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A People’s Green New Deal: An interview with Max Ajl

Originally published: Ebb on July 1, 2021 by Alfie Hancox (more by Ebb) (Posted Jul 08, 2021)
Climate crisis is a disaster which impacts us all, but the culpability is not evenly distributed. The rich nations of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia have contributed 60% of global cumulative CO2 emissions, compared to 13% for the two largest developing economies, China and India, taken together. And yet the overwhelming cost of global warming is being borne by the oppressed world, where ecosystem collapse is causing mass population displacements, while those countries most responsible move further towards fortress nationalisms. It is inevitable that this situation would engender a geographic rift in the environmental movement itself, an issue which is foregrounded in Max Ajl’s new book, A People’s Green New Deal, published by Pluto Press.In this interview for Ebb Magazine, Ajl offers his perspective on the issues of ecologically unequal exchange, the Palestinian national liberation struggle, China’s model of agrarian revolution, Andreas Malm’s ‘ecological Leninism’, and the prospects for North-South convergence around environmental justice.

Alfie Hancox: The last few years have seen no shortage of left-wing commentary on Green New Deal policies and green manifestos. However, in A People’s Green New Deal, you take a different approach, drawing on Marxist dependency theorists like Samir Amin to foreground capitalist uneven development and what you call ‘ecologically unequal exchange’. Why is this perspective important for progressive environmentalism, and what does it tell us about the limits of social democratic Green New Deals?

Max Ajl: Ecologically uneven exchange (EUE), or essentially the North using a disproportionate share of world resources and space for waste, including more recently atmospheric space for carbon dioxide, has been a structural feature of historical capitalism. EUE is essentially an elaboration of earlier insights from Third World dependency theory, like the work of Samir Amin or Ruy Mauro Marini. It teaches us that southern labouring people are not only more oppressed and exploited, but they also encounter more social and ecological ravages than people in the North. Furthermore, these theories help us interpret modern political and economic history. By showing us how uneven exchange and primitive accumulation happen, they can show us what mechanisms are necessary to challenge them: Third World sovereignty, commodity cartels, national states untrammelled by US/Israeli warfare and subversion, collective self-reliance and bargaining at the United Nations, agrarian reform and sovereign industrialisation, appropriate technologies and eyes askance at unasked-for ‘technology transfer,’ internal and external price engineering. Indeed, many of these ideas were the planks of historical manifestos like the call for a New International Economic Order. We are also learning to see how inter-national oppression and ecological destruction register unevenly within peripheral countries.

Insofar as being determines consciousness, the consciousness which emerges from the social location of the southern labor classes tends to be more radical if not revolutionary. This means the periphery is what Amin identified as the ‘zone of storms.’ Furthermore, the types of theories people produce have a relationship, although not a precise correspondence, to the social conditions from which they emerge. Accordingly, the periphery has been and is more likely to produce the theories fit to put an end to this despoliation. These theories remind us that we need to listen to voices from the South if we want a world in which many worlds can fit. A progressive or anti-systemic environmentalism should depart from such analyses of the world and the remedies those analyses inform.

Uneven and polarised development, on the flip side, has an intellectual component. Class power helps determine epistemes, which then determines the contours of political programs which often reproduce rather than challenge ecologically uneven development. This is why many purportedly progressive internationalisms fail to recognise the national contradiction–that is, South-North value flow–as part-and-parcel of reproducing uneven development.

And such false internationalisms can emerge from the South and North. For example, ideas of extractivism have certainly meaningfully raised the spectre of uneven intra-national costs of commodity extraction. However, they have effectively suppressed the national question in doing so. They have also failed to offer a theoretical articulation capable of responding to national needs for socially and ecologically just development (they have been very useful, to be sure, to attack the radical-nationalist Latin American experiments in Venezuela and Bolivia).

Indeed, many of the same institutions which have avoided dealing with extractivism’s clumsiness when it comes to the national question likewise coo over colonial formulations like Robert Pollin’s Green New Deal proposal–which transforms sovereign demands for North-South climate debt payments to the tune of over $3 trillion per year into vague calls for ‘large-scale assistance.’ This is because they aim to build green social democracy, keeping private control over the means of production intact and essentially dismissing reparations to deal with the colonial legacy. Until that legacy is dealt with by taking seriously demands from the South for climate debt repayments and other difficulties of transition–what are Trinidad and Tobago or Bolivia to do to develop if their hydrocarbon supplies are banned?–metropolitan Green New Deals will not be able to engage in a serious dialogue with the social demands of the Third World.

