Should socialists support a Green New Deal?

US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is promoting the idea of a Green New Deal.

What are the strengths of the “Green New Deal” campaign launched by progressives in the United States and now being taken up by environmental and labour activists in Britain, Australia and other countries? Is it something socialists should support?

These were among the key questions debated at a forum, featuring high school climate activist David Deex and labour historian Dr David Faber, organised by the Socialist Alliance on August 4. The gathering also served as a “house-warming” for the Socialist Alliance’s new Activist Centre in Hindley Street, in the heart of the city.

The idea of a Green New Deal has been under discussion in the US for some years now, and was summed up in February in a resolution put to US Congress by Democratic politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Edward Markey. In their version, the Green New Deal combines key environmental demands with a social justice platform that spells out a range of immediate needs of working people.

Why a “New Deal”? Ocasio-Cortez and Markey use the term deliberately to reference one of the few occasions in which workers and their allies were able to force US capitalism to implement programs in the broad popular interest.

Enacted by President Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s to counter the impacts of the Great Depression, the original New Deal used large-scale federal spending to build useful infrastructure and revive agriculture. Providing large numbers of jobs, it boosted demand and investment in the economy, moderating the worst effects of the stock market crash.

The New Deal did not overcome the Depression, which was only really ended by World War II. Nor did the New Deal represent a blow against the capitalist system that had brought about the collapse.

Roosevelt’s central purpose was to save US capitalism by forestalling the danger of a mass working-class revolt.

Nevertheless, the New Deal programs are remembered in the US as popular victories. At the time, the New Deal was bitterly opposed by large corporate interests.

Today, supporters of the Green New Deal invoke the memory of Roosevelt’s programs as a reminder that governments can be forced by mass pressure to implement measures that the population needs and wants — even if the ruling rich are largely hostile.

But what’s in the Green New Deal, as put forward by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey?

Their resolution calls for a “ten-year national mobilisation”, around environmental goals that include: providing 100% renewable energy; making electricity affordable through creating energy-efficient, distributed, smart grids; overhauling transport to end pollution, including greenhouse emissions; putting manufacturing industry on a clean basis; and working with farmers to lessen the environmental impacts of agriculture.

These environmental aims are presented as inextricably linked to a range of social justice demands including: guaranteed jobs with “family-sustaining” wages and retirement security; high-quality education through to tertiary level; free health care; and guaranteed housing.

These demands do not include the expropriation of the capitalist class. Conceivably, a capitalist government might enact all or most of these points, and remain in power.

But does this mean that socialists should keep their distance from coalitions fighting for such a program?

As participants in the Adelaide forum pointed out, any capitalist government that implemented such a Green New Deal, or even agreed to it, would be drastically weakened. Workers and unions would be in a much stronger position to press their demands. Corporate profiteering would never be the same again.

Understandably, big capitalists in the US are pushing back hard against the Green New Deal agitation. Vicious attacks have been launched against Ocasio-Cortez.

Meanwhile, working people are well able to see that the demands the bosses denounce and ridicule are emphatically in the public interest and essential for human survival.

If capitalists refuse to enact measures needed for humanity to survive, what does this say about capitalism?

The effect of this situation is to redirect popular thinking in ways that abstract political lectures by the left could never do. Whether or not the people leading the Green New Deal campaign have illusions in capitalism is not the point: the demands themselves have a powerful radicalising dynamic, that leads far beyond capitalism’s bounds.

Campaigning around demands such as those of the Green New Deal, contributors to the Adelaide forum explained, can act as a vital bridge allowing workers and their allies to move beyond a general anger and disillusionment, to an understanding of the need to challenge class society itself.

Socialists therefore have to be right in the thick of Green New Deal-style campaigns. They have to push the demands of these campaigns, draw people into broad protest actions, and as the opportunity presents itself, explain their own anti-capitalist perspectives.

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