A People’s Green New Deal: A Symposium

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal intervenes in current debates regarding green planning, green future, green stimuli, and eco-socialism. It surveys a wide range of existing literature on the ecological and social crisis, ranging from ruling-class “great transitions,” to eco-modernist elixirs of the right and the left which bank on technological solutions to today’s social and ecological problems. It then considers and critiques an array of liberal, left-liberal, and social democratic proposals, some of them going under the eco-socialist moniker, and shows how they rest on continued exploitation and primitive accumulation of the periphery. 

A People’s Green New Deal contributions lie in, first, using frameworks of dependency theory, accumulation on a world scale, and ecologically uneven exchange to illuminate the costs and consequences of distinct approaches to the climate crisis, left and right. Second, the book’s emphasis on agriculture, land use, and agro-ecology makes it unique amongst books on the Green New Deal and parallel debates. Its emphasis on decolonization, national sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and climate debt repayments from the North to the South is a third contribution. A fourth is how it deals with technology. 

This review forum assesses the contribution of A People’s Green New DealSakshi situates APGND in terms of a counter-epistemology to Eurocentric and empire-blind resolutions, if not really solutions, to the social and ecological crises to which mainstream Green New Deals are addressed. Sheetal Chhabria assesses APGND’s contribution to thinking on a planetary scale about appropriate planning for a just transition, while criticizing the book’s uncritical embrace of certain Indian nationalist tropes. Güney Işıkara raises questions regarding political agency and organization, the role of national-level planning in any form of national-level green transition, and how to approach anti-imperialism on a world scale.  

Read the contributions:

Beyond Green Restoration: An Eco-Socialist GND

Following the resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the term Green New Deal (GND) has become the gravitational center of climate action debates. On the one hand, conservatives, as well as some leftist circles, designate the AOC-Markey resolution as “socialist”. On the other hand, the term GND was first made public by Thomas Friedman in his NY Times column as a capitalistic and patriotic project which serves as “the basis of a new unifying political movement for the 21st century” (p.4). It comes as no surprise that so much political confusion accrues around the concept of a GND.

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal is the best leftist response I have read to the discussions whirling around this notion. It is clear-minded and well written. Politically, it constructs a consistent, uncompromising, anti-imperialist vision, well aware of the fact that tamed horizons are easily coopted and rearticulated by the ruling classes thanks to the elasticity of capital accumulation. Theoretically, its foundations are found in the “inherently polarizing” frameworks of dependency theory, world-system analysis, and (environmentally) unequal exchange (p.14).

Ajl evaluates GND proposals not only on the basis of targeted changes in physical production, but also in terms of their systemic implications. Some GNDs aim to preserve or strengthen capitalism, while others are designed to attack or abolish it (p.3). Correspondingly, the book is divided into two parts. The first one is concerned with what Ajl calls Capitalist Green Transitions (p.16) or “ruling class agendas” (p.20), while the second part sketches his vision of a People’s Green New Deal.

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Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal

tractor, tiller, tilling, equipment, agriculture, karnataka, india, transportation, mode of transportation, land, land vehicle, field, one person, landscape, agricultural machinery, day, nature, rural scene, plant, environment, driving, farm, dirt, agricultural equipment, outdoors, farmer, 4K

Photo: Farming in Karnataka, India.

Max Ajl’s People’s Green New Deal is a brutal reminder for the American left that even the most celebrated and progressive developments in American politics are still simply American politics, in other words they are a politics for America, and America first. Ajl situates both the longer history of environmental destruction and the response to it within a planetary frame without losing sight of geographical unevenness. The book is divided into two parts. The first part is where Ajl systematically debunks the American-centrism of the Cortez/Markey Green New Deal (GND). The second part is an imagination-widening exposition of an alternative People’s Green New Deal that centers the livelihood of the majority of the world’s people by putting forth an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist framework for a just transition. 