In this way, from ultra-left to social democratic left, we have an ensemble of ecological thought which systematically suppresses North-South contradiction and value flow and the national question, and prevents theory from informing the political practice which could produce a real internationalism, one recognising the difficulties of socialist construction in an imperialist world system, one which, in the words of Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, ‘insists on the substantive, not cosmetic, dissolution of hierarchies among nations and proletariats in the struggle against capital.’

AH: You provocatively suggest that the green reformism associated with the re-emergence of social democrats such as Corbyn and Sanders had the adverse effect of ‘displacing and erasing an earlier radical environmentalism tied to demands coming from the Global South’, including demands for climate reparations. Given that overturning imperialist unequal exchange would necessarily reduce consumption levels within the Global North (a reality ignored by proponents of ‘luxury communism’), wedding northern socialism to anti-imperialism is, as you say, an ‘Olympian task’. Are there any current movements within the core that provide grounds for hope in this respect?

MA: I want to take a small issue with this way of framing the question, which often in recent times has become rendered in overly polarising terms. If we look at overall wealth, including investments and salaries, which represent claims on labour and resources and goods as they are currently produced under capitalist social relations and capitalist technology, then it is very clear that there are huge disparities between northern and southern consumption. This justifies the use of national aggregates to make sense of these disparities, and to clarify that it is the South which will have to take the lead in a just transition on the global level. Indeed, work like the recent research of Zak Cope suggests that what was classically called a labour aristocracy, sectors of the core working class, consume well in excess of what they produce.

Yet, at the same time, life is very difficult for many people even in the imperial core, especially in a severely underdeveloped country like the US. For example, the U.S. could achieve better healthcare outcomes with an entirely domestically-trained medical corps, using fewer national resources, if we shifted to preventative, community-centred, free medical care. So, it is important to point out that in our current highly, I think at least in some ways over-industrialised world, certain kinds of consumption, like northern use of nearly disposable mobile phones, would have to sharply decrease to enable world-wide developmental convergence between North and South, in the framework of a more or less permanently ecologically sustainable planned world system. But for many people in the North, life could be better and we could have more stable access to higher-quality use values, especially when we consider the enormous waste embedded in imperialist-capitalism, from the military to treating socially-inflicted cancers to socially pathological overuse of cars.

Nevertheless, it is a serious problem that exploited people are woven into social and technological systems that they are used to and do not see an alternative to–in many cases people are even willing to fight to defend them. These systems contain scarce interstices from which to launch a conversion to non-commodified and ecologically sustainable patterns of production and consumption. That’s why the book focuses intensely on Indigenous movements and farmers movements. In the former case, the Indigenous movement challenges the anterior primitive accumulation upon which settler-capitalism rests. In the latter case, ecological farming, as well as moves towards ecologically-appropriate building materials, and overall shifts in architecture, housing, and planning, could be elements of a People’s Green New Deal which has no need to exploit the labour and materials of the South in order to create a good life in the North. Even aspects of the contemporary interest in artisanal goods could be radicalised.

I should be clear about something, too: this book is not a definitive statement, but rather lays out some lines of thinking to inform a discussion, departing from some of the most important southern theories of development which are the necessary basis for world-wide access to a good life, that is, socialism. So, perhaps more importantly in some respects, there is a huge resurgence of interest in dependency theory, anti-imperialism, uneven exchange, and kindred ways of thinking and histories. So, we should expect that such thinking will more and more inform how movements organise, including on ecological questions, and that could lead to an efflorescence of practice and theory, perhaps seeking to update and take from the best of the very rich debate on appropriate technologies as it occurred in the North; the Latin American debate on styles of development; and the Arab debate on appropriate technology as a mechanism of delinking–keeping in mind that these theories almost always defended national metallurgical industries and railroad systems, and were very much in favour of modernity, or complex divisions of labour, and were pro-industry, as well.

AH: In the book you criticise the ‘calcified anti-rural prejudice’ of First World Marxism, which has often neglected the role of the peasantry in socialist transition. Perhaps an exception to this were those Maoist intellectuals in the 1960s-70s who championed China’s model of agrarian revolution, but today much of the western anti-imperialist Left bypasses this period of history and ascribes China’s economic success to its embrace of so-called ‘market socialism’. In your view, does the pre-1978 Chinese development path have sustained relevance?

