Rethinking Growth Part 2: Work

Well, I'm in over my head. No one told me trying to keep my footprints small was harder than I thought it could be. I'm in over my head. What do I really need? Trying to save the planet oh will someone please save me? Trying to save the planet oh will someone please save me?

Welcome to In Over My Head. I'm Michael Bartz. My guest today is Bengi A Bengi Akbulut. Bengi is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography Planning and Environment at Concordia University, as well as the co-director of their social justice center. Her research is in political economy, ecology and feminist economics. She has worked extensively on the political economy of development and critiques of developmentalism with a particular focus on Turkey. Her recent work explores economic alternatives such as community, economies, commons and de-growth, including the future of work from a de-growth perspective. Beng is published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics Development and Change, Ecological Economics, Geoform and more.

Welcome to In Over My Head, Bengi.

Thank you for having me.

While looking into de-growth, one theme that interested me was the idea of work. Since Labor is a large part of our economy and our work often defines our individual identities, what work looks like and the de-growth future really intrigues me. Some of your research has looked into this, so I'm very much looking forward to chatting with you. Since de-growth is such a broad topic, perhaps we could begin by talking about how your research fits within the larger de-growth literature.

Sure. Well, I guess even before my research, my past fits into, in a way diverse literature because I come from a country, namely Turkey, where economic growth is such an obsession, I would say such an unquestioned objective across the political spectrum and also across society and state. So we're even questioning the necessity or the, the equation of economic growth with everything good in progress is not even questioned and that's very suffocating kind of context in a way. And it's very different than, I mean it's very similar in I think to many contexts, especially in countries outside of the global north but also in countries of the global north, I would say. But it's also kind of such a stark contrast to, to contexts like Latin America for instance, or or India, where there are visions of alternatives to developments or alternatives to growth like post extractivism or ideas of ecological radical ecological democracy in India.

So this unquestioned acceptance and advocacy of growth and even in, in the political left was very much problematic for me. And my dissertation was about that, my PhD dissertation. So I was not a dro at the time and I'm still kind of able would to say maybe a more critical insider than kind of a committed de-growth. I am committed to the project, but I'm very much committed to criticizing some strands of it too. So that kind of naturally brought me to critiques of growth and especially critiques of growth, not only in terms of limiting growth but also a life outside of growth and organizing an economy that serves different functions. So kind of the immense spec potential project about criticizing growth. And then my research from a critique of growth, especially in the context of Turkey and what kind of objectives it serves, evolved more into growth, firstly more of political economy of de-growth and especially the role of the state in perpetuating growth projects and therefore what kind of a state can we imagine for degrowth was a big question for me, but later my work evolved more into a feminist degrowth understanding.

And there I think there's a lot of resonance with a question of work, but I will, I will not get into it. I will let you, you know, maybe direct the question.

Yeah, well, we'll get into that later for sure. I appreciate your perspective especially as someone who's maybe not like a died-in-the-wool de-growth person, cuz I definitely want to have perspectives from different experiences. So I appreciate that you coming from Turkey, that's really interesting. I honestly, I don't know a lot about Turkey. So when you're looking at growth and the economy or even politics, you know, how does Canada differ from Turkey?

I think it is, it is a fallacy to speak of nation-states as if they're homogenous units, although like we do kind of represent them and they do also wanna represent themselves as so I think there is to a large extent there's challenging to talk about Turkey as a homogenous unit, but like I think it's more challenging even to talk about Canada as one. But I mean in Turkey grows and especially modernizations through economic growth and progress and catching up with the west is a very, very strong theme that mark expose state elites ruling elites, but also state's relationship with the society. So I think that's what makes economic growth such a strong and un questions keystone in a way which I don't think is the case. I think like the primacy of economic growth and not only symbolically, but also like very materially because if we stop growing, if there's no economic growth in a growth economy, there's crisis.

So our subsistence, our survival, employment, work, welfare, all of these are very much strongly linked to growth in contemporary societies including Canada. But I think that the very fusing of the making of the nation states and economic growth as it is in Turkey is not really the case in in Canada I would say. Which means like in order for a de-growth politics or a politics of questioning growth and like maybe a politics of discussing collectively as a society what our economies should be serving rather than growth for instance, that in a country like Canada would maybe require something a bit simpler because in a context like Turkey, that conversation automatically becomes a conversation about the identity of the nation-state. If you're not going to grow, it's very much fused with these other ideas. So it's a very much a political project as much as an economic one. So I think as a conclusion it means that economic growth is not an, is only an economic issue or an economic question and it's always articulated with these other projects, social and political projects. So if we are trying to get loosen the grip that economic growth has on us, it's always contextual. We always have to look at what is the situation in that context and how it is articulated. So I think it is it's a little more complicated than a blueprint, so.

