From the Green New Deal to ecological socialism?
By Luke Neal
December 11, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Prometheus — “Our Green New Deal,” read the Labour Party’s 2019 manifesto, “aims to achieve the substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030 in a way that is evidence-based, just and that delivers an economy that serves the interests of the many, not the few.” This was a central pillar of the election platform that suffered an historic defeat last December. As the ecological crisis continues unabated, the Green New Deal has solidified its place as the programmatic response among the left. Its core ideas have reappeared in the immediate economic crisis in the guise of a ‘green recovery’ and calls to ‘build back better’. This article argues that, from the perspective of Marxist ecology, the apparent path between a Green New Deal and an ecosocialism is confronted with several contradictions and strategic problems.
The first of these emanates from the fact that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn – the political movement in which the Green New Deal was re-popularised – was an attempted shortcut. The collapse of that project can largely be explained by the tensions of taking such shortcuts in a politically hostile institution, having achieved too little in terms of democratising the party, educating its base in socialist ideas, and spreading struggles and confidence among the working class. The Green New Deal in a way embodies both the height of the programme of the Corbyn period as well as its boundaries. It is similarly an attempt at a shortcut: an emergency programme which, while radical in some of its articulations and in the wider political context, essentially aims at reforms to reduce carbon emissions through green job creation and efficiencies, alongside mixed economy policies for redistribution and investment, and some changes to forms of ownership. How this would enable socialism as such is constrained by the initial scope of these reforms and is dependent on class struggle either leading to or following them.
Second is that the ecological implications of the programme are contested, primarily in that a rapid expansion of renewable energy is not the panacea that it is widely held to be. While most Green New Deals or green recovery measures celebrate ‘green growth’, this should be understood as a different means of processing the ecological contradiction of capital accumulation, with ongoing negative costs to the planet and workers alike. The political economy of mineral extraction for renewable power instead indicates that there are critical energy constraints to growth, which should be respected in any sustainable organisation of economic activity. In other words, the changes that the Green New Deal proposes are insufficient as well as problematic from an ecological perspective. While they would be a decisive step in the effort to lower emissions as quickly as possible, dangerous and unintended consequences abound.
These issues problematise the role that the Green New Deal plays in the strategic imaginary of the contemporary left. This contribution outlines an alternative interpretation of the Green New Deal, emphasising the need for an ecological labour movement orientation for any kind of success in remaking and regulating our relationship with non-human nature. This view is based on the necessity and possibility of workers’ democratic planning for a transition that could lead to the overcoming of the contradictions of green growth and the capitalist relations of production as a whole.
The Labour Party manifesto continued:
“Just as the original Industrial Revolution brought industry, jobs and pride to our towns, Labour’s world-leading Green Industrial Revolution will rebuild them, with more rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills and whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long… prioritising sustainability will not only deliver immediate improvements to everyone’s lives but also offer humanity a pathway to a more equitable and enlightened economy.”
Among the variety of Green New Deals, Labour’s ought to be regarded as one which is Keynesian in form, with ecosocialist aspirations. One of its core, and most troubling, underlying claims is that these two paradigms are reconcilable and situated along the same direction of travel.
A report commissioned by Rebecca Long-Bailey which formed the backbone of the proposals categorised their approach to the transition through four key goals: energy waste reduction, decarbonisation of heating, decarbonisation of electricity, and grid balancing. These would be realised via a ‘Green Transformation Fund’ to channel £250 billion towards upgrading and adapting buildings and the energy and transport systems, energy efficiency improvements, demand-side energy reductions and a further shift to a 60% renewable energy mix. This was estimated to realise a majority of emissions reductions by 2030.
When the Green New Deal was adopted by Labour, it was heralded as a “socialist and internationalist transformation of the economy”. There is, however, nothing socialist per se about green investment. Programmes of this sort are liable to adoption – in rhetoric and occasionally in investment terms too, though gutted of any concessions to the working class – by various political formations, such as both the European Commission and the UK government this year. This susceptibility can also be seen in Long-Bailey’s suggestion that “the case for a Green New Deal is compelling, regardless of how green your politics are.” The idea that the current Tory government could enact such a programme to the benefit of ‘everyone’ belies a politics of governing in the national economic interest. This borrows from a flawed Keynesian interpretation of the problems of the British economy. For Long-Bailey the issue is that “the fruits of labour flow to ever smaller sections of society while the majority struggle to get by”; Grace Blakeley similarly reduces the issue to one of financialisation. In this perspective it would be “reckless if we did not ensure that government investment on this scale was also a catalyst for broader economic transformation.” While this makes the case for deeper changes, these are by implication inessential to addressing climate change. Also crucial is that in this account, emissions reductions are the key and often sole measure of the ecological crisis.
