In 2017, Ariel Salleh published the second edition of her book Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern (Zed Books, 2017). In her outstanding engagement with multiple oppressions within the capitalist global economy, she convincingly argues that patriarchal oppression is inextricably internally related to the destruction of nature in capitalism’s relentless search for accumulating ever higher levels of surplus value. The conversation that follows is an overview of the book, as well as offering some critical reflections.
Ariel: Indeed there’s plenty to unpack here – particularly for students in disciplines like political economy. Masculinist values are what energise, even legitimate capitalism given that they are deeply embedded in the constructs of Western philosophy, science, economics, law, and so on. As a sociologist of knowledge, I have spent thousands of working hours attempting to deconstruct this.
Andreas: When outlining your ecofeminism, one way of proceeding is by clarifying what it is not. First, it is not liberal feminism with its focus on equality between men and women in currently existing social and power relationships. As you point out, ‘for too many equality feminists, the link between their own emancipated urban affluence and unequal appropriation of global resources goes unexamined’ (p. 155). While inequality between men and women is criticised by liberal feminists, they overlook broader dynamics of oppression and exploitation between, for example, industrialised and developing countries.
Equally, you are critical of poststructural feminism. While you appreciate the contribution of deconstructing dominant discourses, you are sceptical of reducing politics to discourse. ‘Ironically, the pluralism that results from these emancipations becomes neoliberalism by default, because once the moment of destabilisation has passed and discourse effects are exposed, the postmodern exercise has little further to add’ (p. 258). Thus, poststructural feminism demobilises. It does not provide a basis for resistance.
You also clearly distinguish ecofeminism from Marxist understandings of exploitation in capitalism. As you point out, ‘Marx’s vision of human dominion over the natural world spoke a linear notion of progress – an idea reinforced by his contemporary Darwin’s evolutionary schema’ (p. 109). The dualism between Humans and Nature, identified as underpinning the destructive implications of capitalism for the environment, is also visible in historical materialist analyses. By contrast, you highlight the distinctive experience of women anchoring ecofeminism in women’s different sex.
Ariel: Well this needs qualification, Andreas. I use the word ‘sex-gender’ in this context, as there is a lack of clarity out there, even among feminists and academics over ‘sex’ (which is biological) and ‘gender’ (which is cultural). The usage of these categories has become even more confused with the rising popularity of LGBT politics, but that merits a discussion in its own right. What Ecofeminism as Politics emphasises is the interplay of sex and gender, and the chapter – ‘Body Logic: 1/0 Culture’ – outlines the dynamics of this.
Andreas: As you argue ‘What is undeniably given, is the fact that women and men do have existentially different relationships to nature because they have different kinds of body organs’ (p. 147). It is on the basis of this fundamental distinction that you perceive strong commonalities and ultimately unity of women from around the world regardless of their ethnicity or class. ‘Sisters North and South have more in common than many think, and that commonality increases as globalisation expands’ (p. 141).
Ariel: Well your rendering here sounds a bit too much like biological reductionism, whereas my case in ‘Body Logic: 1/0 Culture’ is precisely the opposite. It is an exposé of how our eurocentric patriarchal civilisation has set up structural oppressions based on observed bodily differences. The said sexual dualism is a ‘political construct’, imposed over a natural spectrum of human forms and inclinations.
Andreas: So its not an essentialist argument, in that you do not claim that women’s outlook and behaviour is automatically different from men due to their different sex. Rather, the argument is about how women’s social relationship to nature and human beings alike is entangled with their bodily capacity for birthing new life and related caring tasks.
Ariel: Yes. And this is such an important distinction. At last year’s Degrowth Conference in Malmo, the question of ‘essentialism’ imploded among young academic feminists. Those trained in economics are not well equipped to argue their way – dialectically – through the conceptual quagmire of sex-gender ideology. But they should not be intimidated by the old backlash charge of being labelled an ‘essentialist thinker’. The accusation of reductive ‘essentialism’ is based on a category mistake.
