Reflections on the Green New Deal
Finally, the climate change deniers have about as much credibility left as the flat earth society. The evidence is too overwhelming. The scientific data is clear: if man continues to produce and consume in a way that releases massive amounts of greenhouse gasses into the air, we are headed for a catastrophe that might be more destructive than all the wars of past centuries combined. Already, we see rising seawater levels threatening low lying areas, more devastating storms, more giant floods here and monster fires there; mass extinction of animals, spread of tropical diseases, a mounting drinking water crisis, drought that turns fertile areas into wasteland and provokes mass migration, microplastics in the ocean, in our food, in the rain that falls on our head…the list of disasters goes on and on. No wonder that this trend worries more and more people. Especially young people, who will inherit a planet that may become to a large extent uninhabitable. The movement of school kids striking for climate which began in Sweden and spread all over the world is thus a welcome sign. It expresses a rising sense of urgency of fundamental change. But what must change? The goal, to stop the poisoning of the world, may be clear but the road to achieve it is not. “Act now!” and “Do something!” were the slogans that expressed the prevailing sentiment. As I write this, the movement is still going on. It’s great that school kids keep shouting that this can’t go on, but after all the demonstrations the question comes, what now?
Greta Thunberg, the eloquent 16 year-old girl who became the most visible spokesperson for the school kids movement, sailed in a carbon-neutral boat to New York to speak at the UN. She scolded the powerful for their inaction, warning: “We will not forgive you”. They didn’t seem to care very much. All Greta got was polite applause (heck, maybe she’ll get a Nobel prize) but in terms of measures, the nations promised next to nothing. Meanwhile, according to climate scientist James Hansen, the accumulation of greenhouse gasses is already trapping as much energy as half a million Hiroshima-bombs every day.
What now? The left pins its hopes on the Green New Deal, which would solve the climate crisis like FDR’s New Deal supposedly solved the crisis in the 1930’s. Actually, the New Deal didn’t. The crisis lasted until the war began. Then it transformed into something even worse. Fundamentally, the New Deal measures changed nothing. Capital continued on its course which had to end in mass destruction. What the New Deal did was to create a false hope, which tied the exploited to their masters. Will the Green New Deal (GND from now on) lead us to a happier outcome?
An historic opportunity?
The GND concept floated around for some years, then, in February of this year, it was codified in a 14-page non-binding resolution introduced in the US Congress by left-wing Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey. It was rejected in the US Senate with no debate allowed, but it became a rallying point for the left, not only in the US but also in Europe and beyond. And of course, Naomi Klein jumped on the bandwagon with a new bestseller: On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.
The GND proposes to convert the US economy to zero emissions in ten years time. It would completely eliminate fossil fuels, invest heavily in renewable energy sources, rebuild the power grid, upgrade all buildings to the highest environmental standards, develop a low-carbon transportation infrastructure based on electric vehicles and high-speed rail, build schools and hospitals to assure universal health care and free education, spur massive growth of clean manufacturing, eliminate greenhouse gasses from agriculture, guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.
The GND sees the climate crisis as “an historic opportunity… (1) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States; (2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; and (3) to counteract systemic injustices.”
It’s a bountiful menu. Who wouldn’t like that? It has FDR’s promise of prosperity for all, plus a clean environment. All that, while leaving the capitalist foundation intact. How can this be done? The same way as the Republican ‘increase tax income by lowering taxes’ scheme. With smoke and mirrors…
Indeed, it requires magic tricks to make the GND credible. This was pointed out by critics of all colors. Critics of the right, predictably, but also radical critics such as Jasper Bernes. In a previous post on this site, we reviewed his essay “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” In it, he writes: “The problem with the Green New Deal is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same.The world of the Green New Deal is this world but better—this world but with zero emissions, universal health care, and free college. The appeal is obvious but the combination impossible.”
