A People’s Green New Deal, from Max Ajl, constitutes a short and effective intervention into the wider conversations surrounding climate politics globally. Gus Woody finds an insightful critique of existing Green New Deal proposals, highlighting important directions of travel for ecosocialists.
Max Ajl, A People’s Green New Deal, (London: Pluto Press 2021) 224pp, £14.99.
After a slow burn in the early 2000s, championed in small corners of Green parties and environmental movements, the decades following the financial crisis saw the Green New Deal (GND) raised to new political heights. Initially championed in the US by the Sunrise Movement, then Senators Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey, the idea of the GND has rapidly spread. Today, we’ve seen GNDs championed by bodies as varied as Corbyn’s Labour, the European Union, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
First envisioned as a climate-focused equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, the moniker of GND has been applied to a wide variety of climate plans, of varying political stripes. As such, Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal has emerged at an opportune time to provide urgently needed clarity to ecosocialists.
In the aftermath of the Corbyn and Sanders GND movements, where these proposals have been killed and buried by a resurgent right and electoral failure, it’s important to consider their content and what the future may bring. Politicians of all stripes will dig up the corpses of these proposals in the coming years and attempt to appropriate their imaginary. How can we subject such attempts to the necessary criticism needed? How can we ensure that a GND represents the ecological politics of the global working class, rather than those of the ruling class? How can we overcome the strategic and programmatic limitations of the first tragic GND movements?
Within A People’s Green New Deal, Ajl is therefore interested in two motions – firstly, going through existing GND proposals, particularly the US version originally championed by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey, critiquing their blindness to the global system of imperial domination and uneven exchange and secondly, indicating key issues currently neglected by environmentalist thinkers in the core which should form central concerns within any people’s GND.
As Ajl endeavours to make clear, A People’s Green New Deal is not a programmatic statement nor a comprehensive plan, instead it is an intervention. The function of this intervention is to encourage ecosocialists globally to train a more critical eye on GNDs and in doing so engage with politically clarifying issues in global climate politics. In this regard, A People’s Green New Deal is a success.
Critiquing the GND
A People’s Green New Deal opens with a salvo against the ‘great transition’ models of green capitalists, such as the plans of the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative (CFLI), led by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and an alliance of large financial companies, and thinkers like Jeremy Rifkin. These visions of the GND are perhaps those most amenable to the capitalist class and reflect a new emerging ecological politics amongst that class.
Ajl highlights key things which unify these visions. First, a refusal to demilitarise and recognise militaries’ role in pollution. Then, a desire to increase the financialization and commodification of nature, by increasing the role of companies and markets in the climate transition, through an equally clear exclusion of governments. Finally, a refusal to seriously engage with the complexity of land and the people who live off it, with a focus on large scale reforestation, industrial agriculture, and the use of biomass. Often, such proposals veer into Malthusian thinking about over-population as both the cause of poverty and pollution, rather than global capitalism.
Thus far, much of the left would share the criticisms Ajl has of such plans. After this, Ajl turns to those GND proposals which have emerged on the left, highlighting, amongst others, two key issues: the role of technology in climate transition and the wider issue of global energy production and degrowth.
With regard to technologies, Ajl is keen to reject the simplistic models of ecological modernization, which see technological progress as the only solution to the climate crisis and by association sees any technology as neutral, simply to be seized and used for different purposes by the working class. Much of this chapter is taken up by a critique of Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a book which has suffered well-deserved critique, perhaps disproportionate to its practical influence. However, Ajl raises the crucial point that many ‘neutral’ technologies which were spread in the 20th century were far from neutral, instead spread as part of neo-colonial and imperialist logics, particularly in the context of agriculture, where mass immiseration has followed as a result of the ‘Green Revolution.’ This is not a romantic anti-technologism, but a demand that ecosocialists understand technologies as designed, developed, and disseminated within the capitalist systems of exploitation.
