(Image: Harry Haysom)
And those are exactly the people we need to save the planet.
Does the working class have a material interest in saving the environment? Could we harness such an interest to confront the owners of capital responsible for the crisis?
If you listen to much of the environmental left today, it would seem the answer is a resounding no — especially for the working class in the Global North. German climate justice campaigner Tadzio Müller recently said, in no uncertain terms, “The Global North is essentially a global labor aristocracy.” Far from having an interest in saving the planet, Müller thinks “the material interests of the vast majority of people in the Global North” lie in the “continued destruction of the biosphere.”
Self-described degrowth communist Bue Rübner Hansen speaks of “labor’s intertwinement with fossil capital” and suggests the working class participates in an “imperial mode of living.” Hansen asserts that the working class must accept unspecified changes to save the climate: “the end of fossil capital will entail a substantial transformation of working class habits, preferences, and consumption in the Global North.”
For degrowth scholar Jason Hickel and others, the real class struggle is not between workers and capital but between geographical regions: North and South. They argue that rich countries engage in “imperial forms of appropriation” and that the working class is complicit in their consumption. “This pattern sustains high levels of income in the Global North,” Hickel et al. claim, “and preserves levels of material consumption well above equitable and ecologically sustainable levels.”
Symptomatically, they do not differentiate income based on wages versus capital ownership in “high-income countries” — at one point narrowly focusing on wage differentials between South and North. All income, whether it flows to capital or labor, is assumed to be a form of ecological imperialism. In other words, everyone in the Global North, worker or capitalist, is complicit in the planet’s destruction.
At the root of this politics is a form of “lifestyle environmentalism”: the assertion that modern consumer behaviors are the primary driver of ecological problems. If ecological damage is blamed on consumers and workers just trying to survive, and not capitalist for-profit producers, a working-class politics of material gains is simply impossible — and class-struggle politics as we have known it is dead.
For many on the eco-left today, the problem with the working class in the Global North is that they simply have too much. They must, according to the degrowth slogan, “live better with less,” eerily similar to the austerity slogan of “do more with less.”
As Leigh Phillips has argued, it would be relatively straightforward to assert that the planet’s working class has a shared material interest in increasing their income, especially in the Global North, where the working classes have seen nothing but wage stagnation, mounting debt, and eroding economic security — in other words, class solidarity from Ohio to Manchuria.
However, when the wages and incomes of Global North workers are themselves seen as imperialist and ecologically destructive, the logic for degrowth is clear — working-class material interests are at odds with the planet’s, and thus, any material victory for them comes at the Earth’s expense.
Is there any way out of this apparently intractable conflict between the working class and environmental politics?
Ecology Is Already at the Heart of Marxism
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s core definition of the working class is inherently ecological in that it’s rooted in bodily survival. As Stefania Barca puts it, the working class is defined by “a unique and global process of violent separation from their means of subsistence.”
The very formation of the working class under capitalism begins with the expropriation of the direct producers from the ecological basis of all life — the land beneath their feet. It is this separation from the land and ecological subsistence that forces the working class to sell their labor to survive. This mass proletarianization ecologically defines contemporary global capitalism. For all of human history, the majority of producers still accessed some of their subsistence directly from the land. Now, for the working class, the ecological means of life (food, energy, shelter, and more) must be accessed through the market.
Yet, for many environmentalists, this market dependence is a source of “ecological privilege” and “ecological footprints,” where working-class spending is traced back to ecological destruction. It is no surprise that the declarations calling upon Global North workers to scale down and consume less come from the professional classes: academics, scientists, journalists, and staff activists in the NGO “third sector.” For these professionals among the upper third of the income distribution, a politics of less — reductions and degrowth — has some appeal.
However, for the bottom two-thirds of society, market dependence creates various forms of stress, anxiety, and unfreedom wholly contingent upon their financial situation. For the working class, unlike both professionals and capitalists, simply provisioning basic material needs is a daily struggle — and not one they should feel guilty about.
A survey conducted before the COVID recession revealed 70 percent of Americans have $1,000 or less in the bank. During the pandemic, it was reported that between 30 and 42 million Americans were going hungry, as long lines formed at food banks all over the country. In January of this year, 66 percent reported they were concerned about affording basic medical care. Pretty bleak for a supposed labor aristocracy.
