Ecosocialism is Twenty-First Century Democratic Socialism
Democratic socialists have a unique set of ideas and organizational skills to contribute to the do-or-die struggle for survival.
Ecosocialism is democratic socialism for the 21st century. The window for slowing down destructive climate change will close within a decade, so we must have a strategy to address the catastrophic impacts of disruptive climate change on human society and the future of life on the planet.
Fossil-fueled capitalist and authoritarian post-socialist societies are unwilling or unable to combat accelerating ecological destruction. Powerful elites are fighting tooth-and-nail to entrench this destructive system by denying the need to reduce carbon emissions that scientists know will endanger planetary survival.
The two major political parties in this country have no solutions to offer. The Republican Party is dominated by climate denialists hostile to science, led by a president who doesn’t care about environmental destruction. The Democratic Party leadership lacks the imagination and courage to put forth any systematic alternatives that would challenge the interests of its corporate sponsors and financial donors.
The Sunrise Movement’s campaign for a Green New Deal (GND), led by youthful activists backed by Justice Democrats and many environmental and climate justice organizations, has captured media attention through sit-ins backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other charismatic newly-elected politicians. Even though the Democratic House leadership remains in its defensive crouch and quickly moved to deflect any real commitments, the GND campaign launched by this brilliant tactical stroke is now on the national agenda.
DSA has both the opportunity and the obligation to vigorously support this movement and this campaign. Within its framework socialists have a tremendous opportunity to advocate and organize for far-reaching solutions that challenge corporate interests and neoliberal ideology. As democratic socialists, we have a unique set of ideas and organizational skills to contribute to this life-and-death, do-or-die struggle for survival.
The Democratic Socialist Heritage
First, we have a useful heritage as democratic socialists in critiquing, confronting and combating the capitalist system. Although we have won only partial victories, some of which have been reversed over time, our historical struggles have advanced and defended essential human and democratic rights for the working class and the popular masses. We and our allies will need to make use of every one of these hard-won rights to educate, advocate, mobilize and organize against the powerful capitalist elites and their political henchmen who are clinging to their power to destroy our movement for justice in their selfish greed.
Socialists in general, and DSA specifically, are only beginning to focus on the impending dangers of climate catastrophe. The lengthy strategy document DSA passed at its 2015 national convention had a few relatively brief paragraphs on the climate crisis. Most of these paragraphs were added only as amendments from the convention floor to a lengthy draft document that was largely silent on climate change. In 2019, it is high time to act on DSA’s ecosocialist agenda.
Inclusive Democratic Participation at the Grassroots
DSA is hardly unique in demanding that the frontline communities most impacted by the negative consequences of fossil-fuel capitalism take the lead in the struggle and receive the highest priority in shaping outcomes.
The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) describes itself as “a growing alliance, currently linking 68 community organizations, movement networks, and support organizations throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico to unite under Just Transition strategies.” Clearly we must follow the lead of organizations like CJA in including frontline communities as leading participants in the GND campaign. But DSA, as a national membership organization with locals distributed throughout the country, has a special responsibility in this movement. If the GND campaign is to have any hope of making a real impact across the broad expanses of the country, we need locally-rooted organizations digging in for the long term to develop and implement community-based solutions to disruptive climate change that are sustainable, resilient, and regenerative.
This may sound utopian, but let’s dream for a moment. What if displaced heavy equipment operators and other workers in Appalachian coal mining areas had the resources to work in reclaiming strip-mined hills, streams and forests?
What if frontline communities that disproportionately suffer from industrial and agricultural pollution and waste disposal had the resources to plan and implement local clean-up plans? What about facilitating the establishment of large-scale communal or collective organic farming in the proximity of large urban populations, thereby reducing the need for carbon-emitting long-distance trucking of food from across the country?
These outcomes would not necessarily have to come from centralized bureaucratic Five-Year Plans. There do have to be transparent, inclusive and democratic GND planning processes at all levels, including in areas now thought of as “Trump country.” The population usually defined as “white working-class” bears little resemblance to the caricatures that are typically drawn to describe it in the media. It includes millions of displaced workers with skills in organizing building, repair, installation and transportation projects that are critical to the success of a GND. What we lack is the political will to deploy governmental resources to get them into productive employment.
Political Mobilization at State and Local Level
The Sunrise Movement, led by young people with the backing of the Justice Democrats, was formed only in April 2017. By sitting in at Nancy Pelosi’s office and attracting the media’s attention through Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it quickly put the GND on the national agenda. Plan A was the proposal publicized by AOC for a House Select Committee on the Green New Deal, which through further organizing by Sunrise brought some 45 congresspersons and some Democratic presidential candidates on board. Not surprisingly, the House Democratic leadership quickly blunted the movement by appointing a toothless Select Committee with no mandate to subpoena witnesses or recommend legislation.
