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Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Financial Justice Immigration Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Forum on 2022 Elections and Meeting the Moment

Last Sunday, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum discussing prospects for the upcoming 2022 elections with friend, contributor, and MIT professor Phil Thompson.

Following up on his recent writings in the New Labor Forum (‘Is Now the Time to Break with the Democrats?: A Debate‘ and ‘Democratizing the Knowledge Economy: Will Labor Accept the Challenge?‘), Thompson contends that today’s moment is the one the Left has been waiting for since the 1970s, and outlined some of the key (and sometimes contradictory) trends of today’s political moment:

  • The rise of the far-right, anti-democratic radicalization among the conservative movement
  • Right-wing attacks on immigrants, labor, climate, and other progressive priorities
  • Timid union leadership hesitant to seize power
  • Long-standing weaknesses and failures of the Democratic party
  • Resurgence of labor organizing among service sector workers and strong public support for unions
  • Left-wing radicalization among young people and certain legacy institutions
  • Progressive movements expanding and pushing local government to the left in strongholds like New York
  • The growth of the knowledge economy and the possibilities it presents for organizing and the role of consumers
  • And much more

Watch the full forum below.

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Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Social Justice

Webinar: Brazil Elections, What’s At Stake?

Brazil’s historic upcoming elections will pit the Worker’s Party’s Lula da Silva against the far-right former President Bolsonaro, and the results will shape the future of the country and global geopolitics.

To make sense of the challenge and understand the high stakes of the elections, the Brazilian progressive legal group Crivelli Advogados is hosting a webinar this Tuesday, October 11th from 7 – 9 pm EST with political analysts and a former Minister in Lula’s government to discuss and analyze the historical moment. Live English translation will be provided, and additional details can be found below.

Click here to register for the webinar.

Panelists will be Ricardo Berzoini, former Minister of Labour, Communications and Social Security during the Lula and Dilma governments, and Fabiano Santos,  political scientist, professor and researcher (IESP-UERJ). The mediation will be by Ericson Crivelli – Labor Law and International Rights specialist.

The polls on Sunday, Oct. 2nd, revealed a more conservative and radical Congress. The initial analysis of specialists shows that if Lula is elected – even with this Congress – there will be openness to dialogue, more possibilities for negotiation and a less adverse scenario.

But if Bolsonaro is reelected, there are risks of authoritarian advancement, reduction of social security, imposition of the conservative agenda, criminalization and even persecution of both social and workers’ movements.

So, how to organize to continue resisting? And how to advance on progressive agendas?

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Economic Justice Financial Justice Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Forum on the Future of American Socialism

Last Sunday, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum with a wide-ranging discussion on the future of American socialism.

The extensive conversation covered key themes in contemporary American political economy and the state of class struggle today. Steve Clark kicked the forum off with a presentation on his latest essay, outlining several important currents in the trajectory of American politics and society, and offered interpretations of how these currents may shape opportunities to build socialism in the United States over the coming years. Thomas Blanton carried the conversation forward, discussing the importance of theory and building partnerships with diverse movements (especially those of oppressed peoples) in advancing a more progressive future. Eric Gill also discussed his perspective on the trajectory of the American left, class formation, modern imperialism, and the contradictions of contemporary capitalism amid the shift to a service economy, drawing on his own experience as a leader of the hotel workers union in Hawai’i. Finally, the forum shifted to an open dialogue drawing out key themes from these presentations.

Watch the full forum below.

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Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Monthly Political Forum on Labor and Reproductive Justice

In our latest monthly political forum, Jean Quan facilitated a discussion with Elise Bryant and Virginia Rodino of the Coalition of Labor Union Women on the role of women in the labor movement and the importance of centering reproductive justice in labor struggles.

Recounting their histories in the labor movement, the history of CLUW, and the evolving trends we’re seeing in the labor movement today, Elise and Virginia offered important reflections on why centering women and marginalized voices is key to strengthening the labor movement at large. And in the face of the right-wing attack to dismantle Roe v. Wade, they discussed how CLUW is launching new electoral efforts to build power at all levels of government to advance reproductive justice and worker power.

Watch the full forum below.

