As the climate crisis has consumed worldwide attention, it has provoked a large range of proposals for trying to resolve it. Recent work on Green New Deals, green growth, just transitions, and similar notions for greening Euro-American or worldwide production, planning, and consumption proceed generally on at least four possible paths. One: the “Green Transitions,” or making existing technologies and infrastructures “green” or “sustainable” while maintaining the existing social relations, such as “great transitions” models from institutions, such as the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative and the World Economic Forum (Climate Finance Leadership Initiative 2019
; World Economic Forum 2020
). Two: partially re-tooling the existing forms of production and social reproduction to emphasize “care” or “non-polluting” sectors such as education or healthcare, often visible in social democratic or de-growth proposals. Three: “Eco-Modernism” or overcoming existing class structures, particularly in the core, alongside the greening of existing technologies; this is a form of luxury communism or green social democracy.1
Four: an “An Alternative for Decent Work,” transcending existing social relations and forces of production, and their replacement with non-hierarchical and more-or-less permanently sustainable technologies and social relations.
This commentary turns a critical lens on the first three perspectives, showing how focusing on worldwide social labour—all the labour which most of humanity currently performs—and the worldwide impact, going beyond climate to damages from mining and to biodiversity and other elements of the ecology, forces skepticism about the first three approaches. It shows how each relies on suppressing the historical role of colonialism and imperialism in making First World (core) development possible. It then argues, using illustrative examples, how lenses such as “social reproduction” or policies such as “universal health care” focused only on the core reproduction of worldwide patterns of domination.
In contrast, this commentary examines the merits of auto-centered development, based on basic needs production for the poor within poorer nation-states (I interchangeably use the technical vocabulary of core and periphery, and “North” and “South,” and First World and Third World, and use poorer nations as well). Such a strategy walks on “two legs”: agrarian reform and agroecological production within agriculture, and more ecologically sustainable industrialization/manufacturing patterns. This strategy relies on “accounting” for forms of social labour which dominant approaches ignore, in particular social reproduction, or the labour that goes into making and caretaking human beings, and the reproduction of the non-human environment—the labour which reproduces the ecology. It places those policies within a broader macro-economic framework of “delinking”: breaking from the dominant capitalist economic rationality and planning, from setting prices, wages, including which activities receive wages, and investment priorities based on the nationally determined needs of workers, peasants, semi-proletarians, slum-dwellers, and other marginalized groups. And it situates delinking within internationalist politics.
2. Theoretical Framework
This criticism of proposals for green growth, social democratic policies, and elements of degrowth relies on the theory of accumulation on a world scale. To situate this framework, the note begins by explaining the orthodox approaches which implicitly underwrite many contemporary core-focused models of social democracy.
Historical and contemporary models of development are largely variants of modernization theory. This has argued that development in the core, or the Euro-American states and Japan, occurred through “internal” shifts: the revolutionary activity of capitalists, the industrial revolution, advances in agricultural productivity, and widespread innovation and technological diffusion. It then argued the poorer nations could tread such a “path” to “catch up” with the North, advancing through a series of stages of growth, to unleash an indigenous agricultural revolution based on capitalist agriculture, deploy surpluses for industrialization, diffuse (Western) technology, create a middle class, and summon widespread prosperity.2
This legerdemain was attacked in a series of theoretical works, culminating in the idea of accumulation on a world scale. First, many pointed out that British industrialization rested on labour, wealth, and commodities secured through the slave trade (Williams 2014