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A People’s Green New Deal – An Exercise in Just Knowledge Production

In his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1984, Thomas Sankara makes the following astute observation regarding the African petite bourgeoisie and its public intellectuals:  

“Our professors, engineers and economists are content simply to add a little colouring, because they have brought from the European universities of which they are the products only their diplomas and the surface smoothness of adjectives and superlatives. It is urgently necessary that our qualified personnel and those who work with ideas learn that there is no innocent writing. In these tempestuous times, we cannot leave it to our enemies of the past and of the present to think and to imagine and to create. We also must do so.”

In the same speech, Sankara continues to caution against planning for the uplifting of a nation if such plans are ignorant of, or are wilfully erasing, the disinherited masses and the wretchedness inherited by them. Sankara’s postulation, emerging from the socio-political contexts of the African continent, provides a sound theoretical foundation for knowledge production in the contemporary worlds we inhabit. The popular narratives around climate change have strived to communicate the gravity of planetary collapse and measures required to avert ecological and environmental crises worldwide. Nevertheless, the urgency of envisioning a new world shows little self-reflection as to its epistemic positions and privileges. Climate change discourses in the Global North, academic or otherwise, have largely been constrained by the desire to brave the planetary crises with limited disruption to existing race and class privileges. In terms of how the problems of climate change are identified and defined and the range of solutions to address them, the western epistemologies remain rudimentary.

Consequently, the range of green new deals or the visions for just-transition and sustainable utopias remain agnostic to the everyday realities and struggles of the Global South against imperialism and colonialism. It is unclear if Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are better placed to partake in these futures than they are now. Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal provides a refreshing and rich scholarly alternative to how an ideal green new deal should be imagined.

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Can Joan Robinson’s ideas cast some light on today’s profound economic challenges?

By Carolina Alves and Jan Toporowski

Cambridge Journal of Economics Special Issue / Deadline for submitting papers via CJE refereeing process: 30th April 2022.

2023 marks the fortieth year since the passing of Joan Robinson and her one-hundred-and-twentieth anniversary. This special issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics aims at presenting a collection of papers that reflect the extraordinary breadth of Robinson’s career and examine what insights these might offer the economics profession and policy makers to address our seemingly most intractable problems of inadequate demand, rising margins with falling competition, and widespread and seemingly intransigent inequality and its consequences. For Robinson the purpose of our discipline is in understanding the real world to enable all global citizens to enjoy life to the full. It is therefore fitting that we follow her lead and demand that we ask of ourselves whether we have done enough to address her challenges to economic theory.

Despite making her international reputation in the Marshallian tradition of economics, she came to regard her generalisation of John Maynard Keynes’s theories and their integration with Kaleckian and Marxian insights as her more substantial contribution, along with a vigorous defence of rigorous evidence-based thought over inductive mathematical modelling. Among an impressive body of work, three books by Robinson mark key moments in the evolution of her ideas: The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933), An Essay on Marxian Economics (1942), and The Accumulation of Capital (1956) (Marcuzzo, 2003).

In 1933, she made her international reputation with brilliant work within the orthodoxy on imperfect competition, offering an internal critique of the marginalist theory of distribution. Only a decade later, her reflections on reading Karl Marx persuaded Robinson to question the Marshallian methodology, in particular its polite theory of income distribution which became so incongruous during and after the depression (Marcuzzo, 2003).1 Finally, in 1956, she had the courage to follow the logic of her argument to examine the whole neoclassical theory of income distribution and its predominant method, facing the might of the now dominant American economics profession in the [in]famous capital controversy. She had to accept the pyrrhic victory of her interlocutors accepting she was right, yet the profession moving on regardless.

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International support for the least developed countries: moving out of the mainstream

Next January the next United Nations Programme of Action for least developed countries (LDCs) will launch in Doha. It will set the framework for the next 10 years of international support for the world’s 46 officially poorest and most structurally disadvantaged countries, home to around a billion people.  

