Labouring for the green economy

Bike to Work Day
Can we find emancipation and construct a sustainable economy through the labour process?

In a world of endless choice of commodities, with access to the latest and best technology, meaning remains elusive. 

In chapter three of Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that mainstream economics has, up until this point, regarded human nature in a narrow sense, as a ‘Rational Economic Man’.

Raworth suggests that this has its roots in Adam Smith who “noted the human propensity to ‘truck, barter and trade’ and the role of self-interest in making markets work”. This one aspect of human nature was then taken to the fore by John Stuart Mill, who argued that political economy should only be concerned with “him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth”, adding two other exaggerated features: “a deep dislike of work and a love of luxuries”.

Raworth argues this depiction of abstract human nature as a ‘rational economic man’ has been taken to be the dominant expression of our species, and that we need to change this ‘self-portrait’, to steer the economy onto a sustainable path. The aim is to “nurture human nature towards the Doughnut’s safe and just space”, which lies between providing a social foundation but not surpassing the ecological ceiling.


Ann Pettifor is a leading economist on the green economy, involved in developing the ‘Green New Deal’ back in 2009. In recent interviews she has been explicit in her view, that in the Green Economy carbon-intensity needs to be replaced with labour-intensity. We must swap fossil-fuels for ourselves.

When we connect these two objectives of the Green Economy: nurturing human nature, and finding efficiency through human labour, it is labour itself that warrants further investigation. Are we destined to always dislike work, as John Stuart Mill suggested?

In his online lecture series, the geographer David Harvey takes us through Karl Marx’s foundational argument of labour as the universal condition of existence of our species, which is laid out in the first ten pages of chapter seven of Capital Vol.1.

In a world of endless choice of commodities, with access to the latest and best technology, meaning remains elusive. 

From the dawn of human history to the present day humans have taken raw materials from the natural world, and appropriated those materials using instruments to make objects that have use values. Thus Marx argues that: “Labour as the creator of use values as useful labour is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society.”

The act of applying human labour to materials and objects to create new use values is not static, but in motion. In this regard, Marx sees labour as a process between man and nature, which he terms the ‘Labour Process’. Marx then looks to define this labour process “independently of any specific social formation”, that is, identifying the characteristics universal to all forms of human labour in whatever historical epoch.


According to Marx, the labour process “mediates the metabolism between man and nature and therefore human life itself”. It is our means of survival, and a naturally imposed necessity. We alter the world around us so we can live. But whilst other species also relate to the world in this way, Marx argues that the form of labour applicable to humans is an “exclusively human characteristic”.

Marx uses the comparison between a spider weaving its web and the architect. When an architect builds a house, the purpose is ‘already conceived ideally’ before it is put into practice, that is, there is an ‘ideal moment’ where the mental conception precedes the action within the world.

The imagination of the architect to conceive the home in a certain form arises from the collective wealth of experience associated with a given activity in society. Therefore the labour process is also social. It is both natural and social simultaneously.

This relation between the self and the material world goes both ways, as Marx argues that the labour process needs materials, instruments of labour, and a purpose: “Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials”.

This purpose we are conscious of, and from the moment it is conceived ideally to the moment when the purpose is realised, we must subordinate our will to it for the duration of the work. In this regard, Marx is adamant that work is never pure play, as argued by other theorists at the time. It requires self-discipline. 


There is this non-liberation side to the labour process, but sitting within it however, there is also something which is elemental, and noble.

Labour has allowed us to survive, but has also given us a source of meaning and fulfilment in life. In this regard, Marx presents a very dialectical proposition of the labour process, as transformative of the self: Through this movement he acts on external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.”

Marx does not account in his depiction those forms of human labour whose purpose is not effecting changes on the materials of nature, such as caring for fellow human beings, raising a child or the sharing of knowledge and ideas. But these activities are what enable us to flourish as a collective. It is our collective strength, and ability to work together in common as a species, which has got us to where we are now.

These non-material forms of labour also provide purpose, are mentally conceived before being put into practice, and in that mental act draw on the collective knowledge of society.

