After decades of neoliberal torment it’s easy to yearn for capitalism’s tranquil past, a simpler time that delivered stability, fairness, and progress. This mythology around a golden age of U.S. capitalism is regularly conjured up by Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who reference the New Deal-era programs that delivered democratic reforms and a massive investment in infrastructure.
Rooting herself in this myth, Ocasio-Cortez promotes a Green New Deal that, while still largely conceptual, strives to combine a massive jobs and green infrastructure project that will pivot the economy off the path of climate destruction towards a sustainable future with jobs for all.
It’s a breath of fresh air after decades of inaction. But actually achieving the vision is another thing, and the most immediate threat is the Democratic Party. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has derided the idea as the “the green dream or whatever they call it”, while dismissing Ocasio-Cortez’s political collaborators as “five people”. And although dozens of Democrats initially signed on to the concept, the Republicans realized the rhetoric wasn’t real, and called the Democrats bluff by bringing the resolution to the Senate floor for a vote on March 26th.
Not one Democrat actually voted for “their” idea. They shamefully abstained in order to shield the majority of their members who were actually against the idea. And although they accused the Republicans of orchestrating a “stunt” vote, it was the vote that exposed the stunt. This setback was minimized by many but should have set off alarm bells.
Ocasio-Cortez later released an animated short film called ‘A Message From the Future’ about the Green New Deal, that imagines the project being initiated after the 2020 election that brought to power a Democratic President and Congressional majority. The film is in many ways inspiring.
But of course the 2020 elections— even if the Democrats win— will leave in place many of the same cowardly, corporate-controlled Democratic Senators who recently abstained— only 12 current Senate Democrats are up for re-election, and many will not face a serious primary challenge. It’s possible that there won’t be a single new senator in 2020 that shares Ocasio-Cortez’s political vision, since winning a Senate seat takes big bags of money.
A Green New Deal isn’t on the political horizon now, but the issue shouldn’t be considered resolved, since enough pressure from below could force the issue. When the issue eventually ripens— perhaps via a mass movement—establishment politicians may start to champion the idea, in order to channel discontent away from larger economic transformations, into a dead end.
If the current balance of power isn’t smashed the Green New Deal will be capitalist in nature, disfigured by corporate interests that cram the project into the narrow confines of the market economy. A similar dynamic occurred during the original New Deal.
A brief glimpse at how the New Deal was ruined will help us learn from the mistakes of the past, and direct our strategy in the present. Either a Green New Deal is achievable using the current strategy or it isn’t. And If the Green New Deal is viewed as a final destination— within a capitalist framework— instead of a pitstop toward further economic-climate transformation, we risk enormous energy being co-opted by the establishment that hope to prevent deeper necessary changes.
If a Green New Deal begins while leaving in place giant corporations and their billionaire owners, the program will quickly be directed into either their pocketbooks or upended by war, as happened during the 1930’s.
How the New Deal Failed: Big Business, Segregation and War
The New Deal began in 1933, initially as a series of emergency laws to stabilize an economy shattered by the Great Depression. Capitalism had literally stopped working and mass starvation and revolution were real possibilities. Millions of workers were unemployed or employed in awful conditions; the rural economy lay in tatters. The year after the New Deal began citywide general strikes shut down San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.
Although some big capitalists hated the New Deal, the majority understood FDR’s goals and supported his project, since a fundamental aim of the New Deal was to make businesses profitable again. The southern establishment joined the New Deal coalition in order to maintain their power rooted in segregation—FDR’s deal with the devil.
From the beginning the New Deal prioritized the maintaining of capitalism more than the needs of working people. Bailing out the banks and stabilizing commodity prices were key priorities, while subsidizing big business via the construction of infrastructure that drastically lowered transport, energy, and water costs for corporations and agribusiness. The New Deal helped create the economic-infrastructural backbone for a developed capitalist nation determined to be a superpower.
Toward this end, war preparations was a priority of the New Deal: from the beginning military facilities and airports were built and upgraded, as well as the ports that modernized the Navy; war shipswere built early on that would be ready before war broke out.
FDR was an imperialist, and he was far-sighted. The New Deal began the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor in Germany, and two years after Japan invaded China. Another European war was coming fast but U.S. imperialism was focused on the Asian pacific. The first stages of the New Deal helped create the military infrastructure that its later stages used for full-scale war mobilization.
Big Victories for the People?
