The challenges of social and environmental injustice are as intense as ever. But which social forces can act as the agents of change?
Every idea is only as powerful as the social forces behind it. The idea of environmental justice is at the height of its political fame—the European Green Deal is the flagship policy of the new EU administration. Yet who are the collective social forces behind it? The exalted Fridays for Future youth marches might be the catalyst in bringing the green idea to its current prominence, but they do not constitute a social force of the type labour has provided in advancing the ideals of socialism.
Two peculiarities of social protest are currently preventing the emergence of an agent of change through a broad mobilisation of social forces against the most deleterious effects of capitalism, including the destruction of the natural environment. The first is that lines of social conflict have proliferated into a network of antagonisms: the western working class against the global working class, poor versus rich, owners of competitive industries versus those of noncompetitive ones, holders of stable employment contracts versus perpetual job-seekers. This networked antagonism blocks the emergence of a distinct revolutionary subject with a coherent ideology around which a counter-capitalist hegemony could germinate. A peculiarity of our times is that the capital-labour dynamics of conflict have been replaced by a capital-labour alliance in support of the growth-and-redistribution agenda that has proven to be so deleterious for the environment.
The second obstacle concerns the way in which the social-justice and environmental-justice agendas have been politicised. Until recently, the former was articulated, politically, in terms of impoverishment (cost-of-living concerns), inequality and exclusion. The latter was addressed by social movements as a matter of capitalism’s harmful effects. Opposition arose against the pursuit of profit and the production-consumption nexus, for which capitalism has relied on the rampant extraction of natural resources. Politically, such concerns for a long time remained framed as ‘lifestyle issues’, while social justice was presented as a more urgent, ‘bread-and-butter’ issue. That is why it has been difficult to forge a broad coalition in support of fighting poverty and inequality, on the one hand, and saving the environment, on the other: with limited national budgets, electorates prioritised the bread-and-butter concerns over those of lifestyle.
The conflict between the two agendas has altered. It has become clear both that global warming is accelerating and that governments are not doing what is necessary to address the emergency. Very few of the 197 signatories of the 2016 international Paris agreement for action against climate change have adopted national climate action plans ambitious enough to meet their pledges. This has altered the manner in which climate justice is politicised. The youth-climate marches that have been taking place across the globe in 2019 and currently have reframed the environment as an ‘essentials of life’ issue, linking it to the aggravation of poverty and a general threat to human life. This has increased the political significance of the environmental agenda. Positioning it on the same plane as issues of economic and social justice enables an alignment between the two agendas, which is a source of hope.
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However, whatever commitments to pursuing prosperity for all, as well as to mitigating climate change, might be emerging, the conflict between the agenda of economic justice and that of environmental justice cannot be resolved in the current economic context of limited public funds, as both investment in new technologies and raising the standard of living are costly political objectives. In order to overcome this conflict and allow for policy action, a common denominator must bridge environmental concerns and issues of poverty alleviation. An over-arching concern (what the philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have called ‘a chain of equivalence’) needs to emerge, linking the multiple struggles for emancipation into a common will. Moreover, such a logic equivalence needs to be powerful enough to subvert the existing capital-labour alliance that draws its livelihood from destroying the environment into an alliance to protect the environment.
Such a logic is available. It is located in the overarching discontent of the multitude with the tangible effects of the competitive pressures of contemporary capitalism. The destabilisation of sources of livelihood and the increased competitive pressure on almost all preceded the financial crisis of 2008, and the situation has not improved with the post-crisis recovery. Our age is not that of a precarious class, but of a precarious multitude. Surveys indicate that a growing number of people across the capital-labour divide are frustrated with the intensified performance pressures and employment uncertainty that globally integrated capitalism generates. This resentment of job-related pressures combines with unprecedentedly broad awareness that the way we produce and live our lives is toxic for the environment and increases the risks of life-threatening natural disasters.
This allows us to discern a trajectory of change behind the thicket of seemingly disparate grievances and beyond the networked antagonism that pervades global capitalism. The spreading dynamic of social precariousness that afflicts almost all people, irrespective of their income, gender and professional occupation, enables the formation of a very broad alliance of forces who share the desire (rather than a latent, unarticulated interest) to alter significantly the economic and political parameters of their societies. This suggests that the possibility for a radical, if not revolutionary, change is now more obtainable than ever. All we need to do is overcome our nostalgic infatuation with the growth-and-redistribution agenda that crowned the postwar welfare state and focus on fighting economic insecurity. This is the only way to make social justice compatible with environmental justice.
Excerpted from Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia Copyright (c) 2020 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Albena Azmanova is associate professor in political and social thought at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. Her most recent book is Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity can Achieve Radical Change without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020).