If ecology is, at its core, the reproduction of life, it is straightforward to say that the working class has a material ecological interest in winning more secure access to life’s basic necessities. In fact, the very sectors of the economy we need to transform in order to solve climate change and ecological breakdown — energy, food, housing, and transport — are all at the core of these needs. A material gain for them here means a victory for the planet’s survival, not its demise.
Appealing to these interests — and not shaming workers for their lifestyles — can build the popular power to take on the real source of ecological crisis: private production for profit. Such a program can wed the interests of working-class life with planetary life as a whole against capital.
The Green New Deal as a Working-Class Program
Prior to the political convulsions of 2016, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone proposing a working-class environmental program. Policy wonks feverishly debated whether cap and trade or carbon taxes were the best method to solve the climate crisis. The fact that neither garnered popular support didn’t seem to matter.
Yet, even on the Left, the most radical assessments also adopted a commonsense politics of “do more with less.” It took 2016 to finally wake us up.
Having united behind the 2016 Bernie Sanders run, it was Donald Trump’s terrible victory a few months later — combined with Hillary Clinton’s incompetent campaign — that marked crisis for Third Way environmental politics. Then, in France shortly thereafter, the revolt against Emmanuel Macron’s regressive carbon tax only helped bolster the case for a new approach to climate politics.
A consensus formed on the climate left that we needed to construct political demands that were less about wonky market fixes and more about delivering real benefits to workers. In early 2018, climate activists were arguing that the Green New Deal (GND) could be the “Medicare for All of climate change.” The urgency was intensified by the famous October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which suggested that limiting warming to 1.5ºC required “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Workers, instead of being shamed for shopping, would now be invited to help found a society that would not only save the planet but also bring jobs, income, and security.
The GND exploded onto the scene in mid-November 2018, when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez teamed up with the Sunrise Movement to occupy the office of Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi. This sit-in for a GND — with signs reading “Green Jobs for All” — created massive media attention and excitement in the climate policy community.
It is notable that Ocasio-Cortez chose climate as her first policy intervention. She understood that the scale of the crisis contained all the elements of resurrecting a left working-class agenda: confrontation with corporate power, redistribution from the rich, and massive public investment based on a jobs guarantee. In February 2019, she and Senator Ed Markey introduced the non-binding Green New Deal resolution that centered on “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”
The GND resolution was meant to build a broad program on which 2020 presidential contenders could campaign. While several candidates proposed ambitious climate plans — most notably, Governor Jay Inslee made climate his signature issue — only Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal effectively channeled the energy of the youth climate movement into an authentic social-democratic program proposing a “wholesale transformation of our society.”
Sanders not only promised to decarbonize the energy system but also to create 20 million new jobs in the process. And, unlike earlier climate proposals, his took seriously workers’ economic concerns with an aim of “saving American families money by weatherizing homes and lowering energy bills.”
More important, and rectifying a glaring weakness in Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution, Sanders insisted on class-struggle politics against the fossil fuel industry. His plan stood alone in its confrontational language and, echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1936 speech, repeated in countless campaign rallies:
We need a president who has the courage, the vision, and the record to face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action. We need a president who welcomes their hatred.
More radical visions of the Green New Deal — like that of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — propose a fundamentally new relation to life itself. The organization’s ecosocialist program aims to “decommodify survival by guaranteeing living wages, healthcare, childcare, housing, food, water, energy, public transit, a healthy environment, and other necessities for all.”
On that front, newly elected DSA members Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman recently introduced a major public power resolution, “Expressing that the United States must establish electricity as a basic human right and public good.” This kind of mass decommodification via public goods is what addressing — and not dismissing — working-class environmental interests looks like.
The Green New Deal Falls Short
But even as the Sunrise Movement, DSA, and the larger climate movement got behind the Sanders campaign and his Green New Deal, it wasn’t enough for him to win. This loss had unavoidable implications for the entire Green New Deal project that had gained such momentum between 2018 and 2020. And we can’t ignore the lessons.
First, the GND was certainly a breakthrough for environmental politics in its assertion of a working-class program. Yet we should keep in mind a difference articulated by British trade unionist Andrew Murray between a “class-focused” and a “class-rooted” politics. The recent resurgence of the Left is clearly a politics for but not necessarily of the working class.
