(Source: Schwertfisch: Zeitgeist mit Gräten – Politische Perspektiven zwischen Ökologie und Autonomie [“Swordfish: Spirit of the times with fishbones — Political perspectives between ecology and autonomy”])

A More Effective Industrialism

A Critique of the Ideology of Sustainability

by Christoph Spehr

(translated from German by Alain Kessi)

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Pilot Issue


Editors' intro: Since the UN conference in Rio, the concept of 'sustainability has played a large role in parts of the environmental movement. Especially NGOs relying on corporate funders have been obliged to include the term in their vocabulary at least for the sake of writing successful grant proposals. We should not forget, however, that the concept of sustainability in its current usage has not been introduced by the green movement, but rather by hardline industrialists like Stephan Schmidheiny, one of the most active sponsors of the Rio summit. In fact, it can be argued that before Rio, there was a broad radical environmental movement, and that the main 'success' of Rio has been to destroy this radical movement and make the demands of environmentalists (now in the name of sustainability) compatible with the continuation of the capitalist order — reducing pollution and slowing down the depletion of resources here or there, but leaving the social relations and power structures intact and thus leaving the mechanisms which led to an overexploitation of the environment and the people in place.

We do not mean to say that there is no positive way to use the term 'sustainability'. We think, however, that we should be aware of its mainstream usage as an excuse for continuing capitalist exploitation, and discuss the effects that the concept, and its endorsement by Western funders, have had on the environmental movement, especially in Eastern Europe, where the dependency on external funding tends to be larger.

Christoph Spehr's article is probably not so easy to read for those less familiar with the discussions that have shaped radical political movements in Western Europe. We feel, however, that it nicely links together a variety of important considerations, and hope that it may serve as a starting point for further discussions.

(Olga & Alain)

In 1994, two years after the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the boom of “sustainable development” had also fully reached the German discussions. The following essay is one of the earliest in which sustainability has been radically criticized, the type of essay which was to become typical for the Schwertfisch (engl. swordfish). This text is due ultimately to Martina Koelschtzky and Claudia Bernhard. The former is an editor at the Forum Wissenschaft (engl. “Science Forum”) and once in a while asks the author for an article on fundamentals when an ongoing discussion is getting on her nerves; as in this case. The latter, in a nightlong discussion, provided the initial incentive for the line of argument followed. If it is intuitively clear that there is something wrong with sustainability, but one is missing the right argument to refute it, then — so she concluded decidedly — this argument had better be found. This is how this text came into being.

“Sustainability” has become the favorite word of a new ecological “bourgeois” conventionality. It usually refers to a careful management of natural resources, which will not itself undermine the natural prerequisites of the society through overexploitation and ecological damage. The method of “watching out”, which is known to be unreliable for birth control, is suddenly supposed to be successful in matters of economic policy. (1)

“What characterizes the approach of ecologists and alternative people is that they consider both the man-woman relation and the relation between industrialized countries and the Third World mainly as moral relations, and not as material relations, i.e., as relations of production.” (2) — This assessment is true of most sustainability points of view and their evaluation of the relation between society and nature. As opposed to this, we shall here demonstrate the following:

(*) Real-socialism: The word "socialism", which for large parts of the Western European radical Left stands for a history and social project they want to relate to in positive terms, has been "stolen" by two different political powers which have implemented systems fundamentally incompatible with socialism — the Bolshevist "Soviet" Union, and Keynesian-type (state-interventionist) capitalism. To distinguish them from socialism, the former has been termed real-socialism (or real-existing socialism), and the latter is called social-democracy. This allows the word socialism still to be used with a positive connotation.

