Who are the protagonists of climate justice? The Green New Deal and the dangers of building a citizen base

Just over a decade ago, Al Gore was the face of climate action in the United States and Canada. His documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, premiered at Sundance to standing ovations. It won two Academy Awards. The film closed with the message, “The climate crisis can be solved,” and then promoted energy efficient lightbulbs, hybrid cars, and recycling. 

Times have changed. It’s no longer possible to frame climate change as an “inconvenience.” The scale and urgency of the crisis drove six million people into the streets this September in the latest wave of global protests. The new face of climate action, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, has a message that resonates with our times: “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic and then I want you to act. I want you to act as if our house is on fire.” Today’s generation of celebrity-activists wastes no time promoting ethical consumer choices – they call these tactics out for what they are: dangerous distractions. Instead they demand bold, radical action. They call for revolution.

The Green New Deal is the answer to these demands. At least, that’s what its advocates say. The GND is a developing set of policies aimed at reducing global emissions by 40-60 percent by 2030, and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Naomi Klein, a leading proponent for a GND in Canada, calls the GND “a transformational vision for the next economy” – an economy that places the needs of people and the planet ahead of profit, renounces exploitation and inequality, and respects the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples around the world.

But critics from the left argue that the versions of a GND being championed by progressive politicians and their allies come nowhere close to ending exploitation, dispossession, and oppression. In response to shortcomings in US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s version of the GND, the Ecosocialist Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America developed a set of guiding principles for what they refer to as “a radical Green New Deal.” The Indigenous Environmental Network also released a critique of Ocasio-Cortz’s resolution with the goal of pushing the GND further to the left. The Indigenous revolutionary organization Red Nation has developed a platform they call the Red Deal, which seeks to “capture the momentum” of the GND and “catapult it into a full-blown mass movement” for anti-capitalist, anti-colonial revolution.

Calls for a “radical GND” miss the danger that the movement for a GND, radical or otherwise, presents: it deludes us into believing that we can accomplish our goals by mobilizing US and Canadian civil society, electing “climate champions,” and pressing for legislative and policy reforms. It’s a shortcut – a way to dodge the work of organizing and building the independent power of exploited, colonized, and oppressed people around the world. That fundamental misdirection, not the particular inadequacies of its recommendations or wording, is why the GND won’t get us where we need to go. By funneling grassroots energies towards electoralism and reform, the GND has become a prop for the NDP and the Green Party in Canada, and the Democrats in the USA – and it functions more broadly to legitimize the colonial and capitalist institutions of Canada and the United States, steering us away from the revolutionary path that it claims to represent.  

Recruiting people into the state

While its spokespeople refer to the GND as a grassroots movement to radically transform society, at the end of the day, it’s a set of legislative and policy reforms. In Canada, all practical activity surrounding the GND is led by a horde of well-funded environmental NGOs and oriented towards politicians and government institutions. Greenpeace created a toolkit for winning a GND, which recommends talking to your MP, writing letters to the editor, and painting street murals to “show our politicians with our art that it’s time for a Green New Deal.” The Council of Canadians produced an organizing guide, which outlines strategies for pressuring municipal governments to pass GND resolutions. Our Time, a youth organization supported by 350 Canada, endorsed and canvassed for NDP and Green candidates for the federal election. The Courage Coalition circulated a petition calling on NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to run on a GND.

The GND is oriented towards the state because, according its proponents, only the state has the power to solve the climate crisis. In June, activist and author Harsha Walia spoke at a cross-Canada tour promoting the GND. She told a crowd of more than 300 people gathered in Vancouver, “Canada is genocide.” But when documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis took to the stage, he positioned the Canadian state at the centre of the fight for climate justice, arguing that “only a nation state, with the power to issue its own currency, will be able to marshal the vast resources necessary for a climate-saving transition at the scale and the speed that we need.” While these two positions appear antithetical, they’re reconciled within the movement for a GND, which argues that the people can – and must – take the reins of the state through campaigning, voting, and protesting in order to steer it away from genocide and towards justice.

When Lewis said, “Neither governments nor markets are going to be the protagonists of this story – the people are!” he was met with thunderous applause. He continued, “We’re talking about building a mass movement powerful enough to elect and hold accountable a government that will turn our vision into law. This is how we’ll win a GND.” That bears repeating: the role of the people, according to Lewis, is to elect politicians and hold them accountable

This is what Lewis means when he says the people are the protagonists: the people vote, petition, campaign, and put pressure on politicians, but it’s the politicians who make the decisions. Lewis tells us we can’t trust the state and he even questions “the legitimacy of those colonial structures,” but ultimately, under the guise of building popular power, Lewis and other GND activists recruit people into state activity. 

