Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just tried out a new trick.
In pushing a premature vote on the Green New Deal, he hoped to split Democrats on the most ambitious climate change program ever discussed in the U.S. context. Of course, McConnell, like other Republicans, has no plan to do anything at all about the issue, and so this is just the latest episode of welcoming climate breakdown in bizarre American politics.
Not that things are much better here.
If you want to be alarmed at the way climate change is thought about in the Canadian political mainstream, have a look at what National Post columnist Andrew Coyne wrote a few weeks back. In surveying the climate policies of the major federal parties, he concludes,
“The choice before Canadians … is between policies that do nothing [those of the Conservatives and the upstart People’s Party], or that do too little at too high a cost [those of the Liberals], or that do too much at much too high a cost [the emissions reduction targets of the NDP and the Greens]: between the inadequate and the insane. It’s not terribly inspiring, but that’s democracy.”
What Coyne considers “insane” are precisely the targets that climate science is telling us have to be met. And of course he isn’t alone or on the fringe — just the opposite. In neoliberal times, his views are very typical. A couple generations of policymakers, technocrats, and public intellectuals have soaked in our reigning ideology to the point where it doesn’t even feel like ideology to them; it’s basic logic or common sense or the limits of the possible or, simply, economics. Avoiding climate breakdown is not a moral or existential imperative but an option that can be rejected should it come at “too high a cost.”
There is a special urgency to loosen the vise-like grip in which neoliberalism has for too long enclosed the political imagination. That’s why it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Green New Deal breaking into the mainstream ever since Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrats’ rising democratic socialist star, presented it as a congressional resolution last month.
Ecocide by ideology
Under neoliberalism, climate change is extraordinarily difficult to deal with.
The options that do not violate the neoliberal worldview are few, which explains why so many governments resort to little more than mild carbon pricing that stops well short of what is needed, the Trudeau government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change being a stellar example of this. Even when facing the end of the world, neoliberal governments would at most tinker only marginally with already low levels of industry and trade regulation, taxation, public investment, economic planning, and so on. Anything more would risk interfering with a society maintained for the wealthy in the name of market liberty and efficiency.
And so, the version of the climate crisis that mainstream neoliberal governments present to the public ends up being a minimized one, reduced to something that can be accommodated within the neoliberal rulebook.
Those even further to the right will predictably erupt in histrionics — about unconstitutionality or government moralizing or national uncompetitiveness or creeping totalitarianism — and the result is a nice symbiosis, as we see in Canada; in prominently and acrimoniously disagreeing about whether to have too little climate policy or none, the major parties monopolize the national conversation and contain the climate responses under consideration to a tight neoliberal consensus. Anything outside of that gets deemed, as Coyne put it, insane.
The Green New Deal openly recognizes how something far beyond the limits set by neoliberalism is desperately needed, how nothing short of an all-out government-led national mobilization to transition to a post-carbon society is required, if we are to continue to live in a world we're sure we can live in.
With its added calls for decent work, recognition of Indigenous rights, measures to address racial inequality, prioritization of frontline and vulnerable communities, and calls for universal health care, shelter, and economic rights, its call for climate action is rooted in a vision of a more just society. What it could represent is a late, final-moments rally from far behind, a slim but still real possibility of disrupting mass ecocide via ideology. While the Green New Deal has a long way to go, it is already having important effects:
- Broadening the climate imaginary. A Green New Deal helps to dispel whatever glamour might have maintained the illusion that the only realistic responses to climate change were inadequate ones. All of a sudden, it’s possible to mobilize around the previously fantastical idea that government ought to play a major role in mobilizing publicly funded responses to emergencies. And once that idea has been introduced, once the window of the possible has been pried open and broadened to finally include the essential, it will be hard to narrow again.
- Exposing the ineffectual. Politicians and commentators cannot reject a Green New Deal without also finding themselves in the awkward position of not really having an answer to the question, “What's your idea then?” So far, they’ve been revealed themselves to be dismissive without offering anything better, cruel, smugly asinine, a living joke or content to remain the nation’s uninformed uncle who rants about politics at family gatherings.
- A possibility of decency. In what political theorists sometimes call our “post-political” context, electoral parties distinguish themselves not by offering competing visions of just worlds but variations on the neoliberal one, either more or less brutal continents on the same inhospitable planet. The Green New Deal adds a transformative project of decency to that otherwise barren and frigid political landscape.
- On us. A Green New Deal acknowledges that climate change is our problem, not tomorrow's. The tight timelines it seeks to meet leave no room to do what so much previous climate policy has done: pretend the hard and real work is the responsibility of those later down the line.
- Engaging youth. Apparently still too innocent and naive to have accepted the neoliberal reality that there is no alternative but a future in ruins, youth have embraced the Green New Deal. And there is something uniquely powerful and telling in seeing the people who will be most affected by climate change take to a response in a way they haven’t with mainstream climate policy.
Saving capitalism from itself?
The Green New Deal is meant to hearken back to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the suite of measures taken to jump-start American capitalism during the Great Depression — hardly a leftist project. FDR himself saw the New Deal as “a struggle for, and not against, American business. It is a struggle to preserve individual enterprise and economic freedom.”
“New Dealers,” writes historian Jason Scott Smith, “did not act as anticapitalist radicals … they attempted to save capitalism — not only for capitalists, but also from them.”
Similarly (and unlike the fiercely socialist policy its critics paint it as), the Green New Deal would offer a way not of transcending capitalism but of rescuing it from yet another doom created by its own hand, one it has been unable to show it can save itself from. The Green New Deal is probably what in times before the great rightward shift would have been seen as an (actually) centrist policy.
And so, while it breaks with the ecocidal neoliberal ideology of the right, the Green New Deal’s relationship with a 21st-century left is more fraught, particularly given its potential to preserve a fundamentally unsustainable way of life or to insufficiently protect Indigenous communities.
One (probably unhelpful) response would be to reject it altogether for those reasons.
Another would be to see it as a “non-reformist reform,” something to build on as a potential first step towards something more revolutionary.
For now, a Green New Deal is, in the current landscape, the best option of surviving to fight another day, one that could simultaneously resurrect a progressive wing of politics too long absent from the North American context.
It brings us to this question: Where might it fit in the Canadian scene?
Its natural home would be a reimagined, rebooted NDP, one brave enough to re-embrace the progressive capacities it disowned in the disastrous Mulcair years and opted not to revive at its last convention. At a time when the federal NDP is struggling to assert an identity and progressive Canadians are struggling to find a party capable of counteracting the crises of our neoliberal times, the Green New Deal could be a godsend.