Three Ways a Green New Deal Can Promote Life Over Capital

The Green New Deal could have the power to take our lives back from the logic of capitalism. Here’s how.

US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong / Getty

Austerity and life are in a deadly opposition. The social capacities with which we make life, and the institutions with which we maintain life and satisfy our needs, are increasingly under threat. From birth (reproductive rights, access to health care) to old age (pensions, social security), most people’s lives are now punctuated by a ghoulish metronome of food shortage, poisoned water, and school closures.

Capitalism’s relentless productivist drive has now triggered climate change, threatening all life as we know it. Life-making increasingly conflicts with the imperatives of profit-making. We are confronted with the question of whether life-making will even be possible for our grandchildren.

How, then, do we take “our lives back”? Here are three starting points.

Life-Making Over Profit-Making

If our goal is a society where the social reproduction of life no longer depends upon the social reproduction of capitalism, a Green New Deal provides an important opening for the Left.

Capitalism has always promised a higher living standard than any economic system before, understood as a plenitude of “things.” I grew up in 1970s India, where industrial development was the magic mirror in which we were encouraged to see the poverty around us disappearing. The bigger the smokestacks, the more “things” they promised to bring. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this model of development was revered, given that Jawaharlal Nehru called industries, dams, and power plants the “temples of modern India.” If climate change has forced an urgent recalibration of this model, a Green New Deal must take the further step to offer an alternative, which will involve both a redefinition of wealth and the invention of new means of creating it.

As a political vision, the GND prioritizes the growth and flourishing of living beings, human and nonhuman, rather than the growth and flourishing of dead things like the “economy” and “commodity production.” In order to win such reforms and to sustain them against the inevitable backlash of the ruling class, the political project of a GND must be more than a set of regulatory reforms. The fight must encompass multiple forms of struggle in legislatures, workplaces, and the streets. And care work must be at its center.

Jobs, we are told, are our only means of creating wealth, or assuring economic “growth.” The regime of work under capitalism is such that the wage appears as an end in itself rather than a means to a life of dignity. But the worker is not really struggling for the wage, per se — but rather, for the life that the wage can afford. So when conditions of life worsen for working-class people, struggle erupts.

The GND may not eliminate the wage altogether, but it can alleviate both its absolutist tyranny and its planet-burning ways of organizing work. If we recognize the wage for what it is — a forced, historical intervention between the laboring human and her life — then we can think about new ways to irrigate that life. We can demand that the labor of society be reorganized around jobs that enrich life rather than be harnessed in the irrational production of endless commodities.

The GND’s conception of the job guarantee program provides such a model for a new labor ecology in which work and wages are actually in the service of saving the planet rather than counterposed to its future. The GND does not simply promise to create “green” jobs but seeks to link the jobs program to multiple forms of social sustainability in ways such that jobs can become tools to “counteract systemic injustices” rather than reproduce them.

Insurgent Caring

Across the globe, neoliberal policies of privatization and austerity have undermined the very infrastructures of life-making: the elements we need to reproduce our lives, from hospitals that heal us to schools that educate us to public parks that provide us with green spaces, not to mention public transportation. Meanwhile, the decimation of unions changed the landscape of worker organizing. But the fight against capital didn’t end — it just shifted arenas. When strike struggles declined, community struggles proliferated — from struggles over water in Bolivia to struggles against water taxes in Ireland. These struggles have historically been led by women, who have borne the disproportionate burden of care.

These movements demanding social provisioning should be seen as tentative blueprints for the GND in three crucial ways. First, because they give us a sense of what kinds of social goods the GND needs to reclaim for the many; second, because the scale and militancy of the protests provide road maps for how to get them; finally, because they model a politics of what can be called insurgent caring, whereby movements demand that “care” be provided at multiple scales of life — individual, community, and planetary.

In this context, every teacher fighting against school closures, every nurse fighting against lean production, is actually trying to heal the injuries of class. Caring, in this expansive sense of the term, is a political phenomenon and the crisis of care is a deep-rooted attack on working-class life-making.

This is why, globally, care work has emerged as a strategic front of working-class militancy — and has blurred the boundary between community and workplace struggles. In the Global North, we have workplace struggles of migrant workers who perform the bulk of care work in homes and hospitals, alongside a growing strike wave led by teachers and nurses. These are joined by community struggles for clean water and clean air, most often led by communities of color, exposing the deliberate, racialized poisoning of the environment by capital.

Capitalism has stunted our imagination about the possibilities of public goods, conjuring up nightmares of housing projects in ruins, or crumbling subway systems infested with rats. Against such neoliberal scaremongering, a politics for social reproduction must be able to demonstrate that a just transition is capable of creating sustainable habitats where working-class lives can flourish.

Socialist feminists like Alexandra Kollontai long struggled for communal laundries, communal kitchens — a vision where society helps with the work of reproduction instead of leaving it to individual families. We can take cues from those visions as we look towards new forms of public provision instead of wasteful private consumption. Instead of a chicken in every pot, how about a public kitchen in every neighborhood? We can combine a job creation program with beautifully planned housing projects in walkable and democratically planned communities. We can fight for public parks, for music and theater programs.

Schools and hospitals, public housing and transport — all such projects that sustain and improve life are not simply our means to an ecologically viable future, they are spaces which can allow us to imagine an alternative vision of wealth and experiment in ways in which human labor can be employed for the production of solidarities, mutual pleasures, and beauty.

Demands for an expansive vision of public goods and collective consumption have their corollary in political strategy. In fighting for the GND, we must reject any analytical separation between workplace (labor) and non-workplace (community) struggles.

Struggles that confront climate change have great potential for fusing struggles against production — strikes and labor struggles — with the struggles against the effects of such production, like movements for clean air. The recent wave of feminist strikes, teachers’ strikes, and children’s strikes are the most remarkable examples of such fusion.

From Threat-Multiplier to Movement-Multiplier

By identifying climate crisis as a “threat multiplier” that affects “economic, environmental, and social stability,” the Green New Deal enshrines the understanding that climate change can only be confronted through social change. For movements, the strategic upshot is that targeting a specific environmental harm can expose broader systems of exploitation.

This was resoundingly clear in the #NoDAPL mobilization, which, in the process of opposing a pipeline, revealed the links between native dispossession, imperialism, and ecocidal capitalism. Similarly, protests led by indigenous Dumagat women against the Kaliwa Dam in the Philippines pose a threat to the Duterte regime as well as to the entwined crimes of territorial dispossession, climate crisis, and gender violence. The multimillion-dollar dam project, to be built by Duterte with a loan from the Chinese government, will destabilize the ecosystem of the Sierra Madre forest, displace hundreds of indigenous communities from their ancestral land, and create conditions of extreme poverty and insecurity for women of these communities, conditions which are the breeding ground of gender and intimate violence. Kakay Tolentino, a member of the Dumagat tribe and the national coordinator of the Bai Indigenous Women Network captured this connection perfectly when she pointed out: “We are impoverished and made landless because of the plunder of our ancestral lands. These are the biggest forms of violence against indigenous women that should be put to an end.”

From this perspective, the transformative potential of struggling for a radical Green New Deal is not to simply replace fossil fuels with renewable energy in such a way that yokes our air, wind, or sun to the compulsions of capitalist growth. The point is to reimagine social labor and human purpose, where care across scales — individual, social, and planetary — can finally be made whole.