On The Green New Deal, Nationalization, & Class Politics

Photograph Source: Senate Democrats – CC BY-SA 3.0

Humanity has precious time to drastically and uniformly act to reduce carbon emissions and eliminate carbon-intensive economic activity before ecological collapse materializes. However, the struggle presented is not that simple. The challenge also requires providing economic relief for workers and recognizing contradictions in the prevailing economic model that created the climate crisis when undertaking a historic societal transition.

While a handful of elected officials recognize the gravity and push for a Green New Deal (GND) — that rightfully strives to curtail carbon-intensive economic growth — it must also be recognized that the GND is only an initial step. The GND hints at contradictions within the U.S. economy and outlines a transition to alleviate some of these contradictions, yet it is a mere jumping-off point and a framework that leaves questions regarding its implementation.

In sum, the current mode of production and distribution — of private ownership motivated by unlimited growth and profits — is incompatible with ensuring the survival of humanity, serving the common interest, and staving off ecological collapse. To effectively limit the destructive tendencies of a system based on carbon-intensive growth, mitigate economic contradictions, and reverse course from impending ecological collapse, a bold conversation offering implementation with explicit class politics is urgently needed from GND champions.

The Green New Deal, A Symbolic First Step

In 2006, the U.S. Green Party launched the GND Task Force, which aimed to provide a solution to economic inequality, creating sustainable green energy infrastructure, and achieving zero carbon emissions by 2030. While GND proposals have existed for over a decade, specifics vary from politician to politician and ideology to ideology. Yet the commonality shared in proposals is modeled after the New Deal’s ideals of bolstering labor-oriented social programs and protecting workers, and making it “green” through the conversion of energy infrastructure to renewables.

Since the GND’s inception, Green Party candidates Howie Hawkins and Jill Stein ran on the framework in elections from 2010 to 2018. While the Greens became early adopters, for a decade and a half the model for a green transition would stagnate in popular discourse. 15 years after the GND’s genesis and being relegated to the fringes of American political life, the public and some Democratic Party officials began to come around.

Amid the 2018 midterm elections, self-described Democratic Socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez adopted the GND and popularized it, including whipping up a 60 percent favorability rating among the public. After an upset campaign that championed a GND, Ocasio-Cortez teamed up with Senators Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders to introduce identical resolutions into both the House and Senate during the 116th Congress.

The current form is a 14-page resolution that sets out to combat climate change over a “ten-year mobilization”. It can be broken down into two parts. One section espouses a series of climate goals, while the second lays out labor-centered benefits.

The first section, where the “green” in its namesake arises, states the impacts of climate change, citing the fiscal cost of inaction, human tolls like mass migrations, and the reality after the destruction of ecosystems. The section also outlines broad goals the U.S. needs to accomplish to mitigate the impacts of climate disaster, such as becoming completely carbon-neutral by 2050 and achieving “global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030.”

The second section is the New Deal aspect, which recognizes that current economic precarity has created instability for working people. It calls for redistributive, universal measures, like single-payer health care, a federal jobs guarantee, higher wages, and funding education and training for workers.

While it’s a start, it isn’t the end-all-be-all policy to solve impending ecological dystopia that some believe it to be. It is a meaningful first step; yet, it’s just that: a first step.

From a technocratic legislative lens, the GND is a Congressional simple resolution (labeled H. Res. or S. Res.), meaning that it doesn’t fund or create new programs and doesn’t possess specific implementation policies. Although legislation, simple resolutions do not have to be voted on by the opposite chamber of Congress and do not have to be enacted by the executive branch. These types of resolutions merely express the sentiments of either body of the legislature and carry no legally binding weight.

In the context of acting on climate change, the GND leaves out implementation details of how to reach the stated sentiments and doesn’t legally commit the U.S. to its goals. Simply stated, the GND is a symbolic first step that expresses Congressional sentiments for the U.S. to strive for climate goals while protecting workers to accomplish the transition.

The resolution is correct to label climate change as an imminent global threat, create objectives to mitigate catastrophe, recognize the need to protect working people, and hint that energy infrastructure — along with other sectors — should be placed under public ownership. Yet, questions remain regarding how the GND, if advanced into more Congressional support and a legally binding structure, would be crafted and implemented.

GND supporters — Congressional, amongst the public, and media — must begin to look at how to achieve the resolution’s goals and consider the ideological framework of the GND’s implementation. With that said, as the clock ticks down and the urgency to correct climate change draws near, the GND’s future implementation cannot rely on rudderless ideological appeasement to the market.

Fighting Fire With Fire

In a 2019 CNN town hall during the Democratic Primary, climate activist and writer Robert Wood asked Senator Elizabeth Warren — a supporter of the GND — to elaborate on her position on the public ownership of utilities and capitalism’s role in exacerbating climate change.

Wood inquired, “Bernie Sanders has endorsed the idea of the public ownership of utilities, arguing that we can’t adequately solve this [climate] crisis without removing the profit motive from the distribution of essential needs like energy. As president, would you be willing to call out capitalism in this way and advocate for the public ownership of our utilities?”

Warren’s response — steeped in ideology — was unsurprisingly familiar and lukewarm at best, telling Wood, “Gosh, you know, I’m not sure that’s what gets you to the solution.” The Senator continued, highlighting her solution, “But for me, I think the way we get there is we just say, sorry, guys, but by 2035, you’re done. You’re not going to be using any more carbon-based fuels, that gets us to the right place. And if somebody wants to make a profit from building better solar panels and generating better battery storage, I’m not opposed to that.” Senator Warren concluded, “But I just want to be clear. We’ve got to have tough rules that we’re willing to enforce.”

