Notes From Underground #6: The Salvage Work
This is the sixth in a series of essays from our Commissioning Editor, Dougald Hine. In Notes From Underground, Dougald invites us to explore the deeper context of the new climate movements that have emerged over the past eighteen months, asking what they tell us about the moment in which we find ourselves. The essays are also available as a podcast and on YouTube.
Three days before the general election, he appeared before a cheering crowd. They say it took a quarter of an hour for his supporters to quieten down enough that he could be heard. In the speech he gave, he listed the forces arrayed against him: among them, the business interests and the finance system, the bankers and the speculators.
‘They are unanimous in their hate for me,’ he declared, ‘and I welcome their hatred.’
This was Roosevelt’s Madison Square Garden speech, made as he stood on the brink of reelection in the autumn of 1936. This was the political atmosphere in which the New Deal was made.
It had begun, three years before, with a round of quick-fire legislation following his inauguration: this was the original ‘first hundred days’. New regulation to stabilise the financial system was matched with ambitious programmes of federal spending to put America back to work. Two-thirds of that spending went on public works, a roll-out of ‘socially useful’ infrastructure. The figures are daunting: 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges and 800 airports. Vast dams were built on rivers across the United States, feeding into an electricity grid that was extended to the smallest rural communities. At its peak, the Works Progress Administration employed 3.3 million workers, the foot soldiers of this epic campaign of modernisation. To this day, America as we know it is made possible by the infrastructure that they built.
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The first rumours of something called a Green New Deal began around the time Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth reached cinemas. There was an international Green Party project in 2006, then a few articles by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times the next year. Meanwhile, in London, a group of economists and environmentalists had begun work on a report published by the New Economics Foundation in the summer of 2008. The authors included Richard Murphy, Ann Pettifor and Caroline Lucas. Their deal was meant to meet the ‘triple crunch’: climate change, peak oil and an oncoming financial crisis. As that crisis deepened, it seemed like an idea whose time had come: the UN Environment Programme put out a report calling for a Global Green New Deal, pledges were made at the G20, an incoming President Obama put ‘green investment’ at the heart of his plan for economic recovery, while in the UK, a cross-party consensus backed the creation of a Green Investment Bank.
We know what happened next. Support for a Keynesian economic stimulus gave way to austerity and morality tales about the national debt. Under David Cameron, the Green Investment Bank was watered down, then sold off. Obama’s funding for renewables never matched the level of subsidies going to the fossil fuel industry. By 2012, you got articles with titles like ‘Whatever Happened to the Green New Deal?’
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Twelve years. That’s how long it was from the first proposal for a Green New Deal to the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives in November 2018. That’s how much time we had left ‘to limit climate catastrophe’, according to a Guardian headline that autumn. The timeframe came from the IPCC’s 1.5° report. It found its way onto banners on demonstrations around the world. Other timeframes are available, but if you talk to the people who work on carbon budgets, they tell you even the twelve year figure is based on assumptions about ‘negative emissions technologies’ which have yet to be invented.
Quickly emerging as one of the most powerful voices on the left of American politics, Ocasio-Cortez became the Green New Deal’s new champion, while young activists from the Sunrise Movement put pressure on her colleagues in the Democratic Party establishment. Three months after her election, she brought forward a Green New Deal bill which set a goal of completing the transition to 100% renewable, zero-emission energy by 2030. If passed, it promised a programme of state-sponsored jobs to achieve this goal, along with universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage and action against monopolies. It was a package that went well beyond climate change, that was broad and radical enough to merit comparison with Roosevelt’s original New Deal, and that was bound to meet the kind of opposition Roosevelt had faced down.
The bill did not pass, but it marked the start of a new phase of activity around various shades of Green New Deal, from the Green Industrial Revolution at the heart of the manifesto on which Labour fought the UK general election, to the rather paler Green Deal announced by the European Commission last week, with its target of net zero emissions by 2050.
If you want to get a feel for where we’re at with all these different deals, you could start with Ben Wray’s article for ENOUGH!, based on his reading of the proposals on offer. A year after its reemergence on the political agenda, Wray suggests, the Green New Deal is moving ‘from a vague idea towards a concrete goal’. He emphasises the importance of defining this goal in terms of action that starts now, not targets for ten or twenty years into the future. It is too easy for politicians to sign up to targets.
The bit that jumps out at me from Wray’s account is when he gets to the question of degrowth. He writes that ‘the common denominator’ of Green New Deal economics ‘is a break with the current paradigm of growth’.
This matters because we have no grounds for believing that ‘green growth’ is possible. Having surveyed the evidence and found it wanting, Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis conclude that ‘the insistence on green growth is politically motivated’, something that has to be true because the alternative is unthinkable. So if there is a consensus emerging within Green New Deal thinking that we have to break with the growth paradigm, this marks a significant shift in what is considered thinkable.
I’m cautious, though, because Wray goes on to advise that, ‘while there is a need to reduce global economic output, it is better to couch that in the language of “better”, rather than “smaller”.’ It’s one thing to decide to downplay the degrowth agenda in the way that you present a Green New Deal, but if it’s best left unmentioned, how are we to know that this consensus really exists?
