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The Green New Deal (GND) is now part of the national conversation. But for decades, social movements have been doing the on-the-ground work to resist fossil capitalism and envision a different future. Such grassroots social mobilization — but at a massive scale — is vital to ensuring the GND catalyzes transformative social change.
Cooperation Jackson is at the forefront of eco-socialist organizing to create a new society and economy from the bottom up. Cooperation Jackson encompasses a network of worker cooperatives and supporting institutions fighting to build a solidarity economy in Mississippi and beyond. Jacobin’s Green New Deal editorial team spoke with Kali Akuno, the cofounder and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, and coeditor of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS.
In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed the links between local eco-socialist action, national movement-building, and an internationalist orientation; tactics and strategies for interacting with electoral politics to radicalize the GND — and much more. Throughout, Akuno draws on a long history of environmental justice activism in the United States and around the world, providing key lessons about how to move forward — and quickly — to generate a militant, mass movement for a just planet.
(E) We’re in an interesting political moment where there’s a lot of excitement around a GND coming from insurgent left-wing Democrats, but also a lot of pushback from centrists in the party who have a lot of power, as we saw in Nancy Pelosi’s move to weaken the Select Committee on a GND. How can we be strategic about interacting with different representatives and power players? Looking forward to 2020, how can we orient ourselves towards the most radical GND possible?
(KA) Organizing is the answer. We have to organize a strong independent base to advance the transition program we need, be it the Green New Deal or anything similar. Without that this epic issue will be held hostage to forces seeking to maintain the capitalist system as is, whether it be the Democratic or Republican variety of this worldview and its articulated interests. And we have to build this base to advance two strategies at once.
One, we have to organize a mass base within the working class, particularly around the job-focused side of the just transition framework. We have to articulate a program that concretely addresses the class’s immediate and medium-term need for jobs and stable income around the expansion of existing “green” industries and the development of new ones, like digital fabrication or what we call community production, that will enable a comprehensive energy and consumption transition. This will have to be a social movement first and foremost, which understands electoral politics as a tactic and not an end unto itself.
For our part, one of the critical initiatives that we as Cooperation Jackson are arguing for is the development of a broad “union-co-op” alliance that would seek to unite the three forms of the organized working-class movement in this country — i.e. the trade unions, workers’ centers, and worker cooperatives — around what we call a “build and fight” program. It would seek to construct new worker-owned and self-managed enterprises rooted in sustainable methods of production on the build side and to enact various means of appropriation of the existing enterprises by their workers on the fight side, which would transition these industries into sustainable practices (or in some cases phase them out entirely). We think this is a means towards building the independence that is required to dictate the terms of the political struggle in the electoral arena.
The second strategy calls for mass civil disobedience, as we witnessed at Standing Rock. We have to recognize that the neoliberal and reactionary forces at the heart of the Democratic Party are only part of the problem. The main enemy is and will be the petrochemical transnationals. We have to weaken their ability to extract, and this entails stopping new exploration and production initiatives. This is critical because it will weaken their power, particularly their financial power, which is at the heart of their lobbying power. If we can break that, we won’t have to worry about the centrists, as you put it.
(E) Cooperation Jackson is a local project, and a lot of the most exciting left projects now are local or municipal. The Green New Deal is likely to involve a lot of money that will ultimately be spent by local bodies. Yet the history of the US, including the New Deal, includes a lot of examples of local institutions actually defending inequalities and privileges from federal intervention, whereas something like what W. E. B. Dubois called “abolition democracy” required federal back-up. How do you think about the role of decentralization and the federal government in terms of a Green New Deal, especially in the early years?
(KA) Cooperation Jackson is a locally situated project, as you noted, but we see ourselves as part of an international, or more appropriately, several international movements. I say this because we don’t think the answers to the questions posed are local or national; they are of necessity global. We have to build an international movement to stop runaway climate change and the sixth great extinction event that we are living through right now. There is no way around that.
One of the reasons why we have to build a powerful international movement is to fortify our national, regional, and local movements against the reactionary threats and counter-movements that exist throughout the US, but that are extremely concentrated in places like Mississippi. For instance, on a practical level, being connected to an array of international forces helps give cover to our work in Jackson. We can bring various types of pressure to bear on local reactionary forces whose constant threats against us can be mitigated (to varying degrees) by acts of economic and political reprisal by our international (and national) allies.
To the extent that the Green New Deal becomes policy, and is rooted in a radical just transition framework, it will make a significant contribution toward addressing the climate crisis as it transforms energy and consumption practices in the US, particularly those of the government, which is one of the leading carbon emitters on the planet. However, in order for the Green New Deal to be effective in its implementation, it is going to have to be extremely nuanced to address the situated racial and class inequalities that are at the heart of your question.
So for instance, barring a major radical transformation of the Mississippi government (and society), we in Jackson would need a direct relationship with the federal government to ensure access to the federal resources provided by the Green New Deal. Under present conditions, if those resources were allocated to the state government alone, you best believe that Jackson would only receive a fraction of those resources — if that. The primary reason being the ongoing structural intersections between settler colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy that continue to define the US as a project.
