Youth activists from Kentucky and across the US occupy the office of Senator Mitch McConnell in protest of his attempts to defeat the Green New Deal. Photo: Rachael Warriner /

Capitalists fear the Green New Deal — and for good reason

  • May 8, 2019

Climate & Catastrophe

US liberals and conservatives wrongly view the Green New Deal as communism-in-disguise, but its radicalizing potential might justify their fears nonetheless.

What’s green on the outside and red on the inside? A watermelon. And, if you believe conservative pundits, the Green New Deal (GND). Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, the former Deputy Assistant to Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka, announced that the GND is “green on the outside” and “deep, deep communist [red] on the inside.”

What came next was an absurd piece of red-baiting: “They want to take away your pickup truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamed about but never achieved. You are on the frontlines of the war against communism coming back to America under the guise of Democratic Centralism, which is just the PC term for communism.” We should be so lucky.

Gorka’s formulations may be more bombastic than most but he is hardly alone. Writing for Public Seminar, Jake Davis explains that “looking at the recently proposed Green New Deal (GND), Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s solution to climate change, it becomes painfully obvious that the end state is not environmental protection; its [sic] socialism.” Or, as Kimberly Guilfoyle wrote in The Hill, “what is most shocking about the Green New Deal is a number of socialist wish-list items that have nothing to do with climate change. Don’t want to work but still want to live a cushy lifestyle? No problem.” Or, as Jarrett Stepman wrote for the Foundation for Economic Education, the GND is “not very democratic but it is socialistic — an American version of a Soviet-style five-year plan focus[ed] on command-and-control economic solutions that have proven to fail the world over.” Or, finally, as Jason Pye put it succinctly in Real Clear Markets, “The Green New Deal is Communist Manifesto, 21st Century.” Again, we should be so lucky.

Of course, red-baiting is not a new phenomenon on the right. In 1933, Herbert Hoover accused Roosevelt’s New Deal of using the 1929 depression “as an excuse for imposing socialism under new euphemistic phrases.” In 2012, Obama was branded a Marxist-Leninist for suggesting that the top 1 percent of income earners could perhaps pay slightly higher taxes. And in February 2019, Fox News accused Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of “socialism and communism” because she committed to paying her staff a living wage.

Despite this trope’s frequency, there is something new and important about its use in recent assaults on the GND. What we are witnessing is capital’s first line of defense against the fact that environmentalism is increasingly becoming — but in fact always has been — a space of class struggle. What the capitalist class has yet to realize, however, is that the GND might be the least of their worries.

The Theft of Enjoyment

To see why, we can turn to psychoanalysis. In psychoanalytic language, the GND confronts the capitalist class with a perceived threat: the theft of their enjoyment. One of the fundamental lessons of psychoanalysis is that none of us are ever fully able to enjoy. We might desire something but when we get it, it turns out that it was not quite what we wanted after all. “Just one more drink and the night will be perfect”; “If I read that book, then I’ll really know what I’m talking about”; “If we just elect Beto O’Rourke, then everything will be okay again.”

The impossibility of ever truly getting what we want is what sustains our desire. It is what keeps us moving from one desired object to another without ever attaining complete satisfaction. The theft of enjoyment, meanwhile, names the presumption that the Other can fully enjoy and, furthermore, that they do it by stealing our own enjoyment.

The classic example is anti-immigrant hostility: “If it wasn’t for immigrants stealing our jobs and undercutting us, we’d all be employed and have higher wages.” This, of course, is pure ideology. Its function is to mystify the true structures of capitalist exploitation and divide the working classes. It is not the immigrant who has stolen your job, it is the global capitalist system that suppresses workers’ wages and opportunities for employment. And yet from a psychoanalytic perspective, even without capitalism, we still would not be able to enjoy absolutely.

When we apply these lessons to Gorka’s warning that the Reds are coming for your hamburgers and that they want to rebuild your home (incidentally, a free home renovation sounds rather nice assuming of course that you can afford a home in the first place), its apparent absurdity begins to make more sense.