). One taproot of what would be called dependency theory noted that goods exported from the Third World suffered from declining terms of trade—one bushel of coffee might trade for one automobile in 1920, and then three bushels of coffee might trade for one automobile in 1940. So long as productivity increased more amongst automakers than coffee-cultivators, countries which cultivated coffee would have ever-lesser access to the figurative fruits of world production (Prebisch 1950
). This notion culminated in a broader, holistic analysis of how some nation-states were able to “develop” and some remained underdeveloped. Military violence, unequal exchange (a formalization of the idea of the declining terms of trade), monopoly pricing power, low wages, colonization, the extirpation of native manufacturing capacity, land theft, and later a monopoly control of intellectual property, the centralization of technology, coercive loans, and debt repayments constituted and re-constituted the world into a world divided (Amin 1977
). Within the periphery, the zone of storms, huge labour reservoirs depressed wages; agrarian inequality and export-oriented agricultures went hand-in-harvester; and neo-colonial repression and ecological degradation were the order of the day. Within the core, military power, strong currencies, and a social compact between imperialist-aligned unions, corporations, and the state meant a decent living for some workers (Amin 1974, pp. 9–26
; Patnaik and Patnaik 2021
The theory of ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) was built on these insights to show how uneven accumulation was intertwined with what it identified as harmful flows between the cores and the peripheries, or harmful grabs of shared commons. This framework enfolds many phenomena. For example, siting more polluting industries in the Third World where ecological protections are weaker, often due to states shifting to a policy of industrialization via export orientation in the wake of the de-legitimizing of import-substitution industrialization. Or the northern use of the planetary “safe space” for carbon dioxide, including northern over-use on a per capita basis of planetary capacity to absorb and metabolize CO2
into carbon (Agarwal and Narain 1991
). Or uneven damages caused by global warming-linked climate disasters. Or the uneven use of embodied hectares of land, or uneven tonnages in global exchange. Methodologically and conceptually, these do not add up to a theory and do not clarify the relationship between neo-colonial class structures in the periphery and accumulation on a world scale, including its ecological consequences (Ajl 2023, pp. 12–50
). Nevertheless, they make it clear that the North and South experience ecological damage in sharply different ways, that the North as an economic, social, and political unit uses far more of the world’s resources than the South, and the North is generally responsible for the ecological crisis, particularly when it comes to CO2
. A planning proposal which seeks to end such spoliation ought to account for such unevenness. Alternatively, theories and proposals which sidestep such unevenness will reinforce or deepen its uneven contours.
Secondly, the theory of accumulation on a world scale and its ecological variants suggest two points regarding breaking from worldwide capitalist exploitation and primitive accumulation, and the global destruction of the environmental balances needed for decent human life. First, those at the knife’s edge of such subjugation are disproportionately in the South, in particular the semi-proletariat, whose goal “is to reclaim land and natural resources and affirm sovereignty over national development.” It is composed of an array of “new” struggles, including feminist, Indigenous, and environmental, but shares “structural conditions,” as peripheral women rely on land for social reproduction, as those whom history—settler colonization, the slave trade, internal colonialism—has turned into subordinate classes marked by caste, racism, or ethnicity, helping to “underpin … the ideal of environmental sustainability with a militant social agent (given the immediate destruction of the means of subsistence of the semi-proletariat as a whole).” (Moyo et al. 2012, p. 189
; Ossome and Naidu 2021
). These social layers will play the leading role in asserting popular control over politics, production, and the human-nature metabolism. Second, such struggles take place amidst the imperialist subjugation of entire social formations and therefore, to be successful, ought to take on the tenor of national liberation (Dussel 1988
; Cabral 1979
)—which enfolds the struggle against neo-colonialism, and the domestic bourgeoisie.