Therefore, in order to be effective, the Green New Deal must not be one-dimensional in its orientation — i.e., only concern itself with reducing carbon emissions, without taking into account how to address and overcome the racial, class, gender, and regional-based inequities in this society.
(E) Cooperation Jackson has been working on cooperative agricultural models. What role should food sovereignty movements play in the GND, in terms of agricultural production methods?
(KA) A significant part of the sixth extinction event is the rapid loss of habitat and corresponding ecological destruction that countless species have suffered the past two hundred years. We have to, and I stress have to, figure out a way to severely restrict our habitat (i.e. land) use and engage in some major ecological restoration.
The challenge is how to produce more food, on smaller plots of land, without resorting to genetic modification. We haven’t figured this out, to my mind. Not even close. I think permaculture points us in the right direction, as does some degree of small-scale agriculture to at least break the stranglehold the monopolies currently have. I also think we will need to maximize urban density, fairly significantly, to enable more habitats to be recuperated for other species and to restore ecological balance and the replenishment of the soil, which are major carbon sinks. In doing this we will have to turn our urban spaces into “living farms” to address many of our caloric needs.
The Green New Deal is going to have to address this challenge head on and leave ample room for experimentation, but an experimentation that intentionally breaks the power of the monopolies and creates new incentives for production that are not profit-driven or bound.
(E) You’ve been very lucid on the problem of productivism that’s implicit in a lot of Green New Deal proposals. One way some of us have tried to address this issue is by emphasizing other kinds of work, like care work. Another idea out there is to transition huge amounts of the workforce toward part-time work — that is, to distribute existing work more evenly. What are some of the ways you think we should finesse a jobs guarantee to avoid reproducing capitalist and/or socialist productivist politics?
(KA) The Left has to start positioning itself around improving the overall quality of life of the working class, the oppressed, and humanity as a whole. A broader distribution of work is a necessary step in this direction without question, and it’s not only the right direction, but the imperative one. However, this has to be combined with forms of solidarity exchange to improve the quality of life of the majority of humanity. This is where things like time-banking on a mass scale can and should come in. As well as the overall expansion of the commons.
To my mind, this will also entail transitional measures, such as a universal basic income (UBI). I say transitional because instituting a UBI without socializing the means of production would only serve to reproduce the capitalist logic of accumulation and the unequal relationships that are necessary for its reproduction.
Ultimately, I think we are going to have to develop a comprehensive and democratic planning system that equitably distributes the essential goods and services we all need to survive and thrive. And to be clear, I’m not arguing for a return to the centralized state-capitalist economies of the twentieth century, but the democratic socialization of the emergent information-based exchange economies, and that would utilize technological innovations to create a regenerative economy.
This would entail, at least in its early stages, various rules and limits, to make sure that exchanges stay within scientific and social limits related to resource extraction and energy utilization, until they become normative — which would take a few generations to undo the century of conspicuous consumption that has been advanced and promoted by late capitalism.
(E) You’ve pointed to indigenous leadership in stopping pipelines at places like Standing Rock and argued we need to “scale up our campaigns against the oil companies,” including through direct action. Others have called for nationalizing and shutting down oil and gas companies. What does scaling up the fight against fossil-fuel companies look like? What’s the political path to taking down these incredibly rich and powerful companies?
(KA) As I noted, the type of direct action that we witnessed at Standing Rock is where we are going to have to go. The march of death that the petrochemical companies are leading us on leaves us with no other choice.
There are some critical steps that must be taken before we get to that level of mass direct action on an ongoing basis. We have to do a much more thorough job of getting the masses of people to understand the severity of the crisis and our collective ability to do something about it. We have some hearts and minds to win; and we have to defeat the notion that capitalism can’t be defeated. It’s going to be hard, but it’s not an immutable system.
The forces of reaction are doing everything within their power to make the direct action we’ve seen over the last decade explicitly illegal. They are going to escalate their brutality. Standing Rock should have taught us that. Indeed, many land, water, and sky protectors are already getting killed throughout the Global South.
We are going to have to get people to understand that preserving life on this planet is well worth the sacrifices that thousands if not millions of us are going to have to consciously make, by throwing our bodies directly on the line against the system. We are at the midnight hour, and it’s eco-socialism or death. We have to be clear about what it will entail to eliminate the current system.
This type of consciousness-raising has to precede options such as nationalization as a means of liquidating fossil capital. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t introduce the idea and use it as a motivating factor, but we have to be real that it is going to take millions of people acting in accord with one another to make this option a concrete reality.
(E) You’ve been active in the environmental justice movement for a long time. What lessons do you draw from that work? What kinds of strategies and coalitions have been most effective? What can we learn from the people who have been fighting on this for a long time about how to take on powerful industries?
(KA) To be honest, the answer to this question would take a book. Let me redirect the question a bit. It is time that we seriously appreciate the insights of groups like Earth First!. In terms of social movement development, they were ahead of their time. Our challenge now is figuring out how to scale them up significantly and in a very short period of time — within five years, because we only have a decade at best to get this right.