MA: I would put this simply: anyone who wants to understand the prospects for development in the Third World needs to understand and appreciate and in many ways, seek to repeat, the achievements of Maoist China. Those are many of the fundamental elements for contemporary popular development in the periphery. The most important issue is agrarian reform, and investment in improving the quality and quantity of southern smallholder production. Breaking up large estates immediately re-orients domestic agricultural production to feeding rather than tropical commodity export. For countries to develop, they need to be able to largely feed themselves, and feed themselves well. People who are hungry cannot work, and people who are not eating nutritionally complete food, not just more fruits and vegetables but also say sorghum, millet, or hard wheat in lieu of highly processed soft wheat flour, will be sicker or in poorer health. Such countries also need to produce a surplus, whether for modulated export of raw materials, or processed raw materials, to secure hard currency, for inputs into domestic manufacturing and industrialisation, and for wage-goods like food, to supply those working in domestic secondary and tertiary sectors: industry and services.

Now, it is widely established that agrarian reform can lead to more rational use of labour than larger private farms, whether that means enhanced labour from owners onto farms, increasing production per land area, or through cooperatives freeing up labour for long-term productivity-enhancing or land-enhancing investments, as with China’s creation of vast irrigation infrastructures. The first decades of China’s Maoist rural development policies were based, very often, on proto-agro-ecological innovations: gathering human and animal waste for fertiliser, biological pest control, and appropriate-scale mechanisation. There were also more capital-intensive inputs, of course, but they were not responsible for early yield improvements. These policy measures went alongside price engineering to ensure that country and city developed relatively evenly, to control rural out-migration, and to allow for some channelling of surplus to industrialisation, which reciprocally served the technical upgrading of agriculture. As a result, the Chinese path loomed at the margins or even the centre of economic discourse across the post-colonial world.

These Chinese policies remain relevant: break up the large estates. Slowly and organically introduce producer cooperatives. Increase domestic food production, break through the food grain constraint, and above all, make use the country’s most valuable resource–its labour–to build up the infrastructure of a socialist society. Carry out price engineering to ensure appropriate returns to labour nation-wide. These steps create a wide internal market, allowing for economies of scale in manufacturing and industrial sectors. With such measures, in a decade extreme poverty could be completely eradicated almost world-wide, and nations could be more or less just and decent societies within 30 years, which would still need to develop their forces of production. I do not see any other way for the countries of the Third World to create decent societies in the current context.

Now, as for the post-Mao dismantling of the commune system, it has been established that this led to increased rural inequality, even while at the same time, many of the post-1978 agricultural productivity increases, including yield increases from mounting application of chemical fertilisers, really were long-term yields on investments made in the 1950s-1970s on irrigation technology. And the increasing industrialisation and research capacities rested on the Maoist successes in increasing access to education and of course breaking apart gender oppression in the countryside. So there has been a tendency to over-praise the post-1978 policies even though the earlier ones had similar rates of growth and with more use-values staying in the hands of the poor. So there is a lot to learn from the past.

AH: In America, President Joe Biden has taken on board elements of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which many liberal commentators have applauded as a successful reversal of Trump’s aggressive environmental rollbacks. Is this an accurate assessment?

MA: It is a question of whether the U.S. government will keep pursuing massively destructive policies more quickly or more slowly. The question is one of pace rather than direction. The Biden Green New Deal rejects climate debt. The Biden plan aims for net-zero emissions by 2050, which is far too late, since it means that there will be massive continued emissions which could permanently destabilise the climate. The effects of such emissions, needless to say, fall hardest on the formerly colonised world, including making small island states nearly uninhabitable.

Perhaps even more threatening at some level is the call for ‘net-zero.’ Net-zero is a term which enfolds generally dubious if not outright mendacious ideas that carbon absorption in some places, whether through tree planting or other methods, can offset continued emissions from coal, oil, and gas burning. This is meant, then, first as a gesture of conciliation to the Western oil companies, stating that the Biden administration will try its best to avoid destroying the value of their assets. It also represents a promise to heavily invest in carbon-dioxide-sucking machinery. Furthermore, net-zero is generally to be accomplished through mono-cultural tree planting, which has massively destructive effects on water tables and biodiversity, never mind the massive ethnic cleansing and destruction of pastoral lives which lurks behind such schemes.