3. Green Transitions
Once the lens of accumulation on a world scale and EUE are focused on the world, including ideas for changing the world, many of their details, subtleties, and outlines come into much sharper relief. We can see things which we could not see before. For example, consider what I call the “Great transitions” proposals which seek to make current social and class relations green, using near-clones of current technologies. The theoretical grout of such a transition is decoupling, or the idea that carbon dioxide emissions and materials use can be fully separate from the process of economic growth—bracketing that the ruling class is not, per se, interested in growth but in hierarchy and polarized access to global use values (Kadri 2019
). Its foundation is made up of a full transition in the energy system. Note that, currently, there is little ruling-class interest in implementing such proposals. They remain in the back pocket. Such programs rest on a full shift from non-renewables to renewables, including biofuels (Jacobson et al. 2015, pp. 2093–117
Our lenses bring into view multiple aspects of such a transition, clarifying the centrality of polarization and primitive accumulation to these programs. First, energy use. These models do not call for a worldwide energy use convergence. As a result, energy use will remain sharply uneven on the North–South lines. The technological bequest of “development,” in important measure, the child of southern labour, would remain in the North (Cox 2018
). Second, the renewable shift in the South will come at the price of southern sovereignty: it is imagined as a new investment arena for northern capital. Southern states will offer political risk guarantees for northern capital to come in and build up elements of the green infrastructure while maintaining profit flows and technological control within its own hands (Gabor 2020
). Third, the raw material for such a transition is generally left unstated. Yet strategic quantities of the necessary minerals, from copper to lithium to cobalt, are in the South. Such resources are located in historical neo-colonial “hot zones” or global geopolitical flash-points—the devastated Democratic Republic of Congo, Bolivia. The cost-effectiveness of transition relies on cheap mineral inputs, which means pressure on such states to mine without attention to ecological and social consequences, or controlling by hook or by crook prices. Fourth, biofuels are a large component of the energy mix, given that these proposals imply a transposition of nearly analogous technologies in place of the current ones. Such biofuels usually rest on displacing smallholders from subsistence cultivation or diverting food-grain production into biofuels, placing pressure on demand and inducing price increases. Fifth, such proposals rest on increasing the deployment of “natural climate solutions.” ((PU UNDP 2020
); for critical discussion, see (Ajl 2022
)). Currently, tree-planting—either displacing pastoral cultivation or in place of existing forest stands—is one largely unsuccessful mechanism (Fleischman et al. 2022, pp. E5–E6
A sub-type of this genre is the rising proposals for northern green self-reliance, such as, for example, in the Versailles Declaration (2022) (for discussion, see (Mario 2022
)). Such documents, however, despite gestures to energy independence, make no mention of where the renewables to replace Russian resources will be sited, where the origins of the “green hydrogen” will be, and from where will come the inputs into renewables production.
4. Social Reproduction on a World Scale
Another labour-centered transition, much more attentive to core social reproduction needs, more extensively emphasizes care work and care in general as part and parcel of an ecological transition. Highlighting and struggling against the capitalist devaluation of the suite of social labour activities necessary to reproduce the commodity, labour, has been central to Marxist feminism for over half a century (James 2012
). Contemporary work now focuses on a form of social labour—care/reproduction—which, yet, is often presented absent a world-systemic class analysis (Aronoff et al. 2019
). From an ecological perspective, the varieties of labour implied are presented as relatively less carbon emitting than industrial or other tasks and so logical ones from the perspective of ensuring social formations value all the kinds of work needed to reproduce societies.
However, we must add several components to this perspective. Insofar as these proposals are shorn of an anti-imperialist perspective and disinterested in national sovereignty and national liberation, they will maintain the political architecture of the current world system (Arruzza et al. 2019
). For example, that what is at stake from a social reproduction perspective in Arab states such as Syria and Yemen under US assault is the physical infrastructure and social wealth embodied in doctors and educators, which rely on stable nation-states. This point does not mean neo-colonial ruling classes internal to such nation-states are enhancing such social reproduction activities but that imperialism is targeting the state institutions themselves, turning their defense into a class struggle (Kadri 2014
A second related aspect is the persistence of permanent primitive accumulation in the periphery and the difference between gendered aspects of social reproduction in the core and the periphery. In the core, certain tasks are gendered and therefore encounter suppressed wages, or are outside the ambit of the wage relationship, e.g., care. In the periphery, “Women’s reproductive labour in these economies … is not merely restricted to care work and also includes participation in non-capitalist forms of production.” (Ossome and Naidu 2021
