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Finding the Movement in the Second Contradiction



Cy Gonick: About twenty odd years ago an economist by the name of James O’Connor wrote an article titled “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism.” The first contradiction refers to capitalism’s tendency towards overproduction – its unlimited capacity to produce, relative to consumption which is constrained by competitive pressures on capitalists to cut costs by restraining wages and cutting their work force by speeding up work and replacing workers with machines. O’Connor argued that capitalism suffers from a second contradiction arising from capital’s addiction to growth.

By “the second contradiction of capitalism,” he means that capital accumulation can be jeopardized by so fouling the natural conditions of production that it totally breaks down – the likely effects of climate change; or by raising the cost of production which arises from increasingly depleted raw materials and from the need to invent and develop substitutes; or by the state being forced to allocate increasing amounts of surplus value for restoring ruined soil, oceans and forests. Capital can’t prevent itself from impairing its conditions because it arises from its incessant need to grow. This is, of course, Marx’s first law of capital accumulation. “Growth or perish,” he said, “this is the law of capital.”

The first contradiction of capitalism, of course, manifests itself in periodic breakdowns like we’ve had most recently. The second contradiction of capitalism manifests itself in daily disasters like the BP oil spill.

Now, particularly in the last few years we’ve had lots of talk from various corners about building a movement of “ecojustice” as it’s sometimes called, or a “red-green movement” as it’s sometimes called, or “ecosocialism.” This is what this panel is about. It’s about building that movement. What are the characteristics of that movement, who are the constituents of the builders and what kind of actions and activities are required to get this movement going?

We have three excellent panelists. Nick DeCarlo is the CAW’s national representative for environmental and workers’ compensation. Nick has been an environmentalist all of his adult life. Terisa Turner is a sociologist at Guelph university and a co-director of the International Oil Working Group. Terisa has been an environmentalist for much of her adult life as well. Clayton Thomas-Muller is with the Indigenous Environmental Network and I might add that both Clayton and Terisa are members of the Canadian Dimension Collective.

Nick DeCarlo: I work in a union. I’m not speaking for the union. These are my own views. My assumption is that, as Cy pointed out, for the future we actually have to have a movement towards eco-socialism. But what I will try to focus on is the situation of workers and the working class, and what is the interest in the working class in addressing some of the issues we’re talking about today. The background is that in North America and in Canada in particular, up until the 1980s, there was always more and more that could be fought for and the basic approach of the union movement was to fight for more. In addition to that it took up social causes and played a fairly significant role in a number of social causes and also in the politics of the country.

Starting in the ’80s with the rise of neo-liberalism and all that means the whole game changed. For the last thirty years we’ve been pretty well on the defensive. We’ve concentrated primarily on protecting gains that we’ve won in the past. We’re in a position where people are in competition with each other. You don’t get the job unless your wages are lower than the factory or the workplace that’s either nearby or distant, including the other side of the world. That means that there’s a real attack on wages and benefits and on organizational rights for workers in the workplace. There’s a deterioration of health and safety. There’s a speed-up and the conditions of work are deteriorating.

Now for the union movement, and for workers in general, the problem is: what do you do about this? You know enough to fight, but a lot of times you don’t fight because you just don’t feel you have the strength. But if you do fight, what do you fight for? If you win the battle to protect your rights today, tomorrow they come after you again. You might win and protect something over here, meanwhile you’ve lost something over there.

It becomes a situation where you’re in a box. You can only fight for certain things and you’re kind of forced into that box. But if you don’t fight for everything, how do you fight for anything?

What’s our vision of a better society? That isn’t being addressed by the labour movement, social movements, or progressive people in general.

There’s also the fact that we traditionally have based our wellbeing on large number of jobs, highly centralized workplaces, lots of products being produced. But that conflicts with the concept of an environmental future that addresses the problems the planet faces because of capitalism and growth. The labour movement has to address environmental problems because we have no choice, but also because we can’t build support from other social movements unless we address that problem.

My experience is that most working people are aware of the environmental problems and concerned about them. They know where things are heading but they do not feel the strength to address it collectively. So the recourse is back towards individual solutions. You protect yourself. You operate individually which of course undermines solidarity and the union movement.

