One Cheer — More or Less — For the Green New Deal

In critiquing and analyzing a state policy proposal like the Green New Deal from an anarchist perspective, I should throw in the usual disclaimers about my working assumptions. I’m not an insurrectionist and I don’t believe the post-capitalist/post-state transition will be primarily what Erik Olin Wright called a “ruptural” process. Although the final transition may involve some ruptural events, it will mostly be the ratification after the fact of a cumulative transformation that’s taken place interstitially.

Most of that transformation will come from the efforts of ordinary people at creating the building blocks of the successor society on the ground, and from those building blocks replicating laterally and coalescing into an ecosystem of counter-institutions that expands until it supplants the previous order.

Some of it will come from political engagement to run interference for the new society developing within the shell of the old, and pressuring the state from outside to behave in more benign ways. Some of it will come from using some parts of the state against other parts, and using the state’s own internal procedural rules to sabotage it.

Some of it will come from attempts to engage friendly forces within the belly of the beast. Individuals here and there on the inside of corporate or state institutions who are friendly to our efforts and willing to engage informally with us can pass along information and take advantage of their inside positions to nudge things in a favorable direction. As was the case with the transition from feudalism and capitalism, some organizational entities — now nominally within state bodies or corporations — will persist in a post-state and post-capitalist society, but with their character fundamentally changed along with their relationship to the surrounding system.  If you want to see some interesting examples of attempts at “belly of the beast” grantsmanship and institutional politics, take a look at the appendices to some of Paul Goodman’s books.

A great deal, I predict, will come from efforts — particularly at the local level — to transform the state in a less statelike direction: a general principle first framed by Saint-Simon as “replacing legislation over people with the administration of things,” and since recycled under a long series of labels ranging from “dissolution of the state within the social body” to “the Wikified State” to “the Partner State.” The primary examples I have in mind today are the new municipalist movements in Barcelona, Madrid, Bologna, and Jackson and the dozens and hundreds of cities replicating that model around the world, as well as particular institutional forms like community land trusts and other commons-based local economic models.

There is no “magic button” that will cause the state to instantaneously disappear, and it has currently preempted the avenues and channels (to paraphrase Paul Goodman) for carrying out many necessary social functions. So long as the state continues to be a thing, I prefer that its interventions in society and the economy take the least horrible forms possible, and that its performance of the necessary social functions it has preempted be carried out in the most humane and humanly tolerable ways possible during the period of socializing them — i.e., returning them to genuine social control by non-coercive, cooperative forms of association. I prefer that reforms of the state be Gorzian “non-reformist reforms” that lay the groundwork for further transformations, and bridge the transition to a fundamentally different society.

In dealing with cases like catastrophic climate change, where lifeboat ethics comes into play and it’s justifiable to forcibly shut down economic activities that actively endanger us, when the regulatory state has already preempted the avenues for otherwise shutting down such activities, stepping back and allowing the state  to actually do so — especially when it’s acting against entities like corporations which are abusing power and privilege granted by the state in the first place — may be the least unsatisfactory short-term option. When the state has created and actively subsidized the entire economic model that threatens the biosphere, intervening to partially curtail and reverse that model is probably the form of intervention I’m least likely to lose any sleep over.

To take a case from ten years ago as an illustration, something like Obama’s stimulus package was necessary, given the existence of corporate capitalism on the current model and its chronic crisis tendencies towards surplus capital and idle productive capacity, to prevent a Depression. So long as capitalism and the state existed, some such intervention was inevitable. Given those facts, I would prefer that the hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus spending go towards fundamental infrastructures that would bridge the transition towards a more sustainable and less destructive model. I recall reading at the time that for $200 or $300 billion dollars — about a third or less of the total package — it would have been possible to build out the bottlenecks in the national railroad system and transfer around 80% of long-haul truck freight to trains, thereby reducing carbon emissions from long-distance shipping to a fraction of their former value. Instead, Obama elected to dole out the money to “shovel-ready” projects, which meant local infrastructure projects already promoted and approved by local real estate interests and other components of the urban Growth Machines, to promote further expansion of the ultimately doomed model of car culture, sprawl, and monoculture.

Given that massive deficit spending to avert Depression was inevitable, it would have been far less statist to simply spend money into existence interest-free along the lines suggested by Modern Monetary Theory, either by appropriation for government projects or simply depositing it into people’s checking accounts as a Citizen’s Dividend, than to finance deficit spending by the sale of interest bearing securities to rentiers. It would have been less statist to carry out quantitative easing functions by eliminating the current central banking model of authorizing banks to expand the money supply by lending it into existence at interest, and instead creating new money by simply issuing in the form of a Basic Income. It would have been better to make the bank bailout conditional on banks marking mortgages in default down to their current market value and refinancing them on more affordable terms. You get the idea.

Which brings us back to the Green New Deal.

Getting back to our earlier principle that, if the state has already entered the field, I prefer state interventions that are less shitty rather than more shitty, I would definitely prefer that tax money be spent building public transit that partially reverses or undoes a century of social engineering through state subsidies to highways and civil aviation, to interventions that continue to subsidize the further expansion of car culture.