Industrialization and housewifization

What actually happens when a society becomes industrialized? From a practical point of view, industrialization creates a growing group of people who become unable to feed and reproduce themselves on their own. With the separation of workplace and living quarters, of production and reproduction, (*) all the functions from cooking and house work all the way to raising children and the cultural-psychological reproduction have to be fulfilled by others.
 (*) Reproduction: There are two main types of "reproduction" work described by feminist theory. One could be termed the "generational reproduction", meaning the bearing and raising of children to replace aging workers who at some point will have to stop working. This reproduces the exploitability of workers from generation to generation. The second type of reproduction we shall call "individual reproduction", which refers to the reproduction of a given worker's exploitability from one morning to the next morning. In pre-capitalist societies the production of goods is interwoven with the direct use of these goods (or other goods traded for them) by the male and female workers to reproduce themselves. Although there is already a patriarchal family structure underlying pre-capitalist society, these patriarchal traits are exacerbated by industrial capitalism. On the one hand, it creates a clear division between the production (of goods and services and goods for the market) and reproduction (of male waged workers by their wives, and of the wives by themselves). On the other, it assigns the production work to male workers and gives production work a certain social status, and assigns reproduction work to female housewives while going to great lengths to make even the very existence of reproduction work invisible. Concretely, the "individual" reproduction work may include reproducing the male worker sexually and emotionally; soothing the effects of the humiliation he suffered during the day from his boss; feeding him; washing, ironing and repairing his clothes; making sure he does not drink too much and goes to bed early, so that the next morning he is fit again to go to work.

The Feminist theory has demonstrated that industrialization is only possible in conjunction with a process called housewifization: As a tendency, to each worker and citizen had to be assigned a wife in the function of a housewife, who takes care of the concrete survival of the worker and the children. (*) This is why after the catastrophes of early industrialization, the principle of the husband-wage generally imposed itself, i.e., a wage that was sufficient for buying the basic necessities for several persons. The Neo-Marxist theory, motivated by the study of questions of international development, has established that an industrial complex is always dependent on the alteration of other geographical zones. The so-called “periphery” provides the industrial center (**) with “nature” with raw materials, with food, new workers and space. This relation is embodied in the contrast between city and countryside, in the industrial “developing” of new areas, and in the international contrast between countries of the center and countries or regions of the periphery. (3)

 (*) Just like the Lieutenant will assign a soldier to the task of cleaning the Colonel's boots, industrial capitalism assigns a woman to serve each man. (Actually, to render the relation between capitalism and men more correctly in this comparison, it should probably be the Lieutenant's boots that are cleaned by the soldier, and the Colonel assigning the soldier to the task.)
 (**) Center/Periphery: In "dependency theory", a theory of (neo-) colonialism developed by people in the colonized world, the mechanisms of colonial exploitation are described in terms of the relation between "center" and "periphery". The "center", or "metropole", are the industrialized imperialist countries. The "periphery" are the colonized countries, often called the "three continents". The dependency is created through a collaboration between a "center in the center" (an influential upper class in the industrialized world) and a "center in the periphery" (a technocratic ruling elite in the colonized countries, which benefits from colonialism). The "periphery in the center" (working class in the industrialized countries) is kept quiet through its participation in some of the benefits of the exploitative scheme, while the "periphery in the periphery" (most people in the colonized world) is kept dependent by destroying any alternative they may have to being exploited.

Without its geographical hinterland, the industry breaks down, just like the male wage worker breaks down without his family hinterland. The question of whether the industrial complex can control its hinterland effectively in order not to be itself vulnerable and exposed to blackmailing is therefore at heart a matter of its survival. Historical experience shows that although methods of control through direct violence and direct use of force have historically come first, in the long run they have proved insufficient and ineffective. Therefore, a situation has to be created in which the supply work of the hinterland is the only possible option for the suppliers.

This is achieved through the manipulation of nature. The natural context and the productive relations to nature upon which an existing subsistence economy could rely are systematically destroyed. They are replaced by an artificial environment, which can no longer exist without industrial input.

This is why destruction of nature is worthwhile. To give an example: The prairies of the Midwest of the United States, the Great Plains, were a highly productive ecosystem at the time of their modern “development”. It has been estimated that the huge herds of buffalo had an annual productivity of meat and animal raw materials which was never matched by the later agricultural use. Nevertheless, after the civil war, this ecosystem was destroyed within just a few decades. The buffalo herds were butchered until 1875, and on a big scale, rich landowners started raising cattle in their place. The longhorns grazed the sensitive grass blades of the prairie down to the root within a short period of time. In the winter of 1885/86 they died of hunger in huge numbers.