). Insofar as such forms of production, including food or fuel provision from the surrounding environment, do not receive formal protection from the state and are not formally integrated into transition planning, and even so insofar as “technology neutral” care-based transitions do not clarify that certain technologies imply encroaching on commons, and do not offer a political defense of existing patterns of social reproduction, let alone advocate their socialization, they will reinforce Eurocentrism and uneven accumulation by refusing to challenge them or theorize them (Patnaik 2008
Third, “care” must be considered on a world scale, for example, when considering a seemingly alluring category: nursing. As the healthcare scholar Salimah Valiani has noted, hospitals in the US resorted to importing nurses in the 1990s and 2000s as part of a class offensive against northern labour and against a rising cost of deploying technology in medicine. The US ended up as a major employer of Filipina nurses, much as the home health aide industry disproportionately employs female immigrants (Valiani 2012
; Hartmann and Hayes 2017, pp. 88–95
). Such workers are reared—that is, their labour power is created—on land and labour from the Philippines and the Caribbean. Social wealth is expended raising them, feeding them, teaching them to read and write, and giving them expensive medical training. Simply increasing wages does not begin to account for the longue durée colonial and neo-colonial hewing which produced the canals which channel peripheral labour to the core. Indeed, the Philippines as it currently exists is the child of colonial genocide and neo-colonial violence, including US-enabled counter-insurgency and terror-listing against its Communist armed forces (Raymundo 2022
; Guerrero 1971
). Such labour is made available to flow to the US because of massive super-reserves of labour, super-exploitation, and the neo-colonial structural orientation of Filipino agriculture. Similar dynamics are obtained in the Caribbean (Levitt 2004
). Finally, the abundance of underpaid care work and the need to ensure its adequate remuneration should not obscure the quantitative and qualitative difference in access to care: US healthcare is interwoven with the underdevelopment of Filipino healthcare, as the US has 15 nurses per 1000 people while the Philippines has 5 (Ajl 2021, pp. 103–4
). Fighting for decent work includes recognizing the unevenness of insertion into the world system and the US role in quarantining and strangling political forces fighting for the necessary changes in social structure which are necessary to achieve a just reward for work in places like the Philippines.
A third proposal for futures planning rests on the replacement of the existing technological infrastructure alongside (purportedly) wide-scale rupture with global class relations. This variant takes a wide variety of approaches to the degree of technological non-change required, from betting on the full automation of labour (Bastani 2020
) to positing world-scale proletarianization as a secular tendency within the global division of labour, thereby justifying a strategy based on betting on the socialization of industrial labour as leading to sustainable decommodification.
This approach is blind to the social-ecological impact of the technological paths it leaves open, and is uninterested in what such paths imply for social reproduction, including the social reproduction of the environment, in the core and the periphery. It often subtly suggests that the socio-metabolic thorough-put of the core is normative and replicable, and ends up ignoring the literature concerning natural boundaries. It ends up approaching the claim that the current northern access to monetarily cheap resources poses no issues with respect to planning in the North and South alike (Krausmann and Fischer-Kowalski 2013
; Kastner et al. 2014, pp. 140–44
). Similarly, while such an approach does not seek to under-reproduce peripheral labour through super-exploitation and does not aim to under-reproduce the natural environment through massive mineral extraction, those are the outcomes of setting up the current imperial “ways of life” as normative. Such thinking is based on taking as fixed the price structures for material inputs which are the fruit of price engineering (Patnaik and Patnaik 2021
; Hornborg 2009
Furthermore, such a perspective ignores demands for social change in the periphery, often clustered around access to the commons, defense against encroachment, and greater land access, on the grounds that those engaged in such struggles have little social power and leverage. While sovereign industrialization has been a continuous feature of national liberation planning, one would be hard-pressed to find any articulated demand from the periphery for a full-scale transition of southern labour to be an industrial workforce, proletarianized or otherwise. Thus, this eco-modernist stance sidesteps that the development needs of the periphery can only be resolved along a more peasant-oriented path to development, based on valuing the types of social labour required for the sovereign development of poorer countries as decent work: agriculture, care, manufacturing, infrastructure, and the social care of the non-human environment (Chachra 2020, pp. 215–23
; Ajl 2014, pp. 533–50
). The eco-modernist model, by defending secular proletarianization, is not merely blind to the question of where capital for sovereign industrialization may emerge from. It is inattentive to the social labour required for caring for the non-human living environment, or claims human labour is needed to reproduce the environment, rehearing long-discredited natural histories of an untrammeled wild pre-dating human encroachment (for one example, see Huber 2018
). It therefore smoothly interweaves with a dominant “land-sparing” approach to development, which postulates that human beings are necessarily at war with nature (Prasad 2020, pp. 180–97
; Perfecto et al. 2009
). Such positions are not conducive to a world-scale transition to decent work, which necessarily must account for the many kinds of work necessary for social reproduction on a world scale.
