Building an anti-imperialist climate justice movement

  • June 11, 2021

Climate & Catastrophe

In his new book, Max Ajl makes the case for putting agriculture and the Third World’s struggles for self-determination at the heart of environmental politics.

Via Campesina protest march in Mexico, 2010. Photo: Feria de Productores / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In his new book, A People’s Green New Deal, Max Ajl presents a sweeping, often damning, appraisal of the Global North’s limited attempts to mitigate and adapt to global heating. Eco-nationalism, eco-modernism, green social democracy and democratic socialist iterations of the Green New Deal all come under scrutiny and all are found wanting. Each in their own way, Max argues, are too attached to what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen call “the imperial mode of living.” A way of life predicated on the subordination of the Global South to the needs, wants and desires of the Global North. And each, in their own way, denies the sheer scale of the social and economic crisis that confronts us.

In response, Max turns to the struggles of the Global South. There, he finds the contours of an alternative response to climate breakdown rooted in agroecological farming practices, climate reparations and struggles for self-determination. Much more than a critique, then, Max’s book is a bracing and thought-provoking call for those of us in the Global North to reconsider how we fight for social and climate justice.

In this interview, Kai Heron speaks to Max about his book and about the importance of putting agriculture and the Third World’s struggles for self-determination at the heart of environmental politics.

Kai Heron: Perhaps we can start with a simple question. There are already at least five books available imagining what a Green New Deal (GND) might look like. What motivated you to write another? And given how critical you are of existing GND frameworks — including the US-centrism of the name itself — why did you decide to reimagine the GND’s content rather than call for something else entirely?

Max Ajl: First, it was very clear from late 2018 that the idea of the GND was interacting in a strange way with the public debate, alongside the invention of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a democratic socialist. Her and Edward Markey’s GND was immediately branded as eco-socialist and the entire question of imperialism and uneven accumulation was entirely dismissed. It quickly became clear that an intervention was needed that would highlight the demands coming from the Third World and the developmental needs of Third World, and that could shift discussion in the imperial core away from a kind of soft support for imperialist social democracy, green or otherwise.

In terms of re-imagining the GND: the idea of the GND has captured people’s attention. Of course, this is connected to the power of capitalist media and advertising and the lingering allure of a romanticized notion of the US New Deal, shorn of any threat of communism as having been a driving component for the new US-based social pact. But I am a bit of a populist and I don’t mind meeting people where they are at, at least in some form.

However, or additionally, the book engages with a lot of the conversations around a GND, while clarifying their gaps and absences and shortcomings. Furthermore, I think there is a lingering need to imagine — even if via abolition or decolonization, or both — what kind of society can be built on the lands currently occupied by the US. I think a lot of people are looking for the shape of such a society, including imagining how it can be just and genuinely internationalist and be a republic for its inhabitants. So for those reasons, it made sense to title the book, A People’s Green New Deal.

Your book takes up Colin Duncan’s call for Marxists to center agriculture in our struggles for communism. Why do you think this is important? And what does centering agriculture bring to your analysis that is perhaps missed by those who overlook the sector in favor of more common subjects like green energy transitions?

It has always been clear to me that if you want to build up a sustainable, egalitarian and just world, you need to take care of the basics and build up a strong foundation: you need to take care of, to steward, the land. Agriculture is the historic technology through which humanity has cared for the land while erecting complex — if in many places, savagely hierarchical — civilizations. That is the most general point.

Agriculture is also connected with an array of ecological breakdowns in the broadest sense. It is especially intimately connected with climate change. People estimate that anywhere from one-sixth to over one-third of emissions are connected to the food system, which is staggering, given that agriculture, in principle, is a carbon-dioxide-absorbing activity. Indeed, agriculture is probably capable of going entirely carbon-dioxide negative, and drawing down something like the equivalent of 10 percent, some say up to 30 percent, of global current annual emissions. We do not know, because capitalism over-determines epistemology. It has not been profitable, although it would be beneficial for poor humanity, to know how sustainable forms of farming could draw down excess atmospheric CO2.

