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For the Green New Deal / Against Ideology

Ideology looms as a threat to human decency, justice and survival

Ideology doesn’t only undermine democracy, as I tried to demonstrate in my last post. It looms as a threat to human decency, justice and survival. I thought about this reading Jake Davis’s “Why I Want Nothing to do with the Green New Deal.

Davis’s essay attracted a great deal of attention, with many clicks and heated comments posted on Public Seminar and on social media. It also created a minor scandal in the corridors of The New School. Why did Public Seminar publish such a retrograde piece? What has become of Public Seminar? People were surprised to read a piece that was far beyond their beliefs (also mine), clearly conservative, by a former marine officer.

Yet, publishing that goes against the grain, that excites interest, that people are moved to engage, is a good thing. It informs debate, in this case about the most important of issues, the fate of the earth. I, therefore, take a perverse pleasure in the reception of Davis’s piece.

My pleasure is mixed with concern. The post and the response to it reveals, it seems to me, a political-cultural crisis that may undermine our capacity to democratically address a most important challenge. I fear the blinders of ideology, in place on both sides of the political divide, and I am deeply concerned that they are dimming the prospects for democratic alternatives to the authoritarianism of our times, in the U.S. and far beyond. Polarized publics are locked into their positions, and there is a danger that the escape from one form of authoritarianism threatens to lead to another.

While Davis wants nothing to do with the Green New Deal and its proponents, his critics seem to want nothing to do with him. Given that his beliefs are shared by a significant number of the Americans, this has ominous implications. I wonder whether democracy is possible with this kind of blindness.

From Facebook: “This is crap,” “What is this dreck?” “Mis-scheduled April 1st joke?”

On PS: “And this is posted on Public Seminar because …? ‘Using the free market to dictate the direction of environmental policies …’ sure has worked out swell so far. What drivel.”

Followed by an knowing response:

“This is posted on Public Seminar, because the writers and editors have shown a clear bias towards neo-liberal and neo-converasative (sic) ideology. A quick search of the site will find plenty of examples defending these ideas. Perhaps they were, at some point, what’s considered progressive. It’s a laughable assertion to make today.

The problem: our intellectual class (see: PS writers and editors) have been conditioned to write off any form of populism as dangerous. Why? Whether they realize it or not, they are part of the American echo chamber of smart people that keeps the status quo train going.”

Claire Potter followed with her response that summarizes our shared editorial judgment:

“Welcome from the editor, left wing trolls! Yes, this is a conservative author! Your filter bubble has exploded! To answer your questions in order:

  1. This is on Public Seminar because we don’t have and ideological litmus test, and we welcome hot takes that provoke debate.
  2. The Green New Deal does aspire to a socialist program of comprehensive government action: own it. That would be why it is popular on the left, and why it is enthusiastically embraced by a generation of people for whom socialism is profoundly meaningful. Our author engages from a conservative POV — try engaging him.
  3. Socialism does not, in fact, arrive in a day. That is a historical fact. Personally, I would welcome it, but actually, it requires cooperation from citizens. One way to get there would be to persuade skeptics rather than insult them.
  4. Lots of government programs in the United States do not work because of incompetence, corruption, and insane bureaucracy. That’s a fact. Look at NYC public housing. Yes, it’s underfunded, but it also functions at a third-grade level, and always has, even when it was better funded.
  5. Just because the man doesn’t agree with you, doesn’t mean it’s a weak piece “Go live somewhere else if you don’t want government.” really? That’s a version of “get a haircut, hippie” or “US — love it or leave it,” common right wing talking points from the 1960s. Surely you can do better than that.
  6. This is not an essay about neoliberalism — if you are going to use the word, learn what it means.

To emphasize: Public Seminar is chock full of people on the left, including yours truly, the executive editor. But our goal is to engage and make people think, and that means not publishing pieces that always approach a problem from one direction.”

While Claire ably presents our shared position, I would like to add my critical two cents.

I believe with her that it is essential for us to publish pieces from multiple points of view, predicated upon alternative and competing political principles. But I am concerned when alternative views are ideologically rendered. It makes democracy impossible, undermining our capacity to democratically address the problems we face. People become trapped in their caves of certainty, perceiving shadow dances between “them” and “us,” not confronting the complexities of the human condition, in this case the great likelihood that human beings are an endangered species.

That said, I want more positively to add an appreciative note on an aspect of Davis’s position, even though I fundamentally disagree with him. While he opposes state intervention, specifically the Green New Deal, he takes climate change and environmental degradation seriously. I disagree with his politics, but think that he may be open to serious discussion, a discussion that is a necessary. Yet, I am unsure of his openness. His ideology may get in the way.

I don’t know what Davis means when he describes himself as “staying on the sidelines of the climate change debate,” while he does recognize that “the earth has shown warmer temperatures in the past two decades and the preponderance of evidence shows that it is a human artifact.” I am also baffled when he maintains that “the champion of nature is personal responsibility, not ‘massive government intervention.’ ” I am disheartened and bewildered when he asserts that “Even if we human beings are the cause of climate change, the answer is not socialism.”