The infrastructure-building/job-creating components of the New Deal fell under the Works Progress Administration and smaller Public Works Administration, along with the Civilian Conservation Corps— a youth program to address environmental preservation and conservation (the ‘green’ piece of the New Deal that paid a $1 a day for backbreaking labor, and also used as a subsidy for agribusiness).
Perhaps the key infrastructural demand of the working class during the New Deal was public housing, which was never a priority of the New Deal, and the lack of public housing built remains one of the more obvious failures of the era (New York being the primary exception). Instead, FDR wanted market-based solutions, using the housing crisis to bolster the banks by inventing new markets for capital, by creating the modern mortgage system— whose market today is used for massive speculation and the consequent cause for recession.
Other programs certainly benefited the cultural life of working class people, such as the building of thousands of parks, museums and schools and the employment of artists.
The biggest victories for working people during the New Deal— social security/unemployment insurance— were modest reforms that didn’t apply to all workers, and which other developed countries had passed on a broader scale decades earlier. Paying unemployment, “the dole”, was necessary to prevent mass starvation, though the payment was small enough to ensure semi-starvation; it was also temporary, distributed unevenly and was not meant to pay more than the starvation wages of regional labor markets (which ensured that blacks received less than whites). Ultimately unemployment was restricted since FDR wanted benefits primarily for those willing to work on government projects.
When it came to addressing unemployment, the New Deal made a dent but it was never funded adequately to fix the problem. During the height of the New Deal unemployment hovered above 15%, and didn’t drop significantly until the war mobilization
The highpoint of the New Deal occurred in Roosevelt’s first term, where tens of thousands of projects— including many massives ones such as the Golden Gate Bridge— were built in a short period of time.
The Quick Pivot From New Deal To World War
In 1937 Roosevelt started his second term, beginning his turn towards “fiscal responsibility” and war. He cut back New Deal spending which re-triggered the recession. But by now the plans to fully shift to war mobilization were in their final phases. In 1939 it was made official with the ‘Works Progress Association Reorganization Act’, which officially steered many New Deal programs towards war; in 1940 FDR warned of the “coming storm” that was World War II.
New Deal programs and projects became machines for war. Newly built ports were used to build thousands of war ships; upon completion the enormous Grand Coulee Dam— today still the nation’s #1 energy supplier— provided power that was used build the tens of thousands of war planes that destroyed Japan’s empire— committing the war crimes of firebombing Dresden and Tokyo and the nuclear annihilation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), was already co-managed by the U.S. Army, and helped create the human infrastructure for the coming war: hundreds of thousands of young men became accustomed to the rigidity of army life in the CCC camps, while having learned the major lessons taught at boot camp: fitness, discipline, following orders and acting collectively— for them it was a seamless transition to war life.
During the height of war mobilization in 1943 FDR spent 30 times more than he did in 1933 for the New Deal. The establishment had various opinions on how much money to spend on social spending and infrastructure, but they were united in splurging for war.
It’s now widely acknowledged that the massive war spending moved the U.S out of recession, not the inadequate New Deal spending. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what such spending could have accomplished if it occured in 1933—resolving the recession early, while helping Europe move out of its recession and perhaps stopping the war by preventing the misery that the NAZIS exploited.
White Supremacy and Segregation
Many New Deal programs failed black Americans. The WPA and CCC could have been part of a segregation-busting project, but instead segregation was bolstered, as blacks were relegated to separate work camps across the country, bringing Jim Crow to the north. The best jobs went to whites and out of the 10,000 WPA supervisors hired in the south, only 11 were black.
This was one of the many concessions FDR made to the racist southern Democrats in his coalition, which bled over to the war mobilization where whites and blacks served in segregated units. The backwardness of the South was forced upon the rest of the country in the New Deal era, promoting a Jim Crow that exacerbated existing racial tensions in northern cities instead of mitigating them.
When workers of various ethnicities migrated across the United States to find work in war industries— because they were still unemployed after the height of New Deal programs— it was the feds who mandated segregated housing for war industry workers, where blacks regularly received lower-quality housing than whites.
FDR also used the Federal Housing Administration as a racist weapon whose fallout still affects us today: an economic ladder was given for a generation of European-Americans that was denied to the majority of Black Americans. Whites were given mortgages in suburbs and blacks were denied loans where they lived, a process now called ‘redlining’. The wealth built by home ownership is the primary reason today that white families have a Median income 16 times higher than blacks.
