If Not Eco-Socialism Now, Then When? Infiltrating universities with eco-feminist & anarchist practices

by Sutapa Chattopadhyay (Maastricht University)

Today, frankly our universities are transformed into knowledge-for-profit-enclosures, as primarily ‘branded’ universities are sold-out to the policy elites (techno-scientific foundations, business consortia and multinationals) for the progress of scientific research, on which intellectual property rights are placed that exclude most people from its benefits. This is the reason we must connect with ecosocialist, ecofeminist and anarchist strategies, as these alternative theories and praxis can undo the rigid, hierarchical, authoritarian, hegemonic and provincial university education system toward a non-hierarchical, egalitarian, emancipatory knowledge locus.

Why dig into the corporate mess???

The current reactionary political climate and peoples’ resistance all over the world, most pertinently points at a multi-scalar class war for social justice. Constant skirmishes between the state and the people, over time, have challenged the exploitative neoliberal-capitalist mix of faulty policies and exclusionary politics. It is quite understandable following the Arab Spring, M-15, Quebec student protests, YoSoy132, Occupy protests in the Americas and the rest of the world that ordinary people—such as students, workers, teachers, housewives, native populations, ex-military officers—are attempting to take control over their resources and benefits from which they were illegitimately barred, for so long.

Before I get into any discussion, I must situate myself for my readers: I am a colored immigrant who migrated a decade ago to the United States as a student, to serve my quest to learn. After the completion of my doctoral degree, I worked in the United States and Europe in several contract faculty and researcher positions. At this point, my positionality, identity and even cultural constructions are at question because I am neither a part of my native country nor an insider in the western countries where most of my professional life has been shaped. Nonetheless, it is more important to point out why I’ve delved into exposing the corporate mess in academia: to stand against the exploitation of students and faculty members and the corporate take-over of the academy and to vehemently argue that more action and generous attempts are needed from academicians to stop the mass-exploitation of the people and the environment. At a recent academic geography conference (the AAG), after attending several sessions on neoliberalism, SqEk (squatting collective of Europe) and an ‘Occupy AAG’ assembly put on by a group of radical students, I was propelled to collect my thoughts and to initiate discussions through manuscripts, blogs, commentaries on academic corporatization and organize with like-minded radical groups to halt the profiling of certain groups of students and faculty members and people in the bottom.

For me these are the reasons for promoting action research and activist pedagogies. Unless academicians (on the left) indulge in multi-scalar organizing with students, grassroots, socially excluded people, they are ridiculing their political and ethical obligations. Fearlessly, I claim that I am a radical, feminist, nonconformist academic passionate towards anarchist, (eco)feminist and eco-social micro strategies for struggle research and praxis, because these ideologies rail against state-corporate-elite exploitation and are the only ways to encourage an eco-social change towards a more ‘humane’ and ‘just world’. Nevertheless, I feel forced to detach my passion, tone down my ire and enthusiasm and caution my radical self not to voice against mass exploitation with fervor because academia is void of emotions.


Why ecosocialism?

Although vilified by the state, police and media, anarchism or anarchists are no threats to society but compellingly promote direct action, mutual aid, shared responsibility and non-violence. Ecofeminists conceptualize the interwoven oppressions of women and nature[1]; how western dualism, dichotomy, and hierarchy subvert the feminine[2]  and control and domesticate women (and nature)[3]. The reds and greens converge on challenging the modes of production and consumption of advanced capitalist countries, which are based on the logic of boundless production and accumulation of capital; expansion of neoliberalism, neocolonialism and globalization; inequitable distribution of wealth, goods and resources; and over-consumption and over-exploitation of the natural environment by the wealthy nations and bourgeoisie[4]. So the points of convergence of anarchists, ecosocial ecofeminist approaches to education would be to replace the dominant-culture driven schooling systems with greater discussions of relationships between humans and non-humans, and the greater world[5], all the while trying to mete out the difference between “education as the practice of freedom and education that merely reinforces domination”[6]. For instance, bell hooks[7] illustrated the success of black women in creating spaces of dignity for themselves, at home and at work, even if they struggled with racism, patriarchy, sexism and capitalism.

