The feeling that something is wrong with our way of life has been around for a while – even among those who profit from it. Now, school students are going on strike every Friday, Extinction Rebellion groups are disrupting fossil-based infrastructure, and some activists, for instance from the German Ende Gelände network, are even occupying sites of extraction such as the Hambacher Forst and the open cast coal mine in Garzweil. September 2019 saw the biggest ever worldwide coordinated protest action by the environmental movement, and climate strike weeks keep recurring. This mobilisation has given that secret unease a completely different sense of reality. We really cannot go on like this.
But what exactly has to change? We need an orienting vision for our future, but concrete and immediate measures are right in front of us: coal has to be phased out right away, we need a sensible transport system to replace individual transport (yes, we have to scrap cars!), all agriculture needs to be organic. Even if – as of yet – no government can bring itself to take these steps, they would be possible within our current system.
Yet, these reforms do not go far enough, because a capitalist world with global competition for profit works to undermine each partial success. Isolated decisions to protect the climate are reminiscent of nineteenth century arrangements made to limit patriarchal violence: husbands could hit their wives if they liked, but not with sticks that were thicker than a thumb.
If we look more closely at the current wave of protest, it becomes obvious that it is about more than a handful of “green” policy changes intended to protect the planet from having, as it were, its spine broken. In the seriousness which persists even in the euphoria of the demonstrations, and in the radical nature of many of the demands, there is revolutionary determination. “System change, not climate change,” many of the banners proclaim. But what is the system and which other system would be better?
The radical climate activists criticize capitalism, but they understand it in a new way compared to, say, 19th century workerism and 20th century communist movements. Criticism has become richer and more sensitive since it does not concentrate only on the scandal which goes on unabated, whereby most people have to sell their time in order to live at all, while a small class of wealthy people profit more and more crazily from the time which is sold to them. Marx described this latter dynamic as impersonal domination because even the capitalists do not control the game, and it is not personal dependency which chains workers to their employers. In the original German formulation, there is an additional nuance: not only does the impersonal logic of profit rule, but things also come to rule over people. Everyone depends on how well goods do when exchanged as commodities. This is captured in the phrase from Marx’s Capital, “sachliche Verhältnisse der Personen” (“material relations between persons,” Capital I, Chap. I.4, p. 48), in which “material” means “thing-like” as much as impersonal.
Recent critiques of capitalism have become richer and more sensitive, as activists today recognize that not all forms of socialism will end the plundering of our planet (that much is clear from the disastrous environmental record of state socialism in the Eastern Bloc). Alongside the logic of impersonal domination, we are dealing with a further dynamic, against which the current resistance is pitting itself. The capitalist present is not only shaped by the fact that things, as commodities, rule over people; it is also characterised by the fact that people rule over things – and even over each other, if and when they degrade each other to the level of things. To uncover the structure of this, we need to take a detour back from the form of commodity to the capitalist form of property.
Our typical understanding of property is, uniquely in history, synonymous with complete domination. If something belongs to us, we can do as we like with it. Of course there are limits to that, but they are added on as exceptions. The rule is that we can do anything with our property, and this includes the “right to abuse” (ius abutendi), which has its own legal codification. That is why modern ownership is also described as “absolute dominion”.
This notion of “dominion” can be used to identify the second logic which, alongside the rule of profit, profoundly shapes our way of life under capitalism. Anything which is subject to dominion becomes disposable material. In modern history this has not only included inanimate resources, nor only plants and animals, but also human “objects”. The extreme case of this is chattel slavery, in which the whole person is forced into becoming property. But also in patriarchal gender relations, part of the wife – the reproductive capacity – becomes the property of her husband.
In spite of all emancipatory successes when it comes to hitting wives with sticks, dominion has left visible traces in our social and ecological relationships. The #metoo debate shows how strongly the experience of arbitrary appropriation shapes the existence of many women, while the mass grave in the Mediterranean is proof that people of colour can still lose their status as people all too easily.
Seen from the point of view of the criticism of dominion, it is no coincidence that protests for the life of our planet share their perspective with current forms of feminist and antiracist mobilisation. Black Lives Matter, migrant rescue boats, as well as the women’s movement under the slogan “Ni Una Menos” (“Not one (woman) less!”) can all be seen as a rebellion against abuse. They object to a world order in which human and other living resources are plundered and harnessed for profit, or for individual lust for power.
At first glance, it seems that objecting to abuse and death can only produce a very humble vision for the future – little more than bare survival, certainly not a full-blown political agenda. And yet, seen from a certain angle, the rebellion against abuse and extinction does bring forth a revolutionary prospect. It contains, if only in interstitial realization, the script for rejecting both profit orientation and dominion at the same time. In fact, when we look more closely, already in the insistence on survival, a revolutionary horizon emerges. The task of an overwhelming co-responsibility for the preservation of life and for the common basis of existence can be translated into a movement for reproduction. This movement negates the maximisation of profits as much as the power of disposal. And it points to a different form of praxis.
Within the current order, the regeneration of life is left to the continual toil of reproductive or care work. This takes place in the interstitial spaces of the actual economy. It often goes unpaid and unrecognised. It is statistically more often performed by women than men, foisted on the worst paid segments of global labour, but at the same time it is also increasingly the task of exhausted individuals who are supposedly only responsible for themselves. In their particularly caring relationships with each other and in their insistence on saving the planet from capitalism, activists are currently demanding a radical expansion of care. This is reproductive work: saving someone from drowning, making peace, enriching the soil with humus, and giving politicians a lesson in climate change. Reproductive work is a utopian use of time, directly aimed at the needs of other living beings. Reproductive work is also a utopian use of space: it does not create dominion. *** Situated in the marginal practices of people trying to sustain themselves through catastrophe, and people forming movements to fight the forces of catastrophe, reproductive labour anticipates a radically different sociability. It doesn’t just sooth the damages done by profit and dominion – it offers a different starting point to cooperatively address the needs of humans and eco-systems alike. Alongside a future in which people will no longer have to sell their time, the possibility of a shared space emerges, a space in which there is no longer any subordination. Reproduction relates non-possessively to objects and spaces, in order to support them in the process of regeneration. It is no way to do business, and no way to run an empire. But it might let us go on living on this planet. Eva von Redecker (Humboldt University) is a critical theorist and feminist philosopher. Her book Praxis und Revolution proposes an interstitial model of radical social change and is forthcoming in English translation with Columbia University Press. Her current work is on property and domination. http://anti-sightseeing.org/ Lucy Duggan is an English novelist, poet and translator based in rural Brandenburg.