Absolutely. Yeah, no, it always is very complicated and I, I think in, in the little bit of reading I've done about de-growth, at least it seems like there's lots of grassroots movements that are, are pushing that. And I wonder if maybe in a nation-state like Turkey, would you say that that would be more difficult to achieve?

Maybe not with the same vocabulary or terminology, but there's definitely a questioning of growth at the grassroots level. So the last two decades of Turkey's economic regime have been based on two sectors in particular energy and construction, which are both very destructive and depend fundamentally on appropriation of space and ecosystems. So there has been an equal eruption of and proliferation of, local resistance against such projects. And although if you go and ask them like, are you against growth? They will say, of course not. But I think that in, in terms of their own vocabularies and languages, they are saying no to growth and they are reclaiming a sense of sufficiency. They are reclaiming a sense of defence of livelihoods and living spaces. They are rejecting unnecessary big infrastructure and unnecessary energy projects. So I think in its own colors and flavors and language, there is a de-growth tendency. But like beyond that, maybe like autonomous dispersed local resistances, there are definitely platforms that these movements or resistances get together. That question grows. But also the Kurdish freedom movement's vision of a democratic economy is explicit about a rejection of growth and profitability and accumulation at the expense of nature and lives. So there's at least one organized but still grassroots movement that has an explicit vision of an alternative economy that is very close in terms of principles and values that it bases itself on de-growth.

Okay, yeah, that's really interesting. And I guess looking at de-growth and, and those grassroots movements like it seems like the focus is less on like not growing, but it's more about making our lives better. How do we make things more equitable? Cause you know, it's not just growth for the sake of growth or to maximize profit for certain individuals or industries, you know, it's very much about equality. And so that kind of brings me into my idea about work and, and you talked a little bit about the different groups that are involved with the de-growth movement and one of them is the, the feminist movement as well. So yeah, maybe let's talk a bit about work specifically in paid work versus unpaid work and maybe the gender dynamics there.

One of the contributions or ongoing struggles of feminist thinking and politics has been this field that is often called by feminists as social reproduction and we can expand it to say social and ecological reproduction. So the work of not only unpaid work, of not only predominantly women but also the unpaid work of nature. Other feminists have called it life-reproducing or life-producing work. So all kinds of labour that is often unpaid reproduce the conditions of production. So both reproduce labourers, labour power, so giving birth and taking care of humans, but also the reproduction of the sustenance of these humans. So the reproduction of ecological conditions of our, of our lives and basically the fulfillment of needs. So this field of work has always often been, I mean almost always is unpaid and its cheapening is basically what underlies it. So the fact that it's been unpaid underlies the growth economy.

So you don't have to pay for childcare, you don't have to pay for healthcare. It's being done in households, in communities out of love and often very gendered but also very racialized, especially with immigrants' care labour, especially in countries of the global north and how much of the care work they do. I think it's very clear how racialized it is and it's not only care labor, we see it in different pasts of social production. So for for de-growth, this kind of labour, this unpaid labour is important in a number of senses. First, it feeds into a critique of growth, as I said. So the idea that growth is good or it's like it's good for everyone, or it's like that capitalism or capitalist growth brought emancipation and, and increased material conditions of living for all of us, that story becomes a little more complicated when you take into account that it's only been possible at the expense of, or by the unpaid labour.

So the extraction of unpaid labour from certain people and certain natures. So the cheapened natures of other places. So then the story becomes one of, okay, who grew at the expense of whom, so that's why it's important. Secondly, a lot of feminists have theorized that form of labour, for instance, with the terms care ethic or an ethic of care or caring labour as a field that is, I'm not sure if I agree with a lot of this, I will come to it, but it's marked or it's governed by different kind of values and principles than paid work or market production. So it's more likely to be caring and loving and it's more likely to have more communitarian, more other-regarding ethics could emerge from this kind of labour. It's more meaningful for the person who's doing this kind of labour too. And it's more socially value-adding than, I don't know, the production of some kind of commodity.

