Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Green New Deal: An Ecosocialist Perspective

By Davis Schwartzman 
Political Affairs
September 16, 2012

Let me first provoke: the lack of strategic thinking is the great deficiency of much of what calls itself Left today. Saying or even demonstrating with great eloquence that capitalism must be replaced by socialism is the mere beginning for political intervention, not a strategy. I hope here to begin to confront this deficiency in order to reignite a discussion on socialist strategy in the 21st century. One present symptom of the lack of strategy is to summarily reject the possibility of a Green New Deal (GND) with a critique of so-called Green Capitalism (Smith, 2010). Here I will rather propose a consideration of the struggle for a GND as a nexus of class struggle with the potential of opening up a path to ecosocialist transition on a world scale.

Can we draw lessons from the experience of the success of the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s as we consider ecosocialist strategy and a potential Green New Deal approach to dealing with the current economic crisis facing capitalism today?

Contrary to popular belief, FDR's New Deal was implemented to save capitalism, and its most progressive initiatives only came as a response to fierce class struggle, including the resurgence of the industrial worker movement, which resulted in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Unions in 1936. The Wikipedia page on the CIO describes it this way:

While the bureaucratic leadership of the AFL was unable to win strikes, three victorious strikes suddenly exploded onto the scene in 1934. These were the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, the leadership of which included some members of the Trotskyist Communist League of America; the 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike, the leadership of which included some members of the Communist Party USA; and the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite Strike led by the American Workers Party. Victorious industrial unions with militant leaderships were the catalyst that brought about the rise of the CIO. (Wikipedia n.d.)

While manufacturing employment increased by 3 million from 1933 to 1939, the unemployment rate did not significantly decline, hovering between 15 percent and 20 percent until military-related production started taking off by 1940 as a result of WWII ( The organized Left, socialist and communist, had grown into a powerful political force that was only smashed after a concerted anti-democratic campaign, which demonized those who challenged unfettered capitalism, by the defenders of capital during the Cold War. This effort eventually succeeded, culminating with the leadership of organized labor making its Faustian bargain with capital to purge the Left and collaborate with U.S. imperialism in exchange for promises that the real wages of workers would rise to unprecedented levels. This worked for a short time, until capital began to renege on the deal with the neoliberal restructuring of the economy that began in the 1970s. Since then, wages for the vast majority of people have stagnated.

Now, in the current profound crisis of capitalism driven by financialization, we are likely facing a prolonged period of high unemployment with significant sectors of the U.S. ''middle'' class approaching the insecurity of marginalized workers in the global South. And for the first time since the Great Depression, older workers are facing the prospect of permanent unemployment, while even educated youth now confront a bleak future of part-time work and ever-accumulating debt.

The Green New Deal has been championed as a solution to the current crisis; as a green Keynesian reprise of the New Deal, it has the potential of generating millions of new jobs both in the energy conservation/clean energy sector and for the repair of physical infrastructure. The BlueGreen Alliance in the U.S. (, One Million Climate Jobs (http://www.climate-changejobs. org) in the U.K., and the Global Green New Deal (GGND)1 are examples of GND initiatives.

These developments are barely visible in the writings of Marxist critics of Green Capitalism such as Richard Smith. Smith's critique of market-driven Green Capitalism is timely, thorough, and to the point. He concludes that the only real solution is

. . .collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require national and international economic planning to re-organize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. I conclude, therefore, that if humanity is to save itself, we have no choice but to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned socialist economy. (Smith 2011, 112.)

While I share Smith's conclusion, he provides not a trace of a strategy to achieve this goal. Will workers have a role in overthrowing capitalism, other than perhaps by some miraculous undescribed process of conversion, I suppose, during this system's terminal illness? Apparently, workers simply are forced to share the same goals as the capitalists: ''So CEOs, workers, and governments find that they all ''need'' to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children's tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today because, if they don't, the system falls into crisis, or worse.'' (Smith 2011, 112.) Other than those who become socialists by virtue of reading a convincing article, who will be the gravediggers of capitalism?

Smith hints at one narrow window of opportunity under real existing capitalism for socialist intervention: promoting non-market solutions:

. . . the only way to prevent overshoot and collapse is to enforce a massive economic contracttion in the industrialized economies, retrenching production across a broad range of unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful and polluting industries, even virtually shutting down the worst. Yet this option is foreclosed under capitalism because this is not socialism: no one is promising new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil-drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers, and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be retrenched - and unemployed workers don't pay taxes. (Smith 2011, 112.)

