Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Neoliberalism's Green Foil, Part 2: The Emergence of the New Left

Change is inevitable. That was one of the first lessons taught to me when I went to Planning School at Ryerson University in the early 1990s. It was a pretty easy lesson for those of us born in the latter part of the 20th Century – a time which saw significant changes in social norms and technology. For anyone growing up in the 1980s, as I did, the notion that change could be anything but inevitable would have seemed very strange.

The Faces of Change

And yet we inhabit a world which tends to resist change, rather than embrace it. This, too, is understandable to a degree, for the familiar is comfortable while change brings with it altered circumstances which are unknowable. As the ancient I Ching, or a modern urban planner could tell you, change presents both opportunities and challenges. In contrast, the status quo offers the comfort of a degree of certainty, which typically lends itself to be the default motivator for just about everyone.

These dual realities lead to a significant level of friction in our society. Change will occur, and it will be resisted. Some would say that the trick is how best to manage change so that it occurs on our terms – not too fast so that the status quo is altered fundamentally, but not too slow so that we undermine our ability to innovate and prosper through over-regulation, which in turn could lead to strife. Others on either extreme will assert that change should simply be allowed to occur at its own pace, or that the status quo must be preserved for the sake of tradition and stability. I think it’s fair to say that I have always related more to those who want to manage change – although I’m not always in agreement that the pace of change should always be moderate.

While change can and does occur on its own terms, the argument that we should simply allow for change to happen takes us down the road to catastrophe, as it ignores the reality that unplanned for change can be devastating. If we do not assess the consequences of the changes which we unleash in the world, if we fail to consider consequences and how change might impact ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our communities and our planet, then there is no good which can come from this viewpoint. That it may be less costly in the short term to allow the inevitable to happen on its own fails to recognize how costly it will be down the road.

Conservatives and Change

Yet this point of view of allowing change to occur on its own terms has many advocates amongst those who support a neoliberal economic viewpoint and the Conservative political organizations which tend to be supported by neoliberal adherents. On the Canadian political scene, the Conservative and Liberal parties represent neo-liberal economic interests, as do the Democratic and Republican Parties in the United States. Conservative support for runaway change may appear to be ironic, as conservatism has it its roots the notion that change should be resisted so as not to overwhelm the populace, and to perpetuate economic stability. Conservatism has always presented itself as the champion of the status quo, in conflict with change. However, by ignoring the flip-side of the coin, which is that change is inevitable, Conservatives, in their pursuit of resistance, have gone down the blind alley of failing to plan for the future. Neoliberal economic schools of thought, of course, embrace Conservative principles regarding a failure to plan for the future, because this failure leads to the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

The Left Wing and the Status Quo

The perpetuation of the status quo has been championed by the political left-wing over the past half century. While Canada’s labour movement originally coalesced around the need to bring about managed change to the relationship between workers and owners, since the hard-fought victories won by labour, it is fair to say that the labour movement itself has become entrenched with protecting the status quo. While this may be gradually changing (and that is the subject of this blogpost), it is probably something which those on the left side of our political spectrum fail to see within their movement – and within themselves.

By supporting the perpetuation of our hyper-capitalist economic system, albeit on terms favourable to labour, the movement and its primary political allies (which is the New Democratic Party in Canada, and the Democratic Party in the United States) have been calling for more of the same, save for tweaks which are perceived to make life better for citizens in the short term. This support of the status quo has left the labour movement chaffing and directionless, and without the support of an increasing number of Canadians who view labour as obstructionist supporters of “red tape” and the status quo at the expense of innovation and prosperity.

Again, this attitude may surprise those on the left of the political spectrum. To those who self-identify as NDP and labour supporters, I ask you this: have you noticed in the past decade or so how often the political right has started to describe itself as “progressive” and the left-wing as “regressive”? While it may be that you have scoffed at what appears to be a bizarre labelling of traditional liberal and conservative epitaphs, nevertheless it cannot be contested that the political right has increasingly come to view itself as the voice of progressivism – simply because it stands opposed to the pro-labour status quo which has evolved over the past half-century, and which to a degree impedes neoliberal economic objectives.

By seeking to transform the status quo, by allowing change to happen on its own terms without roadblocks, regulation, or (sometimes) market intervention, Conservatives and neoliberals may actually have a point to make that they are being “progressive” in their pursuit of tearing down the status quo and replacing it with, interestingly, a future as seemingly uncertain as the financial markets themselves.