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice

Watch: May Day Forum with Gerry Hudson

On May Day 2022, Voices for New Democracy hosted SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Hudson for a discussion on the state of the American labor movement. Throughout the conversation, Gerry discussed his history at 1199SEIU, outlining how the union’s participation in struggles for racial justice and immigrant justice mobilized membership and helped secure important victories; how 1199’s emphasis on rank-and-file organizing and leadership was key to their strength; and what lessons these experiences hold for today’s wave of union organizing across gig workers, Amazon workers, delivery drivers, Starbucks workers, and more. Gerry also reflected on SEIU’s political mobilization around the 2020 elections — playing an important role in Biden’s victory — and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in 2022 and 2024.

Watch the full forum below.

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Economic Justice

Collective Bargaining and the Future of U.S. Labor

| Kent Wong |

This was a paper presented by Kent Wong to an international conference hosted by Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam in April, 2022. Ton Duc Thang is the Trade Union University of Vietnam and is affiliated with the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.

As the director of the UCLA Labor Center, I have taught labor studies, labor law and collective bargaining for many years.  Collective bargaining is a cornerstone of U.S. labor relations, and yet it has been under attack in recent decades.  This is harmful not only to U.S. unions and workers, but represents an increasing threat to U.S. democracy.  

Collective Bargaining in the U.S.  

For more than 50 years, unionization and collective bargaining have been in decline in the United States.  The right to collective bargaining was won in the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and as a result of unprecedented organizing campaigns throughout the country including a General Strike in 1934.  The 1930’s saw the birth of contemporary U.S. labor laws, and the establishment of collective bargaining as the foundation of U.S. labor relations.

Throughout In the 1950’s, fully one third of workers in the U.S. were members of unions and covered by collective bargaining agreements.  This massive union expansion resulted in historic improvements in the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.  U.S. workers were able to improve job quality, raise wages to support their families, and the growing strength of unions resulted in significant government policy victories including social security, employer provided health care coverage, occupational safety and health standards, paid sick time, paid vacation time, and pensions.   

However, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the U.S. witnessed a decline in unionization that has continued to this day.  The causes of union decline have included globalization, a dramatic change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, and policies of deindustrialization that resulted in capital flight and plant shutdowns throughout the country.  Union decline was also accelerated by anti-union corporate policies and their support of anti-union labor laws that undermined collective bargaining rights.  Today, only 10% of U.S. workers are union members, and only 6% of private sector workers are in unions.

The decline in unionization and collective bargaining has led to stagnation and decline in the wages and working conditions for U.S. workers.  Previously high wage union jobs have been replaced by low wage non-union jobs.  The two largest corporations in the U.S., WalMart and Amazon, are both fiercely anti-union, and have invested millions of dollars to oppose their workers from forming and joining unions.

The decline in collective bargaining has also weakened worker political power.  Government policies that were established decades ago to support workers have steadily been eroded.  Also, weakened unions have also allowed corporations and the right-wing to exert greater political influence to support reactionary, anti-union politicians and laws. 

The Attacks on Collective Bargaining and the Election of Donald Trump

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for President, and received almost three million more votes than Donald Trump.  However, due to the undemocratic U.S. Electoral College system, Donald Trump was elected President instead.  

Three critical states that had supported Barack Obama in 2012, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, flipped from Democrat to Republican in 2016.  In each of these three states, Republican Governors and members of the State Legislatures had attacked collective bargaining rights and unions. 

In Michigan, the state where the United Autoworkers of America was founded, the state legislature passed anti-union “Right to Work” laws in 2013, dramatically undermining worker rights.  In Pennsylvania, conservative anti-union forces in the State Legislature have fought to restrict collective bargaining rights, especially for public sector workers.  And in Wisconsin, fifty years of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers was eliminated by a right-wing governor in 2011.  

The attack on unions in these three states had a direct impact on the 2016 election.  Trump defeated Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a margin of only 70,000 votes, which allowed him to prevail in the national electoral college vote and become president.  In 2020, after unions intensified organizing in these same three states, all three flipped back to support the democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden.   

Joe Biden’s presidential victory was commanding, both in the popular vote and in the electoral vote.  In the midst of the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election was held and Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris were elected President and Vice President.  Joseph Biden had previously served as Vice President under President Barack Obama, and Kamala Harris is the first woman and first person of color (both African American and Asian American) to hold the position of Vice President in U.S. history.  

