The vicissitudes of the Green New Deal
Andony Melathopoulos and Charis Theodorou
Platypus Review 154 | March 2023
On October 22, 2022, Platypus Affiliated Society members Andony Melathopoulos and Charis Theodorou gave the following edited article as a teach-in, the video of which is available online at <https://youtu.be/e1hsiSuwg8s>.
THE GREEN NEW DEAL arose just months after Democrats retook Congress in the 2018 midterms. In fact, two days after the midterms the Sunrise Movement staged a sit-in at the office of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, signalling the clear strategy to pressure Democrats to enact climate-change policies under the slogan, “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Shortly thereafter, newly elected “Squad” member Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Senator Ed Markey introduced a bill for the Green New Deal, calling for a public-works program akin to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, to not only rebuild the welfare state that had been unwound since the 1980s, but to do so in a way that significantly reduced carbon emissions. Although non-binding, Pelosi didn’t allow a vote on the Bill in Congress, and it was only brought to the floor of the Senate by Mitch McConnell who wanted to get Senate Democrats on record. At the end of the day, no Senators voted in favor, with most Democrats ducking the challenge by voting “present” and / or joining Republicans to vote against. In spite of the political defeat, the Millennial Left still hoped the Green New Deal would coalesce the elements of the Democratic Party machinery — the unions, NGOs, and ethnic constituencies — around Bernie Sanders as the next presidential nominee. Undeterred, they created posters in the style of the 1930s Federal Art Program, depicting not dams and bridges, but new high-speed rail, with wind turbines whirring in the distance. They hoped their efforts would be redeemed by Bernie in 2020, not remembering how in 2016 the very constituencies they hoped to capture with the iconography of the Green New Deal, were what enabled Hillary Clinton to win the nomination in 2016.
The Millennial’s “socialist” visions of the future / past came up against the realities of the present. It turned out that Sanders was apparently not serious about winning the Democratic nomination, bowing out quickly and vowing to pressure the Democrats, rather than lead them. As Pelosi herself chided, the “Squad” had underestimated the Democratic Party machine, pointing out that their four votes were only that, that they “didn’t have any following” — meaning the grassroots of the Democratic Party was not with them — no matter how large their Twitter following was. And Pelosi was not wrong as it was ultimately the conservative grassroots of the Party who grew wary of the easy target the “Squad” offered to a Republican Party. A Republican Party that seemed not only to survive but grew emboldened by the string of special inquiries from Russian collusion to the events of January 6. With Biden’s election, even the pretence of the “Squad” pressuring the administration has fallen away, as the Millennials have resigned their fate to the Democratic Party. As hecklers at a recent event in Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s own district relentlessly pointed out, the “Squad” no longer functions as a loyal opposition, but simply approves bills for higher military spending. By the time all elements of President Biden’s infrastructure program rolled out, it looked nothing like the posters. While one senior Sunrise Movement leader claimed victory, declaring the Green New Deal had ushered in an “era of big government is back,” the claim rang hollow in terms of the broader ambitions the Millennials began with. What the Millennials had wrought was not utopia, but fraud.
Notably, the Green New Deal — the idea of creating a new political machine by joining organized labor to the environmental movement — is not a new idea. As Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins repeatedly points out, the Green New Deal was part of his campaigns for U.S. Representative as far back as 2000. In fact, he suggests that the notion of “large-scale public investment in clean energy for jobs and economic justice as well as environmental protection” dates back to his opposition to President Richard Nixon’s “Project Independence” to build 1,000 nuclear plants by 2000, in the depths of the 1970s energy crisis. Hawkins was part of a group that was able to bring together environmental activists and members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers to oppose Nixon’s plans. Notably, unlike the Millennial generation, the New Left did form new political organizations across the world in the 1980s in the form of Green Parties, the most powerful being in Germany. The German Green Party also played an important role in decommissioning nuclear power plants when it formed a coalition with social democrats at the end of 1990s, winning a Nuclear Exit Law that auspiciously resulted in the closure of all German nuclear plants the year before the current energy crisis in Europe.
