Whose Green New Deal?

Socialist visions of a Green New Deal abound, but political roadmaps for their realization seem to have been foreclosed. After the electoral defeats of Corbyn and Sanders, and the fracturing of the climate movement in the Global North following its apex in the autumn of 2019, this disjuncture is starker than ever. From it, a range of dilemmas arise. Foremost among them is how socialists should conceive of the Green New Deal now that its precondition, the prospect of administering the state, has receded into the distance; and how the left can reconcile the ‘long game’ of democratic socialism with the urgency of the climate timeline. To address these questions, a preliminary look at the two main iterations of the GND – British and American – is necessary.

At Labour’s September 2019 conference, a motion approved by party members and two of Britain’s three biggest trade unions defined the GND as ‘a state-led programme of investment and regulation, based on public ownership and democratic control, for the decarbonization and transformation of our economy.’ Bernie Sanders’s presidential manifesto contained a more expansive definition: ‘a ten-year, nationwide mobilization centered around justice and equity during which climate change will be factored into virtually every area of policy, from immigration to trade to foreign policy and beyond.’ Looking back at these proposals, it is tempting to view Biden’s ‘green Keynesian’ infrastructure plan as a concession to the GND (which the president has himself described as a ‘crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face’). Yet, in their political ambitions and implications, the environmental programmes of Sanders and Corbyn are substantially different to Biden’s.  

In the case of Corbyn’s Labour, we can pinpoint three features that pushed the Green New Deal beyond the Keynesian framework, towards a non-reformist programme of reform. First, decommodified forms of ownership were central, taking precedence over policies that sought reforms within the market, such as co-ops and inclusive share ownership funds. Marxist economist Mary Robertson – who, as Corbyn’s head of economic policy, was the unsung architect of this agenda – has pointed out that Labour’s public ownership programme aimed, through ‘removing key areas of social and economic reproduction from the system of production for profit’, to delink large sectors of the economy from the commodity structure as a vital component of its decarbonization plan.

Second, Labour’s 2030 target date for decarbonization intended to disrupt the gradualism that is the default temporality of social democracy. Corbynism marked a welcome turn away from the mimetic revolutionary politics of Trotskyist grouplets, yet the urgency of the climate crisis had nonetheless robbed us of the luxury of the ‘long march through the institutions’. Without revolutionary strategies or horizons, the 2030 deadline was intended to acknowledge the imperative of immediacy. It was the closest thing in Labour’s programme to Andreas Malm’s second principle for ecological Leninism: ‘speed as paramount virtue.’

Lastly, the recomposition of the working class was integral to Labour’s GND. It held out the possibility of superseding itself by reconstituting a proletarian subject that might push the transition beyond carbon into a confrontation with capital as such. Without the support of the firefighters’ (FBU) and postal and communication workers’ (CWU) unions, and the slower but no less significant backing of Unite, there would have been no 2030 target. Labour’s decarbonization strategy was crafted by rather than merely for organized labour. The GND thus had an immanent answer to the charge from the autonomist left that it overlooked the necessity of agents acting outside and against the state. Quite the opposite: new green industries; existing low-carbon sectors valorized and enlarged; decommodified public utilities and renewed trade unions, freed from the need to protect carbon-heavy jobs, would together change the balance of class forces.

The Sanders GND bore many similarities to Corbyn’s. Both shared the same vision of a just, state-led transition away from fossil fuels, foregrounding mass green job creation and the revival of trade unions. And both contained the beginnings of an internationalist (if not consistently anti-imperialist) orientation, with commitments to free or ‘equitable’ transfers of green tech to the Global South. Just as Labour’s manifesto held out the prospect of climate reparations, Sanders promised to slash the Pentagon’s budget to fund the GND. 

Perhaps the most significant shift from AOC’s GND congressional resolution in November 2018 to the Sanders presidential programme was the latter’s explicit commitment to public ownership of new renewable energy infrastructure. However, aside from this policy and the Medicare for All plan, Sanders’s platform contained no other pledges on public ownership (as against rail, mail, energy and water in Corbyn’s manifesto). His 2050 decarbonization target also failed to recognize both the disaster invited by delay and the West’s historic climate debt. Yet, free from the constraining influence of right-leaning trade unions, Sanders was more openly antagonistic towards the fossil fuel industry than his British counterpart. He was not afraid of naming the enemy and threatening them with prosecution.

