Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 21, 2018

Vain hopes in a Green New Deal

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with climate change activists in Nancy Pelosi’s office

Largely as a result of the near total collapse of the 100 year Soviet experiment in Russia and its replicas elsewhere, there have been attempts to reorient the left to new forms of social and economic transformation supposedly untainted by failed measures such as a planned economy based on state ownership of the commanding heights of industry. First and foremost among them is the belief that cooperatives can form the basis of a socialism from below. The idea is that local initiatives such as those in Jackson, Mississippi can become so widespread and popular so that they will finally bring about a qualitative change in class relations, finally putting the working class in power.

While not advertised as a transitional step toward socialism, the idea of a Green New Deal has captured the imaginations of many on the left. For example, Jacobin editor Branco Marcetic wrote an article titled Make Them Do It just before the recent midterm election that insisted on the need for Democrats winning, “not just to keep the natural world from being fed through the shredder, but to truly start the process of reversing the march toward catastrophic climate change through bold, decisive action.” To give you an idea of the kind of Democrats whose victory would save the world, he included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (naturally) and Tulsi Gabbard, whose climate legislation has been called “the strongest yet introduced in Congress” by Food and Water Watch. Whatever position Gabbard has staked out on reducing greenhouse gases in the USA is certainly compromised by her avid support for Bashar al-Assad and Narendra Modi, who have turned their respective countries into ethnic cleansing and ecological dead zones.

Ocasio-Cortez has made the Green New Deal front-page news after taking part in a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office on November 13th. Most people who just skimmed the headlines on this story might have assumed that this was some kind of protest meant to discredit Pelosi and the establishment Democrats. In reality, it was much more of a bonding exercise of the sort that has been taking place ever since the “progressives” poured into the new House of Representatives making nice with Pelosi and other old-guard players. The Washington Post described the event as “an encounter that touched off a display of mutual admiration between the 78-year-old matriarch and the millennial upstart.” Ocasio-Cortez, described as “less confrontational” than in the past, said: “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”

It was a virtual love-in with Pelosi smooching back on Twitter: “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change. The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide, and I strongly support reinstating the select committee to address the crisis.”

It turns out that the origin of the concept was in op-ed columns by Mr. Globalization himself Thomas Friedman. In a January 19, 2007 NYT op-ed, the arch-imperialist wrote:

The right rallying call is for a “Green New Deal.” The New Deal was not built on a magic bullet, but on a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America. Ditto for an energy New Deal. If we are to turn the tide on climate change and end our oil addiction, we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power — and conservation.

It takes a Green New Deal because to nurture all of these technologies to a point that they really scale would be a huge industrial project. If you have put a windmill in your yard or some solar panels on your roof, bless your heart. But we will only green the world when we change the very nature of the electricity grid — moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables. And that is a huge industrial project — much bigger than anyone has told you. Finally, like the New Deal, if we undertake the green version, it has the potential to create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.

Is there any difference between this and what Ocasio-Cortez is calling for? You can read her proposals that supposedly are in the best interests of the Democratic Party at https://ocasio2018.com/green-new-deal. While not mentioning the word socialism once, it makes you wonder if going through such a convulsive change is necessary since “a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Eliminate poverty and make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone? Sure, why not? It certainly breaks with the Neanderthal version of socialism advocated by Monthly Review and most of the people writing for CounterPunch, including me. Our dinosaur brand of socialism was rejected by Jacobin author Neal Meyer in July, 2018:

It’s one thing to know what democratic socialists fight for, and another to lay out a convincing path to realizing it. This is where democratic socialists truly differ with some of our friends on the socialist left. We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.

Yes, that is what Marx advocated, don’t you know? Throwing despots out on the front lawn.

Perhaps the most persuasive case for making the connections between Ocasio-Cortez, the Official Democratic Party leadership as represented by Nancy Pelosi, and the loathsome Thomas Friedman was her widely quoted statement that appeared on Huffington Post: “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan. We must again invest in the development, manufacturing, deployment, and distribution of energy, but this time green energy.”

Ocasio-Cortez was an economics major at Boston University but she might have spent some spare time reading what Marxists have said about the New Deal, WWII and the Marshall Plan that interestingly enough flow together dialectically as a study in the contradictions of capitalism.

If FDR created jobs through the WPA and other New Deal make-work projects, that was hardly enough to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Twenty years ago, someone with a mindset identical to Jacobin, the DSA, and Ocasio-Cortez on a day when she tries to cover her left flank, submitted an article to Monthly Review that the saintly Harry Magdoff had trouble with, especially with this sentence: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.”