The strategy of the GND is to generate public support, win elections, and get Congress to adopt the plan. Good luck with that. US capital has invested heavily in fossil fuel production in the last decades. It is now the world’s biggest producer. Trillions of dollars are sunk into fossil energy infrastructure. Many industries and financial corporations are tied to coal, oil and gas. To eliminate them, as the GND proposes, if they’re not made outright illegal, they would have to be driven out of business through taxation so crushing that they would become uncompetitive. Bernes gives figures which throw a light on the magnitude of the shock this would create: The proven oil reserves on the planet are valued at around $50 trillion (assuming a low average cost of $35 per barrel) which represents one-sixth of the total value of the planet. Wipe that out and see if increased investment in sun farms, windmills and electric cars can compensate for the financial tsunami that this devalorization would set in motion. Obviously, capital would never accept this. So to think that Congress could approve the GND, you have to think of Congress as “the house of the people”, and not as an instrument of the capitalist state. I’ll come back to this point later because it is a crucial one.
But wouldn’t it be possible that the old fossil energy technology simply would be superseded by new, more efficient technology, like the automobile superseded the cart and carriage industry? Capital had vested interests in the latter too. The main difference is that no taxation or subsidies were necessary to drive horse-based industry out of business. It disappeared because it couldn’t compete against the motor industry. This is not the case for fossil energy. It remains relatively plentiful and thus cheap to produce. And the money to build its infrastructure is already spent, while new money would have to be found to build a whole new infrastructure based on renewables. Renewable energy would have to bear that cost, pass it on to the consumer, making it less competitive. Unless the cost is covered by state subsidies.
Where’s the money coming from?
According to some estimates the GND would cost more than $90 trillion over the next decade. Other estimates are lower but still humongous. The GND resolution is rather vague on how the plan would be financed. Taxing the rich would be one way but it has its obvious limits in the risk that capital would just go elsewhere. Except for fixed capital, the escape routes are many. Billionaires, with their armies of lawyers and accountants, are experts in gaming the system. Governments all over the world have followed the opposite route lately, lowering taxes to attract capital and stimulate investment. Those who failed to do so dropped further behind. Bernie Sanders’ wealth tax proposal, which is the most radical of the plans of the Democrat presidential candidates (most of whom support the GND), is estimated by UCLA-economists Saez and Zucman to generate $4.35 trillion over the next decade. Barely more than a drop in the bucket that must be filled to meet the financial needs of the GND.
Increased deficit spending would be the only option to finance the plan. Supporters of the GND refer to the neo-Keynesian “Modern Monetary Theory” (MMT), which is popular in the capitalist left today. It claims that, since a state cannot default on debt in its own currency – since it can always create more of it – there is no limit to its ability to increase deficit spending. Except inflationary pressure, but according to the MMT, that could only occur if there is already full employment and the economy overheats (in that case, MMT recommends raising taxes, selling bonds and decreasing spending). The latter claim is demonstrably false, since there are several historical examples of stagnation and rising inflation occurring simultaneously (like the ‘stagflation’ of the 1970’s). Inflation occurs when the pace of money creation outruns the pace of value creation and realization. But only when that new money goes into general circulation. In response to the crisis of 2008, the central banks of the US, the EU, China and Japan created, with their Quantitative Easing policies, out of nothing many trillions of dollars, euros etc, to buy stocks and bonds and generally underpin the value of capital. Most of this money went into capital’s reserves and didn’t enter into the general circulation and therefore did not cause inflationary pressure (which was also checked by the underlying deflationary trend of the world economy). With the growth of money thus directly going to capital, its share of the total wealth increased. So the gap between the rich and the rest of us inevitably grew. It is now the highest since records were kept. Governments did this, not only out of loyalty to their own, but to protect the credibility of money itself. Paradoxically, to prevent its collapse, to keep the incentive to accumulate value alive, the imbalance between money- and value-creation/realization which triggered the crisis, was accelerated.
The absence of inflation does not indicate that the imbalance between money- and value-creation/realization is no problem. Instead of leading to a price-inflation of commodities in general circulation, it artificially props up the price of capital in general, thus causing financial bubble-formation in the general economy, which, in the strongest countries, the US in the first place, is further stimulated by being seen as safe havens for capital worldwide.
The can has been kicked down the road.
Accelerating the pace of money-creation without inviting a collapse sooner or later, can only be done if there is a corresponding increase of value-creation and -realization. Otherwise the widening gap between them causes either inflation or debt-accumulation. In this respect, the GND is a mixed bag. Many of the investments it plans, would be conducive to value creation and realization, but many others might be useful for people but not for capital. They would be faux frais (unproductive costs) that cut into its profit.The tens of trillions of new money created out of thin air to finance the GND would diminish the value of existing capitals because their share of the total quantity of money (the total purchasing power) would fall. Add to this the fact that the GND would devalorize a crucial sector of the economy (fossil energy with its myriad connections) and it becomes clear that the implementation of the GND would trigger a deep financial crisis.
