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The Green New Deal

A solution to environmental destruction?

October 2020

Many left groups now put forward at the centre of their programme a Green New Deal. What is the Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal is based on the US New Deal of 1933 administered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has twin aims:

Mass state intervention and investment to reverse mass poverty,  homelessness and unemployment growing across the world.

The focus of this intervention would be to turn the economy through 180 degrees.  Energy supply and use would move from a carbon economy to one based on renewable energy. Production systems would change to allow full recycling of waste and elimination of pollution.  Agriculture and fisheries would shift to a new and sustainable model, preventing mass extinction.

Do socialists support the proposals?

Certainly! That's the sort of world we would like to live in. The issue is that without some way of converting it to action it is an aspiration, not a programme.

The problems arise when proponents spell out how these aspirations can be made real. Mostly they argue that the capitalist state can make these changes, either through protest and persuasion or through a "left" government bringing in new policies.

Will the GND work?

Will the economic element work? There is very strong evidence that the original new deal didn't. It provided work programmes for many and expanded the US infrastructure,  but didn't lead to economic recovery. The evidence is that the boom came when America entered the war, bringing about both full employment and full economic capacity,  even though this is the economic equivalent of setting fire to money.

The new deal debate is part of a wider debate between two directions for capitalism - classical economic theory that believes the market will correct bust with a new boom and the Keynesian argument that the state should intervene to smooth out the boom bust cycle.

In actual fact there is no debate. Standard economic theories are used to justify capitalism rather than direct its movement. Following the post war boom and high profit rates in the West, with the USSR seeming to pose an alternative  and under threat from radicalised workers, capitalism was willing to sanction state intervention. Since  the 70s the rate of profit has steadily fallen in the West and there has been a consistent drive to force down wages and conditions. Right wing capitalists and social democrats both stand for balancing the books and cutting back the rights of the working class.

What about the green argument? The idea is that environmental collapse is so extreme that capitalism has no choice but to respond. But capitalism is not a rational system. Think of all the poisonous and harmful products that are produced with little restriction. The state intervenes in extreme cases,  but even those restrictions are being rolled back. Without restriction the only issue is the ability to produce surplus value. The claim of catastrophe doesn't hold. As we see already with global warming, it is the poor who face catastrophe while the 1% are relatively immune.

At the global level there are no laws. Unless major powers threaten retribution, the idea is to persuade nations to agree treaties. The Greens hoist their colours to the Paris accord, but it was designed to win agreement,  not to resolve the crisis. It was non-binding, but even then the largest economy,  the US, pulled out. The world continues to burn and there is no serious response.

A further theme is that technical innovation will make solar energy so cheap that it automatically replaces fossil fuels. That's unlikely to happen. Capitalism does not normally discard existing productive capacity. Solar joins the energy market and prices fluctuate between different sectors.  Only if renewable energy was to fall to a fraction of the cost of pumping oil out of the ground would fossil fuel be displaced. In any case it is unlikely that technical innovation would lead to magical resolution of all the issues of pollution and climate change. The ecosystem is enormously more complex than human technology. Capitalism can degrade the planet but it really is inconceivable that it could rebuild it.


In Ireland we have all the issues of a green new deal writ small. Our history includes capitulation to big oil; in the 70s the rental of Whiddy island for a yearly rent of £100 to the oil companies and the subsequent environmental disaster, the giveaway of oil and gas, ignoring Norway's advice about dual control and state oversight and the state and the forces of social partnership uniting to terrorise citizens and force through the Shell toSea pipeline.

The overall economy acts as a tax haven for some of the biggest companies on the planet. The Irish government has conspired with Apple to sequester billions in tax. The idea that they will crack down with new environmental regulation is unbelievable.

The native Irish economy has a long record of lagging behind even the low level of environmental control set by Europe.  Lack of planning has left capital concentrated in Dublin and lack of a unified transport system.  The national herd - that is, giant agribusiness, has developed unsustainably, with high methane levels and nitrate pollution. As with the transnationals, big farming pays almost no tax, certainly there is no use of tax to restrict high levels of pollution An economy dominated by imperialism is unable to provide housing and health services sufficient to meet the needs of the workers. The possibility of a sustainable environment is beyond our rulers.

The Green response in Ireland,  led by the Green party,  has been to join coalition government. This is a common feature of the European Green movement and has always led to further repression of workers and little environmental progress.  Many Greens think the answer to global warming is deindustrialization and a return to the bronze age and happily support punitive measures against workers.