Harry wrote the author explaining what was wrong with this analysis:

The term “Keynesian state” has become a catchword that covers a variety of concepts and is usually misleading. It may have some meaning for the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere. But the United States? Although the concept is often applied to the New Deal, the deficit spending of the New Deal had nothing to do with Keynes (nor did Hitler’s recovery via military expenditures). It’s true Washington economists were delighted with the appearance of Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money because it gave them theoretical handles for analysis and policy thinking (e.g.,the offset to savings concept and a framework for gross national product accounts). Nevertheless, despite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes’s theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification. [emphasis added]

A number of liberal economists have disputed the idea that WWII ended the Depression but it was up to J.R. Vernon (no Marxist, by any stretch of the imagination) to make the same case as Harry in the December 1994 Journal of Economic History where he stressed that more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began. Furthermore, in examining one New Deal supporter’s figures, he came to the conclusion that by the fourth quarter of 1940, only 46 percent of the recovery had been accomplished.

By the way, Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed piece in the November 10, 2008 that essentially made the same case: “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.”

So until we have WWIII, it looks to me that the current economic slump will not be resolved within the context of capitalism, least of all by a Green New Deal that will be constrained by its reliance on the profit motive. After all, it is automobiles exported to India that generates growth, not windmills.

As for the Marshall Plan, this was just the fix that capitalism needed after WWII to lay the groundwork for a new round of accumulation. WWII ginned up capitalist production in the USA, especially in the smokestack industries, and the Marshall Plan revived Europe and Japan as markets for American exports as well as undercutting the massive support for Communism. In his 1947 speech on the plan, George Marshall made clear its purpose was “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” Free institutions obviously meant the freedom to exploit labor.

In helping to revive capitalist production in Europe, the USA created the conditions for its own decline. The market that was created for American exports was joined at the hip by the growth of VW, Mercedes-Benz, and other corporations that would eventually reduce Detroit to a status resembling Berlin in 1945. Capitalism, after all, is a zero-sum game.

Finally, turning to the question of the feasibility of making America Green without abolishing capitalist property relations, I want to draw an analogy with the last great revolutionary struggle in the USA, namely the Civil War.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the leader of a bourgeois revolution which pitted the northern industrialists against another section of the bourgeoisie—the cotton plantation owners of the South who required slave labor to maintain their class domination.

Now, 158 years later, the petrochemical sector constitutes the same kind of reactionary grip on American society that will smash any challenge to its exploitation of fossil fuels and wage labor. What cotton and chattel slavery were to Lincoln’s day, carbon-based commodity production and wage slavery are to our epoch. It is not just Exxon that is determined to keep producing oil. You have the fracking corporations who have helped to make the USA the primary energy producer in the world today. On top of that you have the automobile companies who have zero interest in public transportation based on alternative energy sources. Or the airline industry that will never replace jets with dirigibles. Then there are the industries that either produce plastic or use it, such as at least 80 percent of the manufacturers of the commodities for sale at Walmart and that are now helping to destroy all living creatures in the world’s oceans. Let’s not forget about the companies producing chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are key to industrial farming. Will they be ready to be replaced by sustainable organic agriculture?

American capitalism of the modern era cannot co-exist with environmentally sustainable practices. One or the other will have to triumph. If American capitalism succeeds, civilization will be the loser. As Rosa Luxemburg once put it, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. Sitting in at Nancy Pelosi’s office will not change that equation unfortunately.

13 Comments »

  1. One thing you can be sure of–not a single person at risk or suffering deprivation under the current ordo seclorum will get even a smidgen of help from this–and nor will the environment.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 21, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

  2. That photo is not AOC.

    Comment by Fred Murphy — November 21, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

  3. The photo captioned “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with climate change activists in Nancy Pelosi’s office” appeared in news stories that identified the person as Ocasio-Cortez. Other news stories had photos of the same person, wearing the same clothing, and also identified her as Ocasio-Cortez.

    See https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/11/13/backed-ocasio-cortez-youth-climate-activists-arrested-pelosis-office-demanding

    and https://theintercept.com/2018/11/13/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-sunrise-activists-nancy-pelosi/

    Comment by alan ginsberg — November 22, 2018 @ 12:03 am

  4. If we need a WWlll to change our economy to one that is green, social and sustainable, let that war be against catastrophic climate disasters. Climate change is our only real enemy in terms of survival. If we do not treat it as an urgent crisis, like a real war, then we are doomed. During WWll, auto manufacturers were forced to produce only tanks and other military equipment. Now car makers could be required to produce solar panels and windmills for every community in America. We don’t need more cars. We need sustainable energy.

    This idea will not sound strange when temperatures rise to deadly levels and wildfires, droughts, storms, floods, searise and heatwaves destroy huge sections of our country, and the planet. All countries must stop fighting each other and turn all their efforts to fighting climate change or the earth will soon be toast. A capitalist economy is a race to the bottom for workers, students, seniors and the poor. It will take a Social Democracy to end the iron grip of Wall Street and keep it from destroying people an planet. We have to take off our rosey glasses and face the real threat of collapsing environments, economies and society itself. The ominous signs are everywhere but too many refuse to recognize the daunting tasks they imply.

