A Real Green New Deal Means Class Struggle

If we want a Green New Deal that can take on climate change, we need to challenge powerful business interests.

A truck delivers coal to Pacificorp's 1440 megawatt coal fired power plant on October 9, 2017 in Castle Dale, Utah. George Frey / Getty

On the morning of November 13, 2018, the Twitter account of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-based organization demanding a Green New Deal (GND), posted the following message:

BREAKING: we’ve begun a sit in inside @NancyPelosi’s office because @HouseDemocrats have failed our generation time and time again. They offer us a death sentence. We demand a #GreenNewDeal.

Joined by the Congresswoman-elect from New York’s 14th District, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the crowd of young activists occupying Pelosi’s office catapulted the idea of a Green New Deal into mainstream discussion. Unfortunately, just before Christmas, Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi brushed aside the proposal for a GND select committee and replaced it with a hollowed-out and toothless substitute.

Not to be deterred Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey introduced in February a new resolution outlining more specific principles and goals for a GND. It has already gained seventy-six co-signers in Congress and has spurred another round of international media attention. Once again, the resolution was brushed off by Pelosi as a “green dream or whatever they call it.”

As four climate writers in Jacobin argued on the day it was unveiled, the resolution is quite good. While a few business-friendly elements of the plan don’t square with a socialist climate politics, it does commit to confronting the overwhelming challenge of climate change with massive federal programs that tackle head-on the country’s horrific economic and racial injustices in access to clean air, water, housing, transit, and many other basic needs.

The confrontational strategy used by both Sunrise and Ocasio-Cortez to promote the GND is a major step forward for climate politics. During the Obama administration, most environmental groups focused on cozying up to the Democratic political establishment, only to watch an ill-conceived “cap and trade” bill go down in flames amidst a lack of popular mobilization. In contrast, the recent GND campaign began in earnest with corporate-free electoral campaigns that challenged neoliberal politicians, and won startling victories. After the election, these forces chose a public showdown with Democratic elites and their fossil fuel industry donors. As the campaign sharply targeted these establishment obstacles to climate action, it popularized the vital demand for a GND across a mass audience.

This wave of confrontational activism has now catapulted the GND into mainstream attention. Unfortunately, a policy’s popular support is anything but a guarantee of its passage. Medicare for All, for example, enjoys 70 percent popular approval but elite opposition to it remains formidable. And while confrontations with elected elites are certainly a step in the right direction, they won’t be sufficient to win a GND on the scale — and at the pace — we so desperately need.

In the likely case we don’t completely end capitalism in the next decade, we need a plan for effectively dealing with climate change anyway. Winning a transformative GND will require massive leverage over the political and economic system. We need the ability to force these changes over the objection of broad sections of the capitalist class, who are fiercely unwilling to lose their profits. The confrontational tactics and electoral challenges of the growing GND movement are essential parts of the leverage we need, but we think history shows they won’t be enough. We will also need direct leverage against the capitalist class, right in the places where they make their money.

Who has that leverage? In short, working people, united and organized. The working class not only has the numbers as the majority of society, but it also stands in direct antagonism to the capitalists causing the climate crisis. Most importantly, the working class has a “lever” at the core of the operation of the capitalist system. If workers stop working, or go on strike, business as usual grinds to a halt. As we’ve seen recently, this ability to shut down the system at its core is the greatest source of power for the working class as a whole. When workers strike, or organize other mass disruptive actions, those in power are forced to pay attention.

Why would the working class unite for a GND? For one thing, working people are set up to suffer the worst effects of climate devastation — especially where poverty or oppression make it far harder to survive, move, or adapt. Stopping climate change will take massive amounts of work to transform the economy, and a GND can be a vehicle to build the power, unity, and material conditions of all working people. Working-class people therefore have a common interest to stop climate change through a GND.

A strategy of building working-class power and waging class struggle from below is the only thing that can save the planet. The history of the original New Deal shows that major progressive reforms can only be won under capitalism by massive working-class organization and disruption. And the GND proposed by Ocasio-Cortez is far more ambitious even than that. To figure out our strategy, we need to look for guidance from how the New Deal was won.

Winning the Old New Deal

To put it briefly, the New Deal was won through mass working-class revolt.

The original New Deal was not won because Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Democratic Party leaders were kind. These elites supported labor and welfare reforms only in the face of a mass revolt of the working class; what Mike Davis calls “the highwater mark of the class struggle in modern American history [between 1933–1937].” Strikes shut down auto factories in Toledo and across the Midwest. Longshoremen and teamsters organized a four-day general strike in San Francisco, effectively shutting down the city. After the 1935 Wagner Act protected certain rights to unionize, a 1936–1937 wave of sit-down factory strikes proved labor militancy would not stop with these legal reforms alone.

This uprising was not just among the formally employed, industrial working class. As Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward recall, communist-organized “unemployed councils” engaged in “mob looting” and mass demonstrations demanding jobs and relief.

It was mass, militant action by rank-and-file workers that pushed the state to raise taxes on the rich, finance unprecedented welfare programs, and increase the legal rights and bargaining power of many laborers.

Of course, these reforms were hated by business interests. FDR alienated much of the capitalist class — claiming to “welcome their hatred” in his famous 1936 campaign speech — while counting on what Davis describes as the “powerful electoral bulwark that the surge of four million workers into the CIO during 1935–1937 offered.”

Ultimately, the New Deal coalition succeeded by splitting certain sectors of the capitalist class into a temporary surrender. Bosses from labor-intensive sectors, including manufacturing, garment making, and the racialized system of agriculture in the South, were those most bitterly opposed to the New Deal. But facing mass labor actions and social disruptions by the unemployed and working classes as a whole, the capital-intensive factions of the capitalist class decided to turn tail. Their low labor costs overall made them more willing to swallow reforms that increased labor’s bargaining power over critical issues of wages and the conditions of work.

Among these capital-intensive interests were the Rockefeller oil trusts, General Electric, and the investment banks. These turncoat capitalists deemed a liberal, technocratic, segregationist New Deal to be a satisfactory price to pay to regain stability in the midst of the depression. Working-class action made them fear not only immediate economic losses, but the mass delegitimation of capitalism and private property. This resigned support from one sector of capital helped FDR pass reforms that were very costly to the more labor-intensive industries, such as garments and the formerly labor-intensive automobile industry. Agriculture and domestic labor were exempted from much of FDR’s labor reforms in order to hold together his coalition with the “Dixiecrat” South whose capitalists (and capitalist Democratic Party) relied on these labor-intensive industries. Since these industries depended heavily on black workers, this enshrined the Democrats’ segregationism in the New Deal.

The gains of the New Deal were limited, segregated by gender and race, and largely short-lived. In addition to these failures of policy, there were also strategic failures that undermined and cut short the partial gains of the New Deal.

Growing union bureaucracies were emboldened by their new leverage over the national Democratic Party, and traded away independent working-class political organization for partnership with FDR’s still capitalist-dominated and, in the South, segregationist Democrats. By WWII, unions agreed to devastating “no strike” pledges. When workers struck anyway in 1941, FDR turned on the rank and file, sending the army to break a major aviation strike in Inglewood, California — what Davis calls the “Pullman of the New Deal.” Despite the renewal of mass strike activity in 1945–46, the eight prior years of accommodation left the labor movement weak enough to suffer a catastrophic defeat with the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley restrictions on union organizing.

Still, the concessions that the working class was able to win in this short period are in many ways unprecedented: Social Security, legal protections for unionization and collective bargaining, and vast new public infrastructure, to name a few. One wonders what might have been possible if working people’s high level of organization had been sustained or expanded.

In short, the New Deal was won by dividing the capitalist class against itself, not through well-intentioned interest group lobbying and political activism focused only on making demands inside the halls of state power, but rather through leverage from outside those halls, with working-class upheaval from below. Socialists know that we cannot entrust the ruling class with the ambitious working-class transformations we seek. However, as Engels wrote, “we can wring concessions from it [the capitalist-dominated state], but never look to it to carry out our job.”