Settlers were then allowed into the Plains in place of the longhorns. The first generation went out of business during the drought of 1896, since the cultivation of grains was unsuitable for the Plains where rain is scarce. From 1910 on the second generation, the so-called “sodbusters”, plowed the prairie with tractors and worked with industrially produced seeds and artificial fertilizer. This method opened up the soil to erosion and led to the infamous dust storms, the “black blizzards” of 1935. Throughout the following two decades great efforts had to be made to attempt to at least slow down the erosion by planting hedges, setting up windbreakers, etc. (4)

Political ecology of industrialism

A cascade of catastrophes, one should think, a warning calling for an adapted-sustainable use. And nevertheless, a typical example of a successful development which serves to illustrate five main aspects of the political ecology of industrialism: We see that destruction of nature, non-sustainability, is not a mistake in industrial capitalism, but a highly successful strategy. The five aspects mentioned can be found in a variety of development processes in the colonization of regions of the Third World as well as in the industrial “development” of the “inner nature” of persons; in the use of female labor in the housewifization of the 19th century as well as in the wear-and-tear exploitation of labor in the free production zones of the 20th century. (6)

In order to recognize the political ecology of industrial capitalism, one has to free oneself of the myths of progress proclaiming a rising productivity, but also to depart from the notion that industrial capitalism is mainly an economic system. At its core, it is a social program aimed at organizing power and control. It aims at enforcing and defending chains of supply and services in which the industrial production is only one of a range of instruments concurring to create the required processes of dependency. To this end, the respective tops of the big and small social pyramids — the tops towards which consumption is concentrated and reproduction work and direct subsistence production close to nature diminishes — have to persistently attack the basis of the pyramid, namely the “colonized” people and their environment, and render their independent existence impossible. Catastrophes are worth their while. Destroying nature and converting it to an artificial and controlled nature is therefore a key element of the political ecology of industrialism and the bourgeois society. This concerns the nature of human beings — their psyche, their bodies and their social identity — as well as the natural environment.

Therefore, whoever wants “sustainability” cannot simply strive to make industrial capitalism “better”, more ecological, less wasteful, but they have to change the social program.

Global “lean production”

No doubt, there is nevertheless a good amount of ecological measures and strategies for “sustainability” happening, notably in the highly industrialized nations of the center and in the context of international development programs. But this process is not what it pretends to be. What is presented as ecological modernization is the attempt to reorganize the social system of power towards a global lean production: cleansing it, trimming it down, flexibilizing it. Just like in the concept of “lean production”, a diet is prescribed to the large-scale industrial production, a slimmer, more effective shape shall be given to the global system of production and power. This has become necessary because the model of power and control of Fordism (*) has been in a lethal crisis for some time.
 (*) Fordism: A late stage of capitalism characterized by large-scale production, standardization, semi-skilled labor, easy credit and mass consumption. This concept is based upon the production methods of the Ford Motor Company, particularly its use of assembly lines for automobile production.

From an economical point of view, Fordism is the historical continuation of industrial capitalism with the following peculiarities: transition to a supply-oriented industrial mass production; raising labor productivity through intensification of work (assembly line); economical and political integration of the wage workers into the state (“welfare state”); big consumer goods industry displaces small production of goods. (7) Fordism is widely acknowledged to be responsible for the global ecological crisis, due to its unchecked craze of production at any price and due to its wasteful model of consumption. But this is, let us note it, only half the truth. As a social system, Fordism as it was fully imposed in the 30ies and 50ies of the 20th century is an organizational principle of national and international power and dependency.

In Fordism, the majority of the population in the highly industrialized great powers enters into a relationship with the populations of the dependent nations and towards marginalized groups in their own country as it previously existed between the industrial sector and the rest. In principle, this corresponds to what the national-socialist economic theorist Hans Kehrl had propagated: “In the Greater Territory, in the future, German workers may be employed only in the highest-valued and best-paid jobs, which allow the highest standard of living; products which do not fulfill these conditions we will to a growing extent have to leave to the care of the peoples of the margins (…) Out of this necessity comes the necessity of a growing technical rationalization, which then allows to pay higher wages.” (8) The fascist variant however failed in the face of the huge extent of the military and social resistance of the “peoples of the margins” (and in the second place due to resistance from within). The integrative offers were too weak; the open policy of annihilation was not sustainable in the long run.

