Make life, not work: democratizing, decommodifying and remediating existence

Photo by dylan nolte on Unsplash

by Stefanie Gerold, Ernest Aigner, Maja Hoffmann and Louison Cahen-Fourot

In May this year, a group of well-known academics launched an initiative to reform work in light of the Coronavirus pandemic and the environmental crisis. The manifesto, Work: Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate, has so far been published in newspapers around the world, and signed by more than 6,000 people. Referring to the essential contribution of workers to society and the economy – made ever more apparent during the pandemic – the manifesto argues that employees should be involved in decision-making processes in firms. It further raises the problem of leaving key human needs such as health to market forces, and therefore demands publicly funded job guarantees. In light of the environmental crisis, the manifesto calls for conditioning state bail-outs on certain environmental standards and on the presence of democratic principles within firms. It considers democratically governed firms best suited to achieve a transition towards sustainable business.

We hope that this initiative stimulates the much-needed public debate on the role of work in society. We fully share the demands to democratize firms, decommodify work, and remediate the environment in principle. However, certain suggestions point in the wrong direction and fall short of the progressive potential in current debates on work. The authors also draw an uncritically positive picture of work and are surprisingly silent about the many problems associated with work.

Democratization. The letter rightly points to the exclusion of workers from most decision-making processes in firms. Extending the principle of democracy into the realm of work is long overdue, and implementing co-determination in firms is therefore important. This does not, however, change the major purpose of privately-owned businesses: generating profit for capital owners. Placing workers’ interests at centre stage requires different business models altogether, such as cooperatives that are owned and self-managed by their workers.

Nonetheless, the implied vision of a future where you need a job in order to have a say in economic decision-making is exclusionary and fundamentally undemocratic. It leaves out large parts of the population and continues to marginalize unemployed persons and unpaid (care) activities. A true democratization of work needs to go much further and encompass the democratization of the entire economy, whereby society as a whole decides on what is being produced, how and for whose benefit.

Collective deliberation about, for example, the purpose of the financial sector, or the necessity of jobs in the weapons industry, might also question the rising number of ‘bullshit jobs’ that are considered useless, or even destructive, for society. The Coronavirus pandemic has clearly revealed the rather limited list of jobs and sectors that are essential for meeting society’s basic needs.

Decommodification. The second claim of the letter demands that work be partly exempted from market mechanisms. We fully agree that essential areas of life should be taken out of the realm of markets.

However, “ensuring that all people have access to work” would potentially exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem. The pandemic has clearly shown our dependency on work in order to make a living. Regardless of whether our job is useful to society or grants dignity, we are required to sell our labour in order to earn money to meet our needs.

A “right to work” scheme, as proposed by the letter, might indeed tackle the unemployment issue, and it might also help to ensure that basic social needs are met. However, implemented in a society equating work with personal achievement and access to social rights, it would also reinforce people’s material and cultural dependency on work. To be truly emancipatory, a “right to work” scheme needs to be mirrored by a “right to live well” that is granted to all – independent of one’s capacity to work, and independent of economic or health crises setting large parts of the labour force free. A “right to live well” scheme would make access to social welfare institutions independent from work and provide the necessary infrastructure to live a meaningful life independent of work. Such a scheme could take the form of an in-kind universal basic income providing health, education, housing, energy, transportation and food through full socialization of these sectors.

Moreover, the idea of grounding “citizenship in firms” because “one’s mind and body, one’s health – one’s very life” is invested in work, seems a rather dystopian vision of the future, whereby the wage relation becomes ever more central to social life. We believe an emancipatory and desirable vision would instead limit the personal and societal relevance of work, so that it is one aspect of life but does not determine life entirely.

Environmental remediation. The letter rightly argues that any response to the Coronavirus-induced economic crisis needs to include environmental considerations. It finds that democratically led firms are best able to achieve such a transition.

Although this is true in some cases, fractions of organized labour have also repeatedly opposed needed changes. Especially in inherently unsustainable industries, such as coal, steel, or aviation, workers’ rights for participation would most likely not result in the required changes – namely a significant downsizing of these industries and therefore the phasing out of most jobs.