It may be true that the technology needed for carbon-neutral production already exists, or is in the works. All the resources to stop the madness may be there. But in capitalism, the requirement to generate profit never ceases: It’s do or die. That, in the first place, is what makes the GND an impossible goal.
How green is the GND?
Technology in itself will not save us. It is shaped by its function, to cut labor-time and other costs, to increase control and efficiency. It will need a drastic overhaul and repurposing to unleash its now severely restrained potential to meet human needs. A repurposing, which can only be the result of a fundamental overhaul of society itself, of revolution.
Meanwhile, let’s not overestimate what technology can do for the world now, in the present global context of crisis-ridden capitalism.
It’s time to debunk some green myths. Even if the political obstacles mentioned above did not exist, and financial/economic crisis by some miracle could be avoided, how much cleaner would the GND make our planet?
“Energy is never clean”, Bernes reminds us. Just because the use of renewable energy is carbon-neutral doesn’t mean that its production is carbon-neutral. Solar panels, wind turbines, electrical vehicles require non-renewable and frequently hard-to-access minerals. Bernes writes: “It takes energy to get those minerals out of the ground, energy to shape them into batteries and photovoltaic solar panels and giant rotors for windmills, energy to dispose of them when they wear out. Mines are worked, primarily, by gas-burning vehicles. The container ships that cross the world’s seas bearing the good freight of renewables burn so much fuel they are responsible for 3 percent of planetary emissions.” It is hard to see how the GND’s promise of carbon neutrality could be kept since the construction of the new infrastructure, of all the electrical trains and cars, schools etc.,could not be done without massive use of fossil fuel and carbon-intensive materials like concrete and steel. Biofuel would help, but it is among the least dense of power sources. To meet the needs it would require a vast land mass, crowding out other uses.
Solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars may not be polluting but the production of their components do. Not only the steel, glass and plastic but also the mining of the specific minerals they require. Turbines and solar panels use rare earth minerals. The battery of an electric car needs 140 pounds of lithium and 33 pounds of cobalt. Bernes paints a vivid picture of the environmental destruction the mining of these minerals has caused in China. As for the working conditions in these mines, they’re worse than in Dickens’ time. The Daily Mail writes about cobalt-mining in Congo , which employs 40.000 children : No one knows quite how many children have died mining cobalt in the Katanga region in the south-east of the country. The UN estimates 80 a year, but many more deaths go unregistered, with the bodies buried in the rubble of collapsed tunnels. Others survive but with chronic diseases which destroy their young lives. 1Meanwhile, according to Forbes, capitalists worry about cobalt’s geological scarcity which would throw up another obstacle to the GND, since it would steeply increase the demand.
But those dead villages in China and dead children in Congo are far away. The GND resolution says nothing about them. That shouldn’t surprise us. The resolution, after all, is written by politicians of the Democratic party, one of the main pillars of US capitalism. The nation is their framework, the interests of the national economy their horizon. The goal is a carbon-neutral USA, regardless of the implications elsewhere.
And those implications could have a perverse pollution-accelerating effect on the world. If the US would reduce its fossil fuel consumption enough to achieve carbon neutrality, that would create an enormous glut on the fossil fuel market. The price of coal, gas and oil would fall so low that other countries would have a strong incentive to use more of it and forego investment in renewables, so that the global climate would worsen even faster.
Pretending to have a solution to climate change while thinking only within one’s borders is fundamentally dishonest. As Bernes writes : “Counting emissions within national boundaries is like counting calories but only during breakfast and lunch. If going clean in the US makes other places dirtier, then you’ve got to add that to the ledger.”
Even if carbon neutrality could be achieved in the richest countries, the rest of the world would and could not follow. The solution to a problem that is global by its nature can only be global itself. And that means it cannot come from within a system that is, by its nature, based on competition.
The GND counts on robust economic growth to create full employment and general prosperity and to finance the new green infrastructure. But the goals of growth and carbon-neutrality are irreconcilable. There have been serious studies done on this subject, by the World Bank, the OECD and UNEP. Their findings are summarized by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis in a detailed overview, titled: “Is green growth possible?”
