Nature, Women, and Alienation: The Eco-Socialist Outlook on Change

Author Bio: 

Born in Saida, Lebanon, Hadi Merhi is a graduate of Environmental Health from the American University of Beirut. Throughout his life and education, his convictions surrounding social and environmental problems have evolved along with his disillusionment with the current world order. He is now pursuing a Master's in Environmental Governance at the University of Freiburg. In his studies he seeks to further identify the interconnections of social and environmental problems and the ways in which people can bring concrete and radical social change in a world that is in a losing race against the clock.

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Hadi Merhi. "Nature, Women, and Alienation: The Eco-Socialist Outlook on Change". Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 8 No. 2 (10 November 2022): pp. 4-4. (Last accessed on 07 February 2023). Available at: https://kohljournal.press/nature-women-and-alienation-eco-socialist-outlook-change.
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As the voices of millions of people around the globe have been pressing for liberation and against our surpassing of planetary boundaries, a deceptively dangerous trend has risen to meet these demands: that of green and feminist capitalism. Against the backdrop of revolutionary feminism, this form of capitalism markets itself as the champion of the cause of oppressed women and that of the environment, with an emphasis (mostly in the first world) on identity politics, women’s importance in high business/governmental positions, in addition to shifting to “clean” energies and lowering carbon footprints. While this brings about marginal improvements in general, I would argue that “green” and “pink”-washing capitalism present some seriously dangerous implications, especially in countries of the “global south.” Hence the presence of growing worker, peasant, and indigenous-led movements demanding accountability and opposing the violent and extractive policies which have been enacted in their regions. For centuries, capitalism has sought to divide the masses through any means in order to quell any revolutionary opposition to their misogynistic and ecocidal rule. In order to reconcile our divisions, we must seek to rid ourselves of the alienation we experience vis-à-vis nature, and amongst each other.

Firstly, some of the danger (which is more significant in powerful/wealthy nations) is the development of “inclusive” capitalism – the idea that women can and should be active participants in the global free markets, stake their claims as millionaires and billionaires, and take up high ranking (bourgeois) government positions. Women such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and more recently Jeanine Áñez and Kamala Harris in government, as well as Francoise Bettencourt (L’Oréal), Alice Walton (Walmart), Julia Koch (Koch Industries), Gina Rinehart (Hancock Prospecting Group), and others who are among the wealthiest people in the world with billions of dollars to their name, are seen as the heralds of a new era. While they may be widely considered to have transformed the image of women from what it was in previous decades and centuries, and with many being “generous philanthropists” with charities to their name, these women do not differ from their male counterparts in their active role in maintaining the global free market system. Similarly, “climate consciousness,” which has been adapted into the business and marketing strategies of the largest companies in the world, is an equally worrying phenomenon. This is not to say that we should go back to the overt misogyny and environmental carelessness of the past century, rather than to argue that capitalism, which is actively fueled by the restriction of women and nonconforming individuals’ freedoms as well as the degradation of the environment, cannot actually solve these issues because it is and always will be entirely dependent on them in one form or another.

 

On the Reconciliation between Capitalism, the Environment, and Women’s Rights

 

In an effort to survive and preserve its world-dominance, capitalism presents less-than-adequate solutions packaged and marketed as “the only way forward” through market-based instruments and inclusiveness at the top. In reality, capitalism as a system is incapable of solving any issue discussed so far; it even finds it necessary for these issues to remain entrenched in order to safeguard its expansion in the name of profit-seeking. Driven by the self-serving interests of individuals and groups, all this system seeks to do is to endlessly accumulate capital – it is the bottom line. This fact is recognized by leading economists, social scientists, and other intellectuals throughout generations (Antonio Gramsci, Mark Fisher, David Harvey…). This never-ending concern to expand exchange value (capital) means that the system is only interested in quantitative elements. Qualitative increases are not part of the balance sheet; this is why, while everything has been increasing in quantity, the quality of life in many parts of the globe hasn’t been following the same trends (at least not nearly at the same pace). On a planet with finite resources, a need for infinite economic growth spells catastrophe for the natural environment. As prominent sociologists and metabolic rift theorists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York (2010) put it:

 

The capitalist market system is geared at all times to the concentration of economic surplus and wealth together with the displacement of the majority of costs onto society and the environment. It provides a distorted accounting of human and environmental welfare in its gross national income statistics.