We need to reevaluate the differences in outcomes between the ecologically oriented movements of the 1960s and 1970s from those of the 1990s to the present. It is no accident that the most significant environmental legislation yet passed in the US, like the Endangered Species Act, the construction of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, were passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s — and by Richard Nixon no less. These acts were passed on the basis of the strength and militancy of the social movements of the era, which posed a direct threat to the system.
The ecological movements of the 1990s to the present have not benefited from coexisting with strong, militant movements amongst broad layers of the oppressed and the working class. In the absence of these latter movements, the struggles against environmental racism and for climate justice have had to rely on lobbying to address their demands. This has in turn forced these movements to rely on “good politicians,” rather than creating conditions that the system had to respond to — or else. We have to build movements that have the size, clarity, strength, and determination to pose clear “or else” threats.
(E) Internationalism is one of the principles of Cooperation Jackson, and you’ve emphasized the importance of internationalism on climate in particular. What would it look like to build internationalist policies into a GND? And what examples of political projects in the Global South — of eco-socialism, just transitions, sustainable agriculture, cooperatives, energy democracy, etc. — do you find inspiring or exciting? How can leftists in the US connect to, support, and learn from those projects?
(KA) Another excellent question. I will mention four critical policies:
Policies that create international mechanisms and institutions that work directly with indigenous peoples and communities in the rainforest regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Oceania to stop the operations of multinational mining, petrochemical, agricultural, fishing, and medical corporations. These policies would need to explicitly counter the United Nations Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN REDD) program — not because we are haters of the United Nations, but because this program is rooted in neoliberal logic and is a reintroduction of colonial practices that threaten to displace millions of indigenous peoples from their lands. Policies that promote the development of open source technologies to directly transfer technology and information to peoples throughout the world. This will enable communities to produce the new carbon-reducing or carbon-neutral technologies that are innovated locally, thus eliminating the need for long-distance trade that would fuel more carbon emissions. Policies that will end the international operations of the US-based petrochemical, mining, agricultural, fishing, and medical transnational monopolies. This will enable local production of essential goods and services when and where needed and put a halt to the extraction and accumulation regimes that currently dominate our planet. Policies that eliminate the impositions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that negate national and local sovereignty, which has been detrimental to the introduction of major climate mitigation initiatives in the US and Canada. There are no shortage of political projects occurring in the Global South addressing the climate crisis and the broad range of topics that you mention. I have been deeply inspired by movements in Micronesia and the Maldives to force the world to deal with the fact that their island homelands are disappearing as we speak. Their direct-action engagements at various UN and international functions have been heart-wrenching and eye-opening. There are a few explicitly eco-socialist movements in the Global South that I am aware of. The most developed in my view are in South Africa, Venezuela, and Bolivia. The critical thing about the movements in these countries is that they have put the question of climate change and the regeneration of the ecology on their national agendas.
And finally, it is imperative for our movements here in the Global North to be intentional about connecting with the movements in the Global South. In many respects, the movements in the Global South are far more advanced than those in the Global North, especially in terms of their political consciousness, organizational development, membership, and social bases. However, what many of the movements in the Global South don’t possess are the resources we have at our disposal in the Global North — and I don’t just mean financial resources, but varying degrees of infrastructure, like widespread access to electricity and telecommunications services.
In thinking about how to build a new international, we have to think strategically about how best to utilize our respective strengths to overcome our respective weaknesses. We need to draw on the political and organizing strengths of our comrades in the Global South, understanding that we will have to adapt them to our respective context and all the social struggle that will entail, while also figuring out how to transfer our own strengths, if only by providing them with greater resource and media access to speak and act on their own behalf to the wider world.
Looking Back, Looking Forward: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the New Afrikan Declaration of Independence
2018 is a watershed moment in our struggle for national liberation and sovereignty. We are now 50 years past the formal declaration of our independence from the empire that is the United States of America. That we have yet to attain our freedom should not be viewed with trepidation. As we study the annals of history, we take note of the fact that it often takes centuries for oppressed peoples and colonized nations to develop the capacities and varied forms of organization needed to emancipate themselves from the grip of their colonizers and oppressors. Like it or not, our case is no different. Our declaration of independence was only a starting point. We have many capacities yet to learn and many self-sustaining and self-sufficient organizations yet to build to be able to successfully win our freedom.
Given how and where our people started on Great Turtle Island and where we’re presently at, it should be crystal clear that we still have a long way to go. But, to move forward, It is critical that we take stock of the past and present and make an honest and critical assessment of where we’re at in terms of: a) articulating and developing the national consciousness of our people on a mass level, b) developing the necessary skills and capacities amongst the people that are needed to advance our cause, and c) building the necessary institutions and resources that will enable us to get there.