It is important to understand that work, whether in industry or services, is always a process that consumes energy and resources, and currently at clearly unsustainable levels. As scientific studies have pointed out, we need to reduce the overall amount of work in order to stay on trajectories compatible with ecological limits. Why should we try to come up with new tasks to keep everyone busy? Instead, we could reduce work hours and redistribute the remaining necessary work more evenly across society, accompanied by a broad, democratic debate about the usefulness and harmfulness of work.

Democratizing and decommodifying work, and remediating the environment are essential to sustain life on this planet. However, this cannot be done through limiting ourselves to well-worn social democratic thinking. Nor can it be done through uncritically considering work as inherently positive, or without reflecting on the role of work in contemporary capitalism. Societies, rather than markets or firms, should decide what kind of work is done and considered useful and valuable. Emancipation from labour requires us to democratize and decommodify the economy as a whole, to transform it to become sustainable, and to enable us to live well independent of work. It requires us to democratize, decommodify and remediate our very existence.

The Work: Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate manifesto was further developed into a book. The French version of this book was released on October 1, 2020.

Note: a French version of this commentary on the manifesto was published on May 23, 2020 in Le Monde online. A German version was published on July 24, 2020 as a blog article in Der Freitag.

Stefanie Gerold is a researcher at Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin), Ernest Aigner, Maja Hoffmann and Louison Cahen-Fourot are researchers at Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU Vienna).

A post-growth Green New Deal

Image: Occupy Reno Media Committee CC BY-ND 2.0

by Riccardo Mastini

Over the past year the Green New Deal banner has been appropriated by so many different movements and political parties that it is difficult to agree on what it actually stands for. However, in its most radical articulations (such as the one presented in the book A Planet To Win) Green New Deal advocates prescribe the need for an active role of the State in the economy. In doing so, they heed Keynes’ advise formulated in the 1926 essay The end of laissez-faire: “The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.” This means moving beyond market-based environmental policy instruments (e.g. tax incentives and price signals) and fully embracing command and control regulation. Deploying the power of public investment and coordination is a historic break from the neoliberal dogma that has reigned over the world for the past 30 years. Thus, the Green New Deal is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative.

However, I argue that the vision sketched out above is inadequate to deal with the current ecological emergency. A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative. This is not only because there is no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures anywhere near the scale needed to deal with the ecological crisis, but also because such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future. At least in affluent countries, therefore, a downscaling of production and consumption should be in order. But to ensure social well-being and equality in the face of a contracting economy, we need to develop a suite of post-growth policies.

Decreasing energy and material use

There is clear evidence that the deployment of renewable energy is insufficient on its own to displace fossil fuels in energy production. Historically, new energy sources have added more energy without removing older sources. The average trend in many nations around the world over the past 50 years shows that each unit of electricity generated by non fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. What is, therefore, needed is a gradually declining cap on carbon emissions that a country is allowed to generate in line with its international commitments. This mechanism should be coupled with additional policies to equitably distribute the remaining national carbon budget across society and reduce energy poverty. To this end, we could think of adopting a system of carbon quotas.

Decarbonizing the energy system can be further facilitated by scaling down aggregate energy use. For instance, a recent study published in the journal Nature shows that successfully reducing emissions has historically required reductions in energy demand, which in turn was caused by a lesser growth in GDP. The objective of reducing energy use can also be pursued by decreasing material throughput since material extraction and consumption are major drivers of energy demand. This approach to reducing material throughput has the added benefit of releasing pressure on ecosystems. Post-growth policies that go in this direction include, for example, legislation for longer-lasting products, banning planned obsolescence, introducing right to repair, mandatory recyclability, mandatory long-term warranties, etc.

The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons.

Decommodifying basic services

Climate change is class struggle as it forces us to rethink the material conditions of everyday life: how we move, what we eat, how we supply energy and heating to our homes. The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons. One important reason why decommodification and decarbonization should proceed in lockstep is because the consumption of public services has a lower environmental impact than their private equivalents. Think of private cars vs public transportation. But even more crucial than that, reducing dependence on individual consumer goods mitigates competition for social status and, consequently, does a lot to counteract consumerism. For example, cities are being increasingly crammed with SUVs as drivers dump compact cars in a vicious race for keeping up with the trend of car-size increase. As other drivers’ cars get bigger, mine feels smaller and smaller in proportion. The proof of this is that more unequal societies tend to have higher levels of average emissions per capita. We know that purchasing power correlates with personal environmental impacts, hence we must reduce outlets in which its destructive power can be unleashed.