Wray seems to rest this claim on the need for any meaningful version of the Green New Deal to be a socialist project, rather than a capitalist one. Markets alone are not going to rise to this challenge, that much seems clear. The kind of state-led green industrial revolution envisaged in the more ambitious versions of the Green New Deal involves a break from the logic of neoliberalism. Less obvious to me is why this would imply a break from the unsustainable trajectory of economic growth. After all, one of the charges laid against neoliberalism by its critics is that the long-run trend of growth in GDP since the late 1970s compares poorly to the post-war decades when the state took a stronger role in the economy. The New Deal of the 1930s was the original Keynesian stimulus, the government spending money to counteract the effects of the economic cycle. When Roosevelt came to power, the American economy had contracted for four straight years; in his first year, it grew by 10.8%.
If we take seriously the warning from Kallis and Hickel, then it seems a leap to assume that the Green New Deal provides a palatable framing behind which lies a tacit understanding that global economic output must contract. Rather, by invoking a mid-20th century mixed economy which the left can easily get nostalgic over, it seems a way of postponing more difficult conversations about the situation we are in and the responses that are called for.
There’s a larger point worth making here. As someone whose heart beats on the left, politically as well as anatomically, I find myself nonetheless uneasy with a response which sees in climate change a vindication of positions which our side held all along. The classic case of this is Naomi Klein’s awkwardly titled book, This Changes Everything. Awkward because Klein herself acknowledges that climate change has only lent urgency to beliefs and arguments she would be putting forward anyway. These, at least, remain unchanged.
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Why do you feel the need to pick a side? A friend asked me this, not long ago. Why write things like ‘my heart beats on the left’? Does it come from a need to be liked, to belong to a tribe? Don’t we need more independent voices, willing to step outside the old frames?
Well, it’s not like I’m going to pretend that the seating arrangements of the Assemblée Nationale in the early months of the French Revolution represent some timeless, transcultural axis. This whole left-right thing belongs to the category defined by the political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott: ‘vernaculars cross-dressed as universals’. I’ll grant you, too, that the frame on which we string this axis is cracked; the assumptions which held it together undone by the unfolding collision with planetary realities. One of the books that made me think the most this year was Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth, with its invitation to redraw our political maps and reorient ourselves, recognising that the global visions of progress, right and left, depend upon a destination that can never be reached and a trajectory now revealed as suicidal. You don’t have to zoom out far to see that the axis of politics as we knew it will not survive the journey we are on.
Yet life is not lived from a position of zoomed-out detachment. We start where we find ourselves, born into particular times and places, working with the stories and traditions we are given, or working against them. And starting from here, I don’t find it difficult to know which side I’m on, when it comes to a choice like the one put before us last Thursday – or to know how I feel about the result.
When I step back from the immediate choices offered by a flawed electoral system and go looking for clues as to what might just still work in the world into which we are headed, the thinkers in whose company I find such clues are mostly coming from the left. They are the ones who are asking what can be salvaged from its traditions and achievements, though also what went overlooked. Like me, they are looking – in Anna Tsing’s phrase – for ‘possibilities of life in capitalist ruins’.
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One of these salvage-workers of the left is Jeremy Seabrook, a journalist from Northampton who started out writing for New Society in the 1960s. Seabrook belongs to an English tradition of socialist humanism whose best-known proponents were the historian E.P. Thompson and the pioneer of cultural studies, Richard Hoggart: thinkers who take seriously the experience of loss, the depth of culture, the way these things elude the economic gaze and complicate the narratives of progress. Those in the Labour Party who want to get beyond the blame game and make sense of the long process of erosion of support in communities where it could once be taken for granted might include his 1978 book, What Went Wrong?, on their winter reading lists.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Seabrook wrote a series of short books together with Trevor Blackwell, tracing the contours of a changed political landscape. Among the arguments that weave through The Politics of Hope and The Revolt Against Change, they suggest that we think of the Labour government of 1945 as a half-completed revolution. A working class movement had taken control of the state, but instead of remaking it in the spirit of its own institutions – the culture of the friendly society, the penny library and the cooperative – it built new, top-down systems, distant from the communities they served, rendering that culture obsolete. There’s a story here that I’ve heard in different corners of Europe, about the roots of social democracy in grassroots movements of mutual aid, far removed from the political culture of the parties that came to bear its name. It’s a history to be drawn on, not yearning after the values of a lost era, but because it can orient us to where a politics worth having might grow from now and why the well-meant promises of Labour’s latest manifesto failed to land.
Meanwhile, Seabrook and Blackwell’s excavations take them to a deeper layer of history, which helps to clarify the appeal and the limits of the Green New Deal. The modern left was born out of defeat, they explain: the defeat of earlier movements seeking to resist the industrialisation of the world. The turning point lies around the time of the Chartist movement, in the 1840s:
Chartism seriously envisaged a reversal or dismantling of industrial society. After the defeat of Chartism, opposition became focused upon demands for higher rewards for accepting the necessity for change. Much of what passed for socialism effectively said ‘If you want us to go along with this, you’ll have to make it worth our while.’ … any serious alternatives to such bargaining were banished to the realm of dreams, of utopias, of visions. The blood-curdling radicalism of Marx served, among other things, to conceal the need for the elaboration of true alternatives to the aggressive expansion of industrial society. Since the revolution envisaged by Marx appeared to pose the most extreme threat that the existing order could imagine, all other more radical projects readily withered in its life-denying shade.