6. An Alternative for Decent Work
In contrast to those approaches, an alternative starts from the principle of advocating world developmental convergence, de-commodifying global labour, and ceasing international labour exploitation. The strategy starts from what the Egyptian economist Samir Amin called delinking: an effort to break from the structure of decision making which affirms the rationality of the global division of labour. In fact, this division, which reflects the given “comparative advantages” of nation-states, reflects the interests of monopoly capital, primarily in the core but with neo-colonial partners (Amin 1990
). Political power, the organized force of poor people, is necessary to delink, and to build up an auto-centric national production system. Such a system is centered—centric—on the people within its borders, reflecting their basic needs, and organizing production on macro- and micro-levels around meeting those needs. Such needs are social, ecological, and cultural: the need for adequate housing and food, the need to be safe from pollution and the decay of the lands in which they live; and the need to have access to the fruits of culture (Abdalla 1977
). Such a strategy looks very different in the core and the periphery, reflecting different levels of advancement of the productive forces, and different forms of political power and geopolitical dynamics.
There are common themes: social planning in which all work is valued; ecological assessment at all levels of production; and, more generally, an approach to technology wherein we may pose the question, which technology for what form of development? (Mahjoub 1982
). There are also differences which are, in their way, mirror-image political tasks: liberating the forces of production from monopoly capital requires—but cannot be reduced to—the political sovereignty regime, which can only be a launching pad for peripheral national liberation, and solidarity with those efforts in the core, including anti-sanctions and anti-destabilization campaigns. In this sense, the national liberation perspective enfolds the struggle against domestic neo-colonialism and local hierarchies and the bourgeoisie—with the proviso that such struggles are particular to given contexts (Cabral 1979
In terms of a program, this effort walks on “two legs.” Wide-scale agrarian reform means shattering large-scale land ownership across Asia, Africa, and Latin America—but also the United States and Europe. In turn, the production on those lands would be generally oriented to the permanently sustainable production of what is needed to provide good, nutritious, culturally appropriate, and chemical-free food to national populations. From a consumption end, such a shift is needed in all world regions given the widespread obesity, diabetes, and other manifestations of malnutrition in the wealthier world. From a production end, the chronic under-valuation and suppression of wages in the agrarian sector needs to stop—primarily through national-level wage planning. This implies social control over the politics of planning. On the ecological level, such a plan implies compensation for the labour which goes into more sustainable forms of farming, which is generally but not always more labour intensive: slightly more work to produce the same unit of output. Notably, this is far from always the case in the periphery, and with advances in agroecology, could be decreasingly the case. There are many examples of rising returns to labour hours using state-of-the-art agroecological techniques (the narrowly economic advantages of agroecology vis-à-vis the profitability of farms within large swathes of Africa and Latin America are well established).
Furthermore, social planning needs to reflect the labour required to restore, protect, and maintain a certain equilibrium, a certain “quality” of non-human nature. Agriculture, food-getting, and land management cluster into a bundle of related although distinct tasks. Pastoralism, agroecology, agro-forestry, and terracing all contribute to biodiversity and food production, sequester carbon in soil and herbaceous matter, and produce crops. While sectors of biomes will need special care, this ought not to be based on the apartheid concept of the steel separation of the species from one another, and in particular a separation of humans from nature, but decentralized ecological planning. This ought to be nested within a system of protection of land rights and political sovereignty at local, regional, and national scales, ensuring that gender marginalization is not reproduced, and in so doing attending to historical inequalities in power within post-colonial states, identified by markers, such as caste, race, and ethnicity.
