually and politically, becomes more capable of achieving its great emancipatory aims.

One of the perverse truths of capitalist industrialization, though, is that in striving to survive, or even improve its living conditions, the working class also becomes the mechanism (though not the cause — that’s still capitalism) of environmental destruction.

Last week, when I posted on Facebook an article about how fracking releases radioactive substances that remain hazardous to life for 16,000 years,  my friend Nichola responded,

Oh crap. They have started fracking like crazy in NE Ohio, all around the area where my parents and family live, and everyone is going crazy with visions for new prosperity. It’s the new gold rush there, with lots of new jobs having been created. But I have been having this scary feeling about it, and here it is. Sharing.

Talk about a rock and a hard place.

The way our capitalist class society jams, capital needs to extract surplus value (profit) from workers in order to expand itself and keep growing.  That’s what “drives” the economy.  To ensure a steady supply of people from whom to extract surplus value, the owning class needs plenty of workers: the proletariat.  These workers (or non-workers, the unemployed proletariat) don’t have private homesteads to grow our kale, build our huts, weave our blankets and sustain ourselves, so we need jobs and money in order to eke out an existence.

Pretty much since this coercive system took over the world’s economies (replacing other, differently coercive systems), people who need to sell their labor-power to live have been taking on dangerous and unhealthy jobs — from crab fishing to combat, mining to manicures, un-self-determined sex work, etc.  You do what you gotta do to get by under capitalism.

But some of these environmental dangers smell to me like a whole new type of terrifying.  Like, Unit 4 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility has already sunk 31.5 inches since the earthquake and tsunami, and if it collapses, could cause a fire in the atmosphere.  Bad news for Japan; bad news, evidently, for everywhere the sky reaches.

Could Japanese labor have organized itself as a biocentric actor and refused to construct nuclear power plants in the first place?  Obviously we’ve seen locals intervening against nuclear energy, and indigenous people resisting the accumulation of their land for ecocidal and literally shitty exploitation. Realistically, though, when it comes to organized labor, it seems next to impossible (please tell me I’m wrong!) to collectively reject employment in entire industries on the basis of their longer-term environmental consequences — no matter how mind-numbingly horrible those consequences may be.  As Stephanie McMillian writes on Kasama, no one wants to champion short-term sacrifices.  Socialist / communist struggle is supposed to be Helpful now and lead to Splendor later, right?

Yeah, so…about that post-revolutionary socialist productivity…

On the left, the theory of productive forces has led to a widespread productivist/mechanical view of reaching socialism: by developing and fully mechanizing production, we will reach abundance and the end of labor itself. It is increasingly obvious that this scenario is at odds with the reality around us, yet there is a general reluctance to tell the truth: that a lot of production, everything not necessary for survival, simply has to end. No one likes being the person who brings the bad news that we have to make do with less. It’s harder to organize around.

And so the idea of socialism, the common ownership of the means of production and equitable distribution of goods, also doesn’t go far enough. We need to change our relationship with the natural world. It is not there for us to use, but instead we are part of it and depend on its overall health. We need to define a different relationship with it than as a set of resources. A sustainable economy can only involve production that is subordinate to nature and that fits within its physical limits to reproduce itself — that is determined not by human desires and whims, but by our actual needs, which are dependent on a healthy planet above all.

Okay, so maybe it depends how we define post-revolutionary Splendor.  Current U.S. middle-class standards: clearly unsustainable if generalized.  But still, hopefully there will be enough for everyone, and everyone will be able to access what feels like enough.  (Questions of contentment and scarcity in Marxism is a whole nother subject I’m working on for later.)

That hope for abundance, though, seems to wane more and more each day, while a sense of urgency escalates.  It seems that the historical task of the working class may not only be organizing to overthrow capitalism, but also (and there is definitely overlap here) organizing to help stop the irrevocable fucking up of the planet, ASAP.  Coral reefs and their food supply supporting millions of poor people?  Doomed.  Lungs of the earth?  Wheezing.  Edible biodiversity?  Less than robust.  Drinkable water?  …okay now I’m depressing myself.

So fill me in.  Do you know of any examples of what I’m provisionally calling environmental strikes?  Meaning: not labor struggles over immediate safety conditions in the workplace, but more on the level of political strikes in that they attempt to impact entire environmentally destructive industries or operations, perhaps with a broad or long-term perspective in mind?