However, to this day, Donald Trump has promoted the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate and that he won the election.  On January 6, 2020, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to engage in an armed insurrection of the U.S. Capitol to overturn the election results.  The Trump lead white supremacist and right-wing movement presents a major threat to U.S. democracy, and Republican leaders in Congress continue to spread lies and misinformation that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. 

Growing Economic Inequality

During the past two years of the global pandemic, the contradictions and crisis of U.S. capitalism have been exposed.  More than 900,000 people in the U.S. have died as a result of Covid-19.  Former President Donald Trump lied to the American people and deliberately down-played the seriousness of Covid-19.  He attacked public health leaders and safety guidelines, and refused to wear masks and abide by social distancing.  Many Republican leaders continue to spread lives about Covid-19, and have contributed to the public health crisis and increased death toll. 

Although the U.S. has the most expansive and expensive health care system in the world, millions of people do not have access to health care.  Covid-19 has disproportionately claimed the lives of the poor, people of color, and immigrants.  The wealthy have access to the best health care system in the world, while many workers and the poor are dying because they lack of health care access.  

The U.S. is a deeply polarized country, both politically and economically.  The U.S. stock market has been setting new records, and wealthy corporations and billionaires continue to make massive profits during the pandemic.  Housing prices and home rental costs are rising steadily, which also contributes to economic inequality.  The number of homeless people has also grown sharply as housing insecurity impacts more workers. 

A Growing Workers Movement 

The pandemic has also witnessed the rise of a new workers movement.  Public opinion polls reflect that sentiment supporting unions is at a 50-year high in the U.S.  More people realize that unions are necessary to improve the quality of life for workers.

There has been a new wave of strikes throughout the country, including in the manufacturing sector, and more workers have been engaged in union organizing campaigns in recent years than in recent decades.  Amazon workers, Starbucks workers, Fast Food workers, and “Ride Share” workers have been engaged in organizing campaigns in work places and industries that have never before been unionized.

Pro-union sentiment has been especially high among young workers and workers of color, who have been leading many of these organizing campaigns.  These campaigns bode well for the future of the labor movement, and also present opportunities to expand collective bargaining rights in the U.S.  

The Importance of Collective Bargaining Education

As the Director of the UCLA Labor Center, I teach Labor Studies to our students at the university.  Each year, we introduce collective bargaining education into the classroom, to provide our students with an appreciation of the role of unions, an understanding of the dynamics of collective bargaining, and the importance of a union contract in providing good wages, benefits, and working conditions, and a collective voice for workers.

One of the most popular learning activities within our curriculum is a collective bargaining simulation, where each student is assigned to participate on either a union or management bargaining team.  The students are given informational hand-outs based on real collective bargaining case studies, and then engage in a mock collective bargaining session.  They have the option of either signing a union contract, or engaging in a strike or lockout.  Inevitably, most of the student bargaining sessions result in a signed union contract, although in a few instances there are strikes or lock-outs.   This outcome mirrors what happens in the real world, where the vast majority of collective bargaining sessions result in a mutually agreeable settlement.  

The UCLA Labor Center in recent years has established a Labor Studies Major, the first in the history of our university and the first within the nine campus University of California system.  We are also in the process of establishing a Master’s Degree in Labor Studies.  

The Labor Studies program provides a foundation for students to learn about unions, collective bargaining, labor history, labor law, and contemporary issues that impact workers and the work place.  Our program also provides opportunities for students to engage in research on labor issues, and to take part in internship programs that directly place them with unions and worker organizations.  Through these placements, students learn about the world of work first hand, and many find jobs and careers through developing their skills and relationships.

The UCLA Labor Center has also established innovative programs to conduct research on young workers, and to encourage young workers to learn about their rights on the job, and to form and join unions.  Labor education plays an important role in preparing the workers of tomorrow to join the labor movement and advocate for the interests of the working class.  

The UCLA Labor Center is committed to continue our partnership with Ton Duc Thang University.  We applaud the efforts of Ton Duc Thang to promote worker rights and global labor solidarity, and we share our mutual commitment to advance peace and prosperity for workers in Vietnam, the United States, and throughout the world. 

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Economic Justice

Watch: Forum on Black Liberation with Robin D. G. Kelley

“There has never been a moment in the last 150 years on the planet that we did not have to rebuild the Left.”

Robin D. G. Kelley

On Sunday, January 23rd, UCLA Professor and acclaimed historian Robin D. G. Kelley joined Voices for New Democracy for our latest monthly political forum discussing the past and future of Black liberation.