Anarchist, feminist and ecosocialist critiques of the state and disciplinary institutions that oppose the racist-sexist-nationalist ideologies and that highlight the need for ‘resurgent democracy’ only direct to possible ways in which academics can fight for global justice. Therefore, I draw my inspirations from the theorizations and historical involvement of anarchists in radical battles (from the Russian revolution to the Spanish civil war, Paris 1968, Seattle 1999, Genoa, 2001); operations of anarchist collectives (such as Food Not Bombs, Anti-Racist Action, Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists, Animal Liberation Front); indigenous micro-processes of resistance and larger systematic social movements (such as the civil rights movement, civil disobedience movement, Salt Satyagrahya, Mau Mau, Zapatistas), which are integral to addressing equity and injustice. Besides historical social movements, the current protests and strikes (Occupy Wall Street, May Day 2012 events, Quebec student protests, YoSoy132, M-15) are all visible demonstrations of active and passive violence on the one hand, and the breakthrough that is struggling to take place in our society on the other; altogether, they enable us to spell out some of the leading features of a new beginning. Hence I reiterate why scholars (on the left) should be concerned with ecosocialism or why is ecosocialism important, how ecosocialism connects with the worker/student/people-led protests all over the world.

The common thread that yokes together countries under political and financial crises translates to the crude reality that our governments are grounded in the neoliberal conviction that ‘markets’ should be the only organizing forces of political, social, economic decisions. These convictions completely dislodge welfarist, democratic and uncommodified values from the state.  Further, they destroy the notions that individuals can rely on the community at the ‘times of need’[8] and have rights to resources as public goods. Over the past four to five years people from various European nations under financial crisis have voiced against the rapid bail-outs, austerity policies, state-scrapping of subsides but none of this drew a fraction of recognition from the International Institute for Finance (IIF), a lobby group of the 450 biggest banks from all over the world. The IIF has representatives like Dallara (served in the treasury of Ronald Reagan) or Ackerman (chief executive of Deutsche Bank) who were prime players in deciding Greece’s future. The austerity measures that accompany this ‘success’ have led to an economic depression in Greece, and unemployment that continues to rise with the destitution and desperation of ordinary people[9]. In addition, the lack of ‘political and economic alternatives’ and ‘waning standards of living’ have not affected the mainstream politicians but have generated mounting exasperations among ordinary people.  This proves that these financial measures have gone in favor of a small percentage of global capitalist elites over those of the ordinary Greek citizens[10].

At present the economy of extraction can be better understood by analyzing the imperial regimes of rule[11], technologies of rule[12], and western hegemonic constructs that all the ‘third world’ resource-rich nations support terrorism to which the notion of ‘stewardship’[13] is applied, because “the ‘more civilized’ know best to run [the] lives of the subordinate people”[14]. For example, the American imperial ideology for ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, where freedom was understood as universally desirable, placed terrorism as the ‘enemy of all’ and Iraq was occupied for liberating the Iraqis from the monstrous rule of Saddam. If oil was not the main exportable commodity then there would be no wars, conquest, and occupation of the land and the people. ‘Improvement’ of the lives of thousands of Iraqis or, more recently, freeing Libya from Gaddafi, echoes Mill’s declaration that “despotism is the legitimate mode of government dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement”[15].

Genetic mutilations, patent rights, and TRIPS (trade related aspects of intellectual rights) have reduced access and availability of resources, medicines and food for the poor and poorer countries. The situation is cruel and deplorable because neglected diseases – simplistically, poor people’s diseases – have no vaccines or supplies because it has ‘no’ market. Genes, plants, animals, and even humans are stolen, manipulated, and rediscovered by the corporate intelligence and patent rights and corporate ownerships are established upon them[16]. The international agricultural company Monsanto[17] has genetically modified and stipulated the local seeds that will be used, stored and re-used by farmers for generations, and thereby has prohibited the sustainable seed-saving and traditional subsistence practices. In India, poor farmers have been made dependent on genetically-modified seeds, pesticides and fertilizers which have pushed them further into debt and even suicide[18], besides deteriorating the health of the soil and the water system; Vandana Shiva[19] calls this process ‘trading our lives away’[20].

Possible linkages across Ecosocialism and environmental and social movements – Challenge the conventional notions of power

Ecosocialism draws from environmental and social movements as much as it does from red and green theories, because it asserts that local communities’ commonly used resources and public goods are trapped in state-centralized enclosures with the help of suprastatal organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO or they are privatized through public spending[21]. All over the world, wastelands or arable lands or resource-rich lands, where resource-poor populations live in tenuous relationships with the environment, are grabbed by the state and corporate giants for the accumulation of capital[22]. We live in a world where conflicts over natural resources are “writ large upon the landscape” and the center of these conflicts requires a close analysis of relations between nature, culture and power[23].