We have to start our assessment with the articulation and development of our national consciousness and identity. For starters, there are few Black people at present who describe themselves as conscious New Afrikans and citizens of the Republic of New Afrika, with New Afrikan meaning in broad, but simple terms, a person of Afrikan descent who recognizes the nationhood of the Afrikan people held captive and colonized within the US empire, and who fight for the self-determination, independence and sovereignty of this nation without compromise. This author would wager that there are fewer than 20,000 Black people in this empire at present who define themselves as New Afrikans, and this is perhaps being generous. But, even if I’m wrong, and there are perhaps 1,000,000 Black people in this empire who define themselves as New Afrikans, we have to recognize that this would be insufficient, grossly insufficient, towards accomplishing our mission. We have to develop the capacities, programs, and institutions that can reach millions of our people, convince them to join the independence movement, organize them into institutions and social processes that build the overall material and political capacities of the movement, and democratically coordinate our actions to advance our mission.
If we acknowledge the above to be true, it is then incumbent upon those of us who are conscious citizens to be more strategic in our work and develop the skills and capacities necessary to organize millions of people over the long haul. That we are presently few in number should not be a deterrent. Revolutions rarely start with masses of people. They start with small groups of people who lay the foundation with sound socio-cultural and material assessments of their context and new ideas around how society must be reorganized and why. These then are advanced when they are backed up with programmatic action that compel people to reassess and reorganize their overall productive (how people produce and secure their material needs) and reproductive (how people sustain themselves and their children, parents, etc. through care work like cooking, childcare, health care, eduction, etc.) relations over time. To this end, some of the primary skills and capacities this generation of New Afrikan revolutionaries must develop specifically pertain to a) developing concrete “transitional” strategies that can programmatically be advanced to scale (meaning organize and mobilize people in the tens of thousands) over the next 10 to 20 years, predominantly within the New Afrikan national territory (i.e. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana), and b) developing effective means to politically engage millions of Black people in active ideological and political struggle. It is imperative that we win the battle of ideas over the next 10 years, so we can make conscious interventions in the struggles ahead, particularly those around the climate change crisis.
Now, as it relates to the articulation and development of our national consciousness first thing that must be noted is that the New African Independence Movement (NAIM), as a tendency within the larger Black Liberation Movement (BLM) in the United States, is, at present, in a secondary position relative to the tendency aiming to transform the whole of what is now the United States settler colonial project into a socialist and/or communist society. The third major tendency of the Black Liberation Movement, the repatriation tendency, which aims to see us physically return in mass to the Afrikan continent, is by far and away the minority tendency at present. It should be noted however, that the most predominant political position held and articulated by the “organized majority” (people in some organized relationship with the Democratic or Republican Party and formations like the NAACP, Urban League, trade unions, churches, mosques, etc.) of Black people is not one centered on liberation, but rather deeper integration within the empire. And beyond that, the predominant political position held by the “unorganized majority” (including the majority of Black people who don’t participate in the electoral edifices of the empire and who operate either in informal organizations or loosely connected to organized formations such as those listed above) of Black people is one centered on survival, plain and simple.
I would argue that this latter group, the “unorganized majority” constitute between 25 - 30% of the entire Black population within the US empire. The vast majority of these individuals are drawn from the more precarious sectors of the working class, and are organized into organic formations, like street organizations or “tribes” more than anything else. Beyond this, we have to recognize that the material and cultural impositions of neoliberalism over the past 30 years have eviscerated the formal organizations of the Black working class, like trade unions, social aid clubs, civic groups, etc. If the New Afrikan independence Movement is going to grow within the next 10 years, it is predominantly going to have to come from this sector, as it is the one least attached to the spoils of empire, and the clearest in terms of understanding its own disposable status and reality.
If we are being honest with ourselves in answering why this dynamic presently exists, we have to start with the overall weakness of the New Afrikan Independence Movement. The weaknesses of our movement come from an uneven combination of external threats and internal deficiencies. The primary external threat that we have and will continue to confront is the United States government. This threat confronts us on many levels: infiltration, observation, investigation, prosecution, imprisonment and outright liquidation. The secondary external threat that we confront, but only second by minor degrees, are the forces of capital (i.e. the transnational banks, transnational corporations, major stock and bond holders, and large landowners). Capital has two aims relative to our movement. One is to contain it when and where necessary to ensure that the vast majority of our people remain in position to be exploited. The second aim of capital is to appropriate any and all of the material and cultural products we innovate to profit from them via their monopolization of the various production and distribution processes generally employed in any market exchange in this society. Profit is the dominant motivate in this dynamic, but not the only one. The other motive is to use our labor and its fruits as weapons against us culturally and psychologically to ensure that we remain divided and in vulnerable positions.