AH: A key intervention of A People’s Green New Deal is its insistence that effective environmentalism must respect national sovereignty in the Global South, entailing opposition to financial imperialism and ongoing settler-colonial projects. How does an eco-socialist perspective map onto the present Palestinian liberation struggle?

MA: Eco-socialists have to start from the basic demands of colonised peoples: namely national liberation. The Palestinian liberation struggle is one of the few, but not the only, remaining ‘classical’ national liberation struggles, which aims to break foreign settler control over the land. Furthermore, as the writer Soula Avramidis points out, the Palestinian national struggle is also a regional national-agrarian struggle, which has its own unique aspects, reflecting the political economy of the region. As he writes, ‘The theory implicit in nearly every issue of Al-Hadaf was that the struggle against Zionism was more than a struggle to reclaim land–it was a struggle against American capitalist hegemony on whose behalf Israel acted as a gendarme.’ This means the Palestinian national liberation struggle is tied to the broader Arab-Iranian national question, which gives the Palestinians their strategic depth–a point missed in contemporary chatter which seeks to sever Palestine from its strategic support base, either labelling that support ‘sub-imperialist,’ or else simply ignoring it or otherwise denigrating it. Supporting Palestine also means supporting national sovereignty within the surrounding scaffolding of regional front-line states. Inability to ‘see’ these basic contradictions as constitutive of the world-wide struggle for an ecological and socialist world system, are a rehearsal of economism, in the form of ecologism–if the struggles don’t seem to articulate ‘directly’ with the ecological contradiction, they are dismissed.

Now, it’s important to foreground self-determination, but there are many other elements of the Palestinian liberation struggle which do speak more explicitly to the ecological issue. Israel itself has destroyed much of the native flora, and replaced it with ecologically inappropriate pine plantations. It also continues to uproot, year-by-year, ecologically appropriate olive trees. Palestine, like other regions of the Third World, has a dazzling heritage of sustainable peasant or smallholder agriculture, from the remaining terraces of Battir, to terraces in the Naqab to cisterns in the hills of the West Bank. That, too, is being lost, and because such forms of technology are bound to the practices and lives and social systems of the people who have built and maintain them, the loss of these technologies can only be reserved through great struggle, even when Palestine is liberated (Divya Sharma has discussed some of the difficulties of renewal of agro-ecological practices in the Indian context). Furthermore, Israel is the world’s major per capita exporter of weapons, which themselves have been used as part of U.S. aligned or implanted regimes’ wars on poor people and their environmental struggles, as in India and Brazil. Such weapons also produce massive toxins in production and use.

AH: Recently the radical scholar Andreas Malm has advocated an ‘ecological Leninism’ that, as you have elsewhere argued, is nonetheless ideologically eclectic and glaringly Eurocentric. In this Malm may be placed within a broader tendency of the academic Left to downplay the anti-imperialism at the heart of Lenin’s politics. Do you think the framework of eco-Leninism, mentioned briefly in your book, has any redeemable utility?

MA: It is not clear to me that we can recover the term. Leninism as a historical practice was marked by strategic-political creativity, the seizure of state power, a worker-peasant alliance, anti-colonialism, and internationalism more broadly. Except for the seizure of state power, Malm denudes Leninism of its historical substance. However, if Leninism means simply that a central element of socialist construction is the acquisition of state power by Marxist-Leninist organisations, with programs that weld together revolutionary domestic transformation with anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, then Leninism has a great utility. Socialism by definition ought to attend to ecological issues, and we can find a clear concern with such issues in the classic works of Marx and Engels themselves. In fact most of the world’s Marxist-Leninist parties, revisionist or otherwise, have strong climate justice planks in their platforms. Such demands are indeed more urgent than ever in terms of building up Third World and for that matter First World adaptation and resilience capacities, now that the question of avoiding climate change is moot. The question is surviving it and trying to keep countries habitable, and within that effort, taking over state power. As Reinaldo Iturriza, a leading Chavista intellectual, points out, ‘It is not an option to be governed by the criminals who ruled in the past,’ whatever the limits of state power in building socialism–a point which has yet to be answered in theory or practice.

Max Ajl is a postdoctoral fellow at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, and an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment. He is also an editor at Agrarian South and Journal of Labor and Society, and is on twitter @maxajl.