- March 7, 2023
- 27 UQ, Irish Studies Seminar Room
- 15:15 - 16:30
Patrick O’Hare, University of St Andrews, 'Disappearing the Plastic Proletarian'.
This paper identifies and explores a tendency within multidisciplinary studies and popular discussions of plastic to downplay or ignore the role of workers at various stages of its value chain, from fossil fuel extraction and manufacturing, to recycling and waste disposal. This article argues that the marginalisation of plastic labour takes place through four key mechanisms, which I here summarise as aestheticization, fetichism, flexibilization, and wasting. Aestheticization refers to the way that plastics are focused on as aesthetic objects, not only when associated with design modernism and the household mundane, but also when used as symbols of ecological devastation and the Anthropocene (as with so-called ‘plastiglomerate’). The second process draws on Marx and Lukacs’ concept of commodity fetichism, where a perceived relationship between objects in a capitalist marketplace masks the human relationships and labour involved in production. Third, flexibilization refers to one of the ways in which the voice of organised labour in the plastics industry has been marginalised, a move complemented by the benefits offered to plastics sector workers to deter industrial unrest. Finally, the wasting of plastic refers in this paper not to the generation of plastic waste, which has been amply covered elsewhere, but to the way in which a focus on (consumer) plastic waste has crowded out the attention paid to plastics production. In the final section, the article turns to the way in which the new UN treaty on ending plastic pollution is, through a focus on ‘just transition’, finally shining a light on the plastic labour involved in the various oil, chemical, manufacturing, and recycling firms that together compose plastics supply chains.
Dr Patrick O'Hare is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow (FLF) and senior researcher in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. His research interests centre on recycling economies in Latin America and include the themes of labour, waste, infrastructure, and plastics. He has conducted research in Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico and the UK and held research positions at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, and Surrey. Dr O'Hare's current UKRI-funded research project ‘Plastic Solidarity’ centres on intersections between social and circular economies in the plastics industry, with a focus on Uruguay. He is the author of ‘Rubbish Belongs to the Poor: Hygienic Enclosure and the Waste Commons’ (Pluto Press 2022), co-author of ‘Taking Form, Making Worlds: Cartonera Publishers in Latin America’ (University of Texas Press, 2022), and co-editor of ‘Circular Economies: Between the Promise of Renewal and Unequal Global Circulation’ (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). He has published numerous book chapters and articles in journals such as City and Society, Ethnos, and Dialectical Anthropology. His research has also featured in the New Statesman, BBC Radio 4, and The Conversation.
School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics
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