Such a program relies on industrialization. National metallurgical institutions, national industries, and linked research and development efforts toward the national control of intellectual property, and the shared southern development of high-technology industries to break the northern monopoly, are necessary for auto-centered development. Following the question “which technologies for which development?”, the strategy must ask which industrial plants and technology are necessary and which are not, or which can be replaced by production using biotic materials, bamboo, or wood, or reeds, in lieu of metal and plastic. Such a replacement can presumably occur on a wide scale. National industry necessarily implies higher levels of per capita access to energy, and a wide-scale sovereign build-out of renewable energy in the periphery. Such a build-out must be interwoven with the restoration of political rights and alongside prior consultation with those whose lands might be affected by solar installations or wind parks (Dunlap 2018
; Franquesa and Bartolome 2018
Taking the nation-state as the initial framework for such a transition does not mean “eco-socialism in one country.” Rather, it reflects a concrete analysis of a concrete situation: capital and the working classes are fragmented into political entities, and those political entities retain or can promote policies—nationalization, price engineering, or banning ecologically ruinous production methods—which can enhance popular well-being. Such steps are beginnings, not endings. Economically, delinking could only work through forms of collective self-reliance, first regionally and then within continental blocs (Mansour 1979
; Amin 1981, pp. 534–35
). Furthermore, historically, vanguard elements of the national liberation movements conceived emancipatory forms of national identity, national political action, and modernity in internationalist terms, indeed stating that the Western instantiations of modernity were deficient (Nabolsy 2021
Such “shifts” toward decent work and decent rewards for work in the periphery of the world system will necessarily compel an “adjustment” in the core, as super-exploitation ends, tropical commodity crops cease to be available at extremely cheap prices, or at all, and there is no more cheap access to minerals and industrial goods. Many of the labour hours historically absorbed by northern consumption will no longer be available. This will shift the composition of northern labour patterns (Mahjoub 1990
). It is very likely, although not a certainty, that there will be at least some small increase in the percentages of the populations in agriculture (Ajl 2019
; Heron and Heffron 2022
). Equally, industrial products currently primarily produced in the periphery will have to be made at home. All of this will go along with massive shifts in compensation for work—presuming national wages are more-or-less equal, the hardest work will no longer be the least well compensated, as is currently the case, but will have to receive the very best compensation, unless people wish to do it voluntarily. This may well be the case in the agricultural sector. Furthermore, a large range of unpaid social reproduction tasks or those poorly paid (because they are performed by imported low-wage labour) will have to be re-valued economically and therefore socially. This ultimately implies a revolution in what we understand as decent work in the core and the periphery alike. Such a shift is well overdue.
This commentary has considered the existing proposals for green transitions from the perspective of accumulation on a world scale. In so doing, it has examined a wide range of social, economic, and technological orientations which currently receive attention—those proposing greening technology and maintaining existing social relations, greening technology alongside social democracy in the core, and those which focus more on issues such as care and social reproduction. While the latter brings important insights to the question of work, labour, and transition, it requires a critique in order to clarify—so as to challenge—the extent to which a methodologically nationalist focus on social reproduction may inadvertently reinforce rather than challenge. It furthermore illuminates how such approaches may not pay attention to the anti-imperialist struggle in the core, or may agitate against the peripheral anti-imperialist struggle.3
In the place of such reformist opportunism, which sees a world of “decent work” only for those in the core and pays little attention to the particularities of the peripheral struggle, the differences between peripheral and core social reproduction, and the burdens of the anti-imperialist struggle, this note has proposed a distinct agenda for world planning and political struggle around decent work. This agenda nests “decent work” into a framework for political struggle—active defense of the sovereignty of peripheral and semi-peripheral states in service of support for national liberation. It has furthermore sketched a planning matrix based on national-level auto-centered development. This is not an agenda for autarky nor a clarion for a breakdown of an interdependent, socially complex, and modern division of labour. It is a suggestion that such a division of labour ought to rest, first, on fulfilling national-level basic needs without exploiting the work-forces of other nation-states or unnecessarily damaging their natural environment. Such a strategy would blend peripheral sovereign and ecologically modulated industrialization with wide-scale agrarian reforms, agroecology, and the re-valuation of the various forms of labour which go into social reproduction and husbanding the natural environment. This is an agenda for delinking and decent work which can speak to 21st century development needs.