I think that’s generally true within the social movements. There’s an awareness of the problems, but there is no real confidence or real sense of how that’s going to be solved. That is where we step in to the issue of a vision about ecosocialism and a movement that is about a fundamental transformation of society that addresses the multiple problems that we’re talking about today and really provides a solution.

Then, of course, the problem becomes: how do you build that movement? One thing that is important is that we clearly identify what the objective is; we clearly understand what the problems are; we have the discussion and come to some agreement about what exactly it is we’re trying to do. But how do you fight for a fundamental solution that’s far in the distance and that seems almost impossible to achieve, yet if you don’t fight for that you can’t build a movement, and in the immediate, get enough support from people so you can actually get involved and get in a fight. I think that the discussion of the fundamental demands we’re fighting for and building a movement around, and the immediate things that we organize around to get people involved is really critical.

Nothing Works Without Women and Mother Earth

Terisa Turner: If humanity is to have a future we need not just ecosocialism, but ecofeminist ecosocialism. What does this mean and how do we get it?

We understand socialism to mean that everybody owns and controls everything in a context of human rights and the rights of nature. This is real, encompassing direct democracy that centers on life for all rather than profits for a few. The “eco” in ecosocialism recognizes that we are part of nature, of Mother Earth, and that we have to allow natural cycles to operate. We have to make a transition to a living carbon cycle and leave dead carbon – fossil fuels and uranium – in the ground. We have to stop incessant growth and the “more-more-more” mentality that is built into capitalist relations. Instead we need to focus on quality of life and healing damage to the ecosystem’s seas, soils, air, and all aspects of nature while redistributing wealth to those, especially in the global South, who, historically and today, have been disproportionately dispossessed by colonialism and corporate expansion. Finally the ecofeminism refers to a recognition that under capitalist relations women are, in a technical sense, exploited – our unwaged work contributes to capitalists’ profits. Ecofeminist ecosocialists resist that exploitation, that corporate profiting from the work and bodies of women. We also, of course, fight to transform exploitation of waged workers into collective commoning. But how can we mobilize the power to make a transition from here to there?

Part of the answer comes from looking at recent direct actions to shut down Big Oil. Not surprisingly, women in peasant, small holder, and indigenous communities feel the environmental impact of Big Oil first because pollution hurts the household, the farm, the fish, the animals and the health of the family. Such women take a stand and exercise the power at their disposal – they withdraw domestic labour including sex. For example, in June this year 100 women in Dallas, Texas threw off their clothes in front of the BP head office in North America to call for a strike, to announce that life comes from women and women refuse to supply services to corporations that destroy the basis of life. Code Pink announced that they were following the example of Nigerian women who curse oil companies and shut down production by going naked. By exposing where life comes from, African women symbolically revoke the life of those they curse. This is in effect a powerful kind of social ostracization which bestows social death.

Two powerful lessons come from this “curse of nakedness” example. First, women and their allies amongst men are highly conscious that nothing works unless women work. To withdraw this mostly unpaid work is to bring everything, including capitalists’ profit-making, to a halt. Second, oil companies that operate internationally have brought together people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth in a common cause to fight fossil fuel pollution, especially climate change. These people are of course natural allies of millions of others who are ready to strike against capitalists for a host of compelling reasons. These strikes include both consumption and production strikes. When these two kinds of actions are taken simultaneously, the companies so targeted are denied producers and consumers and are brought to their knees. The resistance is also transformational in that it builds just transitions to a post- capitalist global political economy. The cooperators in these direct, global strikes have built alliances that can be developed further to be the foundations of creative, ecosocialist, ecofeminist commoning.

To conclude, the tens of thousands of experiences peoples’ movements and groups have now had with these kinds of actions against Big Oil and other corporations have produced a qualitative leap. This leap is the creation, in Cochabamba, Bolivia in May 2010 of a movement of movements, called the World Peoples’ Movement for Mother Earth (see article in this issue) that is committed to a rich range of actions to mobilize the powers that women, men, waged and unwaged, have as producers and consumers within capitalist-controlled networks, to organize a transition with justice to a post-capitalist, post-fossil fuel world. This is the ecosocialist, ecofeminist project to which all are called to enrich, elaborate and enact.

