Type
Essay
Category
Fair Australia Prize

FAP Winner – NTEU Member: Apocalypse now? Striking to save the world

Between 2008 and 2011, I was an activist in the Australian climate movement. It was a weird, in-between time in politics: after Rudd’s election and before his demise, the lines of march largely formed around which form of market solution – stronger, weaker; emissions trading scheme, carbon price – would be best suited to the problem. It seemed simple at the time. By pricing carbon, we would ‘internalise the externalities’: make capitalists pay, and they’d change their behaviour. Of course, that only makes sense if you accept that capitalism does what it says on the box.

In reality, the relationship between the state and capital in producing energy had the effect of creating a monopoly of pricing in the electricity market. The result of a price on carbon would be, some of us argued, that these electricity companies would pass the costs of the carbon price onto people paying the bills. And that would produce an inevitable backlash feeding from the age-old (false, damaging, and imagined) binary division that the right loves to encourage and exploit: the environmentalists versus the workers. Regardless of its utility in reducing emissions, the movement, we argued, should reject the whole thing as worse than useless.

Fast forward to the election of Tony Abbott in 2013 on the back of Labor’s carbon tax, and the feeling was vindication, but in the horror genre. It feels strange, and sad, too, to be in 2019 thinking about a key slogan of the time, ‘100 per cent renewables by 2020’.

Now, as the oft-quoted headline tells us, we have 12 years to save the planet. And it’s not just climate change we have to try to halt, but an ecological crisis that ranges from declining insect populations and species extinction to deforestation to catastrophic levels of ocean plastics. The particular constellation of ‘leaders’ we are supposed to persuade suggests that we live in a parody of our worst political nightmares. After a timid attempt to oppose the Adani coal mine in the most recent federal election, the Labor party has sought cover with an even more pusillanimous position. ‘Coal’, says Penny Wong, ‘remains an important part of industry for Australia and it remains part of the global energy mix.’ Scott Morrison is content to let the Pacific islands sink. The world’s richest men, facing this crisis, are contemplating how they might colonise Mars in order to save a remnant of humanity, presumably a group selected by their current proximity to the levers of our exploitation.

So if 2019 has been marked by something for me, it was the year that feeling like the apocalypse was coming, that things were always going to get worse, that we only had a few decades (or 12 years) to ‘solve’ the problem of capitalist society, became something like a popular consciousness. Everyone around me has started not just to wonder about whether they could plan for the future, but started to accept that they were not, or could not. ‘Can we really have children now?’ turned from a question once asked populationists who wore hiking boots to meetings to regular dinner party conversation.

Yet much more encouraging has been the new resistance to our predicament. It has taken on a markedly different manifestation to that of the late 2000s. Back then, the climate movement was old, white, and grey: a mix between the kind of people who go to writers’ festivals and the kind of people that work at the CSIRO. Now it is quite young, quite delightful, quite ready to strike.

The striking kids and teenagers have helped to counter a stupid, shopworn discourse about apathetic youths eating avocados on their Insta stories who only have themselves to blame for their inability to get a mortgage. Greta Thunberg, recently declared the ‘guru of the apocalypse’ by far right French politicians (they also called her the ‘Justin Bieber of ecology’, and I’m still struggling to work out why that’s an insult), has 766,000 Twitter followers.

The strikers seem to understand the symbolic way the child works as a metaphor for hope for the future, and they have skillfully exploited it. But in imagining our futures we ought to reckon with our pasts, too. The historic cleavages between the working class and the environment movement ‘weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living’. With an eye on the rearview mirror, I argue that the challenges posed by those cleavages must be confronted head on, and that striking can be the first part of re-imagining labour so as to reshape our future outside capitalism.

 

Reimagining labour

Writing about the alienation of labour, Marx said that the labour we do for a wage, and at others’ command, feels not like our own, but someone else’s. Our embodied experience of alienation is felt as an estrangement between our desires and the labour that we must perform in a certain way to suit forces outside our control. The individual and cooperative creativity of our work is suffocated by the constraints of the exploitative genre. Even outside work, as theorists of social reproduction have pointed out, our labour sustains the conditions of production through sustaining ourselves and our kin. This labour, primarily performed for free by women, does not feel truly our own, either – it is too regulated by the demands of the economy, even if in a messier, less linear way.

Our labour is also what fuels and reproduces capital. The cooperation of teachers in schools creates work-ready bodies, the cooperation of workers in mining and coal-fired power sustains the industries that are destroying our planet. The hidden secret of capitalism is that without human labour, it has no momentum. When we withdraw our labour, we threaten production, and we throw a spoke into the wheel of continuous, competitive profit-making and reinvestment that characterises capitalism.