What’s so Hot About the Status Quo, other than the Planet?

Those on the left and in the labour movement, however, should be far less concerned with ownership of the “progressive” label than they are about their support for the status quo. Even in their opposition to the runaway hyper-capitalism of neoliberal economics, the left continues to frame itself as defenders of the status quo – or where there is real conflict, it is only so far as to fight the good fight for a return to the status quo, by taking on “right to work” legislation and other union-busting laws and tactics used by conservatives in their pursuit of tearing down the existing system.

A better question for the left is why it continues to persist in championing the status quo at the expense of an approach which manages the truly reformational changes society needs to undertake to meet the change-challenges of the 21st Century? These challenges are well-known – and that we must face them is inevitable. The climate is changing, and energy continues to get more expensive, as we bump against the end of inexpensive energy. The emergence of a truly green economy is necessary to meet these challenges, as they can’t be addressed on the terms of our current hyper-capitalist economic model. The neoliberal status quo, economically speaking, offers no basis for defence.

Labour and the Green Economy

Indeed, it seems to me that those on the left and within the labour movement have finally started to come around and undertake a little bit of introspection. Certainly, there is a much greater understanding of the need for reformational change to our economic institutions and processes, in order to move to a green economy which better addresses the 21st Century challenges of climate change and wealth inequality. But for labour, it’s been a long time in coming, and there is still a long way to go. Some within the labour movement view the coming a green economy as a threat, since their jobs depend on maintaining the fossil fuel status quo. As a result, there will be increasing friction between conservative forces in the labour movement and those who understand that the economic status quo is not sustainable.

Naomi Klein advocates an alliance between labour and environmentalists – one in which the labour movement acts as an anchor for the cause of reformational economic change (see: “Naomi Klein: Climate Change, Unions and a United Left Agenda”, posted at Climate & Capitalism, September 4, 2013). Klein refers to this alliance as a “united left” – terminology which I can’t support, given the political left’s current investment in hyper-capitalism – at the very least, I’d prefer “new left” or calling it what it is: “Green”). Klein correctly identifies the neoliberal hyper-capitalist system as the gravest threat to the planet, and to the emergence of a truly green 21st Century economy.

In fact, we’ve begun to see an environmental/labour alliance emerge over the past few years, and it’s truly exciting to watch and to take part in. Of course, there are significant challenges, both within the labour movement and the environmental movement. Even the way that these movements communicate amongst themselves can be challenges.

The New Left Alliance: Challenges for Environmentalists

More fundamentally, the environmental movement has been partially co-opted by the very same neoliberal forces which Klein has identified as the most severe threat to planetary health. Specifically, big environmental organizations which have consumed the lion’s share of resources on campaigns which lead to marginal successes (such as saving a particular stand of trees, or to add conservation status to a particular piece of property) have bought into the notion that the world can be saved within the context of the current economic paradigm, which is hyper-capitalism.

It can’t. Neoliberal hyper-capitalism must be rejected out of hand by any who truly want to find themselves on a path towards a 21st Century green economy. I know that this is a scary proposition for some in the environmental movement, and particularly some of my own friends and family members who may have been involved with a Big Enviro campaign. I’m not suggesting that saving trees or preserving lands or wildlife isn’t important, because it is. What I am suggesting is that a lot of time, energy and money have been going towards matters which haven’t taken us very much further towards the reformational changes we need to make. If anything, most of what has been accomplished in the past several decades have been isolated and disconnected. Although I dislike using military analogies in my writing, I do find that they can be useful to communicate some ideas quickly. In this case, small, individual skirmishes might have been won, but the overall war is one which environmentalists are clearly losing. In battle, a successful commander wishes to fight on ground of their own choosing. For too long, environmentalists have ceded that decision to the forces of hyper-capitalism.

And it’s not just the co-opting of Big Enviro which has contributed to the perpetuation of the hyper-capitalist economic system. Indeed, many well-intentioned environmental activists have found themselves intimately involved with political parties (either on the inside or from the outside) which continue to embrace liberal ideologies. By their very definition, liberals and liberal political parties such as the NDP, believe that economic growth is required for prosperity. The notion which places “growth” in the central position within the current economic paradigm is clearly one which is outdated and unsustainable, but undeniably populist. In fact, the very notion of zero or negative growth is one which generally terrifies the public.