A Coming Together of Social Movements

Clayton Thomas-Muller: My name is Clayton Thomas-Muller. I’m the tar sands campaign organizer with the Indigenous Peoples’ organization known as IEN, Indigenous Environmental Network. For twenty years, IEN has been answering the call that came from the heart of our nation, our Indigenous Peoples’ nations across Turtle Island. That call, basically, was that our young people, with the guidance of our elders and of our ancestors, must stand up and fight to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth from toxic contamination and corporate exploitation.

I would like to talk with you today about convergence, of a coming together of social movements whether that’s socialist or ecosocialist or ecofeminist ecosocialist or indigenous rights struggles or student struggles. We are living in an interesting time. Here in Canada, we have an interesting opportunity to effect great systemic change.

Never before in the history of humanity have we seen the ability of the five-fingered people – that’s you and me – to impact the ecology of our Mother Earth. That can be best represented by Canada’s tar sands development. For those of you who haven’t seen the tar sands or don’t understand how truly immense this undertaking is, we’re talking about 77,000 workers working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They move enough earth in the tar sands every single day to fill up the SkyDome. There are 11 million litres every single day of toxic waste leaching into the Athabasca River from ten tailing ponds that have been created by the industrial separation process to separate that oil from the 90 percent clay and sand that they are mining out from underneath the Boreal Forest. They burn enough natural gas in the tar sands every single day to heat 2.4 million Canadian homes through the whole winter. That’s every single day, just to separate oil from sand and send it down to the U.S., only to have them sell it back to us once they refine it into market-ready fuel. It is a really interesting thing.

If you compare the tar sands to other great undertakings, the Great Wall of China looks like a white picket fence. The pyramids of Giza – we’re talking Lego blocks in terms of size and scale compared to what is happening right now in northern Alberta.

Our governments have been completely hijacked. The environmental complex has completely been hijacked by Big Oil and King Coal. We have to come to terms with that reality.

Aside from the big institutions that have their own fundraising mechanisms that come from their membership base, for the most part, the sustainability of most environmental organizations is based on getting money from foundations – progressive foundations and not-so-progressive foundations. Where does that money come from? It comes from investment in the Fortune 500 companies, the same companies that are destroying Mother Earth, that they’re campaigning against.

If we look at what is happening right now in terms of the tactics being utilized to influence policy-makers around things like energy policy and climate policy, it’s a really disproportionate playing field and to be quite honest we’re getting our asses kicked. It’s no wonder because these same companies are investing a hell of a lot more in oil, coal, and tar sands and in lobbying and public relations than the 5 percent of their dividends invested into those foundations, a tiny fraction of which go to the environmental NGOs.

We face a global triple-crisis right now. We’re not trying to save Mother Earth. Mother Earth is going to be just fine. What we’re trying to save is our ability to live on Mother Earth as the five-fingered people. What we face right now is the end of the era of cheap energy and that changes every operating assumption of our society as we know it. This shit’s coming down in five years. Like the trucking industry. The other thing we are dealing with is the loss of natural capital to sustain economic growth. We just fouled the Gulf of Mexico. The whole fucking Gulf of Mexico. Pardon my language, but I get passionate about this stuff.

The other thing we’re dealing with, being driven by these other two problems, is, of course, catastrophic climate change. When we look at the manifestations, the consolidations of corporate power that have hijacked our government, the metaphor I use is that 400 years ago, we had Jesuit priests come into our native communities and promise a quick fix solution to the problems that we faced by changing the way we communicated with our Creator through embracing Christianity. Today, instead of Jesuit priests in black robes, we have corporate CEOs in black suits coming into our communities promising a quick fix solution by entering into the industrialization game and changing the way we have had a relationship with the sacredness of Mother Earth for time immemorial. In every single instance, not just here in North America, but across the world, mining companies and extractive industries have broken every single one of the promises they’ve ever made. Our people are not only still facing socio-economic crisis, but they can no longer feed themselves. They no longer have access to clean drinking water.