Their answer is no. They write:
“The notion of green growth has emerged as a dominant policy response to climate change and ecological breakdown. Green growth theory asserts that continued economic expansion is compatible with our planet’s ecology, as technological change and substitution will allow us to absolutely decouple GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions. This claim is now assumed in national and international policy, including in the Sustainable Development Goals. But empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory. Examining relevant studies on historical trends and model-based projections, we find that: (1) there is no empirical evidence that absolute decoupling from resource use can be achieved on a global scale against a background of continued economic growth, and (2) absolute decoupling from carbon emissions is highly unlikely to be achieved at a rate rapid enough to prevent global warming over 1.5°C or 2°C, even under optimistic policy conditions. We conclude that green growth is likely to be a misguided objective, and that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies.”
“The empirical data suggest that absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use (a) may be possible in the short term in some rich nations with strong abatement policy, but only assuming theoretical efficiency gains that may be impossible to achieve in reality; (b) is not feasible on a global scale, even under best-case scenario policy conditions; and (c) is physically impossible to maintain in the longer term. In light of this data, we can conclude that green growth theory – in terms of resource use – lacks empirical support. We are not aware of any credible empirical models that contradict this conclusion.”
So they conclude:
“It seems likely that the insistence on green growth is politically motivated. The assumption is that it is not politically acceptable to question economic growth and that no nation would voluntarily limit growth in the name of the climate or environment; therefore green growth must be true, since the alternative is disaster. But it might well be the case that, as Wackernagel and Rees put it, ‘the politically acceptable is ecologically disastrous while the ecologically necessary is politically impossible’. As scientists we should not let political expediency shape our view of facts. We should assess the facts and then draw conclusions, rather than start with palatable conclusions and ignore inconvenient facts.”
But the political facts can’t be ignored either. After all, in their introduction the authors stated “that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies”. But they are rather vague on what these are. Nothing suggests that they are thinking outside the capitalist box. But they want capitalism to scale down aggregate economic activity, to shrink production and consumption in high-consuming nations, to shift from carbon-intensive to low or zero carbon sectors and to provide a basic income for everyone.
Addicted to growth
Why not? Why can’t there be a scaled-down capitalism that produces less and consumes less, in which we all work less and live healthier and better?
Marx’s value-theory explains why this is impossible, why capitalists cannot choose whether to grow or not, why they are compelled to do so by the inner workings of their system.
Capitalism, unwittingly, trades in labor-time. The quantity of socially necessary labor time spent on production of commodities determines the quantity of money they can become, and that quantity in turn determines the quantity of labor time or its products that it can return into. Through countless transactions, the market-value of commodities is thus established on the basis of average social labor-time, notwithstanding other factors (over/underproduction, level of taxation, monopolism) that influence their market-price. By using less than average labor-time, a capitalist makes a higher than average profit. That is the driving force behind capitalism’s prodigious technological development. That and the fact that technological development can yield new commodities over which their owners have monopolistic control, another source of surplus profit. But the lower than average cost of innovating capitalists drives the market-value of commodities down; their competitors have to follow suit or perish. So the technological innovation spreads and with it capitalism expands, because there is a tight link between efficiency and scale-enhancement, the latter compensating for the decline of the value of commodities. Since they contain ever less labor time, the unpaid part of that labor time also shrinks. That part, the surplus value, is the source of profit. The tendential decline of the profit-rate forces the capitalist forward, whether he wants it or not.
Value is not stable. It demands valorization. If it doesn’t expand, it devalorizes. Money sniffs around the world, always in search of the highest yield. It rewards the strong and punishes the weak. The capitalist has no choice but to grow. Capitalism can’t stop, can’t slow down, without sinking in crisis. It has to transform more of the planet into commodities, use up more and more of its resources, worsen the climate crisis.
As Joshua Clover, another radical critic of the GND writes: “Even if these owners [of capital] wanted to spare us the drowned cities and billion migrants of 2070, they could not. They would be undersold and bankrupted by others. Their hands are tied, their choices constrained by the fact that they must sell at the prevailing rate or perish. The will towards relentless growth, and with it increasing energy use, is not chosen, it is compelled, a requirement of profitability where profitability is a requirement of existence.”
