The planetary ecological crisis that scientists are calling the Anthropocene is the latest chapter in the global history of capitalism. It results from the radical re-arrangement of society/nature interactions – or social metabolism – brought about by capitalist/industrial modernity. By this expression I mean a specific type of modernity – that which considers the forces of production (western science and industrial technology) as the key driver of human progress and well-being, while considering reproduction (both human and nonhuman) as a passive instrument to industrial production, and to the infinite expansion of GDP. This paradigm sees both the earth and care work as necessary resources, to be appropriated and maintained as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.
Ecofeminist thought shows how the ideology of the forces of production originates from a master model of rationality – heteropatriarchal, racist and speciesist – which is deeply enrooted in western culture and its definition of progress. As Val Plumwood (1993: 25) recalled, human identity in western culture has been associated with concepts of productive labour, sociability and culture – thus, as separated from supposedly lower forms of work (qua reproduction and care) and property relations (qua commoning). Capitalist political economy defined reproductive work as non-labour, i.e. a value-less activity, although socially necessary to sustain the master; and the commons as waste, i.e. forms of not-yet-realized value, to be appropriated and improved upon by the master (Barca 2010). True wealth and human emancipation could only come from the master’s house, and from there trickle down to the rest. A new and supposedly higher form of production, premised on colonial/racial, gender, class and species inequalities, sat at the core of capitalist modernity, defining it with respect to non-capitalist modes of production, and was rapidly universalized as a hegemonic model.
Emerged with the rise of capitalism, industrial modernity has been maintained by State socialist regimes in different geo-historical contexts. Capitalist and State/socialist varieties of industrial modernity share a GDP-centred vision of wealth, premised on the necessary acceleration of social metabolism. They also share a tendency to view the ecological crisis as a problem of efficiency in the use of resources, to be addressed via a greening of the forces of production, aka ecological modernization (Barca 2019a; 2019b). In order to represent a true alternative to both capitalist and socialist organizations of social metabolism, I contend, the eco-socialist movement cannot simply advocate for a centrally planned (rather than market-oriented) ecological modernization, but it needs to put reproduction at the centre of political economy, liberating it from its subordinate, instrumental position vis-à-vis production. In other words, eco-socialism needs to break free of the ecological modernization paradigm, and envision an ecological revolution based on a drastic reduction of global social metabolism, to be reached via a thorough re-organization of the relations between production, reproduction, and ecology.
In my forthcoming book, Forces of Reproduction. Notes for a counter-hegemonic Anthropocene, I develop the hypothesis that history consists in a struggle of other-than-master subjects for producing life, in its autonomy from capital and freedom of expression, a struggle that opposes the unlimited expansion of the master’s rule. These other-than-master subjects are the “forces of reproduction” – a concept that I take from socialist ecofeminist thought (Mellor 1997). In a rather a-systematic way, the concept critically intersects two distinct theoretical traditions: ecofeminist thought and historical materialism. This approach allows us to see that the key commonality between the non-master Others is a broadly defined but still cogent notion of labour: from different positions, and in different forms, women, slaves, proletarians, animals and nonhuman natures are all made to work for the master. They must provide it with the necessities of its life, so that it can devote itself to higher occupations. The master depends on them for its survival and wealth, but this dependency is constantly denied and the forces of reproduction are represented as lingering in the background of historical agency.
This article offers a brief review of one specific thread of ecofeminist thought and praxis, socialist ecofeminism, which develops a systematic critique of capitalist industrial modernity as premised upon sexual and colonial divisions of labour on the global scale. I find this approach key to envisioning the possibility for a ‘good life’ alternative to that of both capitalist and State/socialist versions of industrial modernity.
