Making the world big enough for all of us: a review of Max Ajl’s ‘A People’s Green New Deal’
Wilt: If there’s one book that people on the radical left need to read in 2021, it’s this one
For several unfortunate years of my life, I was what might be termed a leftist technomodernist. I believed that the problems facing today’s world—climate change, wealth inequality, famine and hunger—were primarily the result of a lack of technological development, meaning that any ostensibly socialist project and reconstitution of class relations would require a massive scaling up of mega industries and infrastructures. Over the years, I wrote articles promoting the expansion of nuclear power, bashing those calling for less impactful living, and opposing the demonization of consumerism. Even recently, I’ve tweeted snide comments about degrowth scholarship, dependency theory, and people who dared to suggest that the “imperial mode of living” experienced in the Global North may not be sustainable or just.
In retrospect, my particular ideological infatuation was at least in part assembled via a “hot take” contrarianism that played well on social media and in freelance writing. It’s not exactly like I was making bank off these articles—but they were certainly helping pay the rent. However, I can’t blame it all on the exploitative political economy of digital media. As a cis white guy living in one of the most powerful and violent settler-colonies in the world, I simply never had to think that hard about the actual material context that such socialist technological development would occur within. After all, that’s how hegemony in a settler occupation works; even supposedly liberatory visions birthed within such a context are usually contaminated with ideologies that never fundamentally questions things like colonial land relations. As Métis scholar Max Liboiron writes in her recent book, Pollution Is Colonialism: “When I say that colonialism means ongoing settler access to Land for settler goals, this includes access to futures. Settlers do not have to set foot on the Land, own the Land, or even use the Land as a Resource so long as the Land is available for settler futures.” A leftist technomodernist future that maintains practices of land theft and dispossession is a settler future.
Even while coming to terms with this fact, realizing that my own intellectual trajectory had in whatever small way contributed to legitimizing such colonial relations, I’ve struggled to parse how best to proceed. It’s one thing to know what we shouldn’t support—but what might it look like to produce a decisive and coherent anti-colonial leftism that is both specific to our own locales but also global in scope and obligations? Without exaggeration, it was Max Ajl’s new book, A People’s Green New Deal, that allowed me to make sense of this for the first time. In the dense but eminently readable work, Ajl—an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands—systematically dismantles ruling class and ostensibly progressive visions for a Green New Deal, contrasting these settler futures with revolutionary alternatives grounded in agroecology, anti-imperialism, and Indigenous self-determination. Further, Ajl demonstrates these alternatives aren’t utopian solutions but are already very much in motion: the global peasant movement La Via Campesina, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, Mississippi’s Cooperation Jackson, or the Red Nation’s Red Deal.
At a time when American socialists are in the pages of British newspapers calling for nuclear power as a “climate solution” and the Green Party of Canada is imploding over its leadership’s awful position on Israeli apartheid, it’s clear that the divide between a settler-colonial ecomodernist leftism and a climate justice movement grounded in Indigenous and Global South liberation struggles is becoming more acute by the day—and requires far more careful and critical thinking on the matter. To that end, Ajl’s book is an incredible gift to the global left that demands reading and rereading as the basis for a genuinely socialist internationalism. It’s also a text overflowing with references to radical Global South scholarship, rendering it a brilliant primer to the conflicts and a list of works to read next. If there’s one book that people on the radical left need to read in 2021, it’s A People’s Green New Deal.
Beyond ‘being-nice-to-the-South’ solutions
The obvious and titular impetus for Ajl’s book is the many competing debates over the so-called Green New Deal (GND), which now informs most of the climate and environmental politics present in the Global North. While Ajl’s focus is mostly on the proposed plans in the United States by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, he emphasizes that there is a tremendous range of thought on this question: “GNDs are plans for preserving, strengthening, remolding, attacking, or abolishing capitalism,” he writes. As a result, GNDs should be evaluated on the basis of whether they are “agendas for governing capitalism, or for destroying it.” These plans also have to be assessed in how they might impact or further hurt the poorest peoples in the world, such as those living in the decimated slums of Palestine or Yemen—not as a stray afterthought to be remedied with a few lines about Global South solidarity but as a foundational dimension of the political project. As Ajl writes: “I reject the approach of urging the poor to pay the cost of empire as a way of life, a point of convergence between non-revolutionary GNDs.”
