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‘Either you are fighting to eliminate exploitation or not’: A leftist critique of the Green New Deal

Canadian Dimension in conversation with essayist, researcher and historian Max Ajl

EnvironmentFood and AgricultureSocialism

Clean technology is not a panacea for climate change. Photo by ThoroughlyReviewed/Flickr.

The catastrophic economic fallout from COVID-19–millions unemployedskyrocketing food bank usageuncertain job futures–has provided a major boost to the case for a Green New Deal.

The version of the idea (which traces back to a 2007 column by Thomas Friedman, of all people) was formalized in a resolution introduced in February 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey and includes a far-reaching range of ideas to confront climate change and economic precarity: 100 percent renewable or zero-emission energy, a green job guarantee, huge infrastructure investments, and strong public services such as healthcare, housing, and education.

Other countries have also latched onto the idea in different ways, including the NDP’s half-hearted commitment to a “New Deal for People” during the 2019 election and South Korea’s supposed commitment to a Green New Deal with a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 (generally, there are concerns the language of “net-zero” keeps the door open to unproven technologies like carbon capture and storage).

The idea has found popularity even in the oil-saturated province of Alberta, with polling indicating that over half of residents supporting the idea.

Max Ajl

But there has been growing criticism from some parts of the left of the proposed Green New Deal, particularly relating to its potential impacts on the Global South and undefined relationship with capitalism. There is no singular Green New Deal that exists–with plenty of debate among supporters of it–but it is possible to speak about the most popular version of it as proposed by the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.

It’s a vision that scholar and author Max Ajl is deeply concerned about. Ajl is an associated researcher at the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and writes on rural development, especially in the Arab region. His book, A People’s Green New Deal, is forthcoming from Pluto Press in 2021.

His critiques of the Green New Deal are careful and productive, grounded in disciplines of agro-ecology and food sovereignty, seeking to leverage existing interest in the proposal into something far more liberatory and internationalist.

Canadian Dimension spoke with Ajl about his critiques of the Green New Deal, its relationship to capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism, and examples of struggles fighting for climate justice, food sovereignty, and self-determination.


Canadian Dimension: During COVID-19, we’ve seen a lot of different people present various responses to the concurrent climate crisis. One of these that has come up is, once again, this call for a “green stimulus” or a Green New Deal. We’ve seen this from central bankers, and private corporations, and leftist academics. What do you make of this kind of vision that’s being proposed? 

Max Ajl: There isn’t one vision so much as there’s a brand or a label that people are fighting to stake a claim over. I have colleagues who have started to introduce a Green New Deal for Tunisia that’s fundamentally a self-centred development strategy very much focused on agriculture, while also calling strongly for climate debt payments, as an example. 

There have been calls for what I think is a very bad Green New Deal from Ocasio-Cortez, calling for a Green New Deal that consists of funnelling public funds to private enterprises. It’s quite clear in the actual draft legislation that people haven’t really mentioned very much. And there’s people then branding that as eco-socialist. 

It’s important to be specific when we talk about the Green New Deal. Because of the particular resonance of the New Deal in American society, it’s become an easy way to brand the broader idea of an economic renaissance. However, the people with the power to implement their demands are the ones who are ultimately going to be able to define the terms of that economic renaissance. Furthermore, there are people who are articulating counter proposals but with various degrees of accommodation to regnant systems: imperialism and colonialism and capitalism.

Many of those proposals are considered “left.” That’s when we enter into a debate within the spaces that identify themselves as “the left.” How exactly to enter that field, what are the various positions within that field, and how can we evaluate them?

CD: There’s some interesting work being done by even calling the idea a “Green New Deal,” harkening back to this time in American history. What do you think is misunderstood or misremembered in what the original New Deal was? And what does that say about how people see this one functioning?

MA: What is not foregrounded are several fundamental points. One fundamental point: that the original New Deal was a plan of economic stimulus within a settler-colonial empire. It was based on exporting certain costs such as dam construction onto the Indigenous population. This is significant if we envision a horizon of liberation that includes Indigenous people. That’s an immediate issue that arises. 

When many people—understandably, because of the history of places like the US and Canada—think of an economic reconnaissance, it will tend to exclude certain types of people unless there are active efforts to explicitly include them. Which doesn’t mean they’re tokenistic adorning of panels or magazines. That means actually taking their programs of struggle as the point of departure for a reconstituted economic system. 