LDCs are low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development. Membership of the category is based on three criteria: income per capita, human assets and economic and environmental vulnerability.  

Assistance for LDCs currently falls under three categories: trade, aid and a range of ad hoc measures broadly aimed at help with taking part in the international system, such as lower contributions to the UN budget and support for travel to international meetings like the annual UN General Assembly.  

Support is largely based on the premise that LDCs are artificially or temporarily excluded from global commerce. Preferential market access, temporary development assistance and help with participating in multilateral processes are intended to tackle this defect, in turn helping the LDCs ‘catch up’.  

Dating to 1971, the category is the only one recognised in UN and multilateral legal texts. There is no official ‘developing country’ or ‘middle income’ category with associated support measures. Low income countries are not specifically targeted, and the small and vulnerable states are only recognised as a working group at the World Trade Organisation. They are not acknowledged in the legal texts. 

Although donors don’t meet aid pledges and support doesn’t go far enough, official targets are possible because the LDC group is officially recognised in the UN system and has legal bearing. An example of such a target is the commitment by developed countries to deliver 0.15-0.20% of gross national income (GNI) in development assistance to LDCs. The European Union offers duty-free, quota-free market access to LDC exports under its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme for LDCs. 

The theory behind support for LDCs is implicitly based on the mainstream economics view that LDCs lag behind because they aren’t exposed enough to correct market prices and conditions. The removal of so-called distortions like overseas tariff and non-tariff barriers, alongside temporary development assistance and help taking part in the global system, is supposed to free up these economies to play a fuller role in the international economy. Economic growth will drive development and reduce poverty. 

The evidence shows that for most LDCs this theory never worked. Until the pandemic the economies of some LDCs were performing well. Up to 12 could leave the category in coming years. A few, like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, were able to take advantage of lower tariffs for their garment exports. These three countries account for 87% of imports to the EU under EBA.  

But half were supposed to meet the criteria by 2020, according to international targets. 12 graduations falls well short. The six that have left since the formation of the category in 1971 have not all done so because of better international market access or special support measures. Commodity exports, tourism or improved health and education are mostly responsible.  

The remaining LDCs aren’t catching up. The gap is widening. The pandemic devastated the group. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.3% on average in 2020, with the economies of 37 contracting during the year and extreme poverty in the group rising by a staggering 84 million. But even before Covid, average real GDP per capita for the group had long diverged from other developing countries and the rest of the world.  

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World Development under Monopoly Capitalism

Photo: do bicycles come from? Source: WDR2020, Figure 1.1, pp. 16.

One of the main effects (I will not say purposes) of orthodox traditional economics was…a plan for explaining to the privileged class that their position was morally right and was necessary for the welfare of society.

—Joan Robinson1

The recent period of globalization—following the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the reintegration of China into the world economy—is one where global value chains have become the dominant organizational form of capitalism. From low to high tech, basic consumer goods to heavy capital equipment, food to services, goods are now produced across many countries, integrated through global value chains. According to the International Labour Organization, between 1995 and 2013 the number of people employed in global value chains rose from 296 to 453 million, amounting to one in five jobs in the global economy.2 We are living in a global value chain world.3

The big question is whether this global value chain world is contributing to, or detracting from, real human development. Is it establishing a more equal, less exploitative, less poverty-ridden world? Which political economic frameworks are best placed to illuminate and explain the workings of this world?

Recent critical scholarship has applied monopoly capital concepts and categories to the analysis of global value chains. John Bellamy Foster and others have illuminated how global value chains represent the latest form of monopoly capital on a world scale.4 John Smith shows how surplus-value transfer and capture—from workers in poorer countries to lead firms in northern countries—is portrayed by mainstream economists as “value added” by those firms.5 Intan Suwandi analyzes how global value chains are enabled by, and also intensify, differential rates of worldwide labor exploitation.6

Mainstream advocates of global value chain-based development tend to ignore such critical analyses, and continue to preach the benefits of global value chain integration by drawing on examples and data that support their claims. However, it says much about the anti-developmental dynamics generated by global value chains when a World Bank report advocating global value chain-based development actually provides data that supports the analyses of the aforementioned critical authors.

