Sunrise Movement demonstration in San Francisco
San Francisco rally led by Sunrise Movement. Photo Peg Hunter | Flickr | cc 2.0

Fight for the Green New Deal

Democratic Socialists of America activist Nick French argues for making the Green New Deal a major new organizing priority for DSA activists and the U.S. Left.  This article was originally published by The Call, an online publication of the Bread and Roses Caucus of DSA.

For democratic socialists, the climate crisis is of the utmost concern, calling into question not only the feasibility of building a more just world without poverty and misery but even the continued existence of humanity itself. As the already apparent effects of climate change — rising sea levels, more wildfires, droughts, and extreme weather events — worsen, working people across the globe will bear the brunt of the crisis, and the chances for building a more just and secure world for all will narrow considerably.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that the world must change course sharply if it is to avert the worst effects of human-made climate change. For too long, in the United States we’ve lacked bold solutions that respond to this pressing situation. But in the last few months the introduction of the Green New Deal as a new program for ecological salvation has changed everything. The Green New Deal calls for a rapid social transformation through extensive government regulation and massive public investment to transition to a clean energy economy.

The Green New Deal is our best hope yet not only for averting climate disaster but pivoting towards a better future. Much as Medicare for All serves as a radical and popular solution for the healthcare crisis and lays the groundwork for a transformation of our economy, the fight for a Green New Deal can help set the stage for a rupture with capitalism.

But it is up to socialists to push the fight in a radical direction, so that it will build the power and militancy of the working class. The Democratic Socialists of America, as the largest and fastest-growing socialist organization in the United States, is poised to play a leading role in the fight for a Green New Deal, by articulating and mobilizing around a version of the demand that advances class struggle. As DSA’s biennial convention approaches, DSA activists must make the Green New Deal a major new organizing priority.

What is the Green New Deal?

Shortly before taking office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captured public attention by calling for the creation of a select committee in the House of Representatives to design a Green New Deal. Although House leadership rebuffed her plan, at least 40 members of Congress have declared their support for the program, and a recent poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans support the policy.

The initial resolution cosponsored by AOC and Senator Edward Markey envisions a program with five main goals. These goals include:

1. Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a just and equitable transition — one that protects the interests of those on the frontlines of climate change and workers whose jobs might be swept away by economic changes.
2. Creating enough good, high-paying jobs to ensure economic security for all people living in the United States.
3. Sustainably revamping US infrastructure and industry.
4. Securing clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment for all.
5. Ending the oppression of indigenous peoples, people of color, migrants, and other marginalized and vulnerable communities.

To achieve these goals, the resolution’s central proposals include converting to 100 percent renewable and zero-emission energy sources through expanding and upgrading renewable power sources. It also calls for giving the public an ownership stake in Green New Deal investments, guaranteeing well-paid jobs with good benefits, ensuring workers’ rights to organize, and providing high-quality healthcare and housing to all.

GND and Socialist Strategy

Although some liberal pundits have been critical, many have extolled the virtues of the Green New Deal as both policy and political strategy. But a Green New Deal can help us radically transform society in three ways that mainstream commentators seem to be unaware of.

First, the boldest version of the program would involve bringing under democratic, public control those companies engaged in fossil fuel extraction and consumption. This includes fossil fuel companies as well as private energy utilities and companies involved in transportation (e.g., airlines and auto manufacturers). Bringing these companies under public control would represent a massive socialization of the economy. And given the scale and rapidity of the changes needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change, we cannot afford to do anything less.

Even in less-ambitious forms of the plan, by including a major jobs program, the Green New Deal is at least partially insulated from future right-wing governments, because program cuts would be tied to massive job losses.

Second, the Green New Deal has the potential to empower working people at the expense of their employers. A public jobs program aimed at full employment would be a boon to working-class power. It’s a widely accepted fact, as Polish economist Michal Kalecki famously argued, that full employment economies create the most favorable conditions for worker organizing. Workers — less afraid of getting fired because new jobs are plentiful — can afford to take risks to organize and fight for ever bolder demands, including demands that go beyond bread-and-butter issues and address wider social needs.