Labour and ecology in socialist ecofeminism
Socialist ecofeminism developed from the Marxist-feminist critique of political economy. Emerging in the 1970s, Marxist feminism – also known as Social Reproduction Theory (Bhattacharya, 2017) – had showed how capitalism had been deeply entrenched with the appropriation and the discursive backgrounding of unpaid reproductive labour. Building on this body of thought, some scholars and public intellectuals put nature and ecology into the equation. Reflecting on the deep interconnections that had formed among patriarchy, capitalism and the mechanistic view of nature in modern Europe (Merchant, 1980), they started to link the politico/economic devaluation of reproduction with the degradation of the environment, thus producing a radically new narrative of capitalist industrial modernity.
A widely recognized foundational reference for materialist ecofeminism is the work of German sociologist Maria Mies, and particularly her book Patriarchy and Accumulation on the World Scale (1986). Starting from the ‘unresolved questions’ about the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism, Mies claimed that feminism needed to go beyond the analysis of reproductive labour in western countries, connecting it with the specific material conditions of women in the peripheries of the capitalist world-system in order to identify ‘the contradictory policies regarding women which were, and still are, promoted by the brotherhood of militarists, capitalists, politicians and scientists in their effort to keep the growth model going’ (Ibid.: 3). In short, Mies laid the basis for a decolonial/feminist ecosocialism, premised on the rejection of GDP growth as a universal measure of progress (Barca, 2019b; Gregoratti and Raphael, 2019).
Developing this perspective required to rethink ‘the concepts of nature, of labour, of the sexual division of labour, of the family and of productivity’. Political economy, Mies argued, had conceptualized labour in opposition to both nature and women, i.e. as male-coded, transcendent agency actively shaping the world by giving it value. On the contrary, she claimed, all the labour that goes into the production of life must be called productive ‘in the broad sense of producing use values for the satisfaction of human needs’ (Ibid.: 47).
Mies’ overall argument was that the production of life, or else subsistence production, performed mainly in unwaged form by women, slaves, peasants and other colonized subjects, ‘constitutes the perennial basis upon which “capitalist productive labour” can be built and exploited’ (Ibid.: 48). Being uncompensated for by a wage, its capitalist appropriation (or “superexploitation”, as she termed it) could only be obtained – in the last instance – via violence or coercive institutions. In fact, she wrote, the sexual division of labour was built upon neither biological nor purely economic determinants, but on the male monopoly of (armed) violence, which ‘constitutes the political power necessary for the establishment of lasting relations of exploitation between men and women, as well as between different classes and peoples’ (Ibid.: 4). The basis for capital accumulation in Europe had been laid upon a parallel process of conquest and exploitation of the colonies and of women’s bodies and productive capacities (starting with the witch hunt) from the 16th century onwards. Only after this regime of accumulation had been established through violence, could industrialization begin. With it, ‘science and technology became the main “productive forces” through which men could “emancipate” themselves from nature, as well as from women’ (Ibid.: 75). At the same time, she argued, European women of different social classes (including those participating in settler colonialism) were subject to a process of ‘housewifization’, i.e. they were gradually excluded from political economy, intended as the public space of progress and modernity-building, and secluded into ‘the ideal of the domesticated privatized woman, concerned with “love” and consumption and dependent on a male “breadwinner”’ (Ibid.: 103).
Mies’ work should be seen as part of a larger scholarly effort at laying the grounds for an ecofeminist narrative of capitalist modernity; two other pathbreaking works must be mentioned here. Carolyn Merchant’s Ecological Revolutions (1989) and Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004). The ecological revolution framework constituted Merchant’s contribution towards an ecological and feminist approach to history: it remains probably the study that most clearly illuminates the ecological implications of colonial/heteropatriarchal/capitalist modernity. Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004) offered an in-depth study of how, in 17th century Europe, the female body had been remade ‘into an instrument (…) for the expansion of the workforce, treated as a natural breeding-machine, functioning according to rhythms outside of women’s control’ (Federici, 2009: 49). This new sexual division of labour, she argued, had redefined proletarian women as natural resources, a sort of commons open to appropriation, or ‘enclosure’, for the sake of improved productivity. Capitalist patriarchy was born: due to the parallel enclosure of land, women gradually lost access to subsistence means and, since their work had been expelled out of the sphere of the market, they became economically dependent on men. With a movement similar to that applied to natives in the colonies, women were sub-humanized in the law, enslaved in the economy, and subject to the genocidal terror of witch-hunting. Together with colonization and the slave trade, Federici argued, the war on women formed a substantial step in the emergence of the Anthropocene, for it granted the steady provision of cheap labour that would allow for industrialization. As this was a generalized process concerning all women (although in obviously different forms), Marxist feminists see it as a de facto redefinition of the female sex into a class – that of reproductive labourers.
