Meta-Industrial Class and Why We Need It

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* Article: The Meta-industrial Class and Why We Need It. ARIEL SALLEH



"The paper suggests that the appropriate ‘agents of history’ in an era of globalisation and ecological crisis are ‘meta-industrial’ workers. This hitherto nameless class carries out hands-on reproductive labours at the interface of ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’ using ‘holding skills’, a grounded epistemology and ethic consonant with genuine democracy and local sustainability. Pointing to the unexamined neo-liberal assumptions of many environmental philosophers, the author suggests that only an ‘embodied materialist’ epistemology and ethic can do justice to class, race, gender, and species diversity."


Ariel Salleh:


"In Ecofeminism as Politics (1997) I introduce the term ‘meta-industrial’ to designate a hitherto unrecognised class whose labours and value orientation in relation to ‘nature’ leave them at the margins the tele–pharmo–nuclear complex. Strictly speaking, meta-industrial groupings such as women domestic workers, subsistence farmers, and indigenous peoples, are both inside and outside of the dominant hegemony. They are inside in as much as they are essential ‘resources’ but as political ‘subjects’ they are largely outside. At an existential level, this structural contradiction is a source of insight and political motivation (viz. my chapter 11—‘agents of complexity’). The term ‘meta-industrial’ thus has both positive (immanent) and normative (transcendent) senses." (


Ariel Salleh:

"A materialist approach to ecofeminism is guided by Marx’s profound understanding of the dialectic between our practical actions in the world—labour— and the form that our thought processes take. However, Marx’s model was biased toward industrial labour and the production of things, ‘men’s work’ as distinct from women’s socially given reproductive activities. So, an ecofeminist approach must fill out the gaps in the master’s historical materialism: his philosophic silence on ‘women’ and on ‘nature’, marginalised subjects in an otherwise radical analysis. Ecofeminist politics can re-embody materialism and in doing this, the notion of reproductive labour becomes central. Reproduction means to be engaged in nurturing living processes by enhancing our human interchange with nature. Such labours give rise to kinds of knowing that defy the Eurocentric definition of humanity as distinct from nature. Socially reproductive domestic work for example, is a process by which women have traditionally mediated nature for men as they cook and clean, tend young, old, and sexual bodies. But sustaining reproductive labour is not necessarily gendered.

Subsistence farming and hunter gathering by men also mediates humanity and nature without turning it into dead matter as industrial workers have been forced to do. Obviously, women and men caught up in urban consumer societies have less direct give and take with so called external nature than cottage dwelling folk once did. But in the international division of labour, indigenous peoples and Third World farmers are still bound up in care for earthly cycles, albeit increasingly compromised by technology transfer. In environmental terms, subsistence agriculture is low in energy input and pollution output, and it preserves biodiversity as it goes. Moreover, since four-fifths of the world’s food is provided by this meta-industrial class in the South, its labour should be of great significance in the global economy. Why is this not the case?"


"Under capitalist patriarchal industrial production, abstract dis/located knowledge called expertise, generates merely an illusion of human choice and control, but the North’s myth of management is protected by the professional elite’s labelling of unanticipated consequences as accidents.

Conceptualising the ecosystem as a web of internal relations calls for a radical non-’identitarian ’ logic where process replaces fixed categories. Everything is both this/and that. How do we talk about this dialectic in every day life?

Typically, in caring for sick infants and aging parents, women workers become highly skilled in coping with non-identity, permeability and contamination of boundaries. Bodies as nature, wither and ooze, but sustaining labours are about holding these moments of transformation—in the bedroom or in the field. But most metropolitan men are taught to be contemptuous of bodily flows, waste and soil. Eurocentric languages and institution s offer an armoury of externalising, idealising gestures to bolster masculine separateness from matter. But what our brothers can end up with is desensitisation , a false sense of individualism, crippling loneliness and destructive compensatory drives.

Different ways of living and working yield different psychologies . Thus holding labours open people to an embodied self-consciousness quite at odds with the cogito of the masculine unitary subject. Women, says ecofeminist methodologist Maria Mies, are inclined to work out their ethical responsibilities integrating thought and feeling in relational context.16 Such an approach calls us away from strategic calculation of optimisations and abstract formulae like rights, into an extrapolation of caring experience. Holding as both epistemology and ethic is based neither on instrumental control of others, nor suddenly ‘waking up’ deep ecological style to some ephemeral cosmic fusion. An embodied materialism rests on practical deferral to the matter at hand and as such it is intrinsically precautionary. Such labour practices exemplify a strong and flexible de-centred subjectivity , implicated in many layers of time at once; a relation self grounded, in place.

As suggested above, an embodied materialism implies an ontology of internal relations, a dialectical epistemology, a precautionary ethic and a bioregional politics. It celebrates the qualities of engagement that an unnamed class— housewives, subsistence farmers and forest dwellers, bring to their provisioning in partnership with nature. In contrast to the profoundly alienated labour of conventional political economy, these workers carry an alternative way of knowing and doing. In fact, it is this experience outside of the dominant productivist time frame, that provides the possibility of a grounded political vision and solidarity between meta-industrial labour North and South. Their insights and skills are sorely needed for building an Earth democracy beyond the divisive plurality of neo-liberal, socialist, post-colonial , feminist and ecological politics."