The Big Idea of the Green New Deal, now widely supported among Democrats, is to deal aggressively at once with the twin crises of climate justice and social justice.
The Green New Deal (GND) seeks to combine the progressive goals raised by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election (single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, taxing the rich, and breaking up big banks) with a wholesale public infrastructure program for an immediate, full-blown transition to a renewable, clean, greenhouse-gas-neutral, energy-efficient economy.
Conservatives, who have no solutions to these problems, are either apoplectic (out of fear that it might succeed) or scornfully dismissive (out of bravado that its absurdity will turn off voters).
Either way, they paint it as a return to socialism, a collective vision of social and environmental justice they think represents the failed policies of the past.
Let’s review what we know about socialism.
It was a movement which came of age in the 19th century in response to the exploitation of workers by industrial capitalists. It promoted the organization of labor into unions and political parties to achieve basic rights for workers (no child labor, an eight-hour day, decent wages, pensions, etc.).
Beyond that, however, socialist theorists like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels envisioned the collective ownership of the means of production by the state as the final resolution of the conflict between capital and labor.
They inspired the Communist parties of the 20th century whose totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, China and beyond became a byword for tyranny.
The GND does not advocate
the collective ownership by the state of the means of production
(including major industries, distribution systems, collective farms, etc.), but it does presume a much greater, even controlling role for the federal government.
The model cited is FDR’s New Deal, but a more accurate precedent is the vastly expanded power the federal government wielded during World War II to command the resources necessary for victory.
FDR’s wartime government controlled prices, directed production, and rationed consumption to a degree not seen before or since. Ownership of major industries remained in private hands, but real control was exercised by a series of government bureaucracies.
The GND would do the same thing to fight the twin challenges of social inequality and environmental collapse.
Nothing less will be needed if the GND has any hope of achieving its goals. World War II is the real
precedent for the magnitude of the changes required.
The social crisis today, bad as it is, may not be as pressing as the climate crisis, but progressives insist on bundling them together, for better or worse, seeing an opportunity to realize their broader agenda.
But let’s be clear: The scale of this effort is likely to be as painful as World War II, and possibly worse.
There will be losers as well as winners, resistance as well as enthusiasm, retrenchment as well as progress, hardship as well as relief, victories as well as defeats.
In FDR’s day, in spite of the trauma of the Depression, a more culturally unified society retained a greater faith in its institutions and values, and its leaders mostly respected what they understood to be the will of the people.
Today we have a fragmented society marked by conflict over values and a tendency by leaders to manipulate rather than respect the citizenry.
Equally significantly, back then we had not yet bumped up against the limits of our resources, nor had we exhausted our ability to borrow against the future. Resources today are less readily available, harder to extract and process, and more expensive. The national debt just blew through $22 trillion, leaving many wondering if we can pay for all this.
Necessary as they may be for survival, the sheer scale of the changes required to deal with these problems will overturn society as we know it.
One likely casualty is personal freedom. Only an authoritarian central government, it seems, can hope to carry out something like a GND. To secure the public ends it seeks, it would have to seriously reign in private initiative and ownership.
Communists, those socialist extremists, admitted no private property except movable personal possessions. You couldn’t own your home, stocks, bonds, a small business, or most any kind of private asset.
Democratic socialists like Bernie or Alexandria Octavio-Cortez would similarly put most significant enterprises and assets under effective public, not private, control.
That’s OK, they say, because the government would be democratically accountable. They distinguish between totalitarian Communism and democratic socialism. But, if history is any guide, it’s hard to see how real democratic decision-making can be squared with state management of large corporate enterprises, especially on this scale.
It is significant that the GND offers no serious proposal for reforming the political system to establish the democratic accountability necessary to prevent the abuse of centralized state power.
We may have little choice but to implement something like the GND to survive, but let’s make sure that we don’t lose our liberties in the process. We need political reform as well as economic reform.
retired Hartwick College philosophy professor
and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek
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