There’s no way out of it, even if the greens would come to power. As Jasper Bernes writes: “If you tax oil, capital will sell it elsewhere. If you increase demand for raw materials, capital will bid up the prices of commodities, and rush materials to market in the most wasteful, energy-intensive way. If you require millions of square miles for solar panels, wind farms, and biofuel crops, capital will bid up the price of real estate. If you slap tariffs on necessary imports, capital will leave for better markets. If you try to set a maximum price that doesn’t allow profit, capital will simply stop investing. Lop off one head of the hydra, face another.”
Does the contradiction between growth and decarbonization mean that greater poverty is unavoidable if the earth is to remain livable? Only if the concepts of rich and poor keep the meaning they have now.
In a post-capitalist communizing world, production, use of energy and raw materials would shrink on aggregate considerably, the greedy accumulation of goods would no longer make sense or be possible, nor would be military and so many other useless things. Bernes writes: “ We can easily have enough of what matters—conserving energy and other resources for food, shelter, and medicine. As is obvious to anyone who spends a good thirty seconds really looking, half of what surrounds us in capitalism is needless waste. Beyond our foundational needs, the most important abundance is an abundance of time, and time is, thankfully, carbon-zero, and even perhaps carbon-negative.”
A reply to Bernes and others was written by Thea Riofrancos. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the fast growing left-wing organization that “critically” supports Bernie Sanders, the left-wing of the Democrats, and the GND, and serves on the Steering Committee of DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group. In her article, “Plan, Mood, Battlefield – Reflections on the Green New Deal,” she writes:
“The central ambivalence running through left critiques of the Green New Deal is whether it is too radical or, on the contrary, not radical enough.” In her opinion, it can’t be both at the same time. On the one hand, the critics claim that the GND is politically unachievable because capitalism would never accept it, on the other they say, it doesn’t threaten capitalism, therefore it’s too modest to achieve its goals. But, Riofrancos objects, if it is so weak, “ it’s hard to imagine why the political system would object to such mild reformism, especially given the tremendous legitimation effects to be gained from the appearance of taking serious action on climate.”
But the contradiction is real. The GNP is unacceptable for capitalism because it implies too much devalorization, and at the same time it is too limited, too growth-oriented to stop the warming of the planet. The reality of this contradiction is what the ‘socialist’ supporters of the GNP refuse to face.
Although she is more optimistic than Bernes on the current state of the eco-friendly technology and on the quantity of landmass that renewables would require, Riofrancos recognizes many of the obstacles that Bernes and others point to, and is critical of the GND’s productivism and nationalism. She never states whether she thinks the goals of the GND are actually achievable.
It appears that she doesn’t. She writes “the root causes of climate crisis—profit-seeking competition, endless growth, exploitation of humans and nature, and imperial expansion—can’t also be the solution to climate crisis” and it’s clear that the GND does nothing about these root-causes. But in her view the politics of the Green New Deal can be radicalized beyond its current limitations. Therefore anti-capitalists should give it “critical support, embracing the political opening afforded by the Green New Deal while at the same time contesting some of its specific elements, thus pushing up against and expanding the horizon of political possibility.” And “… through the vehicle of the amorphous Green New Deal, left forces might achieve these three tasks” (…) “shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis.” But it’s the facts that shift the discussion and underscore the urgency of the climate crisis. What the GND does is direct that urgency to a capitalist solution that cannot work. It says, yes, technology and good government, egged on by activism, can save us.
Why does Riofrancos think that the GND can be expanded beyond its current framework and address the root-cause of the climate crisis? Because she believes that “creative experimentation with policies and institutions”, combined with extra-parliamentary pressure such as the school kids strike for climate, can achieve this bit by bit. The examples she gives of the steps in that direction are rather meager. New York, arguably the richest city on earth, adopted a plan to limit emissions from buildings. The CP-government in Kerala and municipalists in Spain tinkered with institutions. That’s it. But the fundamental disagreement here is not about her shortage of examples of creative government. It is about the very nature of the state.
“The state is not a unitary monolith; neither is capital”, Riofrancos writes, “And these two facts are related.” Capitalists compete with each other, they have conflicting interests. They also compete over the state and its policies. “Understanding the stances of specific firms and distinct fractions of capital is a prerequisite for developing a strategic orientation that poses a credible threat to profit-making ”, she thinks. “One can easily imagine some sectors favoring aspects of the Green New Deal (“clean tech”), with others working in lockstep against it (the fossil fuel industry).”
