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The Failure of Market Solutions and the Green New Deal – Pt 2


Alyssa Battistoni (@alybatt) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

As I argued in Part I of this post, we need to rethink not only the scope of state intervention in the economy, but what exactly the economy is. Instead of focusing on the industrial manufacturing “inside” the economy and trying to clean up the externalities that inevitably spill out, we need an economic policy that takes seriously the social and ecological functions that have been treated as external to the economy altogether. That is to say—we can no longer think of things like social and ecological wellbeing as “post-material” concerns or something to address as a “justice” bonus after we’ve gotten the economy growing again. Rather, these things are fundamental to how the economy works. So how far does “industrial policy” extend, and what would it mean with respect to social reproduction and ecological reproduction, from care work to carbon sequestration? And what in turn does this mean for the future of state action?

Climate discourse frequently moves almost seamlessly between the language of the “Green New Deal” and the call for “wartime mobilization.” World War II, this argument goes, is an example of undertaking rapid economic transformation in the face of emergency. As Bill McKibben writes, “Turning out more solar panels and wind turbines may not sound like warfare, but it’s exactly what won World War II: not just massive invasions and pitched tank battles and ferocious aerial bombardments, but the wholesale industrial retooling that was needed to build weapons and supply troops on a previously unprecedented scale.” To move away from fossil fuels, we need to “build a hell of a lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields, and millions and millions of electric cars and buses.” We do need to build a lot of solar panels and other clean energy technologies. But that’s a short-term transition strategy—not a model for a new economy. After the war, the expanded productive capacity was redeployed again, towards mass production of consumer goods for the benefit of private capital, with serious environmental consequences. But the emphasis on building factories also fits uneasily with the New Deal analogy.

In fact, the original New Deal was as much a program for social (and at times even ecological) reproduction as reinvigorating production—it provided a lifeline for millions struggling to survive amidst a collapse of the world economy, even though it took the war to truly end the Depression. As Salar Mohandesi and Emma Teitelman argue in their article “Without Reserves,” “The catastrophe that was the Great Depression irreversibly transformed social reproduction in the United States.” As Mohandesi and Teitelman detail, households which depended on wages struggled to survive once they lost access to waged work: shantytowns sprung up around the country; infant mortality and malnourishment rose drastically; diseases and suicide increased. Growing militancy on the shop floor was paralleled by food riots and rent strikes. The federal government provided jobs, relief payments, and supplies of food and fuel to the millions in need. While public infrastructure projects like the TVA and Hoover Dam became famous, the government also employed people to provide social reproductive functions: “Emergency Nursery Schools, which were originally designed to provide work for unemployed teachers, custodians, cooks, and nurses, ended up offering childcare for many impoverished working-class households in the United States.” But such forms of social provision were for the most part intended to be temporary. Programs like Social Security were permanent, but federal employment and unemployment assistance were not—by intention. And the state’s remaking of social reproduction also remade social relationships, most notably through the family wage (frequently accessible only to white men and their families) and explicit institutionalization of a gendered and racialized division of labor that would structure American social life and economic production for decades.

So it was with some apprehension that I read in the GND resolution that a job guarantee would “guarantee a job with a family-sustaining wage.” It’s a brief line likely meant to signal recognition that wages are far too low to afford housing, childcare, etc. And a revived family wage is unlikely to have the same effects today that it did in the 20th century; it will not single-handedly revive the (white) male breadwinner or the nuclear family. But the enthusiasm for a family-based support system should trouble us nonetheless. (Melinda Cooper has recently shown how neoliberals remade the family to absorb social costs as they dismantled the welfare state; we should be wary of how the family might be remade in the present moment and what its effects might be.) Why should we return to a family wage system, given what we know about the social hierarchy entrenched in mid-century social programs?

And why not include in “industrial policy” something like Angela Davis’s proposal in Women, Race, and Class to industrialize and socialize housework, which she saw as a strike against both capitalism and toilsome labor? Free, universal childcare would go some way towards this vision; so too would a health care program that not only guaranteed access to health care but drastically expanded it.

Ecological reproduction, meanwhile, could connect the demand for a job guarantee, an idea developed largely by the Black freedom movement, to the ecological restoration projects of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (expanded and made permanent) and New Deal programs in support of arts, music, theater—all part of the project of expanding low-carbon leisure instead of carbon-intensive production.

In brief lists at the beginning and end of the GND resolution, hints of such a program for social and ecological reproduction come into view: in calls for “(i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment” at the beginning; at the end, “(i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.” In these points we see a recognition of the ongoing social and ecological crisis of care and climate that must be at the heart of the GND. These are not just add-ons to the “real” climate program of clean-energy-production, as some have charged—they’re essential to the vision of a new economy.