For sure, giving birth is a biological act, but it is not only biological; it is also sociological and economic, since the continuity of species life, society and economy is fully dependent on it. In being social, women’s relation to biological reproduction leads in turn to the acquisition of specific kinds of reproductive labour skills like caring. There are thus 3 interactive lenses, and 3 discourses at play here – biological, sociological, economic.
Andreas: So that’s why you say: ‘Biology can inscribe cognitive structures just as much as discourse does’ (p. 147).
Ariel: From here, it is a short step to recognising the economic value of domestic labour, which as Marxist feminists note, is freely appropriated by capitalism. You might say that the conventional dualist separation of Humanity over Nature and the positivist separation of academic frameworks such as biology from cultural studies, economics from social psychology, etc., serves capitalist patriarchal ideology very nicely in disguising these complex ‘internal relations’.
Andreas: These capacities and experiences are fundamentally different from male experiences and, hence, sustain different activities and ways of approaching crisis. ‘Women are organically and discursively implicated in life-affirming activities, and they develop gender-specific knowledges grounded in that material base. The result is that women across cultures have begun to express insights that are quite removed from most men’s approaches to global crisis – whether these be corporate greenwash, ecological ethics or socialism’ (p. 240).
Ariel: Yes, although using the adjective ‘male’ above, as distinct from ‘masculine’ pulls the argument back into the biological, and away from the social structural and culturally learned process which is what sex-gendering is.
At the same time, physical labour itself entails learning. To reiterate: this is what it means to say that ‘biology inscribes cognitive structures’. Men too will learn different skills and values if they are involved in materially embodied care work. Accordingly, with the chapter – ‘A Barefoot Epistemology’ – the book takes a decolonial turn towards indigenous knowledges. The labour of subsistence farmers and gatherers – men and women together – is identified as regenerative of natural cycles, just as householding skills are. What we are about here is identifying ‘the forces of reproduction’ that sustain forces of production.
Andreas: That the appropriation of women’s unpaid labour in the household and the expropriation of natural resources are both part of capital’s wider social relations in ensuring ongoing accumulation of surplus value is acknowledged by a number of authors. Jason Moore, for example, points out that capitalism relies equally on unpaid female labour as well as on securing constantly new ‘cheap natures’ (see Capitalism in the Web of Life: Jason Moore on the exploitation of nature). Nevertheless, while he adds up these forms of capitalist exploitation, your ecofeminism is able to understand their inextricable internal relations with other political movements. ‘Global crisis is the outcome of a capitalist patriarchal system that treats both women and nature as “resources”’ (p. 209).
Ariel: My design in Ecofeminism as Politics, and numerous articles over the years, has been to tease out the internal relatedness of workers, women’s, indigenous, and ecological politics. As distinct from the sphere of production, their common denominator is the sphere of reproduction. In fact, as ecofeminist activism gained momentum in the 1970s, it dubbed itself Women for Life-on-Earth. From the start, this life-affirming grassroots politics was cross-cultural and transnational in scope.
So my claim has been that Marxist theorists need to acknowledge these invisible yet indispensable ‘forces of reproduction’. The industrial working class has shown itself too deeply implicated in and reliant on capitalist production. My thesis is that, in a future drive towards nature regenerative post-capitalist societies, an hitherto marginal ‘meta-industrial labour class’ must replace the urban proletariat as agent of historical change.
Andreas: Your work is highly important in the way it furthers our understanding of how capitalist accumulation is not only sustained through exploitation and the extraction of surplus value in the workplace, but equally dependent on the internally related patriarchal oppression of women and relentless destruction of nature. My only concern is the difficulty of identifying an agent of resistance in ecofeminism. You talk about ‘women’s unique agency in an era of ecological crisis’ (p. 20), but do not seem to translate this insight into current struggles against capitalist exploitation and the wider landscape of social movements involved in these struggles. Perhaps, we need to understand ecofeminism more as a way of struggle rather than specific agency?