This was decidedly the case with the Green New Deal. It was a brilliant policy framework but still one formulated by academics, think tanks, and NGO professionals — a politics of the professional class, for the working class. It’s hardly controversial to note that most of the energy behind GND organizing was driven by aspirant professionals — high school and college students involved in the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, and the student climate strike.
Although Sunrise boasts an army of young activists and employs militant language, it was itself born from the environmental NGO complex — its origins include a $50,000 grant and office space from the Sierra Club Foundation in 2017. It also runs a political action committee that raised $2.3 million in the 2020 election cycle.
The second most important lesson was that much of the organizing between 2017 and 2020 was predicated on the intoxicating promise of the Left winning state power — particularly at the executive level. Prior to defeat, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch excitedly described the Corbyn and Sanders movements: “Nothing like this has happened in at least three generations.” They speculated about what a “socialist-led government” would face and suggested that much of the Left was still marked by a “failure to prepare adequately for the challenge of transforming state apparatuses.” Similarly, Mike McCarthy, writing in Jacobin, warned that “our first 100 days could be a nightmare.”
Now, the nightmare is simply the harsh electoral realities of defeat even after so much promise. And since the entire GND program had to be delivered through the state, there’s no one at the top now to push it through. This state-directed design was so alluring because it is hard to imagine winning such a large-scale transformation without the coercive and fiscal power of the government. After all, it was the state that delivered the original New Deal — including tremendous new investments in energy infrastructure.
Finally, the entire theory of change behind the Green New Deal was simply backward all along. Sanders had promised that, once in office, he would awaken the sleeping giant of the working class and build an extra-electoral mass movement to confront Wall Street, health insurance conglomerates, and the fossil fuel industry. It was unique that the “organizer in chief” understood that he alone could not implement his agenda.
Yet even Sanders himself probably suspected that the odds were stacked against him — winning state power before achieving mass working-class organization is not how it works. The required armies of disillusioned-but-now-politicized working-class voters did not turn out in the primaries as we hoped. Quite the opposite — the threat of Sanders and disgust at President Trump led to a turnout surge among suburban liberals. Too much of the existing working class is still beset by apathetic (but understandable) cynicism, or what the late Mark Fisher called “reflexive impotence”: “[People] know things are bad, but . . . know they can’t do anything about it.”
It is clear that a working-class politics, let alone a “socialist-led government,” cannot be conjured from nothing. We will need to build capable working-class organizations first (strong unions, media, and other infrastructure) before we can expect to vie for state power. There are still no shortcuts to building power. And the Green New Deal and Sanders’s campaign — although promising and exciting — were always shortcuts.
But, given the brutal timeline we face with climate change, they were shortcuts worth pursuing.
Ecological Unionism and the Just Transition?
After the Sanders loss, it has almost become cliché to assert that the only path remaining to rebuild the Left goes through the labor movement. This is as true to the environmental left as anything else.
Even after decades of defeat, the most powerful existing institutional infrastructure on the Left is still trade unions. And on that front, there are some encouraging signs. Major strategic unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union have already endorsed the Green New Deal. The Massachusetts Teachers Association even called for a national teachers’ strike to demand the program. Of course, there is also the long-standing BlueGreen Alliance attempting to forge unity between the union and environmental movements.
Earlier this year, DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group made a sound strategic decision to partner with unions in a struggle to pass the PRO Act. This campaign is based on the premise that only a strengthened union movement can win a Green New Deal.
But the more inconvenient truth is that there are still many unions that oppose not only the GND but key climate demands like shutting down the Keystone Pipeline or phasing out coal-fired electricity entirely.
It has become a habit on the climate left to call the “jobs versus environment” narrative a false dilemma or a cynical tactic of the bosses. This is true, but it is also evidence of the extremely underdeveloped welfare state in the United States. It is not as if neoliberal austerity offers much of a safety net to workers when coal mines or power plants are shut down. It is, again, proletarian insecurity that causes workers and unions to choose jobs over the environment.
The standard left response to this dilemma is to simply shout “just transition” — the idea that displaced workers in dirty industries should be given support to transition into new, cleaner industries. The problem, though, is that much of the fossil fuel workforce has never heard of it, and communities hollowed out by coal mine or power plant closures don’t believe it.