In Santa Cruz, Pedra de Guaratiba, a community located outside Rio de Janeiro is assaulted by an iron and steel multinational company ‘ThyssenKruup Atlantic Steel Company (popularly TKCSA in Brazil). Vale is the co-owner of this firm, TKCSA  have been processing the pellet inputs from Chinese coal and Brazilian ore, and charcoal that is produced from Brazilian eucalyptus which has been proven destructive for the Amazonian rainforests and the regions. The damages caused by TKCSA are many: it is polluting the air and water through its emissions, despoiling the water ecosystems, fish cannot be harvested any more nor is the toxic water usable. The native communities’ livelihoods, health and wellbeing are fundamentally impacted. Huge protests have been organized by native people, Friends of the Earth, Justica Global (Global Justice), Associacao Homes do Mar (Association of Ocean People) and twelve other organizations. Now the question is, should the company go or should the native people relocate to give way to the company? Working on mega projects, development discourse, indigenous transformations and gendered practices and activities in India, I fervently argue that the native populations should neither move nor let the company function. Frankly another steel industry is not needed over the pile of many other extractive industries because the insatiable corporate hunger and quest to grab more resources cannot be solved. From this study of Giacomini and Turner[24], I turn to the environmental social movements that burgeoned with the construction of the Narmada Valley Dams in India which also underscores that power was dispersed at multiple levels and across several actors, such as the indigenous displacees and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) versus the state; state versus NGOs, NGOs versus indigenous displacees, and indigenous displaced populations versus indigenous host populations. Obviously many factors were at play: the resettlement-rehabilitation and land acquisition policies were ill-equipped and grounded in absolutist and colonialist fervor; India’s liberalization policies; Nehru’s tremendous zeal to promote rapid industrialization; and the current skirmishes between the business enclaves on rapid adaptation of neoliberal policies – all respond to various reasons that abet the state to construct mega development projects which are neither sustainable nor feasible on any accounts for the people or the environment. The colonial South is not becoming the North through any ‘so-called’ western, masculine and classical development prescriptions that are flawed even for the West; rather the North is transforming into the South. The latest form of ‘development’ becomes a world system of underdevelopment[25] which further establishes that development, underdevelopment and unequal development go in tandem[26]. What development produces is unevenness through unequal and inequitable distribution of resources benefits and wealth. Further, those who sacrifice for development and those who benefit are often not analogous entities[27].

I take a journey back to the colonial times to comprehend the mechanisms of state appropriation of resources, politics behind the production of development discourse and the discourse on scientific forestry. Under the British rule, forests were considered wasteful until its use value was discovered, when regimes of extraction and technologies of rule were established[28], new knowledges were constructed, in the name of scientific forestry, on the practices of the people who had generational rights on the natural resources. The colonial scientific discourse, first, smeared the indigenous people’s livelihood practices as wasteful and unsustainable then appropriated resources for capital accrual. But dramatic or mundane, passive or active, confrontations and negotiations, over natural resources, between the colonizer and the colonized and, at present, between the corporate giants and the people or the state and the people manifest repudiation, uprisings, rebellions and even organized violent confrontationist social and environmental movements. The colonial basis of scientific forestry or the neocolonial/neoliberal corporate appropriation of resources allows the state or corporate giants or the native comprador classes to commercially exploit the natural wealth or metallic/nonmetallic resources, putting curbs on the local use of subsistence leads to the formation of covert and unfair resource management policies which are the reasons for indigenous retaliations. The discourses on indigenous resistance and scientific forestry have constituted a major concern for critical scholars, particularly those who are keen to delve into the universal urge of the oppressed towards liberation[29].

Turner and Brownhill’s[30] research on the Nigerian peasant women protesters against oil corporations fits well in this discourse of power and counter power. Their study on ‘civil commons’ and ‘gendered class analysis’ considers ‘social anatomy’ of well-coordinated global actions by producers and consumers of oil. “Nigerian women occupied oil terminals and flow stations and inspired global protests against war and oil companies”. The protesters led to stoppage of transports, oil industry or public services through “a two-week seizure by oil workers of four Transocean deep-sea platforms and an eight-day general strike against increases in the price of petroleum products” and “occupied oil facilities throughout the Delta…. official government neared collapse, village and clan-based organizations assumed much responsibility for the oversight of their own communities…. Villagers denied oil companies all physical access to the western Delta. Chevron/Texaco, Shell, other majors and their contractors evacuated their Warri headquarters. The autonomous village organizations, linked to each other through regional solidarity networks, coordinated pan-Delta defense against Nigerian and US military counterinsurgency”[31]. This study takes a departure from the conventional understanding of resistance.

