In November, members of the Sunrise Movement, joined by newly elected Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, sat in at Rep. Pelosi’s office to demand a Green New Deal (Photo: Sunrise Movement)
By Kamran Nayeri, from Socialist Action, January 16, 2019
The fanfare about the UN Conference of Parties (COP) 24 in Katowice, located in a coal-mining region in Poland, that the diplomats from some 200 countries have “struck a deal after an all-night bargaining session” that may advance the fight against the unfolding catastrophic climate (The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2018) rings hollow if we recall that just 10 days earlier the same newspaper reported that two years after the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas emissions accelerated like a “speeding freight train” in 2018.
Two months earlier, on Sept. 9, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, held a press conference in New York telling the world that if the world governments “do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.” Let’s remember that is only two years from now. Clearly, the world is facing a climate emergency, and so far none of the world’s major polluters are doing anything close to what is needed to avert the impending catastrophe.
The ecological and social crises the world faces today are actually two aspects of the crisis of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.
To resolve the crisis, humanity must chart a course towards an ecocentric socialist future. Thus, all attempts to reform the present day civilization to address various aspects of the ecosocial crisis are bound to fail if they are not part of an ongoing and deepening struggle waged by working people ourselves—armed with an action program and a strategy to build a self-organized and self-mobilized movement—to achieve an ecocentric socialist society.
The Sunrise Movement in the United States poses an important set of opportunities and challenges for the climate justice movement and its small ecosocialist component. While its stated purpose is to combat the climate crisis, the group has not absorbed a key political lesson apparent in the spontaneous Yellow Vests protests in France—the existing political parties are not to be trusted.
Thus, the Sunrise Movement supports the agenda of Democratic Party Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: a Green New Deal to be foraged by the formation of a Select Committee for a Green New Deal in the legislative session beginning this month. It has used lobbying, albeit through a protest at the halls of the U.S. Congress, to demand legislative action to stop the climate crisis.
Some climate justice groups and a few small labor groups, as well as two-dozen current and just-elected Democratic members of Congress, have signed onto Ocasio Cortez’s proposal.
This development is not surprising. The main groups in the labor and climate justice movements have been working through the Democratic Party all along and essentially have embraced a parliamentarian and reformist approach to climate change policy.
Again unsurprisingly, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—with its ranks swelled with thousands of new recruits, including former supporters of Bernie Sanders’ 2106 Democratic Party campaign—has decided to run candidates in the 2018 elections as Democrats. This follows the reformist tradition of the U.S. social democrats and Stalinists (mostly the Communist Party U.S.A.) since the 1930s. In their view, the task is not to overthrow U.S. capitalism but to reform it by “pushing” the Democratic Party “to the left.”
I need not remind the reader that this “strategy” has a decades-old track record of failure, as can be verified by the dissolution of all progressive movements in the United States that followed a similar course. Just consider the history of the labor, Black, and women’s liberation movements over the past several decades and how such once-powerful movements have been reduced to a shadow of their former selves, a price they paid for being in the Big Tent of the Democratic Party, attempting “to push it to the left” instead of building self-organized and self-mobilized anti-capitalist movements and a fighting labor party to pursue their respective demands.
Impervious to such lessons of the modern political history of the United States, Ted Franklin, a leader of System Change Not Climate Change (SCnCC) who is also a member of the East San Francisco Bay DSA, celebrates Ocasio Cortez’s reformist course. He writes:
“The quasi-magical arrival of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez on the political scene has given climate activists new hope that a program big enough to address the danger will become an actual subject of national debate in the time frame necessary to give us a fighting chance against climate catastrophe.
Her proposal for a Select Committee for a Green New Deal … is gaining momentum as the highly energized progressive base of the Democratic Party confronts the triple obstacles of the Republican neofascist party, the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party, and the establishment progressives who are now running to the left but still beholden to corporate interests” (Franklin, 2018).
As someone who has been an active member of the national SCnCC network for about three years, and came to know and respect Franklin, his embrace of Ocasio Cortez’s reformist course comes as a surprise to me. To be clear, revolutionary (eco)socialists are not opposed to reforms. Thus, I have spoken in praise of the Oakland No Coal Coalition in which Franklin has played a leading part. But reforms can only be sustained if they are won by the organized and mobilized masses of the working people as a way to enhance our self-confidence and as a stepping stone towards other victories in the direction of an ecocentric socialist future.
The political course proposed by Ocasio Cortez, and following her the Sunrise Movement, and now Franklin, is the exact opposite. It mis-educates and confuses any radicalizing youth or working person by suggesting that working through the capitalist Democratic Party, not building our own bottom-up anti-capitalist organization, and eventually a revolutionary labor party based on our own transformed mass organizations, such as unions, is the way to fighting the systemic climate crisis.