This further leads Ajl to turn to the topic of energy use and degrowth. Many in the Global North commit to a view that by simply mobilising renewable technologies, we can continue to maintain existing levels of energy production and consumption whilst leaving space for the South to develop. Herein, the importance of degrowth to GNDs emerges. Current global levels of production are based on an uneven exchange of resources from Global South to the Global North, particularly with regards to energy usage. Goods are made for the satisfaction of commodity markets and companies based in countries like the US and Britain, using resources plundered from the Global South and hyper-exploitative labour practices in these countries. Degrowth enters as the crucial concept explaining what the reversal of this system of uneven ecological exchange will look like – a reduction in energy consumption and material throughput for the North’s imperial mode of living to allow space for living standards in the Global South to be raised. Against some of the chronically strawman arguments against degrowth, here degrowth emerges as the concept crucial to the reversal of metabolic flows into the Global North and the undermining of uneven ecological exchange.
Beyond the thorough critique of existing proposals, there are a few elements of A People’s Green New Deal which deserve focus and attention, as issues which are politically clarifying on the left.
The re-discovery of Social Democracy
A People’s Green New Deal points to the importance of delineating between an ecosocialist project and that of green social democracy. By identifying many existing left GNDs with green social democracy, Ajl makes the case that they are non-socialist, in that they continue systems of imperialism and fail to move beyond state ownership and investment, towards decommodification. For example, with energy systems, not all GNDs commit to nationalising energy companies to transition to renewables, and when they do, they don’t talk about energy for all, as something not paid for. Similarly, they rarely consider how to create renewable energy systems without continued extraction of resources from the Global South.
What does reasserting the social democracy/socialism distinction do? First, it allows us to recognise that ecosocialism will be a project of the global working class, not just one of particular nations. The years of consensus surrounding post-war welfare states, was, in part, a calculated move by the ruling class of Global North countries, in the face of massive socialist opposition globally, to stall the development of mass socialist movements domestically. At the same time, this required continued resources from the Global South, as well as the increased use of Global South workers, in an extended process of unequal exchange. Ajl’s insight is to recognise that current proposals remain trapped repeating such a politics, failing to recognise that the global forces of working-class power that forced Keynesian compromise have been in retreat for several decades.
Second, as Ajl puts it astutely, ‘if one is building a struggle that accepts a compromised horizon, one is not going to reach a further horizon.’ The neoliberal attacks on mass socialist movements that have occurred worldwide over the last few decades, whilst presenting a serious constraint on what can be done by ecosocialists, are not an excuse to abandon the commitment to decommodification and internationalism which have been core to modern socialism. There is a constant push to dilute and confuse socialist politics in the face of ecological breakdown, but A People’s Green New Deal argues the opposite tack must be taken: a commitment to building mass ecosocialist consciousness and forces.
In highlighting the difference between social democracy and socialism, a further difficulty emerges. It is clear there is a lack of strategy about how socialists should interact with the mass of newly politicised individuals in Britain, America, and elsewhere who identify as socialists whilst really being wedded to the social democratic politics A People’s Green New Deal critiques. Ajl is by no means obliged to provide this, and it would be incorrect to say that by delineating these projects as social democracy we are necessarily alienating or being sectarian to these newly politicised individuals. What it instead points to is the failure of the left in the Global North to carve out a space for socialist politics, and the need to focus on reconstructing mass socialist movements to face ecological breakdown. Ajl’s ultimate strategic gamble, a theme which occurs throughout the book, is that socialists in the Global North have neglected, and should urgently learn lessons from, the building of mass anti-systemic movements in the Global South.
Agroecology and the agrarian question
The agrarian question, the wider issue of how the land and the class that works upon it are to be understood within socialist strategy, has been decidedly absent from many thinkers in the Global North in the late 20th Century. This is of no surprise, given much of the post-War period was built on plentiful food systems. Of course, by plentiful, we mean plentiful for a minority, with violent dispossession and starvation in the Global South for the satisfaction of commodity markets in the Global North.
A crucial part of A People’s Green New Deal is to assert that the agrarian question, and the whole field of agroecology, should be central to ecosocialist thinking. There has been much in the last year and a half to confirm this, from deforestation leading to rising diseases like Covid-19, to Conservative governments starving children on free school meals, to supermarket shortages returning to Britain. In these many examples, food, land, and the agrarian system rear their heads for socialists as issues of politicisation and practicality. Food systems create moments to build new class alliances and movements whilst raising the issue of how any socialist republic deals with land and ecosystems in the face of zoonotic disease, climate change, and unstable food regimes.