Our internal deficiencies are of another quality. Again, the number of conscious citizens of the Republic of New Africa are few. The number of people who consider themselves New Afrikans is relatively few. The number of partisan organizations within the New African Independence is declining, and the forces that we do have, like Provisional Government, the New Afrikan People’s Organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and elements within the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and the Jericho Amnesty Movement to free our political prisoners and prisoners of war, are by most measures, in retreat. As revolutionaries on the quest to rebuild the New Afrikan Independence Movement, we have to interrogate why we are in this predicament, and to do so with ruthless candor and honesty if we are going to develop a concrete program and strategy to reverse our fortunes. We have to start with our internal differences. After 50 years of struggle, and being witness to the many challenges and failures of the national and social liberation movements in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America over this course of time, we have yet to fully come to grips with the “pitfalls of national consciousness” as comrade Frantz Fanon put it. We haven’t collectively synthesized the lessons from our own experiences and those of others, nor developed a coherent corrective program and course of action to address our shortcomings and pitfalls. To be concrete and clear on what is meant here, our movement doesn’t have a coherent and synthesized understanding of neocolonialism or neoliberalism in all their forms - ranging from electoralism to NGOism - and how to combat them. We do not have a shared understanding of the complexities of sex and gender in our movement, and how to deal with the power imbalances between women and men, or between heterosexuals and non-gender conforming peoples and communities within and amongst our people. Nor do we have a clear agreement regarding who we collectively think should be the primary driving force in our movement - the working class or the petit bourgeois - and what that therefore implies regarding the development of a coherent program and strategy to accomplish our mission.
Finally, in addressing our need to build effective institutions and resources that will enable us to make some serious advances over the course of the next 10 years, we have to make the time to address the critical questions raised above. Without coming to some basic unity on these questions, we will continue to march around in circles and we can ill afford to do that. The stakes are too high. To move the effort to forge greater unity in our movement forward, I want to outline a few positions in summation to open the debate and get us moving on the struggle for clarity here. Starting with the questions above, let me state the following:
1. Regarding addressing the challenges of neocolonialism and neoliberalism we must adopt a politics and set of principles that ensure that our tactical decisions align with our strategic pursuits to ensure that politics always remains in command. This means that every decision, every step must concretely reflect our end goal and clearly articulate how it will enable the goal to be achieved. We cannot wage a democratic struggle in secret, nor can we be ambiguous about what we are trying to accomplish. The masses have to know that we are fighting for and working towards self-determination, sovereignty, and ecosocialism.
2. On the question of addressing sexism and heteropatriarchy in our movement we have to incorporate the most advanced thinking and practice being derived from the social liberation movements over the past 4 years (and beyond) and embrace the diversity of our people and fight to ensure that all our people are included in all that we do and aspire for, be they queer, trans, or gender non-conforming in any way. New Afrika must and will be socially liberated, as well as politically and economically liberated.
3. On the question of the motive forces we must firmly come to grips with the fact that if our movement is going to succeed, it is going to have to be a mass movement. And it must therefore embrace the positionally of the masses and utilize this as our primary strength. This means being clear that the New Afrikan working class is going to have to lead our movement to victory and that the petit bourgeois forces inside of it are going to have to consciously and willfully commit to a program of “class suicide” as comrade Amilcar Cabral outlined.
4. Finally, I submit that our movement must adopt a clear program to build ecosocialism from below over the course of the next ten years (and beyond). On a transitional level this entails building a network solidarity economy institutions that are fortified by semi-autonomous municipalist movements and/or zones over this period time. Give the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change, we have to ensure that our projects and the semi-autonomous or liberated zones that we construct take lead on innovating sustainable economies and regenerative solutions to restore ecological balance in our communities and throughout the world. We have to turn this crisis into an opportunity for our people and our cause, particularly given how it could potentially weaken the grip of the US state and transnational capital in the years and decades to come.
I further offer this programmatic suggestion to add to the four points raised above. This quote is taken from “Until We Win”, which I wrote and released in September 2015 in Counterpunch magazine:
“Autonomous projects are initiatives not supported or organized by the government (state) or some variant of monopoly capital (finance or corporate industrial or mercantile capital). These are initiatives that directly seek to create a democratic “economy of need” around organizing sustainable institutions that satisfy people’s basic needs around principles of social solidarity and participatory or direct democracy that intentionally put the needs of people before the needs of profit. These initiatives are built and sustained by people organizing themselves and collectivizing their resources through dues paying membership structures, income sharing, resource sharing, time banking, etc., to amass the initial resources needed to start and sustain our initiatives. These types of projects range from organizing community farms (focused on developing the capacity to feed thousands of people) to forming people’s self-defense networks to organizing non-market housing projects to building cooperatives to fulfill our material needs. To ensure that these are not mere Black capitalist enterprises, these initiatives must be built democratically from the ground up and must be owned, operated, and controlled by their workers and consumers. These are essentially “serve the people” or “survival programs” that help the people to sustain and attain a degree of autonomy and self-rule. Our challenge is marshaling enough resources and organizing these projects on a large enough scale to eventually meet the material needs of nearly 40 million people. And overcoming the various pressures that will be brought to bear on these institutions by the forces of capital to either criminalize and crush them during their development (via restrictions on access to finance, market access, legal security, etc.) or co-opt them and reincorporate them fully into the capitalist market if they survive and thrive. Our pressure exerting initiatives must be focused on creating enough democratic and social space for us to organize ourselves in a self-determined manner. We should be under no illusion that the system can be reformed, it cannot. Capitalism and its bourgeois national-states, the US government being the most dominant amongst them, have demonstrated a tremendous ability to adapt to and absorb disruptive social forces and their demands – when it has ample surpluses. The capitalist system has essentially run out of surpluses, and therefore does not possess the flexibility that it once did.”