But as Hawkins points out, the effort to build the U.S. Green Party was done with an awareness of the trap of working in the Democratic Party. He equates the problem extending back to the original 1930s New Deal, when Communists went into coalition with the Democratic Party against fascism, in what is known as the Popular Front. As he argues:
since 1848 the traditional principle of socialist politics was class independence from the capitalists. The so-called “socialists” in this country have forgotten that. They don’t know that they’re continuing the Popular Front because they don’t study history. And when you’re in a Popular Front with the Democrats, you are the junior partner: they set the agenda, and you go out and knock on doors or make phone calls. You’re not a Left anymore; you’re just grunt workers for the corporate liberals and neoliberals.
Hawkins was part of a group of socialists in the late 1970s and early 80s who looked to discontent around environmental degradation to create the basis for a new independent Left. The strategy could be characterized as forging a new political coalition after the era of the socialist parties had passed, a politics of survival, that could regroup the labor movement around emerging environmental concerns and defeat the political machinery that Hawkins identified as the key obstacle to socialism.
Hawkins was influenced by a key political figure in the U.S. Left in the late 1970s and early 80s, Barry Commoner. Hawkins joined Commoner’s Citizen Party in 1980 for Commoner’s presidential campaign. Commoner, however, provides an instructive example of the limitations of the politics of survival.
Commoner was a protagonist of the early environmental movement in the 70s. A generation older than Hawkins, he became a vocal critic of the neo-Malthusian positions taken up by scientists like Paul Erlich. As opposed to their contention that limited resources and growing population were the primary source of pollution and environmental degradation, Commoner emphasized class and national interests. He claimed that capitalist profitability was a fetter on technological changes and policies that would enable humanity to reduce pollution and develop technologies that could transform limited resources into abundance. Like Hawkins, he expected a struggle over who would pay the costs of the pollution, a struggle along class lines. Workers, Commoner believed, were disproportionately the bearers of the effects of pollution, while the capitalists benefited from reduced costs associated with their pollution leaving their plants untreated. He concluded that this situation generated the basis for an environmental politics of the working class: “neither worker nor environmentalist can reach their separate goals without joining in a common one: to reconstruct the nation’s productive system so that it conforms to the imperatives of the environment which supports it, meets the needs of the workers who operate it, and secures the future of the people who have built it.”
Undoubtedly, discontent among workers with environmental degradation has persisted to this day. What failed to materialize is not only any widespread militant opposition, but any challenge to the enduring political organizations of the mid-to-late 20th century. In fact, today, working-class people are more likely to oppose environmental regulation as it tends to increase costs to workers and reduce the profitability of the firms they work for. On environmental questions, working people around the world may, in fact, be more closely aligned with the position of capitalists than those of would-be socialists. Why is this?
The 1960s New Left not only gave rise to attempts at alternative political organizations, like Commoner’s Citizen Party, but also critics of the New Left’s failure to deal with deeper problems faced by the previous generation, the 1930s Old Left. Andrew Feenberg took up Commoner’s approach to environmental politics and the Left in his 1978 essay, “Beyond the Politics of Survival.”
Feenberg points out Commoner’s position treats the working class in entirely objective terms, a position that was considered in the early 20th century as “vulgar” Marxism. Vulgar in what sense? Vulgar in that it treats the working-class consciousness of the aims of its movement as static and unchanging, or as Cliff Slaughter puts it in his essay on revolutionary leadership, “political events and tendencies are seen as ‘natural’ and inescapable reflections of economic interest.” Contra Commoner, Feenberg points out, labor’s situation regarding the environment is ambiguous: “It can resist the unequal burden that it bears by resisting all expenditures for restoration of the environment, short-sighted though this policy may be. Or, it can fight to insure that the burden is more fairly shared, while struggling to improve the conditions under which it works and lives.”Feenberg’s point being that the working class, in its immediate situation, does not lead beyond capitalist politics; that specific interest of workers in socialism cannot be understood on strictly objective terms. Socialist politics would have to arise from workers understanding their role in history. Like the 1930s Old Left before them, Hawkins, and Commoner, could only relate to the working class as a constituency, an interest group with positive objective interests. This is unlike the socialism before the 1930s and its Popular Front, who would have regarded the opposition between profits and the damaging effects of pollution — the needs of capital and the needs of labor — as expressing a contradiction of society in capitalism, which the socialist labor movement would bring to its fullest expression in its political life.