Do tell.

Jellyfish succeed where anti-nuclear organizing fails: at least four nuclear power plants in Japan, Israel, and Scotland have had to close because of millions of jellyfish clogging their filtration or cooling systems.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2012 6:34 am

    The reference to Fukushima reminded me of something. Pure Land Buddhist temples in Japan have started “People’s Power Plants.” They convince the locals to purchase big solar panels that are placed on top of the traditional temple roofs. The neighborhood detaches from the nuclear-based grid and gets its power from the solar collectors, and excess energy is sold to the big urban communities to reduce their dependence too. They’re even experimenting with solar panels shaped like traditional Japanese temple roof tiles, so the aesthetic tradition can be preserved while the Dharma is applied to benefit everyone both materially and spiritually. Pure Land Buddhism is particularly communalistic, so it’s a good match of values.

  2. treepretty permalink
    November 20, 2012 8:34 am

    These are great questions. I don’t know of any examples of straight-up environmental strikes like you’re talking about, but there are examples of working class people opposing things that are particularly toxic to their communities, even if there are jobs in it. The most obvious example I’m thinking of is Appalachian coal miners opposing mountain top removal — but not less egregiously horrible forms of coal mining — because it destroys their communities.

  3. November 20, 2012 9:03 am

    Jeff, that’s an interesting trend! Do you happen to know if villagers are considered to ‘co-own’ part of the energy generated by the solar panels? Maybe it’s just my own nervousness about consolidating power (in this case, command-power and electricity-power) in religious institutions, because if you get on the wrong side of the Church, they can cut you off. Also I’m not totally sure how to feel about solar, having met a guy who went into the solar industry all gung-ho, then found out how much energy / displacement it is taking to manufacture and maintain them, and changed his tune. But that’s just one person’s story; I haven’t heard too much about it. Anyway, I like the idea of collectively bringing independent renewable power to a community, and if Buddhist groups want to play a positive role in that, great!

    hi treepretty. :) Thanks for that example — I’m just sure there must be instances like this where workers refuse to collaborate in their own ecocidal destruction (taking a cue from many indigenous struggles), and that seems like a pretty good case. Do you know if the mountaintop removal opposition has created a significant dent in the industry / practice? Wanna look it up more…

  4. November 20, 2012 9:10 am

    There are numerous examples in Native American communities, particularly reservation communities, of rejecting projects promoting “jobs” tied to nuclear waste, as well as some in oil/gas, especially when the land in question is particularly sacred to the tribal band. As I’ve talked with a few others locally about addressing the fracking in Minnesota, what I’m thinking is that efforts to block and disrupt must be linked somehow to visioning efforts about ways folks can sustain themselves. Including some sort of “green” job creation with the workers at the center of creation and development. Part of the reason many of the environmental-centric efforts have so often been trumped by jobs and the short term is that there’s an unbridged divide between the environmental folks and those who need the work to survive. Instead of coming together, they tend to demonize each other.And the corporate elite are never seriously challenged because the energy needed to do so is wasted on fights between “tree huggers” and “ignorant sellouts.”

    Whatever is done, I think the message of “needing to make do with less” must be replaced by a call to understand how what we think is more actually isn’t bringing the vast majority of us the good life. This, of course, brings us back to Buddhist teachings on attachment and desire – especially related to ownership of stuff. And the thing is, people on the economic edge, struggling to make ends meet, already have experiences of joy and happiness without owning piles of stuff. Those experiences just need to be accessed and centered, pulled out from behind all the propaganda that covers the surface.

  5. November 20, 2012 9:56 am

    As usual, I like where you’re comin from, Nathan. :) Definitely in the U.S. there are so many weird strains of super-elitist and / or white supremacist environmentalism, which remain completely out of touch with working-class needs and often favor ‘preserving’ nature for what one of my professors used to call “the Wine, Cheese & GoreTex set.” I guess the environmental justice movement has tried to refocus efforts and reconcile the divide between “tree-huggers” and “ignorant sellouts,” and it seems like there have been some inspiring local movements on that score, but little to mitigate the large-scale industrial damages?