At an essential level, then, workers’ action is necessary to create mass upheaval. That is quite obviously essential to deal with an ecological crisis created by a whole global system of production that relies on fossil fuels, overproduction, and continuous waste. Big problems, big solutions. The students have grasped an essential element of this, that disruption is key. To build power though that disruption needs to be extended. And further than that, we must consider re-organisation.

In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg described how strikes quickly start to pose the question of control: a strike that goes for long enough to disrupt daily life naturally raises the question of how keep daily life running. That exerts a pressure on strikers to go back to work and ‘normal’ life, but it can also suggest an alternative: going back to work to keep daily life running, but with all the solidarity and cooperation of the strike, and none of the boss. That is, running a workplace collectively, or a chain of workplaces, or even production itself, with decisions made for collective benefit and not profit.

Hal Draper once wrote that ‘Outside the socialist movement, naturally, the standard line is that such ideas are visionary, impractical, unrealistic, “utopian”; idealistic perhaps but quixotic.’ All that criticism is likely true: but if we cannot re-found society based on human cooperation for the social good, how likely is that we can save the planet?

Of course there is a wide, cavernous gulf between the cooperative possibility that is embodied in working-class cooperation, and the reality of our working class strength in our present moment – especially when we think about our unions, the historical site of worker’s organisation. Elizabeth Humphrys has forcefully argued that the unions’ cooperation in policies of wage restraint and stopping strike action during the 1980s has substantially eroded their ability to galvanise the workers’ movement today. It would be folly, then, to imagine workers’ action happening only inside these organisations (and particularly, inside their bureaucracies). We can imagine multiple ways, as Frances Flanagan has put it, that ‘work can be a political site from which to fight’. To quote her:

… there is a crucial think between ‘sustainability’ and work that is perhaps very obvious but rarely made explicit: the process of ‘sustaining’ requires human labour. It means more than saying ‘no’ to damaging acts of consumption; it also means saying ‘yes’ to the human activities that are positively necessary for the repair, renewal and regeneration of our soils, our oceans, our cities, our critical human systems and our bodies.

Rather than imagining workers and labour as a large swathe of conservatives held under the spell of coal, we can instead celebrate the productive capacity of human labour to reshape society. And to labour in a way that sustains ourselves, and our planet, and that is, finally, beautifully, our own. This means that the labour that currently sustains our destruction can become the labour that sustains our liberation. Workers in coal, gas, mining and other polluting industries can use these skills, and develop new ones, to produce goods and labour that is regenerative and restorative.

For the Australian Financial Review, the last Australian election was confirmation that ‘voters in working-class marginal seats are more worried about protecting their wealth than preventing global warming’. Their confidence to speak on behalf of workers and claim their interests as their own is one that must be appropriated in the inverse by ourselves.

The task we have is to show that the wealth being protected is not workers’, but that of mega-corporations, states and militaries. Rather than posing saving the planet as a moral challenge to be solved by ‘shutting down industries’ (and/or by not using plastic bags), our challenge is to demonstrate how a reorganisation of production is in our collective interests.

This is a manifesto; the grubby reality is more, well, grubby. We are not particularly close to the realisation of this scenario, the whole idea of striking for a day at a time feels new, radical, and challenging, and there are many newer, much more radical and much more challenging steps to climb. At each little stage, context-specific questions are posed: what can we campaign for to replace these particular mining jobs? How can that be approached? How can we spread the climate strikes to a particular workplace, what resources can we draw on? These are the essential battles that many are already fighting. The wider point here though is to understand them as part of a broader war: a war that is not against working-class communities, not against production, not against jobs and security or even ‘wealth’, but which is re-envisaging them in the interests of the whole and not the few.

It feels, too, that the urgency of the moment is on our side. Among under 40s, there’s not a whole lot of confidence that the status quo is going to serve them well. Experiences of work are increasingly inchoate ones, governed by precariousness and the erosion of expectations that we can expect protection, respect and longevity. There is a lot less left to lose.

The mistake made in the late 2000s was to imagine that the constraints of our existing market-based, competitive system could be re-geared in a climate-friendly way. Thus, much of the debate focused on devising particular policy instruments. In doing so, we left the field open for Tony Abbott to woo some workers with his false indignation about their back pockets. Meanwhile the big miners like Glencore and BHP stuffed their own.

There are not policy technicalities standing in the way of free public transport, sustainable production, and using wind and sun rather than coal and gas. There has been no lack of great ideas, no lack of technology, but their existence, and advocacy for them, has not stopped the continuous, slavish and self-abasing parade of politicians who can only imagine themselves serving a market and a competitive state within that market, and thus can only imagine within the same logics that produced the crisis in the first place. The source of life itself, nature, becomes only a commodity to be bought and sold in this imagining. It is in thinking beyond it that our own salvation lies.

 

Image: Sam Bark / Unsplash

 

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Amy Thomas is a casual lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research interests are education, language, social movements and Australian history. She is a regular contributor to Overland on Australian politics and history.

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