The liberal-capitalist and real-socialist variants however were successful. Both combined a higher degree of offers for emancipation (*) on the inside with the promise of development on the outside. The relations of exploitation according to gender, ethnic group or social class were internationalized and in the same process toned down in the metropolitan states, in favor of a higher degree of participation and social integration in the Fordist nation. Towards the outside both variants offered national elites in the Third World who were willing to collaborate a chance to establish zones of Fordist “First World” in their own countries by building up their own industrial sectors.

 (*) Maybe rather: offers for identification. Despite the severe restrictions on personal freedom in the real-socialist bloc, many of the now older generation have identified to some extent with the social project staged by real-socialism, and felt they were going through times of hardship, but working for a better future. Now, they see the Western-imposed economic and political transition as destroying what they had achieved.
  This model of national and global power was very effective (having a sweeping effect) in terms of power politics, but ecologically and economically not particularly efficient (keeping the cost low). The ecological (and economical) crisis of the Fordist model has its origin in the fact that greater and greater quantities of production, an ever more gigantic flow of goods and energy, ever more radical exploitation of nature became necessary to maintain this system of power. (9) Seen from this angle, the implosion of the real-socialist states only means that as a nation, the price of approaching the “First World” has become unaffordable, and that this prospect can be realized only for some groups for certain groups of companies, for parts of the qualified and Western-oriented waged workers and for new male societies involved in white-collar crime.

If now the West propagates global ecology and sustainability as a new paradigm, this is intended as an attempt to solve the ecological crisis of the Fordist variant of the power system. The core of the high-tech production is to remain untouched, but the ecological and economical costs of pacifying the periphery are to be lowered. The elites of the Third World are asked to take leave of the strategy of “catching-up” development. From now on they are to refrain from deciding “single-handedly” on emissions, deforesting and use of raw materials. They are to limit the number of the poor through population control policies, so that the cost of social pacification can be lowered. And after all, even in the nations of the center, a “rethinking” which romanticizes the growing social marginalization as a liberation from consumerist terror comes in handy.

In this context, ecology and sustainability are code words for a new global lean production, which applies this business model to the entire globe. Just like in business companies the intermediate-level management and its departments are rationalized away, globally the governments of the Third World and their expectations of industrialization tend to be shut out. Instead, “sustainable” development programs at the grass roots of society are promoted (often by supporting Non-Governmental Organizations).

This does not, however, in any way mean that the subsistence structures and autonomy are being strengthened, but only that the integration into the market is imposed at lower cost. The lean production of the business sector is geared towards the modern home workplace with a computer of its own on the desk at home (which saves the cost of the office and a parking-space). The global trend is towards not having to build a factory in every case to bind workers, but to build up a modern publisher-type production (in German: Verlagsproduktion) (10) through making money available for “income-creating” activities.

We point as an example to projects like “a cow for every woman”. In certain African regions, money from development aid was lent to women for buying a cow, a debt they were meant to pay back by selling the milk; at the same time they had to take part in educational events on methods of contraception. If they became pregnant anyway, their loan was cancelled and they had to give back the cow; otherwise the cow became their property after they had paid off their debt. If we look closely, we will discover such elements of economical incentives for integration into market dependency in every officially supported project of “sustainable development”. This derives from the fact that this integration is ecologically no longer sustainable using the model of factory-oriented industrialization, or would force the metropoles to share their “rights” to pollute and waste.

Capitalism on a diet?