    Comment by Bill Reitter — November 22, 2018 @ 2:06 am

  5. I thought I was the only one advocating a revival of the Zepplin!

    Comment by Matthew Andrews — November 22, 2018 @ 2:29 am

  6. […] Source: Vain hopes in a Green New Deal | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Vain hopes in a Green New Deal | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist – Darwiniana — November 22, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

  7. https://darwiniana.com/2018/11/22/vain-hopes-in-a-green-new-deal-louis-proyect-the-unrepentant-marxist/#more-2643
    In the final analysis the left is so confused it can no longer produce a significant platform. Hectoring the Greens for their failure to toe the marxist line simply adds to the confusion, even though some of the criticism is on target. But radicals of all stripes are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In the end the marxist line is a record of failure and should call for a reexamination to figure out where the whole game went wrong. No use sermonizing the typical Green drift into social democratic illusion given the record of marxists.
    We may grant that capitalist propaganda critiquing Marx confuses the issue. But in the final analysis the core failure is that of the arrogant and dogmatic/domineering Marx, whose theories have left a hopeless muddle of bad theory and dysfunctional leftists glued to a religion. The idea of communism is plagued by a sort of marxist vampire that aborts all energy or innovation….

    Comment by nemonemini — November 22, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

  8. Louis, have you read Robert Pollin’s essay in New Left Review on the Green New Deal. It is a truly awful and arrogant essay, written has if he is speaking ex cathedra from his perch in his Amherst think tank, financed by his billionaire parents (his father, Abe Pollin has since died). He is a decent economist and has written for MR. But in this piece, he uses data to seemingly demonstrate the tremendous advantages of the New Green Deal. But it is as if he has never heard of the class divide, of the need to expropriate the wealth of the rich, of imperialism, of the pernicious environmental damage done by capitalist agriculture and by the US military, the latter of which is not even bound by the most basic environmental regulations. He argues that cheap renewable energy won’t cause the demand for all sorts of environmentally hazardous activities to rise (Jevons paradox). He uses the stupid example of dish washers, saying that cheap energy won’t cause us to use our dishwashers more. But what about construction of hotels and high-rise apartments in all sorts of places now prone to ecological catastrophe. Of tourism, which is absolutely wrecking the most beautiful places in the West. He says we can use the deserts to build solar panels, not even grasping the sensitivity of deserts to any further human action nor their importance in the environmental scheme of things. And he fails utterly to tell us about what sort of politics will get us a New Green Deal, except to suggest that we can’t antagonize the super wealthy too much. Somehow the rich nations will finance Green New Deals in the Global South. Just all rubbish. And Pollin is a whole lot smarter than Bernie Sanders, Ocasio Cortez, some of the writers fools at Jacobin, and most other social democrats.

    Comment by Michael Yates — November 22, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

  9. Ocasio-Cortez is about corralling political power for her own purposes. She is a priestess and all she offers are charms and prayers in return for your time and money.

    Comment by Mike — November 27, 2018 @ 12:25 am

  10. The post makes the point that government spending in 1937-38 was insufficient to lift the economy out of recession, but the same (increased) government spending in support of war did in fact change the economy. Is there some law that says a government can only increase spending in time of war? The Green New Deal (which the Democrats appropriated from the Green Party, as it was the centerpiece of Jill Stein’s 2016 campaign) calling for an effort on the scale of WWII spending does not mean we must fight a war, only that we must spend as if we were. While this is easily justifiable in light of impending climate disaster and existing poverty and the need to halt environmental destruction, the real barriers are the neo-liberal deficit hawks and the decidedly not Keynesian ‘New Keynesians” (warmed over Chicago School austerity economics with a friendlier face than Milton Friedmann).

    Comment by Wayne Turner — November 27, 2018 @ 12:54 am

  11. As I understand it, the post-WWII “recovery” relied on the general upgrade of the manufacturing infrastructure which needed the stimulus of wartime production (and post-war imperial domination) to realize gains that were already beginning to be seen in 1941. The generation that went to war in ’42, so I’ve been told, had sock hops and drive-ins and were in material respects, except for the risk of getting their asses shot off, much better off than their parents and older siblings who bore the full brunt of the Great Depression.

    The question re the “green New Deal” is really whether it can replace the upsurge in investment and industrial production that happened post-New Deal and postwar.

    Without a change in ownership of the means of production, how can that happen, given the permanent erosion of the industrial base and the inevitable displacement of the most productive jobs by automation?

    Society must mobilize. How can that happen under the modified rule of the one percent, when hedge funds are considered a “productive” industry?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 27, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

  12. I should add, how can that happen in one country at this point in history?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 27, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

  13. Yes, we need a “wartime economy” to revitalize our moribund employment outlook, and that war should be against our only true enemy, planetary pollution and over heating! The $Trillions needed to revitalize our economy can only be justified if it is ecologically, socially and humanely spent, with improved health for both people and planet. The Green New Deal would be justified and pay for itself if it produced dividends by increasing GNH, Gross National Happiness, and by making the earth safe for future generations of people and animals. This project would pay for itself through lower healthcare costs, increased productivity and longevity, and reduced incarceration costs, among many other savings. The Greens had it right after all!

    Comment by Bill Reitter — November 27, 2018 @ 6:24 pm


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