But didn't massive job creation for the unemployed financed by government spending and not the market actually happen once before in the history of capitalism - i.e., in the New Deal, when organized workers, employed, and unemployed forced it to happen through class struggle? Alas, the possibility of class struggle within capitalist society seems to be left out in Smith's account. Didn't class struggle, in its broadest aspects, involving the environmental/occupational health movements, actually win non-market regulatory power in 20th century U.S. capitalism in the form of the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration? To be sure, these agencies have been diluted and weakened with the neoliberal offensive of capital over the last 30 years. And indeed, barely constrained by a very weak regulatory regime, the global expansion of capital reproduction has brought us ever closer to irreversible tipping points to ecocatastrophe.

But is Smith's ''massive economic contraction in the industrialized economies'' really required to prevent such an outcome? The qualitative aspects of growth, and not simply the level of the GDP, need to be addressed. And yes, we absolutely need rapid economic contraction of themilitary/fossil fuel/nuclear-powered economy that produces the vast amounts of short-lived commodities that end up in ever-mounting junk piles or are destroyed in resource wars. But what about economic expansion of the green economy*producing clean energy and repairing and restoring the physical infrastructure, including mass transit and green cities? This possibility is ruled out by Smith:

Renewable energy scientists argue that integrated comprehensive systems can solve the problem of base-load generation. The I.E.A. estimates that solar power alone could produce almost a quarter of the world's electricity needs by 2050. . . But as Ted Trainer points out, given the variable and intermittent output of renewables like solar and wind, even if sun and wind were to be large contributors to electricity supply, given the need for backup reserve capacity, little or no reduction in the amount of coal or nuclear capacity would be feasible. (2011, 133.)

I strongly disagree with this assessment appropriated from Trainer. (See Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2011).

Smith goes on:

Yet even if we could get a dramatic shift to solar and other renewables for energy generation, given the Jevons paradox . . . we cannot assume that this would necessarily lead to large permanent reductions in overall pollution. For if there are no non-market constraints on production, then the advent of cheap clean energy production could just as easily encourage the production of endless electric vehicles, appliances, lighting, laptops, phones, iPads and new toys we can't even imagine yet. . . The expanded production of all this stuff, on a global scale, would just consume ever more raw materials, more metals, plastics, rare earths, etc., produce more pollution, destroy more of the environment, and all end up in some landfill somewhere someday. In short, at the end of the day, the only way society can really put the brakes on overconsumption of electricity is to impose non-market limits on electricity production and consumption, enforce radical conservation, rationing, and stop making all the unnecessary gadgets that demand endless supplies of power. (2011, 134, emphasis in the original.)

Indeed, imposing such non-market limits is imperative, but the struggle to impose them must begin in capitalist societies now, and not be posed simply as the policies of future socialism. Yes, aggressive energy conservation is imperative, especially in the United States and other countries of the global North. We can all live better with a sharp reduction of wasteful consumption, breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat organic food. Nevertheless, there needs to be a global increase in the power capacity, employing clean energy and not fossil fuels or nuclear power, to insure every child born on this planet has the material requirements for the highest quality of life (Schwartzman and Schwartzman 2011).

But should we anticipate that Green Capitalism, even pushed to its limits by class struggle, could indefinitely postpone the final demise of global capitalism and could actually replace the present unsustainable energy base with a renewable power infrastructure fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change (C3)? I submit this prospect is highly unlikely. The legacy and political economy of real existing capitalism alone makes global solar capitalism a delusion (Schwartzman 2009).While the Pentagon pretends to go ''green,'' it remains the servant of the imperial systemprotecting fossil fuel and strategic metals flowing into the MIC, the Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror) Complex. The immense power of the MIC is the biggest obstacle to implementing an effective prevention program that has a plausible chance of avoiding C3. The avoidance of C3 requires an end to coal and fossil fuel addiction, giving up the nuclear option, and a rapid conversion to a high-efficiency solar energy infrastructure.

To summarize, the MIC is at present the biggest single obstacle to preventing C3 because:

1. It is the present core of global capital reproduction with its colossal waste of energy and material resources.

2. The fossil fuel and nuclear industries are integrated within the MIC.

3. The MIC has a dominant role in setting the domestic and foreign policy agenda of the United States and other leading capitalist countries.

4. The Pentagon is the ''global oil-protection service'' for both the U.S. imperial agenda (Klare 2007) and the transnational capital class itself (e.g., Robinson 2004).

