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.
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.