What now for such promises, after the left’s electoral failures? Evidently, the field is much more open in the US. Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs plan seems to mark a paradigm-shift towards green Keynesianism, commanding widespread support from business and labour leaders alike. But while it comes closer to the ambition necessary for staving off catastrophe than anything previously contemplated by governments in the Anglosphere, the scale is still insufficient. Biden’s plan commits to around $125 billion spending per year on clean energy. As Kate Aronoff has observed, this is a mere four times ‘the amount of money [American] consumers spent on children’s toys last year’. Sizing up the annual 0.6% of GDP that the plan allocates to ‘climate-related’ projects, The Economist, in its own understated way, concurred with such critics: the scheme is, ‘if anything, a little on the low side of most estimates for the costs of rethinking and largely recreating an industrial civilization.’ Measured against the $16.3 trillion of public investment that sat at the centre of Sanders’s GND, Biden’s proposal seems almost trivial.

A comparison with Labour’s 2019 programme is instructive. One of Biden’s headline pledges is to ‘build, preserve and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings’, whereas the plan to decarbonize Britain’s energy system – drawn up by energy experts and civil engineers and adopted in Corbyn’s manifesto – aimed to retrofit the country’s entire housing stock: 27 million homes within a decade. In the entirety of Biden’s plan, just $40 billion is committed to all public housing projects, whereas the Sanders–AOC ‘Green New Deal for public housing’ demands $180 billion for retrofits and upgrades alone. Scale is not the only problem. Public ownership is nowhere to be seen, and Biden’s entire climate strategy is guided by the death-knell 2050 net zero target (although, even then, it falls short of the investment needed to meet it). Seth Ackerman has suggested that, were Biden to make the family allowance provisions of the first stimulus package permanent, this would mark the transformation of the Democrats into a ‘responsible, democratic-minded party of the center-right’. The American Jobs Plan seems to herald a similar shift in climate policy: not meaningless, but modest. That said, Biden’s most important climate legacy may not lie in his infrastructure spending but in the PRO Act, which would dramatically change the conditions for labour organizing in favour of unions were it to pass the Senate and then POTUS’s desk.

If Biden has partially incorporated some of the American GND’s uncontroversial themes, the picture is more straightforward when it comes to Starmer. Having promised to ‘hardwire the green new deal into everything we do’, the Labour leader now appears to have abandoned transformative climate and economic policy tout court. He is evidently too busy with authoritarian-nationalist posturing and a granular bureaucratic crackdown on the left to pay any attention to planetary emergency. The traces of radicalism that remain are largely rhetorical, confined to the occasional interventions of Ed Miliband in his role as shadow business, energy and industrial strategy secretary. Two episodes neatly encapsulate Labour’s direction of travel. Last November, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions Jonathan Reynolds demanded that UK pension funds be made carbon neutral by 2050, declaring with no hint of irony that ‘the climate emergency demands urgent action’. And in March Starmer forced Alex Sobel (a low-ranking shadow minister and stalwart of the party’s ‘soft left’) to apologize for having once suggested that business was the enemy in the fight against climate change. In his follow up comments to the press, Starmer more or less proclaimed that nobody – including the Conservatives – is more pro-business than him.

In both the US and UK, then, the GND as a programme for decarbonization through socialist transformation – which would be able to take action at the speed and scale necessary to mitigate catastrophe – will not materialize for the foreseeable future. One plausible path for radical environmentalism in this context is co-optation by the political centre and green fractions of capital. Activists have long been attuned to this danger, hence the many prefixes that have accompanied the slogan ‘Green New Deal’: ‘socialist’, ‘radical’, ‘left-populist’, ‘global’, and ‘internationalist’, to name a few. But two factors now heighten this risk. First, GND ‘advocacy’ has become tied to nebulously progressive NGOs and think-tanks. Many of these organizations, constrained by philanthropic funding streams and donors, are incentivized to obfuscate antagonisms and claim easy victories. Last year, Britain’s leading Green New Deal NGO came up with a campaign slogan (‘Build Back Better’) so timid that it was taken up by both Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s presidential transition team. Greenpeace UK, meanwhile, cheered on BP’s ‘net zero’ public relations stunts, declaring that the company had ‘woken up to the fact that the next decade will be crucial to survival’. With champions like these, inimical to class-based climate politics, the GND’s prospects look bleak.

