“Embodied Materialism” and Ecosocialism

Against the Current, No. 193, March/April 2018

Sandra Lindberg

Ecofeminism as Politics:
Nature, Marx, and the Postmodern
By Ariel Salleh
Forewords by Vandana Shiva and John Clark
London: Zed Books, 2017, 2nd Edition, 400 pages, $25 paperback.

In 1997 ZED Books of London released Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern. Ariel Salleh’s book initially received high praise, but then was subsumed beneath Third Wave and post-cultural feminist theories.

In 2017 with climate change having become an existential threat, Zed Books published the second edition of Salleh’s treatise, opening the volume with two forewords. The first from John Clark, emeritus professor of philosophy at Loyola University, and activist director of La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, New Orleans, characterizes Salleh’s approach as “a major theoretical breakthrough” in ecofeminist theory. (x)

Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi and author of the second preface, describes Salleh’s book as “much needed … for making the paradigm shift from capitalist patriarchal globalisation to a world of non-violence.” (xix)

Clark and Shiva praise Salleh’s concept of “embodied materialism,” which moves first “to interrogate the euro-centric convention that positions Man over and above Woman and Nature.” Twenty years later, Salleh elaborates and labels her book an “eco-socialist argument that is both decolonialist and feminist.”  She notes she has been writing about “other labor” for decades, meaning “the unnamed class of hands-on workers who catalyse natural processes, so enabling life to flourish.” (1)

Salleh’s book has three primary objectives. First, in a section titled “Women and Ecopolitics,” she analyzes how and why sex gender assumptions infect all oppressions, and provides examples of women’s activism that offer skills “to build a life-affirming politics.” (9)

Part Two, “Embodied Materialism” (Chapters 3-6), explores why women’s political initiatives are often marginalized. Salleh argues that patriarchal culture, which has dominated history for thousands of years, values only men’s contribution to cultural design.

Patriarchal culture, which equates women with nature, pretends the male gender is somehow outside and above the planet on which he lives. To support her claim she draws upon the “classic ecofeminist statements” of Rosemary Ruether, Carolyn Merchant (U.S.), Maria Mies (Germany) and Vandana Shiva (India).

For readers of Against the Current, Salleh’s Chapter 5 “For and Against Marx” will be of great interest. Identifying herself as a supporter of Marx’s deconstruction of capitalism and Engels’ correct understanding that women’s oppression begins in the home, she insists that even they cannot escape patriarchy’s tradition of putting women’s needs to the side.

She acknowledges that Marx understood both the “great metabolism of nature,” and the subjugation of women in marriage, but he did not extend this understanding into his concept of labor. She argues, “Women’s and indigenous people’s labours exist as economic externalities [for Marx], even though capitalism is fully reliant on their regenerative services.”

Salleh acknowledges the Marxist connections to such ecofeminists as Ruether, Merchant, Mies and Shiva and quotes his famous passage, “that Man must grasp his own history as a process … and the recognition of nature as his real body.” However, Marx also sought to dominate nature, and conceptualized man as master of his planet:

“(M)an of his own accord starts, regulates and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces … in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants.” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, ed. F. Engels. New York: International Publishers, 1967, 177.)

Salleh also illustrates Marx’s participation in late 19th century tendencies that assign gender characteristics to capital and nature, which he describes as “Monsieur Le Capital and Madame La Terre,” labor as the “father” and Nature as the “mother” when analyzing industrial production.

Salleh positions Marx as a foundational theorist, but argues that his ideas must be reexamined so that contemporary socialists understand how “libidinal” patriarchal concepts infuse Marx’s writings. Citing psychological theorists Nancy Chodorow and Dorothy Dinnerstein, Salleh discusses concepts tied to man’s ego, and his subconscious drive to compensate for the insecurities he experiences around women’s ability to bear children. Women on the other hand labor in an integrated manner, Salleh insists:

“Consider a nonalienating way of objectifying human energies: the kinetic exchanges that are women’s lot. When a woman labours to produce a child of her own, she is not usually alienated from that physical activity or its material result, the infant itself … Now this is not to give a “sociobiological account” of gender, or to argue that women are “closer to nature,” or “better than men;” nor is it to celebrate “the essential feminine” as naive readers might conclude. Rather it is to highlight the relational character of a particular human sensibility that has been marginalized, censored, repressed.” (130)

Deepest Contradiction

Chapter 6, “The Deepest Contradiction,” extends Salleh’s analysis of the relationship that three key groups find they must endure under patriarchal capitalism. Ecofeminism, Salleh argues, insists that an accurate analysis of capitalism, socialism and preceding socio-economic systems must identify the endemic patriarchal traditions within them that subjugate women, native populations and those managing and/or choosing to live a subsistence existence.