First, it becomes clear that Gorka is appealing for capitalist class solidarity. Together, he says, the capitalist class must stop The Reds from stealing their enjoyment. Otherwise they might not be able to exploit workers and the environment in quite the freewheeling fashion that they now do. How can the capitalist class do this? By stoking fears among the working class that the Reds are not just coming for fossil capitalism but for the American way of life itself.

Second, the irrational nature of Gorky’s examples point to the fact that capitalist consumption, exploitation and enjoyment is itself absurd. Its irrationalism is the reason for the climate breakdown that we are living through. It is the reason why four Hiroshima bombs’ worth of heat is released into the earth’s atmosphere every second. It is the reason why to read anything about climate change today feels like passively participating in a collective live action role-play dystopia: the end of insects, 12 years to save the world, starved polar bears invading small Russian islands to sift through rubbish in the hope of a meal. Life in the age of fossil capital is like an ignominious prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but somehow less enjoyable.

A Greener, Friendlier Capitalism

For Gorka and his ilk, communism stands in for the loss of the capitalist class’s self-destructive and ultimately impossible to attain enjoyment. And rightly so: Communists really do want to steal their enjoyment. The problem is that the GND is much more ambivalent in its aspirations. While the specifics are yet to be worked out, it is clear enough that the GND’s “end state” is not socialism, as Jake Davis fears, but a greener, friendlier, capitalism.

To be sure, there are some remarkable proposals in the draft document. Like its namesake, the GND calls for massive state-led investment in the economy and social welfare programs. There are plans to invest in sustainable jobs and infrastructure. Plans to finance a network of public banks. Plans to greatly increase taxation on corporations and the rich. And plans for free higher education. All of this with an eye to transitioning to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

Unlike its namesake, which excluded women, minorities and agricultural workers from many of its more progressive policies, the GND acknowledges that economic injustices and environmental destruction “disproportionately affects indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” In other words, the working class.

In these passages and proposals, the GND is exemplary of the kind of centrally planned, large-scale and rapid action that we need if we want to turn the catastrophic effects of climate breakdown into the merely devastating.

And yet the GND’s progressive content is constrained by its capitalist form. Evidence that the GND is intended to kickstart a new wave of greener, friendlier, capital accumulation is everywhere apparent. While the draft document calls for establishing cooperatives and publicly owned investment banks it does not go so far as to call into question the fundamental relations of property and labor that underpin the capitalist mode of production. There is not even the suggestion of moderate workplace democratization initiatives.

By way of comparison, though it never came to fruition, even Theresa May’s Conservative Party ran on a campaign promise to allow worker representation on company boards. Had something as modest as this been included in the GND, it could have subtly challenged property and labor relations. Instead, under the GND’s proposals communities will be given “ownership stakes and returns on investment.” That way everyone can become a capitalist.

More importantly, though, given the plan’s purpose, an early draft of the legislation called for “making ‘green’ technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely greenhouse gas neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.”

As Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson observes in an interview for In These Times, this is tantamount to calling for a new wave of US imperialism. In fact, the language is eerily similar to that used to rationalize US interventions in a raft of countries, from Haiti to Venezuela, to Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, the US is and was merely “helping” these countries to attain a real democracy.

The language of this passage has been softened in the latest draft. It now calls for “promoting the international exchange” of green services to “help other counties achieve a Green New Deal.” This re-wording should fool no one.

So when we find outlets like Forbes running articles with titles like “How You Can Easily Make A 300% Profit Off The Green New Deal,” we should not think of them as clever work-arounds but as precisely what the GND was intended to facilitate.

I do not make these observations to trash the GND for its lack of genuine communist principles. The point is to emphasize that like its namesake before it the GND is a social compromise in the true sense of the term. Like its namesake, it is a product of, and a response to, class struggle. Decades of environmentally conscious class struggle have brought us here. Decades more will be needed to get us to where we need to be.