Blacks were instead pushed into public housing— itself initially restricted to ‘whites only’ (either explicitly in the south or through income requirements in the north). After public housing was expanded and integrated, many whites bought homes while maintenance funds were slashed for public housing, creating the modern “projects” we know today. The intentional failure of public housing is well told in the documentary Pruitt–Igoe Myth.
FDR gave southern segregationists a long leash administering federal New Deal funds, enabling them to strengthen their patronage networks, political power and discriminatory practices imbedded in Jim Crow.
This southern autonomy allowed landowners to receive federal subsidies meant to help tenant farmers, but instead the tenants were kicked off the land and the money kept by the landowners, exacerbating the rural crisis that made blacks economic refugees as they migrated to urban areas.
Inequality widened further when segregationists convinced the federal government to not extend key labor protections— such as minimum wages, maximum hours and Social Security— in the industries where the majority of blacks worked, such as agriculture and domestic workers.
FDR’s most obvious racist act was jailing Japanese Americans in concentration camps, a policy that he and others knew was not meant to keep Americans safe, but to scapegoat sections of the American public to exacerbate racist tensions that helped facilitate war mobilizations.
During the New Deal there was already a civil rights movement that FDR refused to promote, he was even silent over a proposed anti-lynching law that couldn’t pass his “progressive” Congress. FDR’s power and the New Deal’s popularity could have easily smashed segregation, but Roosevelt did not want transformative change, he relied on existing power dynamics and the existing state superstructure, adjusting his proposals to the more Conservative Senate By wanting to avoid clashes with powerful sections of the establishment he insured that his project would be limited by them.
The Green New Deal and the State
Modern liberals have largely exaggerated the gains of the New Deal while minimizing its failures. This has been done, in part, to show that transformative change can happen within capitalism’s confines and particularly within the Democratic Party.
It’s a myth that New Deal Democrats were committed Leftists who took over the party; FDR and most of his allies were establishment figures who used the New Deal to maintain the establishment and return profitability, and they used the most reactionary elements of society— including Jim Crow politicians and imperialists— as allies to achieve this end. The New Deal wasn’t a revolution, it was an elite-driven project meant to prevent revolution and push the population into war.
This is why the claims made by Ocasio-Cortez— that a transformative Green New Deal can begin after the 2020 elections— are especially dangerous. Enormous political energy can be wasted trying to change a party that the labor movement has failed to change for decades, having wasted hundreds of millions of dollars as the party lurches further to the right.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez seem to have too much faith in a state machinery that has never been friendly to working people. The government remains dominated by wealthy capitalists, and has always been nimble and efficient whenever the wealthy agree that something must be done, while being impenetrable or paralytic when the working class demands change.
An important recent example of this was when New York passed its own mini-Green New Deal, which initially seemed like a great victory for the Left, but ultimately failed because “we found that even when oppressed communities and organized labor have a seat at the table, and even when progressive legislation is in place, the agencies and elites that have always governed our energy system continue to exert their influence.”
A similar dynamic has been happening in the Oregon legislature, lead by a supermajority of “progressive” Democrats. The Dems easily bend to big business— especially Nike and Intel—but are cold to Left causes: progressive demands gets ingloriously maimed before passing, including the weak, market-based climate bill currently being discussed.
These disappointments must be expected, since the structure of the city, state and federal government were made by the wealthy, who created a state in their image to dominate political life, with built-in anti-democratic firewalls.
This is why federal Senators serve 6 year terms and are difficult to recall— their elections are staggered to prevent change happening too fast. It’s why Supreme Court Judges serve until they die and why the President has powers similar to a dictator. And of course wherever there are very wealthy people money will pour into politics, regardless of the laws made to prevent it (even passing mild reforms in this arena has proved nearly impossible).
Can Democrats Fight Climate Change?
Political shifts are happening quickly all over the world. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have been possible if not for Occupy Wall Street, the Black Live Matter and climate movements. Teacher strikes have further transformed the country in the last year. Politics is changing as fast as the climate, but political change has natural limits within the confines of capitalism.