The recent wave of teachers’ strikes — which began in red states like West Virginia and Arizona and has spread to blue states like California and Colorado — provide examples of these sort of demands. By striking against austerity and for fully-funded public education, teachers are making demands on behalf of the working class as a whole. Especially in a full employment economy where good jobs were widely available, many more workers would be empowered to fight for such class-wide demands. While we can’t simply conjure up working-class militancy, a jobs guarantee gives workers much more potential power as well as more confidence because of greater job security.

Finally, the battle for a Green New Deal can produce a more class-conscious, organized, and militant working class. Capitalists will not accept such a program of expropriation and redistribution without a fight. Winning that fight will require a mass working-class mobilization (involving electoral challenges, civil disobedience, and labor action). The experiences in these kinds of struggles can help all working people develop a greater awareness of their class interests, as well as the skills, organization, and confidence needed to effectively challenge capital.

Together, these three openings created by the Green New Deal make the program a prime example of a “structural reform” — a type of reform that when fought for and won can begin to move society out of capitalism and towards democratic socialism. And it’s through this lens that we can better understand the role the Green New Deal plays in a broader socialist strategy.

The use of structural reforms to empower the working class is discussed by the British Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband (though Miliband unhelpfully labels these structural reforms “revolutionary reforms”). Miliband argued that fighting for and winning structural reforms was the method for advancing class struggle best suited for advanced capitalist democracies. Socialists, Miliband argued, must fight for reforms that shift the balance of forces away from capitalists and in favor of an increasingly militant and organized working-class opposition — the ultimate goal of such a strategy being to build working-class power and militancy to a point where we can finally force a break with the capitalist system.

Class Struggle, Not New Deal

Realizing the possibilities for socialist advances opened up by the Green New Deal will require going far beyond its namesake and the politics that made that period possible. The old New Deal did not achieve full employment and failed to end the Depression. Moreover, one of its main effects was to co-opt working-class radicalism that threatened the capitalist order into safer channels. A Green New Deal must involve winning a much higher level of public investment and real expropriation of capital, and be designed specifically with the aim of empowering workers to engage in heightened struggle.

The actual resolution proposed by AOC and Markey achieves these aims only to a limited extent. Its statement of the goals of a Green New Deal is admirable, and it includes calls for a robust job guarantee, extensive rights for workers to unionize and collectively bargain, and public ownership stakes in major investments. However, the resolution leaves too much room for interpretation and capitalist co-optation.

For example, although the preamble notes the need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the resolution itself does not impose a timeline for achieving this goal. It does not call for complete public ownership of major energy systems and resources, or specify how much of a stake the public should get in new investments. Nor does it say whether new jobs will be created by direct federal spending or by subsidies to private industry, or impose a timeline for reaching full employment. Finally, it does not specify how a Green New Deal mobilization would be paid for — missing an opportunity to demand income and wealth redistribution through massive taxes on the rich.

All of these shortcomings reflect the authors’ attempts to build a broad political coalition as well as a conciliatory attitude toward fossil fuel companies. But these flaws also mean that the proposal doesn’t do enough to empower workers, democratize resources, or draw clear battle lines between capitalists and the working class.

Winning a Green New Deal will mean confronting a powerful and intransigent capitalist class. Victory will require mass working-class mobilization on multiple fronts. We need to elect more socialist and socialist-friendly representatives, and scare established leaders into accepting a Green New Deal through electoral challenges and large demonstrations. But winning seats in Congress won’t be enough, and neither will tame, controlled mass demonstrations of the type that have become the norm in our political culture. We will also need widespread labor action to disrupt corporate profits and force capitalists to make concessions. This is, after all, how even the relatively modest gains of the old New Deal were won: through a huge wave of working-class militancy that frightened sections of the capitalist class, represented in government by Franklin Roosevelt, into accepting reforms to stave off the threat of revolution.