Yes, we can imagine that, but we can’t imagine that the specific interests of the former could have more sway over the state than those of the latter. More importantly, all sectors have more in common than what divides them. They have their specific interests, but their common interest in the preservation of capitalism overrides those. Riofrancos argues that “competition between fractions of the ruling class at times [is] providing strategic openings to exert popular power”. Yes, but only if that exertion does not threaten the global interests of the ruling class. If “popular power” would threaten what Riofrancos recognizes is the root-cause of climate change, capitalism itself, the ruling class as a whole, including “clean tech”, would unite to fight it.
But can the state only be capitalist? To this question, Riofrancos’s implicit answer is no. For her, it can be a battle-ground, where the interests of different classes face off, where anti-capitalist policies can win, provided that there is enough pressure from radical democratic grassroots movements.
According to Bernes, socialists who support the GND like Riofrancos, follow the recipe of Trotsky’s “Transitional Program”, i.e. to make demands on the capitalist system that it can not meet, so that the movement for these demands turns against capitalism. Bernes rejects this strategy, arguing that institutions that are geared towards working within the system to improve it cannot become instruments to overthrow it because “institutions are tremendously inertial structures”. That is a weak argument. The problem with these institutions (political parties, unions, etc.) is not their inertia per se but that, by participating in the politics of the state, directly or indirectly, they themselves become part of the state, of the political infrastructure of capitalism. Riofrancos on the other hand sees institutions “ always as crystallizations or resolutions to class conflict”.
Bernes himself is not too clear on the nature of the state. Writing about the original New Deal, he writes: “The state was necessary as a catalyst and a mediator, setting the right balance between profit and wages, chiefly by strengthening the hand of labor and weakening that of business.” Apart from the fact that he seems to think that the Great Depression was merely a problem of underconsumption, he paints a picture of a state standing above the economy, mediating between divergent class interests. Like Riofrancos, he separates the political realm from the economic one. In the latter, capital rules, but the former, the democratic state, is a neutral vehicle. Its steering wheel is now in the hands of capital but, in Riofrancos’s vision, it could be wrestled away, or at least shared enough to force capital to deviate from its immanent course.
The democratic state in this view is a supra-historical ideal form into which competing social relations can be inserted. The reformist strategy is to fill the form with the content of a true majority without the distorting influences of money and class and freed from the prejudices of race, gender, etc. But the state is not merely a form whose content is filled by those who control it, it is capital in its political mode of being. It is an essential part of the mode of production and thus internal to the capitalist exploitation and accumulation process.
As a soon to be published International Perspective article on Democracy puts it:
“The modern state is not capitalist because the capitalist class occupies its ruling positions, it is capitalist because it very form is integral to the reproduction of capital, including the form and function of its principal institutions and the forms of subjectivity through which capital is politically deployed–fundamentally the forms of democracy.”
Therefore, it can’t be captured and used for divergent purposes, regardless of the amount of pressure from grass roots movements.
The state’s function is to assure that the conditions for exploitation and accumulation, including the rule of law, are being met. It may well act against the interests of certain capitalists or even industries, but it always is geared towards the defense of the national interest, that is, the interest of the national capital. Since the climate crisis is certain to worsen, it’s not impossible that the US Congress would adopt some of the measures proposed in the GND which would benefit clean tech at the expense of fossil fuels. For Riofrancos that would presumably represent a great victory, a step towards socialism. It would not. It wouldn’t bring us any closer to ending capitalism, to overthrowing the rule of the value-form that forces this mad, destructive accumulation process upon humanity. But it would reinforce the illusion that the system can auto-correct and solve our problems, that exploiters and exploited are in the same boat, share the same national interest.
“The Green New Deal doesn’t offer a prepackaged solution,” Riofrancos concludes her article, “it opens up a new terrain of politics. Let’s seize it.”
Let’s not. That terrain is not, and can never become, ours.
