New Books | A People’s Green New Deal

The capitalist world order has brought about the climate emergency, so a mainstream response is likely to serve only the logic of imperialism. Max Ajl proposes a radical alternative.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from A People’s Green New Deal (Pluto Press, 2021) by Max Ajl.


Concern about the climate crisis has become overwhelming in the Global North. It is no longer the isolated worry of climate scientists, forward-thinking investors, coastal real estate proprietors or “environmental” activists. From financiers at Davos to McKinsey Consulting, it is everywhere, as the business press and mainstream media emit blizzards of policy papers, communiques and financial forecasts. Why? In part, climate change is now unmissable. Eighteen-degree celsius days in January in New England. Catastrophic floods and hellish heatwaves across the US Great Plains and Paris. Climate change is no longer in the future tense. It is today. The media is forced to pay attention as people understand more clearly what is happening and why it is happening. Yet most media outlets are owned by big corporations that are part of the capitalist system responsible for climate change. So the speed and simultaneity with which the ruling class has changed its tune, from decades of denialism to widely touted tabulations like that of the World Economic Forum “that $44 trillion of economic value generation … is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services and is … exposed to nature loss”, ought to make anyone curious.

For climate change does not dictate any specific political response. This chapter considers the rising chorus for “emergency change” from those with their hands on the pulleys and levers of the machine, in order to understand how top-down plans seek to maintain exclusion and exploitation in the world-system. Not the 1% but more like the .01%, who have seen incomes and net worth scrape the sky during the neoliberal age. They wish to preserve an imperial way of life and the planetary resource base upon which to live it. Their hands, pens and plans are not idle. Amidst rising awareness of the capitalism-climate nexus, it is only natural that the ruling class would seek to avert a climate crisis which could imperil their power, to displace blame from fossil capitalism to a faceless and structure-less humanity, and to make the poor pay the costs of transition.

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There is not a whit of concern here for the well-being of the working class, or more than a few grains of worry for non-human life. If that were the case, they would have taken action on climate change 30 years ago. Rather, a constellation of forward-looking right-wing and liberal forces plan for what the global sociologist Philip McMichael calls “managing the future”. These range from the Australian Breakthrough Institute – a doppelganger of the Ted Nordhaus think-tank with the same name based in California – the Energy Transitions Commission, and on to figures often associated with the progressive Left. Such proposals share a number of leitmotifs: corporate-community and corporate-state/business-state partnerships, warmth to the national security sector, a Promethean enthusiasm for “new tech”, recasting models to integrate variables like climactic risk and enfolding them into investment horizons and a greened US military. A large number are converging on what the economist Daniela Gabor calls the Wall Street Consensus, reorganising “development interventions around selling development finance to the market … escorting capital” into bonds, and melting and reforging Third World governments as the “de-risking state”, relegating risks onto states and their treasuries and budgets as sovereign representatives of the people and removing those risks from the mountains of capital which such plans seek to mobilise.

Green social control 

Green social control aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Because there is no capitalism that exists apart from the violent hand of the state, such plans emphasise the national security sector.

Drawing borders around the people, denizens or citizens of the nation means exclusion. Structural exclusion, from popular development. Ideological exclusion, from concern or care. Physical exclusion, through hardened steel, concrete, razor-wire and motion-sensor kitted-out borders and militarised maritime zones. And temporal exclusion, in the erasure of a past of colonial looting and atmospheric enclosure. Such plans are engineered by the best and the brightest, and we have to take them at their precise word. What they say or do not say about the Third World is what they mean. And because the US is an empire, sitting astride tremendous flows of energy and capital, silences speak. A decision to avoid reparations is a blueprint for world management in which imperial loot remains in the North.

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Part of the right’s Great Transition is to match up existing assets such as working-class pensions, or the public resources of the people in the form of the state budget, with new tech to harness and commodify the sun and the wind through solar power and wind energy. Greening the US military is central. Putting prices on “ecosystem” services, including a potentially serf-like labour-intensive CO2 drawdown programme, is a third pillar of their programmes. And because the framework of threat is paramount in securing the consent of the core citizenry to their programmes, the alarm bell of emergency blares daily (in this case accurately) to frighten people into accepting any plausible programme to preserve a livable Earth.