In many places on the planet, the environmental degradation that accompanies capitalism becomes the economic responsibility of the very people who suffer when corporations seek only profit. And while Salleh acknowledges that capitalism increasingly brings suffering to the male working class, she insists that the exploitation suffered by women and nature has an even longer history.

Part Three, “Making Postcolonialist Sense,” opens with Chapter 7, “When Feminism Fails.” To those critics who label Salleh as essentialist, she answers, “Bringing ecology, feminism, socialist and indigenous politics together means giving up the euro-centric lens for a genuinely global one.” (153)

In “Women, Nature, and Capital in the Industrial Revolution,” (https://monthlyreview.org/2018/01/01/women-nature-and-capital-in-the-industrial-revolution/) authors Bellamy Foster and Clark acknowledge in a footnote that “The very term ‘reproductive labor’ raises complex questions within Marxian theory.” Salleh too insists that the workforce proletariat, though one aspect of labor, cannot encompass the work or labor performed by women, indigenous people and subsistence farmers in homes, while carrying and caring for children, while growing food, and nurturing the natural environments and communities in which they and their families live.

Salleh’s concept of meta-industrial labor encompasses more than Marxian concepts of reproductive labor. She also notes how elusive some of this labor is to define or compensate. Drawing on the work of Hikka Pietilä who describes an “invisible economy” that provides necessary experiences such as “the feeling of being somebody, closeness, encouragement, recognition and meaning in life,” Salleh decries a euro-centric culture that consumes more than its share of earth resources and lives as though all unrecognized work should continue to feed the failing patriarchal capitalist system.

Perhaps Chapter 7 contains some of Salleh’s most complicated ideas, which even she recognizes require “non-linear” thinking. She takes aim at patriarchal attitudes within socialism; feminism that pursues equality with men and unwittingly becomes partners with the very system that oppresses them; and post-structuralist/postmodern theory that has pursued deconstructionist ideas about language and concepts until any ability to remain grounded in the material — the body and planetary physical experience — has been undermined.

Chapter 8, “Terra Nullius” explores how capitalism simply ignores the ecological reality of life on earth, instead treating the entire planet as a resource to be exploited for profit. She decries current notions of “The Wild” as yet another way for privileged men and corporations to extract profit from ecosystems needed by women and indigenous populations.

This chapter most clearly expresses Salleh’s activist work in Australia and Asia, but her insights connect powerfully to capitalism that constantly turns its rapacious gaze on wild places. She insists that “to base ‘value’ [of natural regions] on human labour and markets is to adopt the founding assumptions of capitalist patriarchal economics, where only what is ‘improved’ by Man — the commodity — has worth.” (194)

The chapter concludes with a challenge for the West, “Closing the gap between rich and poor nations will depend on the West scaling down its taken-for-granted levels of resource use.” (195)

Chapter 9, “A Barefoot Epistemology,” fleshes out Salleh’s experience that indigenous cultures offer humans the best chance of relearning how to live in balance with the planet. She insists this does not entail “going backward in history.”

Rather, Salleh argues that wherever humans are living, they have the opportunity to ground their lives in physical reality: “Through its attention to physical space, fresh air, cleanliness, food, raw material, bodily discharges, ecofeminism brings euro-centric arrogance back to its senses.”

An ecofeminist approach to life and work is, she says, “the antithesis to the current trend to labour specialisation.” (215)

Meta-Industrial Labor

Chapter Ten, “As Energy/Labour Flows,” discusses in detail the concept that Salleh calls “meta-industrial labor” — performed by women, unpaid and low-paid workers, subsistence farmers and some indigenous people — while also offering Salleh’s strongest invitation to build a new relationship between humans and the planet:

“An ecofeminist analysis suggests that the psychosexual edge where women “mediate” nature provides the most common and therefore most democratically useful meta-industrial vantage point for an integrated ecopolitical analysis … In taking this political initiative, ecofeminists emulate Marx’s sociology of knowledge, which grounds the perceptions of each class in its habitual fields of praxis.” (245)

Salleh argues we live not in an anthropocene period, but in an androcene one, an age dominated by men. She challenges activists to promote Marx’s concept, a need for “the consummate oneness in substance of man and nature.” (248)

Chapter Eleven, “Agents of Complexity,” explores the seemingly paradoxical notion that meta-industrial workers actually exist both within and outside capitalism. Describing unpaid and underpaid women’s labor, Salleh explains how this work props up a crumbling capitalist system that squeezes wage workers ever harder in order to survive:

“What has quietly taken place … — in capitalist and socialist, “advanced” and “developing” societies alike — is the partial liberation of women from the private realm of necessity to the public one, so achieving a double shift of necessary labor: half of it unpaid, the other half receiving a fraction of a man’s wage [and no] diminution of women’s working hours.” (120)

The expectations of women to perform nurturing work, then, must be included in any complete theory of labor.