Contributing to this body of thought, the Marxist ecofeminist Mary Mellor (1996) formulated the concept of ‘forces of reproduction’, i.e. the ‘underlaboring work that women do that is incorporated into the material world of men as represented in the theoretical framework of historical materialism’ (Mellor, 1996: 257). The latter, she claimed, should break free from the artificial boundaries of productivism, by which ‘women’s lives become theoretically a leftover category, the “sphere of reproduction”’ (Ibid.: 260), resulting in devastating ecological impacts – such as those registered in ‘command economies’. Rather than ignored or denied, women’s bodies should be understood as the material basis upon which specific social relations were imposed: ‘Biological differences of sex – Mellor wrote – do not determine human behaviour; they are the forces of reproduction that have to be accommodated in relations of reproduction’ (Ibid.: 261). At the same time, feminism allowed women to use ‘their biological/social position in society (…) as a specific standpoint that enables them to produce an alternative view of the world, transcending the false boundaries between the natural and the social’ (Ibid: 262). This has allowed to see modern economic growth as a process by which some humans get liberated from scarcity at the expense of other humans and the nonhuman world. Through collective struggles, she claimed, ‘we can reconstruct our social world on egalitarian principles’ while also respecting the autonomous agency of the natural and our interdependency with it (Ibid.: 263).
From this theoretical standpoint, materialist ecofeminists have advocated for a thorough reconsideration of economic value. In Globalization and its Terrors, for example, Teresa Brennan (2000, 2003) revisited Marx’s theory of value, pointing to how ‘adding value to money requires the input of living nature (human and nonhuman) into products and services’ (Charkiewicz, 2009: 66); not only labour, but nature as well gives more than it cost; capital transfers the cost of the reproduction of both labour and nature upon third parties – women, colonized and racialized subjects. This produces, for example, both the sickened bodies (and territories) where toxic waste gets disposed of, and the extra labour that is needed to take care of them. From the Marshall Islands (De Ishtar, 2009) to the Niger Delta (Turner and Brownhill, 2004), and through countless other stories, ecofeminist activists and scholars have pointed to how illness and death in the Anthropocene have been the effects of a highly industrialized/militarized model of progress, whose costs have been largely borne by ‘women, nature and colonies’. Partaking this perspective, Ariel Salleh has proposed the concept of ‘embodied debt’, i.e. that ‘owed North and South to unpaid reproductive workers which provide us values and regenerate the conditions of production, including the future labour force of capitalism’ (Salleh, 2009: 4-5). This debt, she argues, should be seen as interlocked with two others: the ‘social debt’ owed by capitalists for the surplus value extracted form workers through both waged and unwaged labour (e.g. that of slaves); and the ‘ecological debt’ owed by colonial to colonized countries ‘for direct extraction of the natural means of production or livelihood of non-industrial peoples’(Salleh, 2009: 4-5). This approach, which Salleh calls of embodied materialism, allows to develop a materialist ecofeminist narrative of the Anthropocene: one that sees ecological crisis as arising from the interconnection of the three forms of theft operated by a global system of exploitation.