A climate emergency and rising risk 

How we describe a problem helps mould how we will address it. Notions of rising emergency and climate-related risk hide something pointed out by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.” Lawlessness, disorder, threat, human insecurity, privation, deprivation and suffering are the rule for most of humanity. Endless war, primitive accumulation, colonial genocide, neo-colonial depopulation and state-shattering are permanent emergency.

The rhetoric of risk is not a recognition of the emergencies that batter the lives of the world’s majority population. The newly noticed threats, about which the core’s governments have blithely done nothing for decades, are to long-term accumulation: social stress in the South leading to drought and mass migrations and now a chance of runaway warming. The World Economic Forum, for example, slots risks into “physical”, “regulatory and legal”, “market” and “reputational”: perils to business. Such parochialism is risk and emergency from the very particular viewpoint of Western monopolies. If open and democratic debate about the distribution of wealth can be muffled under the smothering blanket of emergency, those who own the blanket and insist on asphyxiating discussion can preserve existing distributions of wealth.

Other uses of emergency are the canary in the coalmine for an acceleration of the worst of current fortress nationalist regimes, those countries which are increasingly militarising their littorals and southern borders to stem immigration from countries which they have often made unlivable. Worry about mass migrations is worry about whether the cloistered settler-states and the European capitalist heartland will remain safe. What will Australia do if Indonesia is inundated and monsoons fail across rural India? Mexico, the Caribbean and the Central American isthmus are even closer to the US, and large-scale Central American migration is already taking place, as hurricanes and brutal heat smash vulnerable farmers in a strip of land long concussed by US interventions. Emergency and panic about amorphous threats to life in the Third World have always justified illegal US aggression, much as neo-colonial environmentalists fretted about the forests of the Bolivian Amazon in 2019, to try to blacken the globally unparalleled ecological advocacy of the Indigenous-led Left political party MAS. Furthermore, the war always boomerangs back to where it started through settler-colonial frontier wars. Suspending law, civil liberties, democratic deliberation and struggles for liberation amidst warnings of a falling sky or “terror” have been common in a post-9/11 world, the pretexts for deepening hierarchies of class and nation.

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Against a renewed imperialist urge to generalise the “state of exception” through new regimes of state-private accumulation, greened and global, we can process the sudden cacophonous concern for climate change among the planet’s wealthy and their court intellectuals. Take some examples. A recent Brookings Institute report discusses rising “droughts, fire” and natural disasters. These plagues translate to “risks to economies and livelihoods”. Furthermore, the “current growth path” pressures water, land and biodiversity, causing “accelerated loss of natural capital”. Words like economies and livelihoods are kaleidoscopic. They hint at human needs for food, shelter and the good life and conflate them with the wellbeing of the economy. In this discourse, it is simply assumed that the health of “the economy” leads to the health of concrete individual human beings. Their history is important: the blurry notion of livelihoods emerged in force at the Rio+20 Summit, which marked 20 years after the original Rio Earth Summit which set in motion world climate negotiations. At Rio+20, mandates for “sustainable development” of the world’s resources bloomed, alongside sterile calls for a “green economy”, and were adopted by consensus at the United Nations General Assembly. Yet in an imperialist world, that which all states agree upon as a programme cannot have any emancipatory content. Neither economy nor livelihoods implies any particular distributional pattern: “Class, not as an institutional context variable, but as a relational concept, is absent from the discourse of livelihoods,” argues sociologist Bridget O’Laughlin, which is why it studs such reports so frequently. They do not wish to question the existing maldistribution of wealth.