So this field is like often thought of as, as something that is antithetical to paid work or paid production under capitalism. So that kind of production, that kind of care-based relationship is what we need to have or what we are foreseeing or dreaming of having in aro society or dig world's future. So withdrawing from paid work and being more self-sufficient, being more self-governing, collective production for our needs and fostering an ethics of care and solidarity and equality just like unpaid care labour is kind of a theme in the growth. But of course, we need to be careful because this could very much depend on the unpaid labour of women again. So that's why I said I don't really know how much I agree with this. So these is two ways in which unpaid work comes into play or has been kind of central for degrowth thinking and activism through feminisms.

I think kind of engagement with degrowth, I think this central position of unpaid work has become a little more qualified, has become a little more complicated. In particular the feminist engagement with de-growth or feminist critique. The kind of ongoing critical engagement, let's say with the girls, first of all kind of unpack that romanticized notion of like unpaid labour, caring labour and saying, okay, it's not only that there's a lot of unpaid work going on in our economies by women, by nature, by all kinds of groups or, or human and non-human workers. But the point is not that, the point is that this is also highly unequally distributed. It's not only the recognition that there's unpaid labour that we should be doing, we should be thinking and discussing how to distribute and how to organize this work. So the feminist point was not that, oh, there's unpaid labour and the feminist point was that it's unpaid labour and it's gendered and racialized.

So let's start discussing how to organize unpaid labour in a degrowth society in ways that are more egalitarian, more democratic and not as unequal. So I think the discussion is now coming to that. So the feminist engagement, I think like to tie back to the question of work, it engages with the question of work in, in a kind of a layered manner. First it's a redefinition of what is work. So broadening the idea of work, it's not only paid work, but it's also all kinds of unpaid forms of life-sustaining work. But secondly and more importantly, a discussion about how that work should be organized and who decides how to democratically egalitarian, organize unpaid work, which is important not only for degrowth but for all kinds of transition ideas. For instance, when you're looking at all kinds of small-scale or large-scale proposals for reducing the energy and materials we use.

So the substitution of human energy instead of using any kind of external source of energy will require that we as humans spend more time doing certain things. So not using dryers, but like putting the clothes on a clothesline. So there will be some activities that we will have to spend more human labour on and if we don't actually address the gender distribution of such forms of activities, that will mean that we can have theoretically a very sustainable low energy, low material use feature that relies very heavily on women's unpaid labour again. So we need to have this discussion about, and we need to not only discuss, we need to have a vision about how to distribute and how to organize unpaid labour in the future.

Yeah, no, and I, and I appreciate you even just connecting nature as well in that too. I think, you know, cuz you know, this show is about the environment and if we're also exploiting nature, that's a problem too. But regard to work itself, I think that's really interesting, especially also like on the other side, something else that I've read about is just even within that exploitation, like oftentimes men are in dangerous lines of work, right? With energy production and things like that. It's, it's not always men, but predominantly men. So I, that's also got me thinking about, yeah, just that notion of work as far as your identity and that men should be in these like dangerous, manly jobs and women should be more feminine caregiving jobs. And I wonder if maybe if we had more kind of like you mentioned that even distribution if we had more mixing of, of genders in those roles, do you feel like that would help things?

Well, I mean, okay, you're right. I think it is a part of gender socialization or gendering, the kind of, of course like dangerous or more manly jobs versus like the more feminine. So I mean, one thing I guess like to maybe a a little further complicate that is feminized jobs, like being a healthcare professional or, or in education you are, especially because of your gender identity, you are also under risk of other kinds of dangers like sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other kinds of physical abuse. Secondly, all these kind of manly jobs, especially in extractive industries, often come with the sidekick of violence against women in sites that these jobs are so man camps and mining sites for instance. So I think the harm that these, and, and again, many of these dangerous jobs happen to be not only dangerous to the workers, but also dangerous and very destructive to nature.

So that cycle of harm is a lot broader than just the many jobs. And I think in order to transform or get rid of that harm or minimize that harm, it's not only about who gets to work in those jobs, right? It's a broader thing, it's a more structural thing. It's about having a conversation about who benefits from those industries. Not only the jobs, but where do the profits go and like who gets to bear the burden. And I think maybe like in, in discussions around just transition, we might be able to see that and we are seeing that constructing an alliance against, for instance, extractivism based on that like fossil fuel extractivism, it is the cycle of harm includes workers who are at risk and whose health and whose physical wellbeing are at risk and possibly mental health wellbeing, the communities that are getting the harms but also nature.