I wonder what does socialism have to do with it? He worries about diminishing American productivity and military power and is convinced that the utilization of the state to address the environmental crisis would lead to the dreaded socialism. I fear that his anti-socialism may get in the way of considering what needs to be done.

I, of course, recognize that a The Green New Deal Resolution introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) does and should concern conservatives, such as Davis. Both its green qualities and its “New Deal” qualities are significant challenges.

The Green New Deal Resolution presents a stark, but entirely realistic, account of the dangers and causes of climate change, and, in turn, proposes a radical program to address the problem. It is therefore a very green resolution.

And it goes further, linking the clear and present danger of global catastrophe with issues of social justice, wage stagnation and growing social inequality, including “indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, de-industrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth (referred to in this preamble as ‘‘frontline and vulnerable communities’’).” It additionally links climate change and the struggle for social justice to global and national security. It is, therefore a New Deal resolution, modeled after the radical ambitions of the first New Deal, and the great mobilization of WWII, as they addressed the profound social and geo-political problems of those times. The proponents argue: if we could do it then, we can do it now. I am convinced.

Clearly, the New Deal was big government. And the proponents of the Green New Deal, who are modeling their proposal after this experience, do not shy away from the fact. Davis just as clearly thinks its socialist, as do some of its leftist supporters. Yet, it becomes important to consider how it is so. Is the Green New Deal a cover for an aggressive anti-Americanism, as Davis, and, for partisan strategic reasons, the President and Congressional Republicans assert? Is it the kind of ideological project I critically examined in my reflections on socialism?

I think the evidence is pretty strong that it is not, though there are dangers.

It is noteworthy that the “neo-liberal” New York Times columnist, Thomas Freidman in 2007, first introduced the notion of a Green New Deal to broad public discussion. His vision was quite different than the one recently proposed. His was that of a self-declared “green capitalist.” Yet, he also linked environmental concerns, with geo-political and social concerns. He also recognized that the issues are urgent. The goals he specified are similar to the ones the more radical Green New Deal proponents. While they lean on government action for solutions, his solutions are more market based, not surprisingly. This suggests to me a contrast that democratic political actors should debate, the Democrats, along with Republicans in Congress, along with the candidates now running to be President. What should the link be between environmental survival and social justice? How should we go about pursuing these goals? How should we relate them? What is the role of private enterprise and state action? By working on answering these questions together, it becomes possible to explore democratic solutions to the ecological crisis.

Freidman welcomes such debate, and Ocasio Cortez and Markey do as well, along with the many co-sponsors of their resolution. I wonder about Davis, and conservatives. I will send him a copy of this post, seeking a response.

I am forever hopeful that Republicans will act responsibly on this so that there can be a broad public discussion on what should be done. This would be markedly preferable to the present “debate” between those who are facing the facts of climate change and the impending disaster, and those who are burying their heads deeply in the sand.

There are ideological driven and ominous rumblings on the right: market fundamentalism and xenophobic nationalism are together creating a powerful force. A belief that government is always the problem, never the solution, is a basic proposition of libertarianism. The Koch brothers have underwritten a wide range of climate denial applying this key. The market should decide. Anything that is against or controls the market inevitably yields more problems than it is worth. This is an old, sad story.

A more recent ideological development on the right: linking populist nationalism to opposition to environmental regulations and controls. This has been evident in the Yellow Vest Movement in France. It is part of the Trumpist repertoire, and, as it has been recently reported last week in The New York Times, it is the position of the far right in an upcoming election in Finland.

The “know-it-all elites” are proposing environmental regulations on the backs of the common folk of France, America and Finland. They will take away jobs and lower wages, and increase the price of fuel and other consumer goods, all based on questionable scientific speculation, “theories not facts.” How could there be global warming when it’s so cold outside? Climate change concerns are but another way the elite works to maintain its control. This sort of conspiratorial stew is now being cooked globally. It unites and empowers those who wish to turn away from the pressing problems of our times, as they make matters worse.

Ideology of the center and the left is different. It doesn’t empower. It enervates, or at least threatens to do so. The danger is that self-described “green capitalists” and “green socialists” will disunite because of their different ideological commitments. “Capitalists,” those who believe in market solutions, and the market as an engine of progress, such as Friedman, and “socialists,” those who believe and are committed to public power, and the state and political activism and social movements as the vehicles for social transformation, may turn against each other. While I hope that this will not be the case, I fear it will. The neo-liberal label is an epithet among my circle of leftist friends, as is the socialist label for my other circle of friends: not only for conservatives, but also moderate liberals. Ideological commitments to public power, as opposed to market power, and vice versa, could make coalitions of strange bedfellows, an imperative in democratic politics, impossible.

As a veteran critical observer of previously existing socialism and as an active critic of actually existing capitalism, focused on the American experience, I fear conservatives, liberals and socialist, when they take an ideological turn. If and when they don’t, there is still hope, though it is getting late.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar. 

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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