    In terms of visioning ways to sustain ourselves separate from extremely dirty jobs, I have to agree that’s right. It’s just hard for me to imagine, especially on a large urban scale! And as we’ve talked about before, there’s the danger of sliding into a belief that alternatives are themselves the answer, and that there’s no need for aggressive disruption. In fact, when the state comes along to try to crush or reappropriate the alternative spaces, authorities will probably blame the troublemakers, right? So bridging the disruption and the sustaining work, like you say, is key. Then they can build on each other. It definitely seems easier to be brave in the face of state and industry when you know a community has got your back, to help keep you fed and your kids taken care of and your various needs met. Seems like a lot of those kinds of community responses also happen spontaneously, when people see workers taking brave risks.

    And yes, so important, renunciation and sharing can bring joy. One of the potential Buddhist contributions to class struggle! :) Realistically, too, though, it seems like one of the mechanisms that reinforced labor organizing in its more militant past was not only a sense of willing sacrifice, but also a threat of bodily harm if you dared to cross a picket line. So there was a kind of worker-enforced sacrifice, which probably engendered some pride in choosing the right side of struggle, and doing without for the sake of the collective, but also was super real about dealing with scabbing.

  6. Kate permalink
    November 20, 2012 10:20 am

    1988-1990
    Judi Bari, Earth First! and IWW organizer, set out to diffuse the tension and create alliances between redwood loggers and direct action forest defenders. When Earth First! came on the scene, most of the old growth trees had been logged, and the industry was shrinking. Loggers directed anger around paycuts and lost jobs on activists and spotted owls. EF! activists weren’t holding a class analysis that allowed them to separate the loggers from the logging companies. Judi Bari called in the IWW and helped to organize loggers, looking out for their own interests and seeking to protect forests.

    In 1990 as Judi was traveling to recruit folks to come to the Redwoods to organize, she was targeted and bombed by the FBI. Though not fatal, it seems to me that the bombing effectively disrupted the organizing trajectory. The targeting of Judi is a sign that her work was a real threat to dominant powers.

  7. November 20, 2012 10:47 am

    Wow…. that’s hella intense and sad. Thanks for sharing that, Kate. Also interesting because the IWW in its early days, like the 1910’s, grew a lot from organizing loggers, no? Kind of full-circle…

    Another example that just came to mind, of workers refusing environmentally damaging work, is when Monsanto sent grain to Haiti after the earthquake, and instead of accepting and planting it, Haitians burned it.

  8. Kate permalink
    November 20, 2012 11:38 pm

    Right, IWW organized loggers back in the early days when there seemed to be an unlimited supply of big trees. It was in the moment when the industry was collapsing due to rapid clearcutting that the workers/environmentalist coalition began brewing to fight for sustainable logging practices: selectively logging at a rate lower than the growth rate. This story of the timber industry seems to be analogous to the current global economic/environmental situation. There will be no more jobs if we destroy the source of our sustenance! The earth herself is rising up in resistance to industry.

  9. January 28, 2013 11:58 pm

    hey hey this is a thing that happened :)
    http://www.libcom.org/history/articles/green-bans-australia-construction

  10. February 3, 2013 12:06 pm

    armillaria! wow! thanks so much for this; it’s been a super busy time and i’m sorry for not responding to you sooner, but i’m excited to read up on this movement (and the union bureaucracy that eventually crushed it?!? interesting). thanks again! do you have any particular connection to australian struggles or environmental-labor struggles?

    hella love,

    katie

  11. armillaria permalink
    February 7, 2013 6:11 pm

    well, currently i’m working with the anti-mountaintop-removal movement in the u.s., which is also a thing of collective survival and it’s strange to be here as an outsider not from the coalfields. unfortunately the coal companies have done a really good job framing it as “environmentalists want to steal your jobs,” and though there’s a lot of popular anger at the companies people are intimidated and isolated, so reading about the australian green strikes was really inspirational for me.

  12. February 9, 2013 8:42 am

    yeah, i was just talking to someone who’s living in west virginia, and she said miners despise the EPA for stealing jobs. she wasn’t seeing that anger at the companies, though, so that’s good to hear about. yes, that’s the kind of thing that maybe a speaking tour would be amazing for? revolutionary and eco-knowledgeable workers from australia coming to the mountaintop-removal areas? (of course, that’s a long way to travel… :)

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