Throughout the opening half of the book, Ajl reviews some of the most prominent examples of GNDs on the table. These includes the ruling class vision of a “Great Transition” that works to “preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” an approach infatuated with world population levels, greening imperialism, replacing meat via privatized lab-grown alternatives, and high-input tech marvels like personal electric vehicles. An adjacent vision is the one offered by the aforementioned leftist ecomodernist camp that essentially proposes a cut and pasting of renewable and other low-carbon power sources into existing systems to more-or-less keep things as they are—but with far few emissions. Ajl terms this “the left-liberal solution,” linking its intellectual origins to Walt Rostow’s anti-Communist “modernization” theory: “Underpinning the older theory and the new were two false claims: one, that capitalism is not inherently polarizing and exclusionary; two, the technologies accompanying specific paths of capitalist development were socially innocent, rather than deliberate weapons in the class war,” he writes.
Yet another approach reviewed is the more explicitly leftist vision from democratic socialist organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America which advocates for fairly radical policies like a rapid transition to renewable power, a green jobs guarantee, large-scale retrofitting of housing and infrastructure, along with much larger grants to the Global South. Ajl dubs this “the green social democratic and being-nice-to-the-South solution.” While having far more sympathy for this approach than more right-wing iterations, Ajl argues that it too largely leaves existing relations of unequal exchange with Global South nations intact and often propagates slippery classless language like “frontline and vulnerable communities.”
This concern is also of an organizing and strategy nature. Ajl explains that social democracy and the original New Deal were won as a response to the rising threat of radical parties and movements throughout the world, particularly Communist struggles. In contrast, the current blueprint of trying to win modest social democracy in the form of a radical GND without that kind of direct militant threat to the ruling class is bound to fail, Ajl argues. As he notes in a critique of Naomi Klein’s approach to the question: her “roadmap lacks a social agent, a subject. Who is to carry out this massive program of change, and demand to be included in such a blurry program?” (The same could be asked of many other high-profile scholars on the left, such as those calling on people to blow up pipelines). In the absence of such a threat, even a strong leftist program means that the mandate is easily co-opted by bourgeois politicians and NGOs seeking to exploit its radical vision for electoral gain.
And given the current state of elected social democracy throughout the world—failed campaigns by Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, and Syriza, as well as the craven capitulations by supposedly leftist politicians once in power—it seems beyond naïve that such conditions will change anytime soon. Ajl writes: “This does not mean it is bad to have anti-racist green left-liberals in office. It means that they will not implement eco-socialism unless massive movements and parties outside the state, and worldwide, are fighting for actual eco-socialism, which Ocasio-Cortez, 350.org, and for that matter the Sunrise Movement, are not.” Not only are the demands weaker than they should be, but their success is riding on a political project that is a nonstarter.
Making ‘the world big enough for all of us’
But thankfully, Ajl isn’t content to only critique—a bad habit endemic on the left, particularly within academic circles. Rather, he spends the latter half of the book positioning future liberation struggles within current and potential alternatives to the GNDs. While retaining the language of a GND, a smart play given its ubiquity and malleability, Ajl works to push plans far beyond their current limitations.
One of the key contrasting visions that Ajl points to is the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba that emerged in 2010 from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This agreement centred the politics of climate debt and reparations to oppressed and exploitation countries, meaning that the atmosphere itself needs to be decolonized and allow for moderate development by countries trapped in relations of underdevelopment by imperialist powers. Specifically, this requires allocating remaining atmospheric space (within the parameters of so-called tipping points) in a just and equal way, funding debts due to the Global South’s inability to pollute as the imperial core did, and pay for adaptation and mitigation costs to allow people to remain in their homelands.
