The Green New Deal

After living through a year of climate disasters and redoubled scientific alarms, more and more people, especially young people looking at a possible nightmare future in their own lifetimes, understand the urgent need for radical action. The deadly Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, Calif., and killed 86 people dramatically illustrated the new year-round California wildfire season. Hurricane Michael not only caused flooding in Central America and devastated part of Florida, it highlighted how Puerto Rico and Texas are far from full recovery from the previous year’s hurricanes.

The IPCC, the world’s leading body of climate scientists, stressed in its October 2018 report the need for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems….unprecedented in terms of scale.”

What is clearer than ever is the urgent need both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to climate change in a human way that is not oriented toward sacrificing many people’s well-being in favor of the rich and powerful. These demands are reflected in the fact that the green new deal project can now get a hearing.

And so the phrase “green new deal” has become a litmus test for “progressive” politicians. It centers on creating a “detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan” combined with forceful state intervention into the economy to drive a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. At the same time it is marketed as a jobs program, including extensive infrastructure redevelopment, job training and maybe even a “job guarantee program.” It also became a convenient umbrella to enfold long-sought reforms like universal healthcare and guaranteed basic income.

That sounds a lot better than what we’re suffering under now, doesn’t it? Better than the cruel doubling down on exploitation of workers and attacks on social benefits for the working poor and unemployed, denying healthcare to women, and abandoning the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria while threatening to shift funds from those real emergency situations to the manufactured “emergency” of building a wall to stop immigrants partly driven by climate change.

But the green new deal is the kind of program that co-opts movements into the state bureaucracy and waters them down. The original New Deal was supposed to be socially transformative, according to its Left supporters, but ended up de-radicalizing and bureaucratizing labor unions, throwing African Americans under the bus, and ushering in American state-capitalism. (See pp. 74-75 of Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, by Robert Gottlieb, Island Press, 1993, for more.) The Tennessee Valley Authority displaced thousands of families, mainly poor ones, to build dams, hitting Blacks hardest. It ended up as one of the biggest boosters of nuclear energy and poisoned communities with coal-burning power plants, including the biggest coal ash slurry spill in U.S. history.

What will be left of the green new deal by the time the political process gets through with it? And how much transformative energy from below will have been diverted into something far from adequate for averting catastrophic climate change, while allowing the social system at its root, capitalism, another extension at the very time it is turning increasingly to fascism to continue its deathly grip on society?

The pivotal idea goes back decades, at least to capitalism’s crisis of the mid-1970s. The resulting mass unemployment handed capital the weapon of jobs blackmail to attack the provisional coalition between labor and environmentalists, which had formed around the harm polluting industries do to their own workers. In response, activists advocated the job-creation potential of industries like solar power and pollution control.

The same idea emerges spontaneously, over and over, from the environmentalism of the poor. In the mid-1990s, I heard an environmental justice activist from the Black Chicago neighborhood of Altgeld Gardens question the idea that there aren’t enough jobs. All he had to do was look outside his door to see all kinds of work that needed to be done, from stripping toxic lead paint to fixing up deteriorating housing.

But the idea also keeps getting appropriated by people with an administrative mentality. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a habitual booster of neoliberal globalization, reminded the world in January that he had called for a “Green New Deal” in a 2007 column. He presents it as a technological revolution driven by government regulation, taxes and “the market,” adding, “I am a green capitalist….I wanted to recast green as geostrategic, capitalistic, economical, innovative and patriotic.”

The phrase was quickly picked up by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as well as the 2008 book The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, who later became President Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs. Like Friedman, Jones conceived it as a government initiative in partnership with “the market.”

While the idea went nowhere in the Obama administration, the state-capitalist treatment did not kill it forever. Hundreds of young people with the Sunrise Movement held sit-ins at about-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office in November and December calling for a green new deal. Many of them were high school students. Self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stopped by to support the sit-ins and maintain her position as the green new deal’s standard-bearer in Congress. The age-old illusion that the Democratic Party can be pulled toward socialism once again gave that capitalist party the opportunity to co-opt it.

Consider Naomi Klein’s Nov. 27 article in The Intercept titled, “The Game-Changing Promise of a Green New Deal.” It is a paean to the “leadership” of newly elected members of Congress, “a critical mass of politicians in power” who have supposedly created a “clear and credible political pathway that could get us to safety” based on the proposal for a Congressional committee to put out draft legislation in early 2020 to influence that year’s elections. That’s right: a committee! Draft legislation that won’t be passed! To provide a campaign issue!

Even that was too much for the party, led by Pelosi. She substituted a revived committee to “study” climate change instead of a green new deal, with reduced powers. And she rejected the demand by the movement, echoed by Ocasio-Cortez, to exclude members who had received donations from the fossil fuel industry. Having received $73,000 in such donations, the new committee head, Kathy Castor, parroted the industry line that such exclusion would violate “free speech,” meaning the freedom of corporations to buy the government.