Klein and others are not wrong to argue that neoliberalism has stood in the way of meaningful action on climate change, but their arguments do not go nearly far enough. The major traditions of the left since the mid-19th century have taken shape within the imaginative frame of industrial society, a frame which seeks to maximise production and which views the world as a collection of raw materials to be transformed by the application of human effort and ingenuity, all subsidised by great flows of energy. There is no point in wasting time on arguments about the benefits of industrialism and whether they were worth its costs, since for all its ingenuity, it has not produced a time machine. What matters now is that we can no longer afford to organise our societies according to this way of treating the world, to allow its processes to dominate our activities, or to allow its limits to define the limits of our political imagination.
Within those limits, the left sought to humanise industrial society as best it could and to fight for its weakest members. That’s why I know which side I’m coming from, but it’s not enough for the world into which we are headed.
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This June, my family spent two weeks at Newspeak House, the London College of Political Technologists, just off the top of Brick Lane. One night, I came downstairs after putting my son to bed and found a book launch underway. The book was Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and one of those intellectual outriders of Corbynism I’d first crossed paths with among the student protests of early 2011. The manifesto he was launching is among the wilder expressions of a wider tendency on the left in the last few years, an attempt to reboot the future as it existed for a while in the high moments of the industrial era, as a vessel for collective hopes underwritten by the promise of technological progress.
It’s a tendency that starts with a recognition of something real enough: a widespread feeling that the future doesn’t work the way it used to. As the crisis of 2008 arrived in the everyday realities of people’s lives, it crystallised a consciousness that had been latent since the 1970s, and by the start of this decade, surveys across the Western countries showed that those who still believed today’s young people would have a better life than their parents were outnumbered, two-, three- or four-to-one, by those who thought they were going to have it worse.
The desire to reboot the future comes out of an acknowledgement that something has gone badly wrong, but the response it offers is misjudged. If people feel the future is broken, this isn’t a mistake or a lack of vision, it’s an accurate gut-level read on where we are. It won’t be fixed by appealing to the spirit that put man on the moon. There are times when positive thinking isn’t helpful, when it serves as a way to slip out of ‘staying with the trouble’.
In his round-up of lessons for the Green New Deal, Ben Wray argues for the importance of telling ‘a positive story’: that’s why he wants to talk about degrowth in terms of ‘better’, rather than ‘smaller’. This sits a little strangely alongside his acknowledgement of the contribution made by Extinction Rebellion, a movement which announced its arrival by dropping a banner from Westminster Bridge that just said: CLIMATE CHANGE – WE’RE FUCKED. One clue to be taken from the impact of Extinction Rebellion is that there’s a power in naming the fears we carry, making room for a conversation that isn’t framed by the pressure to sound positive, and taking action that comes from a place beyond hope.
When people have asked me about the resurgence of the Green New Deal, I’ve made encouraging noises: it’s part of the wider shift we’re seeing, I say, the change whose contours I’m tracing in these essays. In terms of the Overton Window – the space of what you can say and still get taken seriously in the world of policymakers, political technologists and the rest – I’ve wanted to see it as a stage on the way towards the conversations we need to be having. Just now, though, among all the post-election recriminations, the end-of-the-year and end-of-the-decade reflections, I wonder if that’s right?
Among Bastani’s proposals for the high-tech communist future, he wants us to mine an asteroid called 16 Psyche that lies somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. As David Jonstad wrote in a review of the Swedish translation: I don’t share his vision, but at least we’re agreed that the Earth’s resources cannot support this techno-utopian trajectory.
Nor is it just Fully Automated Luxury Communism whose demand for resources is out of this world. Take one detail from Nicholas Beuret’s forensic analysis of the Green New Deal motion passed at Labour conference: ‘to meet its electric car targets global production of cobalt would need to double, the entire global production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium production and half of the world’s copper production would all be required.’ Remember, this is just to supply the UK.
I don’t think these are times when you can sell people a vision of ‘how not only can we save the world, but we can make all of our lives better in the process.’ There’s too much loss written into the story, too much hardship around and ahead of us, whichever path we take. I think people can smell that, whether or not they want to face it yet. It doesn’t mean we give up, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing left worth fighting for. But it may not be the kind of fight where memories of last century’s heroic future are much help. What’s called for may not be a new industrial revolution, a massive state-backed programme of infrastructure building, a grand push to make the consumption patterns of the industrial world sustainable. My guess is it looks more like a de-industrial revolution, starting piecemeal, closer to the ground. Maybe it already started, we just didn’t know what we were looking for. My guess is it looks like salvage work: not just to salvage those elements of industrial society that we get to take with us, but to salvage those ways of being human together that allow us to build the close-to-the-ground institutions, the latent commons that are already emerging among the ruins.
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Notes From Underground will return on 9 January, 2020.