5. The MIC's Imperial Agenda blocks the global cooperation and equity required to prevent C3.

Nevertheless, what the struggle for a GND can accomplish is very significant, indeed critical to confronting the challenge of preventing C3. Humanity cannot afford to wait for socialism to replace capitalism to begin implementing this prevention program. And I have argued that starting this prevention program under existing capitalism can open up a path toward ecosocialist transition, indeed a 21st century Socialism worthy of its name.

Climate science tells us we must proceed now for any plausible chance of avoiding tipping points plunging us into C3. Green job creation is likewise the creation of a new working-class sector committed to ending the fossil fuel addiction. Such an historic shift to renewable energy supplies would be comparable to the industrial revolution that replaced plant power in the form of wood and agricultural products with coal. Though this is necessary, it alone won't be sufficient for preventing C3. Given the Jevons paradox, as Smith noted, we will also need to implement a strong regulatory regime for curbing carbon emissions in order to avoid just expanding renewables as a supplement to the continued reliance on fossil fuels. At the same time, a broad global alliance of the working class and oppressed people including blue green labor, women's movements, marginalized workers, indigenous people, and yes, even factions of capital investing in solar, can potentially create the power to challenge the privileged position of MIC capital and begin the process of global demilitarization, putting the MIC dinosaur in the Museum of Prehistory where he belongs, to be followed soon by his parent, Global Capitalism.

Chris Williams advocates a similar approach when he observes:

Some of the more far-sighted corporations without significant investments in fossil fuels will see the way the wind is blowing and that money can be made from investing in alternative energies, as is already the case. This will create tension and splits among ruling elites and between conflicting corporate interests, which will open up space for social and labor movements to demand swifter and more coordinated action. (2010, 166).

I have observed before that we need to reload the political genius of Lenin by fully utilizing every division among the factions of capital (Schwartzman, 2009). Further, it should be stressed that the struggle to achieve this broad alliance must overcome the divisions in the working class and its potential allies, which the ruling classes and elites encourage to their advantage. The class struggles in the New Deal era made significant gains in the U.S. in fighting racism, and of course the civil rights movement of the 1940s through the 1960s achieved many victories codified into law. However, we are now faced with the continuing legacy of mass incarceration of mainly minorities, the ''New Jim Crow'' (Alexander, 2010), as well as the demonization of immigrant communities, especially those from the global South. These new challenges must be confronted by the organizers for a GND, since unity, rather than division among oppressed peoples, will take away a powerful tool that ruling elites use to distract the masses from the abuses they themselves inflict on the majority.

And unlike the New Deal, achieving the GND on a global scale in the context of a robust solar transition, by necessity accompanied by demilitarization, will not end with a reinforcement of militarized capital, as was the case in WWII and the Cold War aftermath. Rather, the GND has real potential for opening up a path out of capitalism into ecosocialism. WWII and the emergence of the MIC postponed the terminal crisis of capitalism to this century. Now we face the welcome project of taking that terminal crisis on and finishing the job.

We need a strategy of transition. This should be a priority in theory and practice for ecosocialists. Any Left worth its label and demonization by Glenn Beck and company must not only confront the immediate needs of the great majority of those exploited and oppressed by big capital, but also be a leader in organizing to fight back. So jobs, affordable housing, health and child care, environmental quality, and environmental justice must be on the left agenda. But what kind of jobs? For unsustainable or sustainable green production? And what about the conditions for the reproduction of labor power, itself a site of multi-dimensional class struggle, as Michael Lebowitz has argued (2003). Thus, the fightback program must confront the ecological crisis and demand solutions that address climate change by embracing clean energy.

We should never advocate or even think that the ''worse the better'' will deliver socialism by the collapse of capitalism, anticipating its terminal illness as hope. For capitalism's dead weight will kill us all. No slogan or propaganda alone can achieve success, as important as this ideological struggle is. Rather, only multidimensional and local-to-transnational class struggle within capitalism (see Abramsky's illuminating volume 2010) can terminate this system, which unfortunately will not die a natural death on its own accord. It will have to be put to sleep forever. A critical role of the ecosocialist Left is to identify the strategic class sectors - those existing and those in formation - that will be the gravediggers of capitalism. Additionally, the ecosocialist Left must also, of course, participate in the creation of a collective vision and its realization as embryos within capitalism of the new global civilization ending the rule of capital.