Warren, while oversimplifying her plan, revealed her ideological commitment to the current economic order and aptly deflected from the underlying point in Wood’s question. As Wood gets at, the profit motive and private ownership are contradictory for the production and distribution of essential goods and services that virtually every person uses regularly. Wood was also getting at the notion that capitalism created this crisis and is incapable of serving the public interest.

Warren’s response, although expected, is ideologically revealing and paints an idealistic vision of remedying a never-before-seen global challenge like climate change. The Senator’s response demonstrates the halfhearted incrementalism and the “let’s not rock the boat too much” commitments of many leading liberals through seeking market-place solutions, tougher rules, and public-private partnerships.

If only it were that simple! In the fossil fuel corporations’ eyes, they know what the GND signals: an end to business as usual. It’s against their business model to let it come to fruition, let alone liberals’ tepid implementation vision of marketplace reforms to meet the GND’s principles.

As any corporate executive will tell you, the goal of private industry is to remain competitive, gobble up market share, and ensure the financial health of the corporation. The rules of the privatized market dictate that they must increase profitability and are legally obligated (fiduciary responsibility) to protect the financial health of the corporation. That means fighting against “tougher rules”, “telling them they’re done by 2035”, and eating up competitors that threaten their future.

It is also short-sighted to rely on private interests’ incentive to turn a profit in creating renewable infrastructure and technology. Reliance on the market and profiteers to sort out an existential crisis — one which will determine humanity’s prospects for survival — is irresponsible and untimely.

The ideological devotion to the private market when addressing climate does not recognize an inherent contradiction of the problem. The looming reality faced was created by the very system those like Warren seek to employ to cure it. Essentially, the liberal ideological commitment to solving climate change using the system that created it is like using fire to fight fire.

Though Warren and like-minded liberals who support the GND are right to do so, their ideology fails to produce an implementation solution other than tougher regulations and slowly phasing out carbon-intensive corporations through market-place incentives and disincentives. Many of these solutions will be circumvented due to the immense power of corporate America, which is heavily tied up with fossil fuel corporations and banks via the petrodollar. Power, which has been concentrated because of the economic system, must be confronted.

Proper policy implementation of the GND should reflect climate change’s urgency, the contradictory economic system that gave rise to it, and the concentrated private power within energy infrastructure. Rather than relying on competition and profiteering to solve climate change, meaningful solutions reside in collaboration and protecting the common welfare through publicly accountable institutions.

Crises that threatened the U.S.’s welfare and existence, such as the polio vaccination effort, the Great Depression, or the run-up to World War II required vast sums of public investment and ownership over investments. This seemingly lost ideal of common ownership and protecting public welfare in crisis has been left out of American political life. The long term solution to effectively addressing climate change and easing economic misery lies with an American pastime.

Nationalizing Industry In Crisis, An American Pastime

In a Jacobin piece, author Thomas Hanna lays out a brief history of nationalization in the U.S and asserts that democratizing industry is as American as apple pie. Beginning in World War I, with the nationalization of arms manufacturers and telephone and railroad companies, public ownership of industry has been practiced in U.S. governance for over a century.

While the U.S. is often hailed for its free-market and private enterprise system, in times of crisis — like World War II and the Great Depression — the nationalization of industry and funding labor-oriented social programs is how the U.S. has remained afloat during volatile times. In times of lesser crisis, the nationalization of companies and industries has similarly been practiced to meet production and distribution standards while bringing stability through serving the common interest.

In the post World War I environment, a collapse in the capitalist economy led to a worldwide depression — thrusting millions of people into poverty. To jumpstart the economy and alleviate volatility, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) implemented the New Deal and nationalized key sectors of the economy, including gold and silver reserves, and some energy monopolies. While resources weren’t expropriated due to the Takings Clause (a section under the Fifth Amendment that states “private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation”), the profits generated by the publicly held companies and industries were used to fund anti-poverty programs in the New Deal.

Shortly after the world economy lay in ruins, fascist barbarism began to storm through Europe, creating the conditions for carnage and the deadliest war in human history. During World War II, the U.S. government went on a nationalization spree. To aid the war effort, FDR’s administration put railroads, coal mines, trucking companies, and even department stores under public ownership. By the time Truman was in office, three months before V-J day — the government was nationalizing one plant or company per week.

Nationalization efforts continued throughout the post-war period when steel mills were brought under public ownership during the Korean War. Following suit, in the late 1970s, the government again nationalized railroads and continued placing industry under public ownership into the 1980s after the savings and loans scandal. In the 2000s, the government moved to place banks and car manufacturers under temporary public ownership.

By placing companies and crucial industries under democratic control, although mostly temporary, past U.S. governments ensured production and distribution standards were met to serve the common good and fend off crises caused by a volatile economic system.

Like the Great Depression and World War II, humanity is facing down an unprecedented and even more dire crossroads. To meet urgent ecological and economic security, Washington’s progressive leaders and climate change coalitions must look to the class politics inherent in nationalization to achieve their goals.

Considering the state of routine economic and political U.S. meltdowns, this is not the political moment for technocratic rules, market-place solutions, or first step symbolic Congressional resolutions to solving any crisis, let alone a historic challenge like climate change. The moment deserves more and the people deserve confrontational class politics.

In short, nationalization brings class politics to the forefront and leaders can articulate that implementing the GND through nationalization would: promote cooperation over competition; create public accountability rather than private control by an unelected few; offer solidarity when unity is scarce; restore a public utility to common ownership; and fund programs and launch initiatives of economic empowerment for all working people. By advancing class politics through the nationalization argument, the American public can better understand what they have to gain when the economy and government serves the masses.

Jack Delaney is a former policy analyst. He worked on issues relating to health care, disability, and labor policy, and is a member of the National Writers Union. 

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