The political paradoxes of the climate timeline are the second condition that could encourage co-optation. Adam Tooze has written that ‘in a foxhole, survival is paramount, and radicalism fades’. This is especially true of the climate crisis. Every fraction of a degree of warming mitigated or reversed might mean the avoidance of a tipping point. The politics of emergency – in the medium-term at least – are therefore just as likely to encourage resignation to moderation as the flourishing of radicalism. Catastrophism that couples declarations of emergency with disavowals of class politics (in the mold of Extinction Rebellion) is liable to collapse into a paradoxical combination of nihilism and liberal tinkering. With democratic planning a distant prospect, it’s easy to envisage the GND being absorbed into a ‘green’ capitalism that would not address the fundamental drivers of climate breakdown.

Thea Riofrancos argued in May 2019 that it was ‘precisely the indeterminacy of the Green New Deal that provides a historic opening for the left’. Yet if the GND is not to become hegemonized by the centre, these contradictions and ambiguities must now be resolved by a coherent socialist programme. Political advocacy has been central to the operations of groups like the Sunrise Movement and Labour for a Green New Deal, leading to significant influence on the formation of the Sanders and Corbyn programmes. But socialists successfully lobbying leaders in Washington or Westminster, absent any real social power or organizational base, was entirely contingent on an aberrant historical circumstance: those leaders being self-described socialists. As Matt Huber has recently stressed, no amount of ‘closed door corporatist bargaining’ from climate campaigners will move Biden. Neither Starmer, nor Johnson. Imagining that the GND might be adopted by centrist politicians – if only they are pressed hard enough – is a recipe for confusion and demobilization at best, and abandonment of the programme’s non-reformist potential at worst.

There is also a risk of losing sight of the fronts on which it is most crucial to extend the programme. Take the GND’s fledging internationalist elements, which have always been more gestural than substantive. Confrontation with China and a return to Atlanticist norms are enjoying bipartisan (if not quite unanimous) support in Washington and London. The appointment of John Kerry as ‘climate tsar’ on Biden’s national security council – lauded by the Sunrise Movement –  points to the imperial considerations underlying the administration’s climate strategy. Indeed, Biden’s domestic spending plans are driven as much by consternation about the eclipse of American hegemony as by any organized pressure from the left. As Brian Deese, director of the president’s National Economic Council, put it in a recent interview: Biden is ‘thinking about the infrastructure investments necessary… in contra position to what he is seeing China doing, in terms of strategic investments’. Deese went on to present the left-turn in domestic economic policy as a precondition for revived American global leadership. Biden’s climate advisors might trade in rhetoric about frontline communities, but the State Department’s diplomatic war on Bolivia and the Pentagon’s South China Sea build-up continue apace. Even if the White House acceded to demands from the Democratic Party’s progressive wing for larger climate investments, the result would be a greener empire rather than anything resembling a ‘global Green New Deal’.

In this context, supporters of the GND could do worse than direct their energies towards building a socialist climate movement and arming it with clear, antagonistic themes and demands. Rightly preoccupied with winning support for Corbyn and Sanders over the past five years, the left largely neglected the task of intervening in and shaping social movements, leaving liberals and NGOs ascendant. There are already institutions which render socialists well-placed to recapture the initiative: left-led trade unions in Britain, Momentum, Labour for a Green New Deal, the DSA’s eco-socialist working group, and think-tanks like Common Wealth and the Democracy Collaborative. To the climate movement, socialists can bring a majoritarian political programme with significant existing popular support. Movement-building can also temper the organized left’s ‘liberal trust in the power of policies to persuade’ – to borrow Katrina Forrester’s term – and sharpen its political strategies. This reorientation would strengthen the hand of socialist legislators in the present, and might help create political opportunities for them in future electoral cycles.

Temporarily decoupling the GND from the electoral arena may also provide the space to radicalize and retool the programme. There is much work to be done in organizing around and thinking through difficult areas like aviation and geo-engineering that have sometimes been dodged by GND activists. Beyond some academic circles, there has so far been scant engagement with Holly Jean Buck’s warning that oil companies could use carbon capture projects to ‘essentially take us hostage’, monopolizing these nascent technologies to redouble their illusory promises of net-zero. A coherent left climate strategy could begin to neutralize such threats.

Post-mortems of the Anglo-American left’s electoral failures have often diagnosed the underlying issue as one of structural weakness. Left commonsense states that there are ‘no shortcuts’ to building the organizational and industrial strength necessary for future victories. Perhaps not. But we must hope that political contingencies can dramatically shorten the timeline. If the emergency brake is ever to be glimpsed, let alone grasped, then a socialist climate movement bound together by the Green New Deal is a good place to start.

Read on: Robert Pollin, ‘Degrowth vs a Green New Deal’, NLR 112.