When it comes to climate change, it feels like we are caught in a vicious cycle.
The cycle begins with panic at impending and increasingly inevitable catastrophe. It’s not just melting icecaps or rising sea levels. It’s also unbreathable air, infernal summers and unnatural winters, more frequent natural disasters, an ocean full of plastic fragments, mass extinction of insect, animal and plant life and, potentially, large-scale loss of human life.
One million dead fish floating in the Murray-Darling basin is just the beginning.
The second stage is dismay at the political response. The Coalition reached its own tipping point after learning that climate denialism builds group cohesion. Although the other side believes the science, in practice, they are little better. Ged Kearney won a motion at the APL federal conference last year recognizing the ‘massive risk’ of climate change and committing the party to ‘strong action’. They know that coal usage needs to drop by 97% before 2050 if we are to have a fighting chance of limiting Earth’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees. Yet Labor refuses to block the Adani coal mine. From a moral point of view, it’s an open question whether cynicism is any better than wilful ignorance.
This leads to the third and most hopeful stage of the cycle: activism. Although the climate change movement is probably the biggest and most enduring in modern history, it too is at a strategic impasse.
The naïve suggest lifestyle change. If I could outlaw just one phrase, it would be ‘3-minute shower’. It’s fine and well for propertied baby-boomers to install solar panels and buy Tesla cars but what about Millennials trapped in rent? How precisely should I change my lifestyle to stop the Adani coal mine?
Thankfully, mass action is more effective. In 2009 I joined 40,000 others who rallied in in Melbourne for the Walk Against Warming. In 2010, I repeated the gesture, as did tens of thousands of others in every capital city in Australia. 2011–2013 are a bit of a blur, but I recall rallying a third time in 2014, alongside 30,000 others.
None of these resulted in meaningful change. This is because protests usually only exert moral force. Of course, this has a role: it’s a powerful educator. A few generations of secondary school teachers have learned their profession against this backdrop. This helps to explain why high-school students are confident to tell politicians who threaten them for protesting exactly where they belong.
But let’s be real: moral force is wasted on the immoral. Demonstrations aren’t nearly enough. They are only powerful when they escalate, as with the Gilets Jaunes in France. Targeted protests, such as those planned against Adani, can also be effective. Activists can and should complement these with militant direct actions, like blockading. But this is still not enough. In 1982, Bob Brown led direct action to stop the Franklin Dam. In perspective, it was a relatively small victory dearly won. Today, we need victories hundreds of times bigger.
And so, despite our indisputable scientific, moral and numerical superiority, we return to the panic stage of the cycle, with the risk of descending into nihilism.
The Green New Deal
What we desperately need is to break the cycle. The Green New Deal submitted to the U.S. Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may help us do just this.
The plan is ambitious and has already gained enormous attention. As the Bernie 2020 campaign gets going and democratic socialists stand for office nationwide, there are signs that it won’t be a flash in the pan, either, but rather an example of how elected socialists can transform the political discourse even when far from power.
While the Green New Deal was not first imagined by Ocasio-Cortez, this version is the most radical yet, proposing to transform the USA more profoundly than at any time since the Second World War. Its ten-year blueprint sets a transition to 100% clean, renewable energy and net-zero greenhouse emissions.
The plan proposes to rebuild communities devastated by deindustrialisation and depopulation and to revamp manufacturing and agriculture, making them sustainable. Massive investment in infrastructure will see buildings refurbished for energy efficiency, a network of electric car charging stations built and railways upgraded with a view to greatly reducing air travel.
It’s not just the ends that make the plan different but also the means. These investments will create millions of new, well-paid, union jobs backed by a ‘job guarantee’. Free, universal health care and a housing guarantee are also built into its core. This will counter the ecological impact of gentrification, housing stress and decades of terrible urban planning while mitigating health consequences associated with pollution.
If this sounds expensive, remember that the Iraq war cost a conservative $US 2.7 trillion and the bank bailout will have cost at least $US16.8 trillion by the time it’s over (yes, it’s still going). Both are like digging a hole and burying money, whereas the Green New Deal promises to restart the economy.
In a FAQ accompanying the plan, Ocasio-Cortes proposed to fund the deal ‘the same way we paid for the [original] New Deal, the 2008 bank bailout and extended quantitative easing programs,’ and ‘the same way we paid for World War II and all our current wars.’
The Green New Deal is a socialist plan. It is vastly different from neoliberal measures like emissions trading schemes or consumption taxes. Using the market to heal a problem caused by it is like using a gun to heal a bullet wound. Worse, market-driven measures are positively dangerous because they build a constituency for climate denialism. Carbon trading is a great scapegoat for soaring energy prices. Consumption taxes are a form of blackmail. After all, the fuel tax that triggered the Gilets Jaunes was justified on environmental grounds.
And yet, green-washed neoliberalism is all that the ALP and The Coalition can offer. The Green New Deal has deftly shattered this artificial consensus.