How to Avoid the New Deal’s Limitations

As we learn from the strategy that won the old New Deal, we need to heed its lessons and limits.

First, the segregationist nature of the New Deal coalition served to divide the working class. For seventy years since, conservatives and neoliberals have leveraged these divisions in their offensive against taxes, unions, and wealth redistribution. The GND commitment to a job guarantee and economic, gender, and racial justice must ensure the benefits of the program do not accrue disproportionately to certain segments of the working class. The current resolution makes a strong commitment to this inclusive goal, but the work to achieve that pledge lies ahead.

Second, the absorption of working-class militancy into elite Democratic Party brokerage politics was fatal. FDR and key segments of the trade union bureaucracy suppressed rank-and-file radicalism with political sabotage, legal persecution, and force. The dangers of being cajoled and absorbed into an even more business-friendly Democratic Party are even greater today. Bernie Sanders is fortunately not the kind of liberal “save capitalism” politician that FDR was. But, as he himself keeps saying, we need not one president, but a persistent mass movement of millions to overcome corporate control of our government. We hope today’s renewed workers’ militancy paves the way for a truly independent, mass working-class party that can secure and advance our gains in the state. We have to make sure militancy keeps building after we win a GND — otherwise we won’t get to keep it.

Finally, to that end, we need a GND that will build working-class militancy and power through public ownership and a unionized jobs guarantee. We need a GND free of “public-private partnerships” or subcontracting to private industry, as was central to the New Deal and, especially, the federal World War II mobilization. These massive public investments in private industry only built the power of capitalists to break strikes and divide workers after the war. Instead, we need public or worker ownership of all GND programs, in a way that builds the popular and institutional base for such profit-free, social ownership of all key infrastructure in energy, water, and transit. Unionizing all jobs in socially run GND programs will support workers themselves to direct and contest the very nature of our economy. Beyond the excellent start of the GND resolution, socialists and working people should fight for a unionized job guarantee and public or worker ownership of all GND programs, to keep working-class power growing for good.

Splitting Capital

With those lessons in mind, how do we apply the strategy that won the New Deal to winning a GND today?

Capitalists keep a firm grip on the state in at least two ways. First, they place their people into state positions, and influence other state officials through social ties, donations, and the lure of lucrative work after leaving office. Second, they threaten and carry out “capital strikes.” Whenever state managers adopt policies that slow or impede the flow of private profit, capitalists threaten to stop investing. When they do stop the flow of capital, the investors’ aim is to “make the economy scream” to tank popular support for progressive governments.

The fight for a GND will have to overcome these powers over the state, wielded by some of the most dangerously mighty corporations in history. For a measure of the Goliaths we’re up against, consider that ExxonMobil, the largest fossil fuel company in the US, had $237 billion in revenue in 2017. This wealth means power over our economy, and an enormous influence over our political system.

These companies won’t ever give up on selling the vast reserves they’re sitting on — US reserves alone were worth an estimated $28 trillion in 2014 — but many other sectors of capital are not as closely tied to fossil fuels. Though no industry is fully disconnected from oil, gas, and coal, it is easy to imagine how capitalists heavily invested in telecom or pharmaceutical companies might allow a GND far sooner than the board members at Exxon. The cleavage in the old New Deal was between capital- and labor-intensive sectors of capital. The potential cleavage for a GND will likely be between carbon-intensive and low-carbon sectors.

Large industries that currently rely heavily on fossil fuels, like logistics, agriculture, or construction would be seriously disrupted by the transition to a clean energy economy. Non-fossil fuel capitalists would also be hurt by a GND: a jobs guarantee would cost them much of their power to manipulate workers with the threat of unemployment, most would pay higher taxes, and all would lose some of their control over the economy. But the transition for these sectors would be made possible by the enormous public investment and innovation unleashed by the GND, and in the medium term they would gain huge savings through publicly provided energy, transit, housing, and more. And in the long term, of course, these firms and their investors would benefit enormously by averting the most catastrophic climate disasters, which will otherwise increasingly threaten massive investments in fixed capital such as logistics infrastructure and real estate.

