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.

The Existing GNDs

Chapter 1 provides a bird’s eye view to various ‘green social control’ programs, which aim to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change, and mobilize an ‘emergency’ discourse to do so. Ajl’s critique is not confined to easy philanthropic targets such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It extends to more appealing social democratic proposals brought up by writers and politicians like Jeremy Rifkin, Ed Miliband, and Mariana Mazzucato, who share a great deal of enthusiasm for new technologies and green jobs unlocked by public-private partnerships, that is, for fixing and saving rather than attacking and abolishing capitalism.

The next chapter discusses the green transition of modernization theory from both the left and right. The author traces the roots of contemporary eco-modernism to Rostow’s original modernization theory which emerged as a reaction to the ‘threat of communism’. For Ajl, ecological modernization theory, perpetuated by centers like the Breakthrough Institute, has the intention of deflecting attention from systemic drivers of the ecological crisis rooted in social and economic relations, and frame the crisis as a purely technological challenge. Its counterpart on the left is the accelerationist current, which shares the same techno-fantasies, forgetting that ‘technology as such’ does not exist, as any technology emerges and functions in particular social settings.

Chapters 3 and 4 engage in a critical analysis of the existing GND proposals. Ajl starts by distinguishing between three main brands of progressive politics: i) the left-liberal attempt that aims to render current energy use fully renewable, while promoting increased energy use in the Global South and maintaining capitalist property structures; ii) the green social democratic (or being-nice-to-the-South) vision which prescribes lower energy use in core countries along with a redistribution of income, and grants to southern countries; iii) the degrowth or eco-communist solution with considerably lower energy use in the core, decommodified infrastructure, and massive technology grants to the South (p.58).  

Ajl is very critical of the first two camps mentioned above. Progressives like Robert Pollin who narrow down the debate to the question of replacement of fossil fuels by green and renewable energy sources not only turn a blind eye to other crucial aspects of the multidimensional ecological destruction, but also obscure the exploitation, suffering, and deprivation likely to increase as a result of imperial political engineering to extract the required raw materials from the periphery. The book is rife with examples of such ‘interventions’, coups, and sponsoring of suppressive regimes to secure the flow of cheap raw materials.    

The author is right on point in saying that hiding behind the cloak of pragmatism used to justify such restricted interventions to capitalist markets is nothing more than an ideological commitment to the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism. In a world of class divisions and imperial hierarchies within and between countries, getting capital on board with a program corresponds to making the working classes and the oppressed pay the price for it.

Social Democracy, Yesterday and Today

In his reflection on various social democratic proposals, Ajl introduces an analytical distinction between ‘social democracy as a bundle of policies’ and ‘social democracy as a historical form of capitalism’. The former comprises rights like free health care and education, a decent infrastructure, low levels of inequality, and so forth. The latter one represents a barely tamed capitalism that existed for a brief period following WWII. It was marked by class compromise, relentless value extraction from the periphery, and most importantly, the conceived threat of communism in flesh and blood – the USSR, Maoist China, and numerous Marxist national liberation movements (p.76-7). I am not totally convinced that this distinction between the two meanings of social democracy is warranted, as the two are much more interconnected than they might appear in the light of this distinction. Those ‘bundle of policies’ at least partially presuppose the conditions pertaining to the second meaning.

When it comes to the AOC-Markey resolution, Ajl notes that the “danger lies in identifying an anti-racist Green Keynesian tract as a ‘transitional program,’ anti-capitalist, or related to eco-socialism.” (p.81) He gives due credit to the proposal for relating the climate crisis to social crisis, but is quite critical of the use of ‘national security’ as a framework to placate the established order. When the resolution discusses the global dimensions of green transition with an emphasis on the U.S. as the international leader, it employs the usual language with signs of imperial conceit. This is supported by its silence on the U.S. military, which would be the 47th largest polluter if it were a country (p.155). All these points aside, it is striking that even so many on the left designate a resolution which makes no reference whatsoever to capital accumulation and class conflict as eco-socialist.

The first part of the book closes with a succinct summary statement of Ajl’s position on green social democracy: i) it is not achievable through current electoral strategies; ii) even if it were, it would intensify and deepen the existing practices of extraction, exploitation and deprivation especially in the Global South; iii) it is misleadingly being marketed as eco-socialist; and iv) its compromised horizon limits our political imagination, and prevents us from reaching a further horizon (p.94-5).