According to Riofrancos, if you reject her strategy, you resign yourself to the existing power relations, while waiting for the revolution to fall from the sky. You’re a do-nothing, a demobilizing fatalist. She writes: “We don’t yet know how the politics of the Green New Deal will play out. We can be certain, however, that resignation cloaked in realism is the best way to ensure the least transformative outcome. Waiting for ever-deferred moment of revolutionary rupture is functionally tantamount to quiescence.”
Riofrancos’ approach reminds me of the joke of the guy who’s looking for his keys under a street light, not because that’s where he lost his keys, but because he can see there.. Likewise, Riofrancos is looking for the end of capitalism, but she can’t see anything where it is – in the potential of global revolution – so she looks under the bright light of reformist promises. There she can do “something”.
And indeed, “a revolution is not on the horizon” as she quotes Bernes. Yet the cracks are multiplying. Everywhere, governments are acting to support capital and impose austerity on the rest of us, because they must. While I’m writing this, street revolts against austerity are raging in Chile, Bolivia, Lebanon, Iraq, Ecuador, Honduras; Hong Kongers are rebelling against state repression; climate protests are becoming more radical. There was the movement of the “yellow Vests” in France and beyond, the courageous revolts in Sudan and Nicaragua, the spreading teachers strike in the US, to name but a few of the cracks that appeared this year. To contain such movements, states use reformist promises and violent repression, in various combinations (it was no different during the New Deal by the way, nor would it be under a Green New Deal). Repression does not always work, it can be oil on a fire. But reformist promises are oil on stormy water. They are more effective to end a movement or absorb its energy into the fabric of capitalist society. But only if they are believed. Helping to make them believable is what ‘ecosocialists’ do with their critical support.
Climate change is not the only challenge the capitalist world is facing. Its economy is in crisis; the risk of a breakdown is real. (See IP’s text A Crisis of Value) Massive money creation can’t endlessly postpone the hour of reckoning. In fact, in capitalism, a full fledged global depression would be the best thing that could happen for the environment.
For humans, that depends. We can only hope that the hardship it would cause would be the birthing pains of a new world. But the crucial obstacle to that would be the nationalism and belief in the democratic state that all factions of capital, including the ‘progressive’ ones, continue to peddle.
Some propose less noxious laws than others, but in the end, there is no camp to choose in the battles on how to manage the system. The pressing need is not its improved management, but its replacement by a social order based on completely different foundations. A human community instead of a cut-throat society.
If the GND would become the law, the climate crisis might slow down, at least in the US, but at the expense of an acceleration of the economic crisis. If its political opponents would prevail, an economic/financial breakdown may be postponed for longer, but at the expense of the climate. More probable are various compromises of these policies and thus combinations of those scenarios. But none that would spare us a deepening of the crisis in one form or another.
Given that context, it is not unreasonable to expect the cracks in the system to multiply and widen. Cracks in the capacity of the rulers to rule, and in the willingness of the ruled to be ruled. Cracks that open space for revolts that grow in size and number, that influence and inspire each other to become more daring and move the goalposts. Movements that break with capitalist law and order, that occupy the social space that capital abandons or is driven from. Movements in which proletarians discover, in the unity of the struggle, their capacity to organize, to create non-exploitative social relations. Then, the place where we lost our keys might not be so hard to see anymore.
In this dynamic, those who understand the connection between the climate crisis, the economic crisis, all the other crises that go with it (including mental health) and the ground rules of capitalism, have a role to play. Instead of advocating to do nothing and wait for revolution, we urge them to speak out, even if their voice trembles, to participate in the movements with an implicit anti-capitalist dynamic which arise, with or without the GND. Their voice must be heard, especially because the voices of the reformists will be loud, those who claim that the cracks can be glued, that they have the solutions that meet the demands of the exploited while leaving the system of exploitation intact.
But yes, the place where our keys are, is still quite dark. We understand why many see in the left a counter-force to the climate change denying, hate-mongering politics of the right, and why many see in the populist right a counter-force to the globalist establishment that tramples and despises Joe Sixpack. The myth of the democratic state embodying the will of the people imprisons both sides, makes it seem that nothing is possible outside that box. That is the myth’s power, that it can absorb all these tensions and reduce them to internal management struggles, as we witness in the US today, with impeachment and the election campaigns.
We look outside that box, so people call us utopians. But isn’t is rather utopian to think that the cracks can always be glued, that this insane system with its unstoppable drive to accumulate can go on forever?