We now witness or can soon anticipate ongoing struggles for social governance of production and consumption on all scales from neighborhood to global. Areas of struggle in this fight should include nationalization of the energy, rail, and telecommunications industries; municipalization of electric and water supplies; the creation and maintenance of decentralized solar power, food, energy and farming cooperatives; the encouragement of worker-owned factories (solidarity economy), the replacement of industrial and GMO agriculture with agroecologies; the creation of green cities; and of course organizing the unorganized in all sectors, especially GND workers. All of these objectives should be part of the ecosocialist agenda for struggles around a GND, which of course, must include the termination of the MIC. One outstanding example of how to begin is found in Mike Davis (2010), who argues for the potential of a radical movement for green urbanism (see my commentary, Schwartzman, 2008).

The history of capitalism is the history of class struggle, its ebbs and flows. It is certainly not a history of the working class as a passive instrument in the machine of capital reproduction. To write off class struggle is to revert to the empty idealist prescriptions of what ought to be rather than focusing on materialist theory and practice to make it happen. The prospect of a Green New Deal gives us a powerful wedge if we choose to use it.


1 See, for example, the article from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC 2011) posted on the Ecosocialism Canada blog. Here is the post in its entirety: ''Unions Welcome Pathway to Green Economy in UN Environment Report.'' 21 February 2011: A green economy can mean higher overall employment and better jobs, and is not just a luxury for wealthy countries, reveals the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in  its Green Economy report released today. Supported by concrete examples from around the world, and a thorough macroeconomic analysis, the report underlines what the labour movement has maintained for several years: that a Green Economy, based on the right principles and properly planned, can deliver for workers and the poor.

''I am pleased to read that UNEP shares with workers around the world the deep belief that a green
economy should work for the people and the planet, and not just for GDP growth and a few wealthy
companies,'' said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. ''As the report signals, one of the challenges is to ensure a just transition that will steer transformation across all sectors of the economy and lead us towards the decent and sustainable jobs of tomorrow.''

The report indicates that the allocation of 2 percent of global GDP towards the green economy could lead
to immense benefits for workers and communities around the world and help overcome the diverse challenges countries are facing. It finds that a green economy can generate at least as much employment as the traditional economy, and outperforms the latter in the medium and long run, while yielding significantly more environmental and social benefits. The report stresses the importance of ensuring trade union rights, including freedom of association, and occupational health and safety in traditional and emerging sectors.

To those who consider that there is a high risk of ''green and social-washing,'' Burrow reacted, ''the risk is
the status quo. The green economy presents an opportunity to engage in a transformational path towards sustainable development. We must ensure this is not misused, we must ensure that [the] green economy works for working people.

''The UNEP report sets out a clear pathway towards a green economy, but policies being pursued by governments at the moment risk taking us backwards. Neoliberal recipes, based on the dictates of the financial markets, have to be jettisoned in favour of a progressive approach in which governments fulfill their responsibility to regulate banking and finance, promote policies which stimulate greening of workplaces and creation of new green jobs, and ensure that this is based on social dialogue and social inclusion,'' explained Burrow.

Along with specific education and training policies to ensure the skill needs for a green economy are met,
economic safety nets and social protection are crucial to achieving the necessary transformation in a way which maximises the economic and social benefits.

''A green economy which works for social justice can only be a collective endeavour; it should therefore be equitable, inclusive, democratic and people-centered. We will continue to push the case, in the coming days at the UNEP Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, and also during the next 16 months in the run up to RIO_20, to make the green economy a driver for prosperity and decent work,'' concluded Burrow. 


Abramsky, K., ed. 2010 Sparking a worldwide energy revolution. Oakland: AK Press.
Alexander, M. 2010. The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York:
New Press.
Davis, M. 2010. Who will build the Ark? New Left Review 61: 29_46.
International Trade Union Confederation. 2011. Unions welcome pathway to green economy in UN environment report. March 18, Ecosocialism Canada blog.
Klare, M.T. 2007. The Pentagon vs. peak oil. June 15.
Lebowitz, Michael A., 2003, Beyond Capital. 2nd edition. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Robinson, W.I. 2004. A theory of global capitalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Schwartzman, D. 2009. Ecosocialism or ecocatastrophe? Capitalism Nature Socialism 20 (1): 6_33.
___. D. 2010. Review of ''Who Will Build the Ark'' by Mike Davis, published online at:
Schwartzman, P. and D. Schwartzman. 2011. A solar transition is possible. Published online at: and
Smith, R. 2011. Green capitalism: the god that failed. Real-World Economics Review 56: 112_144.
Wikipedia. n.d. Congress of Industrial Organizations,
Williams, C. 2010. Ecology and socialism. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

To cite this article: David Schwartzman (2011): Green New Deal: An Ecosocialist Perspective, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 22:3, 49-56

No comments:

Post a Comment