Embodied debt points to the fact that subsistence farming and gathering, as well as care for both urban and rural environments, are forms of unpaid reproductive work that complement domestic work in granting the conditions of production. We could term this work as environmental reproduction, i.e. the work of making nonhuman nature fit for human reproduction while also protecting it from exploitation and securing the conditions for nature’s own reproduction, for the needs of present and future generations. Materialist ecofeminism reclaims this work as non-capitalist, i.e. non-value oriented but governed by principles of commoning and justice. Its fundamental distinction with respect to eco-capitalist modernization consists in its being geared on a principle that Salleh terms eco-sufficiency (rather than eco-efficiency), i.e. a non-extractive relation to nonhuman nature as a provider for human needs rather than profit. Eco-sufficiency, she claims, is the true response to climate and ecological debt. If accompanied by financial debt cancellation and adopted globally, it would imply halting the continuation of extraction in poorer countries and their possible recovery from ecological degradation, allowing them to ‘keep oil in the soil’ (as was demanded by the Yasuni ITT initiative) and to develop local autonomy and resource sovereignty. From a feminist perspective, Salleh claims, degrowth could mean a liberation also for the industrial working classes of the world, i.e. for sex/gendered and racialized wage labour trapped in a system of productivism and consumerism as the only possible path to satisfaction.
Along these lines, materialist ecofeminists have argued that, as reproductive labourers, women in capitalist modernity have not only embodied, but also counteracted ecological contradictions, starting from their social positionality: they have, as a feminist saying goes, organized resistance from the kitchen table (Merchant 1996, 2005; Fakier and Cock, 2018). This allows to conceptualize the alternate agencies that are inscribed within and against capitalist modernity, and particularly around a politics of the commons. Materialist ecofeminists have seen women as the primary defenders of the commons because these constitute the material basis for reproductive work: in their view, defending common access to and preservation of natural and built environments (soil, water, forests, fisheries, but also air, landscapes and urban spaces) has been a form of labour resistance against dispossession and degrading conditions for reproductive work. In so doing, many rural and urban women ‘have been the main social force standing in the way of a complete commercialization of nature, supporting a non-capitalist use of land and a subsistence-oriented agriculture’ (Federici, 2009); this explains why women worldwide have been at the forefront of urban farming, tree-hugging and tree-planting actions, anti-nuclear and anti-mining mobilizations, opposition to destructive megaprojects, to water privatization, to toxic landfills, and similar actions (Gaard, 2011; Rocheleau and Nirmal 2015). Carolyn Merchant (1996) called this agency earthcare.
Many have criticized this as an essentialist claim, spurring a debate ‘around the uncomfortable nexus between nature, care for others and about the environment, and the sex/gender relation’ (Bauhardt, 2019); as Christine Bauhardt writes, it is important to remember that ‘At issue is the practice of care labour and not an essentialising of the female body’ (Ibid.: 27). Nonetheless, materialist ecofeminism also insists that women must be recognized as the vast majority of the global reproductive and caregiving class, both historically and at present. Although women are obviously crossed by class and other social differentiations, some basic level of descriptive (not normative) generalization is needed in order to see women as a large majority of the global proletariat, and as a class of labourers whose bodies and productive capacities have been appropriated by capital and capitalist institutions. From this perspective, women’s environmental agency becomes that of political subjects who reclaim control over the means (and conditions) of re/production: their bodies and the nonhuman environment. In other words: if the nexus between women and nonhuman nature as co-producers of labour-power has been socially constructed through capitalist relations of reproduction – then women’s environmental and reproductive struggles are to be seen as part of the general class struggle.