Evidently, this vision isn’t something that can be tacked on as a bonus feature to an otherwise imperialist transformation but necessitates a global struggles against the ongoing imposition of uneven exchange and superexploitation, understanding the relative benefits experienced in the Global North as directly extracted from the land, labour, and resources of the Global South. So unlike even the more radical iterations that position relations to poor countries as something to be remedied through cash grants and R&D collaborations, Ajl makes the case for an undoing of systems of exploitation that lock countries and entire continents into dependency. Following scholarship by the likes of Egyptian political economist Samir Amin and Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, Ajl positions the liberation of the Global South as structurally impossible within existing imperialist relations: “The North is wealthy in its current form because the South is poor, and to keep the North wealthy under capitalism requires the South remain poor and subject to imperialism.”
As a result, this demands a genuinely ecocommunist approach that would see “considerably lower energy use in the core alongside decommodified social infrastructure, guaranteed well-being, and massive technology grants to the Third World.” While offering some comradely critiques of degrowth discourse—noting that imperialism and Global South struggles haven’t always been as prioritized as it should in such works—Ajl argues there’s significant merit to the approach in phasing out certain sectors and activities while scaling up and decommodifying others. Doing so would honour the demands of documents like the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba, freeing up atmospheric space, energy, and material resources for low-impact development in the Global South. Importantly, this wouldn’t require radical reductions in the quality of life for working-class people in the imperial core, but net improvements through decommodification of things like healthcare and transportation. Writing about the question of industrial technologies, Ajl emphasizes: “We need a controlled industrialization. To call for controlling industry is totally different from a world without industry.” As someone who has tended to deride degrowth rhetoric in the past (to put it lightly), this approach to the question is both convincing and invigorating as a path forward.
All of that is really a lead-up to the final two chapters of the book: one on agroecology (which has been succinctly defined elsewhere as “not just a set of agricultural practices—it focuses on changing social relations, empowering farmers, adding value locally and privileging short value chains”) and another on the question of national liberation. Both are intimately linked and deemed by Ajl as of the utmost priority for any serious internationalist climate politics. It’s here where his proposal is most distinct from other books and theorizations of the GND. Unlike other socialist solutions to food and agriculture that merely envision the nationalization of the industry, Ajl sees an agroecological transformation as the crux of what changes everything: providing an abundance of healthy food, returning land to Indigenous nations, and facilitating natural capture and storage of greenhouse gas emissions. In an especially rewarding segment, he draws attention to the historical pre-colonial affluence of North America, writing: “Through controlled burns, bison runs, terracing, earth works, and farming, the entire continent ranged in between what used to be understood as hunter-gathering and settled agriculture.” With the advent of colonization and imperialism, such systems were violently reconstituted for private profit and Global South dependency on agricultural exports. Ajl argues for a return to agroecological systems in both core and periphery countries, writing that “national-popular control over food and farming is an entry point into restructuring our world.”
However, such a transformation isn’t possible outside of confronting imperialism, including economic exploitation, sanctions, and war. Occupations and invasions are ecologically devastating events, subjecting survivors to what Rob Nixon terms “slow violence.” The same goes for systems of oppression that deny states the ability to plan for their own futures. As Ajl writes: “Focusing on the national question underscores the right to regain control of a people’s historical process, for people to decide how and with whom they want to live, and not to have that decision made for them by a superior class or a more powerful colonizing state.” As a result, any climate justice movement must be decisively anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, fighting to demilitarize and reallocating resources to ensure that everyone in the world has access to the basic necessities of life. Writing about the growing Land Back movement, Ajl powerfully describes it as “neither surrender nor sacrifice, but the shift which makes the world big enough for all of us.” This is a radical and deeply necessary reframing of the struggles ahead of us.