So I think the benefits of transforming these jobs or abolishing them has a broader alliance behind them, but it's also a broader discussion than who gets to to work in them. Right. Coming back to your question about feminized jobs plus these kind of more masculinized jobs. I mean definitely I think certain sectors like healthcare, like education, to the extent they are feminized, they're also underpaid. And I mean one option could be to de-feminize them or like get women to work in masculinized jobs, but I'd rather argue that what we should be doing is to work towards the societal appreciation and recognition of what is considered feminized that work towards and struggle towards a future where education, healthcare care, jobs in general are seen to be more valuable than they are today. Not only materially but also socially and symbolically. And that they are given the appreciation and recognition that they deserve. So rather than getting women in, you know, masculine jobs, I would try to work to appreciate the feminine jobs.

No, absolutely. Yeah, I agree. You say, you know, caregiving work is undervalued. Is it about paying them more or is it about things like de-growth talks about like universal basic income? Like if everyone is more evenly distributed with their income and maybe they're caring less about those high-paying jobs that are dangerous or the maybe lower-paying jobs that are care jobs. If you take that out of the equation, do you think that would help with equality?

I think so. I think universal basic income and or universal basic services, so this is being discussed as well being given a certain amount of food and like kind of certain amount of a squares meter of living space, but also like a, like universal and access to good quality healthcare and education for instance. I think that's the first step. I think that should be it. And not only universal basic income there, it's kind of, it's a controversial topic. Some people do discuss UBI as remuneration of care work that we all do, not everyone, I mean there are different ways in which UBI has been thought of or conceived as like something that is owed to us. I don't necessarily agree. For me the most productive way to think about it is that right now in contemporary societies we live in most of them, the system that we live in is capitalism, which is a system of wage labour and that people's needs are commodified, which means we need to work, we need to sell our labour power to someone to get money in return and then we have to go to the market and buy our stuff to survive.

This means that we have as a society made a decision that only people who can work for money survive. Of course we have different kind of welfare systems to social security systems to make sure that the elderly or the sick or the very young or the people with disabilities do not have to or do not die if they don't work. But still it's a way of distributing means of subsistence. It is a way to say, hey, you get as much as you work, which is not necessarily unfair, but it is a specific way. We could also have made a decision to say, hey, everyone gets to survive no matter what, and then that's UBI. And I think that is everyone gets to survive. We can make that decision as a society, we can, it's not easy, but I think that is a different ethic of living together and that's a different decision of who gets to survive and how to distribute means of subsistence.

Plus, I mean UBI has would have, as you said, a bunch of other positive impacts. One being it is a good and solid step towards equality. It's an equalizer, it's a redistributive mechanism. Redistribution and addressing injustices in our societies are good for the environment because a lot of consumption is driven by inequalities in the sense that a lot of consumption is status signalling. It's not necessarily needs-based, which means things that would bring us to more equal societies would be good for the environment. Secondly, economic power or economic equality correlates with political power, and political fairness. So more just economically, just societies are more likely to function at some point more democratically. So it's, it's a step, it's a precondition of democratizing economic decision-making. Thirdly universal basic income will increase the capacity of especially the most precarious parts of the labour force to resist the most exploitative, most risky, most maybe manly jobs.

So it will increase the bargaining power of labourers. I mean we've seen kind of a small maybe rehearsal of that in the post-covid relief packages and how in the US certain states were under a lot of pressure from businesses because the workers that they used to pay very, very mere wages and exploited for 18 hours a day, we're not going back because covid relief packages we're paying them better. So it would have this kind of impact. Plus when we think of u UBI in conjunction, for instance, proposals like work sharing or worktime reduction, worktime reduction is becoming a lot more popular. Four day weeks, work weeks or shorter working days and worktime reduction at least paid work, the reduction in paid work hours, market work hours, that is more or less I think a must for a sustainable future because we need to reduce working hours, not only because we need to produce and consume less, but also because time constraint.

Households tend to make consumption choices that are more energy and materially intense. So we need to relieve that. And how do we do that more equitably so that we don't put the burden of less work on the already kind of pool or underemployed or precariously employed. We more equitably share the existing paid hours and then together with ubi, that could be a viable strategy, right? And then people can discover ways of fulfilling their own needs in more collective and self-organized manners, produce their own food, take care of their own kids in a more collective and gender-egalitarian manner to communal kitchens and then survive well together without the need to grow.