 

The lack of consideration to the environmental cost of all past economic and industrial activities – all in the name of profit-making – has incurred a mountain of ecological debt on present and future generations. Concepts such as sustainable development are being used to reinforce the need for economic growth albeit under a less ecologically destructive guise. Environmental economists such as William Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern who have advocated for limiting greenhouse gas emissions only support this claim insofar as it does not lead to a deficit in economic growth. These “limits” will not save the Earth from climate catastrophe yet they are being adopted by countries as part of their environmental plans for the future. The usually accepted concentration of atmospheric carbon required to avoid catastrophic change is around 350 ppm (parts per million); the current concentration lies at approximately 414 ppm in 2022, with trends pointing that this concentration could increase to as high as 910 ppm if we continue at a business-as-usual pace. The above-mentioned economists put forth “optimal paths” for limiting carbon emissions at 700 ppm and 480 ppm respectively. Both of these concentrations would lead to 2-6 degree Celsius increases in temperature from the pre-industrial level, spelling disastrous consequences on the Earth’s systems and its inhabitants (Foster, Clark, & York, 2010). If we were to avert such disasters, we would have to lower our carbon emissions, not only stabilize them. Lowering carbon emissions to this extent would not be profitable for capitalists and leaders to pursue, meaning a truly “green” capitalism would be incapable of reversing our collision course with catastrophe.

With the exploitation of nature comes the stripping of peoples’ right to live off of and have control over their lands. In many pre-capitalistic societies, and in contexts which exist outside of or resist the direct reach of capitalism today, women have actively worked towards maintaining ecosystems and biodiversity. This is not to idealize many of the practices and traditions of indigenous and tribal communities or the structure of pre-modern societies, where sexism remains pervasive. However, there is much to treasure and preserve when it comes to indigenous and dissident knowledge of conservation and sustainable agriculture. For example, the Inclusive Conservation Initiative has highlighted through substantial research the active role indigenous women play in seed selection and preservation, crucial for the maintenance of biodiversity (FAO, 2015; Lazarou, 2020). The Guna, Lisu, Quechua, and Karen peoples are some of hundreds Indigenous populations holding important traditions in sustainability. Their knowledge of seeds enables them to forecast crop yields in the future, which represents crucial understanding especially in communities practicing shifting cultivation. According to the Climate Investment Fund, 70% of the work that sustains such cultivation systems is done by women. This yields greater carbon capture, conserves crops, and enhances biodiversity in general (Tzec, 2022). Nonetheless, these women’s role in this regard has been rendered as non-work and their knowledge taken for granted. The same can be said in modern societies where women are expected to perform hundreds of hours of unwaged labor at home, to keep the male worker in the workplace and to make sure the next generation of workers grow up healthy. Adding to that, the organized actions of women in the global south in resistance to neo-liberal policies and in an effort to maintain the environments from which they live off of, has been met with extreme violence and persecution on most occasions. This is a big reason why in Latin American countries, Indigenous women and environmental defenders are targeted and silenced, tortured, and killed at a higher rate.

