The Sars-Coronavirus 2 pandemic has thrown a stark light on global inequalities, themselves outcomes of the centuries-long accretion of exploitative relationships based on historically constructed binaries of state and market, human and nature. The spread of the novel virus has not only called forth a radical, global interruption of previously naturalized modes of work, production and distribution of goods and services but also has forced a reckoning with our relationship to our environment. As satellite images show, one side-effect of the efforts to contain the pandemic is a massive reduction in air pollution across the globe and previously improbable projects, for example, replacing deep-sea oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico with giant wind farms, now seem less far-fetched.
Historical perspectives offer insights into dealing with the immense challenges of reinterpreting the relationship between "work" and "nature" in the post-Covid twenty-first century. Since the advent of "modernity," productivism, which I define as the primacy of economic growth and efficiency, has provided legitimation for establishing and maintaining diverse forms of political economic systems, whether framed in terms of the free-market or the planned economy. Functioning as a belief system, the ideology of productivism is grounded in a faith in progress calculated in economic metrics and is based on a specific rationality intimately linked to fossil fuel-based technologies. Promising unbound prosperity, productivism, as an extractive and exploitative system, has delivered unevenly distributed surpluses that are proving catastrophic to the long-term survival of the eco-systems we and so many other species rely upon.
As many have noted, this pandemic represents a severe rupture in the "normal". Relationships between society, economy, and the environment are being questioned in chatrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms, in Amazon warehouses and on the meat-packing lines. At the core of these debates is the question of "what will come after Corona?" Lisa Herzog and Hannes Kuch recently opined that "It is Time for Economic Democracy" ("Es ist Zeit für Wirtschaftsdemokratie" Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 18 May 2020). During the 1920s and 1930s, democratic-socialist trade union movements too called for "Wirtschaftsdemokratie," an economic system based on democracy and solidarity. The trade-unionists, however, were as productivist in their ideological leanings as the businessmen on the other side of the bargaining table. Thus, as we seek to learn from the past, we must also ensure that any new organization of work must understand that social justice is inseparable from environmental justice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sasha Disko is a social and cultural historian of modern Germany. She is a lecturer at NYU Berlin, an associated scholar at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU Berlin, and a member of the “Working Futures” Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.