Despite this obvious shortcoming, there is something very significant about Marx’s account of the labour process as wholly natural and social, and also transformative of self, society and nature. By changing the world around us, we also simultaneously change our own nature.

This dialectical understanding of the labour process, David Harvey argues, presupposes that: You cannot change yourself without changing the world around you, and you can’t change the world around you without changing yourself. That dialectic is fundamental to the evolution in human society, through transformations of nature. It would lead me to make very strong propositions of the sort that says ‘any ecological project is always a social project. All social projects are ecological projects’. You cannot view them as somehow separate from each other.”


If you agree with this dialectical proposition of the labour process, it becomes critical to the question of how we nurture human nature into the ‘safe and just space’ of the doughnut economy.

How is paid-labour or work understood as a source of meaning today? Well, for the majority of people work is not the source of value in their lives. We don’t live to work. We work to live. How do we live? We consume.

We value consumption because it offers a way to make sense of our lives. It has been offered as compensation for the alienation we feel in our working lives. In his podcasts on alienation, David Harvey suggests the roots of this came out of the 1960s and the 1970s, a time when the working class were very aware of the alienation they felt in a workplace defined by the assembly line.

In response to this and the uprisings of 1968 (which were about individual liberty and freedom), capital looked to satisfy wants, needs and desires by moving to a more consumer society. ‘Compensationary Consumerism’ – a “kind of Faustian bargin between capital and labour” went something like this - “We know we cannot be creating labour processes that are adequate to you, but we can compensate you for that so that when you come out of the labour process and go home you’ve got a wonderful cornucopia of consumer products that you can have, and therefore the happiness you will experience from all of these consumer products will compensate for the fact you have a miserable time at work.”

What is it that makes some forms of work more meaningful than others? Whether you are participating in a job out of choice or necessity; whether you are forced to work for a duration of time, or an intensity which makes you feel alienated; your ability through the wages earned from selling your labour to provide for others; or the degree to which the form of labour relates to you as your authentic self expression.  This last consideration connects to a wider mental conception – do you understand your labour to be of purpose or value to others?


In the prehistoric era, humans would have sourced value by knowing that the products of their labour would help their tribe to flourish.

Today, employment is valued where contribution to society is apparent and direct, as part of what makes participation in the labour process meaningful is the sense we are contributing to the collective whole. In the book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber notes that many workers feel their jobs do not actually provide anything useful to society. Participation in these ‘meaningless jobs’, whose only purpose is employment and income, is a highly alienating experience for the workers involved.

In today’s modern economy, meaningful work is hard to come by. We are also discovering that consumption is not an end in itself, and cannot be relied upon to give meaning to our lives either. It is also taking a considerable toll on the environment.

Around us, the world is burning by the ever increasing demands we place on the Earth through our consumption of material goods, experiences and travel. Why do we feel compelled to explore all corners of the globe to live life to the full, when the science is clear that flying is one of the most direct ways we can contribute to global warming?  

In a world of endless choice of commodities, with access to the latest and best technology, meaning remains elusive. 


Where work has become the alienating force in our lives, the utopian vision of a world without work seems the perfect antidote. The argument of Accelerationism that we should speed up the rate of technological change, automate production processes, and use robotics to make work unnecessary is now a vision for human emancipation.

In this utopia, necessary labour for the purposes of production is mostly removed, liberating us from the alienating experience of paid-work. We are left with an abundance of leisure time to use to our own ends. This could be pursuing hobbies and interests, or continuing to contribute to the common good through our voluntary labour as we wish.

This is a mainstream vision for the political left, as demonstrated by Yanis Varoufakis’s depiction of a post capitalist society in his recent video ‘What comes after Capitalism’ – “Star Trek. We all own the machinery. The machinery works for all of us. And we can all sit around here and have philosophical discussions.”

Speed up is an intrinsic characteristic of capital accumulation under capitalism. Accelerationism seeks to augment these inherent tendencies, to unlock rapid technological change which over the course of a few decades will blast our way out of global capitalism and into the post capitalist new world order.


This could be the current perspective of the Chinese Communist Party. After the 2008 global financial crisis, China invested heavily in its high-tech sector, and in the space of a few years has created a sector on par, competitive and even exceeding Silicon Valley.