Patriarchal social systems predate capitalism; yet, capitalism uses patriarchy as a means to alienate women from their bodies, from other women, and from nature in order to deny them access to their lands and use their productive and reproductive labor for private gain. Some obvious examples of this exploitation can be seen in the agricultural fields of countries in the global south. Lebanon is one such example, where women employed in the agricultural sector suffer from legal marginalization. This is exemplified in their being deprived of health and old-age insurance, preventing them from developing in this sector. Many women, despite any success they may accrue, do not obtain official certificates enabling them to practice farming. Such certificates would entitle them to expand their work and export products abroad, in addition to obtaining financial and health guarantees. In Lebanese villages, land ownership determines social status, along with the extent of control exercised over the family's resources and income. The patriarchal family structure then, through government registries, would ensure that women are inescapably tied to men – be it fathers or husbands – when it comes to their ownership and access to lands (Mikdashi, 2022). In this regard, this deprivation leads to a structural dependence on men for resources, which in turn can expose women to insecurity and violence.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has pointed out with a study conducted in 2011 that in most developing countries women are the mainstay of the agricultural sectors and the farm labor force, in addition to carrying the daily burden of providing for the family; yet, not only are they systematically deprived of the so-called benefits of economic growth development, but this development often has a negative impact on their lives. By creating fixed categories of “men” and “women,” the capitalist-upheld patriarchal systems prioritize men with regards to the provision of agricultural services, meaning women find themselves in a worse position in terms of access to resources such as land, credit facilities, agricultural production requirements, technology, extension services, training, and other crucial services required to successfully manage their own lands. While such mechanisms serve to uphold capitalism in their respective regions specifically, it is important to note that they serve global capitalism. The above-mentioned threats and systematic deprivation force many women to relinquish their rights and access to land, making it more vulnerable to land-grabbing, and leading to unsustainable uses of land and economic deprivation of locals.

 

On Alienation

Marx’s theory of alienation is central to explaining the disconnection and hostility we have for many aspects of modern life. Explained briefly:

 

Instead of seeing their product as something that directly satisfies the human needs of others, the worker views it merely as a means to an end – a troublesome necessity requisite to obtain the money for the satisfaction of their own needs. (Vogel, 1988)

 

Stripping the co-operative and social elements from labor and production leaves the worker wanting no more than to do their part for the day and earn their wage before starting the cycle again. The concept of alienation can be extended to our alienation from nature and from each other as humans as a result of gender dynamics. The false image of the “ideal woman” has its roots in pre-capitalist colonial societies; it has been streamlined further in order to maintain women’s fixed roles in social reproduction in capitalist societies and prevent them from taking a different path in life. This has not stopped women on a worldwide scale, and we have historically seen a plethora of movements that have contested and mobilized against such norms. That overt discriminations are no longer as pervasive in many contexts is not nearly enough, as many capitalistic and patriarchal aspects of life (sweatshop labor, sex trafficking, North-South disparities, gender norms…) must be put to the sword. The key is to recognize the main driver of such norms in order to mitigate their resurgence in more discreet and modern ways.

The introduction of women to the labor market is an example of “sexist modernization” through neo-liberal policies. Women are seen by capitalists as an untapped resource in the labor market, especially in the global south (in Free Trade Zones), where labor rights (especially for women) are much looser, if not non-existent. As Silvia Federici points out (2012):

 

These women are forced to work long hours in unsafe conditions… They are often forced to take birth control pills to ensure that they do not get pregnant and disrupt production, and their movements are restricted. In many cases, they are locked up until they fill their work quotas.

 

In the same vein as working men, and on an even more deplorable level, these women also suffer from workplace alienation, producing en-masse while getting paid very little in return. Similarly, migrant workers suffer from a “double alienation” in that the woman’s produced service is devalued, and her racial/ethnic identity is constructed in dialectical coercion with the nation-state they reside in and the “boss” they now work for. A prominent example comes from some parts of the Arabic-speaking world (mainly Lebanon, Jordan, KSA, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait) where the Kafala system attracts and entraps workers of all genders. Women, who mainly work as domestic workers in homes, take on (at least to a large extent) the reproductive labor traditionally done by the local women. Subject to harsh living conditions, sexual and physical abuse, and restriction of movement, they are alienated from their own bodies and minds, from other workers suffering the same fates, and in their own workspace as they are told what to do and how to do it with little to none of their own input. In these countries, one cannot overwork local domestic workers the same way they do foreign domestic workers, dictating the extent to which you can exploit some women and not others.

Migrant domestic workers are pushing back against those systems and organizing amongst themselves and with feminist groups, in the region and around the world (Lebanon’s Egna Legna Besidet collective, Jordan’s Domestic Workers Solidarity Network in Jordan DWSNJ, Kuwait’s Sandigan Kuwait Domestic Workers Association SKDWA). While membership numbers remain relatively low in some areas due to laws forbidding them to organize and unionize, these organizations and the collective organizations of women in Free Trade Zones are significant examples of movements that engender solidarity across societies and advance the collective rights of those at the very bottom of the labor hierarchy.