The old elites of power and their think-tanks do know the path to a “sustainable capitalism”, which however is by no means environmentally friendly or gentle, but which solves the main problems of the Fordist crisis of the system of power:  
(*) Performance-racism: With this term the author refers to a situation in which people are oppressed in a racist (and sexist, etc.) society, but in which each oppressed individual has the chance to "buy" themselves a better status in society by working hard (having a high performance) and by assimilating him/herself (attempting to renounce his/her identity which led to the racist oppression). Performance-racism is therefore a racism whose consequences can (potentially) be avoided by an individual through his/her performance.
  Of course these studies do not help us with the question of how one could avoid that just a few raisins be picked from these ideas and nothing further happens. For this is no longer a question of coming up with good suggestions, but a question of social struggles — of which the most important (analogously to the program listed above) will deal with:
  1. whether the increasing brutality towards the outside (the direct wars of aggression and UN interventions against countries of the Third World and the defense of blood-stained borders against migration) will be checked by the social resistance here as well as there;
  2. whether it will be possible to prevent the total marketing of life and nature (conversion to food production with patented and genetically engineered bio-material) and to break up the lawless spaces of the new world-market factories;
  3. whether really all the people can be divided at will and played against each other due to their pluralist broken multi-identities, or whether we will see the rise of new forms of organization based on solidarity that run perpendicular to existing identity politics;
  4. whether the social struggles and acts of resistance of women, non-whites and dequalified employees, which have so far been essential, will be hollowed out because more individuals can “make it to the other side” — if only they participate in the performance-based racism presenting itself as power-feminist, multicultural and flexible. Or whether these classical struggles lead to a new critical phase, in which equal rights to living without performance-racist preconditions are imposed.
This does not sound very ecological. But future catastrophes will not be avoided through better suggestions on how the ecological costs at the social periphery can be lowered. It will depend exclusively on whether a newly formed and international social movement manages to force the core of the capitalist industrial regime to make concessions and accept limitations.


(1) Any similarity to living or dead articles, e.g., those in the spw 79 or in Politische Ökologie (Political Ecology), special issue 6, are purely accidental.

(2) Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, Maria Mies, Claudia v. Werlhof: Frauen, die letzte Kolonie – zur Hausfrauisierung der Arbeit (“Women, the last colony — on the housewifization of work”), Zürich 3rd ed. 1992 (1st ed. 1983), Introduction. (Cf. in English, Maria Mies: Women, the last colony, 1988.)

(3) Maria Mies: Patriarchat und Kapital, Zürich 2. ed. 1989 (engl. edition: Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale : Women in the International Division of Labour, Zed Books 1986); Immanuel Wallerstein: Der historische Kapitalismus, Berlin 1989 (engl. edition: Historical Capitalism, 1983; cf. also: Historical Capitalism With Capitalist Civilization, 1996).

(4) David Worster: Dust Bowl, in: Rolf Peter Sieferle (ed.): Fortschritte der Naturzerstörung, Frankfurt/M. 1988 (“Progress of nature destruction”).

(5) Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler: Die Saat des Hungers, Reinbek 1991 (engl. edition: Shattering : Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, 1990).

(6) An interesting description of the British colonization of India from an ecological point of view can be found in Michael Mann: Ökonomie und Ökologie (“Economy and ecology”), in: Jürgen Osterhammel (ed.): Asien in der Neuzeit (“Asia in the modern era”), Frankfurt/M. 1994.

(7) Thomas Hurtienne: Fordismus, Entwicklungstheorie und Dritte Welt, Peripherie 22/23, 1986 (“Fordism, theory of development, and the Third World”).

(8) As quoted by Horst Kahrs: Von der „Großraumwirtschaft“ zur „Neuen Ordnung“ (“From the ‘Greater Territory Economy’ to the ‘New Order’”), in: Modelle für ein deutsches Europa. Beiträge zur nationalsozialistischen Gesundheits- und Sozialpolitik 10 (“Models for a German Europe. Contributions on the national-socialist health and social policy 10”), Berlin 1992.

(9) A more or less economical approach to the transformation “From the Fordist to the post-Fordist state” („Vom fordistischen zum ‚postfordistischen‘ Staat“) can be found in the chapter by the same title by Joachim Hirsch: Kapitalismus ohne Alternative, Hamburg 1990 (“Capitalism with no alternative”).

(10) Publisher-type production (in German: Verlagsproduktion): a form of production in which the dependent workers do not work in a centralized factory, but decentralized at home, where however the working tools, initial materials and produced goods are owned by the employer (the “publisher”), as opposed to the situation of craftspeople.

(11) The pilot study “Sustainable Netherlands” by Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) was published in a German translation at the Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung (“Institute for Social-Ecological Research”); the corresponding study for Germany is being worked out by the Wuppertal Institut für Klima Umwelt Energie (“Wuppertal Institute on Climate, Environment and Energy”) on behalf of BUND and Misereor.

(12) Hypertrophy: disproportionate growth, overdevelopment.

(13) This tendency finds its expression in the fact that the exchange of goods between the metropoles is relatively growing (and faster and faster at that), while the resource transfer from the Third World to the metropoles is still growing in an absolute sense (although more and more slowly).

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