Some policy proposals for ensuring that everyone has their basic needs addressed in a fair and sustainable way are the following: a highly progressive tariff structure for water and electricity in which the first unit is free of charge, an enhanced and free public transport system, a large public housing plan with passive houses, public low-carbon amenities (swimming pools, libraries, community gardens, etc.).  It is time to reclaim housing, mobility, water, and energy as rights, not as commodities.

Democratising economic production

Many shades of the Green New Deal are about a return of industrial policies into the government’s toolbox. Such proposals vary considerably in boldness though: from the director of UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose Marianna Mazzucato’s mission-oriented innovation policy all the way to the leader of the climate campaign group Bill McKibben’s wartime-like mobilization. But we cannot content ourselves with a more direct role of the State in the economy, we must also democratize the workplace. It’s not enough to try and nudge consumption choices, we need to win social power over material production.

It is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand.

The theory of ‘consumer sovereignty in production’, which postulates that it is up to consumers to change their spending habits to influence producers, is at the core of liberal environmentalism. But a transformative Green New Deal must reject this theory as it neglects that it is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand. We have, therefore, to look for responsibilities upstream in the supply chain and put them on the shoulders of producers who have the greatest power to influence consumption options by restricting supply.

In this regard, the current shareholder model is problematic due to its concentration. Few large multinational companies and financial groups control the direction of the economy: they choose the activities in which to invest and those to be abandoned, the regions in which to place factories and those to be de-industrialized, the technologies to be used, contracts and wages to be offered, prices for consumers, and the environmental impacts from production. Hence, democratizing economic production means, first of all, involving in the decision-making processes all those who must live with the consequences of production choices, namely local communities and workers.

But even more problematic is the fact that shareholders are only concerned with a company’s ability to generate profits regardless of its social and environmental impacts. An alternative model is represented by not-for-profit cooperatives for which business activity is not an end in itself, but only a means of fulfilling the social mission of its corporate statute. This type of cooperatives are best placed to become the engine of a post-growth economy in which production decisions are taken democratically and the profit motive is impeded from acting as a pedal on the gas of productivism.

To summarize, from a post-growth perspective a Green New Deal must pursue three distinct but interrelated goals: decreasing energy and material use, decommodifying the basic necessities of life, and democratizing economic production. Any Green New Deal proposal that does not address head-on the drivers of economic growth is doomed to fall short of the challenge of steering away from the worst scenarios of ecological breakdown.

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in Ecological Economics and Political Ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also a member of the academic collective Research & Degrowth, of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and visit his website.

Who owns the Green New Deal?

“A reindeer stands in silent protest in front of a hydro power plant” on Indigenous Sámi land in northern Scandinavia. Image: Tobias Herrmann CC BY-NC 2.0

by Geoff Garver

Green New Deal? People, we have a problem

You go into your Wall Street investment bank and ask, “What’s a hot investment these days?”  Your super sharp investment advisor says, “Farmland in Africa! People have to eat, right? And there are more and more people. Put your money in African farmland and you’ll double your money in no time!”  She doesn’t say a word about what makes that land unique and special or about the people and other beings that live, or lived, there.

That’s a big problem. It’s a remote ownership problem. In fact, it’s a whole bunch of justice problems related to the hard-wired legacies of colonialism that come together as a multi-faceted problem about remote ownership of land and resources. In a nutshell, remote owners or rights holders often cause serious harm to far away ecosystems they know and care little about, and grave injustice to the people and other life that know those ecosystems most intimately and depend on them. 

So, what about this Green New Deal (GND)? Is it merely the old wine of capitalist growth-driven development in a new bottle, or is it a recipe for socio-political and socio-ecological transformation that will right past wrongs and reshuffle political power in favor of historically disempowered people? Any Green New Deal (GND) framed as a “just transition” has to address problems of remote ownership and empower place-based governance.

Open questions about the remote ownership problem in AOC’s GND

Some say the GND in H.R. 109 introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others is merely a shift to green or climate colonialism, by which the greening—via decarbonization and other means—of wealthy, developed countries in a growth-driven, capitalist, and globalized world will worsen injustice in developing countries. This injustice includes not only increased exposure to environmental harms and health risks from extraction of materials needed for green technologies but also ongoing wealth inequality and social and cultural upheaval as the wealth-building potential of extracted resources (jobs, profits, etc.) is mostly exported along with them. 