Only recently, with the birth of a system driven by perpetual expansion (to the benefit of a small minority of elites), have planetary systems been affected to this extent. The unstoppable drive for said perpetual growth is maintained through overt and covert means which seem too many to name. An overt example is the prison industrial complex in the United States and Israel, both of which correlate with settler colonialism and the global neoliberal agenda that accumulates profit through the commodification of carceral technologies. Firstly, the unprecedented spread of global militarism in the past two decades has been characterized by an expansion of a transnational military-security industry and permanent warfare. This era has also been defined by mass incarceration, spatial apartheid, and omnipresent surveillance systems as a result of capitalism’s widening inequalities and growing opposition requiring such measures. These tools of repression are commercialized and serve as a major channel for offloading excess capital and more importantly, taming dissent, thus shielding capitalism from its internal contradictions (Fernández & Soraya, 2022). The aforementioned phenomena also serve (whether directly or indirectly) to widen the alienation between humans and nature, as well as other humans, through restriction of movement and destruction of habitats (as a result of warfare, extractivism…).

In the United States, inmates do not have the option of refusing labor after being imprisoned. This is so because the U.S. Constitution's 13th Amendment, which forbids slavery and involuntary servitude, expressly states that those who are imprisoned as a result of a criminal conviction are not covered by its protections. This disproportionately pushed Black people to be criminalized and effectively re-enslaved during the Jim Crow era, with effects being felt to this day. Those who labor while incarcerated often receive little to no compensation, with many making only cents per hour. However, they cannot retain even these meager earnings. Because jail regimes charge detained individuals expensive prices for basic needs, workers have even less spare cash. The principal benefactors, the prison systems and state governments, receive substantial value from the work done by those who are jailed (Wilson Gilmore, 2022). For the upkeep of the jails, inmates nationwide generate more than $2 billion in commodities and over $9 billion in services each year (ACLU, 2022). This is where attention must be drawn to glaring similarities between the settler colonies of the US and Israel: private businesses are making money off of incarceration in both nations. There are roughly 22 companies that are making money from Palestinian detention facilities inside of Israel and the occupied West Bank (Who Profits, 2014), while in the US, around 4,000 commercial companies benefit from the prison-industrial complex (Worth Rises, 2019). The US Federal Bureau of Prisons awarded Siemens Corp. of Germany a multi-million dollar contract in 2016. Siemens also collaborated with the Israeli business Orad Group in order to create a security system for a penal facility holding Palestinians. Motorola Solutions Inc. uses prison labor while simultaneously providing jail administration softwares to the US prison system. The business sold services and systems valued over $108 million in 2015 and 2016 to the Israeli Prison Service, including equipment for the Ofer military prison in the West Bank (Maza, 2019).

Contemporary prison systems all over the world serve a multitude of interests, none of which are to the benefit of the vast majority of the population. They provide modern-slave labor for state and private needs, providing exorbitant amounts of capital for companies, while serving the ever-crucial goal of taming dissent, curbing social change, and reinforcing the cycle of (re-)imprisonment. We must see beyond the theatrical progressivism by such large companies pushing a more “green” and “diverse” agenda all the while profiting (historically and contemporarily) off of human suffering and environmental degradation. The abolitionist movement in the US and the ever-present Palestinian struggle against apartheid and ethnic cleansing serve as real-life examples of resistance against our forced alienation and brutal repression at the hands of settler-colonial and neo-liberal entities.

 

Conclusion

Perhaps the most glaring evidence of our species’ alienation from the natural environment is the way it has been treated since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Ever since, nature has been seen as an inert and passive matter to be manipulated as markets see fit. The biggest shortcoming of capitalism so far has been its inability to recognize that any disruption to world ecosystems will end up producing ecologically dangerous consequences to a cataclysmic degree. From a Marxist standpoint, this alienation stems from our failure to recognize the human origin of objects we have produced. This is fundamentally what humans do through their labor: they remake nature and transform it to cater to their essential needs. Capital markets, especially in the modern world, have been geared to produce too much of things humans do not intrinsically need. Thus the implicit sociality of labor is concealed by the veil of private property and private exchange. Therefore, as Steven Vogel (1988) put it: “It is not the social character of our interventions in nature that deserves criticism but rather the fact that they have not been sufficiently socialized, that there exists no means of exerting over them democratic social.” What needs to be done to get rid of our alienation is a change in our social order and a recognition of the sociality of our production, that is, to recognize the potential for change. This is why, to restore a non-destructive and equitable relationship amongst humans and between humans and nature, it is imperative that the profit-driven market be replaced by a system of democratically controlled social planning of production.