Nevertheless, all firms are oriented to short-term profits, and the climate obstruction of the billionaire-funded Democratic Party leadership proves that all sectors of the corporate class are willing to accept catastrophic climate change if it means protecting their power over the economy. If powerful capitalists will not push the government to adopt the GND, that leaves only one force that has both the interest in a socially just green transformation and the social power to see it through: an organized and militant working-class movement.

Without a change of course, the working class will continue to bear the brunt of the twin crises of economic deprivation and increasing climate devastation. However, a new working-class movement has two means — mass economic disruption and independent political organization — that can turn our crisis into an economic and political crisis for the ruling class.

Workplace organization and militancy can threaten the profits of major corporations. These firms would then be forced to choose between, on the one hand, the costs of climate inaction — increasing social and climatic disruption and the delegitimization of the capitalist system in general — and the costs of climate action, described above.

In other words, the goal of the climate movement should be to raise the costs of inaction so high that political obstruction becomes cost prohibitive.

Rising levels of class struggle from below can thus wrest power over the state away from capitalist control. This is what record high levels of worker militancy partly achieved in the 1930s and 1940s, and what the working class will have to accomplish further in the 2020s and 2030s if we are to save the planet from climate apocalypse.

In short, it has to become clear to a large section of capitalists that the system as they’ve known it is done, and their least painful choice is to accept the demands of workers for a livable climate and an end to poverty through a GND.

Strike Where Class Struggle Is Hot

The last four decades saw a huge decline in the power, organization, and political unity of working people in this country. Starting with increasingly aggressive austerity measures in the 1970s and an assault on unions in the 1980s, workers in 2017 were less organized than they had been in nearly a century, with only 10 percent in unions. Most major existing unions are still hopelessly tied to a self-defeating survival strategy that chains them to the corporate-funded Democratic Party elite, without giving unions or their members much say in the party’s direction.

The sharp drop of worker militancy since the 1950s tells a grim story of labor’s receding and now historically low level of power. Without the power to mobilize millions of workers to disrupt business as usual, and without their own political organization independent of the Democratic Party, workers are unable to force the collective interests of the working class into the political consciousness of mainstream culture and the political elite alike.

While many labor-oriented environmentalists have rightly decried the rifts between the environmental movement and organized labor, the official labor movement has become so weakened that its participation would likely not be enough to win something as ambitious as a GND. Even with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress in 2009, and after President Obama had campaigned on the AFL-CIO’s chief federal demand, the Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor was too weak to push Democrats they’d helped to elect to pass this relatively modest labor reform.

Luckily, 2018 saw the beginnings of a renewed working-class movement at mass scale. Led by the teachers’ strike wave, the numbers of workers who went on strike soared to 487,000 last year. This was the highest level of strike activity in thirty-two years.

If we are going to win a GND, we need this working-class movement to grow to at least the dimensions of the insurgency of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1934, 1.5 million workers went on strike; today, with 200 million more people in the US, a comparable level would mean over 4 million workers on strike. The GND won’t be won as a single issue, but must be one among many popular working-class demands like Medicare for All, living wages, and taxing the rich. The key strategy is to situate the GND within the expansion of a broader working-class movement.

Today, there are three major sites where socialists can intervene to push forward this growth. The most pressing and profound of these opportunities is the teacher strike wave, which has already involved millions of people in conscious struggle against corporations and political elites. Teachers and other school-workers, often without the support of union officials, have used their links with students and their families to unite their surrounding working-class communities in “bargaining for the common good.” Los Angeles teachers went on strike in January, and united fifty thousand working-class Angelenos in the streets and on picket lines — despite the worst rain of the winter. They won their greatest victory in recent memory: major increases in teacher pay and student services, along with commitments to halve standardized testing, improve green space for students, and advance a charter school moratorium.