Claims to the Green Industrial Revolution as a socialist programme are best understood in the context of Labour’s wider economic strategy of large-scale infrastructural investments co-ordinated through a National Investment Bank and regional public banks. Industries such as the railways, energy transmission and distribution, and public utilities were to be taken back into public ownership, their nationalisation being precondition to community-owned and run utilities. Alternative models of ownership could then be the building blocks of a relatively decentralised, participatory form of socialism. For the Labour for a Green New Deal campaign, the generalisation of community ownership in renewable energy might extend towards “community-owned, non-profit making control over everyday production, consumption and services”.
Although buttressed by some innovative thinking on ownership, the fundamental approach to the economy of the Green Industrial Revolution programme had much in common with Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy. According to Coates this was a plan “for a mixed economy, not a socialist one, whose performance [would] depend on the creation of market and Social conditions favourable to private capital accumulation”. Tufekci has elaborated on this:
“The idea, explicitly advanced on the [mid 70s] Labour Left, was that the ‘sectional’ interests existing within the British economy—whether those of capital or labour, management or worker—had to be subordinated to the interests of the national economy as a whole, within which the capital-labour relation would continue to exist, albeit on ‘improved’ terms for the working class.”
The Green Industrial Revolution makes a parallel claim, incorporating the environment and climate targets into a ‘virtuous cycle’ of employment and growth. Its measures are geared towards managing the energy transition in a way that is minimally disruptive to British business, raising output and productivity while lowering energy demand through efficiencies and retrofitting only. As the subtitle to the Thirty by 2030 report states, it is a plan for “the fastest path to decarbonising UK energy and boosting the economy while we’re at it”. Indeed at a theoretical level, this is dependent upon the national accounting of Keynesian macroeconomics which, though updated to account for greenhouse gas emissions, remains blind to the system-wide effects of biophysical processes. The effects of geographically disperse production processes and those related to the total mass of capital do not register.
In the context of the world market, a national-oriented strategy will not only struggle to make the profitability of industry commensurate with its promise of more control and better conditions for labour. Environmental goals, which are only meaningful at a total and cumulative level, are subject to the same mutual incompatibility. While the national economic strategy of maximising GDP and employment while reducing energy and resource use may appear consistent in a post-Keynesian framework, at a systemic level these are contradictory forces. To position these as reconcilable is to flatten the antagonistic relation between workers and capital, and the free appropriation of nature by the latter, while treating neoliberalism and the continuing use of fossil fuels as the root of the problem. This also assumes that, with the exception of greenhouse gas-producing fuels, an infinite valorisation of nature is possible and commensurate with a socialist economic policy.
Ecological contradictions of the Green New Deal
Reducing emissions through a renewable transition and energy demand through retrofitting and industrial efficiencies functions soundly according to a territorial measurement. However this does not translate into either production or consumption transformations at a systemic level. Rather, an adequate response needs to be planned and co-ordinated with global dynamics at its centre. It is positive that the discussion at The World Transformed has evolved somewhat in this direction, though it remains neutered by a deference to an NGO model of organising and the lack of a serious orientation to the rank-and-file of the labour movement.
The green energy boom that is now gaining momentum, albeit without enough rapid displacement of fossil fuels to avoid warming of 2°C and likely far more, will have the consequence of an expansion and intensification of extractive frontiers. Under a Green New Deal, reliance on fossil fuels would make way for a dependency on the metals used in solar and wind power, the production of which is faced with major supply constraints. This also indicates an increasing mining of low-grade ores, requiring greater expenditures of energy and water, and a resort to more toxic means of extraction and processing.
The energy transition demands unprecedented quantities of copper and aluminium for electrification; lithium, cobalt, and nickel for batteries; cadmium, indium, gallium, selenium, silver, and tellurium for solar photovoltaics; and neodymium and dysprosium for permanent magnets in wind power and electric vehicles. Potential increases of materials demand are anticipated to be of the magnitude of 87,000% for electric vehicle batteries, 1000% for wind power, and 3000% for solar cells and photovoltaics between 2015 and 2060. By other estimates, demand for germanium will double in the next decade, while dysprosium and tantalum will quadruple, demand for palladium will increase by a factor of five, scandium by nine, and cobalt by 24. As well as huge increases in the pressure on copper production, accumulated demand to 2060 is greater than the reserves of tellurium, indium, gallium, silver, lithium and tin.
The rate of recycling for these metals is low, limited by the logistical and physical challenges of collection, separation, and thermodynamic constraints; the economics of recycling; and problems related to growth. While there are numerous reasons to expect technological advances to facilitate more effective recycling (and which can be accelerated by state investment), they cannot suffice to meet total increases in demand. Since the systemic logic of capital is that of expansive growth, there is a tendency towards increases in the mass of production enabled by such efficiencies (the rebound effect/Jevons paradox).
The demands of renewable energy transition at the scale of the global economy require the scalar expansion and capitalisation of sites of extraction beyond their capacity now not only to be ecologically regenerative but also to deliver the required commodities in volumes enough to sustain growth, thereby establishing new, crisis-ridden path dependencies. An account of the production of green energy across its whole life-cycle shows that this form of green transition will reconstitute the “irreparable rift in the interdependent processes of social metabolism”. The notion of a green capitalist development, or even a green growth with a socialist gloss, is therefore ecologically contradictory rather than sustainable. This is especially true of the idea that resource use can be absolutely decoupled from GDP growth.
Consequently, a future model of development in which renewable energy replicates the role played by fossil fuels in the twentieth century as the driver of industrial growth is not feasible. Whether considered in terms of resource supplies to construct a system of renewable energy to power a world economy expanding from its current size, or from the point of view of developing a system of relations of production based on interdependence with the non-human natural world, this presents the labour movement with a major dilemma. While the British economy is undergoing decarbonisation in energy – emissions are down from 1990 levels by around 29%, half of which has occurred since 2010 – which would progress under a green stimulus programme, it is not a model that can or should be replicated across the world economy.
Beyond the conflict over acknowledging the nature of the situation, the dilemma lies in how to respond to the contradiction of a supposedly green economic development based on the presumption of the infinite valorisation of nature. That this could provide the basis for an ecological socialism is a contradiction in terms. Alternatively, anticipating the critical energy constraints to growth means a more radical change of course, including “voluntary decreases in material and energy needs affecting our global impact”. Such an approach is qualitatively different in content to what was proposed as the Green New Deal of last year, but is unavoidable if the left seeks to do anything more than patch up a green capitalism. Though a large emphasis was placed on energy reductions in the Green Industrial Revolution programme, this is because such savings are viewed as means to contribute to emissions reduction. This can be primarily achieved through investment to upgrade fixed capital and housing stock and without much controversy. But going beyond this model would mean a more radical break with strategies based on compromises between what is feasible and what is deemed – following the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change – least disruptive to capital, which have constituted the dominant strategy of democratic socialism till now. It means reorganising the industrial and political basis of the working class movement in order to pursue a struggle for an ecological socialism within planetary boundaries.
An ecological labour movement orientation
On the contrary, it seems that many socialists are hostile to acknowledging the constraints to growth. Some espouse the mistaken type of Prometheanism that was the charge raised against Marx by ecosocialist authors in the 1980s. A more relatable position has been articulated by Matt Huber in the form of scepticism of our ability to argue for a growth-critical perspective among the working class. This rightly foregrounds the centrality of waged workers’ agency in realising the potential socialist elements that are associated with the existing Green New Deal and for advancing ecological struggles outside of electoral work. Huber is wrong, however, to dismiss a growth-critical perspective in favour of what he refers to as a class analysis. True, they are placed in dichotomy, such as in the anti-worker emphasis of degrowth manifestoes like Less is More, or by left-Keynesian economists who commit the opposite sin by proclaiming the shared benefits of GDP growth; but the two need not be. Growth is a facet of class rule in that surplus value is appropriated by capitalists, and its riches are only shared when the workers’ movement is organised and confident enough to demand it is so. Capital is value in motion; it is only capital if it is in a constant state of metamorphosis. This means that continuous growth in the quantity of materials consumed in production is a requirement for the expansion of value.
So while the ‘question of growth’ is not the likely immediate entry point for working class struggles, it is unavoidably part of the genetic structure of the capitalist economy. The question remains one of igniting and widening struggles over the adherence to humane conditions in the workplace to incorporate ecological transformations, and for these to transcend the question of the distribution of the surplus (i.e. in wage struggles) or mere window-dressing (most concessions e.g. recycling) to become matters of the direction, content and purpose of the labour process itself. Indeed there is no reason why emissions, energy and resource use, and the question of socially useful production will not provide fertile ground for disputes and labour movement campaigns; it is, as ever, a question of confidence, political education, and perceived interests. Carrying out decarbonising and ecologically-rebalancing measures is not just a question of winning support in the trade unions, though that is an important initial step. More fundamentally, it is a matter of transforming the unions into democratic organisations of class struggle, which means turning them upside down.
What is perhaps controversial is the idea that socialist militants in the labour movement should pose reductions of energy use as being in the interest of the working class as a whole. The simple answer is that working class consumption is not the problem. In fact we have much to gain from an egalitarian organisation of production and from the class struggles leading to it. More fundamentally, a post-growth, post-capitalist economy is unavoidable if we are to organise social life sustainably. If we are to shake off the defeatism that is holding the workers’ movement down, we have to confront our class with these questions. How to do so is a matter of tactics, but the question of whether to do so comes down to whether to trust the working class movement with its own fate—and that of the Earth. Unlike the policy-writers and careerists of the Labour Party and the union bureaucracy, we have to believe that the working class can wield that power and assess the situation with clarity and a sense of its responsibility. It won’t be easy, but there are sources of hope.
Accomplishing this requires patience, something undoubtedly at odds with the urgency of the situation. Shortcuts are therefore all the more tempting. But since climate change is just one dimension of an ecological crisis produced by the core dynamics of capital accumulation, no quick fix could suffice to solve the problem. Green jobs and renewable energy can go part way to alleviating the pressure; likewise industrial conversions, efficiencies and energy savings. The Green New Deal, insofar as it can speed these along, is a useful demand, but one that can only be meaningful if it comes as part of a wider movement among the workers for ecology and democracy beyond capital. Again insofar as the programme allows for greater room to the political economy of the working class in the form of universal basic services, restoration of union freedoms and collective bargaining, it was positive. This is despite its ecological contradictions, since these measures allow for the potential space into which democratic ecological planning could grow and, in combination with co-ordinated decommodification of goods and services, ultimately replace the market with a sustainable system of production and exchange. There is no ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ from above.
The ongoing battle for limits to the working day can be considered in this light as an intervention by the labour to regulate the metabolism of nature and capital differently. The campaigns for a four day week, integral to many conceptions of the Green New Deal, are the strongest link between such reforms and the task we must confront today. The concept of socially useful production is an extension of the same principle: that industry can and should be directed towards socially good, environmentally just ends. One of the greatest difficulties will lie in creating effective democratic spaces in which what ‘social needs’ are and the meaning of ‘socially useful’ will be determined. For now, we must hope that initiatives to enact a worker-led just transition, and for industrial unionism and greater democracy from below in the labour movement can contribute to the opening of such a space.
Part of the problem in pursuing an ecological trade unionism is that it inherently speaks to matters beyond the firm or the sector. Individual enterprises are frequently inefficient in terms of energy usage due to the costs of upgrading capital, though this too is contradictory and uneven, since wastefulness is penalised by competitive pressures to lower costs, keeping material throughput in check. The working class is uniquely positioned to intervene in this process, not only in that it runs and maintains production, but moreover in that it is able to practically undertake “a planned and life-guided recombination of environmental and economic reproduction”. This has the potential to move beyond the confinements of trade unionism and achieve the supersiding of the profit motive and the growth imperative. Tactically, we must draw from the general intellect of the class, the nascent strength of workers across all industry to collectively plan how ecological impacts can be minimised while use-values are expanded, and for this to be a constitutive part of the wider rebirth of cultures of socialism, class pride and internationalism
A genuinely ecological orientation for workers struggle, spanning from the leadership of carbon workers to demand and plan green jobs and socially useful production, as well as the struggle for conjoined reductions in working time and industrial energy use can be affirmed by the type of reforms of a Green New Deal, but not realised by them. Therefore linking these to the struggle for workers’ control of the process of production and the political struggle for a government of and in the interest of the working class, remains the basic objective. In the British labour movement, the fundamental fight to realise the positive aspects of the Green New Deal and the Corbyn period remains that for a workers’ voice in industry in order to assert collective class-ecological interests, and for that to be matched and expressed politically through a party organisation of and uniquely for the workers. The creation and democratic implementation of ecological plans is a key tool in the realisation both of this independent will and ecological industrial transformation. Alongside the reawakening of organised labour, these will be decisive in order to avoid the kind of green transition that is enacted at workers’ expense, as well as the kind of development proposed through Green New Deal, which is reliant on new forms of unsustainable production.
- The Labour Party, It’s Time for Real Change, 2019, p. 12.
