How should Bidenomics be assessed so far? In their ‘Seven Theses on American Politics’, Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner argue that the long slowdown in growth rates has led to the emergence of a new regime of accumulation in the us, ‘political capitalism’, defined by ‘politically engineered upward redistribution’—so much so that ‘raw political power, rather than productive investment, is the key determinant of the rate of return’. This, Riley and Brenner argue, has transformed America’s electoral landscape and recomposed the two party coalitions, producing ‘a vicious, narrowly divided politics of zero-sum redistribution, largely axed on conflicts of material interest within the working class’, between groups defined by education level and race.footnote1 In the debate that has followed, contributions have spun out in a range of directions: the role of class and its relation to ‘material interest’ in the us; the dynamics driving party–class dealignment—workers abandoning the Democrats to vote Republican, high earners moving in the opposite direction—and prospects for countering it; the geopolitics of what Lola Seaton calls the Biden Administration’s ‘green-nationalist industrialization drive’; the reliability of Brenner’s manufacturing-centric ‘long downturn’ account of ‘secular stagnation’; and in general, the outlook for left politics today, class-based or not.footnote2
What has been surprisingly absent from the discussion, given the centrality of ‘green industrial policy’ to Biden’s agenda—not to mention the wider state of the planet, with this summer the hottest ever recorded—is climate change. Of course, the pieces gesture to the role of the energy transition in the White House’s domestic and geopolitical manoeuvring, and note the Administration’s decarbonization pledges, if only to point out their inadequacy. But climate change itself goes virtually unaddressed as a specific problem with political and economic significance in its own right. In this respect, the discussion in these pages mirrors the broader state of political debate. The Inflation Reduction Act, perhaps the flagship policy of Bidenomics, was hailed as a bill that might ‘save civilization’ when it was passed in August 2022.footnote3 Since then, it has been almost entirely assimilated to the more general ‘Bidenomics’ frame: once discussed in relation to the Green New Deal, it is now more often evaluated alongside the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the chips and Science Act, and assessed in terms of domestic investment and geopolitical dynamics rather than decarbonization targets or climate impacts.
The political issues upon which the discussion in nlr has focused, in turn, are not ‘about’ the climate in any real sense. Perhaps commentators have taken the Administration’s claims about the ira’s climate bona fides at face value—or assume that mentions of ‘green tech’ suffice as climate analysis. But climate change demands explicit and focused attention. Two broad questions structure our reflections on this front: first, what Bidenomics means for the climate; and second, what climate change means for Bidenomics, and for politics more generally. But before turning to these, it is worth taking a more granular look at the political conditions and the domestic and geopolitical dynamics that shaped the ira, analysing both its objectives and its contradictions as a political strategy. Why did the ira take the form it did, and what does it tell us about the ‘political capitalism’ diagnosis?
If the Inflation Reduction Act has a claim to be the most significant Federal climate legislation in us history, this is largely because it is the first such bill ever enacted. While its provisions are clearly inadequate to the scale of the climate crisis, the ira’s defenders have argued that it is at least a start on which to build. If eco-socialists continue to engage with the formal policy process, both through the outside pressures of activism and the inside work of congressional politics, climate policy will get closer to the scale and scope required. The hope is that the bundle of subsidies, tax breaks, infrastructure investment and market protectionism will unite green-tech boosters with big capital, organized labour and the beneficiaries of the growth-to-come. If this coalition-building is successful, more green-industrial policy will ensue, until new clean industries are the self-sustaining powerhouses of a thriving economy.
We return to the issue of green growth below. But the issues raised in the ‘Seven Theses’ debate thus far point towards a different question: why did Biden do anything about climate at all? Riley and Brenner diagnose Bidenism as an appeal to the material interests of the Democrats’ new core constituency, the college-educated, with its high valuation of ‘expertise’ and of ‘credentialled labour power’. The ira might at first seem easily assimilable to this project—catnip for the ‘science is real’ brigade. Certainly, a key element of Biden’s embrace of climate politics can be understood in terms of intra-Democratic Party factional struggles. He was elected amid a surge of climate activism both within the us and worldwide: the 2020 election was perhaps the first in which climate change was a serious topic of discussion, driven largely by pressure from the left wing of the party. After a bitterly fought primary season, when the Democratic establishment closed ranks against Sanders and handed Biden the nomination, climate change proved a crucial issue around which to forge a truce, exemplified by the Sanders–Biden Unity Task Force on the climate crisis. The Biden Administration then put forward the surprisingly ambitious Build Back Better plan, which proposed to pair major investments in decarbonization and care—including support for families with children, an expansion of paid leave, and funding for childhood education. That ambition, of course, was sharply tempered by subsequent negotiations in Congress; for months it seemed that a Federal climate package would once again be scuttled on the shoals of America’s partisan divide. Yet the climate provisions survived, if in the enfeebled form of the ira. Why did they squeak through, while proposed investments in ‘care infrastructure’ and other social welfare programmes were abandoned?
Riley and Brenner’s account of ‘political capitalism’, in which the Republicans and the Democrats deliver material benefits to their bases—the less educated and the highly credentialled, respectively—fails to provide a convincing answer. The Democratic base, after all, contains large numbers of health care workers and dual-income households, who would presumably prefer major investments in care. Silicon Valley threw its weight behind the legislation; eventually so too did automakers and—more surprisingly—fossil fuel companies themselves. But the ira is not so much a sop to a powerful green-capital lobby as an effort to create a new fraction of green capital—if not quite from scratch, then from the scraps of the Obama-era stimulus package, which helped catalyse America’s solar industry. Certainly, the Democratic leadership now takes climate change more seriously; but as Gore can testify, elite Democratic concerns about global warming have taken a back seat to other issues for decades.
The centrality of climate investments to Bidenomics is better understood as an effort to thread the tricky political needle debated in these pages. Riley and Brenner argue that politics in the present have abandoned ‘even the hope of growth’, hence their glossing of Bidenomics as ‘deficit spending without growth’. But the ira is clearly an attempt to assemble a new growth programme around a novel political coalition, as Ted Fertik and Tim Sahay have argued.footnote4 The hope of restoring growth through a classic strategy of (re)industrialization delivering widely distributed economic wealth—as opposed to distributing social benefits directly via spending on low-growth sectors like care—plainly animates it.