Sunrise and the Justice Democrats improvised a Plan B which consists of mobilizing thousands of young people to travel to the site of the first Democratic presidential debates in 2019 to demand that the candidates endorse a GND. This should prove to be a useful tactic to keep attention on the GND, but may not give enough scope for DSA and other allies to effectively promote the campaign.
In any event, there is no possibility for any national legislation to be passed before 2021, by which time a hostile president and a Republican Senate majority might have been defeated at the polls. So what can we do between now and then?
First, we should not assume that the politicians the Sunrise Movement pressured to support AOC’s GND Select Committee are staunch allies. For example, seven of the nine congresspersons from Massachusetts signed on. But one of the usually progressive ones, Jim McGovern, lined up behind Pelosi’s throttling of the GND Select Committee in his new capacity as chair of the House Rules Committee. We must keep reminding them and the Democratic presidential candidates not to weasel out of their pledges to support the GND.
But more important is what we do at the state and local levels. This requires us to survey our potential allies, both the more established environmental organizations and the newer more militant ones like Sunrise and 350.org.
The League of Conservation Voters is circulating a Clean Energy for All pledge, claiming that nine newly elected governors support 100% Clean Energy and have signed executive orders to expand clean energy in their states. Both the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth have sent messages to their members and donors explaining the Green New Deal and urging them to contact their legislators. But with some local exceptions, these organizations do not have the locally-rooted membership bases to implement the campaign.
My direct experience is restricted to Massachusetts, where both Sunrise and 350.ma/Better Future Project (loosely akin to 350.org at the national level) are striving to create local affiliates. 350.ma calls them “nodes” and Sunrise “hubs.” 350.ma has a longer history of reaching out to racial and economic justice movements, and is part of a broad coalition called Mass Power Forward that cooperates with other progressive organizations in pushing state legislative initiatives. Sunrise joins conference calls of 350.ma and vice versa – both are led by younger activists, some of them persons of color. Their goals are broadly similar, interpreting the GND as inclusive of frontline communities of color and advocating for a just transition and the interests of workers (though without much success in getting union support).
Mary Boeve, Executive Director of 350.org cites recent polls that show a rather recent dramatic increase in the number of Americans who believe that human-caused climate change is causing global warming. She concludes:
“Together we are demanding that elected officials at all levels step up on climate action and push forward federal legislation such as the Green New Deal that creates millions of family-sustaining jobs while transitioning our economy to 100% renewables. We’re ready to work collectively to demand the climate justice we deserve.”
The 350.ma and the Mass Power Forward coalitions are prioritizing four of the numerous legislative initiatives related to the GND now proposed in Massachusetts. These bills tackle environmental justice, toxic reduction, transition to renewable energies, carbon pricing, and emission reduction.
Broad multi-issue organizations like Progressive Massachusetts have included these bills among their comprehensive legislative agenda for this term.
The Massachusetts legislature has an unfortunate history in which the State Senate hammers out acceptable major reform bills that die of inaction in the overwhelmingly Democratic State House. The Speaker of the House, a do-nothing Democrat, exerts his influence by refusing to bring up for a vote bills that have support among the public but offend powerful entrenched interests. The pretext usually given is that the legislation would be vetoed by the Republican governor.
Even though a number of newer state representatives like DSA member Mike Connolly are challenging this corrupt Democratic leadership, it will surely require a massive mobilization to overcome this roadblock. If the Left is not willing and able to engage in large-scale civil disobedience within the next year, essential GND legislation will be stifled at the state and local levels. The same goes for the House of Representatives in Washington, where Pelosi and company will surely stand in the way of GND bills by pointing to the Republican-controlled Senate and President Trump’s veto pen.
Although the majority of Americans are now aware that the climate crisis is real and support (at least in principle) sweeping measures including a vast green jobs program, the Sunrise Movement and its political allies do not seem to have much of a chance to overcome the enormous entrenched power of fossil-fueled capitalism and its political lackeys in both major political parties. It is illustrative that Democratic Party hacks and Wall Street interests are already plotting to discredit and take down AOC and other newly elected congresspersons with staunchly pro-GND positions. It may be harder to besmirch the Sunrise Movement, but it will inevitably happen. Those who control the core industries of global capitalism based on the extraction, transport, processing and consumption of fossil fuels do not intend to let unexploited assets stay in the ground or give up enormous tax incentives and future profits. That this will doom the planet along with their own great-grandchildren means nothing to them.