To be sure, we are NOT where we should be, nor where need to be. We have enough to regroup and bounce back, of this I am sure. But, we have some major struggle to wage to address and overcome our own weaknesses and shortcomings to get there. We have to start now to make sure that our next 50 years are more fruitful than our last 50 years. Our ancestors and children demand no less.
By Sarah Lazare for In These Times
A Conversation with Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson
Incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made waves in late November when she called for a Green New Deal (GND)—a plan to “transition” the U.S. economy to “become carbon neutral” over the course of 10 years. In a draft resolution, she proposes the formation of a Select Committee to develop a plan for massive public works programs, powered by a jobs guarantee and public banks, with the goal of “meeting 100 percent of national power demand through renewable sources.” According to Ocasio-Cortez, the plan aims to eliminate poverty, bring down greenhouse gas emissions, and “ensure a ‘just transition’ for all workers, low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities and the front-line communities.”
The GND is still in its nascent phase, and concrete details haven’t yet been hashed out, but the proposal has received backing from the youth climate organization, the Sunrise Movement, which staged direct actions and protests to build political support for the framework. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is throwing his political weight behind the plan and 35 House members have endorsed it. Ocasio-Cortez—who identifies as a democratic socialist—is poised to lead the progressive conversation about climate change at the federal level.
Yet, some climate justice organizations are responding with more cautious support. The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), a network of front-line environmental justice organizations, including the Southwest Workers Union and Black Mesa Water Coalition, praised the GND as “a much-needed aggressive national pivot away from climate denialism to climate action.” But CJA said in a statement released earlier this week that “the proposal for the GND was made public at the grasstops [as opposed to grassroots] level. When we consulted with many of our own communities, they were neither aware of, nor had they been consulted about the launch of the GND.”
While the GND is in its developmental phase, the Climate Justice Alliance says it is critical for social movement groups to fight for the best possible version of the deal—and ensure that it does not include false solutions such as “carbon markets, offsets and emissions trading regimes or geoengineering technologies.” CJA says any jobs plan should restore and protect workers’ rights to organize and form unions, and it should be predicated on non-extractive policies that build “local community wealth that is democratically governed.” Any deal must ensure “free, prior and informed consent by Indigenous peoples,” CJA insists, and should be directed by those communities bearing the brunt of the “dig, burn, dump” economy.
In These Times spoke with Kali Akuno, director of the CJA-affiliated Cooperation Jackson, a Missisippi-based group that aims to build a “solidarity economy” that is “anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.” According to Akuno, movements must defend the best components of the GND, while challenging–and offering alternatives to–the capitalist logic embedded in some of its proposals. “While this is still in the drafting phase,” he argues, “let’s get it as near perfect as we possibly can.”
Sarah Lazare: What do you think of the proposal for a Green New Deal put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Kali Akuno: One, I’m glad that something like this is being introduced and is being discussed so widely, particularly coming from a freshman congresswoman. I don’t think that’s insignificant at all. I’m excited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even had the courage to take this up. Let’s be real: To walk in as a freshman congresswoman in this environment and atmosphere, she should be applauded.
Is it perfect, is it everything we want? Absolutely not. To a certain extent, that’s fine. She has to play ball in the balance of power as it concretely exists. The broad public debate that the introduction of the Green New Deal proposal has generated presents an opportunity for the Left to strengthen our forces, gather new forces and expand the base of the movement. Her putting this forward is a profound opportunity for the Left.
I think the Left needs to seize it. We can do that by talking about it: the things we support, why we support them, the things we want to see strengthened, improved and changed. We should communicate that as far and wide as we can. We have to shift the conversation and put the Right on the defensive. Right now, they’re on the offensive.
We need to critically analyze some of the shortfalls of the capitalist logic embedded in this plan. We have to push back and improve upon the Green New Deal. In a real practical and concrete way, the Left has to intervene.
Dismissing it and not having a dialogue and talking just about how it’s imperfect is not good enough. If we believe there is a limited time to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we have to seize every opportunity to educate people, create the policy framework, and to take action to implement it on the ground in real time. We need to talk about it, raise awareness and build a base for our point of view. Let’s use the platform her winning the election has provided to move people and to take action.
Sarah: What should a left intervention look like?
Kali: Let me get to the heart of it. Because of the capitalist logic that’s embedded in what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has put forth, at this point, the Left needs to intervene.
We need to be putting out and elevating the counter-proposals many of us have been putting forward. There is the “just transition” framework coming out of some social movements and organized labor. There are some concrete suggestions many of us have been putting forward for years. Healing the soil, reintroducing small-scale agriculture, restoring the commons, making more space available for wildlife reintroduction. This has been coming from the It Takes Roots Alliance, which consists of the Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Justice Alliance, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and the Right to the City Alliance. On the ground, organizations from oppressed communities have been putting forward a just transition for a while.