Building a citizen base

Protesters occupied Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in December 2018. Their message: “Do your job.” (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Because it is oriented towards the state, the GND depends on a social base of “citizens” and “voters” who are invested, psychologically and materially, in the activities and institutions of the state. CBC reporter Laura Lynch gestured to the contradiction between the radical vision of the GND and the material interests of its citizen base when she asked Naomi Klein, “Are the citizens of the developed world ready for the kind of wealth redistribution that would come with this kind of climate action?” 

In her response, Klein sidestepped the question of material interests while affirming the centrality of the “citizen” to the project of climate justice. According to Klein, “We have to decide: are we going to horde or are we going to share?” In other words, the strategy to win a GND is to convince Canadian citizens to set aside their immediate material interests in favour of abstract ideals, like “fairness” and “humanity.” The problem with this strategy is that it relegates communities that are excluded from Canadian civil society – whether legally, by Canada’s imperialist borders and citizenship regime, or de facto, by settler colonialism and race, gender, and class oppression – to the sidelines, where there is little to do but wait for the “citizens of the developed world” to decide, as Klein said, “what kind of people we want to be.”

Laura Lynch could have posed a second question: Are Canadian citizens ready to give back Indigenous lands? During the event in June, Kanahus Manuel, a leader of the Tiny House Warriors, who are obstructing the path of the Trans Mountain pipeline through unceded Secwepemc territory, told the crowd, “The true Green New Deal means land back for Indigenous people.” Later in the evening, Avi Lewis referred to Indigenous territories as “land we must give back,” recasting Manuel’s statement to centre the settler colonial state and its citizenry as the agents of decolonization. 

What could compel a state built on theft and genocide to “give back” the land on which its very existence depends? According to Lewis, “It begins with a revolution of respect for Indigenous peoples.” But this is a failing strategy based on abstract ideals and undue faith in settler “goodness.” While GND spokespeople pay lip service to Indigenous sovereignty, even suggesting that the GND could be expanded to encompass the Red Deal (making it, as Lewis quipped, “a rainbow deal”), at the end of the day, the strategic orientation of the GND, towards the Canadian and US government and state as actors, necessarily leaves colonialism intact. 

Laura Lynch wasn’t wrong to question whether “citizens of the developed world” are ready for revolution. The cross-class category of the “citizen” encompasses capitalists, whose interests are diametrically opposed to revolution, as well as the Canadian working class, whose consciousness is, in large part, corrupted by imperialist and settler colonial power. The white working class, in particular, experiences immediate benefits as a result of Canada’s imperialist domination and exploitation of the Global South, and further benefits from the violence Canada enacts against Indigenous peoples within its borders in order to continue occupying and plundering their territories. This segment of the working class, with its ideological and material investment in the twin systems of capitalism and colonialism, finds a degree of power and belonging alongside bosses and landlords in the realm of the “citizen,” “voter,” and “taxpayer.” 

The GND adapts to the imperialist and settler consciousness that pervades Canada, with the hope of nudging it along the path of climate justice, and more. But by building a cross-class citizen base and affirming its faith in colonial and capitalist institutions, the GND leads us astray. To find our way, we need to build a base of working class and Indigenous people around the understanding that our long term interests lie in divesting from imperialist and settler colonial power, and joining in the struggles of exploited, colonized, and oppressed peoples around the world. 

More than “people in motion” 

Some socialists, including writer David Camfield, suggest that there’s no contradiction between the revolutionary rhetoric and reformist strategies of the GND. Camfield warns socialists not to dismiss the GND, which has value, he argues, not as an end in itself, but as a means to “build a larger and more powerful movement for climate justice.” The mass movement that Camfield envisions is expansive enough to encompass the GND plus “efforts on other fronts, including anti-pipeline campaigns, resistance to austerity, and anti-colonial struggles.” Once it has been built, Camfield suggests, the movement can then be directed against the root cause of the climate crisis: capitalism. But Camfield’s big tent approach allows him to avoid reckoning with the contradictions between the movement for a GND and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism and colonialism. Camfield declares, “What we need is many more people in motion,” but the character and direction of a movement is just as important as motion itself. 

Camfield is right to recognize that the climate crisis presents a profound opportunity to the left – but alongside that opportunity comes the responsibility to develop an honest and accurate assessment of what is needed and how to achieve it. If we agree with Harsha Walia that “climate change is a devastating symptom of capitalism and colonialism,” then it is clear that we can’t look to the state to solve the crisis for us. 