However, the fact is that the perpetual growth required by the hyper-capitalist system on a planet of finite resources is unsustainable. Most environmental activists know and understand this, yet some continue to support political parties and organizations which look for growth-based solutions within the existing hyper-capitalist economic context for issues such as climate change. Some would say that since the problem of climate change is one which is global in scale, that it only makes sense that climate change be addressed globally, through international treaties such as Kyoto.

I would agree with the first part, but not the second.

Yes, the climate crisis is global in scale, and as such, it requires a global solution. That solution, however, cannot be one rooted in the existing hyper-capitalist context. While part of the solution might make a good start within that context (as Kyoto has tried to do, with mixed success), the reality is that no agreement made within the current economic system is going to be successfully implemented by those who are wed to hyper-capitalism. If we want a truly global solution, perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on international emissions reductions targets (which may or may not ever be met), and instead focus on the reform of our economic institutions which favour hyper-capitalism to the detriment of the emergent green economy.

For starters, it’s time that environmentalists start talking about free trade – more specifically, the need to terminate free trade agreements, which are standing in the way of locally implementable solutions to emissions reduction.

The New Left Alliance: Challenges for Labour

The labour movement too must deal with its own internal frictions – for too long the labour movement has been at the vanguard of opposition to needed energy reforms, due to the notion that carbon pricing will lead to job loss and possibly recession. We continue to see this attitude from labour today, as unions speak in favour of pipeline developments which will exacerbate the problem of growing tar sands emissions. Too often, labour has been focused on short-term gains over long term investments. This attitude has to change.

Also, the labour movement has tended to pick political winners and losers, motivating their base to actively campaign for political parties which offer policies which are perceived to be in the interests of labour. While not always successful in influencing the outcome of all elections, the fact is that labour support for political parties can, at times, be formidable. Yet the political parties which labour tends to endorse (the NDP and the Liberal Party) have policies which actively undermine the long-term health of union members and their families. The Liberal and New Democratic parties are wedded to the perpetuation of the hyper-capitalist economic system. As that circumstance can’t be tolerated, it may mean that labour will need to look elsewhere to achieve the goals of Klein’s environmental-labour alliance – or that political parties will need to change in order to garner the support of the emergent alliance.

The Pace of Change

I believe that the emerging alliance between labour and environmentalism is necessary – in fact, I believe that it needs to be far more than a simple “alliance” (a term which Klein does not use), as it implies a union between two sides. Instead, the labour movement and the environmental movement must become integrated movements – and here’s where my own “new let” terminology comes into play. For clearly an integrated movement between labour and environmentalism can and should rightly be described as “green”, but that term implies something which is bigger than labour or environmentalism and has political overtones which may not be palatable to some.

My own frustration, however, has to do with the intransigence of labour and environmentalists to recognize that such an alliance is within their own interests. I understand that it’s difficult to simply abandon the way that business has been conducted for long periods of time and try something new – yet if the New Left is to be successful, liberal-based unions and environmentalists must do just that. Labour and environmentalists must reject the hyper-capitalist system in favour of a green economic system. Simply favouring “green jobs” isn’t enough – we need to facilitate the arrival of a truly green economy. As long as political decision-makers remain advocates for the current economic system, the emergence of the green economy will be curtailed.

Yet, change is always resisted, so I don’t have a lot of hope that labour or big enviros are going to change their spots any time soon. More likely, it will be a slow coming together of interests – unless there is some significant event which leads to a massive and abrupt change of public opinion. My concern is that more time is going to be lost in fits and starts as internal introspection leads to internal resistance.

It may be that a generational shift will finally bring the labour and environmental movements together in an integrated way. Sometimes paradigms shift only when the last adherents to the old way of thinking give way completely to the younger adherents of the new model. The problem with the generational approach, though, is simply that it takes too long: the climate isn’t going to wait. The window for meaningful action, if it’s still open at all, is closing rapidly.

The status quo is a comfortable one in which to operate. Yet, ties with liberal political ideologies must be severed – and the political parties which support these liberal ideologies must either change themselves and adapt, or be abandoned by supporters. In the United States, it’s going to be a difficult challenge in particular, as labour and environmentalists have long found a champion in the Democratic Party. But the Democratic Party is at its very heart an instrument of the neoliberal hyper-capitalist economic system. Our American friends will likely have to build a new political institution from the ground up. At least here in Canada there are some other options. In my next post, I’ll explore what some of those options are.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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