We are living, as they say, in interesting times. Conversations that until recently have been confined to the margins of academia (but were very alive in social movements) have now become mainstream fare as we navigate COVID-19 and the accelerated breakdown of our decrepit world order.
During a recent presentation we set out some of the key ideas and debates that have emerged from our research agenda exploring what a Green New Deal (GND) type program could look like in Australia. Contextualising the concept’s application to Australia against international research and socio-political movements has allowed us to set up some of these key ideas and debates in ways that we hope will make them useful both for international audiences and those on-the-ground here in the Antipodes. We begin by setting out the key political shifts signalled by the emergence of GND rhetoric and the reasons for the GND’s resonance in this conjuncture. We then present a typology of emerging orientations to a GND and identify an ecosocialist approach founded upon a structural, materialist critique of capitalism as the only approach capable of harnessing an emergent ecological working class politics to emancipatory effect.
Three key political shifts:
We contend the politics of the GND will come to dominate Left climate politics (and increasingly, all politics are climate politics), as it transcends a series of dichotomies and false choices imposed upon earlier climate and workers’ movements. The politics of the GND:
- Rejects the jobs versus environment trade-off that has been used to successfully wedge the Left for almost half a century, and in doing so gestures toward an ecological politics for the working class;
- Offers a credible and popular alternative to the climate movement’s ambivalence toward market-based climate mechanisms and a transition to a low-carbon economy led by private investment; and
- Takes the emphasis off individual action to reduce or change consumption through self-discipline, and shifts the conversation to how we can collectively and democratically respond to climate change.
These three key shifts open up potentially revolutionary space. It is this potentiality that drives both the need for robust critique that identifies weaknesses (such as amenability to capital) and works to overcome them; and the imperative to not immediately write-off all possible GNDs as Green Capitalism or ‘the new sustainable development’.
The politics of the GND could be the suckerpunch that the Left has been missing for decades, but to make it land it needs the full weight of a critique of capitalism behind it.
The present conjuncture:
We find ourselves at a conjuncture where the contradictions of capitalism can no longer be sustained without making it clear that our lives are being sacrificed at the altar of capital accumulation. The COVID-19 pandemic has fast-tracked this moment of reckoning, presenting us with a deadly combination of accumulation and reproduction crises that necessitate swift and sweeping state-led responses.
The exploitation of labour and the rest of nature has caused irreparable damage and loss of human and non-human life. We have been fighting on too many fronts for living wages, for decent housing, for clean air and water, for land rights, for an end to incarceration, for freedom of movement, for just cities and food sovereignty, for far too long. Mainstream economic debates remain focused on how to tweak the system to avoid sub-optimal outcomes like inequality, while liberal environmentalists spruik market mechanisms for climate change and dream of a technocratic, capitalist-led energy transition. Even today, both orthodox economists and environmentalists fail (or are unwilling) to see the class struggle for the trees.
We believe this is why we are seeing a wide-spread resurgence in social protest, riots and strikes. Just last year we witnessed an upsurge in struggles over social reproduction, including protests against transport and fuel fee increases in Chile and Ecuador, and cuts to pensions in France. That the cracks in the system are beginning to reveal themselves to more people does not make a revolution or transition to socialism inevitable. If anything, situated as we are at the end of a long period of global economic stagnation and accelerating ecological breakdown, a future of barbarism in the form of a nascent ecofascism is equally likely.
The GND arrives at this moment as a possible tool for a wide variety of agendas.
5 orientations to the GND:
The GND is already and will be continue to be contested and co-opted by people from a range of political groups (there are of course conservative responses to the GND which reject it as a form of Trojan horse socialism – but these do not constitute an attempt to co-opt or reorient the GND to suit conservative politics so they are not included here). The typology of orientations to the GND include:
- Right-wing, nationalist;
- (A variety of) Keynesian;
- Democratic socialist and ecosocialist; and
- Leftist critiques from anarchists and proponents of degrowth.
This typology is by its nature a living one and blurring across the category boundaries is common. For example, the Blueprint for Europe’s Just Transition draws on multiple schools of thought including ecological economics, Keynesian and Marxist political economy.