We should not forget that the whole idea of the “just transition” came from the legendary union leader and environmentalist Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. Instead of vague assurances of “retraining” — a promise Bill Clinton made but did not keep when he passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — Mazzocchi modeled his idea on a policy enacted during the last hurrah of the New Deal: the GI Bill. Over nearly three decades, that legislation helped more than 13 million former soldiers find civilian employment or pursue educational opportunities.
Rather than sloganeering, a real just transition would need a massive public-sector effort like this to actually convince affected workers — and that requires state power.
Just transition politics also asserts a limited vision of what working-class power can achieve. It imagines workers as “victims” in need of support. This is undoubtedly true for fossil fuel industry workers in a climate-stable world, but a real working-class strategy to win climate action must position workers and unions as powerful agents of transformation.
As Sean Sweeney and John Treat of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy argue, we need to treat unions less as partners in “social dialogue” with capital and the state, and more as agents of “social power” willing to use disruption, strikes, and mass political education to force the scale of changes needed.
A union-based climate strategy should also recognize what the labor movement has always understood: certain sectors of the economy are more strategic to organize in than others. Jane McAlevey recounts how the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) focused on steel and coal in the 1930s, and today, she proposes a focus on health care, education, and logistics.
For climate, it is clear that any rational pathway to 100 percent decarbonization goes through the electric utility sector. This “electrify everything” strategy means cleaning up electricity and electrifying residential heating, transportation, and industrial heat. Yet few GND activists have pointed out that the electric utility sector is already one of the most unionized in the entire economy — the electric power generation, transmission, and distribution industry had a 24.5 percent union membership rate in 2020. This could be our strategic sector.
These workers are represented by unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Utility Workers Union of America. The GND movement, if it wants to get serious, should try to win these unions to their side in order to transform the very strategic sector at the core of the problem. One IBEW member has already proposed a rank-and-file strategy for a Green New Deal.
Such a union-based climate strategy in the electricity sector would have to clearly assert one major plank that might be tough for many GND activists to swallow: the need for nuclear power. While there is no safe climate future with coal-fired power plants in operation, the electric utility unions clearly support maintaining the nuclear power sector, one of the largest sources of both zero-carbon electricity and well-paying, unionized jobs.
The debate over nuclear power is often overly technical or economistic and ignores these strategic, class-centered considerations. While “100 percent renewables” is the slogan among environmental NGOs, a pro-nuclear climate politics might have a chance at building solidarity with actually existing electrical unions. We don’t win public power, or a stable climate, without them.
On the other hand, the renewable energy industries like solar and wind, beloved by so many environmentalists, are notoriously nonunion. For solar photovoltaic energy, it’s 4 percent union density, and for concentrated solar and wind energy, it’s 6 percent — plus, both sectors are run almost entirely for profit by private capital. Instead of obsessing over these industries, the GND movement should engage with the electricity unions, arguing that, unless a long-term strategy ensures the energy transition is controlled by project labor agreements and union labor, the unions will be destroyed by a form of “green capitalism.”
In the apex of working-class power in the early-to-mid twentieth century, it was not only asserted that the working class had material interests in the abolition of capitalism, itwas also taken for granted that the proletariat was the only class that could deliver liberation for humanity as a whole. In Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words, it was “a class which contains within itself the possibility of a classless society.”
This socialist goal of human liberation — nothing short of uniting humanity — takes on new meaning in the age of ecological crisis. The working class, as the vast majority of global capitalist society, could now play the role of forging a material interest in species survival.
For many on the eco-left, the working class is ill-equipped for this task precisely because of its reliance on the market to survive. Workers, they believe, are too alienated from nature to know how to save it. Thus, the project of saving humanity means returning to a localized agrarian society based on small-scale production.
Yet perhaps it is precisely the “rootlessness” of the proletarianized working classes that gives them the unique perspective to look beyond the local, the parochial, and the community; perhaps this rootlessness gives the “universal class” the capacity to think about planetary solidarity and human emancipation.
There is no solving climate change without global coordination and large-scale planning. If we believe this coordination should be achieved democratically, we ought to return to the conviction that the majority of humanity, even in the Global North, might still be our best hope for getting us there.
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