The proof is its popularity. More than 80% of registered US voter support it, including 92% of Democrats and an incredible 64% of Republicans. As Ocasio-Cortez observed, Donald Trump’s warning against socialism in his State of the Union address showed that he’s scared: ‘He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing.’
The Left and the Green New Deal
Conservatives haven’t been the only ones to attack the Green New Deal.
House Leader Nancy Pelosi brushed off AOC’s resolution by feigning ignorance: ‘[t]he green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?’
In a two-part critique, Joshua Clover described AOC’s resolution as ‘Keynesianism reduced to its crudest, most nostalgic, 8-bit basics,’ suggesting that a repetition of the original New Deal is both impossible and undesirable. He concluded that the only realistic solution is to abolish capitalism and private property wholesale.
This is wrong in two ways. Firstly, it takes AOC’s resolution far too literally. Sure, the Green New Deal is Keynesian. So what? The point isn’t to design precise economic mechanisms, but to win the political battle, which it is arguably doing. After decades of cuts and corporate handouts, the prospect of massive investment on jobs, housing, health and infrastructure sounds pretty damn appealing.
Clover’s second mistake is to confuse necessity with realism. Suppose we agree that abolishing private property and the profit motive are necessary to stop climate change. It still doesn’t say anything about how it is to be achieved. What is missing is strategy. Strategy transforms necessity into reality. Strategy is the bridge between what is and what ought to be.
The best socialist leaders are masters of this art. While there is plenty about AOC’s Green New Deal that is utopian, the plan is – as writers like Eric Levitz, Michael Grunwald and Branco Marketic have pointed out – a realistic utopia. Her solutions are plausible, popular and radical. This brings utopia down to earth and uses it to generate (renewable) power, making the Green New Deal more politically realistic than any other proposal to date.
These issues dovetail with a broader debate within the US socialist Left. Historically, socialists and radicals have refused to support Democratic candidates for fear of fostering illusions in a party dedicated to imperialism, racism and capitalism. When the candidate is Hillary Clinton, this is a plausible argument. When it comes to Bernie Sanders or AOC, far less so.
If Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez really are plants designed to give the Democratic Party cover, they are doing a god-awful job. Sanders and AOC have undermined the authority of mainstream Democrats more in a few years than has been achieved in decades of independent organising. Their success shows that the Democrats are, if anything, less capable of excluding, compromising or silencing radicals than the Australian Greens or the Australian Labor Party, whose bureaucratic authoritarianism has reached Byzantine proportions.
I do agree with the US activists who want to build a labour or social democratic party independent of the Democrats. In the short term, however, such a party would be forced to use Democratic structures like pre-selections. As Seth Ackerman has argued in Jacobin, this is because the US electoral system has inbuilt barriers designed explicitly to stymie third parties.
In Melbourne, by way of contrast, a coalition of socialists was able to establish and register the Victorian Socialists in just a few months. The new party went on to win an average of over 4% in the main electorate it contested, coming in fourth after the Greens. In some areas it won close to 10% of the vote.
Principles vs. pragmatism: Porque no los dos?
Without principles, strategy is just opportunism.
So far, Ocasio-Cortez has combined the two. During Trump’s government shutdown, she was alone in voting against funding the hated Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. As one of her recent speeches in the House demonstrates, she is more than capable of ‘dog-walking’ both House Republicans and Democrats.
These are some of the reasons why AOC and Sanders have spurred recruitment to the Democratic Socialists of America, an independent organisation of 50,000 members. You could argue that democratic socialism is replacing liberalism as the default alternative to Trump.
Given that Australian politics feels like it lags 10–15 years behind the rest of the world, all of this can seem irrelevant. However, I think three points are relevant to us.
Firstly, the Australian Left should become Machiavellian. We ‘…must behave like those archers who, if they are skilful, when the target seems too distant, know the capabilities of their bow and aim a good deal higher than their objective, not in order to shoot so high but so that by aiming high they can reach their target.’ Success requires ambition, impetuousness and vision.
Success also demands ruthlessness. To quote Max Weber: ‘First of all, one has to see the devil’s ways to the end in order to realise his power and his limitations.’ The Left needs to fall in love with power and the means with which it is obtained.
Secondly, we should unlearn habits acquired during decades of marginalisation. Cynicism, stoicism and resignation might suit eras of conservative hegemony. Today they are going out of style.
Thirdly, we have to bring each movement against each injustice into one movement against all injustices.
This is the best part of the Green New Deal: Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution connects climate change with the oppression faced by poor, coloured and Indigenous communities, as well as women, the elderly, homeless, young and disabled people. It’s a simple yet powerful unifying gesture which may be capable of reconciling a Left too often divided.
Once it is set in motion, change can gain momentum quite rapidly. The debate over how to restructure the US economy may already be the biggest in half a century. Constructive criticisms the Green New Deal have emerged, as have calls for more resolute measures, such as levelling crimes against humanity charges against CEOs responsible for environmental vandalism.
It isn’t hard to imagine an Australian Green New Deal, or how it might help us transform moral force into political power. If it seems a long way off, consider this: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t much older than the students who are striking today.
Image: Dimitri Rodriguez