The wide-ranging conversation touched on important reflections on where the Left stands today, and explores some of the lessons from historical experiences in the struggle for Black liberation from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to BLM, and the reactions and backlash these struggles have faced. Building on recent forums and essays on Voices for New Democracy exploring some of the recent challenges and defeats we’re facing, Kelley asserts that the present moment is still full of opportunity. But to seize the moment, Kelley challenges us to think deeply about how we can build a unified Left, inspired by new ideas, that operates with organized cooperation and accountability. And as capitalism undergoes new structural changes in the face of concurrent crises, the Left will have important opportunities to advance our movement in different places at different moments. Whatever dark moments lie ahead, Kelley reminds us to maintain our commitment to the struggle.

Watch the full forum below.

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Economic Justice

Robin D. G. Kelley Interview & Forum

As we enter the new year, Voices for New Democracy is proud to announce our next monthly political forum will take place on January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET featuring UCLA Professor Robin D. G. Kelley.

In anticipation of the upcoming forum, we are reprinting an interview with Kelley from March 2021 by the writer Vinson Cunningham, which delves into key themes of his work and analysis. In it, Kelley discusses Black Marxism and the legacy of Cedric Robinson, highlights the role of the Black radical tradition in the summer 2020 uprising, interrogates and clarifies our understanding of racial capitalism, and highlights the importance of solidarity in advancing movements for justice. Among other wide-ranging topics, Kelly also touches his experience with the Communist Workers Party and his personal history of activism.

The interview (below) was originally published in the L.A. Times. We look forward to joining you later this month in our forum with Professor Kelley.

The future of L.A. is here. Robin D.G. Kelley’s radical imagination shows us the way.

| By Vinson Cunningham |

Robin D.G. Kelley is, for my money, the great historian of our era. He has written groundbreaking works about, among other things, Alabama’s Communist Party during the Great Depression; the life of Thelonious Monk; and the visions of activists and thinkers from the African diaspora. On top of his work at UCLA — where he is a distinguished professor and holds the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. history — he issues a steady stream of limpid, persuasive, almost casually brilliant essays on politics, current affairs and cultural matters for Boston Review and other outlets. He keeps an eye on grassroots movements and on how maintaining a fertile, humane vision for the future creates new opportunities for radical action in the present.

In the year 2000, Kelley led the charge to reissue “Black Marxism,” a great, globe-spanning work of political history by one of his mentors, Cedric Robinson — successfully rescuing the book, then out of print, from near-obscurity. Since then, he has quite accidentally become the foremost authority on the late Robinson’s work and ideas. (“I did not want that,” he told me, sounding good-naturedly harried by the distinction.) Last year, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, at the hand of police officers, and the global protest uprising that followed, UNC Press decided to reissue “Black Marxism,” which — as Kelley had predicted two decades earlier — had become more relevant than ever.

Kelley wrote a rousing foreword for the new edition of “Black Marxism” and is working on a book called “Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem,” about how the protests of 2020 are connected to a long history of resistance.

———

Vinson Cunningham: I’ve been thinking about you and Cedric Robinson. I love how, in your foreword to “Black Marxism,” this new foreword, you always call him by his first name. It’s like: Marx and Engels and Cedric. That’s moving to me. It reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Looking for Zora,” where Alice Walker goes to find Zora Neale Hurston’s grave. There’s a kind of artistic and intellectual lineage that’s not only about reading — there’s an affective aspect, something to do with feeling and familiarity. What is it about Cedric for you?

Robin D.G. Kelley: I was a student of Cedric’s. He was on my dissertation committee. I was in awe of him. Reading “Black Marxism” that first time in 1984, it just blew my mind and changed my whole orientation. Everything I do as a scholar can be traced back to that book — everything.

He passed in 2016, and with his passing, that’s the first time I ever really dug into his biography. His widow, Elizabeth Robinson, knew that I was close to Cedric intellectually and in other ways. She said, “Look, no one’s writing an obit. We can’t get an obit anywhere.” And I said, “I’ll write one.” I interviewed her, talked to her, and learned all these details that I was kicking myself. I was like, “If I had asked the question … .” I didn’t ask the question because I’m a very shy person. I know that I’m in the public and stuff, but it’s a different thing.

VC: Why did you think the time was right for this third edition?

