We live amid accelerating social inequality and environmental devastation; a feedback loop of destruction that casts its shadow far into the future. Confronting this insidious and entangled trajectory requires new ways of organizing our thoughts and our material relations – our ideologies, economies, and ecologies. Proposals for democratic socialist Green New Deals and “just transitions” have galvanized renewed attention to the relationship between the flourishing of the environment and that of the working class. The most transformative of these efforts engage with the traditions of socialist feminism, racial justice, and immigrant and indigenous rights in order to transcend the historical gap between the dominant image of the working class (which has often centered around white-male factory workers) and the actually-existing terrain of exploitation (which has long given rise to a working class that is multi-racial, multi-gendered, and multi-national). There is, however, a further boundary that such interventions have been hesitant to disturb – that separating human from non-human workers. Too often, the Left continues to consider “nature” and its constituent parts as a backdrop for social interaction, or a “free gift” for human use. At a moment of cascading and interconnected crises, a radically different politics is required. What follows is a provocation – part thought experiment, part call to action – that asks: what would it look like to organize a multi-species union?
#MSU: A Manifesto For A Multispecies Union
First, there were the runaway cows. The spectacle of recovering five in one week—the sixth being slaughtered by police in plain sight of a small crowd of very upset civilians—was the catalyst that ignited the cattle processing plant revolt. For years, despite poor wages and oppressive working conditions, the reality of job scarcity and the threats of reprisal kept workers from speaking out. Then, COVID hit. The meat processing plants became viral epicenters. After another line speed-up in this small town factory put workers’ health and sanity even more at stake, acquiescence gave way to anger and ultimately collective action. A gate was left open. Then another. And then another.
In the aftermath of the escapes (or were they liberations?), a growing number of community-members started to connect the dots between the risk-filled and horrific conditions of production, health hazards in the neighborhoods surrounding the plant, and their own consumption of meat products. Their research soon led them to a burgeoning national coalition, agitating to unite the interests of humans and other animals— for a multispecies union. Composed of organizers from labor, environmental justice, immigrants’ rights, indigenous rights, and animal rights movements, the coalition worked to support local activists by providing direct action training, financial resources, and – most importantly – a national base of activists who could be mobilized at a moment’s notice. Building slowly – from one-on-one conversations in break-rooms and small meetings between workers and concerned community-members – they gradually began to shine light into the dark reaches of the cattle factory; not by breaking in and surreptitiously filming the miserable conditions of the cows, but by building a base of support among the workers.
One day, behind the opaque walls of the processing plant, the kill floor went silent. The 200 workers did not merely slow down the line: they stopped it. Assembling outside the factory gates, the workers announced that they were owed tens of millions of dollars in stolen wages, and the community was owed similar sums for the myriad subsidies that had been lavished on the plant owners. The owners could keep the money; the workers would keep the factory. And the flood of activists from across the country who locked arms around the plant would ensure that any coercive force aimed at the workers would be met with ample resistance. Through the efforts of the coalition, the 1,000 workers were guaranteed a “basic bridge income” for one year, in exchange for which they worked with community stakeholder groups to rethink a model of work—a just transition— that would bring dignity to the humans and the cows, releasing both from their obligations to forfeit their lives for the imbalanced pleasure of a few. The factory was converted to a community owned, high-yield agricultural hub that included high protein plant-based meat. The small town became a step toward regional food sovereignty and an important node in the regenerative agriculture network growing across the world….
…In another region, rare earth miners and old growth loggers have banded with bats, pangolins, monkeys, and cows. Bacteria and fungi have even joined in the multispecies organizing. Workers for large companies, hungry for malnourishing wages, drudged alongside worsening multispecies pressures for decades. When a wave of city dwellers afraid of contracting the most recent coronavirus and grappling with job losses from urban shutdowns returned to rural areas, the local multispecies population faced even more pressure. It was workers on the frontlines who were the most impacted by the pandemic—the further hunt for bushmeat and subsistence food supplies, the growing lines of humans hoping for a small share of the extractive spoils, and the continued vagaries of climate change.
In the midst of these amplifying pressures, something else happened, which happened world-over: in the cessation of even small pleasures of sociality (eating communally or carousing together), humans began paying much greater notice to other species. The ardent bloom of a tree, the acrobatic surge of a troupe of macaques, the slow, relaxed foraging of a cow at the forest edge—suddenly there was this gap, this time, for attention. The pandemic limited who showed up for work; people were getting ill. But it also limited the number of management executives flying in to oversee the laborers. Village canteens closed. Transportation shut down. Pay was late in arriving. The workers shared what they had with each other, and had more time to reflect, even amidst the growing tumult. Bosses, safely sheltered in city high-rises, sent electronic edicts from afar that the miners and foresters step up their hours and production. But the trucks weren’t showing up. Supply chains were stalling.
Initially knocked back on their heels, the workers recognized that they possessed enormous leverage in this moment where their labor was so clearly essential. Through an underground network of global organizers, a total work stoppage was enacted with support from mutual aid to cover three months of food and health care. In dialogue with a local task-force interested in regenerative ecosystemic care, this new coalition quickly realized that its shared interests in enabling flourishing lives for all species required a very different organization of labor, surplus, and profit.
The interlocking crises of the moment preclude a return to the pre-pandemic “normal.” But, across much of the world, the winds of change are blowing in a decidedly authoritarian direction. Climate change is irrevocably altering ocean currents, transforming patterns of precipitation and drought, and intensifying “natural” disasters. Economic and racial inequalities are amplified. Species extinctions accelerate, while wilderness areas are plundered by capital and states alike. From the political Right, solutions to these interlocking crises are shouted in the form of insurgent hyper-nationalisms and free-market fixes. Their “response” to the climate crisis – where the crisis is even acknowledged – is one where techno-utopian fantasies, like “clean coal” and large-scale cloud seeding, converge with nativist border walls; the ascendant aspirations of big green capital and the dying gasps of black fuel wedded together in the form of fossil fascism.
And yet, there is reason for hope. Recent years have witnessed particular natural forces, like rivers, imbued with legal rights; new coalitions and burgeoning forms of solidarity between environmentalists, labor unions, racial justice organizers, and indigenous rights activists; the diffusion of radical policy proposals – from police and prison abolition, to open borders, to calls for a planetary Green New Deal – from the margins into the mainstream; and the resurgence of socialist ideology and organizing. With roots in the history of leftist unions, and rhizomes spreading from aspen groves and Bermuda grasses into companion species and human microbiomes, our call for a multispecies union aims to send robust shoots over what democratic socialist Michael Harrington called “the left edge of the possible” in order to glimpse potential pathways into transformative futures.
History, to paraphrase Karl Polanyi, is in the gear of socio-ecological change. How should those concerned with total liberation for all oppressed human and non-human beings respond?
One way of responding is to consider the ethics and politics of multi-species relations through a socialist conception of labor (and vice versa). We build on the work of political theorist Alyssa Battistoni, who understands “the ‘work of nature’ as a collective, distributed undertaking of humans and nonhumans acting to reproduce, regenerate, and renew a common world.” To this end, we address our Demands for a Multispecies Union to the workers of the world, in opposition to extractivist political and economic elites who privilege profits and limitless growth at the expense of planetary health, sustainable well-being, and its myriad “workers.”
The following list aims to chart out these demands…
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Thanks to: Alyssa Battistoni, Heather Davis, Elaine Gan, Margret Grebowicz, Terike Haapoja, Carolyn Hall, Jennifer Jacquet, Fred Murphy, Howard Silverman, Abigail Simon, and the Animals & Capitalism group.