For socialist ecofeminists, this demands to disavow the paradigm of modern economic growth, because the latter has subordinated both reproduction and ecology to production, considering them as means to capitalist accumulation. This can be considered a very basic tenet of materialist ecofeminism: as Mary Mellor (1996: 256) put it, ‘by separating production from both reproduction and from nature, patriarchal capitalism has created a sphere of “false” freedom that ignores biological and ecological parameters’; a truly ecological socialism, they contend, must reverse this order, by subordinating production to reproduction and ecology (Merchant, 2005). Face to the catastrophic dimension of the current ecological crisis, recent developments in Social Reproduction Theory and the global feminist movement indicate concrete possibilities for assuming this perspective (Batthacharya, 2017; Arruzza, Batthacharya and Fraser, 2019; Fraser, 2014). The global women’s strike, for example, could be seen as a struggle over not only domestic work, but also over the work of earthcare that capitalist industrial modernity has externalized onto women and other backgrounded/feminized subjects, thus challenging capitalist/industrial and military violence to radically transform productive and reproductive relations.
Socialist ecofeminism configures as an invaluable tool for political subjectivization; however, it should not be taken as a generalized claim about women, but rather as a critical analysis of material relations of re/production that have generated specific political responses, and that create new political possibilities in the present. The colonial/capitalist sexual division of labour, with its ferocious normativity, has oppressed and continues to oppress too many generations of world women to be ignored as a powerful driver towards liberation. Of course, many women have subscribed to the master model of modernity and progress, buying into lean-in feminism and uncritical consumption patterns and aspirations, or accepting their housewifization and dependence on the male wage. Like all historical subjects, women make choices, even if these stem from conditions not of their choosing. The same applies to the male workers that historical materialism has traditionally considered capital’s grave-diggers. As Mellor (1996) again noted, talking about reproductive labour and its ecological potential is not more essentialist than talking about industrial labour and its revolutionary potential: rather, it means recognizing the historically determined conditions where (most) women stand in the global division of labour, acknowledging the specific ways in which labour and gender have been made to intersect in capitalist modernity, and refusing to comply with deep-ingrained understandings of domestic and subsistence work as unproductive or passive.
Merging historical materialism with ecofeminism leads us to look at the Anthropocene from the perspective of reproductive labour, i.e. the work of sustaining life in its material and immaterial needs. By its own logic, reproductive labour opposes abstract social labour and all that objectifies and instrumentalizes life towards other ends. Life itself is the product of (human and nonhuman) reproductive labour. At the same time, capitalism subjects this labour to increasing commodification and objectification: this generates a contradiction insofar as reproductive labour becomes directly or indirectly incorporated within the Money-Commodity-Money circuit of value. Capitalism thus diminishes or annihilates the life-enhancing potentialities of the forces of reproduction, turning them into instruments for accumulation. This process depletes both the worker and the environment, by extracting from them more work and energy than necessary and leaving them exhausted. As Tithi Batthacharya (2019) has put it: ‘Life-making increasingly conflicts with the imperatives of profit-making’.
While the master model of modernity is constitutive of capitalist/industrial modernity, it does not coincide with it entirely. On the one hand, capitalism adopted this model of rationality in reshaping the notion of modernity as the capacity to extract value from both human and nonhuman work; on the other hand, its key features (or part of them) can be also found in non-capitalist, i.e. non-value oriented social systems. State socialism as experienced in the Soviet bloc and China, or some of its post-colonial versions in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia, have retained various historical combinations of coloniality/racism, heteropatriarchy/sexism and/or human supremacy/speciesism. Deeply ingrained politico-economic structures, from the local to the global scale, run counter to any attempt at dismantling the master model of modernity, so that a counter-master model has yet to be found in State formations. Yet our best hopes for climate justice reside with it, thus we need to exercise a counter-mastery critique in every possible way to cultivate alternative, multiple and sustainable forms of modernity.
The eco-modernist dilemma of socialism can only be overcome by embracing a view of political economy where all forms of work have equal value insofar as they support life. By pointing to the intersection of capitalism with patriarchy, racism and speciesism on the world scale, socialist eco-feminism allows to see ecological transition as an intersection of different struggles for ‘system change’. Taking this vision seriously could help socialist organizations to free themselves from their inherited obsession with the forces of production and GDP growth – the capitalist/industrial version of modernity – and envision a true ecological revolution.
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