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Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism

The Big Idea of the Green New Deal, suddenly widely supported among Democrats, is to take ideas raised by self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election–single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, taxing the rich, breaking up big banks–and fold them into a massive government financing program to create jobs for everyone by mandating a rapid and full transition to a renewable, clean, energy-efficient economy.

Conservatives are either apoplectic (out of fear that it might succeed) or scornfully dismissive (out of bravado that its absurdity will be evident to voters). Either way, they paint it as a return to socialism, a collective vision of social, economic, and environmental justice they think represents the failed policies of the past.

Let’s review what we know about socialism. It was a movement which came of age in the nineteenth century in response to the exploitation of workers by capitalists in an era of rapid industrialization. It promoted the organization of labor unions and political parties to achieve basic rights for workers (no child labor, an eight hour day, decent wages, pensions, etc.).

Beyond that, however, socialist theorists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels envisioned the collective ownership of the means of production by the state as the final resolution of the conflict between capital and labor. They inspired the communist parties of the twentieth century whose totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, China, and beyond became a byword for tyranny.

The Green New Deal does not advocate the collective ownership by the state of the means of production (including major industrial sectors, distribution networks, collective farms, etc.), but it does presume a controlling role for the federal government that would be just as pervasive. The model socialist progressives cite is FDR’s New Deal, but a more accurate precedent is the vastly expanded power the federal government wielded during World War II to command the resources necessary for victory.

FDR’s wartime government-controlled prices directed investment, set production goals, and rationed consumption to a degree not seen before or since. Ownership of major industries remained legally in private ownership, but essential control was in the hands of a series of powerful government bureaucracies run on a top-down corporate basis.

This is what will be needed if the Green New Deal has any hope of achieving its goals. World War II is the real precedent for responding adequately to what Naomi Klein has called “the triple crises of our time: imminent ecological unraveling, gaping economic inequality (including the racial and gender wealth divide), and surging white supremacy.”

Dealing with this triple crisis promises to overturn society as we know it. Indeed, any one of the three crises alone would be enough for that. It can hardly be otherwise on this scale of change. But let’s be clear: There will be losers as well as winners, resistance as well as enthusiasm, retrenchment as well as progress, hardship as well as relief.

In FDR’s day, in spite of the trauma of the Depression, a more culturally unified society retained faith in most of its institutions and values, and its leaders largely respected what they understood to be the will of the people. Today we have a fragmented society marked by conflict over values and a tendency by leaders to manipulate rather than respect the citizenry.

More significantly, back then we had not yet bumped up against the limits of our resources, nor had we exhausted our ability to borrow against the future. Resources today are less readily available, harder to extract and process, and therefore more expensive. The national debt just blew through $22 trillion. Our petrodollar based monetary system looks incompatible with any proposed non-fossil fuel economy.

In an already polarized society, a government taking on racial and gender justice, and also committed to overcoming ‘white supremacy,’ in addition to solving climate and sustainability issues, will require authoritarian edicts and risk serious backlash. If redressing ‘white supremacy’ means tarring all whites with the broad brush of past crimes, especially slavery and genocide, then we have a tragedy in the making, where the dubious principle of collective guilt will be debated and resisted.

Personal freedom as we have known it–a value already seriously eroded–may disappear as well. The implementation of a Green New Deal would drastically rein in private initiative and ownership to secure the public ends it seeks. Ownership and private enterprise would be sacrificed to wage-labor as a means of survival.

Communists–those socialist extremists–admitted no private property except movable personal possessions. You couldn’t own your home, stocks or bonds, a small business, or much of anything else. Democratic socialists like Bernie or Alexandra Octavio-Cortez don’t go that far. But they are pushing to put any significant enterprise under effective public control, even if private ‘ownership’ might remain technically in place.

That’s okay, they say, because the government would be democratically accountable. They distinguish between totalitarian communism and democratic socialism. But, if history is any guide, it’s hard to see how real democratic decision-making (since it doesn’t exist) can be squared with state management of large corporate enterprises, especially on this scale. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the Green New Deal is singularly devoid of any serious proposal for reforming the political system to establish the democratic accountability it so conspicuously lacks.

Don’t get me wrong. There is no escaping the issues the Green New Deal is trying to face. But if there is no alternative but to cope with the triple crisis by a centralized national government in some kind of New Green Deal, it is also imperative that that government somehow be made genuinely (not rhetorically) democratically accountable. The Green New Deal doesn’t do that, nor does it even recognize the problem.