In recognising that the techno-utopian and colonial system have marked left-wing thinking about small-scale food production, Ajl risks bending the stick too far in the other direction. Whilst small-scale production is often more ecologically beneficial, Ajl, as Lawhon points out, presents a vision of socialism which often incorporates ‘an eclectic vision of small public and private ownership’ (P2) instead of the collective ownership of land. Given Ajl rightly calls to task social democrats for their imprecise proclamations of socialism, the same eye must be turned to his work to demand clarity. What is notable, and what Ajl’s work makes clear, is that many of the anti-systemic movements which ecosocialists could learn from, like the Pink Tide or the Indian Farmers movement, have had an agrarian peasant element. Modern capitalism globally is not marked by the death of the peasant in the ‘Green Revolution’, but instead, its emergence in new collective forms. The Smychka, the alliance between worker and peasant in the USSR and beyond, has always been the gordian knot of socialist thought. As the ambiguities introduced in the conceptions of socialism and agroecology in A People’s Green New Deal show, we are still struggling to untie it.
Debt and nation
The final area of Ajl’s work that should be highlighted is the discussion of the payment of debt and reparations to the Global South. By recognising the massive climate and ecological debt, in the form of both resources taken and damage done, the ruling class owes to the Global South, Ajl is making two crucially related points.
Firstly, the actual payment of debt, not in the nebulous forms much so-called aid today takes, would allow Global South nations to rapidly improve their standard of living, whilst also demanding a stop to the destructive accumulation in the Global North. Demands for climate debt thus give space for Global South emissions and the development of the productive forces of Global South nations, providing a real path to sustainable development. In a very practical sense, ecological debt has to be fundamental to GNDs that aim to be more than national, as an ecosocialist one should. Debt repayment’s absence from existing proposals is a crucial aspect of their limited, social democratic, and ultimately imperialist nature.
Secondly, Ajl rightly reasserts the importance of the Cochabamba Agreement and the role of the payment of such debt as a demand that pushes the capitalist world system to its limit. In placing the payment of debts, the figure of 6% of GDP annually for the Global North as demanded in Cochabamba, Ajl rightly recognises that this is a figure modern capitalism cannot accept being paid. It is a demand that unites the global working class, whilst recognising the differences in experience due to the imperial world system. The inevitable widespread opposition to this from the ruling class in the face of global working class unity, may just provide a necessary spark for the transition to ecosocialism.
However, in his final discussion, the focus on national sovereignty can be frustrating, as Ajl can elide the question of Indigenous sovereignty and anti-colonial struggle with the wider problems of nationalism in a way that can be too simplistic. Ajl rightly argues that the priority for socialists in the Global North is to struggle against attempts on the national sovereignty of the Global South, particularly by pushing for rapid demilitarization. Without the ability to determine resource use, free from demands of colonial banks and countries, Global South countries remain trapped, contributing to ecological breakdown. However, subsuming everything from Pink Tide leadership in Cochabamba, Land Back and Indigenous sovereignty struggles, to the ongoing Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism, under the national question is a stretch too far. These assertions of sovereignty need not take a national form, nor are the answers simple when they do. In recognising that the national question is one ecosocialists must inevitably grapple with Ajl is correct, but the complexities of nationalisms are avoided, in ways that ecosocialists must continue to unpack if we are to affect a transition to a global workers republic.
In sum, A People’s Green New Deal rightly demands that socialists in the Global North fight for the payment of ecological debts, the demilitarization of our colonial states, and against the interference of Global North governments and businesses in the affairs of the Global South. These features are so absent from current proposals, it is telling.
Onto the next GND struggle
In sum, A People’s Green New Deal is well worth reading by ecosocialists, particularly those in the Global North it is subjecting to criticism. From delineating social democracy contra socialism, reasserting the agrarian question, and centring the need for ecological debt repayment and Global South sovereignty, Ajl stakes out not just neglected aspects of GNDs, but also problematics for further analysis by ecosocialists.
What Ajl has laid out, is the minimum standard we should expect from any left political project attempting to dig up the bodies of the last wave of GND proposals. It is the bare minimum any committed ecosocialist should expect. By subjecting the initial proposals to criticism, and then identifying a vision, A People’s Green New Deal has given ecosocialists the ability to move beyond the tragedy of the first wave of GNDs. Now it’s up to us to avoid farce.