I think those are two very different things. One is a form of tokenistic inclusion which operates on the left as well. And one is a form of actually building together based on a common struggle that includes everybody.

The second really important point is the New Deal was a stimulus program. People forget that the stimulus was based on creating more effective demand. State planners poured money into the economy. The actual physical industrial base of the US swelled from 1932 to 1945 by an enormous amount. They literally increased the amount of actual physical material throughput within the country, including energy.

You can’t do that this time. You actually need to restrict, at some level, the aggregate energy use and the aggregate materials use in the United States, including materials which are imported. That does not mean austerity. It means reconfiguring the way actual materials are used–for example, reducing spending on the medical system and redirecting resources from specialist spending to primary health care will improve health outcomes. That’s not austerity, that’s working-class politics.

The third point is the question of imperialism outside the borders of the United States. This is a much broader issue, not merely limited to what people do or do not remember about the New Deal. Most people, I think, know the New Deal was imperialist. There are different ways of accommodating and blunting that critique as it relates to the GND, so I think that’s less central than the danger of this idea of a “stimulus.”

Finally, there is a question of vision. Stimulus is based on actually regrowing the economic base. But if you’re doing a Keynesian stimulus you are not attacking capitalism. Keynes was above all concerned with the preservation of capitalism. 

Protesters supporting a Green New Deal participate in a march in Washington, July 2019. Photo from Flickr.

CD: You’ve pointed out that when the Green New Deal, at least in the mainstreaming framing of it, thinks about other countries in the Global South, it focuses mostly on this idea of selling clean tech or maybe providing some funding. It’s mostly focused on domestic development. Why isn’t this enough in your mind in addressing the histories and ongoing legacies of harms in the Global South?

MA: I would push it just a little bit and say it’s not just the mainstream that’s the problem. It’s most of the more visible left that has a slippery embrace of these concepts of climate debt. It would shift depending on who they’re talking to. This is a reflection of the fact that when we use “the left” it’s very sloppy term to begin with: people are talking to different constituencies and so forth. 

But it’s also whose interests are automatically included when you enter the public sphere and say, “I want to change society.” Whose interests are not negotiable? I don’t think the interests of any person, North or South, can be disposable. If we agree with that, then the very first thing is to examine the legitimate demands coming from poor or less powerful people in the North and the South. It’s a method for thinking about how to do politics.

What that brings us to is the set of fundamental demands that animated the global climate justice movement until around 2014 when they became increasingly submerged. The essence of it is the call for ecological or climate debt. If you took the most minimal G77 program in 2012 or 2014, for example, that was calling for $100 billion per year to be ramped up rapidly. These were the most minimal calls. There were much more radical calls out there. One can calculate climate debt much more expansively as well.

Stan Cox, who has a fantastic book called The Green New Deal and Beyond, estimated the cost of worldwide clean transition at $100 trillion—and said the US should shoulder a huge portion of that. Which really begins to get more properly at this question of climate debt. This was the fundamental demand that came from the Cochabamba meetings that brought together all the radical civil society of the Global South, but also the Global North, and was supported by the Bolivian government. This wasn’t something that didn’t have an echo in the Global North. If you talk to anyone who was really involved in these proceedings, they will say “it’s common sense.” 

If we’re leftists, if we’re radicals, we think everybody on the earth has the same right to a good life and the right to use roughly equal shares of the earth’s resources and so on. I don’t think any humane person can argue against that. It’s common sense: we’re on the left because we want a relatively equal egalitarian sustainable world. Climate debt is the concept which reminds us how it came to be that the current world we live in is not equal, and reparations are the remedy for that history.

People might try to cast this as Third Worldist. But no: it’s just a basic demand that should be the departure point for building a different world system.

CD: What happened to that demand? How did it disappear over time, especially in this newest incarnation of the Green New Deal?

MA: It seems to me that overall the new wave of social democratic pundits are decidedly disinterested in contending with the ongoing colonial and imperial legacy and present, which takes the form of climate debt. This is related to the classic problem of social democracy: social democracy is an accommodation with capitalism, and capitalism was born in colonialism and continues to be imperial. If climate debt is a repudiation of that history, then social democracy is going to have to ignore climate debt as part of its inability to deal with imperialism and colonialism. It’s a structural issue.