RDGK: I confess, I’m not the one who came up with the idea of putting it out again. It was UNC Press: Brandon Proia. In the midst of the protests — you had 26 million people on the street. He emailed me and Elizabeth and said, “Look, now’s the time to put out a third edition.” With the new foreword I wanted, one, to really tell Cedric’s story, to situate his intellectual biography to understand where this book came from. Two, to situate the book in relationship to the rebellion of 2020 and talk about it as a manifestation of a black radical tradition. So much of the conversation in political circles, coming out of or preceding the 2020 rebellion, all use terms like “racial capitalism” more than anything else. So I wanted to try to understand this movement, while also trying to clarify what Cedric meant by (a) Black radical tradition and (b) racial capitalism.

VC: What are the difficulties in defining what racial capitalism means?

RDGK: The slightly more traditional Marxist scholars reject the idea that capitalism can actually be racial. They say, “Race is real. It’s a phenomenon. But it’s not really the fundamental one. It sort of gets in the way of what’s really the root of oppression: the reproduction of a capitalized class.” That’s class reduction. And then meanwhile, the so-called race reductionist position — you could call it Afro-pessimism lite — is that we’re just for Black people. They say, “The whole structure of Western civilization is based on anti-Blackness and anti-Blackness alone. And therefore, there can be no allyship, there can be no solidarity.” This kind of standoffishness, saying Black people need to just be for Black people, is not Cedric’s position at all.

The class reductionist versus race reductionist debate doesn’t really advance us. Cedric advances us by helping us understand how capitalism is based on racial regimes. So, for example, property may be capital, in the Marxist sense, but property values are dependent on things that are nonmaterial — that are ideological, or superstructural — like race. Capitalism is rooted in a civilization that is based on difference. This doesn’t at all mean that white people are the enemy, or that Black people are all victims, which I totally reject. It doesn’t mean that all white people benefit. It just simply means that capitalism is structured through difference.

I have made a point of the fact that Cedric was writing a critique of Marxism — but not a hostile critique. He wasn’t rejecting all of Marx and Engels’ ideas, but he felt like Marxism was a window to understanding forms of radicalism that neither Marx nor Engels, nor Lenin, and others, could really grasp. Ironically, some people have gone to a kind of extreme, saying, “There’s nothing in Marxism that’s useful. It’s just a white man making up some stuff, and Cedric is right.” And I’m like, “No.” I find myself actually becoming more of a Marxist in my defense of Cedric.

VC: What do you view as your role as an intellectual? As you write “Black Bodies Swinging,” how do you make sure that what you’re describing is not only scrupulously true but also feeds into a politics that helps us both survive in the present and get somewhere more free in the future?

RDGK: That’s a great question. I feel like it’s not mandatory but it’s really important for me to be engaged in these movements, to make no pretense about some kind of dispassionate, detached objectivity. I think that we need to practice something that’s even better than objectivity. And that is, as you know, critique. Critique, to me, is better than objectivity. Objectivity is a false stance. I’m not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.

As a historian, as a writer, I’ve got to try to be as critical as possible. I’m always trying to be truthful. As I write and produce this work, I learn things that we didn’t see before, but then, the work also reveals things that I failed to understand. And so to me, it’s always a process.

VC: Speaking of that kind of deep involvement, I would love to hear you talk about what California — and maybe Los Angeles, specifically — has meant for you in terms of your life but also in terms of your imagination of struggle.

RDGK: I came to California by way of Seattle in high school at the age of 15. It was in Pasadena. I was able to go to a state university where the tuition or the fees were $90 a semester. Cal State Long Beach. This was a time when we had a lot more Black students and brown students in college. I was involved with the Black student union. I had a part-time study group that was organized by the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party in Long Beach. That’s where I read Walter Rodney and Samir Amin and C.L.R. James — not so much in classrooms but in study groups.

A lot of the young people at the university and older people were working-class people — these were not the elites. In the ’80s we had the invasion of Grenada, we had the sanctuary movement, and the wars in Central America that were just driving Central Americans into Southern California; there was the anti-apartheid movement.