The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems.

At the heart of this injustice are international companies and their stockholders and other remote owners—land and resource grabbers—that exert enormous political power from the local to the global scale. The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems, permanent displacement of people with the most intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and devastation of ecosystems and the life they support, all typical of land and resource grabbing around the world.  A particular concern is that land use reform is essential to success of the GND, yet the GND does not directly confront the hard wiring of the property rights regimes that must be addressed. Another is that the GND was conceived and announced with virtually no inclusion of Indigenous voices and that unless this lack of inclusion and the superficiality of references to Indigenous ideas is overcome, the GND could maintain “broken structures that perpetuate disconnection and individualism.”

Some cautiously, others more enthusiastically, see the GND as an opportunity to end and provide restitution for these injustices.  The openings for transformative change to scale back land and resource grabbing and empower place-based governance systems, including Indigenous ones, are signaled in support for “community-driven projects and strategies” to deal with pollution and climate change; locally-appropriate ecosystem restoration; and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities with respect to matters of concern to them.  For these openings to fulfill their potential, justice activist Syed Hussan argues that the GND must foster “just transition in the broadest sense” and not just deal with displaced workers in fossil fuel industries and other discrete issues that decarbonizing the economy will entail.

Where to look for answers to remote ownership problems

The good news is that worthwhile ideas about how the GND can confront problems of remote ownership and promote locally-tailored place-based governance systems are already out there. Here are some of these sources of inspiration.

The degrowth movement. Degrowth is a forceful challenge to the growth-insistent sustainable development model, and a more hopeful approach to long-term perpetuation of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Degrowth combines a commitment to respecting ecologically-based limits with a commitment to developing a comprehensive, practicable approach to building thriving human communities based on conviviality and human solidarity without consumerism or material and energy excess. The reforms associated with degrowth “emphasize redistribution (of work and leisure, natural resources and wealth), social security and gradual decentralization and relocalization of the economy, as a way to reduce throughput and manage a stable adaption to a smaller economy.” Giorgos Kallis’s nine principles of degrowth should be useful in making sure the GND adequately confronts remote ownership problems: 1) End to exploitation; 2) Direct democracy; 3) Localized production; 4) Sharing and the commons; 5) Provision of relational goods, through friendship, love, healthy relationships, kinship, good citizenry; 6) Unproductive expenditures geared to communal activities, such as festivals, games and the arts; 7) Care, and treating humans and other life as ends, not means; 8) Diversity; and 9) Decommodification of land, labor and value.

The G20.  What?!? Well, it’s useful to understand the key ideas of the global political apparatus that must be overcome for the GND to lead to radical social, political and ecological transformation.  At annual meetings, the G20 typically agree on the need to “further collective actions toward achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth to raise the prosperity of our people.” The means to do so generally involve supporting global trade and investment (much of which is tied to remote ownership) and the role of the World Trade Organization as a means to create jobs and maintain growth, with weak or marginal actions or aspirations to address inequalities, corruption, climate change and environmental harm.  The G20 supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with emphasis on sustainable, inclusive economic growth. A truly progressive GND should look past the SDGs!

The EJ AtlasThe Environmental Justice Atlas documents real cases of how remote owners have created social and environmental conflict.  These compelling narratives are a rich resource for understanding in detail the problem of remote ownership and the power dynamics that must be confronted and reshuffled in order to overcome them. 

Indigenous ways of thinking and being. In many Indigenous worldviews, attachment to place, founded on respect for all life and for deep appreciation of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and its life community, is key to a more hopeful vision of the human-Earth relationship. Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger writes, “It is Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally, that continue to push for an actualization of instilling deeper spiritual connections to Mother Earth to help us relearn what systems of colonization, capitalism, and extractivism have severed.” Connecting or reconnecting to the places that nourish our bodies and souls is at the heart of the long-term promise of a GND done well. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “[f]or the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” But, inviting settler societies to become indigenous to place—and an invitation from Indigenous holders of knowledge of a place is essential—does not mean letting them “take what little is left.” Attaching to a place by carefully and respectfully seeking to become indigenous to it requires humility above all, and it requires direct experience with wise teachers, not merely book knowledge.

Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND.

Six mutually reinforcing proposals on remote ownership and place-based governance for the GND

First, Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND. Including Indigenous notions of justice, decolonization and self-determination through meaningful inclusion of Indigenous communities in decisions that affect them, which requires adequate time and resources, is essential.

Second, the GND should empower communities like those included in the EJ Atlas to develop strong place-based governance systems and communities of solidarity and mutual care in order to resist the social and environmental conflicts they face, often because of remote ownership. This means providing them with a determinative role in decisions affecting them directly and indirectly. It also means developing a global/international scope and strategy so remote ownership problems in one place aren’t just displaced elsewhere. Also, we should look for opportunities to scale up and out from local remote ownership problems that are avoided or justly resolved.

Third, the GND should end corporate giveaways that are tied to remote ownership problems and exclude carbon markets, offsets or emissions trading regimes, and geoengineering—all of which typically pose remote ownership problems. Instead, the Climate Justice Alliance is fighting for a GND that shifts “from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.”

Fourth, stocks and other investment instruments in land and resource grabbing ventures that cause social and environmental conflict and harm in faraway places should be prohibited. This may require profound restructuring, dismantling or abolition of the financial and corporate structures that allow for these kinds of investments. At the least, it would entail deep rethinking of the metaphor of corporate personhood

Fifth, the GND should explicitly reject economic growth as a rationale and driving objective. It should oppose perpetual economic growth and promote communities committed to solidarity, maximal sharing and minimal use of materials and energy.

Sixth, the GND should place limits on wealth, which would help minimize or end the remote ownership problem. The most obvious way to do this is through progressive income taxation or a tax on wealth. For this to be effective, there of course also has to be collaboration between communities worldwide against tax evasion, with the aim of abolishing tax havens. A more radical transformation would be to target the globalized currency system which makes it possible for Wall Street investors to buy African farmland with US dollars in the first place. Or, the international community could finally adopt taxes on financial transactions; already implemented in some countries, this could be expanded to more countries and international transactions.

Some tough questions to test these proposals

If the GND is a step toward post-capitalist societies where remote owners, if they still exist, are no longer able to adversely affect far away ecosystems and people, it nonetheless is starting off in a globalized capitalist economy. As John Bellamy Foster has written, “We have to go against the logic of the system while living within it.” Making the proposals above work will not be easy. It will require people power through mass organizing and consciousness building. And it will mean confronting some tough questions. Here are a few. 

Does the GND inevitably imply ongoing wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North? If so, what are the implications for remote ownership and place-based governance? If not, what mechanisms are needed to minimize or end wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North?

How can the GND address remote ownership in the form of ownership of financial stocks or other financial investments—keeping in mind how many people are counting on this type of investment for their retirement and long-term care?

What are some good examples that could be duplicated or scaled up of place-based governance systems that maintain fairness among humans and between humans and other life across generations? How should duplication and scaling up account for the unique features of different places and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches?

Can the GND adequately address, as Deranger puts it, the “intertwined roles of capitalism, consumerism, militarism and colonialism as foundations to the current crisis” if it remains “driven by White ENGOs, those with the resources and power, and mainstream political parties”?

Is re-establishing traditional labor protections and increasing unionization a long-term solution, or does it risk locking in an us-them worker-owner power dynamic—where the owners are often also remote owners and land and resource grabbers—that other alternatives could overcome?  What about more locally-committed, place-based employee-owned businesses or cooperatives?

Final thought

Questions like these need to be asked in relation to every single aspect of GND proposals in the advanced capitalist countries. Political organizers and activists should think about how to balance such critical questions with the visionary rhetoric that makes the GND so popular—all the while keeping in mind that the strength of a GND vision should be judged on the basis not only of its policy designs but also its ability to inspire and unite broad movement building for climate justice. Grappling with entrenched problems of remote ownership is one way to take a focused approach to building momentum for this movement.

Dr. Geoff Garver is an adjunct professor at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal and coordinates research on law and governance at McGill University for the Leadership for the Ecozoic initiative. He is on the steering committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association and the board of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is active in the international degrowth movement.