Furthermore, capitalist industrial agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity destruction, through pesticides, deforestation and habitat destruction more broadly. This is on the ecological front, and it is clearly urgent — and possible — to reconstitute agriculture on entirely sovereign and ecological bases. Yields per unit of land would increase under agro-ecological production in the Third World, and would face relatively small decreases — around 25 percent at most for cereal crops — in the First World, which produces a massive cereal surplus, especially corn which is fed to animals or processed into ethanol and corn syrup.

Putting agriculture front and center is also the way we can imagine and build developmental convergence between First and Third World. In the latter, the case for putting agriculture front and center is clear: agro-ecology alongside agrarian reforms and appropriate rural technology would increase overall ecological health, increase per capita consumption of healthy food, and widen internal markets, while providing the raw organic inputs for sovereign industrialization. The flipside is that the North which currently relies on southern tropical exports, like coffee, out of season fruits and vegetables, palm oil, would need to find domestic analogues, or pay fair prices for Third World commodity exports. That might imply more attention to northern farming systems, and perhaps — I do not know — more people somehow involved in agriculture, and certainly more involved in land husbandry.

Centering agriculture reminds us then that imperialism, colonialism and over-industrialization have constituted the world in a very specific way in which it has been possible to imagine basically ignoring tending to the land. That kind of alienation needs to be undone.

While reading A People’s Green New Deal I was reminded of the longstanding debate in critical agrarian studies between agrarian Marxists like Henry Bernstein, Terence Byers and Tom Brass who take their lead from Karl Kautsky and Lenin and those who are sometimes called peasant populists such as Jan Douwe van der Ploeg and Miguel Alteri who are inspired by Alexander Chayanov. A People’s Green New Deal appears to fluctuate between these traditions. The importance of Marx to your work is obvious but then even the name of your book seems to speak to a populist influence. The book is not called a ‘Workers’ Green New Deal’ or ‘An Anti-imperialist Green New Deal.’ Do you think this is a fair assessment?

At the same time, your work is indebted to scholars associated with the journal Agrarian South: Samir Amin, Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros, Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik to name a few. What does this tradition contribute to your thinking and to struggles for climate justice?

Marxism where it has been most successful has been able to adopt and rework populist and nationalist vernaculars and demands in the service of revolutionary transformations in the world. Think of Ho Chi Minh’s ability to synthesize nationalism and communism into a theory for a national-popular revolution, Amilcar Cabral’s focus on national culture and ability to speak to Guinea-Bissau’s national traditions, Lenin’s adoption of some of the rhetoric of Russian populism, and indeed in our moment, Hugo Chávez’s brilliant ability to absorb and retool the revolutionary nationalist heritage of Latin American and especially Venezuela for Chavismo’s aims of revolutionary transformation. For each, their rare political gifts tended to interact with an ability to speak with, to, and for a people, however defined.

In the core, there is a clear problem of clarifying an internationalist, anti-colonial and anti-chauvinist people’s project. It is plausible but perhaps not possible that the cores could be reconstituted as people’s republics of their inhabitants, rather than, as is currently the case, moving towards herrenvolk states. This would require, certainly, taking the lead from Black and Indigenous movements in the US, for example, amongst whom revolutionary nationalism has been the grammar of struggle for a very long time. So, I think the populist tradition offers a rich rhetoric and imaginary for actual political practice, although with well-known if often sterile criticisms from brittle metropolitan Marxisms.

Now, Chayanov and following him in his way, Miguel Altieri have had the genius of taking peasant life, and peasant knowledge, on their own terms, and finding resources for revolutionary transformation in those ways of life, focused less on culture or “the people” per se than material production. Their proposals were often brilliant. Chayanov called for decentralizing culture in a peasant utopia in a way that presaged Mao’s call for balanced rural-urban growth, while also imagining ways to organically build towards cooperatives in the countryside. Beyond this, agro-ecology’s attention to the logic and promise of traditional farming systems is one of the major popular-peasant developmental research strains of the last 40 years, yet it has mostly suffered the neglect of metropolitan Marxism.