Which doesn’t mean that everyone who thinks social democracy is a good thing wants to ignore climate debt. It means that the people who are articulating the political and economic programs for world social democracy aren’t going to account for climate debt because their plan is in essence reformist.

It’s just a question of being honest about what the actual proposal is. If you look at A Planet to Win, which is the book that’s getting the most attention right now, you would find no mention of climate debt, some nods at technology or resource transfer, and you’d find it’s a call for a “last stimulus,” and for capitalism to continue for a certain period of time. 

But what is capitalism? Capitalism is a process of the exploitation and appropriation of surplus value through exploiting and dispossessing people. Now, objectively, it’s going to continue for a period of time right now because there aren’t forces available to change that system. But it’s another thing to call programmatically for that to continue for a period of time. You’re saying we are willing to accept that capitalism will continue for a period of time in the core. If capitalist social democracy is going to continue in the core states, then it’s very clear that you obviously structurally can’t contend with colonialism and imperialism, which have produced even more exploitation and dispossession. Either you are fighting to eliminate exploitation or not.

It’s like when people talk about reparations—and really try to put a dollar value on it. Mike Davis wrote about this once, and he was like “if you actually did reparations in the US you would have socialism.” You’re just talking about expropriating all the wealth that was built on the backs of Black slaves. And if you want to talk more expansively of the Native population: this is why these demands can be tokenistically included but substantively excluded.

A real proposal for climate debt would involve talking about undermining the foundations of primitive accumulation upon which our system is based. And I think there is interest in it: even the Sander GND, which I found quite flawed, had more mention of climate debt than most left thinkers. That’s probably because his advisers thought it could work politically. There’s a lesson there.

A farmer tends to his field in India. Photo by Aravindan Ganesan/Flickr.

CD: I wanted to ask you specifically about how mainstream eco-socialism or the Green New Deal understands food and agricultural production specifically. What are some of the base assumptions about how this system operates—and what would a liberatory proposal look like in contrast?

MA: Again, there isn’t much engagement with food and agricultural systems in general. If you look at activists on the US left, people love dealing with food and agricultural issues. Especially if you go to the anarchist movements or the Chicano or Black Left, or look to Native food sovereignty work. There’s no shortage of people who are very interested in agriculture and food sovereignty and ecology. There’s a huge interest in it.

But then you arrive at certain spheres of left cultural production. And they have not paid much attention to ecology or agrarian issues ever, going back to the 1960s or 1970s. New Left Review has historically never published much of anything on ecology and even less on agrarian issues. It’s starting to shift but it’s still not focusing on real perspectives which depart from the demands of the South. 

Now, if you want to do popular development the Third World, that is an agrarian question. They are not getting surplus other than through eliminating rural poverty and landlessness.

However, people just don’t see it as central in certain ways amongst these circles, even though I really want to insist that when you get to the people engaged in food sovereignty in the US or people doing leftie projects engaged in community gardens and so forth, there’s lots of interest. It’s just not being articulated in this high-falutin theoretical way that is prescribed as “that’s leftist thought.”

There’s also a deep political economy issue. Huge rural labour reserves in the Third World are a fundamental basis of capitalism by maintaining permanent wage suppression through surplus supplies of labour. Wages stay low in the Third World and you have the threat of wage arbitrage from the First World to Third World. This is a crucial mechanism of capitalism: this maintenance of labour reserves through imperialism, including intervention against countries which try to carry out really redistributive agrarian reforms.

Not seeing that is actually part of maintaining our current system. This circles back to our question of why it is that social democrats happen not to see it–in effect, they articulate the perspective of reformists in the core, even if there is some interest in ecology. In any case, that’s the panorama and it has to be responded to. I think there’s actually a huge interest right now in ecological economics and agro-ecology and food sovereignty in many sectors of the US and Canadian left. 

There’s a huge interest. They don’t care if they’re being called hippies or whatever. It’s pretty clear we need a good way to produce food and take care of nature if we want to live in a sustainable planet. 

Here I would just lay out some very general lines of thought. 

What’s been very basic and known for a long time, since the 1970s at least, is there’s not a problem of insufficient production of food in the world. There is an excess of food. Some of it is produced badly. Half of it is produced more-or-less sustainably. The problem is one of poverty, which is a problem of power. 