In contrast to socialism, progressivism looked to manage the contradictory aspects of society by attempting to have capital serve the middle classes. The conflict between labor and capital, which held the promise of rendering this contradiction politically tractable, was occluded with an attempt to merge two features of society that are at odds: the ceaseless motion of capital and the conservatism of the middle class towards this motion. Middle-class discontents become the basis of reorganizing capital accumulation. But the effort of staving off the recurrent crises, by kicking the can down the road, ultimately maintains capitalism through its manifest social and political crises. The liquidation of the workers’ movement for socialism left the political leadership to the capitalist parties under the progressive banner, which after the 1930s was primarily led through the Democratic Party. What remained was not politics, but a constantly shifting struggle among capitalists and middle-class constituencies to restabilize society. Whereas the working class once understood itself as the active cause of crises in capitalism, and in turn, the basis of advancing these crises politically, as the 20th century wore on, it entered crises passively, watching as various groups fought and jockeyed to bring about a new social alliance of capital. In this way, the Green Parties of the 1980s, while attempting to become independent of the main capitalist parties, did so in a way that simply conceded the progressive approach to politics.
In the current wave of Green New Dealers, the aims of the working class in socialism are completely obscure. Moreover, unlike Commoner and Hawkins, they seem to lack any sense of the extent to which the Democratic Party poses an obstacle to this end. They look to the Democratic Party to put capital to work to meet the middle-class reaction against environmental degradation. The working class, or more specifically the unions which constitute a cog in the Democratic Party machine, are considered the tool for winning such negotiations within the Party. This is taken to be socialism.
An illustration of this confusion came in the closing act of the Green New Deal, as the Inflation Reduction Act was passed in August. To mark the significance of the Democrats complete absorption of the Millennial’s aspirations into the Party, Haymarket Books and Verso Books hosted a “debate” on eco-socialist “futures.” During the debate DSA Green New Dealer Matthew Huber was confronted by degrowth proponent Andrea Vetter over the supposed progress of the 20th century. Vetter, who ended the debate by stating that she drew hope for the future in people raising their own chickens, chided Huber for his reading of the 20th century progressive movements, his faith in the working class, and his “Marxism.” Wasn’t this history just one of catastrophe and the gains simply of “male, working class, mostly white,” who “gained a lot over the past 50 years in the global north from all this injustice”? Vetter questioned whether Marxism wasn’t simply, at worst, the ideology of a particular interest at the expense of humanity and, at best, only adequate to the age of capitalism, but not the old oppressions of patriarchy and colonialism.
Huber’s defence of the working class and Marxism against Vetter’s attacks reflect a further degradation of the problem that Feenberg already identified with Commoner. Huber points to the enormous technological progress and narrowing of income inequality since the 1930s New Deal and that the working class was the key constituency associated with bringing about that world. And, he continues, of course Marxists are concerned with colonialism as well as patriarchy, given their role in decolonization after WWII and the 1960s sexual revolution.
But what Huber is ultimately referring to is not the role of the working class in socialism, but the liquidation of the working-class organizations for socialism beginning in the 1930s into progressivism, of which the Democratic Party was key, particularly in post-WWII reconstruction. With the loss of socialism, the working class increasingly found itself divided, first in terms of the workers who organized into unions or not, then, into constituencies based on nationality, religion, race, gender, and sexuality. As Chris Cutrone states: “Today in the U.S., it seems to matter more whether one lives in a ‘red or blue state,’ or what one’s ‘race, gender, and sexuality’ are, than if one is a worker or a capitalist — whatever that might mean. Cultural affinities seem to matter more than socioeconomic interests, as the latter burn. People cling to their chains as the only things they know how.” Like all Green New Dealers, Huber casts his future back into the 1930s, to a time when the working class could still understand itself as such, on its path to disillusionment into the New Deal. Huber assumes a kind of working class — as a coherent socioeconomic group — that no longer even identifies as such in even an early progressive sense. That one cannot even talk about a “working-class culture” as one might in Commoner’s moment, marks a regression that Huber glosses. It is for this reason that Commoner, although wary of the dangers of the Democratic Party in ways that Huber’s generation seemed incapable of, could ultimately not think outside the New Deal framework of the working class as an object. These moments of regression — a product first of the liquidation of socialism by progressivism and then fragmentation of class altogether — would have to be recognized.