Against what seem to be insurmountable odds, what can democratic socialists do to give us and our descendants a fighting chance for a decent survival on Earth?
DSA locals and ecosocialist committees and working groups should hold public events supporting the GND in communities that are outside our usual comfort zones. These would include not only neighborhoods suffering from environmental injustice, but small towns, working-class suburbs, urban working-class neighborhoods, and rural areas. Climate justice organizations like 350.org and Sunrise, which are trying to establish branches at state universities, community colleges, and high schools, would certainly provide speakers and resource people for those efforts.
Democratic socialists can also raise issues that are not always seen as central in a GND campaign. Some of the world’s worst contributors to carbon emissions and environmental destruction are the world’s military forces. The carbon emissions generated by U.S. military forces around the world often go under the radar of mainstream environmental justice organizations. It is difficult to ascertain the full extent of the U.S. military’s carbon emissions, which are generally not counted in official statistics and are hidden in the interstices of the unaccountable Pentagon budget.
The U.S. military is not, of course, the only carbon-spewing offender. The Russian armed forces long provided a worthy competitor, and more recently the projection of Chinese naval operations into the South China Sea and beyond may have put it into second place globally.
Without a major emphasis on reducing U.S. and global military activity, it is highly improbable that disastrous climate disruption can be averted. It is not only a question of militarism’s direct contribution to the carbon budget, but its diversion of vital resources and attention away from the enormous tasks we must undertake to save our society.
Beyond the U.S.
The term “Green New Deal” makes little sense outside the U.S., but its core components apply everywhere in the world. There is no solution to the global climate crisis without far-reaching economic and social reforms in all countries. The global climate justice movement exists only in embryo, but human survival depends on its fruition. Hence we should explore connections with movements like Extinction Rebellion. We also urgently need a mutual exchange of thinking and strategizing about the climate with democratic socialist movements and parties who are themselves facing similar problems around the world.
The GND must be organized to advance the interests of all working people and include strategies for winning the support of organized labor and the working class as a whole. It provides a visionary program for labor and can provide a role for unions in defining and promoting a new vision for our country. At the same time, the GND program is not completely far-fetched. It includes plans for a public works programs, the expansion of human rights and new entitlement programs. Americans have made such goals a reality before in our history—with organized labor playing a leading role.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal promises to create millions of jobs through building a new 100%-renewable electrical system and a national “smart grid,” retrofitting residential and industrial buildings, and building a new, low-emission transportation system. U.S. workers, like most Americans, are dissatisfied with the status quo and want change, and organized labor is in a position to help lead that change. All too rarely, however, is labor’s program directed toward a vision for the common good and across the generations.
At present, however, even though the GND provides a visionary program for labor, the union movement has not yet been involved in its shaping. AOC’s GND proposal includes the creation of millions of jobs through building a new 100%-renewable electrical system and a national “smart grid,” retrofitting residential and industrial buildings, and building a new, low-emission transportation system. This is a program that all trade unionists and advocates for working people can and should get behind. Moreover, it can potentially unify the political forces needed to meet labor’s demands for jobs, union rights, economic security, full employment, and worker empowerment.
A truly transformational GND — one that reaches every corner of the economy — must also be rooted in the right to organize. Many of the carbon-intensive industries that have drawn the ire of environmentalists grew alongside and within the New Deal order and the labor protections it provides. By contrast, newer “green economy” jobs emerged just as Reagan began his assault on the labor protections laid out in the New Deal. As a result, the types of jobs that a GND is likely to create will be the sorts of low-paid, precarious work that has increasingly defined the U.S. job market since Reagan’s administration.
Without strong worker protections, including the right to organize, a GND will both exacerbate income inequality and alienate organized labor. Labor can and should demand that the GND—like the original New Deal—establish a new framework that protects workers’ fundamental human rights. DSA labor activists should organize within their own unions and in central labor councils to pass resolutions supporting the GND. More dramatic and militant actions will also be crucial, like Detroit DSA’s recent protests against GM’s announced closure of the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant. Their remarkable campaign video is an important resource for all DSAers who want to make concrete arguments for why workers should support the GND campaign. It connects the GM plant closures with calls to put people to work building green infrastructure by using eminent domain to seize the abandoned plant.
There will be numerous opportunities for DSA locals throughout the country to organize or join similar struggles to support displaced workers and organize for alternative uses for industrial plants. Such struggles make the GND concept more tangible and imaginable. Democratic socialists do not have the option to sit out of the struggle against the catastrophic consequences of climate change. We have no other planet for ourselves, our descendants and other living species to live on. This may not be the Final Conflict, but it is one we have to win.