In the meantime, we need to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts in our heads at once: First, that as the most promising piece of environmental legislation in US history the GND is worth fighting for. Second, that should it come to pass its architects may one day be able to echo the words of Raymond Moley, one of the prime movers behind Roosevelt’s New Deal, who boasted that “capitalism was saved in eight days.” The GND may yet do the same, at least for a while.

Seeing Red in the Green New Deal?

We should therefore neither reject the GND for not going far enough nor uncritically embrace it. Rather, the goal is to push its proposals and the excitement surrounding them in a revolutionary direction. But how? The answer lies in the red-baiting. Just below the surface of warnings about the coming communist scourge are indications of important sites of class struggle that we should pay attention to. There are two such lessons to be learned. One can be found in red-baiting from the right. The other, in red-baiting from the liberal center.

For the right, the threat is state intervention in the interests of the working class rather than the capitalist class. This is what underlies Jarrett Stepman’s assessment of the GND as “an American version of the Soviet five-year plan.”

The capitalist state constantly intervenes in the economy in the interests of capital: deregulating or refusing to regulate fossil capital, decreasing taxes on the rich, bailing out banks, implementing “right to work” legislation, and so on. This is why Lenin called the capitalist state the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” It is a massive redistributor of wealth from the poorest to the richest on a global scale. It is what enables capitalists to exploit, extract, enjoy.

But for today’s right, the moment the state makes even a moderate intervention on behalf of workers, we are just a hop, skip, and jump away from Stalinism. They understand state intervention in the name of the worker or in the name of the environment is the theft of their enjoyment.

Matters are somewhat different when it comes to centrist Democrats. As long-time proponents of “progressive” state intervention and staunch defenders of the legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Democratic red-baiting must take a different tack. Take, for instance, a top-notch piece of red-baiting from Mark Penn, a long-term strategist for the Clintons.

According to Penn, the GND “has more in common with Mao’s Cultural Revolution than it does with FDR’s New Deal.” Why? Because “just as Mao’s Cultural Revolution empowered students over their parents, so this bill sets up identity politics groups as having power over major sectors of the economy. It even calls for a national ‘mobilization,’ as Mao did.”

The GND does indeed suggest “providing resources, training and high-quality education to all of the people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities, so those communities may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization.” But why does Penn turn to Mao instead of Stalin? And why the Cultural Revolution and not the five-year plan?

Because as far as many Democrats are concerned, it is not progressive state intervention that bothers them. No, what bothers them about the GND — and the climate movement more generally — is that like Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it threatens to unleash the power of the unwashed masses. It takes a Republican to complain about state intervention on the behalf of workers but you can always count on a Democrat to fear the power of an independently organized and politically conscious working class.

This was the logic behind Hilary Clinton’s fossil-capital-funded 2016 presidential run. As the pragmatic and “post-political” administrators of the capitalist state, centrist Democrats represent and govern in the interests of capital. The people? A mere pretext and inconvenience. Getting elected? An unfortunate necessity. Mao may have said trust the people but this is the last thing that Democrats are willing to do.

The second lesson to be gleaned from red-baiting around the GND, then, is that an independently organized and politically conscious working class has the power to steal the enjoyment of fossil capitalists and their loyal administrators. The GND’s call for worker mobilization risks precisely this.

The Coming Communist Scourge

The fears of conservative and liberal capitalists suggest ways forward for the radical left. The conservative wing of fossil capital sees Red when they read the GND because they know that state intervention on behalf of workers and the environment poses a threat to their enjoyment. And yet the GND is tame compared with what we could achieve if we think big.

A recent study published in Science Direct found that a centrally planned renewable energy system would be almost 15 percent more cost effective than North America’s existing fossil fuel intensive and decentralized system. And that is before you consider the additional costs of greenhouse gas emissions including their impact on human health, the cost of flood defenses to protect against rising sea levels, the damage caused by increased extreme weather, and so on.

The study also found that a larger and more centrally planned system would require less energy storage at local levels and would therefore greatly improve the system’s overall efficiency. This means that a system operating at the scale of the entire American continent is more efficient than one limited to the continental United States alone or one that is limited to localized regions of the US.