And if the movement for a Green New Deal is to truly succeed, it must be driven by workers rather than liberal politicians. Liberal politicians will likely try to co-opt the movement and water down the Green New Deal into something favorable to capital. Due to their subservience to corporate interests, liberals are likely to try to make the poor and working class bear a disproportionate share of the costs of a clean energy transition — by forcing workers to pay higher energy costs without compensatory downward redistribution of wealth, or by failing to expand employment enough to replace lost dirty energy jobs. These policy choices would be bad in their own right. But they would also be disastrous politically, likely ruining our chances at preventing the worst effects of climate change. The perception that a Green New Deal means losing your job or paying higher energy costs would kill popular enthusiasm and likely turn working people against it.

To avoid this catastrophic outcome, workers must organize themselves to pressure elites into accepting a radical Green New Deal. That will involve mobilizing to hold elected officials accountable, as mentioned above, and it will require genuinely sympathetic politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC using their platforms to give a boost to public protests and labor actions. But it will also mean massive civil disobedience and disruption.

Tasks for Democratic Socialists

What can democratic socialists do to advance the struggle for a Green New Deal?

First, it’s of the utmost importance that DSA approve a clear call for Green New Deal at its next convention, with the aim of articulating a bold, anticapitalist version of the program and initiating a campaign to advance that vision. DSA’s work on Medicare for All can serve as a template here. A plan for a DSA-led Green New Deal campaign can serve to orient us properly toward AOC and Markey’s proposal, identifying points where we agree and points where we need to re-frame the conversation. DSA must call for going beyond the current legislation, by demanding a clear deadline for reaching net-zero emissions, a job guarantee fulfilled through expansion of the public sector (with a timeline for reaching full employment), public ownership of major energy systems and resources, and massive taxes on the rich. A recent document put out by DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group is an excellent first step towards making this a reality, and deserves the support of every DSA member.

Second — to the end of pushing for more radical demands — chapters can begin agitating for public ownership of major energy resources and productive enterprises, framing these struggles in the context of the fight for a Green New Deal. For example, Detroit DSA, as part of the Detroit Coalition for a Green New Deal, has called for the public seizure of General Motors plants in the area in the event that GM proceeds with planned factory closures. Remarkably, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has come out in support of these demands. Calls for public control and revitalization of automotive plants and other productive enterprises are likely to be extremely popular in the deindustrialized Rust Belt, and ought to be central to a Green New Deal.

In a somewhat similar vein, northern California DSA chapters are making use of the public resentment inspired by Pacific Gas & Electric’s record of environmental damage and economic failure to argue for socialization of that company. In the wake of deadly wildfires that the utility giant is responsible for, seven chapters in the region have agreed to a joint campaign involving coordinated protests and a forthcoming website to advocate for bringing PG&E under public control, and all as part of a campaign for a Green New Deal.

Third, DSA can incorporate its Green New Deal campaign into other work. Our campaign for Bernie Sanders, a supporter of the policy and the only likely presidential candidate who consistently frames climate change as a class issue, presents an obvious opportunity to advance the cause of a Green New Deal.

Fourth, we should strive to build coalitions with other organizations that are working for a Green New Deal (like the Sunrise Movement). In some contexts, it may make sense for DSA chapters to follow the lead of groups like Sunrise — while pushing a strong, clear class struggle line in all our organizing and messaging.

The political and economic status quo spells disaster for our planet. The right is doubling down on climate change denial, and liberals are unwilling or unable to take the steps necessary to prevent impending doom.

The sudden popularity of a Green New Deal, however, is cause for hope. It represents a historic opportunity for socialists to shift the country’s political direction, and in so doing to help rebuild a strong, radical working-class movement. DSA can and must take the lead in the fight for a Green New Deal. It’s our best shot at building a more just economy and a livable planet — and it can pave the way for an even brighter future.

Nick French is an activist in East Bay DSA and a member of DSA’s Bread and Roses caucus.  Featured Photo is by Peg Hunter | Flickr CC 2.0.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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