We have enough food. When people are like “well, these other production systems are not productive enough,” this is just not true. There’s a lot of grain diversion to ethanol, there’s animals being fed for cereal crops when in fact the animals, land, and people would be healthier if animals were entirely fed on the native prairie plants and so forth. We have enough, and we have enough land. We have enough of everything. It just needs to be produced in an ecologically sound manner, which brings us to food sovereignty and agroecology—the idea that people, small-holders, pastoralists, small-scale fisher-people should be the custodians of the world food system. 

You need wide-ranging agrarian reforms in every country in the world. You need industrialized forms of production to be removed from agriculture. Agriculture should not be part of free trade regulations. And agriculture should not have, and doesn’t need, external inputs like chemical fertilizers or pesticides. You can use organic forms of pest control and soil restoration.

All of this is not only technically possible, but we know from long-standing experience that small-scale farms are more productive on a per-hectare basis. We also know that in Cuba, based on their surveys of the shift to agro-ecological production, you have actually increased the productivity of labour per unit of land. 

All the problems that people claim blight these forms of sustainable small-scale production are ideology. You actually just need to full-scale move every single farming system in the entire world to agro-ecological forms of production. In terms of animals, that means planned intensive grazing systems. For fisheries, it means artisanal fisheries that are managed by fisherpeople using commons. In terms of grain cultivation, this should be done using planned rotations and there’s also work being done about perennial grains. It should be integrated animal-forestry operations, or integrated animals on small farms. 

The issue of mechanization is always brought up—but let farmers decide how much mechanization is necessary while also providing infrastructural support for building up appropriate technology for all kinds of farms. You can feed the entire world, you can eliminate rural poverty, and you can pull out greenhouse gas from the atmospheric: which means you can solve global warming, if you stop emissions.

It can all be done, but what do you need? No big deal: you need to centralize farming in a revolution in every country in the world. That’s the tough part. But people who want to put forward technical objections are wrong.

CD: In contrast to this very technocratic Green New Deal as we’re seeing from new organizations like Progressive International, you call for listening to proposals from people who are at the bottom of the international division of labour—and that it’s not about producing solutions as much as it is listening to the solutions that already exist. Could you mention some places or organizations where this is happening?

MA: First of all, the US has a great group, the Red Nation, which has its own Red Deal that has been very carefully outlined. Appalachia has long-standing engagements in the Green New Deal. People can look at the Jackson-Kush Plan, which is the most elaborated form of the initiative which took a more concrete form in Cooperation Jackson. People can look at the work of the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, which might not use the nomenclature of the Green New Deal but is in essence planning for green ecological reconstruction of the US farming system.

Internationally, I would urge people to read the proposals of La Via Campesina, who have plans to use small-holder farming to cool the planet. In each country, one can look at their constituent organizations like the Landless Workers Movement or organizations in the Philippines or India. I think it’s very interesting to look at the plans that come out of Cuba, namely Tarea Vida, for dealing with climate change. 

These are plans where people in either the Fourth World or the internally colonized populations in the US or the very marginalized like Appalachia which has been screwed forever, and also in the Third World where people have come up with plans to respond to climate change. They should also look at all the relevant literature from the Cochabamba meetings: they call for demands about climate debt along with rights to water, food, clean air, and appropriate forms of clean technology grants; they don’t use the rhetoric of transfers because it’s very loaded historically speaking.

There have been plans that have emerged in northeast Spain, where there are plans for what’s called “endogenous development” based on a sustainable uses of windmills and solar energy and local transformation of materials, in order to carry out integrated endogenous development strategies. There’s the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps: people working in the US context.

There are many Green New Deals in Europe, but there’s one that was worked on by Giorgos Kallis and Stefania Barca which is really focusing on the targeted selective degrowth of certain sectors in the European production system and really does a good job of taking into account the demands of Third World. I would also urge people to check out the documents relating to food sovereignty coming from all Indigenous populations. There are very sophisticated programs out there that lay out what should be done.

I would urge that people who want to get a sense of things not necessarily restrict themselves to thinking about what is identified as the Green New Deal. Just think of things that are identified as plans for a socially just and equal and ecologically sustainable economic planning in society. Depart from there. Say, “if the Green New Deal isn’t making space for that, then it’s our job to adjust based on the demands of people who are being exploited rather than the other way around.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.

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