Gender and Balance with Nature

After discussing women’s ability to bear and nurture children, to provide the majority of food in so-called developing countries, and to offer a highly specific and knowledgeable understanding of ecosystems where they live in balance with the environment, Salleh moves directly and without apology toward the heart of her argument.

Giving no credence to feminists who fear being identified as part of Nature, Salleh praises women who so self-identify. They understand the reality of human existence on the planet, she insists. It is men who remain unaware of patriarchy’s hold on them, Salleh argues, that have forgotten they, too, are of Nature:

“The question is how to reconnect men with ecological time — materially and discursively — as opposed to taking women away from it. Just as there are “other” kinds of labor overlooked by Marx, so the human metabolism with nature can be based on a logic of reciprocity and nurture, rather than exploitation and control. (129)

Chapter 12, “Beyond Virtual Movements,” discusses in detail how the ecofeminist conceptual reframing of humans’ relationship to Nature intends to include all gender orientations, all classes, all races and ethnicities. For Salleh and many ecofeminists, the long-standing equation of M[en]/W[omen] = Nature intensifies and becomes more pernicious when Western power brokers further subjugate populations based on skin color, country of origin, jobs at the bottom of the class hierarchy, religion, sexual orientation(s) and gender identification(s).

To answer howls of protest over ecofeminist claims that patriarchy’s poison touches all those not part of the 1%, Salleh closes her book with a reprint of an interview she gave to Polygraph: Special Issue on Ecology and Ideology (2010, No. 22, 183-99: www.duke.edu/web/polygraph/dfp.html).

Her invitation for identity politics to move beyond “squabbling” closes with the observation that only “the Masters” win when oppressed groups remain divided. (284) She also suggests that meta-industrial workers, precisely because they possess nurturing skills and the ability to balance human needs with local environmental realities, could withdraw their labor from the oppressive state en masse, thereby uniting the majority of the planet’s population and bringing patriarchal capitalism to its knees.

Salleh’s concept of a greatly enlarged and united class of labor, meta-industrial workers, would create the critical mass of people needed to effectively oppose capitalism.

Salleh and other ecofeminists understand that women and men are of Nature. Culture is an aspect of Nature. As many other animals use their abilities to create cultures, communities and environments, so do humans.

The difference between humans and other animals is that nothing has been powerful enough to keep in check patriarchy’s drive to create culture/structure/habitat adaptation — until now.

At present, patriarchy’s intrusive culture has so covered the planet that it is at last altering planetary systems. The changes patriarchy is bringing to Earth’s temperature, the health of seas and bodies of fresh water, the viability of soils and ecologies around the world, all create conditions that are impeding, and will continue to check, patriarchy’s drive to take and transform the earth without regard for its effects on the planet as a whole.

All people now live in a time when the planet’s physical reality will halt the androcene pursuit of what some men call “progress” and “development.”

Perhaps Zed Books, in choosing to republish her book 20 years after it first came out, understood that Salleh’s Ecofeminism as Politics was ahead of its time. With glaciers melting and seas rising, with storms raging as never before and planetary temperatures plummeting then soaring to degrees humans struggle to survive, Salleh’s concept of “embodied materialism” offers a powerful alternative to socialist theory still hesitant to include planetary crises in its plan of actions.

Salleh insists that man must squarely face how the patriarchal capitalist system, if allowed to run unchecked, threatens all humans and the entire planet. She urges us to learn from women, the indigenous and those living within subsistence cultures if we are to imagine a viable future.

She is accurate when she observes that patriarchy impairs both left and right political thought. Regardless of political viewpoints, men must stop treating Earth like an inexhaustible larder and learn from those who nurture life, rather than destroy it.

Additional References:

For an excellent analysis of ecofeminism’s history see: Gaard, Greta, “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in a Material Feminist Envronmentalism,” Feminist Formations, Vol. 23.

For an anthology that includes ecofeminists building on Salleh’s work, see Alaimo, Stacy and Susan Hekman, eds. Material Feminisms, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008.

For a journal that continues to publish Salleh and other ecofeminist writers, see Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. A link to information about its current issue can be found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rcns20/current?nav=tocList.

System Change Not Climate Change (SCNCC) has an on-line forum that includes discussion of feminist ecosocialism and ecofeminism: https://scncc.net/forums/feminist-ecosocialism/

March-April 2018, ATC 193