Lastly, and most importantly, the study found that we already have the technology to develop this infrastructure and meet the Americas’ 2030 energy needs.

What does all of this mean? First, it is only political will that is holding back a transition to renewable energy sources. And second, the left should not be afraid to think at large scales and embrace central planning when and where it makes sense. In the hands of the left, such a system really could spell the death of fossil capital and of the enjoyment of fossil capitalists.

As for the liberal wing of fossil capital, they see Red whenever the working classes self-organize as a class. The fact that the GND calls for the “mobilization” of the masses terrifies fossil capitalists. It’s one thing to mobilize the masses when there is an imperialist war to win but it is an entirely different thing when the masses are coming for your enjoyment.

Here, again, the GND is tame compared to the many already existing movements and struggles taking place across the Americas and the globe. For over a decade anti-fossil fuel struggles have raged across the US. Largely organized by rural and Indigenous communities, these struggles halt the circulation of fossil capital. They connect the plight of particular communities to universal struggles for climate justice and an end to exploitation with slogans like “Water is Life,” “Not Here, Not Anywhere,” and “Many Struggles, One Fight.”

From Standing Rock in North Dakota, to We Are Seneca Lake in New York, to L’eau Est La Vie in Louisiana, to Lancaster Against Pipelines in Pennsylvania, to Appalachia Rising and many more besides, people are discovering their collective power: they are finding out that environmental struggle is class struggle.

Naomi Klein calls this movement blockadia: “Blockadia is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transitional conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines.” For the moment, blockadia is a loosely knit network of movements sharing slogans, strategies and tactics. But what concerns liberal capitalists above all else, what makes them see Red, is the possibility that these movements might “mobilize” around the GND in ways that it simply cannot control.

Lessons to be Learned

These, then, are the lessons to be learned from recent attempts to paint the GND Red. Despite its undeniably reformist nature, the capitalist class is scared of the GND — and for good reason. Yet on its own, like Roosevelt’s New Deal before it, the GND will not be enough to create a sustainable future let alone a post-capitalist one. What’s needed is a militant working class organizing in and around the policy to push its proposals further.

Comparisons to the New Deal are illustrative here. In the 1930s, the US economy was in crisis and working class militancy was at an all-time high. The Communist Party USA had close to 100,000 members and was organizing in critical industries across the US, from Appalachian mines, to southern farmland, to northern factories. Meanwhile, thousands of other communists, anarchists and militant union organizers were similarly involved in struggles to empower the working classes.

And yet by the end of the 1930s and the close of the New Deal, this wave of militancy was on the decline. The reasons are contested and complex but for historians like Rhonda Levine, Roosevelt’s New Deal played an essential part in limiting the appeal to revolutionary action. Nevertheless, as Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin show, Roosevelt’s policies were unable to eliminate working class militancy. Neither could they rejuvenate America’s struggling economy. Were it not for the Communist Party’s “popular front” strategy of making alliances with the Democratic Party and the outbreak of WWII, things could have gone very differently.

We are of course nowhere near 1930s levels of militant activity today. But people are increasingly turning to socialism (no matter how loosely defined) as an alternative to the social and ecological crises wrought by capitalism. At the same time, we are witnessing a new wave of militant organization and working class struggle across the US, from teacher’s strikes to women’s marches, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous liberation struggles, climate strikes, valve-turners and anti-pipeline blockades.

At such moments, the left has an opportunity to seize the initiative and bring about a genuinely emancipatory and environmentally sustainable future. This means recognizing the deeply ambiguous nature of the GND. It means understanding the policy as both an effect of — and as a contribution to — the political activity that we see today. And it means organizing in imaginative ways to draw out its revolutionary implications.

This is why the capitalist classes see Red when they read it: they know that it contains lessons to taking away their enjoyment.

Kai Heron

Kai Heron is an organizer and academic. He lives in Manchester, UK.

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