We learn from analyses of ‘extractivism’ that the plundering of the earth will not only deplete the natural resources we need to live, will turn us against our relationship with nature as natural beings born from the same stuff that we are incited to exploit and destroy, but will also end up driving us all into ruin.
It is difficult to know what to make of a tangle of narratives about the end of coal-mining in Britain that pulls us into a pit of demoralisation and despair; whether this could energise us to renew our struggle for dignity and labour or whether it effectively undermines that struggle, opening the way to something worse. Undecided, unlike the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, which settled a lot of things at the time, with consequences; triumph for Margaret Thatcher (and the unleashing of more sexist abuse against her in particular, and against many other women politicians of the right and even of the left since, from the slogan taken up by one far-left group ‘ditch the bitch’ to the efforts to get the song ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ to the top of the charts on her death two decades later); defeat for the National Union of Miners (NUM) under the leadership of Arthur Scargill (and suspicion of the kind of Stalinist command politics that was necessary to hold the strike together but which continued in Scargill’s bizarre entry into revolutionary sect-politics in the ‘Socialist Labour Party’ and the disintegration of most British trade union left power-bases).
The book GB84 by David Peace, published in 2004, after the defeat was definitely sealed and hopelessness was being drummed in by the right set on privatisation, is certainly a grim read. It is a book that not only raises questions about the performative qualities of a style of writing that defuses hope instead of inspiring resistance – it is a book that extracts the worst most miserable elements of a struggle we now know to have ended in abject failure, brings them to the surface and rubs them in our face until we are exhausted – but also raises questions about the nature of ‘extractivism’ as such, extractivism that was the life-source for the miners even as it blighted their lives.
The drive to extract what we can now, short-term gains with poisonous consequences for our environment and for ourselves, is organised by an extractivist logic of capitalist accumulation; it is not only human labour that is corrupted and drained, lives broken and bodies thrown onto the scrap-heap for an early death, but the interior of the earth which bears us and sustains us destroyed in a broader logic. This is sometimes conceptualised as ‘neoextractivism’ on the part of regimes desperate to protect themselves and the limited gains they have made in encroaching on dominant profit-led economies only to find themselves dependent on deeper processes of global ecological destruction. This is what intertwines the reactionary logic of GB84 with the reactionary logic of extractivism; the danger of political paralysis in the face of the question that returns to haunt us when we reflect on the energy we poured into the NUM solidarity campaigns; what are we to do about extractivism as an integral part of capitalism? Was support for British coal-mining, for the extraction of fossil-fuel and for an industry that led to early death of those sent down into the ground and the rest of us coughing up our guts when the stuff is burnt, tactical, or what?
This is one question among the many that divides the left in Latin America torn between defence of the ‘pink-tide’ governments attempting to draw on the strength of their land to keep their economies afloat when under attack from imperialist encirclement, and celebration of Pachamama, ecosocialist defence of mother earth and indigenous peoples against the quasi-Stalinist fake-socialist governments who are willing to sacrifice ecology on the altar of realpolitik. This is why ‘extractivism’ is such a big deal in Latin America among revolutionary socialists, and why the stakes are so high as the Latin American left agonises about a choice between finishing off capitalism or finishing off the world. The debate forces a more complex historical-materialist system-oriented reflection on the broader deeper conditions of possibility for capitalism to have developed in Latin America and the reliance of the West on the material necessary for communication technologies, for the development and survival of high-tech service sector late capitalism, neoextractivism. The debate has consequences for some of Marx’s extractivist assumptions, and for the intersection between working-class and anti-extractivist feminist struggle in Latin America.
GB84 plunges the depths of misery and conflict in a cut-up genre of writing that was defended by some reviewers as being ‘political gothic’ and by others as compatible with a leftist post-punk radical re-working of fake-objective journalistic style. Some of the right-wing press complained that it was ‘obscene’, noting that the year of the start of the strike, 1984, was indicative of the paranoid elements of the book. And this paranoia is actually at the heart of the book, revolving around two characters ripe for conspiratorial framing. One is ‘Terry Winters’ (loosely based on NUM chief executive Roger Windsor) who goes to Libya to get money from the regime for the strike, embarrasses Scargill after embracing Gaddafi on TV, and then takes a cut from the takings. The other is ‘Stephen Sweet’ (loosely based on Working Miners’ Committee impresario and Thatcher-stalwart David Hart) who is constantly manoeuvring to crush the strike and who is linked, through his driver ‘Neil Fontaine’ to a series of paramilitary interventions against the pickets and crackpot military coup scenarios.
Sweet/Hart is referred to throughout, through the voice of Fontaine, as ‘The Jew’, which gives an even nastier edge to the book, a repetitive insidious narrative device which gives a name to the class enemy behind the scenes, or, perhaps, in a generous reading, an enemy who merely thinks he is behind the scenes. The book paves the way for an image of the end of mining in Britain in which foreign forces will benefit and it implies that hidden enemies within were always pulling the strings.
The question ‘who are the extractivists?’ is the wrong question, one which launches us into a paranoid search for the enemy. The question is ‘What is extractivism?’ How does it function as part of capitalism, and what is the alternative?
Most left politics in the 1980s was organised around assumptions that growth would be the motor for us to release ourselves from capitalism, either through the canny policies of a social-democratic Labour government which would harness the accelerationist logic of capitalism – faster and more efficient production and consumption – or through a more radical break, acceleration of growth after a revolutionary transformation that would take us beyond the limits to growth that capitalism imposes on us. Green politics too often seemed to come at these issues from the right, and ecosocialist politics was hardly on the agenda then; and so the argument that the coal should be left in the ground and growth as such be put into question would then be seen as laying the ground for betrayal of the miners. That was betrayal which, paradoxically, some of the groups on the left most gung-ho for development were actually complicit in when they tried to spike the strike; so being bewitched by growth was clearly no guarantee of a progressive political position at the time. Instead, now we need to learn from the way one of the new keywords of the revolutionary left in Latin America, extractivism, is being put to work, and what the wider-ranging consequences are for ‘post-growth’ and ‘post-extractivist’ politics.
GB84 never asks what led to the miners’ strike or what happened after it, never contextualises the development of mining in the context of capitalism. Many things happened in the strike, and there was actually a different kind of growth, of human relationships and solidarity that continue to resonate today. There is little mention in the book of women organised against the pit closures, and then only to drive home the divisions between the impotent men and their angry wives, and there is no mention of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. There was historic defeat, true, but also some historic shifts, historic breaks. The book never asks whether one lesson of the strike is that we need to rethink whether we should simply push our foot harder on the acceleration pedal or whether we should look for the emergency brake.
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