The AFL-CIO held its annual convention this past September in Los Angeles. Many commentators hailed this meeting as historic, one in which the nation’s major labor federation finally came to grips with the near disappearance and growing political irrelevance of unions. Union density is abysmally low and declining, with an astonishing 6.6 percent of private sector employees now organized, lower than at any time in the past century. And, with rare exceptions, labor’s ability to influence legislation and workplace regulation is nonexistent. It could not even prevent passage last year of a right-to-work law in Michigan, the cradle of industrial unionism. All of this has translated into falling wages and benefits for union and nonunion workers alike, since the union threat effect on nonunion employers has diminished dramatically.… To reverse course, AFL-CIO leaders laid out a plan to broaden the federation’s membership base to include nonunion workers and members of fraternal groups, such as immigrant advocates and environmental organizations.… While we should applaud… [their] efforts, they leave important questions unanswered.
The rediscovery over the last decade and a half of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift has come to be seen by many on the left as offering a powerful critique of the relation between nature and contemporary capitalist society. The result has been the development of a more unified ecological world view transcending the divisions between natural and social science, and allowing us to perceive the concrete ways in which the contradictions of capital accumulation are generating ecological crises and catastrophes.… Yet, this recovery of Marx’s ecological argument has given rise to further questions and criticisms.
Beginning in 2011 a festival in honor of the seventeenth-century radical Gerrard Winstanley has been held annually…commemorate[ing] the life and ideas of…Winstanley, leader of the Digger, or True Leveller, movement of the English Revolution (1640–1660). Largely forgotten for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the communist thought of Winstanley was rediscovered by German and Russian Marxists in the late nineteenth century… From the socialists of the late nineteenth century to participants in the Wigan Festival in the early 2000s, Winstanley and the Diggers have provided inspiration for radical leftists for more than a hundred years.… What accounts for the lasting popularity of a relatively marginal social movement and its main theorist in the middle of seventeenth-century England? More importantly for present purposes, why have Winstanley and the Diggers held a prominent place for modern activists concerned with environmental issues and consumerism?
The astonishingly high number of women migrating is a new global trend. In the past it was mainly men who went to countries far away; women came as followers. In the last twenty years, however, this has changed so much that today over half of all migrants are women. Furthermore, female migrants have often become the main or single wage earners of their families. Saskia Sassen calls this the “feminization of survival”—societies, governments, and states more and more depend on the work of women in the labor force. Thus the necessary conditions of work and survival fall increasingly on the shoulders of low-waged, deprived, and exploited migrant women.
Ian Angus constructs a strawperson in his article “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’” (MR, September 2013), which discusses Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, which consists of essays by myself, as well as Sasha Lilley, David McNally, and James Davis. The book is concerned with the political uses of catastrophe and whether actual catastrophes or catastrophic rhetoric can spur people to action. At the heart of Catastrophism is the question of politicization. My essay, which Angus primarily focuses upon, looks at the indisputably catastrophic and urgent devastation of the environment…and asks why environmental movements in the global North have not been effective at moving people to action by simply evoking the calamity of the situation.
Noting the global rise in urban social movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring that are challenging the present global order, David Harvey asks in his new book Rebel Cities: “Is there an urban alternative and, if so, from where might it come?” In answering these questions Harvey explores the critical role of the city in the reproduction of capital and birth of radical social movements. He argues that many theorists and activists interested in broad-based social change have largely overlooked cities, despite the historical and growing importance of metropolitan centers in all aspects of human affairs.
[Zak] Cope argues that the seemingly pervasive racism and cultural chauvinism in the global North is not the result of false consciousness, misinformation, indoctrination, or ignorance (at least to the extent that much of the political left assumes). Rather, racism and cultural chauvinism are the expression of economic interests shared by a variety of social strata in the global North, all of whom have an interest in exploiting the global South. Central to this argument is the idea that the labor aristocracy—the relatively privileged global North working class—developed as a result of the exploitation of the global South, and therefore has a material interest in continuing this exploitation.
There is a pressing need for a coherent left strategy on climate change and in relation to the planetary environmental threat in general.… We therefore read with considerable interest Christian Parenti’s article, “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis” in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent. Parenti’s main thesis is that since the time with which to address the climate change problem is so short, “it is this society and these [existing capitalist] institutions that must cut emissions. That means, in the short-term, realistic climate politics are reformist politics, even if they are conceived of as part of a longer-term anti-capitalist project of total economic re-organization.”… [Parenti] insists that capitalism has been successful in the past in addressing “specific environmental crises” and that this will also likely be the case with respect to climate change.… Perhaps the best way to explain…[why we believe Parenti’s overall argument is wrong] is to counterpose what we think would be a more appropriate statement on the nature of a revolutionary strategy. It would read as follows: Anyone who thinks that it is conceivable to counter climate change (and the planetary environmental crisis as a whole) without opposing and in part superseding the logic of capital accumulation is in denial of the very clear findings of climate science and critical social science—which point to the immediacy and unprecedented scale of the present epochal crisis and thus the need for truly revolutionary social change.
Land grabs—whether initiated by multinational corporations and private investment firms emanating from the capitalist core, sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, or state entities such as China and India—are now in the news constantly. For example, in July 2013 the Colombian ambassador to the United States resigned over his participation in a legally questionable effort to help the U.S. corporation Cargill use shell companies to amass 130,000 acres of land. This land was supposed to be used for agricultural production, but there is also land being grabbed for other purposes—such as mining or to construct roads, buildings, and dams. In human terms, land grabs mean real people and families are dispossessed. When people lose access to their land, they also lose their means to obtain food, their communities, and their cultures.