Feenberg diagnosed the environmental politics of the 1970s as a product of the loss of the subjective quality of working-class politics. As he instructively points out: “The human species is not yet the subject of the struggle to survive, and so this struggle itself becomes a facet of the contradictory impulses of the very class and national struggles the obsolescence of which it demonstrates.” What does Feenberg mean that humans have not yet become the subject of the struggle to survive? And what does he mean in saying that in assuming we are subjects, we only worsen the recurrent crises of the past?
Marx, unlike Vetter, did not view capitalism as simply another stage in history, just the latest form of oppression, in a long line of oppressions, but as the opportunity for humanity to become free, for the first time. Marx understood capitalism as the crisis of bourgeois freedom comprehended by Hegel as a dialectic of labor; the understanding that subjects recognize themselves through their labor. Along these lines, labor is not as Huber assumes, just a static fact of contemporary life, but an expression of the crisis that poses the problem of freedom. The contradictory character of labor, which confronts us as capital, obscures how we, the subjects, participate in the social reality around us, but also promises its overcoming through socialism. Rather than the progressive approach that everyone on the Left today accepts and has naturalized, socialism would not attempt to manage capitalism on the basis of its middle-class discontents, but turn the problem of capitalism into something that society could overcome subjectively. Marxism, then, is not as Vetter imagines, apologetics for working-class interests, but something entirely different. It is the attempt to locate the potential for change and transformation through an immanent critique of the society on the basis of its own self-understanding. By manifesting the crisis of society in capitalism, the working class would no longer be an object (a class in itself) but become the subject of transforming society (a class for itself). |P
 Maureen Dowd, “It’s Nancy Pelosi’s Parade,” New York Times, July 6, 2019.
 Valentina Jarmillo and Rich Calder, “Protesters heckle AOC with song over her support for aiding Ukraine,” New York Post, January 21, 2023, available online at <https://nypost.com/2023/01/21/protestors-heckle-aoc-with-song-over-ukraine-aid-support/>.
 See Matthew Miles Goodrich, “We can thank Green New Dealers for the inflation reduction act,” The Nation, August 17, 2022, available online at <https://www.thenation.com/article/environment/thank-green-new-deal-inflation-reduction-act/>.
 See Howie Hawkins and Gloria Mattera, “The Original Green New Dealers,” available online at <https://www.hawkinsmattera.org/the_original_green_new_dealers>.
 Gregor Baszak, “‘The Democrats are worthless’: An interview with Howie Hawkins,” Platypus Review 126 (May 2020), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2020/05/01/the-democrats-are-worthless-an-interview-with-howie-hawkins/>.
 Barry Commoner, “Address Before the Annual Convention: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America” (September 12, 1972), New York, mimeo, 1.
 Andrew Feenberg, “Beyond the Politics of Survival,” Theory and Society 7, no. 3 (May 1979): 319–61.
 Cliff Slaughter, “What is Revolutionary Leadership?,” Labour Review 5, no. 3 (October–November 1960): 93–96, 105–11, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/slaughter/1960/10/leadership.html>.
 Feenberg, “Beyond the Politics of Survival.”
 Streamed on August 2, 2022, available online at <https://www.youtube.com/live/9MNwY_6X1ZI>.
 Democratic Socialists of America.
 Chris Cutrone, “Class consciousness (from a Marxist perspective) today,” Platypus Review 51 (November 2012), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2012/11/01/class-consciousness-from-a-marxist-perspective-today/>.
 Feenberg, “Beyond the Politics of Survival.”