The climate movement and the workers' movement

Submitted by AWL on 2 March, 2021 - 7:44 Author: Blake Tan
Protest in support of Vestas occupation

Protest outside the Vestas wind turbine factory (on the Isle of Wight, 2009), in support of the workers' occupation to stop it closing

Often, when you speak to people in the youth-led environmental movement, you encounter people who don’t think climate change has anything to do with the liberation of oppressed groups – the working class, LGBTQ people, people of colour, and so on. It can be frustrating. One’s instinct might be to dismiss them as "bourgeois" or as having antagonistic class interests. But “to write people off lightly is not the mark of an organiser” (Ray Dunne, Trotskyist union activist in 1930s US Teamsters' struggles).

Our job as socialist activists would be a lot easier if the only reason people disagreed with us was that we were speaking to the wrong people! But not all who embody liberal mindsets are capitalists, petty bourgeoisie, or spies and cops and infiltrators. The truth is that most people who have bad politics genuinely believe in them. This makes our job – of educating, agitating and organising – harder. But it also makes it possible for these ideas to be displaced through open debate.

Even working-class people are capable of having reactionary views. Unfortunately, many do. Many will be convinced that the CEO of their company genuinely ‘takes more risk’ than they do as workers, and that he deserves to be paid in the billions. In reality, of course, the greatest risk to the CEO is that he might someday end up like one of his employees. Likewise, people of colour are capable of internalising racist ideas, either about themselves or about other ethnic minorities. Many in the LGBTQ community have also struggled with internalised homophobia or transphobia and self-hatred.

The reason capitalism has lasted so long, despite having outlasted its historical usefulness, is ideology. Capitalism and all of the oppressive ideas it throws up about race, gender and sexuality, must be countered ideologically.

Of course, some young people in the climate movement might genuinely have bourgeois relations. Many radicalise in university – and the universities they go to are often posh, elite institutions. But it is self-evident that this does not preclude them from ever being convinced by Marxism and class politics.

And where would we be without the segment of the bourgeoisie that comes over to the side of the working class? Those who, having been convinced by revolutionary socialist ideas, give up their material interests and dedicate their lives to political activity? This describes more than half of the Marxists I know. Their sincerity and self-sacrifice impresses workers.

The government often tries to drive a wedge between the environmentalists and the workers. In Singapore, the state just announced a significant petrol tax that will disproportionately affect food couriers and ride-hailing app drivers who are already struggling under the economic downturn. No doubt the state will claim that this is a concession to the youth-led climate movement. The government will depict the movement to merely consist of posh types who are disconnected from "ordinary people". We must challenge that narrative. We must rally both the environmentalists and the workers around a set of concrete, positive demands for a just transition away from fossil fuels.

We must bring the labour movement into the climate movement, and bring the climate movement into the labour movement. Environmental student activists must be educated about the power of the working class in withholding their labour to demand social and environmental justice (see Lucas Plan, Vestas, and the Green Bans).

But equally, workers must be educated about climate change. If one fails to combine the environmentalist and working class movements, then one could end up with workers in pollutive industries (like oil and gas) pursuing sectional interests, campaigning for the expansion of such industries, and being expressly against the youth-led movement for a just transition.

In order for the working class to take power and establish a new society based on their democratic control, rather than based on profit, the working class has to learn to transcend sectional interests that are unique to particular industries. You can only do that by giving the industrial struggle a political expression, by reminding the working class of its long-term interests - such as its interest in combatting climate change. The environmental activists can help to do that.

Environmentalism without class struggle is merely gardening. Climate change was caused by the infinite logic of profit under capitalism. Only the working class – who is equally exploited under capitalism – has the ability to stop it. But many in the environmental movement will not have realised that yet.

As a socialist activist, you have to hold your nose and speak to people who seem to have silly ideas. Silly ideas find purchase not because people aren’t clever enough, or because they have material interests that colour their judgement. It will be because the left and the labour movement, which draw strength from one another, are incredibly weak at this point in history. People have little exposure to good politics. They have less experience building solidarity in a meaningful way. It is our responsibility to have arguments with them so that we may educate and persuade them to do more and better organising. We know that they can change their minds. After all, none of us were born socialists.

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