Yeah, and I think that kind of goes to the idea of just work as identity and as you mentioned like in a labour economy, just the simple question of why do we work? There are many people generally who do jobs that they don't really want to do or don't really resonate with them just because they need to pay bills. And that's just the reality. So when people are doing a job because they need to pay bills and they hate their job or it's, or it's in an extractive industry or something that just doesn't feed their soul, to me that just seems like such a, a waste because there are so many people who are suffering like we've talked about with inequality, but then there are people who are making billions of dollars that shareholders and stuff. So I, I see a real problem with that, right, when everyone is, or a lot of people are suffering and then there are the, the very, very rich who are doing very well. And it seems like de-growth as, as with some of these other movements really embraces a different mindset and a different attitude towards that, right?

Yeah, definitely. And I think like work becoming identities, some, I think like that's, even more, the problem, right? I mean, because if work was only a means of surviving and subsisting, then it's more straightforward, at least like to get support for something like universal basic income or like work time reduction would be something that was more straightforward. But it is an identity. It is so central. All of our conversations, all of our living arrangements, all of our commuting and transport, the way that we build cities and like people feel depressed when even if they have money to survive when they don't have work. So there is some more serious undoing that needs to be done. And I don't know if you've read, but Kathi Weeks, Kathi Weeks is a feminist political scientist. She's written a book called The Problem at Work, and she's basically starts with how work has been obsessed with in the left and the right and the feminist movement.

It's like even women's emancipation is often in, in especially, or these strands of feminism is like getting women to, to go out and do market work. That's a measure of women's emancipation. And she kind of, she engages with like these proposals of refusal of her and through UBI and that's like the first hurdle, right? I mean, if it was only a question of material needs, I think an alliance against work could have worked a lot better. But I think there the feminist idea of, or, or the feminist unsettling of what is work is quite a strong antidote because all this debate, all this kind of obsession with work is predominantly market wage paid work. So having the feminist, the gesture of always annoying this question with like, but what do you mean by work? But like, what about this work that we do? And like nature does, I think that's like a really good conversation point.

I think there's always a need to ask the political economy question. As my thesis supervisor, Ph.D. supervisor Jim Boyce always said, who wins? Who loses? How do the winners make the losers accept the situation? And I think like in terms of work and in terms of the precarious dangerous work, it's always important to ask, okay, who actually is benefiting from this activity? So this sector, this company, this corporation. So I mean it is no coincidence that some jobs are very precarious and very dangerous and very risky and I appreciate giving up and, and like living in frugality. But also I think who needs to work less and who needs to work more or what kind of work we need more of and what kind of work we need less of and who needs to de-grow and who needs to grow are questions that we should always ask.

And I think certain things like the kinds of jobs, why do we need certain kinds of jobs and do we actually need them? Are these risky jobs actually producing things that we need as a society or adding any value to the society are the broader questions that we need to be asking. And I think dros is only is an important proposal to the extent that it can and envision and it can mobilize more structural and institutional transformations that will necessarily be based and empowered by grassroots organizing. But we need to be transforming bigger structures that are growth-inducing or growth dependent. So I think we need a mass movement in order to change institutions more democratically, but it won't be enough to buy kind of individual acts of responsibility.

Yeah, this has been really interesting Bengi. This show is about empowering citizens to take action on the climate crisis. And I guess when it comes to work and de-growth, you know, we've been talking about maybe a better future. What can people do to realize that better future?

Organize, organize everywhere, organize at their workplace, organize in their neighbourhoods, organize wherever? I mean, I think one thing that we've lost with, I will say capitalism, but I think there are other things involved too, but the ability to self-govern in terms of deciding what our needs are in terms of how to fulfill those needs in terms of what our economies should be serving, what our institutions should be serving. So being involved in decisions that shape our lives, not through a representative democracy, but as self-governing subjects. So unless we take that back, there's very little that we can do with things. So realizing our power and organization is, I think what this means for me is that it's more about politicizing certain decisions that are today thought of as kind of technical, economic, whatever. We should not be involved. We have to organize and self-govern.

Great. This has been a very interesting, insightful conversation. So thanks so much for your time, Bengi.

No, I thank you for inviting me. It's been great. Yes.

Well, that was my conversation with Bengi. You know, the idea I'm left with is when it comes to work, I think it's about really just redefining what work is, who it benefits and why we do it and if there's a quality or not. And I think if we can start to question those ideas and come up with solutions, then we're making progress. Well, and that's all for me. I'm Michael Bartz. Here's the feeling a little less, you know, over our heads when it comes to saving the planet. We'll see you again soon. In Over My Head was produced and hosted by Michael Bartz in partnership with Environment Lethbridge. Original music by Gabriel Thaine. If you would like to get in touch, email

I'm trying to save the planet, oh will someone please save me?

Rethinking Growth Part 2: Work
Broadcast by