Report card on Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal

A hot take from an eco-socialist

Photo: Bradley Graupner

by Max Ajl

I would like to clarify, before tendering my take on Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal, that I am not and have never been a Bernie Bro. But history surprises us. We do not get to decide who moves us, nor where, nor when, nor how. Much like the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie is the unexpected child of the 2008 financial crisis. They are amongst many Euro-American candidates who express, channel, personify, and maybe limit popular unease with contemporary capitalism.

The Sanders campaign, should it win, cannot on its own put in place US social democracy, let alone move towards further horizons. The debacle of SYRIZA, whose election ended in disaster without a mobilized Greek working class, should be evidence enough of this reality. It will take a movement—and no, not a pre-packaged ersatz NGO-confected mass protest that evaporates into the ether after eight hours. A real one.

We who think words like communism are not free-floating signifiers but have fixed meanings—unalienated labor, non-capitalist ownership of the means of production, guaranteed access to a decent and humane life, and heaven forfend, all those things for the whole planet!—are right. But it’s not enough to be right. We have to interact with a political field in flux. People in the US who look towards further horizons need to be aware that we are not organized enough to present a compelling alternative to the tens of millions of people who identify Bernie as the avatar of a feasible socialism, and we need to know that he can reach people we cannot.

He and his campaign are part of what is moving. That does not mean Bernie’s GND, or stance on Palestine, should determine what we think is or is not possible, or that socialism or radicalism should be identified with or more to the point, reduced to the Bernie campaign or the Bernie program. In fact, I think there are a huge number of people who could be brought together around a considerably more radical program.

But it takes a lot of work to distil a political force from an atmosphere thick with anti-systemic feeling. And at the moment, the Bernie GND reflects the strengths and limits of the moment and the movement: what Bernie and Bernie’s advisers think can help craft a winning message for the primary and then general-body electorate, what they think will raise Bernie’s profile amongst the Black and working-class Latino communities which he needs to turn out to win, and what postures they hope won’t set off the alarm bells of the political-evaporation machines of the entire US capitalist class. They also are considering how some messaging might be hammer and chisel on seams within US capital, cleaving manufacturing sectors from the petroleum conglomerates—messaging which may also accommodate the capitalist-forged “way of life” which is actually a way of death for much of the planet.

Remember that a planetary people’s GND is not anti-industrial. It is a call for constrained industrialization and world-wide industrial convergence alongside re-centering agriculture in the South and North alike.

This is help and hindrance. Help, because willingness to compromise is what allows someone like Sanders, who is openly calling for “class warfare,” access to political architecture and media channels and financing not available to the Green Party (which has a fantastic and under-noticed GND of its own). Hindrance, insofar as this country’s poor, who in large measure are barred from voting, might be ready for something far more radical. How to bridge that gap is the work of politics. And some part of that is pointing out where Bernie’s GND needs to be far stronger – and especially more internationalist—and figuring out what kind of force is needed to give such critiques political heft.

And now, without further ado, my report card on Sanders’ GND:

A+ for rejection of geo-engineering and nuclear power. Geo-engineering is a scam, a genocide in the making, an excuse and thimblerig for fossil capital to keep plopping CO2 into the atmosphere. US nuclear awaits its Fukushima (and already had its Hiroshima, which on its own should have barred nuclear development on US soils for all time).

A on a just transition for workers in polluting industries. Politics ought always to aim to disarm and advance at the same time: in this case enfolding a potential enemy into your camp without giving up an inch of the idea that we need a socially and ecologically just transition.

A- on trying to enfold the working-class into a popular ecology movement. Home weatherization, mass jobs, mass transport and vital infrastructure investments are partial steps toward de-commodification of social-economic life and a hybrid Red-Green radical reform.

A- on investments in green jobs in ecological restoration. The apocalyptic assault on the Amazon from the US-supported Bolsonaro junta should remind us that many of the most dazzling and wondrous “natures” are the eons-old work of women and men in Indigenous communities which tended the Americas as a vast lush garden well before the Columbian cataclysm. That took hands-on work, and we need massive ecological restoration in the US to re-seed the country with native plants, to build berms, swales, earthworks, and to reforest—much of which can also supply human food and material for construction. Ecological restoration alongside non-commoditized access to human needs is a non-exploitative path of growth— or degrowth—for the twenty-first century in the wealthy nations.

A- on agriculture. Restorative agriculture is excellent, and this focus is the fruit of the invisible labor of an agriculture movement which has flourished over the last decades. Let’s keep shifting the window of political possibility. The West’s grasslands need to go back to sustainable grazing, which sows CO2 in the soil and creates far healthier land and soil alike. Concentrated animal feedlot operations are ecological and spiritual monstrosities and should be illegal. If we need to eat less red meat, no problem. And if necessary, we can explain why to a US population who would largely prefer a world for its children than 19 tons of barbecued steer every year. We also need more US investment in agro-ecology in state colleges, to eventually replace conventional agronomy. Such research and extension offers a neat place for internationalism: links with sovereign agro-ecology centers in Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, and elsewhere.

A-/B+ on the bite-by-bite elimination of fossil fuels. They should be expropriated without compensation and then decommissioned. Bans on imports and exports are good. But if you are picking a fight, aim for the head.