In many of these battles, education workers have openly confronted fossil fuel interests, and proved how their ability to stop work means leverage to combat these powerful corporations and actually win. Oklahoma teachers won a higher tax on fossil fuel extraction. West Virginia teachers, through their mass strike and community organizing, made a gas severance tax the most popular proposal in the state for how to cover rising health costs for education workers. With the mere threat of a strike, Baton Rouge, Louisiana teachers were able to force local politicians to abandon their plans to give a huge new tax exemption to ExxonMobil.

While teachers are only a part of the awakening worker movement, their strikes are central to rebuilding a more militant labor movement in general. Health care workers, especially nurses, have also emerged as a powerful front for labor and political struggle across many states in the last two decades. Health and education, and other forms of care work, should be central to the politics of the GND; they are not only centers of rising labor militancy, but they are also inherently low-carbon “green jobs” that should be expanded in a worker-centered GND.

Second, we must bring the fight for a GND to the newly Democratic House majority. Confronting political elites with this demand helps popularize it further, and also helps raise consciousness about what it will take to win. Forcing the Democratic Party establishment to reveal its opposition to popular demands shows working people they can’t expect this establishment to deliver. It is to the great credit of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement that they have opened this confrontational strategy for a GND. Now socialists and a broader working-class movement must be brought together to bring the disruption of politics as usual to new heights.

Like the old New Deal, mass disruption is what can force the state to cave to popular working-class demands. While the old New Deal relied on support from capital-intensive sectors of capital that could withstand higher wages and more powerful unions, the GND movement will need to fracture the capitalist class between the carbon-intensive (fossil fuel, steel, chemicals, etc.), and less carbon-intensive sectors (e.g., technology, health care, services). Mass disruption is what will convince some capitalists that compromise is necessary.

Finally, we have the brightest opportunity in many decades to build independent socialist political organization that makes a lasting electoral threat to elites.

Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign is a crucial opportunity to rally millions for a GND and an end to corporate control of our government. If Bernie wins, his record and platform makes it clear he would push for a working-class GND more than any other candidate. No matter the resistance from Congress, a President Sanders would have enormous executive powers to put federal agencies and regulations to work towards essential GND goals. His long-standing support of striking workers and independent, working-class movement building shows how his presidency would be far better at stoking the fires of class struggle from below than any other contender.

Beyond Bernie, the mass popularity of Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib shows a widespread hunger for working-class champions to challenge far-right Republicans and the Democratic establishment alike. Even where they do not win, credible working-class electoral challenges can build the unity of working people for militant action and systemic political change. Across the country, socialists should work to build working-class coalitions and independent electoral organizing infrastructure that can promise an end to the careers of federal legislators who oppose a GND. Even as these challenges often use the Democratic primary and ballot line to begin with, we should be clear from the beginning that this activity is leading towards a working-class party that is independent of neoliberal Democrats and their billionaire donors. Socialists have a key role to play in pushing progressives towards this perspective and away from the notion that workers can accomplish their goals through a Democratic Party under irredeemable corporate control.

By helping facilitate the deepening of working-class revolt led by militant teachers, using popular class-struggle demands to politicize a mass audience, and supporting class-struggle electoral challenges and building workers’ independent political infrastructure, socialists can help build the confidence and capacity of the working class to organize and fight back. While these sites of class struggle aren’t climate solutions in themselves, this confidence and capacity will be the essential leverage to win a GND. Without this leverage, climate activists have little social power that doesn’t rely on the goodwill of Democratic legislators and the largesse of benevolent billionaires — two groups we know will not support a working-class climate solution. The potentially transformative political capacity of the working class is the only force capable of saving us from climate catastrophe.

Republished from Socialist Forum.

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Keith Brower Brown is co-chair of the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and a PhD student in geography at UC Berkeley.

Jeremy Gong is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in California’s East Bay.

Matt Huber is assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University. He is the author of Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital.

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