I ended up joining the Communist Workers Party at some point around 1983 or ‘84. I can’t remember when. [Jesse] Jackson’s 1984 campaign was really, really important. We had the Olympics come to Los Angeles in ’84. We organized a whole protest around the Olympics called Survival Fest. And we had a march down Wilshire Boulevard, MacArthur Park. There were like 10,000 people. Got no press, but 10,000 people marching down Wilshire Boulevard. Demanding what? Our demands were jobs, peace and freedom. It was a very exciting time.

VC: I’m glad you mentioned Jesse Jackson, because I have often lamented our resistance to his idea of a Rainbow Coalition. He was explicitly tying rural whites to Latino immigrants to Black working-class people, and putting forward the idea that we can only do this together. Solidarity was in the air.

RDGK: And, of course, where does Jesse Jackson get the idea of the Rainbow Coalition? It comes from Fred Hampton. He coined the term. The Black Panther Party, Illinois chapter, coined the term. And it’s through, specifically, a man named Jack O’Dell. I knew him. Jack was a former Black Communist, a close associate of Dr. King’s and then of Jesse’s, who bridged the generations and brought a left orientation to the civil rights movement. He was the one who introduced the Rainbow Coalition to Jackson. In our current moment, it’s hard to talk about things like a Rainbow Coalition politically. It goes against the white-ally idea, which I’m not really big into, where the ally is perceived to stand aside, standing there ready to be …

VC: … happy to help.

RDGK: Yeah, “happy to help.” The Rainbow Coalition’s more like, “We need to build a movement and we’re all in it.”

VC: And my freedom is a part of yours. I can’t get mine without you getting swept up too.

RDGK: Absolutely. The Rainbow Coalition notion really happened at the grass roots. It had less to do with Jackson and more to do with all the organizing on the ground. When Jackson ran for office, there was a vacuum because the Democratic Party establishment did not like him. The Black Democratic Party establishment did not like him. So that vacuum meant that all of these left-wing organizations basically swept in and became his advisors, Line of March, Communist Workers Party, the Communist Labor Party. I can name them because I was part of it. I was a member of the Communist Workers Party working on the Jackson campaign, all part of this underground of left-wing forces.

VC: You’ve said that in some ways the Black radical tradition comes together at “the crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet.” What does fascism have to do with our moment, and what resources do we have to fight it?

RDGK: Yes.

VC: In order to fight it, you have to fight it everywhere it exists and be in solidarity with — show love for — everybody who lives under it.

RK: Internationalism is the Raid for the cockroach of fascism. Because fascism, it’s always about using nationalism, and the nation, as a bludgeon to generate support for death policies, on behalf of death governments. For violence and repression and exploitation, internationalism is the antidote, always.

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Ecological Justice Economic Justice Environmental Justice Global Peace & Collaboration

Watch: Forum on the Climate Crisis

On Sunday, December 12th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum exploring the climate crisis and what it means for today’s left.

Moderated by our very own José Z. Calderón, the discussion was led by Voices for New Democracy friends Bob Eng and Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus, starting with a presentation highlighting the scope of the climate crisis and the path toward a decarbonized world. The discussion touched on important and challenging issues raised by the specter of climate change: the disruption of extreme weather events, demobilization due to “climate grief,” a new era of geopolitics driven by demand for clean energy commodities like lithium, and the threat of exploitative business models driving the global energy transition. Conversation with the audience also raised important questions about how the left should orient itself politically amid these headwinds: whether we must embrace the movement for “degrowth,” prioritize indigenous liberation and anti-colonialism in our efforts (as advocated in The Red Deal), and how to engage with more mainstream labor-climate proposals like the Green New Deal.

Given the scope of the climate crisis, our presenters believe that climate politics represents the political terrain of the 21st century. But big questions remain about how the left can rise to the moment, and we need your analysis.

With that in mind, we encourage our readers to write to us to share their thoughts and analysis around these questions. If you’re interested in responding to any points raised by this discussion, please email voicesfornewdemocracy@gmail.com.

Watch the full conversation below.

Categories
Ecological Justice Economic Justice Environmental Justice

Capitalism, Ecology, and the Green New Deal

| Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus |

The world’s climate is changing, and it’s surprising — and disappointing — how little our responses have changed since we first recognized the problem decades ago. Since the 1970s, the world has been well aware of climate impacts of burning fossil fuels and many have recognized how our political economy lies at the heart of the problem. Marxist thinkers in particular, like Paul Mattick, were quick to describe the irreconcilable contradiction between our extractive and growth-oriented economic systems and the carrying capacity of our natural ecosystems. But despite these prescient warnings, the world today is still clinging to the same economic systems and largely failing to resolve these tensions. In the face of the accelerating crisis, it’s worth reflecting on the clear trajectory that thinkers like Mattick identified, and what it means for our options in the present moment. 