The question is, to what extent does the Green New Deal actually do this?

Insofar as it proposes shifting public funding from the automobile-highway complex and civil aviation system to local public transit and intercity passenger rail, or reducing fossil fuel extraction and shifting to renewable energy, I think it’s about the best line of action we could possibly expect from a state given the likely realities in the near-term future.  

But there are two main structural problems with the Green New Deal as proposed by Michael Moore, Jill Stein, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. First, it takes for granted most of the existing economy’s patterns of energy use and simply calls for decarbonizing actual power generation.

As an illustration of the general spirit of this approach, Alex Baca mentions a Berkeley parking garage:

It’s got “rooftop solar, electric-vehicle charging stations, and dedicated spots for car-share vehicles, rainwater capture, and water treatment features” — not to mention 720 parking spots. It cost nearly $40 million to build. At night, it positively glows. And it’s a block from the downtown Berkeley BART station.

That America’s most famous progressive city, one where nearly everything is within walking distance, spent $40 million to renovate a parking garage one block from a subway station suggests that progressive Democrats remain unwilling to seriously confront the crisis of climate change.

In fairness to Ocasio-Cortez, she does favor shifting a considerable share of public subsidies from highways to public transit. But the overall thrust of her approach is far more towards decarbonizing power generation than changing the ways we use energy.

The Green New Deal, Baca says, “has a huge blind spot.”

It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography — where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places — is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

Baca points, in particular, to the car-centered urban design model — promoted by decades of social engineering by the automobile and real estate industries in conjunction with urban planners — which locates housing and work/shopping in monoculture enclaves widely separated from one another and linked by freeways. More than anything, we need to return to the kind of urban layout that prevailed before widespread car ownership: compact population centers with a mixture of residences and businesses where people can get to work and shopping by walking, wheelchair, bicycle, bus, or streetcar. And rather than just replacing internal-combustion vehicles with electric ones and coal plants with solar panels, we need to travel fewer miles and consume less power.

Baca’s focus on urban layout, as on-the-mark as it is, doesn’t go nearly far enough. Equally important is industrial organization and the need to relocalize production and change the fundamental ways that production and distribution are organized.

Because of a combination of massive subsidies to energy consumption and transportation, entry barriers that promote cartelization and enable oligopoly firms to pass on overhead from waste and inefficiency to consumers on a cost-plus basis, socialization of the cost of many material and social inputs to production, and artificial property rights like trademarks and patents that facilitate legal control over the disposal of products whose manufacture is outsourced to overseas firms, we have market areas, supply chains, and distribution chains many times larger than efficiency-maximizing levels if all costs were internalized by capitalist firms. And even when production within a plant is rationalized on a lean or just-in-time basis, the existence of continental or trans-oceanic distribution chains means that the old supply-push model of the mass production era is just swept under the rug; all the in-process inventories stacked up by the assembly lines and warehouse inventories of finished goods that characterized Sloanist production have just been shifted to warehouses on wheels and container ships.

Ultimately, what we need is a relocalized economy on the lines described by Kropotkin, Mumford, and Borsodi, which capitalizes on all the advantages offered — but ignored — by the introduction of electrically powered machinery in the Second Industrial Revolution. Namely, we need high-tech craft industry with community and neighborhood workshops using general-purpose CNC machine tools to produce for consumption within the community, frequently switching between product runs as orders come in on a just-in-time basis. This would eliminate not only a huge share of the transportation costs embedded in the current system, but additional costs associated with mass marketing in an environment where production is undertaken without regard to existing orders, and the cost of waste production (planned obsolescence, the Military-Industrial Complex, car culture and suburbanization, etc.) that is used as a remedy for idle production capacity.

Building “infrastructure” as such is not progressive. It’s only progressive when it’s compatible with things like industrial relocalization and the replacement of the car culture with compact mixed-use communities.

Second, the Green New Deal is very much an agenda for saving capitalism in the same spirit as the original New Deal. It’s an anti-deflationary program to create new outlets for surplus labor and capital and provide “jobs” for everyone, instead of directly confronting the fact that technical progress has drastically reduced the amount of labor and material inputs required to produce a high standard of living and seeing that the leisure and productivity benefits are distributed fairly.

This was central to the Green New Deal model proposed by Michael Moore several years back, and it’s central to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s version.

The Wikipedia article on “Green New Deal” attributes first use of that phrase to Thomas Friedman, who envisioned it as a way to “create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.” And the creation of new “green” industries as a huge source of “jobs” has been the chief selling point of every Green New Deal proposal since. More broadly, it’s the defining theme of the whole “Progressive Capitalist” or “Green Capitalist” paradigm promoted by Warren Buffett, Bill  Gates and the like. The idea is to use new technology as a weapon against capitalism’s chronic problem of surplus capital without a profitable outlet, by enclosing it as a source of profit, and using it to create new industries and new support infrastructures that will provide a new “engine of accumulation” or “Kondratiev wave” to soak up capital for another generation or so. This creation of new industries is one of the “counteracting tendencies” to the tendency for the direct rate of profit to fall that Marx described in volume 3 of Capital.