Take another example: the Australian Breakthrough Institute, in a May 2019 report, Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach, offers a perspective from David Spratt, the institute’s in-house research director, alongside Ian Dunlop, a former international coal, oil and gas industry executive, and the chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. The foreword by Admiral Chris Barrie calls for “strong, determined leadership in government, in business and in our communities” to combat the cataclysm of climate change (akin to kindred blurring devices like economies and livelihoods, “communities” fuses interests of the rich and poor within nations and is silent on diverging interests between nations). The report warns of “existential risk”, and urges “we must take every possible step to avoid it”. How? Under a scenario better than the current emissions trajectory, with an emissions peak at 2030 and an 80% decline by 2050, “Deadly heat conditions persist for more than 100 days per year in West Africa, tropical South America, the Middle East and South-East Asia”, displacing one billion people. Water availability would decrease in the dry tropics and subtropics, parching two billion. Agriculture would become “nonviable in the dry subtropics”. As watersheds and temperature bands within which humans millennially flourished drift north, social structures erected on a more or less stable climactic bedrock would shudder. We could “see class warfare” as the wealthiest “pull away from the rest”, shattered international trade flows, a retreat into autarky, collapses in economic interchange and the inability of governments to govern.

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Such national security bureaucrats and military-defense intellectuals know climactic shifts threaten to shift the planetary ecology sufficiently severely to evaporate the gossamer logistical flows and political scaffoldings of global capitalism. They write, think and plan accordingly. These reports are not the handicraft of melioristic humanitarians, but diamond-hearted strategists dumbfounded at the sluggishness with which most of their fellow ruling-class and governments have acted.

To avoid the massive human migrations such a scenario would entail, the report calls for “a zero-emissions industrial system [to] set in train the restoration of a safe climate”. The predictable analogy they draw upon is World War II, the crucible of military Keynesianism and worldwide neo-colonialism. The report highlights the “national security sector’s” potential role in a vast mobilisation of resources. The role of the military in a peacetime transition is unclear, although one chapter of World War II less discussed by its refurbishers, Right and Left, is the role of the military in suppression of labour unrest or union agreements to avoid independent labour action. Furthermore, they propose enlisting the national security sector to assist resource and labour mobilisation. Such help could mean anything, but gestures at forced labour recruitment. To carry out this programme, they imagine a new social consensus, based on a triangular relationship between Parliament and “corporate leaders”, and community. The former will provide wisdom and “leadership”, the latter will provide support and internalise and normalise in “everyday discussion” the logical conclusions of emergency planning.

What does that look like? A wholesale renovation of the technological and institutional infrastructure and architecture of fossil capitalism, the new product a lot of the same old capitalism but covered with honeyed rhetoric of sustainability, community, livelihoods and resilience, so it can be smoothly swallowed by those who might balk at climate crisis as an occasion to socialise risk and privatise profit. There is a logical and political correspondence between the language and strategies they use to address the worsening emergency for humanity, and their positions in society: elite management, links to the most polluting forms of fossil capitalism and the national security state. We would expect them to frame the problem, identify stakeholders and propose solutions in ways that do not disturb the patterns of power and powerlessness from which they speak, and which they wish to preserve.

The return of Malthus 

One aspect of the “emergency” discourse that is slightly new, albeit a recurring reflex in the course of capitalist social management, is Malthusian thought. An economist, Thomas Malthus floated the folly that the poor’s food consumption would rise faster than agricultural production, and asserted that the poor had no right to poor relief and no capacity to control their numbers. Giving them alms would undermine one of the checks on their numbers, producing an intractable biological-natural problem: food supply supposedly increased arithmetically, whereas population could increase exponentially. These were fabulations heaped on misinterpretations heaped on nonsense. Famines tend to occur due to decisions to deprive certain populations of the power to access food, not absolute lack of food. Contemporary worries about food production are founded on similar social science fiction, for far more food is produced than humans currently need, much of the food that’s produced is nutritionally hollow, and far more food could be produced than is produced currently. Claiming otherwise is a Trojan horse for the entry of capitalist logic into dissident thought. The aim is to prevent the conscious and collectively decided use of what is produced to feed those who need it most: the working class, whose labour directly produces almost everything anyway.

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