I bring all this up because the new religion, my friends, is capitalism. Big Oil, King Coal, and the State are like this. The only way we’re going to separate that power and build a new economic paradigm that is based in justice, that is based in equity, that puts the “eco” back in economy is by building a social movement of profound and epic proportions. The only way we’re going to successfully do that is by addressing the systems of oppression first and foremost.

The Cree people have a prophecy of the seventh generation that talks about a generation of young people that will be born free of the colonial mind, free of all the violence, poison, fear, and everything that has been instilled into our people by the violence of colonization. There is a manifestation of this prophecy right now here in Canada. Of our 2 million native people, 75 percent are under the age of 30; 55 percent under the age of 25. By the year 2016, one of every four workers in the Canadian economy will be a native person. There is a fundamental shift of potential economic power to a historically marginalized population in this country, and this population that’s coming up into power in our native nations is more sophisticated, more educated and more motivated than the last seven generations behind us to really shake this shit up and put an end to the bullshit that’s going on.

Labour, indigenous rights, and other social movements have a lot in common in our struggles. Take the tar sands. It has absolutely destroyed our manufacturing sector, and it will continue to create gross economic distortions because our dollar is based on the value of oil and commodities like minerals. Hold- ing up the value of our dollar kills export markets and manufacturing jobs which end up in Mexico or China.

I look forward to getting in the discussion, but bottom line, we’ve got to build alliances. We’ve got to get over the things that are keeping us divided because there’s a lot of work to be done and we need to put our minds together and visualize a future that we really want to see for our children.

Short Term Solutions, Long Term Problems

CG: I’m going to start off the discussion by suggesting to the panelists that they spend a little time focusing on short-term projects which we connect to a long-term vision. One that makes the most sense to me is the tar sands. How do we build effective resistance strategies and bringing in all the constituencies that have been talked about among the panelists? What steps would be taken? What tactics would be used? How would we proceed? What would be the immediate short-term objectives? How would those objectives develop over a short period of time to give us a start to attract activity and motion in developing the kind of movement that probably most of us here,or all of us here, are interested in developing?

CTM: I think that it’s going to take a very diverse strategy of direct action, litigation, community mobilization, education, and a whole bunch of other creative things to shut down the tar sands.

I guess the most immediate thing I will say is that we must have a significant economic justice plan for communities impacted by the tar sands as well as impending climate legislation, and a comprehensive just transition strategy for our brothers and sisters in the labour movement who come from high carbon-emitting jobs like the tar sands. These communities, as well as front-line communities, have born the disproportionate brunt of environmental and human health impacts associated with living beside these toxic industries. We need to prioritize these folks in our climate mitigation and adaptation plan and resources need to be put aside to retrain our workers into an emerging zero-carbon green economy.

We have to develop models of localized economic recovery and development. We have to develop a way for the 55,000 workers that fly to the tar sands every frickin’ month from the Maritimes to be able to feed their families over in the Maritimes. We have to develop a way that they can stay home. Green jobs are not just about putting photovoltaic panels and wind farms in place. It has to do with water and sanitation technology. It has to do with food security, food production. It has to do with the weatherization of existing infrastructure so that it makes sense for the environment that those structures are in and that they’re not leaking energy everywhere during our cold winters.

Unidentified Woman: I’m from the United States and from what I can tell we’re going to be the number one consumer of a lot of this tar sands petroleum. I’ve seen figures that suggest that we’ll be getting somewhere around 30 percent of our petroleum from the tar sands in another twenty years or so. It seems to me that part of what we need to do is get at these trade agreements that basically don’t allow Canada to shut down the tar sands.

CG: Absolutely right. Since the tar sands are now supplying the majority of oil exports from Canada to the United States, already – and that will only increase over time – and since we are committed by NAFTA to sustain that level of exports to the united States, if we succeeded in stopping the tar sands, we would then be violating NAFTA. So there are huge international implications that arise from that question.

CTM: I don’t know how many of you remember the SPP, the Security Prosperity Partnership agreement? Well, we killed it, but it’s going to come back again. Before that it was the FTTA. It always comes back. It’s like “Night of the Living Free Trade Agreement.” Basically, what they are trying to do is put energy under the guise of national security so, if Canada cuts down the energy supply to America, American military apparatus can be given an order to acquire those assets under the guise of national security, or a threat to national security.