We characterise pro-market orientations to the GND as opportunistic attempts to reinvigorate capitalist accumulation using ‘green’ rhetoric. Pro-market attempts to co-opt the GND are consistent with the recent history of sustainable development and greenwashing. They can also be viewed as preemptive moves to avoid an expansion of public works and job programs that would crowd out private sector investment and employment. A good example is the European Commission’s Green Deal, released at the end of 2019. The main goal of the deal is to encourage private investment in the green economy, and in the words of the Commission to “reconcile the economy with our planet” and restore economic growth in Europe while decoupling emissions.
Right-wing, nationalist approaches invoke the GND as a popular front for nation-building and the concentration rather than diffusion of power. A pro-market approach is not necessitated by this orientation but the conditions it creates are extremely amenable to ongoing capitalist accumulation. Right-wing, nationalist approaches are predicated on binary framings that consistently position the citizen against an external threat, including but not limited to climate change. Examples of these approaches include war mobilisation rhetoric (which is not limited to the right, as US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren have each proposed treating climate change like a war), such as job programs conceived of as service for the nation, including conscription into a ‘civil defence corps’ proposed by ALP MP Mike Kelly earlier this year.
Keynesian approaches incorporate a wide variety of elements, but are typically unified in centering policy development by experts (i.e. technocratic managerialism), and emphasising top-down implementation of state-led action on climate with the aim of restoring economic growth. These approaches are also unified by an ideological adherence to expansionary fiscal policy, with attendant redirection of monetary policy’s raison d’être from low inflation to full employment. There is also some ambivalence to the role of social justice in a GND. The post-Keynesian economist Robert Pollin recently decried the ‘laundry list’ approach of including changes to minimum wages and universal health care alongside climate policies.
Critiques of the GND from the Left include the anarchist and degrowth objections that the GND attempts to fix capitalism instead of trying to abolish it, and that transitional demands are disingenuous – they offer people hope of real change while knowing full-well that change within the system is impossible. Critiques from this orientation place the GND within centuries-old debates about reformism versus revolution and emphasise the need to build power outside of the state and abandon economic growth and increased material throughput.
Jasper Bernes, editor of Commune Magazine and author of a convincing leftist critique of the GND also argues (correctly) that the implications of a renewables boom to supply the energy needed for GNDs all over the world is an expansion in extractivism, notably in the Global South. Sourcing minerals like lithium and cobalt and switching out fossil fuels for renewables comes with its own set of problems for labour and nature. This is a critique that many ecosocialists are very receptive to, and goes to the aforementioned need for robust critique that identifies weaknesses in the GND before they provide capital with an opening.
The ecosocialist GND
An ecosocialist orientation to the GND emphasises the class antagonisms baked into the climate crisis, and therefore the need for a strategy based in class struggle to win a just transition. It is a rejection of pro-market, right-wing and nationalistic orientations to the GND in favour of collective and democratic ownership, climate justice and internationalism. This can be seen in the four D’s of the GND; decommodification, democratisation, decarbonisation and decolonisation.
The emergence of the GND as accumulation crises deepen and unrest spreads signals that the time is ripe for a popular climate politics that can connect struggles over labour, nature and social reproduction. Ecosocialists from within the Marxian tradition have long stressed the importance of the relations between the personal, communal and ecological contradictions in capitalism, and are well-placed to embrace such a moment.
The GND provides a new opening to further advance and popularise a structural critique of “climate-changing capitalism”. Contrary to the orthodox economic understanding of climate change as a market failure (i.e. a bug in an otherwise functioning system), the capitalist production of nature requires widespread socio-ecological destruction.
Both ecosocialists and ecofeminists have argued that the labour process (including social reproduction) and production for exchange in capitalism relies on the exploitation of human beings and the appropriation of nature, effectively alienating people from nature and one another. The strength of the ecosocialist critique is in the way it links this exploitation of labour and nature, revealing that they are two sides of the same coin. This is why an ecosocialist GND cannot be about fixing capitalism from within, but necessitates a struggle to overthrow it.
Numerous orientations to the GND are possible, as demonstrated by the different agendas that have already begun to emerge under the moniker. This post has synthesized these into a loose typology and gestured to the emancipatory potential in an ecosocialist orientation to the GND, subject to ongoing engagement with critiques from across the Left that work to strengthen the GND against capture by capital.