My caveats pertaining to the first part of the book are rather minor and secondary. I do not fully understand, for instance, why the concept of carbon budget as such is problematic. Ajl notes that it ignores the interests of some relevant parties, and are of probabilistic nature (p.62). It is true that the mainstream arithmetic of carbon budgets does not adequately reflect social and political conflicts which are essential for an eco-socialist perspective. Yet these objections pertain to the frameworks in which carbon budgets are employed, and not, in my opinion, to the concept itself. In fact, Ajl himself uses the concept in his discussion of the precautionary principle, rightly underlining that the debate is primarily political rather than technical (p.63).

A People’s GND

The first chapter of the second part provides the core elements of Ajl’s vision for a People’s GND, with which I sympathize to a great extent. Thus, I will rather focus on the points where I have reservations or questions to deepen the discussion from a comradely perspective.

The first point on the eco-socialist agenda in the North is, according to Ajl, to build local action which “needs to be autonomous from national politics and the two-party system” (p.100). Taking root in local struggles, working with people to empower people is a must. Once the meaning of this empowerment is extended to supporting and sustaining local small producers in a programmatic way, however, we might easily end up pursuing a petty bourgeois vision rather than an eco-socialist one.

The emphasis on building “autonomy and decentralized power into the transition” (p.101) is not misplaced, but somewhat one-sided. Without a functioning national-level counterpart rooted in working-class interests and an ultimate vision of eco-socialism, neither local self-sufficiency nor local ecological action is likely to survive or prevail. Migration flows and policies, wage differentials, tax and subsidy policies, as well as the state’s hard power come to mind at this juncture. Large scale power and pressure must be confronted with large-scale organization and struggle. Nonetheless, this is not to favor ‘national’ over ‘local’, but rather a reminder that it is not an either-or question.

I believe Ajl is in fact aware of this dialectical relationship. The second pillar of his vision is thus a new labor regime with the aim of “democratic and worker-controlled production wherein workers also control the surplus and decide collectively where it goes.” (p.102) Steps in this direction can be direct, through co-ops and the socialization of the surplus, or indirect, through wage increases alongside significantly reduced working weeks. In addition, he mentions the need to ensure that labor pertaining to social reproduction is compensated through direct welfare payments, and to gradually socialize such work (p.104).

I fully sympathize with all these points. However, the socialization of the surplus and establishing of workers’ control in production require a discussion that cannot be avoided, namely that of a revolution. The indirect method of boosting wages and cutting working hours, on the other hand, is a very far possibility in the absence of massive productivity leaps or other changes that help cut production costs drastically.

The pillar of his vision pertaining to industry and manufacturing emphasizes the re-localization of production, the fostering of decentralized manufacturing hubs that share knowledge, pushing for planned longevity and repairing, and a transition of energy use in production. Although I share the push for a more even geographic organization of production, I still find the emphasis on decentralization and re-localization of production somewhat one-sided. One of the questions that comes to my mind is that of economies of scale. The latter, along with other sources of productivity increases, is the material basis of the shortening of the necessary working day for Marx and Engels. There is a tendential conflict between shorter worker hours and risking economies of scale. 

Ajl, and also degrowthers for whom a shorter working day is foundational, might hence want to reconsider this point. An obvious merit of Ajl’s text compared to the degrowth literature at large is that he recognizes that such a “People’s Green New Deal is about building eco-socialism”. This directly relates to the question of abolishing capitalism and constructing a new mode of production, rather than contemplating some vague vision of post-growth or post-capitalist society. I must also note that Ajl’s differs from the degrowth literature at large insofar as it does not engage in “[…] rejecting goods transport on a large scale and a socially complex, modern, and interwoven world.” (p.111)

What could add to the strength of his case is a discussion of the relations, tools, and mechanisms that would gradually curtail away and replace the market mechanism as the organizing foundation of generalized commodity production. He speaks of eco-socialist planning several times in the book. To what extent does this entail large-scale coordination and some degree of centralization? I think it is important to avoid conflating the spectrum of central-decentral with that of democratic-undemocratic, which is a widespread but undue shortcut that blurs debates around planning.