The Green programme in Ireland was far from radical. The most radical demand, for public housing, was dropped within minutes of entering coalition talks.  What was left rested on exactly the same basis as all other reformist proposals made over the decades - more funding from the European Central Bank.  Just how crazy this is can be seen when we consider that the main aim of the bank is to enforce austerity and extract payments to meet the sovereign debt.

The Greens call for more bicycles. Public transport and electric cars are linked to more recycling and retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient.  The big demand that would bring substantial change is for a cut in CO² emissions.

The Party is seeking a carbon cut of at least 7 per cent each year to 2030, in line what climate scientists indicate is necessary to avoid irreversible climate impacts – it also matches the aspirational EU target under the European Green Deal of a 50 to 55 per cent cut over the next decade.

The Irish left have put forward a more radical Green New Deal in a failed effort to win over the youth wing of the Green Party. However it  in its turn is aspirational: 100% publicly-owned green energy. Free, green and frequent public transport. Big agri-business into democratic public ownership, reform subsidies to incentivise a shift away from dairy and beef farming. Expropriate the wealth of the big oil companies to invest in renewable technologies.

The mechanism for achieving these aspirations is absent from both the Green and left manifestos. Both groups believe that economic subventions can be coaxed from the European Central Bank. The Greens believe that their coalition with Irish capital can deliver results. The left believe that a left government led by Sinn Fein would expropriate the wealth of big oil. These are fever dreams from an alternative looking glass reality.  The most realistic view is the Green party's belief in coalition  - and that's because their demands, outside the size of the carbon reduction target, are so modest that some progress can be made even with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael - a thousand miles short of anything that would reverse climate change.

What's the alternative?

In order to put forward an alternative it is important to see in depth of the socialist critique of the capitalist mode of production.

In the interaction between capital and labour value is produced. The relationship is exploitative because the capitalist retains surplus value for their own use.

The class struggle is not only between capital and labour but also between capitalist and capitalist.  Those able to maximise surplus value grow, those who can't go under. This endless struggle puts pressure on the rate of profit and there is a search for ways to reduce production costs.  A core element of this process is the interaction with nature.

The capitalist degradation of nature begins at the point of production. Inputs in the form of raw materials are simply grabbed from the earth in the most cost effective way. Strip mining, oil drilling,  forest clearance and trawling are examples that come to mind. Outputs are simply released into the environment so pollution of air, water and atmosphere are routine.

Science and truth are constantly distorted to enable profit.  The test case was the tobacco industry, hiding research and inventing its own paid science community to cover up an avalanche of illness and death.  They were followed by big Pharma and currently by a full fledged "science" of climate change that denies human involvement in climate catastrophe.  Mainstream media aids the confusion by staging "debates" between science and the polluters' propaganda machine.

Localised restriction by the state can act nationally to regulate capital. A universal legal restriction levels the playing field and saves capitalism from itself. Internationally the picture is different.  The regulations have to apply across the globe or the individual company’s need to maximise surplus value takes over, but international regulation is via treaties that are more loosely applied, not legally binding and often ignored. An example is the Paris climate treaty that produced the illusion of movement rather than any real change.

What can be done?  First we must look at what is

What is, is a rapid and accelerating degradation of the environment that will lead to mass death, food shortage,  rising sea levels, drought and air and water degradation.

What is is the existing opposition; community groups, native populations, ecological, ecosocialist and extinction rebellion groups. In the background there is a large scientific community fighting its own battles against government censorship and propaganda.

These groups deserve our full support. Socialists should join with them in their protests and struggles.  We must however at every opportunity argue that defence of the environment does not stand above the class struggle that we are all immersed in. The capitalists can't switch to a sustainable mode of production and are able to use their vast resources to protect themselves.

We should welcome the rare victories where we can push back against the polluters but we must stress that the capitalist mode of production cannot be modified to end a constant environmental degradation. The alternative is the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the creation of a socialist society. It is easy to see the immediate difference it would make if planning new production was based around worker’s needs rather than the blind operation of profit. In an economy controlled by the workers environmental degradation and pollution would be part of the cost of production, not kept offsheet as with capitalist production.

It's true that the socialist approach requires mobilisation by the workers and in many areas they are  fragmented and demobilised. Fighting for a safe environment requires agency - the confidence that your thoughts,  actions and debate with others can bring change. Many workers have faced decades of defeat and austerity and traditional leaderships in the unions and political parties have blocked all but the most limited action.

Workers are holding on to the limited resources they have. But things will only get worse and circumstances will force them to undertake a more generalised revolt.

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