And that’s basically the same vision promoted by Michael Moore: run those Ford and GM factories at full capacity and put millions of auto workers back to work building buses and bullet trains, and employ millions more building solar panels and wind generators. The problem is that the cheapening and ephemeralization of production technology is rendering a growing share of investment capital superfluous at such a rapid rate that building buses and trains and generators will barely put a dent in it. And in any case, a major share of existing production is waste that just needs to be ended, not run on a different power source;  while replacing necessary transportation with more environmentally friendly forms is a great idea, the fact remains that most existing transportation is also unnecessary and should be eliminated by restructuring the layout of cities and industry. The buses and bullet trains may take up the slack left by ceasing to produce cars for a few years, at most.

There is simply no way to invest enough money in producing alternative energy, trains and public transit to guarantee 40-hour-a-week jobs, get the assembly lines moving in Detroit again, and prevent the bottom from falling out of the capital markets, without enormous levels of waste production.

So to the extent that AOC and her friends want to keep oil and coal in the ground and promote decarbonization, and end America’s subsidies to car culture, I wish them well. But “green jobs guarantees,” promises of economic expansion through new “green industries,” and similar approaches aimed at prolonging the long-term survival of capitalism, are a dead end.

Where does that leave us? What do we do in the meantime?

In framing the alternatives, I start from the assumption that our primary purpose is actually building the post-capitalist society, and that our engagement or lack of engagement with the state is a secondary course of action whose main purpose is to create a more conducive, less harmful environment in which to do the building. If you want to vote strategically for the sake of damage mitigation, or try to push the state in less environmentally harmful directions, or shift its existing interventions in a more environmentally favorable direction, more power to you.

It was this kind of thing that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt referred to, in Declaration, as part of a symbiotic strategy between the horizontalist left with its practice of building prefigurative counter-institutions, and leftist parties attempting to influence state policy. It’s fine for grassroots movements engaged in constructing a new society outside the state to throw support behind political actors who are taking specific measures to push things in the right direction, or enlist their help in running interference for us and creating a more favorable environment for the process of building the new society. But it’s absolutely vital to retain total autonomy and freedom of action, and resist being turned into the social movement auxiliary of a political party as Van Jones tried to do with Occupy, and not let leftist parties in government divert suck up all the energy and oxygen from those engaged in building counter-institutions like Syriza did to Syntagma after coming to power in Greece.

Our most important strategic focus must be on institution-building. The most important form of institution-building is at the local level, and some of it may or may not entail incidental engagement with local government.

Pressuring local government to scale back zoning laws that mandate sprawl and monoculture, and to stop actively subsidizing sprawl through below-cost extension of utilities to outlying developments, may well be fruitful. But the most productive path in local decarbonization will be the work of actually retrofitting suburbs and strip malls into mixed-use communities with diversified local economies.

These things will become a matter of necessity for survival, as the combined effect of Peak Fossil Fuel and monkeywrenching efforts aimed at keeping it in the ground make long commutes prohibitively expensive for growing numbers of people, and growing numbers at the same time are forced by rising unemployment, underemployment, and precaritization to supplement or replace their wage incomes with direct production for use in the social economy.

When it comes to strategic action to promote decarbonization, direct action to make the fossil fuel industries unprofitable and fossil fuel projects unworkable in practice are at least as important as any local “carbon free” initiatives. Physical obstruction of pipeline projects, the use of the legal system and bureaucracy to sabotage them with their own system of rules, divestment efforts, and sabotage of existing pumping stations and other vulnerable nodes, together offer great hope for making such projects increasingly risky and decreasingly attractive and hastening post-carbon transition.

And it’s the people engaged in open hardware and micro-manufacturing efforts, hackerspaces, neighborhood gardens, community currencies, community broadband projects, squats in abandoned buildings and vacant lots, community land trusts and cohousing projects, tool libraries and other genuine sharing efforts, who are actually building a society that will function on zero waste and sustainable energy.

In the end, I think it’s a mistake to put our hopes in a party or in progressive celebrities like Bernie Sanders or AOC, no matter how much better they are than more mainstream politicians. I have much more modest hopes for whatever level of political engagement with the state I choose. A political party — the Millennial wing of the Democrats, the Greens, DSA — will not be the avenue by which we create a post-state, post-capitalist society that’s worthy of the human beings who live in it. Our main goal, and most attainable one, is simply using whatever opportunistic center-left non-entity is most likely to get elected to stave off the immediate fascist onslaught and buy time. At best, in the most ideal situation — and this is at least plausible as the demographics of both the country and Democratic Party shift toward leftish Millennials — we might hope for a caretaker state that offers a somewhat less virulent social democratic model of capitalism and allows a relatively benign atmosphere for our own efforts.

But if you want to see the actual future, look at what people are building on the ground. As a character in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time put it, revolution, was not uniformed parties, slogans, and mass-meetings; “It’s the people who worked out the labor- and land intensive farming we do. It’s all the people who changed how people bought food, raised children, went to school… who made new unions, withheld rent, refused to go to wars, wrote and educated and made speeches.”

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