Here, we interrogate the data used and the claims made in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2020, titled Trading for Development in the Age of Global Value Chains (WDR2020, or “the report”).7 While the report portrays global value chains as contributing to poor countries’ development through job creation, poverty alleviation, and economic growth, we reveal how its data shows the opposite.8

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Inner-city pressure and living somewhere in-between 

On a cold winter’s day in 2014, I sat awkwardly in the office of the person managing a high-rise apartment building in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD). The building is a former office block that has been renovated by the city’s largest private affordable housing company and is currently rented as residential accommodation. Affordable housing is commercial rental housing that caters to people who earn too much to qualify for state-subsidised housing, otherwise known as social housing, but too little to purchase their own properties on the regular market. Rents in the building in which this incident took place range from R1325 (£65 or Ksh9695) for a studio room to R3589 (£174 or Ksh26261) for a 2-bedroom apartment. I was in the building to interview the manager about the ins and outs of her job, and to then interview tenants living there. However, our interview was interrupted by a distraught tenant. She was visibly upset, and I soon realised that she had been locked out of her apartment. Unfortunately, this was not an exceptional situation. The housing company, like others working in Johannesburg’s inner-city, use lock-outs, or the threat thereof, to ensure that tenants pay their rent. Doing research into the inner-city rental housing market over a period of two years, I had frequently heard about the threat of lock-outs, but this was my first time witnessing the effects of one actually being enforced. Several building managers had told me that they find ways to avoid having to implement them, negotiating with tenants or giving them advanced warning so that they have time to scrounge money together to make a payment and stave off punishment. In this case, however, all efforts to prevent the lock-out had failed. It was the middle of the month, and rent, usually due on the 1st, still had not been paid. The building manager therefore had no choice but to adhere to the demands of her job, even though this had obviously disturbing and upsetting consequences. However, to mitigate the harm caused to the tenant and her young child, the manager, who also lives in the building, arranged for them to sleep in her own apartment that night, whilst they tried to locate some funds to begin repaying the debt. In this case, the pressures induced by fluctuating fortunes and a ruthless cost-recovery business model, as well as the strain to personal relations and consciences this induces, became stark.  

Although people living in affordable housing generally have stable salaries and employment, as the incident above shows, they too can experience downturns in luck, lose money and jobs and find themselves out on the street. Thus, whilst the plight of chronically un(der)employed people and those living in informal settlements is cause for concern and rightly receives much critical attention, it is important to bear in mind that the middle-classes too are caught between Johannesburg’s extremes. In what follows, I trace the (pre-covid-19) experiences of people living in social and affordable housing in inner-city Johannesburg. As will become clear, their lives are shaped by economic pressure, as they work hard to pay their rent and forgo other forms of social interaction whilst striving to get by. At the same time, they also encounter other forms of pressure, as they contend with difficult and unpleasant environments and navigate spaces marked by fear of crime and concerns about safety.  

Other pieces in this blog series have argued that pressure can be theorised as an imbalance between (real or imagined) economic demands and concomitant abilities to fulfil them. However, imbalances also extend beyond economic concerns and encompass desires about living situations, ease of daily life, and safety and security. In inner-city Johannesburg, pressure emanates from the fact that the prevailing urban reality does not match people’s aspirations for central accommodation that is close to jobs, schools and social services, but also provides comfort, peace of mind and liveable environments. Faced with this mismatch or imbalance between aspirations and reality, people are forced to live in-between, to reside somewhere and make do, whilst aspiring to be elsewhere, but simultaneously knowing that there are few avenues through which this aspiration can be realised. The cumulative effects of this pressure is a form of resignation and detachment, a sense of living in-between and accepting what one can get from a vastly unequal socio-economic landscape.  

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