We need a new fusion that is able to take the best from the latter tradition while making sure to keep class and imperialism at center-stage. In this sense the broad range of thought that can be construed as populism should be seen as an external correction to Marxism, an external correction which is necessary in order to re-orient Marxism, and finally an external correction which in the words of Richard Levins comes “from an outside already influenced in part by Marxism” an outside which is both “welcomed and resisted.”

Putting imperialism center-stage while taking on the importance of the nation has been a central contribution of the Agrarian South project, including their recognition of the absolute centrality of radical Black nationalism in Zimbabwe in carrying out the most important post-Cold War redistribution of wealth. If a people goes alongside a nation, we can see clearly that popular nationalism has been a central component of actually-existing transformations in who owns wealth in the world today.

As far as I am aware your book is the first on the GND to tackle the traditional Marxist question of the division between town and country. I wholeheartedly agree that this is an urgent question for radicals of all kinds today. But why was it so important for you to confront the issue and why do you think others have neglected it?

The GND emerged as a northern proposal for ecological transformation and social-democratic or Keynesian demand management. The North is no longer particularly agricultural, and indeed agricultural projects often face ridicule. It seems to me that most prominent haute couture academic Marxism has basically imbibed the intoxicant of modernization theory and considers in one way or another that the North has successfully if fragmentarily completed its transition to an industrial and urbanized society. For the South, well, the less said the better.

It seems to be missed that our society is deeply alienated, ecologically destructive, voracious in its consumption of non-human nature, and blithely ignorant of the impacts of northern accumulation and consumption on the majority of the planet, to the point that much writing on a northern GND simply ignores agriculture, or embraces colonial or fascist schemes for ethnic cleansing of pastoralist populations, via blanketing the savannah in trees and other “fixes.” This is simply because they do not know or care about what is going on in the countryside. Now, if being determines consciousness, the metropolitan location of most northern Marxists seems to go a long way towards explaining why agriculture and the town-country division are either ignored or ridiculed, part of the entrenched anti-rural bias of western Marxism writ large.

A People’s Green New Deal makes a forceful moral argument against the GND as conceived by democratic socialists and progressives. You show persuasively that this kind of GND is predicated on the fantasy of “green growth” and the theft, plunder and exploitation of the Global South’s lands and labor. But how likely do you think it is that we will see something like the progressive’s GND cynically adopted by imperialist states in the coming years? And what can those of us who oppose this green capitalist solution to the climate crisis do to stop it?

As popular pressure in the North grows for redistribution and for dealing with the climate crisis, we will almost certainly eventually see prophylactic measures: namely, green social democracy. I think Ocasio-Cortez was an early foretaste of that, and many like Naomi Klein seem to have volunteered to serve as AOC’s emissary in re-inventing her as an ally in the struggle against capitalism, settler-colonialism, etc. So the threat is very real.

In terms of stopping it, we need to concretely identify its mechanisms, expose the plans themselves and, if necessary, identify those who are selling those plans as anti-systemic or anti-capitalist to the progressive or social democratic left. These kinds of counter-insurgencies occur in history: it is not just “the system” or for that matter a naïve well-intentioned yet confused intelligentsia which produces these falsehoods. They emerge concretely, with clear lines of responsibility. We need to identify them, first, and then constitute a separate pole of organizational force which can in fact stop them from proceeding.

A People’s Green New Deal calls for the Global North to repay its accumulated climate debt to the Global South. I agree that this is indispensable to struggles for climate justice. But whenever this argument is made there are always those who say that it is impossible to rally workers in the Global North around solidarity with the Global South until the conditions of the Global North’s working class have improved: universal public healthcare, unionized green jobs, and so on. What do you make of these arguments? And how is solidarity between the North and South concretely possible today?