Ariel: The chapter – ‘Ecofeminist Actions’ – outlines the first 25 years of women’s resistance, occasionally joined by men who understood the linkages between capitalist, colonial, patriarchal, and ecological dominations. My – Introduction – to the 2017 edition names several contemporary ecofeminist struggles, but a comprehensive history of women’s ecopolitical agency over the past five decades would run to volumes. As said: what makes an action ecofeminist is its political focus on protecting the web-of-life in all its organic mutuality and complexity. What gives veracity to ecofeminist theory is its grounding in praxis.
Andreas: Interestingly, in a report on the international conference The Future is Public: Democratic Ownership of the Economy, organised by the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam on 4 and 5 December 2019, ecofeminism is specifically referred to as a lense, which ‘recognises the equality and interdependence of human beings and the ecosystems we inhabit’ (7 Steps to build a Democratic Economy). It allows us, the report states, to think about re-orienting our economic system, including ‘the deprivatisation of care-based services; new training for public servants that emphasises the quality of relationships rather than market efficiency; and the reorientation of investment away from socially and ecologically destructive industries towards forms of caring labour which are inherently low-carbon, as well as being of immense social use’ (7 Steps to build a Democratic Economy). In short, there is a clear example of how ecofeminism as a way of struggle and way of creating new forms of living is already influencing concrete policy proposals.
Ariel: The Transnational Institute has been a guiding light on the Left for many years – and these steps for building a Democratic Economy are resonant with a number of Green New Deal proposals. Certainly the TNI acknowledgement of care labour is invaluable, although this alone is not necessarily ecofeminist. Political liberals are also campaigning for the economic recognition of care labour. It is very much part of the current liberal feminist agenda, and does not necessarily imply a broad civilisational critique as ecofeminism does. Again for TNI, the Western industrial economic model is still the ‘received’ global norm, considered redeemable in a post-capitalist era. This is not far from bourgeois idealism in my view, because it lacks an adequate materialist or thermodynamic understanding of how the web of life works.
So too, the trans-Atlantic Left tends to overlook the many other cultures around the world which already exemplify ecologically sustainable ways of worlding. In Ecofeminism as Politics, the decimation of such alternatives is referred to in the chapter – ‘Terra Nullius’ – a phrase that echoes the eurocentric illusion that ‘there is nobody else out there’. Currently, women’s anti-extractivist activities, especially in South Africa and South America are making this contradiction very clear.
Andreas: So ecofeminism has an important role to play in resisting exploitation and developing paths towards alternative, post-capitalist futures due to the ways it comprehends the internal relations between different forms of oppression. As you say: ‘Ecofeminist politics is a feminism in as much as it offers an uncompromising critique of capitalist patriarchal culture from a womanist perspective; it is a socialism because it honours the wretched of the earth; it is an ecology because it reintegrates humanity with nature; it is a postcolonial discourse because it focuses on deconstructing Eurocentric domination’ (pp. 282-3).
As scientists point out, it has been capital’s relentless encroachment into nature, which is ultimately responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic (see Guardian, 27 April 2020). As the world struggles with the coronavirus crisis and the onset of a major economic crisis, capitalism is again thrown into turmoil due to its internal contradictions. Your volume helps us understand these dynamics and I strongly recommend it to everyone who is interested in moving towards post-capitalist futures!
Ariel: Certainly it is a hopeful sign that the pandemic has brought the public face to face with the indispensable role of reproductive labour.
1991 Ariel Salleh, ‘Essentialism – and ecofeminism’, Arena, No. 94, 167-173 (available at www.arielsalleh.info).
2004 Ariel Salleh, ‘Global Alternatives and the Meta-Industrial Class’ in Robert Albritton, John Bell, Shannon Bell, and Richard Westra (eds.), New Socialisms: Futures Beyond Globalization. London: Routledge.
2009 Ariel Salleh (ed.), Eco-Sufficiency & Global Justice: women write Political Ecology. London. Pluto Press.
2019 Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta, (eds.), Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. New York: Columbia University Press and New Delhi: Tulika/AuthorsUpFront.
2020 Khayaat Fakier, Diana Mulinari, and Nora Rathzel (eds.), Marxist Feminist Theories and Struggles Today: Essential Writings on Intersectionality, Labour, and Ecofeminism. London: Zed Books.