Another issue that is left open-ended in the book is the political function of a People’s Green New Deal. Does the author see the latter as a leverage to advance the revolutionary struggle and lead Northern societies to an eco-socialist future? Is it a transition program with one foot in the existing relations and structures, and the other foot in “the world we wish to see” (p.99)? As the author himself recognizes, “[m]any of these demands [which build the core of his People’s GND] are actually basic core social democratic demands […]. They clearly go far beyond the current elected progressive policy platforms.” What are then the possible means of pushing for a People’s GND?  What is the role of revolutionary organizations in the context of a People’s Green New Deal?

Putting Agriculture and Anti-Imperialism to the Center

For Ajl, the top priority of an internationalist GND is the shift to agroecology. He invites the reader to envision a less urban, more rural utopia, which implies locating more agriculture in cities and making rural areas more urban and agriculture more pleasant (p.118-9). Chapter 6 provides many examples and figures on how the modern food system and agriculture is wrecking havoc on people’s health, impoverishing small farmers, and imposing an imperialist division of labor. Moreover, in contrast to Malthusian cries over food scarcity, Ajl convincingly demonstrates that the current food system is one of overproduction. Far more food than what people need is produced and wasted (p.123-5).

He suggests a simple roadmap for moving to agroecology, which bears an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist character: large agricultural corporations must be dismantled or nationalized; huge farms must be turned into cooperatives or broken down into smaller units where agroecological methods are employed; prices must be regulated to avoid overproduction and ensure high living standards in the countryside; massive investment to support farmers in green transition; and public investment to provide high-quality infrastructure in the countryside (p.143-5).

The chapter discusses many topics from the significance of land use in bringing down cumulated emissions in the atmosphere to the question of meat production and veganism, to productivity comparisons between agroecology and monocultures, to possible short-run interventions in urban planning. It constitutes one of the main strengths of the book, and I learned a lot from it. The question that haunts my mind however, is the same as I mentioned in the previous section: how could this type of a radical transition be launched while capitalist social relations still prevail? The way I understand it, Ajl’s People’s GND is meant to disrupt the logic of capital, push for changes that are absolutely incompatible with the capitalist mode of production, and use the emerging political discontent and energy as a leverage to abolish the latter.

One of the biggest merits of the book is, by the way, that the argument is not confined to a critique. Ajl asks the right questions, and points out embryonic solutions already in motion: Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, the international farmers organization La Via Campesina, the Red Deal proposed by The Red Nation, and the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba.

The closing chapter of the book reiterates the centrality of anti-imperialism for any internationalist and eco-socialist GND. I fully acknowledge the importance of the anti-imperialist emphasis Ajl makes. The right to national self-determination is not negotiable. Equally important is, however, an emphasis on the struggles of workers and the oppressed in the South. Otherwise, one can easily end up locked in a mechanistic dualism of ‘the bad North’ versus ‘the good South’, something I have seen too often in the past decade, resulting in an odd outcome where leftists declare open support for oppressive regimes and brutal dictatorships, which ironically work in full harmony with the North. Reality is always more complicated, comprising multiple subjectivities in both the North and South, bringing about tactical and strategic alliances that deviate from the grayness of theory.

It is striking, as Ajl demonstrates, that the vast majority of progressive GND proposals either sidestep or suppress this question by erasing the language of ecological debt, silencing the demand for reparations, and content themselves with merely recognizing historically unequal responsibilities.

Ajl is bold at one point: “the national question is not a historical relic, antiquated and anachronistic.” (p.148) The national political sphere is still the primary terrain of determining the rate and direction of investment, building political alliances and internationalisms. A just transition has hence to be built upon the recognition of the right of self-determination as a principle. According to the author, there are three pillars to this: i) climate and ecological debt; ii) demilitarization; and iii) establishing and strengthening sovereignty, which translates into “national-popular environmentalism of the poor and eco-socialism” in the South, and “acknowledging and struggling against state violation of southern self-determination” in the North (p.158-9).

All in all, Ajl’s book is a must-read for anyone not content with pure descriptions of ecological breakdown or sterile roadmaps that try to avoid social conflicts. Calling the object by its name is the first step for confronting and dealing with the multidimensional ecological destruction: it is, in fact, a destruction where capital accumulation is our main antagonist. What is utopian today is not envisioning an eco-socialist future and fighting for it, but believing that one can change everything by changing nothing.

Güney Işıkara is a a Clinical Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University.

This book review is a part of a symposium on Max Ajl’s book the People’s Green New Deal. .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s