Representatives from It Takes Roots are opening a dialogue with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office. Our aim is to lift up our demands and concrete solutions and have them constitute core components of the legislation that she puts forward. We’re seeing the beginning of an opening in that regard.
While this is still in the drafting phase, let’s get it as near perfect as we possibly can.
Sarah: What needs to be improved?
Kali: There are some things in the framework that she put forth that need to be challenged. The one that I always highlight is this notion that the different types of solutions that are developed through the entrepreneurial innovations that come out of this program, like renewable energy technologies, that the U.S. government and major transnational corporations should be exporters of this energy and knowledge. That’s deeply embedding this thing as a new export industry, which is a new cycle of capital accumulation. That part really needs to be challenged. This is trying to embed the solution in market-based dynamics, but the market is not going to solve this problem.
Editor’s note: In her draft text calling for a committee on the Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez includes the following objective, to be accomplished within 10 years of the plan’s implementation: “making ‘green’ technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely greenhouse gas neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.”
Sarah: U.S. industries have played tremendous and disproportionate role in driving climate change. It seems predatory for those industries to develop “solutions” and then turn around and sell them to the Global South.
Kali: Yeah, it’s this logic of, I created the problem, I control the resolution of the problem through various mechanisms, I play a big role in preventing any serious motion that might happen at the level of intergovernmental exchange through the United Nations—under Obama, and now under 45. I set it up so that we come up with these technology solutions—some are pure scientific fiction–come up with a few carbon sequestration solutions, and I’m going to charge exorbitant rates selling technology to the Global South. Primarily Trump, the United States and western Europe created the problem and prevent anyone from coming up with solutions. They come up with market solutions and sell them back to us through force.
We need to struggle with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others about this. We have to frame this in a way that really speaks to the global nature of the problem. We have to include the peoples of the world at the frontlines of the transition in the discussion to resolve it - Indigenous peoples, the peoples of Oceania, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the African continent. It’s not just a national problem. The way this is framed is really as if we’re going to stop certain problems within U.S. borders. But carbon emissions don’t observe national boundaries—they never have and never will. Nation-state policy limits us in certain ways. That’s another aspect of this that we have to push back on and challenge. This has to include front-line communities in the United States and from all throughout the world.
Sarah: What would the ideal global climate policy look like? What do you think about the framework of reparations?
Kali: Reparations is one of the key aspects that has to be introduced into the dialogue. The United States has, under all administrations, blocked this kind of approach. It is not new to Trump. The concept of reparations needs to be introduced into several different levels of the conversation. You can think of reparations in terms of financial compensation, and you can think of it in terms of decolonization—returning lands back to indigenous and colonized people subjected to the United States and Western Europe much of the past 500 years.
The market-based capitalist extractive system has been highlighted through the World Trade Organization. You have intellectual patents that are being codified into law through the WTO, which the United States and Western Europe have pushed on the world. If we look at Monsanto, they basically took agricultural practices and indigenous knowledge, codified it with their technology of splicing genes, and now have power and control over it. Patents need to be abolished and dissolved and we need to open up space in many areas for small farmers like those aligned with the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina, to return to traditional practices of growing food. That is a major form of reparations: repairing harm that’s been done.
Sarah: What about the fossil fuel industry? Should we be talking about going to battle with the industry? Shutting it down?
Kali: There is no question about it. That has to be target number one. We have to adopt a program of “keep it in the ground.” There is no way to get around that. That’s a demand coming from Indigenous communities. If we just look at the raw science, all the raw data that is out there, that’s what we need to do. We’re locked into an old exploitative logic that is only maintained through the grip the petrochemical companies have on the political process. We are going to have to take them on head on.
What happened at Standing Rock really points the way forward for the future. I don’t think we should hide from that or step away from that. We’re going to have to take direct action on a massive scale to shut that industry down on an international level. There are a ton of alternatives that could be scaled up—solar, wind—and they need to be scaled up.
To think that they can keep pumping and drilling, and we’ll just phase them out with alternatives, on the basis of some kind of market logic, is not going to work. There is no question that we need to adopt a “keep it in the ground” policy—like, yesterday. That has to be one of our central demands.We have to scale up our campaigns against the oil companies, and we have to win. This is a necessary political struggle.
Sarah: Can you talk more about the concept of a “just transition”—where it comes from, what it’s calling for?
Kali: Just so folks know, the term comes out of the labor movement in the 1980s, particularly some folks who were working in labor sectors, including the petrochemical and thermonuclear industries. The concept was adopted to say that our interests around having a clean and safe environment, and your interest in having a living-wage job, are not and should not be opposed. There is a system in place keeping us at odds with each other in the short term. We have to change the system. A key part is taking care of our communities, making sure that the overall impacts of toxic contamination are thoroughly addressed. There has to be a way in which new jobs are created that enable workers to go through a just transition from one set of skills to another set of skills and maintain a high standard of living.