The solutions to all of life’s existential problems will not be found in a green capitalist “utopia;” they rather require a fundamental restructuring of the prevailing social order towards post-capitalist modes of governance. Radical de-growth, eco-socialist, and eco-feminist ideologies strike the most valid criticisms of capitalism while providing a concrete path of decommodification, decolonization, and an alternative to the economic growth “fetish” of modern societies. The climate crisis, biodiversity extinction, ocean acidification, and all other environmental catastrophes looming over the world cannot be solved in a vacuum, and the answer is not in the hands of states or international organizations. Social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand: one cannot be addressed without the other. Humanity must ultimately be rid of the very systems (and those who safeguard it) which can be likened to parasites: feeding off of the exploitation of people and nature while killing its host in the process. As ever, the solutions are found in social movements at the bottom of the hierarchy of labor power around the globe. We have seen many decolonial acts of rebellion manage to gain back autonomy in the face of exceptionally brutal colonial and capitalist exploitation. They hold the revolutionary potential to bring about true social change because they represent the needs of working classes all over the world.

Notes: 
References: 

ACLU. (2022, June 29). Captive labor: Exploitation of Incarcerated Workers [report]. Chicago: The University of Chicago, The Law School Global Human Rights Clinic. https://www.aclu.org/report/captive-labor-exploitation-incarcerated-workers

Brownhill, L., & Turner, T. E. (2020). Ecofeminist ways, ecosocialist means: Life in the post-capitalist future. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 31(1), 1–14.

FAO. (2011). Women in agriculture closing the gender gap for development. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. https://www.fao.org/3/i2050e/i2050e.pdf

FAO. (2014). Shifting Cultivation, Livelihood and Food Security: New and Old Challenges for Indigenous Peoples in Asia. Bangkok: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, International Work Group For Indigenous Affairs, and Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact. https://www.fao.org/3/i4580e/i4580e.pdf

Federici, S. (2012). Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction, and feminist struggle. Brooklyn: Common Notions/PM Press.

Fernández, E., & Soraya, E. (2022). Settler Colonialism, Racial Capitalism and the Militarisation of the Global Economy: Palestine as Ground Zero [thesis]. Leiden: Leiden University. https://studenttheses.universiteitleiden.nl/access/item%3A3278901/view

Foster, J., Clark, B., & York, R. (2010). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth. New York: NYU Press.

Lazarou, R. (2020). Indigenous women conserving Nuwas Forest and medicinal plants. Centro Takiwasi. Tarapoto: Takiwasi. https://takiwasi.com/en/nuwas-forest-conservation-amazon.php

Maza, C. (2019, September 27). Prison systems in the US and Israel have something in common. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2019/9/27/prison-systems-in-the-us-and-israel-have-something-in-common

Mikdashi, M. (2022). Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2022.

Spear, J. (2021, March 15). Women and nature: Towards an ecosocialist feminism. MR Online. https://mronline.org/2021/03/15/women-and-nature-towards-an-ecosocialist-feminism/

Tzec, A. (2022, August 10). Celebrating and upholding indigenous women – keepers of indigenous scientific knowledge. IUCN. https://www.iucn.org/blog/202208/celebrating-and-upholding-indigenous-women-keepers-indigenous-scientific-knowledge

Vogel, S. (1988). Marx and Alienation From Nature. Social Theory and Practice, 14(3), 367–387.

Wilson Gilmore, R. (2022). Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation. London and New York: Verso Books.

Who Profits. (2014, January). Corporations that provide services to Israeli prisons. whoprofits. https://whoprofits.org/updates/corporations-that-provide-services-to-israeli-prisons/