I find similarities with Turner and Brownhill’s research on Nigerian peasant women protests with the indigenous resistance in western India, during colonial times. The inherent unwillingness to give up shifting cultivation was most apparent in the case of the Baigas, indigenous groups, who believed that they were born as ‘kings of the jungle’, linking the natural environment and agricultural practice with their ancestry. Although retaliations were short lived, they nevertheless reinforced the indigenous nature-culture linkages, which had symbolic and economic importance. The arts of indigenous resistance can be mapped from indigenous petitions, fasting, and chanting songs or slogans, as well as frequent efforts in detaining pilgrims, burning police outposts and British-made goods, cutting telegraph lines, and plundering markets and merchants. Indigenous resistance makes a phenomenal contribution to a new conceptualization of power, emphasizing the diffusion of power throughout society[32]. Then Turner and Brownhill’s case study on Nigerian peasant women protests and the indigenous power struggles in various pockets of colonial India exhibit a rich variety of everyday modes of resistance and people’s unwillingness to submit to the colonizer-state-corporate-elite exploitation and modernization projects. What people’s struggles, at different scales and contexts, demonstrate is that power, in producing the people that we are, is both productive and repressive. Consequently, if resource conflicts are analyzed under unitary, singular explanations, then it would fail to capture the intricacies of power-knowledge and politics of extraction and accumulation. The web of power is complex, distributed and functional[33]. This provides me with optimism that people-led occupy movements and student protests in different parts of the world can bring social justice and positive change.



Alternative pathways – working towards an ecosocial ‘just’ world

Through the aforementioned eco-social connections with social justice and social movements, I attest that critical academics can take small steps in making their education more empowering, get directly involved in fighting for expulsion of corporate influence in their institutions and adopt eco-friendly strategies for the common good. Our universities, in the west, have over abundant supplies of everyday resources, like water, energy, other consumption materials (educational, food, toilet supplies) and are well connected with transportation. American university students probably do not even know that most countries and most universities around the world are not even equipped with minimal resources such as electricity or chalk boards or even sanitary facilities. Which is why most resources are not used in a sustainable fashion; waste recycling is a taboo and not a general practice; affordable and easy accessibility of everyday resources obscure how resource squandering can connect to larger problems like climate change and how that can impact on people and the livelihood mechanisms of people in poorer countries.

Unless students are forcibly grounded in analyzing the ecological footprint of their university, they will never be aware or feel the responsibility towards the usage of resources’. Besides this, students can:

  • resist the universities giving franchises to Starbucks, McDonalds, etc;
  • stop the sale of Coca Cola, Pepsi or other large corporate brands over local brands;
  • promote sweatshop-free apparel;
  • switch to fair-trade products, and at the same time make sure how fairly traded and priced these products are and whether they benefit the real producers;
  • get involved in university or city greening/cleaning projects;
  • make connections with local farmers and have weekly farmers’ markets;
  • protest against the over-consumption of electricity, water, paper;
  • engage in sustainable community projects and community activism for their rights to live, work, etc;
  • promote campus recycling projects;
  • have more control of their academic curricula;
  • know their rights and unionize;
  • work against campus racism, homophobia, other forms of prejudice, and violence;
  • adopt micro-strategies against exploitive policies such as boycott classes against tuition fee increases;
  • encourage university-wide colloquiums and/or engage in giving talks in public spaces, such as pubs, on contemporary political-environmental debates;
  • find ways to use shared conveyances, for example car–sharing, and cycle to work;
  • make careful use of daily resources and electrical gadgets (like turn off office computers after work, not use automated doors or elevators, if not required), make use of more green technologies and look for simple strategies of conservation;
  • pass the message around that for several reasons and at several levels, solidarity work is needed to promote conservation and halt exploitation.

Therefore, if teachers want to enact real change, it is their job as academics to bridge the gap between theory and practice by drawing from radical thinkers or organizations and making radical discourses accessible to the people who need to understand how systems of oppression work. I am completely aware that this is not an easy task but it is alarmingly urgent. And unless we act with alacrity, conservative, neoconservative and neoliberal education reforms that are gaining momentum would successfully make their arguments and strategies clear and concise. Since as academic subjects we do not benefit from the current academic policies and Taylorization and corporatization of academic work, in solidarity, teachers and students have to propose their visions for transformation of the academic system that is beneficial for them and the larger society. This means rethinking the existing critical pedagogies towards direct action and finding new-fangled ways of integrating anarchism and feminism into praxis and research. It is our job to scrutinize through action-oriented research what works best for us and what is feasible and sustainable in the long run for the society. Only then can critical academicians uncover new modes of teaching, learning, and research that can be truly empowering to our students and bring about an ecosocial ‘just’ world.

Sutapa Chattopadhyay is a visiting researcher at Maastricht University.  You can contact her at: s.chattopadhyay [at] maastrichtuniversity.nl .

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