Joe Biden ought to listen to the Sunrise Movement on the Green New Deal
In November 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was first elected to Congress and the Sunrise Movement thrust the Green New Deal into the mainstream by occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office. The Presidential election in November 2020 marks two years of Green New Deal organising in the US. In that time, many Democatic primary candidates lined-up behind the Green New Deal framing. In January 2019, I warned, writing for Bright Green, that the Green New Deal needed protecting from liberal politicians trying to co-opt it. This was partially born out as Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and others promoted less ambitious interpretations. But democratic socialist Bernie Sanders remained the standard-bearer with the boldest plans for public investment and antagonism with the fossil fuel industry. All the while, establishment Democrats like Pelosi derided it as the “Green Dream or whatever they call it.”
In April, Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 Presidential race as Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee. Amid electoral defeat, the Sunrise Movement pressed ahead. In August, they published a book: ‘Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can’. Unperturbed, it is the movement’s statement of vision and strategy to win a Green New Deal in adverse times.
The first section of ‘Winning the Green New Deal’ is big names in the climate movement giving an authoritative but largely predictable account of the scale and nature of the climate crisis. David Wallace-Wells’ chapter can be summarised with his opening two sentences: “How bad is it? Almost certainly worse than you’d think.” Kate Aronoff reminds us of the fossil fuel industry’s central role in producing the crisis. Naomi Klein reiterates the arguments from her 2014 book ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate’. Six years later, the free market, free trade deals and neoliberal globalisation are not off the hook. Ian Haney Lopez, a pioneer of critical race theory, outlines the racism of the climate crisis, and persuasively argues that racism has been used by the Right to entrench economic and climate injustices. Bill McKibben concludes the big name contributions with a potted history of the climate movement. He is realistic that we are not presently winning, but argues that the tactics of recent years flow into the Green New Deal today.
None of this is new for the initiated, but it clearly stakes out the Sunrise Movement’s place in the broader movement: hostile to the fossil fuel industry; prioritising racial justice; and critical of past climate movements, but recognising they stand on its shoulders.
Keynesian Green New Deal
“Science can help us to understand the extent of the climate crisis, identify its causes, and measure its severity. It can even suggest timelines for action. But science cannot tell us what policy solutions to pursue. That is a matter of principle.” Rhiana Gunn-Wright takes the collection to the next level with principles-led policy to put meat on the bones of the Green New Deal.
This includes expanding the public sector and empowering the state, and focusing investment in the real economy and innovation. The goal is a ‘green economy’ in which the market plays its part, but subordinated to government leadership in vision and strategy. “Following Keynesian theory, Green New Dealers are guided by the principle that government can and must do things that no other institutions do[.]” This is not a ‘radical, top-down, socialist makeover of the entire U.S. economy’ as Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate majority leader, has claimed. It is a last ditch attempt to save US capitalism from itself.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz follows up Gunn-Wright’s chapter consolidating this economic approach. He makes the case that upfront investment in a Green New Deal is worth it given the future costs of climate change. He argues that borrowing to invest is economically sound and appropriate in this context. ‘Winning the Green New Deal’ is not a manifesto for revolutionary socialism, but mainstream economic thought applied with urgency to the interconnecting crises of climate, economic and racial injustice.
Green New Compromise
The Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal promotes a radical Keynesianism operating within capitalism’s overarching structure, but dissatisfied with its current management. It marries a) a politics of justice and liberation for people of colour, Indigenous peoples and workers with b) an economic compromise with capital which – if realisable – would progress the US significantly towards decarbonising, without entirely overhauling capitalism.
As an activist for a socialist Green New Deal, entirely overhauling capitalism is both my stated desire and what I believe to be necessary for climate justice. Companies governed by the profit motive have demonstrated neither willingness or capacity to lead a just transition to a green economy. Expanding democratic public ownership across every sector of the economy is the best way to manage a rapid, holistic economic transition that guarantees justice and prosperity for workers and communities. Anything short of that is generous to the ruling class still profiting from the crisis.
