International climate negotiations have rolled around again, with heads of state at COP26 promising (yet again) to take climate change seriously, smiling for the press while surrounded by protesters. Following decades of denial and delay tactics, climate change is now being presented by many COP26 attendees as a business opportunity, with the presidents of both the United States and China proclaiming in Glasgow their desire to “usher in a future of green development”. The shape of this future, however, is still to be determined, and the next decade will prove crucial for social movements contesting the capitalist production of nature envisioned in various ‘green dreams’. Our special issue in the Economic and Labour Relations Review on the Green New Deal seeks to explore some of this ground.
The Green New Deal
The Green New Deal (GND) re-emerged in 2019 as a political project which attempts to grapple with the twin crises of catastrophic climate change and economic stagnation. It has the potential to re-legitimise the role of the state as a key actor in the economy, and undermine one of the drivers of stagnating wages by reinforcing frayed social safety nets and through public investment in education, health, housing and transport. This call for massive public investment represents a dramatic reversal of decades of austerity and is therefore a threat to certain fractions of capital, right-wing adherence to small state ideologies and neoclassical economics alike. However, as waves of crisis continue to advance with increasing speed and rapidly mutating effects (see: Covid-19), it has become increasingly difficult for states to suggest that there is no money for meaningful responses.
Perhaps even more pertinently, with wage stagnation and asset bubbles causing the cost of living to juggernaut from one extreme to the next, crises are moving from the margins of our societies and into the previously protected middle-class suburbs. The costs of education, childcare, health care and energy have sky-rocketed, while underemployment has risen and an increasingly hostile climate has put a squeeze on food production. COVID-19 has made it stunningly clear that the battle for control over resources, production and distribution centres on the state. Although the decline of organised labour and associated institutions has left a political vacuum that has not been filled by social movements capable of wielding the same power, abandoning the state as a viable terrain of social and political contestation is not an option. Renewed discussion of the capitalist state and its role in both producing and responding to these interlocking crises is urgent.
No Fixed Abode: The GND as a Contested Political Project
The basic blueprint for a GND is open to a variety of political orientations. Previously we have suggested these can be grouped into a loose typology (Heenan and Sturman, 2020). What is clear is that the GND opens up space for old ideas about the development of capitalism, the state, labour and nature to be hashed out again in new political and ecological terrain. Partly as a result of the political diversity of various GND programmes, the GND has been critiqued from a range of perspectives.
Critiques of political, social and economic barriers to the successful implementation of the GND are most useful to policy makers. However, more theoretical critiques of the substance and political purpose of the GND should also be of interest to those outside of academia concerned with how the transition to a low-carbon society might occur. If all politics are now climate politics, and the GND is being positioned as the ‘Marshall plan’ for the 21st century, the politics of the GND represent a significant battleground of economic thinking.
Critiques of the GND from the political right focus on an aversion to ‘command and control’ measures employed by the state to mitigate and adapt to climate change, as well as government budgetary constraints. The GND has also come under fire from the left as a vehicle for the continuation of capitalism in crisis, a programme capable of smoothing over the contradictions of the economic system in order to further delay a reckoning between social classes. There is a clear danger that the GND provides a gift to capital by boosting investment and consumer demand, both of which were flagging in many countries even prior to the COVID crisis – through private public partnerships and increased infrastructure spending.
The ELRR Special Issue on the Green New Deal
Clearly, the politics of the GND provides fertile ground for academic discussion of how the transition to a low-carbon society may occur. The papers in this issue set out to sketch some of the contours of the GND, and offer an entry point into the ongoing debates for both policy makers and academics.
In the special issue, papers range from a broad appraisal of the GND as a political-economic programme to the local implications of specific policies within the GND.
- Frank Stilwell traces the evolution of ‘green jobs’ through to the GND, with a particular focus on the political economy of the GND in the Australian context.
- Ying Chen and An Li provide an essential Global South perspective on the GND, arguing that programmes predicated on the expansion of jobs must account for the substantial share of employment and production that takes place in the informal economy.
- Susan Schroeder contributes to ongoing debates about how a GND could be financed by modelling a wealth tax.
- Finally, focusing on Delhi, Rohit Azad and Chouvik Chakraborty propose a carbon tax designed specifically to address environmental injustice and income inequality.
Since early 2019 there has been a proliferation of new commentary and scholarship on the reemergence of the Green New Deal. Notable developments include Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal and The Red Nation’s book, The Red Deal, both of which seek to critique and offer alternatives to eurocentric and colonial plans for various green transitions. Al Rainnie and Mark Dean recently offered an analysis of the way COVID-19 has impacted policy programs designed to respond to climate change. We hope the special issue can contribute to this ongoing research agenda aimed at drawing out the different forms a GND might take, and the barriers to and possibilities for radical action to achieve a more just and sustainable world.
This is a condensed and edited version of the Introduction to the Special Issue.
Photo credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpeace