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The case for a socialist Green New Deal

The case for a socialist Green New Deal

Originally published: Let Us Rise by Diana O'Dwyer (Autumn 2020 Issue 1 Edition of Rupture)   | 

Proposals for a Green New Deal (GND) were multiplying even before the pandemic, but the economic crisis triggered by Coronavirus has given them a new urgency. The Labour Party in Britain, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. and the recently launched Progressive InternationalProposals for a Green New Deal (GND) were multiplying even before the pandemic, but the economic crisis triggered by Coronavirus has given them a new urgency. The Labour Party in Britain, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. and the recently launched Progressive International(1) have all put forward social democratic versions while the European Commission and the 2020 Programme for Government have twisted it into greenwashed neoliberalism.

The rush to develop, and co-opt, the Green New Deal reflects a growing awareness of a looming economic depression with zero chance of “the market” fixing itself. The second major economic crisis in little more than a decade has shaken the faith of even the devoutest neoliberals in market fundamentalism. Coronavirus, coming on top of the climate crisis, has produced a watershed moment from which all agree there can be ‘no going back’. Whatever route is taken out of this double crisis will likely have a ‘Green New Deal’ label attached. But will it be a socialist Green New Deal or a neoliberal or social democratic one and what would a socialist GND look like?

In principle, a socialist GND must look after people as well as the planet. Green politics has all too often prioritised environmental protection at the expense of living standards, presenting a false choice between material improvements and a livable planet. The politics of frugality, of eco-austerity and carbon taxes, can only appeal to the already comfortable. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Soul of Man under Socialism, 

There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor.

Conversely, socialists have all too often focused on economic development to the exclusion of the environment and subordinated quality of life to material consumption. In different ways, both set the bar for living standards too low–on the one hand advocating universal thrift in an unequal world, and on the other reducing socialism to meeting material needs.

Surely we should aim much higher? A socialist GND will inevitably have to compete with the ‘American dream’ of social mobility and individual wealth so central to the allure of capitalism. Even if we know that’s an illusion, it remains a powerful one. We need to offer a genuinely attractive alternative–a socialist GND has to provide everyone not just with a basic living standard but a comfortable one, protecting the planet for future generations and improving quality of life for all.

On this one question, the right wing economists and politicians are correct: quality of life and comfortable living standards are impossible without a sound economic basis. Marx put it far more poetically when he wrote that “the true realm of freedom” “can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis”.(2) The five principles of a socialist GND outlined below are rooted in this approach, combining suggestions for providing comfortable material living standards with a vision of global solidarity and a better, freer life for all.

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1. Good Green Jobs and a Just Transition

As the government and media never tire of telling us, the fastest way out of the economic disaster triggered by the Coronavirus is to get everyone “back to work”. But if we want to transition to a green economy, we can’t send people back to the same old polluting jobs as before. The Covid crisis provides a unique opportunity to restart the economy on a greener and fairer basis. Renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, retrofitting and green construction are all obvious “green jobs”, but avoiding climate meltdown requires a much wider shift towards a low carbon economy. Ultimately, all jobs will have to turn green–for instance through voluntary extension of remote working to office workers, happy not to commute during lockdown, for all or part of a (shorter) working week .

Luckily for us, many of the jobs belatedly recognised as “essential work” during this pandemic are naturally low-carbon jobs. These include so-called “care jobs”, from education and childcare to health and social care of the elderly and people with disabilities. Because of the persistent allocation of social reproduction to women under capitalism (see box on Social Reproduction and the Pandemic), they are also all fields with a majority female workforce, in contrast to the traditional green jobs in renewable energy, green construction which tend to be male-dominated. Other areas where thousands of low carbon jobs can and should be created include public transport, journalism, arts and the community sector. In all these sectors, tens of thousands more workers are really needed to provide Universal Access to quality public services.

Trade unions and activist groups like Extinction Rebellion have highlighted the need for a Just Transition for workers in polluting industries to enable them to take up green jobs. This would include funding for education and re-training for workers (or early retirement), and for grants for small farmers(3) to transition away from beef and dairy and towards sustainable and regenerative farming. ‘Good’ green jobs must also mean automatic collective bargaining rights and trade union recognition, a minimum wage of at least €15 an hour, and a four-day week with no loss of pay (see: A Better Life). Sharing out the work in this way would also help speed our way out of the coming recession.

2. Universal Access

Socialism at its core is about transferring ownership and control over production from the billionaire class to workers and the oppressed in order to rationally plan society and fulfil human needs and wants. Universal public services can assist in this, satisfying the ‘realm of necessity’ that provides the basis for the ‘realm of freedom’ by providing a basic standard of living for all, dramatically cutting the cost of living and creating tens of thousands of good green jobs. Nationalising privatised services can also directly reduce carbon emissions, for instance by eliminating unnecessary duplication of waste disposal services or building tens of thousands of homes to passive standard. Free and frequent public transport, single-tier healthcare without waiting lists, free education at all levels, affordable public housing and free public childcare are all indispensable to a socialist Green New Deal.

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The Coronavirus pandemic exposed the dangerous fragility of public services after years of austerity and demonstrated they should never be run on a “just-in-time” basis. There is always a need for spare capacity in health, childcare, education and transport to cope with the unexpected (particularly when you consider the rise in extreme weather events with climate change). However, such “flab” is unacceptable to capitalists who invariably strive to “make more [profits!] with less”. The lack of any slack in the system left governments rushing to secure access to private hospitals, in the process highlighting the inefficiency of having privatised services based on ability to pay running alongside and undermining public services.

Overcrowding of public transport due to persistent underfunding also revealed itself as actively dangerous and has probably contributed significantly to the pandemic. “Freedom of movement” may have been one of the main ideological selling points of the EU but in reality it never existed even within Ireland, unless you own a car and have unlimited money for petrol! Making public transport free and massively expanding its frequency and reach would be one of the biggest contributions public policy could make to reducing living costs and carbon emissions, as well as increasing individual freedom.

Supplying universal public services at a level sufficient for in-built spare capacity and infection control during the pandemic would create tens of thousands of jobs. An additional 10,000 primary and secondary teachers would be needed to reduce class sizes to acceptable levels pre-covid,(4) and double or triple that is necessary to properly implement social distancing. Likewise, the health service was operating with more than 20,000 fewer healthcare workers than needed even before the current crisis, not to mention the tens of thousands of additional workers required to safely staff nursing homes and increased homecare packages.

Universal access to public services would also save every household thousands of euro a year. Research carried out by RISE indicates savings of up to €5,500 for households without children, between health insurance and other medical costs, car insurance, petrol, public transport fares, and heating. Universal free childcare would save families with young children an additional €5,000-€13,000 a year. Given the chasm between market, cost rental and social rents, moving to a public housing model would be even more beneficial, with potential savings in Dublin of €6,000-16,800 a year!(5) All of that translates into significantly increased disposable incomes and far more comfortable living standards.

3. A better life

By guaranteeing a comfortable standard of living, a socialist Green New Deal for Ireland would lay the basis for a better quality of life for all, including a more humane work/life balance, happier relationships, improved environmental quality and better health. Freed from worry about material necessities, we could pursue our interests and happiness, whether social, artistic or political–but only if only we have the time! To quote Marx again: “that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom…can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite of ” the true realm of freedom”(6)

Demands for a four day or 30 hour week with no loss of pay have been burgeoning internationally and in this country. Virtually everyone would prefer fewer working hours if they did not suffer financially as a result and the environmental benefits would be significant. According to the Four Day Week Ireland coalition, “moving to a four day week would reduce carbon emissions by around a fifth, through cutting back on commuting and energy use in buildings.”(7) It would also be an easy way of creating more Good Green Jobs to get us out of the Covid recession, by sharing out the work.

With a 30 hour week as standard and universal free childcare, everyone would have more free time to spend with family and friends, socialise, be creative, enjoy hobbies, engage in activism, exercise, eat nice food–all the good things in life that we currently have to squeeze in around the edges of making profits for capitalists. The Coronavirus lockdown gave a glimpse of this in a way, demonstrating how much safer and more pleasant cities with less traffic and noise pollution can be and showing the potential for a more relaxed family life with shorter working hours and without long commutes. Surveys of what people missed most under lockdown also showed how much people value human interaction above all else. Sixty-six percent in one UK survey said seeing family and friends was what they missed the most, followed by going to restaurants/pubs (38%).(8) None of these things require exponential economic growth and the continual expansion of profit. Capitalism depends on that for survival, humanity and the environment do not.

4. Global solidarity

So far, we have focused on what a socialist GND would mean for Ireland but any plan for this country in isolation would be obviously ineffective in stopping global climate change.

Under pressure from the big business interests they represent, almost every government has fought to keep carbon emissions targets as low as possible for themselves. Some, like the U.S. under Trump, have refused to cooperate altogether. To avert catastrophic warming, we need to ditch that mindset entirely and instead commit advanced economies like Ireland towards reaching net-zero emissions much earlier than the neo-colonial world. That’s why the 2050 EU target for net-zero emissions adopted by the Irish government is so totally inadequate and the demand of radical climate activists like Extinction Rebellion for Ireland to reach net-zero by 2030 is so essential.

A 2030 target would take account of the much lower contribution of lower-income countries to climate change and give them space to adapt their economies in a just way that leaves no one behind. As part of this shift towards global solidarity rather than cut-throat competition and to facilitate public investment in a Global Green New Deal, debt for low income countries must be dropped and Ireland’s destructive role as a tax haven for international capital must be ended.

To achieve any of that will require global cooperation on an unprecedented scale that’s simply not feasible under capitalism–which brings us to the vital question of democratic public ownership…

5. We own it, we control it

The scale and speed of change needed to transition to a net-zero economy by 2030 will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without democratic planning. It’s unimaginable that this could happen under capitalism where millions of individual investment decisions are taken in a chaotic, unplanned manner everyday, motivated solely by the desire to maximise profits. Such sociopathic decision-making on a mass scale has created a system where environmental and social costs are “externalised” and workers and nature are forced to pay a heavier and heavier price for gilding the Dragons’ Dens.

The alternative to genocide and mass extinction in the name of profit is a democratically planned economy based on production for human need, comfort and freedom and for the protection of our environment. To achieve this requires participatory economic democracy, both at the level of the individual workplace and democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy. This could be done by establishing workers’ environmental committees to plan out reducing emissions and a Just Transition to low carbon jobs. As well as being environmentally beneficial, these could be the first steps towards democracy at work (see Box: Economic Democracy).

Social Reproduction & the Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the dependency of the wider economy on social reproduction, or the maintenance and reproduction of the working class. In other words, profit-making relies on “people-making”. Without childcare, parents’ productivity has been massively reduced or they have been forced out of the workplace altogether. The burden of reproducing and caring for the next generation of workers falls disproportionately on women and is the main source of their oppression under capitalism, so it is women that have been worst affected by the sudden disappearance of childcare.

The way in which the state has expected parents to manage an unmanageable situation themselves is typical of how capitalism so often treats social reproduction as an afterthought, in spite of its necessity for the continued functioning of the system. As Marx put it in Volume 1 of Capital ,

The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfillment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation.

(10)
This has certainly appeared to be the case during the pandemic when the official state advice to Irish parents was to “be creative” and “get a dig out” from friends or relatives.(11)

Such an approach is obviously unsustainable. In better economic times when labour is in short supply, the demand from capitalists is to increase labour force participation in order to keep wages low. In that case, women are “needed” to work and affordable childcare must be provided to avoid placing too much upward pressure on wages. This helps to explain why the majority of advanced capitalist economies provide some form of state-subsidised childcare. The cost of raising the next generation of workers is socialised onto society as a whole, rather than internalised within the wages of individual workers, which would impose far greater costs on employers.

The reverse can happen during economic recessions. There is less demand for labour so wages are “naturally” lower and governments are looking for services to cut. Under these conditions, childcare, which can be relatively easily re-privatised back onto private households, or in other words individual women, can be first in line for cuts. In this way, both through direct job cuts and cuts to childcare, women are sent back to their traditional place the “reserve army of labour” to serve as a reservoir of precarious, disposable labour and maintain downward pressure on wages, at least until the next upswing in the economic cycle.

The subordinate status of women’s labour is therefore doubly beneficial to capitalists. During recessions, social reproduction can be re-privatised to the “free” domestic labour of women in the home, thereby cheapening the cost of reproducing the next generation of workers and lowering wages. In better economic times, childcare costs can be socialised to expand the supply of labour and thereby keep wages lower. At the same time, the disposable nature of women’s labour and the alternation of women between paid and unpaid labour supports very low pay in care jobs dominated by women. If the availability of affordable childcare is to subsidise low wages for employers in general, wages of childcare workers must be kept as low as possible. Again, this illustrates how social reproduction under capitalism is treated as an adjunct to production for profit.

Socialism, in upending the rationale for production, would upend the sexist and socially regressive relationship between production and reproduction. If you remove profits for the capitalist as the primary purpose of production and work, it’s only remaining purpose would be to support the worker and contribute to the general well-being of society. No longer would family, home and leisure have to be squeezed in around the edges–in the few short hours between dinner and bed and two free days out of seven. No longer would we live to work, but could finally start working to live.

So what are the key sections of the economy we need to control to avert climate catastrophe? Ireland’s most polluting industries–agri-food, transport, energy, and construction–are an obvious place to start.

Agriculture and food is the most polluting sector, accounting for more than a third of Irish emissions. The vast majority of this stems from the big beef and dairy farmers and major agri-food companies like Glanbia, Kerry Group and Larry Goodman’s ABP, which feature in the top 50 of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) list of major carbon emitters.(9) A socialist GND would take all of these big players into public ownership, enabling a managed transition to sustainable agriculture and food production, and helping to finance improved income supports for small farmers.

The changes needed in the airline industry are also so huge that the only way to manage them fairly with a just transition for workers is by taking it into public ownership. The capitalist alternatives–of bailing out the airline bosses so they can continue hurtling us towards disaster or throwing tens of thousands of workers onto the scrapheap–are unconscionable.

In many cases, nationalising polluting industries will facilitate achieving the other elements of a socialist GND. Taking the major construction companies, like Ireland’s third largest carbon emitter, CRH, into public ownership, would allow a complete reconfiguration of the supply chain and construction process towards net zero emissions, facilitating much-needed retro-fitting of the existing housing stock and building all new homes to passive standard.

Under capitalism, it’s the banks, insurance companies and investment funds that funnel the fruits of all our human labours (workers’ savings and bosses’ stolen profits) into environmentally destructive, but profitable industries like fossil fuels. To marshal the resources needed for transitioning to an environmentally sustainable economy, we would need to own and control the financial system. During the last financial crisis, the government effectively nationalised the banking system, but did so in a totally undemocratic way where the banks continued to be run in the interests of profit in the failed hope of quickly re-privatising them. To finance a socialist Green New Deal, the banks would have to be thoroughly democratised and run as public utilities, as part of a much wider democratic transformation of the economy.

So how do we get there?

Hopefully, the vision of a socialist Green New Deal sketched out here sounds appealing but it begs the question, how the hell are we going to achieve it? It might sound like the changes needed are much too great and that maybe incremental changes under the existing system, like with the Greens putting Fianna Fail and Fine Gael back into power, are all we can hope for. The problem is we just don’t have the time for small changes. Already, there are signs runaway climate change could soon be triggered with unprecedented heatwaves in Siberia. There simply has to be revolutionary change in the next ten years to avoid climate apocalypse. Getting to net zero in a decade will require the greatest collective effort in human history and is only conceivable if we swap a system intrinsically incompatible with global solidarity and cooperation for democratic socialism.

The Magic Money Tree

Research by Oxfam has recently found that 162 billionaires own the same wealth as half of humanity(12) and that Ireland plays host to the fifth highest level of billionaires per capita on earth.(13) Yet anyone looking for an expansion of public services or even just an end to cuts is invariably met with cries of “where’s the magic money tree?” It seems the greatest trick the billionaires ever pulled was convincing the world they don’t exist–and at the same time that they are absolutely necessary to it continuing!

The social democratic approach to the magic money tree is to levy higher taxes on wealth and profits, combined with progressive taxation of income. According to Oxfam, an extra tax of just 0.5% on the richest 1% globally over the next 10 years could create 117 million jobs, including 79 million care jobs in education, health and social care.(14)

Adopting measures like that here could more than fund a socialist Green New Deal for Ireland. We could start with the €15bn in back tax our government is fighting to give back to Apple! On top of that, People before Profit calculate that an additional €18.5bn could be raised annually from increased taxation on big business and the wealthy, including over €8bn from closing corporation tax loopholes, €1.5bn in environmental taxes on big business polluters, and €3.85bn from a 2% wealth tax on the richest 5% of households.(15) Given the Nevin Economic Research Institute has estimated that an investment stimulus of just €1bn for one year could create approximately 17,500 jobs,(16) the resources clearly exist to create many tens of thousands of good green jobs and quality universal public services.

The major problem with this type of “tax and spend” approach is that big business and the wealthy are likely to respond by offshoring assets and shifting production overseas. Of course, there are practical limits on how much they can do that and governments could be pressured to seriously combat tax avoidance. The fact remains, however, that in a capitalist economy, especially a globalised one, significant increases in taxes on wealth and profits are hard to implement due to competition for inward investment and the economic and political power of the capitalist class.

This points to the need to take control of the economy (See We own it, we control it). Rather than leaving the rich in control of their assets–or ‘means of production’ through which they exploit workers’ labour–and then trying to tax the resulting profits, we need to seize or expropriate those assets and use them to plan a just transition to an eco-socialist economy. Given the trillions in wealth and productive assets controlled by the billionaires, this would exponentially increase the resources available for both long term and immediate investment and easily provide a comfortable living standard for all.

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So how do we get there? The hope for a way out lies in the environmental movements that have sprung up in the last few years, in Fridays for Future, the mass climate strikes and radical activist groups like Extinction Rebellion. But to be effective, these movements have to become much broader based and linked up with other people-power movements, from Black Lives Matter to the women’s movement, campaigns for better public services and against austerity. Most importantly of all, they need to join forces with a reinvigorated workers’ movement–which alone has the potential economic power to take control of the economy and actually bring about a socialist green transformation. To do this, a shared vision of a post-capitalist, democratic eco-socialist future that can appeal to all sections of the 99%, and not just the better-off, is needed.

Economic Democracy

One of capitalism’s main selling points is the supposed “freedom” and democracy it offers. Relative to slavery or serfdom, that might be true but the lived reality in most workplaces is closer to a dictatorship. Most of us spend roughly a third of our waking hours in a rigidly hierarchical environment where we must promptly follow orders from an unelected commander or else face dismissal, loss of income and the potential loss of housing and ability to support our families. Yet because we’re allowed to vote for a government every five years, this qualifies as democracy! This strict separation of political and economic democracy under capitalism makes democracy in any real sense impossible and takes massive daily restrictions on human freedom completely for granted.

For a Socialist Green New Deal to work, there would need to be a throughgoing extension of democracy beyond the narrow sphere of electoral politics to the economy. There’s no way we could reach net-zero emissions in ten years without full democratic participation both at the workplace level and in broader economic planning. This would mean workers owning and controlling their workplaces through democratically elected committees and democratic participation by elected popular assemblies and councils of workers and communities in local and national economic planning. In this way, workplaces and the major industries can be owned and controlled by the workers’ themselves and run intelligently as part of a democratically planned economy that serves people and the environment, not profit.

We’ve tried to offer some suggestions here for what that might look like through the prism of a socialist Green New Deal, but really this is something that can only be worked out democratically in living mass movements for change. Whatever demands a future mass eco-socialist movement adopts, its success depends on breaking any negative associations between climate action and lower living standards. Instead, we need to offer an attractive vision of climate justice that can protect the environment and provide comfortable living standards and a better quality life for all. To borrow from Wilde again, we want to live, not just exist!


Notes:

  1. Endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Yanis Varoufakis and various other well known left wing figures. progressive.international
  2. Marx, Karl, 1818-1883. Capital Vol. III, Part VII. Revenues and their Sources, Chapter 48 “The Trinity Formula”.
  3. Trotsky, Leon, 1938. The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, The Transitional Program, “The Alliance of the Workers and Farmers”.
  4. www.kildarestreet.com
  5. Private rents in Dublin average €1,700 a month, the first ever cost rental scheme launched last year charges €1,200 and Dublin City Council council rents average less than €300.
  6. Ibid.
  7. fourdayweek.ie
  8. www.statista.com
  9. www.oireachtas.ie
  10. A controversy exists in Marxist feminist theory as to whether production depends on reproduction or reproduction depends on production. Martha Jimenez in Marx, Women, and Capitalist Social Reproduction cites the quote from Marx above in arguing that capitalist production subordinates production whereas Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) feminists have tended to imply the reverse or that they are interdependent.
  11. ‘People will rely on family and friends for a ‘dig out’ until creches reopen, says minister’.
  12. Paddison, Laura, 2020, , E 2001, ‘Just 162 Billionaires Have The Same Wealth As Half Of Humanity’, The Huffington Post, 14 February.
  13. Clare Coffey et al., 2020. Time to care, Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global–inequality crisis, Oxfam International. www.oxfamireland.org
  14. Ibid.
  15. People Before Profit Budget 2020, System Change–An Alternative Budget for People and Planet, pp. 32-26, www.pbp.ie .
  16. www.nerinstitute.net have all put forward social democratic versions while the European Commission and the 2020 Programme for Government have twisted it into greenwashed neoliberalism.

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