In 1976, Mattick published his analysis of the problem in “Capitalism and Ecology,” just four years after scientist John Sawyer published the study Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” Effect in 1972. Sawyer’s study summarized the scientific consensus at the time around the Earth’s pressing climate concerns: the anthropogenic attribution of the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, their widespread distribution and their exponential rise throughout the modern era. By the mid-70s, even the Club of Rome recognized the impending ecological crisis in The Limits to Growth. In short, everyone was beginning to recognize the issue: too many of us are using too many resources, too quickly, in too many places. 

The fundamental problem is that we have not been able to reconcile science with the social imperatives of our economic system. The reality is, our system cannot decouple economic growth from environmental impact.

As Mattick writes, Marx recognized that “the exhaustion of the earth’s wealth and relative overpopulation were the direct result of production for profit” (a point that has been explored in great detail by a new generation of eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster). And science bears this out. Our world has only become more productive, populated, and globalized since the Industrial Revolution, and this has correlated closely with rising levels of energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions every year. As our economic activity increases, we cannot avoid using more raw materials to keep the system moving and maintain profit margins.

Ultimately, it is capitalist social relations that drive this ecological crisis. “Social phenomena are ecological phenomena,” Mattick writes. To keep profit rates high (the motor driving the entire system), companies simply have no choice but to keep expanding and growing, and that always requires the use of raw materials — and as global capitalism expands (and demand grows as populations increase and more workers are brought out of the subsistence economy into the wage labor system), that rate of raw material consumption can only increase. 

But this does not mean that the solution is to roll back our productive forces and institute new limits on personal consumption. For millions of exploited workers, a vision of the future defined by less is a very hard sell. In fact, if we take this approach, we risk undermining our own efforts to build economic justice. The Yellow Vests movement in France was sparked by a new tax on gasoline, as were protests in Ecuador against the elimination of a fossil fuel subsidy. The logic behind the proposals used an ecological rationale: wealthy people use far more oil, so limiting their excesses is sensible and, at first glance, progressive. The problem comes from the ways that such approaches are regressive at the margins. While lower income people do use far less oil than the wealthy, they rely heavily on subsidies and cheap fuel simply to be able to go about their days. The problem is that these approaches impose ecological austerity whose burden is felt most strongly by the working class, and offer little benefit to them in return. 

Besides, the promise of communism was the progressive advance of productive forces to improve overall human well-being. Rather than advance a dialectic, rolling back production and consumption would only turn back the tide of history to earlier modes of production. Fundamentally, we cannot resolve this crisis simply by turning back the clock. 

We must remember that humanity does not live separately from the natural world (even though we tend to conceive of ourselves this way); we rely on it to reproduce our societies every day. So the way forward must be with a recognition that the two are inextricably linked. It is our social reality that drives our ecological condition, and trying to treat the ecological condition without addressing the roots of our social relations will only lead to these kinds of regressive solutions. 

As Mattick summarizes, “[T]he problem is not so much the miserliness of nature as a social class system of institutions and power relationships that stands in the way of increasing production and productivity.” Rather, “it is landed property, the tenant-farming system, usurious loan capital, the plantation economy, and the parasitical state bureaucracy that hinder any progressive development by maintaining the existing social structure.” Likewise, “the increasing discrepancy between industrial and agricultural production has less to do with population growth and decreasing fertility of the soil than with the one-sided over-emphasis on industrial expansion, or capital’s expansion, demanded by capitalist competition” at the expense of agricultural output (let alone any embrace of polyculture or regenerative agriculture). 

The task, then, is to overcome the key issue we identified before: the link between economic activity and environmental impact. But to do so, Mattick writes, we must treat social liberation as the prerequisite to ecological transformation:

“What is necessary, today and tomorrow, is to end the human misery due to the capitalist relations of production, as the starting-point for a rationally planned mode of society in accordance with natural conditions—one based not on further privations but on a higher standard of living for everyone, on which the diminution of population growth depends, and which would make possible the further development of society’s productive forces.”