A- for linking anti-militarism and reduction of the military budget to spending on the GND (With US grade inflation). Although anti-militarism is a popular if not sloppily populist discourse, we need an anti-imperialist discourse – remember, the US judicial coup which ended up with Bolsonaro in power was imperialist but not militarist. Anti-imperialism reminds us that the issue is countries extracting value from one another through ecologically unequal exchange, with the US and the EU at the top. Militarism bodyguards such flows and the uneven development they ensure. But bodyguards come in all shapes and sizes, from sanctions to proxy wars to asymmetric blackouts. I inflated Bernie’s grade because we need to be a bit realistic here: I would not expect Bernie to articulate anti-imperialism. That is the job of a functional left, including its intellectual workers (US left gets a generous D in this regard).

B on what kinds of materials will be used in the new physical investments. Bernie calls for “public research to drastically reduce the cost of energy storage, electric vehicles, and mak[ing] our plastic more sustainable through advanced chemistry.” Instead, anything and everything possible needs to be procured renewably, which means a lot more wood and various sustainable composites for new construction. The more construction is done with bamboo instead of metal and as little plastic as possible, the better off we will be. Let’s save the metal for when we need it, and certainly until recycling procedures are considerably more advanced than they currently are. Plant-based materials also sequester CO2. We need more systems thinking from Bernie, and we need solutions that solve problems simultaneously, combining ecological remediation with solutions that don’t just displace problems from one strand of the web of life to another.

B- on the diluted acceptance of the idea of common-and-differentiated responsibility—the important idea, long-established and enshrined in international law, that poorer nations have less responsibility than richer ones for “risk-related global public goods.” The GND program states that “for over a century [the US] spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere” and so the US will reduce less-industrialized-countries’ emissions by 36 percent through a Green Climate Fund. This is a clear retreat from the internationalist and anti-colonial vernacular of climate debt which called for explicit reparations payments to the Third World to deal with the harm suffered and foregone cheap developmental pathways (climate debt was endorsed in 2009 by none other than Naomi Klein, now-champion of an even milder GND).

C on industrial-friendly “green” jobs. An excessively large plank of the GND program, maybe even enough to conk the ecological movement into unconsciousness, is state-private industrial renewal. There’s an awful lot of talk, to the tune of trillions, of subsidized car batteries and cars, and not nearly enough about sustainable city-planning to tamp down demand or need for cars. Likewise, calling for us to remain “competitive on all sustainable energy technology” is a nod to growth and accumulation. Here hovers the difficult-to-exorcise specter of green growth, alongside the daemon of green capitalism. While Bernie may indeed be trying to bring the large trade unions, pension funds, and fixed manufacturing capital over, in the process socialism is being re-defined to encompass state-corporate partnerships. That is the worst of the New Deal. No thanks.

I would not expect Bernie to articulate anti-imperialism. That is the job of a functional left.

D- for lack of attention to the sourcing of the inputs for the industrial-tech-heavy GND. This grade was a tough one. It is hard to blame Bernie when such electric sheep run through too many of the waking and sleeping hours of large currents of space-flying Anglo-US socialism. But inputs come from somewhere, whether tribal lands in the US, Western China, the Amazon, or whomever is too weak to insist that dirty water and desecrated land are not a price they wish to pay for the billion baubles which are being surreptitiously and absurdly recoded as socialist cornucopianism.

D- on addressing rather than accommodating consumerism. Extraction is occurring at a scale well beyond capacity for remediation or metabolism of its byproducts and waste. And the cheap cost of the rocks and ores and even cheap products is a function of the racist devaluation of non-US lives, political interventions – yes, that’s imperialism! – to keep their prices relatively low, including lack of cleaner but pricier extraction. It is past time to be frank and tell people that cheap (and designed to break quickly) and chintzy Chinese manufactures have cascading consequences up and down the trophic sphere. Allegedly “Chinese” consumption of soy from the Amazon is equally consumed in the US in the form of the flood of products which soy and meat-consuming Chinese workers make, and from which a very few corporations profit. Everything is connected, and less overall and more sustainable consumption, alongside safe-guarding the land and livelihoods of indigenous people in the Amazon, may be the only way to keep that human-crafted emerald bloom alive and not transmuted into a parched peneplain or scrubby savannah.

Some recommendations

What is to be done? Replace industry with sustainable manufacturing where possible and remember that a planetary people’s GND is not anti-industrial. It is a call for constrained industrialization and world-wide industrial convergence alongside re-centering agriculture in the South and North alike. Rework everything to the human scale.

And who is to do it? I do not necessarily expect Bernie to adopt these reformulated planks. I do expect an autonomous and self-aware people’s movement to take them up on a mass scale and push them upon Bernie or whomever sits in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That would also require a political strategy to build autonomous power and not reduce critical intellectual work to cheerleading for the Bernie campaign, as heartening as his policies may be. Bernie manifestly has a role, given massive popular investment in electoral politics. He can go places many of us cannot. But that does not mean surrendering autonomy of vision or the hard work of politics and strategy which goes along with it. Because when the gale force of capitalist reaction comes, it will be such a movement which can resist the storm winds, and not Bernie himself.

Max Ajl has a PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University and works on Tunisian national liberation, post-colonial development, and alternative development trajectories. He is on twitter at @maxajl, and is working on a book about the ecological politics of the Anthropocene.