Thus, while the defeat of the Democratic Party incumbent, Joe Crowley, by Ocasio Cortez in the Democratic Party primaries registered the movement of the electorate to the left, her decision to run as a Democrat and her subsequent course to campaign for reforming the Democratic Party is entirely damaging to the cause of working people to organize and mobilize independently of the American capitalism and its two-party system.
Reality vs. fantasy: the Select-Committee
Franklin seems to pitch his political support for the Ocasio Cortez’s course on the premise that short of a mass movement of the working people fighting for a program to stop and reverse the climate crisis, the next best option is to work through the Democratic Party to get a national discussion on a Green New Deal to avert the crisis. So, let us consider his argument in some detail.
Like all others in the history of labor and socialist movements who have pursued shortcuts in revolutionary politics, sometimes with disastrous results, Franklin bends reality to fit his fantasy. To begin with, he assumes that because Ocasio Cortez has floated the idea of a Select Committee to forge a Green New Deal, both of these are already facts.
It should be noted in the first place that the likely Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has already asked Florida Representative Kathy Castor to lead a “special committee on climate change” in the new Congress that will reinstate the same committee that was dissolved by the former Republican Speaker John Boehner. While both Pelosi and Castor have included references to “thousands of green jobs” they hope to create, they have set aside any mention of a Green New Deal, and it is not even clear if Ocasio Cortez would be assigned to Castor’s climate change committee.
In fact, Castor has already disputed the suggestions that representatives who have received financial contributions from the fossil fuel industry should be barred from serving on her committee, on the grounds that it would be unconstitutional because it would violate their First Amendment right to free speech, a fossil fuel industry legal argument.
Evan Weber, the political director of the Sunrise movement, responded to the announcement by saying: “Nancy Pelosi has the power to determine whether or not the Select Committee for a Green New Deal lives or dies. … Sunrise Movement’s position is and will continue to be that it’s not over until she makes it clear that it’s over” (reported in Other News: Voices Against the Tide, January 2019). This is a sad statement of utter powerlessness of climate justice activists who place their hope in the Democratic Party.
Reality vs. Fantasy: a timely national debate on climate change and a Green New Deal?
With Ocasio Cortez’s proposed Select Committee blocked by the Democratic Party leadership, it would seem the rest of Franklin’s rosy projections are also no more a possibility. But let me consider them as if they were, in fact, to materialize as Franklin hopes.
If we are to believe United Nations Secretary General António Guterres that the world’s governments will run out of time to stop the runaway climate catastrophe if they do not act by 2020, it should be abundantly clear that we are already out of time to act to stop the worst of the climate crisis.
Still, Franklin imagines not only that the Democratic Party will move swiftly to form Ocasio Cortez’s Select Committee but that this committee will hold speedy hearings and formulate a Green New Deal, and that this will ignite a national debate that presumably improves the final legislation, and a similar bill will pass the Republican-controlled Senate and will be signed by President Trump before we run out of time! That is in one year’s time!
Of course, Franklin forgets, and I do not wish to belabor the point, that the climate crisis can only be resolved on the world scale with the top polluters taking the lead. So even if this fantastic scenario plays out as Franklin imagines it, the crisis will become unstoppable if China and the European Union fail to follow. In fact, Franklin himself cites formidable obstacles to any speedy and effective legislation to become law by counting some of the obstacles, including “the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party,” its “progressive establishment,” and the “neo-fascist” Republican Party. Yet, he still presents Ocasio Cortez’s proposal as a viable option!
The Green New Deal is neither new nor a radical idea. In fact, in all its varieties it is some form of Green Capitalism, which has been criticized by revolutionary ecosocialists, including in the System Change Not Climate Change network.
The neoliberal Democratic New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman first proposed it as a way to stop the climate crisis almost 11 years ago (The Times, Jan. 19, 2007, and April 15, 2007). Friedman is a big promoter of the magic of technology and capitalist markets, around which his idea of the Green New Deal was built, and he has influenced the climate justice movement. Earth Justice interviewed him about his Green New Deal, and the Green Party picked up the idea, adding on its own formulations.
And now Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez has made the idea “her own,” and some climate justice groups and small labor groups have supported the idea. Meanwhile, there has been no questioning of how and why the U.S. Congress, one of the three constitutional seats of power of U.S. capitalism, would somehow legislate a Green New Deal that would actually stop the crisis and the U.S. president would sign it into law without any resistance by the same economic, social, and political forces that have blocked a serious discussion of the crisis for decades without a massive mobilization of the working people!
There is nothing in Franklin’s essay that even hints at who could stop climate change—capitalist politicians or the U.S. and world’s working people.
Climate change mitigation as big business
To understand the capitalist climate mitigation debate, we must understand the ongoing discussion in the capitalist policymaking circles about reforming capitalism to function more efficiently. Health-care policy debates provide an excellent recent example. As a health policy scholar in the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to document and demonstrate in detail how the liberal and conservative health-care reform proposals were framed by concerns about the profitability crisis in the U.S. capitalist economy. Would the discussion on climate change in the U.S. Congress be any different?