For Cooperation Jackson, which is part of the It Takes Roots Alliance, we fully endorse the just transition framework. This means highlighting grassroots, independent solutions in front-line communities: programs centering on reparations, decolonization and building a democratic economy through the advancement of the social and solidarity economy. For us at Cooperation Jackson, this is linked to a program of eco-socialist development. We are going to have to ultimately do a major overhaul in how things are produced, distributed, consumed and recycled back into the natural resource systems that we depend on. If we don’t think about just transition in a long-term, holistic way, we are missing the point. To think we can make some tweaks to capitalism or expansive “carbon neutral” production—that is also missing the point.
To address our deep problems, we have to shift wealth and power—it has to be moved from the United States and Europe to the rest of the world. We know we are going to run into a great deal of resistance from corporations and governments. We want to include that in our narrative of what a just transition entails.
Right now, as we speak, the COP24 climate talks are happening in Poland, and there are workers there in the coal industry who are trying to appropriate the term “just transition” to say “clean coal” is part of the just transition, which is contrary to the spirit and letter of the concept, especially knowing how that industry is contributing to the crisis we are in.
Sarah: What do you think about the Green New Deal’s call for a jobs guarantee?
Kali: It excites me, because I could see the immediate benefits here in my community in Jackson, Mississippi. That would create a lot of jobs for the young people in my community for the people who are chronically unemployed and underemployed. However, we should push for this plan with open eyes. There’s a limit to how many jobs could be created and how long they could be sustained. At a certain point, the logic of expansion has to run its course and end. You have to go back to eco-socialism. There need to be limits we impose on ourselves. We can’t just keep extracting minerals out of the earth—we’re going to have to figure out some natural limits to live in. I would like to see more of that infused into the Green New Deal: real conversations about our natural limits and how to create a truly sustainable system, so that we don’t exhaust all of the earth’s resources and deprive them to future generations. We have to start thinking about that now.
Sarah: Among other things, the Green New Deal calls for new investment in public banking. The draft text reads, “Many will say, ‘Massive government investment! How in the world can we pay for this?’ The answer is: in the same ways that we paid for the 2008 bank bailout and extended quantitative easing programs, the same ways we paid for World War II and many other wars. The Federal Reserve can extend credit to power these projects and investments, new public banks can be created (as in WWII) to extend credit and a combination of various taxation tools (including taxes on carbon and other emissions and progressive wealth taxes) can be employed.”
What do you think of this public banking component?
Kali: We are big-time supporters of public banking. We’ve been thinking of that in relation to the implementation of the Jackson-Kush Plan going back 10 years, and we’re still trying to figure out how to put it in practice on the municipal level. I’m excited to see it embedded in Green New Deal proposal. Without that, you won’t have certain kinds of capital controls over the process. But we need to make sure there’s going to be sufficient investment in communities. I don’t think enough of the Left is really talking about it.
Some people will say public banking is just another reform measure in the logic of capitalism. That’s true but we’re not going to eliminate finance overnight, like it or not. One of the first steps in the socialist transition as we see it, is that we’re going to have to learn how to discipline capital and put it to public use. That’s a key thing that I think public banks will help us do as we learn and grow. There will still be contradictions to deal with, on display in struggle against the pipeline in North Dakota, because the public banks there are invested in that. This is not without contradiction, but we will have to set them up to be run by communities, and they must have a profoundly different orientation and logic. Whoever on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s team that put that in there, I was very much pleased to see it.
Sarah: To what extent were front-lines environmental justice groups consulted about the Green New Deal?
Kali: As an individual I was not consulted, but I think it’s a two-way street, because I also didn’t do much to help her get elected. The natural inclination is you’re going to listen to the folks who support you. The political trade off, whether we like it or not, is that you listen to those who put skin in the game to help you. That’s a reality we need to start with. Whether or not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reaches out, we have an obligation to tap her on her shoulder and say some of these ideas are terrible, here’s why, here are alternatives, here are examples of what the alternative looks like in practice—you can elevate them and use them as a model. That’s our task on the left—to intervene in that particular way. It’s not a question of whether or not she will listen: She’s an elected official, and we have move her to listen through the force of our organizing initiatives. We have to struggle with her to make sure she votes in the broadest interests possible, since she’s trying to lead this on a national level.
For me, it’s our task to hit her up, to contact her, to make sure we are very upfront and vocal from this point forward, to make sure what we’re demanding and proposing is very clear. We have to win other folks over to that position as well. Some of the best ideas might not carry the day if they don’t have an organized constituency behind them. She’s going to have to go to battle, she’s going to have to fight for the Green New Deal, and she’s probably going to listen to those forces that have the greatest leverage in terms of resources, or the greatest number of voices in sheer numbers. Those are things we have to deliver—we need to deliver that to make sure she’s accountable to our demands. We need to be real about how this game is going to play out. And be clear about what we bring to the table to make sure we get the outcomes we need.
You can find the original article here https://cooperationjackson.org/blog/greennewdealtojusttransition or here http://inthesetimes.com/article/21632/green-new-deal-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-climate-cooperation-jackson-capital.