In other words, development itself is not the problem, but rather the way that it has taken place under conditions of competitive struggle, where environmental costs are externalized without frameworks for accountability. And critically, this competitive struggle is not dictated by our actual access to raw materials, but rather by a capitalist mode of production that perpetuates artificial scarcity to maintain competitive growth rates. With that in mind, the way forward is to continue developing productive forces progressively (and in ways that actually offer quality of life improvements for workers), but to do so under a new framework that is rationally planned, actually serves human need, and meaningfully takes ecological limits into account. 

Fortunately, one policy proposal has begun to synthesize these insights and, despite some gray areas, has managed to get buy-in across the political spectrum: the Green New Deal (GND). The GND represents a revolutionary shift in how we conceive of environmental policy by tying it inextricably to labor and industrial policy. This comes with both the benefits and risks of being a placeholder for a holistic social transition (onto which many different actors can project distinct visions). But it still shifts consciousness of the issue, and must be developed, not abandoned. 

The GND recognizes that, given the existential threat climate change poses to human society, the federal government (in coordination down to the local level) must lead a deliberate and expansive national mobilization to restructure our physical realities, as well as social and economic systems, and build a new, sustainable way of life in the country. It overcomes the binary between environmentalism and class struggle by placing workers and marginalized communities at the center of this transition, promising that high-paying union jobs will enact the program and build our carbon-neutral systems, with an emphasis on serving frontline communities and undoing the damage that the capitalist mode of production has already inflicted on working people through environmental racism and pollution. Furthermore, the GND is distinct in its national approach to the issue, which actually recognizes the sheer scale of what will need to be done to meet our climate goals. 

Ultimately, we must also challenge the idea that all forms of growth are equal. Much (if not most) of our productive activity is wasteful, and we should cut back on resource-intensive activities (which largely don’t benefit the public, anyway) and instead organize our economies around lower-impact, more human-centered labor like care work. Mattick writes that much of our wasteful economic activity “could be transformed into productive labor—’productive’ not in the sense of profitable but in the sense of creative of use-value [emphasis mine] —while shortening labor time.” We would still have to work and promote development in our communities to deliver improved quality of life and overall social prosperity, but we can approach it in a rational way that operates within ecological boundaries. This also implies new social, political, and economic relations that can build a more egalitarian society. 

This represents a more radical vision of what the Green New Deal can offer by reconceptualizing the goals of our economic and social systems. To truly operate within planetary limits, it’s not possible for individual consumption to remain at current levels. But at the same time, we must be able to offer a better future for the masses if we have any political hope of advancing a sustainable system.

The notion of public luxury could be the key to resolving this tension. In some ways, it’s common sense: collective problems require collective solutions, and collective cooperation makes for a smaller impact for each individual (hence the old saying “many hands make for light work”). Our social relations fundamentally define how we use energy and resources, so to be as sustainable as possible it only makes sense that we must embrace collective and cooperative frameworks to maximize efficiencies. And if we do so appropriately, we can truly speak of luxuries for the public: well-connected rapid transit systems, higher-quality housing, more green spaces and public parks, more resources devoted to healthcare and other care work, more free time, shorter hours, well-funded public amenities, etc.  

Systems driven by social competition produce destructive cycles for the individuals within them, and will reproduce similar forms of destruction on an ecological level. It is only through cooperation, coordination, and a commitment to collective well-being that we can deliver a sustainable and flourishing future. Whatever it’s called, such a system would represent a historic and revolutionary departure from the capitalist mode of production, and would likely have to approximate a form of communism. If that is the case, then true communism may be our only hope for a sustainable future on Earth. 

Still, we can’t be utopian in our outlook; there are limits to what can be done, both politically and ecologically. Any transition from our system will require massive amounts of lithium and likely more resource-intensive development to build the infrastructure for a sustainable society; this is sure to unleash new struggles over control of resources and raw materials and could meet justifiable resistance from frontline communities. And there are sure to be significant challenges in shifting our mode of production: as we restructure our way of life, new fractures are certain to emerge and new struggles will have to arise over the form that this takes. It will be a difficult line to walk, but the left must develop a vision that advances economic and political justice as a prerequisite to ecological transformation, and sustainably develops clean productive forces that don’t rely on moonshot technologies like carbon removal. Now more than ever, we must challenge the underlying logic and the basis on which our system operates, and we must remain committed to this radical vision for a different society.