I think those who do not want to discuss these issues should wonder whether perhaps they are more invested in colonialism than they would like to publicly confess. Consider universal health care, a topic I take up in the book. Cuba achieves superior healthcare outcomes because there are more per capita doctors, there is community care, and there is preventative and cheap and efficient rather than reactive, expensive, industrial-goods-heavy, and inefficient healthcare. These are questions of models. One model relies on human skills, knowledge and care, and can be done using relatively resource-light methods. The other model relies on all of those plus massive technology, and gives worse results, with far higher CO2 emissions.

Why not teach people about alternative models of healthcare? We should be teaching them about the Cuban model. We should be proposing massive increases in community care and training for doctors, a focus on nutrition and universal free healthcare, as we find in Cuba. And we should be combining this with climate debt repayments. Is some imaginary “western working class” not interested in that project, or is the problem the profitable racism of western pundits? We need a serious discussion about this, keeping in mind that racism is a class project.

Of course, North-South solidarity is difficult. But it starts from lifting up the struggles in the South for dignity, praising their successes and showing how the North is blocking those struggles. Unfortunately, much of the pundit class and its linked vanity presses takes the opposite path: they lift up southern struggles for what they call dignity only in states targeted by US imperialism, they never praise successes until they are forced to, as with belated recognition of Cuba’s medical diplomacy in the face of the current epidemic, and they systematically erase and suppress the Northern role in denying southern self-determination.

Consider that Historical Materialism, a purportedly anti-imperialist Marxist journal, for years ignored western sanctions on Zimbabwe, or more recently ignored the western role in the coup d’état against the Worker’s Party in Brazil, and its contributors signed onto a letter calling for sanctioning Iran. Then other pundits in other sectors of the same publishing cartel bemoan the permanent racism of the working class and the resultant impossibility of building solidarity between North-South. I believe the term the youth use for this spectacle is “gas-lighting.” It seems to me that the racism problem begins with the pundits selling their pen rather than with working-class people with ignorant ideas.

You’ve been unflinching in your criticism of scholars, organizers and pundits who fail to consider the Global South’s struggles and intellectual traditions. What is it that drives you to take this line? And what works should organizers in the Global North familiarize themselves with if they want to improve their understanding of how imperialism functions today?

I have spent most of the last 13 years, or most of my adult life, outside the United States, mostly in the Arab region. But, this is personal anecdote. In fact, humanism should drive us and can drive any of us into empathy and support for southern struggles for bread, land, freedom, emancipation and popular development. Everyone on the planet deserves to have a decent life, and one needs to be seriously over-educated and under-informed to think that the path to the good life for the planet proceeds primarily through the political action of the western working classes and the intellectual labor of criticizing internal contradictions of Third World development from the podium of northern academia.

It is quite the reverse: it has been the peripheries which have pushed revolutionary transformation, in turn bringing new vistas into view in the core, from the USSR, to Maoism, to Cuba, to the Vietnamese Revolution, and for that matter, Palestine. If we agree that a just world-system is one in which the most excluded and oppressed have dignity and freedom, then it seems logical that we have to hew to their demands and ways in which their oppression is tied to contemporary imperialism. Contrary-wise, those who ignore and denigrate those demands and revolutions are stabilizing the current system.

Luckily, things are changing. In fact, we are living in a period of renaissance of revolutionary theory about imperialism. I cannot recommend more the works of Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, John Smith, Ali Kadri, all the books and articles from the Agrarian South project, alongside the foundational work of Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Ruy Mauro Marini and Vania Bambirra, and older dependency literature more broadly, which emerged in every peripheral region.

Max Ajl

Max Ajl is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University and an associated researcher at the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment. He is an associate editor at Agrarian South. His book, A People’s Green New Deal, was published in 2021 with Pluto Press.

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