However, posing the transition to a new economy as a green new deal already contains the seeds of co-optation. Whether touted by a capitalist booster (Friedman), a social democrat (Ocasio-Cortez and Klein), or a former “revolutionary” (Van Jones had earlier belonged to the Maoist-tinged group Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), the idea remains a state-driven revolution from above that substitutes for true social revolution from below.

Van Jones’s call for a green new deal centered on “eco-capitalism” and class collaboration. His book relies on the state as the only force that can bring in a “green New Deal.” What remained from his Maoist past was the vanguardist attitude. His view of the Subject was not the masses in motion but “the movement” as he knows it, a small group of Maoists and anarchists, or foundation-funded “social justice” and environmental groups plus entrepreneurs. That easily leads to the “eco-populist” illusion that it is possible to reconcile “green capital and ordinary people” so that “the new, green economy has the principles of diversity and inclusion baked in from the beginning” and thus reforming capitalism could “resolve the economic, ecological and social crises.”

It is no accident that the model chosen was the 1930s New Deal. (Other state-directed technology-based models have also been used: the Apollo program or moon shot, the nuclear-weapons-centered Manhattan Project; and the 1940s U.S. war economy.) Let’s correct the rewriting of history about what the original New Deal really was: an alternative to revolution. Just when the system was threatened by the unrest of workers and their disbelief in the rationality of the system, the New Deal was put forward to ameliorate the people’s suffering through state intervention and planning without changing the relations in production.

The green new deal represents exactly that kind of diversion from the needed social revolution. Instead of trying to unleash the revolutionary potential latent in revolts and movements from labor to environmental justice, those movements are channeled into collaborating with a state-capitalist project.

Consider what its proponents say. Ocasio-Cortez: “This is going to be the Great Society, the moon shot, the Civil Rights Movement of our generation.”

Evan Weber of the Sunrise Movement: “It’s also changing our conception of what government is and who it’s for.”

Liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz: “The grassroots movement behind the Green New Deal offers a ray of hope to the badly battered establishment: they should embrace it, flesh it out, and make it part of the progressive agenda.”

Labor historian Jeremy Brecher: “A Green New Deal can become a common program unifying the environmental and labor constituencies of the Democratic Party.”

Or consider how Democratic Socialists of America member Richard Smith wants to appropriate it for “ecosocialism.” In “An Ecosocialist Path to Limiting Global Temperature Rise to 1.5°,” published by System Change Not Climate Change, he proposes “a monumental mobilization around this Green New Deal and around fossil fuel nationalization” to carry out

“a strategy of rationally planned, democratically managed, wind-down and phase-out of fossil fuels and a coordinated transition to renewable energy that avoids economic collapse and guarantees reemployment for the affected workers….The only way to effect the phase-out of fossil fuels without precipitating economic collapse is for the government to nationalize the companies so we can dismantle them and redeploy their capital and labor with as little economic pain as possible….We do not call for expropriation. We propose a government buyout at fair value….”

The points on employment, economic collapse, and redeploying capital indicate that the vision remains within capitalism. If that’s not clear enough, he continues by calling for “a state-directed crash program.” What he keeps coming back to is State Plan, State Plan, State Plan, plus nationalization, as if that is what socialism means. As if we have learned nothing from the never-mentioned state-capitalist regimes calling themselves Communist, other than adding the phrase “democratically managed” to “planning.” And that democracy is so feeble that he touts the existing U.S. “regulation of public utilities” as “a working prototype”!

The fetishism of planning reaches such a fevered pitch that Smith makes a mishmash of history, putting revolutions from below and capitalist state projects on the same level as examples of plans:

“We have plenty of examples from the Paris Commune to Polish Solidarity in 1980. We have the example of FDR’s National Resources Planning Board—established by an elected president and congress.”

Just as the green new deal’s proponents glide over the history of the New Deal as a diversion from revolution, they fail to ask why the New Deal, and the whole Keynesian project, were tossed out by capitalism after its global economic crisis of the mid-1970s. They mention neoliberalism, or Reagan and Thatcher, as if they were simply an ideology that mysteriously took over by some sort of battle of wills. There is no thought that capitalism turned to this restructuring because it became mired in a deep, prolonged crisis from which Keynesianism could not rescue it.

And here we are again today, with fascism on the rise because post-Keynesian economic interventions also failed to rescue capitalism. It’s time to learn history’s actual lesson, that capitalism will throw all of humanity down into the pit of war, fascism and climate chaos if we don’t abolish it instead of trying to revitalize it with new deals and plans.

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