- Iñigo Capellán-Pérez, Margarita Mediavilla, Carlos de Castro, Óscar Carpintero and Luis Javier Miguel, More growth? An unfeasible option to overcome critical energy constraints and climate change, 2015.
- Tom Bailey et al. Thirty Recommendations by 2030. Expert Briefing for the Labour Party, October 2019, pp. 12-15.
- Rebecca Long-Bailey, ‘The Green New Deal is Our Way Out’. Tribune, Summer 2020, pp. 64-65.
- See Bill Jeffries’ review of Blakeley’s Stolen: https://doi.org/10.1080/09538259.2019.1698197
- Long-Bailey, ‘The Green New Deal is Our Way Out’, p. 65.
- John Bellamy Foster: “…any purportedly socialist approach to environmental problems that focuses only on climate change, ignoring or even rejecting the idea of other planetary boundaries, and sees the solution as purely technological, represents a failure of nerve. It constitutes a refusal to embrace a new, wider realm of freedom, to meet the challenge that historical reality now imposes on us. Humanity cannot continue to develop in the twenty-first century without embracing more collective and sustainable forms of production and consumption in line with biospheric realities.” The Long Ecological Revolution, 2017, p. 12.
- Costas Lapavitsas, ‘‘De-financialising’ the UK Economy: The importance of Public Banks’ in Economics for the Many, edited by John McDonnell, Verso, 2018. The policy of nationalisation of the big financial institutions was lost between its inclusion in ‘Socialist Green New Deal’ adopted by Labour Conference in September 2019 and the NEC endorsement of the manifesto and the Green Industrial Revolution for the December election.
- David Coates, ‘Labourism and the Transition to Socialism’, New Left Review 129, 1981, p. 11.
- Baris Tufekci, The Socialist Ideas of the British Left’s Alternative Economic Strategy 1973–1983, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, p. 199.
- Coates, ‘Labourism and the Transition to Socialism’, p. 14.
- Paul Burkett’s refutation of the treatment of class in ecological economics is applicable to this version of climate politics: “insofar as ecological conflicts concern irreconcilable claims on an economy’s surplus product, their analysis requires some explanation of the social and material origins, specific social forms, and conflictual nature, of this surplus product – none of which can be undertaken without a clear specification of the class relations of production… analysis of production relationships is needed to identify, and intervene on behalf of, the social agency capable of leading the movement toward a more sustainable and human developmental economic system.” Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy, Brill, 2006, pp. 290-291.
- On the concept of the valorisation of nature: Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, The Limits to Capitalist Nature, Rowman and Littlefield, 2018, Chapter 5.
- Thea Riofrancos, Field Notes from the Extractive Frontiers, 2020.
- Elmar Altvater and Birgit Mahnkopf, The Capitalocene: Permanent Capitalist Counter-Revolution, 2019.
- Benjamin K Sovacool et al. Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, 2020, pp. 30-31.
- Guillaume Pitron, La guerre des métaux rares. LLL Numerique, 2018.
- Helmut Haberl et al. The Material Stock–Flow–Service Nexus: A New Approach for Tackling the Decoupling Conundrum, 2017, p. 9.
- Timothée Parrique, The political economy of degrowth, 2019, p. 105.
- Karl Marx, Capital vol. 3. Penguin, 1981, p. 949.
- The critique of growth-based sustainable development is multi-faceted and extensive. I have drawn from it minimally here, choosing instead to focus on the problems of scaling renewables to meet the energy needs provided by fossil fuels, since this is a key assumption shared by many of the Green New Deals and by the socialist left.
- Calculation based on consumption-based inventory from Pierre Friedlingstein et al Global Carbon Budget 2019, with data from UK government, Inland energy consumption: primary fuel input basis ‘ET 1.2 – monthly’, 2020.
- This is barely to scratch the surface of the dynamics of global unequal exchange which benefits the advanced capitalist economies, which are exacerbated by these states’ uneven but generally advanced position in the energy transition. For an analysis of the imperial character of renewable energy minerals policy, see: Birgit Mahnkopf, ‘Lessons from the EU: Why capitalism cannot be rescued from its own contradictions’, in Gareth Dale, Manu V. Mathai and José A. Puppim de Oliveira JP, Green Growth – Political Ideology, Political Economy and the Alternatives, Zed Books, 2016.
- Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique, Brill, 2016, p. 158.
- There is much to learn from the two great pioneers of ecological trade unionism, Mike Cooley and Jack Mundey, who have sadly died this year. ↑
- Burkett and Foster, Marx and the Earth, p. 160.
- Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics, p. 300.