The future of struggles
Some books suffer from trying to cram too much into a single argument, coming off as trying to hawk a silver bullet solution to all of the world’s problems. A People’s Green New Deal does the exact opposite, positioning many seemingly disparate crises—climate change, national liberation struggles, food and healthcare, and anti-imperialism as intricately linked. It posits that we need to seriously engage with ongoing struggles of Indigenous and Global South nations as not only necessary from the perspective of justice and solidarity, but integral to any successful “green transition” that we might win in our respective communities. Failing to do so not only renders our leftism parochial and self-centred: it dooms it to irrelevancy and ineffectiveness.
If there’s one topic that could have warranted greater exploration in the book, it’s the question of conflicts between Indigenous communities in Global South nations with leftist governments, particularly regarding extraction and industrial projects (there are many similar conflicts in the Global North involving settler-colonial social democratic parties, but such parties can barely be described as leftist). This is an exceedingly complex issue. As witnessed in the recent Ecuadorian election, Indigenous anti-mining candidate Yaku Perez of Pachakutik positioned his third-place campaign in contrast to what he described as the “authoritarian and corrupt left” of Rafael Correa and Andrés Arauz; during his presidency, Correa often criticized Indigenous anti-mining activism for supposedly destabilizing the country. Meanwhile, in both the lead-up and aftermath of the imperialist coup against Bolivia, president Evo Morales was portrayed by Western media as betraying responsibilities to other Indigenous Bolivarians. Similarly, a recent critique of Mexico’s leftist president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador argued that he “supports Indigenous autonomy only when it is politically convenient” and that “his government has attempted to implement three large megaprojects, currently under heated debate, that will have considerable consequences for the lives and territories of Indigenous peoples.” Scholars including Thea Riofrancos and Bret Gustafson have interrogated these conflicts at length in the context of Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively.
To be sure, such conflicts cannot be separated from the broader political economy of uneven exchange and superexploitation that Ajl chronicles in the book, with extractive projects—like oil and gas in Bolivia or Venezuela—often in part motivated by the need to fund government operations in the context of sanctions, coups and electoral interference, theft of resources, and wider core-peripheral relations. Further, the political motivations of some of these situations are often murky, with Perez resigning from his party after it formed a legislative pact with Guillermo Lasso’s right-wing party following the election. With that said, national liberation struggles by Global South countries and Indigenous nations can’t be necessarily conflated. Signaling at these kinds of complexities would be immensely helpful to theorizing proper responses of radicals wanting to support liberation struggles if and when they come into conflict beyond the obvious necessity of opposing all Western imperialist aggression. Greater clarity on this question would only bolster the book’s already strong case, particularly given its excellent work in connecting anti-colonial struggles in Global North settler states with anti-imperialist struggles in the Global South.
But that’s a relatively small critique of a magnificent work that should be at the top of reading lists for anyone remotely concerned about the climate crisis, imperialism and war, national liberation struggles, and fighting for a genuinely internationalist socialism. A People’s Green New Deal is a brilliant synthesis of many seemingly distinct struggles, offering a cohesive roadmap that breaks from existing intellectual gridlocks that limit collaboration between various movements and regions. For me personally, it finally overturned some of the latent misinterpretations that I was clinging to concerning several fields of exciting scholarship (like degrowth) and struggle (like agroecology)—and there’s little doubt that it’ll do the same for many others as well. Ajl concludes the book by reminding us that all of the necessary transformations that he details are technically possible. The question of whether they will be implemented in an internationalist fashion is “a matter of politics, which is to say it a matter of struggle and choice.” Unlike the leftist technomodernists who appeal to abstract and utopian ideals without any clear social agent, this call puts the onus on the reader to start organizing in their own communities for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist futures. It’s a task both daunting and urgent—requiring enormous transformation like the dismantling of militaries and reclaiming of currently privatized lands—but as Ajl demonstrates, it’s our only option for a truly just and liveable world.
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.