The Green not-so-great New Deal

From the January-February 2019 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

After living through a year of climate disasters and redoubled scientific alarms, more and more people, especially young people dreading a nightmare future, 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.

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 in Congress.

Action by Sunrise Movement at Congress in Nov. 2018 calling for a green new deal

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.

CAN GREEN NEW DEAL SURVIVE POLITICS?

That sounds a lot better than our current landscape of precarious jobs, unaffordable healthcare, rising fascism and looming climate chaos. But beware programs that co-opt movements into the state bureaucracy. What will be left of this “new deal” by the time the political process gets through with it? And how much transformative energy from below will have been diverted into bandaids, 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?

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.

GREEN PUNDITS UNDERWHELM

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 limited 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), the idea remains a state-driven revolution from above that substitutes for true social revolution from below.

Let’s correct the rewriting of history about what the original 1930s New Deal really was. 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.

NEW DEAL A DIVERSION FROM REVOLUTION

The green new deal represents exactly that kind of diversion from the needed social revolution. That is even true for those who want to appropriate it for “ecosocialism,” such as Democratic Socialists of America member Richard Smith. 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 vision remains within capitalism. 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 like China and the USSR that called 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”!

Just as the green new deal’s proponents glide over the history of the New Deal’s 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 as if it were simply an ideology that mysteriously took over. 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.

6 thoughts on “The Green not-so-great New Deal

  1. All valid concerns; thank you, Franklin. Anything that takes a radical vision and packages it as a policy agenda. even with the best of intentions, risks being co-opted on behalf of a “benign capitalism” — in this case with “green corporations” at the helm. At best, a “Green New Deal” can be an indispensable step in a more profound eco-socialist transformation. We need to be vigilant in ensuring any “New Deal” is not an end in itself but a means to a broader end.

  2. * I suggest the writer become familiar with or macroeconomic system description of sovereign fiat currency, MMT. The Green New Deal was a term that eco-socialists made popular prior to Greens….The problem isn’t capitalism per se, if it was the Democratic Socialist countries would not be doing so well co-existing with it (of course their government, unlike ours, reins capitalists in….our Congress has that mandate, but is bought off). In the future, we can discuss changing our entire system (maybe), but for today, we have the means to enact a Federal Job Guarantee, Student Debt cancellation, single payer healthcare and the broader Green New Deal with Congressional appropriations. We are building political will and the Overton window has moved left…this is what we have to work with. Join in or be the bringer of destruction to citizens and planet. GND NOW! [Editor’s note: we did not cut anything. The commenter put in ellipses for unknown reasons.]

  3. I am already familiar with MMT, yet another warmed-over panacea that doesn’t actually challenge capitalism. What exactly does Bassett mean about “democratic socialist” (that is, capitalist welfare state) countries? Do you imagine they don’t have serious economic and environmental problems? Do you imagine that they are not major contributors to climate change? Of course they are. Bassett is yet another person wanting to maintain the capitalist system and touting bandaid reforms, dreaming that “we” have “the means to enact a Federal Job Guarantee,” fantasizing that Congress would actually pass that and furthermore that it would actually guarantee jobs, as if guaranteeing wage slavery jobs is the best we could hope for. And to top it off, if the rest of us don’t follow YOUR program, then we’ll be “the bringer of destruction.” No, thanks! The world needs to get off this suicidal capitalist train instead of indulging in fantasies, or joining a cult of MMT, Tulsi Gabbard, and self-limiting “Overton window” jargon.

  4. Franklin is certainly welcome to hold a burn it down and replace it view..while he reinventing the wheel, some of us will use what’s in place to progress and mitigate the more tawdry sides of our capitalists and their stranglehold on society. Carry on.

  5. Apparently it pleases you to caricature what I said. Too bad you seem to have totally missed the point of the article.

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