They did this by creating innovation centres built around a model where intellectual property rights do not exist, where if you come up with an idea you better use it quick before someone else steals it off you. This form of “gladiator capitalism”, as David Harvey describes it in his podcast, has meant China has built up their high-tech sector in a remarkably small amount of time.

According to David Harvey, the Chinese Communist Party are now hedging their bets on artificial  intelligence (AI) as the emancipator of humanity, and the key ingredient for transitioning to a post capitalist world by 2050. They have adopted an accelerationist worldview, which looks to take the removal of necessary-labour from the production process to its logical conclusion.

Accelerationism is inextricably linked to Universal Basic Income (UBI). As proponents of accelerationism such as Nick Srnick and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, UBI and a reduction of the working week are the first political steps we can take towards a world without work. This is not to say that UBI is inherently pro-accelerationism, but it would not oppose it.

If AI is to wipe out work on the transition to a post capitalist future, some form of basic income will be needed for the journey.


In recent interviews, Ann Pettifor has drawn attention to the misunderstanding she sees in the green movement around the role of work in the green economy and UBI, where support for UBI comes from an understanding that removing work creates an environmental benefit.

In a recent interview with The Equality Trust, Pettifor explains: The reason I am opposed to the notion of a basic income is not only that it would cost the state huge sums; but mainly because I am convinced a green economy is a labour intensive economy.

"We have to give up fossil fuels for labour… We need full employment, better quality work, strong trade unions, and Universal Basic Services, in my opinion, not Universal Basic Income.”

What examples can be given where benefits from labour-dense production processes offer more efficient use of natural resources? An easy example is swapping the car for the bicycle. The environmental movement is brimming with many others, such as Simon Fairlie’s depiction of a Permaculture Livestock Economy with “more watchful management of pasture land”; or the provision of good green jobs in local authorities to plan sustainable transport systems, support behavioural change in the community, and govern the transition to decentralised, distributed 100 percent renewable energy systems.

Labour-density facilitates the localisation of essential resources within a Green Economy, as envisioned by the World Localisation Movement.


Part of the vision for a Green Economy should be, as Kate Raworth argues, to “move beyond anthropocentric values and to recognise and respect the intrinsic value of the living world”.

If we want to nurture human nature towards this, we have to re-examine the labour process as both natural and social. Through the labour process we change the world, but we can also change ourselves. 

The manifestation of human nature is inextricably tied to the labour process and therefore the economy. For realising the Green Economy, the power of this relation offers hope. As David Harvey comments: “There is something very positive about this, even romantic. There is something noble about this enterprise. We can dream thoughts. We can make them real. We can transform the world. We can transform ourselves. We have these special powers.”

The social movement for a Green Economy needs a self-portrait of humanity that, as Kate Raworth puts it, can “transform the political values, interests, and mindset”.

By putting forward a self-portrait of the magical potential that exists in the human labour process, as a source of health, wellbeing, and emancipation, we can present a vision of a future utopia of full employment that provides meaning, fulfilment, and community, where the ultimate possibility of awakening the moral instincts of humanity is unlocked. In the Green Economy, there is a ‘right livelihood’ for everyone.


In a recent BBC video, Kate Raworth remarks how when speaking about doughnut economics, she is commonly asked: “Is this economy that meets the needs of all people capitalism, or is it socialism, or communism?”

Her response hits the nail on the head: “Really are these the only choices we have, the ‘isms’ of the last century? Can we not come up with some ideas of our own, and create new names for them, and to see new patterns?”

When imagining the future, we do not need to be pigeonholed by the mistakes of the past. The path which lies ahead demands it.

The twentieth century manifested human nature with ‘a deep dislike of work and a love of luxuries’, as envisioned by John Stuart Mill. Perhaps in a future Green Economy, the inverse will hold more weight - a dislike of luxuries, and a love of work.

This Author 

Alasdair Yule graduated from Bath Spa University in 2013 with a degree in Global Development and Sustainability. He now works for a local authority supporting more sustainable travel for school journeys. He would like to be an animal farmer one day.