Trade Unions, Energy Democracy, and Seeds of Possibility: Transitioning to a Post-Carbon/Post-Capital World

Tabitha Spence


From a Marxist perspective, it is not difficult to see the limits of the market solutions and tech-fixes promoted by green capitalists in terms of actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, let alone preventing secondary ecological rifts from opening up as a result of these ‘solutions’. The hegemony of ecomodernist ideas is being consistently challenged by climate justice activists fighting for ‘system change, not climate change’, yet the movement’s main strategies, ‘blockadia’ and disinvestment campaigns, remain limited in scale and scope. Concomitantly, trade unionists and allies are deploying the ‘green economy’ narrative to push ‘just’ transition plans they have developed at local and national scales, breaking down the ‘jobs versus the environment’ dichotomy often invoked as the impossible, yet inevitable choice of 21st century governments.

This study investigates the claim that such climate jobs campaigns might hold revolutionary potential as ‘non-reformist reforms’— both for undertaking the urgent and massive task of decarbonising the planet in a few short decades, as well as for serving as a seed of the here and now that can open up spaces of true possibility for moving beyond capital and organizing society in a more ecologically sustainable and socially just way.

Engaging in critical discourse analysis of the various transitional plans developed and promoted by trade union groups and their allies in different countries reveals that they vary considerably in both principles and approach. While all campaigns claim to promote a ‘just transition’ for workers currently employed in sectors related to dirty energy (through re-skilling programs and guarantees of jobs in renewable sectors), some actively advance the notion of ‘energy democracy’ (worker or government owned and controlled energy systems) as an essential part of their program. Aiming to take energy production and distribution systems out of the hands of private companies, these programs go far beyond advocating merely an energy transition to the prime movers of wind, sunshine, and tides, to actually preparing to restructure social relations from one dictated by the needs of capital to one collectively organized for the benefit of all. This paper considers the limitations and possibility of such strategies for transitioning to a post-carbon and/or post-capital world.

Capital - Climate change - Environmental Crisis - labor