Socialism is rarely mentioned in the book, other than as a substanceless descriptor of individuals like Bernie Sanders. There are elements of the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal vision which could form part of a socialist climate justice politics. In particular, public ownership of energy and other sectors, and expanding trade union power and membership. But these are not the leading ambitions. Antagonism with capital is generally limited to the fossil fuel industry. The radical Keynesian approach would be transformative, but it would not be socialist. It would not address the true root cause of the crises of climate, economic and racial injustice: capitalism and the profit motive.
Workers’ Green New Deal
In ‘Winning the Green New Deal’, Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), proposes an element of a Green New Deal: ‘Unions for All’. By allowing workers to freely join and organise through a union, they would be able to “mobilize to fight for a Green New Deal and other policies that make life more secure for our families.” Perhaps an even better slogan than ‘green jobs for all’, this could begin to rebalance class forces by structurally empowering workers where they’ve had rights systematically taken away.
Henry focuses on the impressive union campaigns including the fight for $15 an hour by fast food workers, but doesn’t go so far as to call explicitly for industrial action for climate justice, beyond the immediate interests of workers. Repealing all trade-union laws was a similarly central feature of Labour’s socialist Green New Deal passed in September 2019, but this came alongside the ambition to nationalise large sections of the economy. Rebuilding the power of unions is crucially important, but the climate crisis calls for this as part of an effort to take power from capital in the national economy, as well as the workplace.
Approaching the Presidential election, the US faces a cruel choice (socialism isn’t on the ballot). Donald Trump: a leader with no care for climate justice. Without re-election to worry about, expect unrestrained support for fossil capital. Joe Biden: a leader more interested in returning the US to the imagined normality of the Obama years than investing in the Green New Deal. Devastating climate impacts within US borders might cause Biden to search for solutions.
Though transformational economic strategy isn’t in his natural ideological toolkit, the Sunrise Movement and others may be able to extract marginal gains while the political centre flounders on the great crises of our time. Regardless of what the next four years hold, the choice at the end of them must be totally different.
True to the book’s title, Varshini Prakash details the Sunrise Movement’s strategy for winning the Green New Deal: “If we are going to win a massive, government-led transformation of our entire economy and society away from fossil fuels in the next decade, we needed to build both people power and political power.” These dual aims may not seem especially innovative, but for too long the climate movement has failed on both counts. Attempts to build ‘people power’ have been plenty, but we find ourselves in a position where we have a global climate movement constituted through NGOs, but not a mass movement capable of major victories. Too often, climate justice movements have avoided strategies for political power altogether. With each passing election, this feels like an increasingly disastrous choice.
Prakash highlights that up to 2016, the climate movement had not built enough power to defend the marginal gains of the Obama era or to influence elections. President Trump green lit the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines by executive order within days of taking office. Hillary Clinton’s policy platform would have done little to advance climate justice anyway had she won.
Undoubtedly, the Sunrise Movement does not hold every piece of the political and strategic puzzle (as they admit), but they do have a serious plan to win. That’s more than can be said of most climate justice organisations of the past three decades and today. Recognising that people power can achieve little without political power, and that political power is useless (if not unattainable) without people power, has meant two years well spent. The democratic socialist caucus in Congress is growing, Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign defined the climate justice debate, and young people across the country are organising to pressure politicians to back the Green New Deal and kick fossil fuel money out of politics.
Over the next four years, regardless of who is President, capitalism will continue fermenting the interlinked crises of its own making. Given what is to come, Joe Biden would be advised to push the ruling class into accepting the Sunrise Movement’s compromise Green New Deal. He won’t though. In that time, as everything gets worse, the working-class and generations enduring these injustices may well ferment a more unforgiving, revolutionary set of demands proportionate to the crimes of global capital. We’ll need a lot of people power and political power to win them.
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Image credit: Gage Skidmore – Creative Commons