The movement for a GND tells workers to wait for progressive politicians to legislate a “Just Transition,” just as it tells Indigenous nations to wait for the settler colonial state to recognize their sovereignty and return their lands. The myth that only the state has the power to solve the climate crisis casts the people not as the protagonists, but as secondary characters whose role is to demonstrate moral outrage and desperation in order to convince the state to act. The desperate, moral gestures of the GND match with Greta Thunberg’s righteous indignation as the face of today’s climate movement. Working class and Indigenous people have to lay waste to this myth to become conscious of our own power – to see that, through our combined self-activity, we can bring the gears of capitalism and colonialism to a grinding halt. 

Workers’ self-management: “We can carry on without them”

The GND takes its name from the New Deal of the 1930s – President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to dull rising working class militancy and the devastating effects of the Great Depression in the USA through massive investment in public works, like housing, schools, and hospitals, as well as legislative and policy reforms, like social security, union protections, and financial regulations. During this period, radicals, led by the US Communist Party, adopted a strategy known as the popular front, which involved building alliances with progressive Democrats like Roosevelt, trade union bureaucrats, and middle class liberals, at the expense of building militant industrial unions and an independent labour party. According to socialist Charlie Post, the popular front strategy ultimately “undermined the possibilities for a militant labor movement, significant social reforms, and left-wing politics” in the USA.

Instead of taking inspiration from this moment of class collaboration and compromise, revolutionaries should look to examples of class struggle – like May ‘68 in France. For over a month, France saw mass demonstrations, street battles, university and factory occupations, and general strikes involving ten million workers – more than 22% of the total population of the country. The movement was not limited to bread-and-butter demands, like better wages. One of its central rallying points was workers’ self-management, known as autogestión

In May ‘68, workers across France occupied factories. When 293 workers took over an electricity plant at Cheviré, they continued providing electricity to hospitals and other vital services, while paralyzing local industry. The workers themselves organized production around the clock. After two weeks with no bosses or managers, one worker triumphantly declared, “Everything is going fine. We can carry on production without them.” Another observed, “We wanted to prove that we were capable and therefore had a right to control the running of the means of production. And this we have proved.” 

What the workers in Cheviré and factories across France showed is that the working class has the capacity to seize the means of production and redirect them towards the social good, which, in our moment, must include the good of the climate, earth, and biosphere. Imagine workers today occupying factories, distribution routes, and resource extraction sites around the world, shutting down destructive and wasteful industrial production, and producing to meet the needs of people and the planet – suddenly the power of the state to mitigate the climate crisis through legislative and policy reforms appears pathetic in comparison.

Indigenous sovereignty: “Necessary for the continuation of life”

While working class self-activity has the potential to interrupt and replace the capitalist mode of production, the self-activity of Indigenous peoples confronts the colonial domination of land and life, and charts a way for Indigenous land relations and life ways to persist and proliferate. In a recent article for The Intercept, Nick Estes argues that Indigenous land defence, from Standing Rock to Wet’suwet’en, is “necessary for the continuation of life on a planet teetering on collapse.” Taking Unist’ot’en as an example, Estes demonstrates how land defenders not only block climate-destroying projects, like the Coastal GasLink pipeline, but also “bring the land and the community back to health” by restoring land-based economies and exercising sovereignty over their territories. 

While the movement for a GND pretends that Indigenous sovereignty can coexist alongside the colonial state, what it promotes in practice is not sovereignty but subordination. No matter how many “climate champions” are elected, the bourgeois and colonial state will never legislate an end to colonial borders and property regimes, or restrict capital’s inborn need to discover and dominate new frontiers. As Estes writes for Jacobin, these changes require nothing short of a “social revolution that turns back the forces of destruction.”

This vision of social revolution is no more utopian than the fantasy that legislative and policy reforms can end the climate crisis. So, why is the climate justice movement investing in reform, not revolution? Because for people like Klein and Lewis, the protagonists of climate justice are not working class people and Indigenous nations, but the middle class, the NGOs, the professional intellectuals and journalists, and the politicians they claim they can influence. This is the fundamental problem with the GND: it promotes the lie that those with power, the same people who created the crisis we’re facing, are the ones who can reform the system to pull us out of crisis. 

Independent movements and antagonistic institutions 

If we’re serious about revolution, we need to start with communities that are radically excluded from Canadian and US civil society, those that have neither faith nor hope in existing political and economic systems. We need to build Indigenous and working class power by establishing independent, militant, antagonistic institutions – not by capitulating to the priorities and constraints of bourgeois institutions like the NDP or the NGOs that funnel grassroots energies into the project of progressive electoralism. 

When we look around, we can already see the germs of our power: homeless people are establishing and defending tent cities, drug users are launching unsanctioned overdose prevention sites, migrants are occupying airports to block the deportation of their comrades, and Indigenous nations are reoccupying their traditional territories. These struggles may not carry the banner of climate justice, but by building independent Indigenous and working class power, they prepare us to extinguish the flames of the burning house and build a new one in its place.

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