Unidentified Man: I would like to know if you guys can give examples of concrete steps that we, as activists, can take to take back some of this power that has been encroached on by big money.

CTM: It’s important to become politicized about the issues in this country and make sure that you understand that before you move forward to try and do diverse community organizing or whatever, because a lot of times, that’s where problems come up. People haven’t taken the time to get politicized or educate themselves, and are trying to speak on something or do something that they’re not equipped to do. That’s how people get hurt. And it’s really important to ask for permission. This is a really basic, basic recommendation: if you’re going to do something, ask for permission.

ND: It’s important to use tactics that develop democracy and community control. We build in different areas our ability to define our own destiny, and it has to happen at more local levels so in communities we can build the right to have some decision-making power over what’s built in the community, how it’s built, who gets to work in the community, etc.

Eric Mills: I have a question for Nick. I’m glad to hear that NAFTA has come up in this discussion. Twelve or fifteen years ago the Multilateral Agreement on Investment was defeated by the Council of Canadians and other groups. It’s a no-brainer to call for abrogation of NAFTA. Why did the NDP and the CAW drop that as an issue and do you think there’s a potential for a broad movement unifying around calling for abrogation of NAFTA and similar agreements?

ND: The problem the labour movement faces is the pragmatic problem of how do you defend jobs now, and what is the alternative? If you – and I’m not suggesting you don’t – abrogate the NAFTA agreement and all the other agreements – because there’s an agreement being negotiated with Europe right now which will eliminate the right for local procurement – so when you challenge it, you’re challenging the fundamental direction of the economy. The stock markets are going to react. There are various things that are going to happen.

Stopping the tar sands is also a fundamental challenge to global capital. What is required from the labour movement is a sense that it can challenge this effectively and live to fight another day doing it rather than have the membership turn against them and get destroyed and decimated in the fight. I think that is what goes on and the task for a social movement is to figure out the realities of these possibilities.

CTM: I respect the challenge that my brothers and sisters in the labour unions have to deal with – it’s not an easy place and I find it similar to the place that many of our elected First Nations leaders are stuck in, in terms of having to provide jobs and revenue streams for the most severely economically impoverished communities in this country, and try to protect the sacredness of our lands. Usually it’s literally that black and white. It’s one or the other, because the only economic opportunities in our lands are extractive industries or toxic waste dumps, long-term nuclear storage facilities. These are the kinds of economic development opportunities that come to First Nations. So I relate to that and I empathize with that kind of responsibility to carry.

That said, when Martin Luther King stood up on the Lincoln Memorial, he did not get up and say, “I have a plan.” He got up and said, “I have a dream.” One of the greatest things that all of us face today in the labour struggle, the environmental movement, and the Indigenous rights movement is this political realism. “Well here’s the political reality.” That has never been the basis of any great social movement and victory. We have to remember that if we give in to that political realism, it can impede us. I just want to put that out there, too to provide a little balance.

Unidentified Man: Where does the energy and where does the will to change the system come from, especially among Canadians who are living within the system, profit from it, and are firmly entrenched within it.

CTM: Social movement building is about moving the political base. We don’t need to change the minds of every single person in society, the NASCAR Dads and the Soccer Moms. They are doing alright and they are going to follow whatever laws the State imposes. We just need to create enough friction and pressure, by expanding the political base of like-minded networks, individuals, organizations, communities and indigenous nations, and move forward together to create that systemic change. That’s how social movements work, and what percentage do you think you need to get before you can create systemic change in society?

Audience Member: Five percent?

CTM: A little bit higher than that.

Audience Member: Fifteen percent?

CTM: About 15 percent. We don’t have to change every single person’s opinion. We only have to create enough friction that the river of money and resources stops, and get to the table.

ND Can I just respond to that briefly? The other side can do the same thing. They can create 15, 20, 25, 30 or 40 percent. I don’t know what the percentages are, I just know you have to be able to at least neutralize, or be able to get enough of the population on your side that the other side doesn’t out organize against you.

CG: Okay, folks. We’ve exhausted our time. Thank the panelists for an excellent job.

This article appeared in the September/October 2010 issue of Canadian Dimension (Ecosocialism).


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