Just as the Democratic and Republican policymakers refused to frame the health care reform debate in terms of health care as a human right, there is no reasons to believe that their debate about the Green New Deal would be any differently framed—to put humanity and life on Earth at the center of policymaking deliberations instead of better oiling the capitalist profit-making machine.
Already, a long list of luminaries from both Democratic and Republican parties have spoken out in favor of some form of capitalist climate mitigation policy. Just last September, California’s Governor Brown held the Climate Summit that came on the heels of the May 24, 2017, “Climate Change is Big Business” conference in San Francisco, in which he was its invited keynote speaker.
On Dec. 13, 2018, John Kerry, another strategic thinker of U.S. capitalism, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times complaining about the heat waves that are “stealing 153 billion hours of labor,” about how tropical infections are moving north, and about falling crop yields in more than two dozen countries: “By 2050 the Midwestern United States could see agricultural productivity drop to its lowest level in decades.” New York State’s right-of-center Democratic Governor Cuomo has called for a Green New Deal for New York.
It is also useful to place the original New Deal in its historical context. Contrary to the reformist fantasy that it was all thanks to the presidency of FDR, “the man of the people,” similar attempts in the 1920s and 1930s were undertaken by other leading capitalist rivals. The fascist Mussolini government embarked on a public works project to recast Rome in its historical glory by building statues and arenas to help whip up Italian nationalist fervor. Hitler built the autobahn system, and when he found it empty of cars, he ordered the design and mass production of Volkswagen Beetle (“people’s car”).
Churchill oversaw the reworking of the earlier welfare programs, such as unemployment insurance, to build the British welfare state. Needless to say, all the key capitalist rivals were also busy rearming themselves to the teeth.
Today’s world is similar in important ways. The American imperialist hegemony that grew out of the ashes of World War II is ending. By some accounts, China is already the largest capitalist economy in the world, with the most modern infrastructure and cutting-edge technology, and even in military terms has become the undisputed power in the Pacific.
The rise of Donald Trump is another sign of the slow decline of American imperialist power and its leadership crisis. Thus, his “make America great again” campaign, which appeals to the nostalgia of sections of U.S. ruling class and working people. His contentious relations with the U.S. key allies and his trade war moves similarly reflect a desire by the same laggard section of the U.S. elite to use raw American imperialist power to maintain its ebbing hegemony in world affairs—but to no avail.
The more forward-looking section of the U.S. capitalist class, mostly in the Democratic Party, aims for rejuvenation of the economy based on new products and new industries, which include “green technologies.” That is what the real Green New Deal is about, the kind that Friedman talks about. Even Paul Krugman, a smart liberal Democrat and Keynesian economist, has come out in favor of redesigning the U.S. economy as a mixed-economy: “You could imagine running a fairly efficient economy that is only 2/3 capitalist, 1/3 publicly owned—i.e., sort-of-kind-of socialist” (The New York Times, Dec. 22, 2018). Is there any doubt that at best they all are talking about Green Capitalism, not the kind of ecosocial transformation that is needed to stop and reverse the climate crisis?
From the perspective of averting the climate catastrophe, as well as the Sixth Extinction and the threat of nuclear war (the U.S. rulers, both Democrats, and Republicans, are already working on a multi-trillion-dollar nuclear rearmament; don’t fool yourself into thinking they would not use it!), and the entire host of ecosocial crisis the world faces, none of these capitalist policy wonks have anything close to a solution.
Neither does Congresswoman-elect Ocasio Cortez. Otherwise, she would have made that program her election campaign platform and would have educated the Sunrise Movement activists in that program and a working-class strategy to fight for such a program. Instead, she has decided to run as a Democrat and to spend her energy to push the Democratic Party to the left (whatever that means). And when the Democratic Party captured the majority in the midterm elections and Nancy Pelosi, who a year earlier told a student that the Democratic Party is the party of capitalism, became again the most likely candidate for the Speaker of the House, she simply set Ocasio Cortez to the side with a stroke of her pen.
A key difference between a liberal and a working-class revolutionary is this: The former sees power emanating from the “voter” while the latter sees it coming from the self-organized and self-mobilized working people.
Ocasio Cortez is a liberal, not a revolutionary. She has no program, strategy, or set of tactics informed by them to help mobilize independent working-class action to transcend the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization in the direction of an ecocentric socialist future. Franklin, on the other hand, considers himself to be a Marxist. Should he not tell the Sunrise Movement activists that to overcome the climate crisis we should not look up to the Democratic Party, the U.S. Congress, or any capitalist institution but to the power of working people ourselves?
Of course, I do not deny that humanity is staring at possible extinction if we cannot undertake a massive reversal within a very short time frame, a very unlikely outcome. But let me ask Franklin why humanity is in such a predicament if not for decades upon decades of reformist betrayal? Is it not time perhaps to confront liberalism and reformism in the labor, climate justice, and (eco)socialist movements?