Ocasio-Cortez has— like Bernie— helped change public discussion, but her well-intentioned goal to transform the Democrats is DOA. The group that promoted her campaign, ‘Justice Democrats’, wants to reform the Democrats— to that end they helped dozens of candidates with money and other resources, but they failed to win any Senate seats, while the 7 House seats they now hold are occupied by those with a diversity of politics (while lacking any real accountability— since Justice Democrats is a PAC, not a political party). The Justice Democrats’ platform that includes support for a Green New Deal is in many ways impressive, but most of the key planks are easily co-opted by corporate Democrats—since the word “progressive” is now used by friend and foe alike.
To defend themselves against these Leftist insurgents, a predictable combination of sticks and carrots will be used, co-opting the careerists and isolating the incorruptible. New party rules will be created and existing rules broken, while more money will be raised as the establishment adjusts its tactics by hiring staff who speak fluent Leftism (Joe Biden’s recent hiring of Bernie Sanders’ Press Secretary, Symone Sanders, is such an example).
More Democrats will start referring to themselves as “socialists” while acting as agents of capitalism. When the next recession strikes— and many economists believe it’ll happen soon— state intervention that appears “socialist” may reappear, as it happened under Obama.
During deep recessions capitalism relies on state intervention to save the market-economy from itself, as FDR did during the New Deal (and as did Hitler and Mussolini during the same depression). A state controlled by capitalists will ultimately be used to shore-up capitalism, not to transition to a sustainable, just society. The real danger of the Green New Deal is that it will be used to attach the working class to a capitalist project with a short shelf life span; a classic bait and switch.
A key lesson from the New Deal era is that the working class was never in the driver seat, and watched from the backseat as the establishment veered further and further to the right. Without smashing the political status quo and the state machinery it calls home, the establishment will suffocate any real change, as they’ve done for decades. They’re experts at weathering storms, strategically adjusting themselves to new balances of power— laying low until the time is ripe to retake what they momentarily lost. It’s a game of power they’ve learned well, and in the city, state, and federal halls of power they have home court advantage.
Transformative Change Requires Revolutionary Politics
A Green New Deal is a fine demand, but ultimately the project is hopeless if it’s executed under a capitalist umbrella. Only a socialist Green New Deal can deliver a thorough transformation of society demanded by the situation, coordinating the vast wealth and technology of the country while inviting more nations into the project, since climate change is as global as capitalism.
The Stakes are high. David Wallace-Wells ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ is just one compilation of the scientific research showing how climate change is likely more catastrophic than previously thought, and happening much sooner. Capitalism has proved time and again its unwillingness to redirect its energies towards human needs; it knows only short term investor profit.
A socialist Green New Deal will require a more democratic state, and a more democratic economy where the major polluters, banks, and other large corporations are made public utilities. Making a Green New Deal-sized economic pivot requires the economy be coordinated to this goal, a mission impossible when the corporations are privately owned by profit seekers, pulled in various directions by the dictates of the market and shareholders, who use their wealth to push policy makers in their respective directions.
The ruling class will unite around war but not around climate change, and ever since the New Deal war has become a baked-in, critical ingredient of U.S. capitalism that isn’t compatible with other ingredients, such as a Green New Deal. U.S. capitalism simply cannot afford both.
To ensure the economy is democratically run, the current undemocratic state must be replaced by one that allows for direct input and decision making, made easier than ever by the power of the internet, which could allow for frequent feedback or votes on important policies, as well as allowing quick recall of any representatives that step out of line. These common sense ideas are impossible under today’s capitalist-friendly state structure.
The working class first needs a political party of its own, as exists in most developed and semi-developed nations in the world. The democratic party teaches dependence on individual politicians who are themselves dependent on big corporations, while a Labor party can teach the working class to be dependent only on itself. If Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders co-lead the creation of a Labor party, millions of people would flock to their banner— but as of now they’re attracting people to the tattered and soiled banner of the Democratic Party.
Without learning the lessons from the failure of the New Deal era, socialists will be doomed to fall into similar traps laid by the super-rich to divert energy into the dead ends— in order to prevent a mass movement from actually threatening their power and wealth. Any movement that doesn’t directly confront their power and wealth will be undermined by it, and eventually destroyed. There is no shortcut around capitalism— and the parties that prop it up— if the goal is transformative change.
The Green New Deal can either be used to smash through corporate interests to usher in a socialist organization of society, or capitalists will exploit the Green New Deal to prevent socialism, clinging to the idea like a life raft— in the hopes that the result will be a series of modest, market-based reforms that serve to save capitalism at the expense of the climate and humanity.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License