In an interview with ROAPE, Max Ajl discusses his new book A People’s Green New Deal and explains that environmental justice and change is a revolutionary project. Ajl argues that the expansion of southern or Third World sovereignty is a critical element of Third World environmentally sustainable development.
Could you introduce yourself to roape.net readers? How did you become involved in questions of climate change and ecological justice and what’s been your scholarly and activist trajectory?
I have been interested in the environmental cause since I was very young, mostly through reading and some climate change journalism. Politically, I have been primarily engaged in anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist work, but have always focused scholarly efforts on agriculture, ecology, agrarian questions, and popular development. I studied at Cornell for my doctoral work, under Philip McMichael, who specializes in historical sociology and agrarian questions. Cornell was and remains one of the best places in the United States to focus on the political aspects of agro-ecological development. For me all these issues are intertwined: we need a good and clean environment for people to have good lives, taking care of the environment starts with taking care of agriculture and food provision, the major human interaction with the surface of the Earth, and finally countries and peoples need first of all to be able to determine their own paths in the world in order to set out to build up their societies.
Your new book A People’s Green New Deal details a radical project, a revolutionary one, for environmental justice and change. You argued for ‘local democratic economies built on appropriate technologies and sovereign industrialisation and local control of renewables.’ Can you talk us through some of the main arguments in your new book?
My book starts by making what I think is the basic point that in order to have a just and revolutionary transformation of the world, we need a holistic understanding of how this world was created and made unjust, particularly as it relates to resource use and environmental issues. Furthermore, we should depart from plans for a just transition which have come from those most oppressed, excluded, and harmed by our current system. The book starts with a criticism of many right-wing and social democratic plans for a great transition, and shows points of convergence between them. I then go on to consider and try to show empirically how to transform certain critical sectors which I know something about, especially agriculture and a bit about infrastructure, construction, and manufacturing. Above all, I want people to see how we can have non-hierarchical – or communist – extremely complex societies, with a high degree of social interdependence, an extremely high level of technology, complex social division of labor and specialization, yet without them being enormously destructive to the environment. Such societies obviously need certain baselines, including local control of renewable technology (where possible), locally-sited industrialization so that people can democratically decide and remediate the damage from industrialization, and technologies which are appropriate to a permanently sustainable modern and non-hierarchical society. That includes in many ways a process of re-skilling to allow for more distributed and decentralized control over technologies. It also includes local control over agriculture, as a mechanism of landscape management, a way to draw-down atmospheric carbon dioxide, a way to protect biodiversity, a way for human communities to generally feed themselves mostly locally, at least within reason, and a way to smoothly integrate humans into nature.
You describe at the start of the book a dizzying array of Green New Deals (GND) and how the idea of the GND has proliferated. Can you describe how this idea has exploded, some of the proposals on offer and also what is deeply problematic at the core of many of these, seemingly radical, initiatives?
The GND entered the household discussion because of the legislation from Senator Edward Markey and Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been invented as a democratic socialist. This GND essentially tried to bring together issues like employment, housing, and carbon dioxide emissions, and to build a new industrial century for the US, with some attention to social needs and covered with anti-racist rhetoric. It has exploded because of the wide unease with the environmental crisis, but also because capital is attempting to carry out a ‘great transition from above’ and has increasingly publicized the climate crisis for its own purposes. The more social democratic proposals essentially call for a partial or full conversion to renewable energy by 2030 while remaining within the green Keynesian paradigm – the state as a large spender and economic coordinator, the endurance of private property relations. Uniformly, the more visible progressive proposals, like that of Robert Pollin and Noam Chomsky, ignore the Cochabamba demands for climate debt repayments, assert that the North has the permanent right to use more electricity than the South, and disdain any struggle against capitalism. They also sidestep the broader environmental crisis, linked to biodiversity, soil erosion and damage, overuse of nitrogen fertilizers, etc. All of these measures are very much reminiscent of attempts from the 1980s to arrive at North-South development agreements without reckoning with ongoing northern exploitation of the South: that is, they are not even anti-capitalist let alone anti-imperialist.
Max, you write early on that capitalism has an inbuilt ‘inability as a historical system to respect the earth-system and the tenuous, delicate and easily shattered niche it has for many billions of humans’. Though this may be obvious to many readers, including of ROAPE, can you explain why you see capitalism as ‘unreformable’ in terms of any serious environmental transformation?
Capitalism is based on treating use-values as fungible: one thing is as good as another thing provided they exchange on the market. Once we see that this can create an equivalence between, say, sustainably-harvested lumber, or a house made of such lumber, and capital secured from selling phosphate-based fertilizers, or from oil capable of completely changing the composition of the atmosphere, the problems of unlimited fungibility of use-values through market exchange should be clear: such a system is capable of causing almost limitless damage to non-human nature. Because capitalism is based on the massive expansion of value and profit and limitless accumulation, it is naturally unable to respect that earth systems have survivability thresholds. If they are pushed too far, exploited too much, doused with too much poison or if fisheries are extracted from too much, they will simply collapse. Now, I think what is important to keep in mind is not merely that capitalism has run roughshod over the natural world, causing enormous damage, especially on North-South lines of concentrated damage in the South. It’s also worth pointing out that capitalism is now threatening to shift to a different kind of hierarchical regime, a point that Immanuel Wallerstein spent many decades of his life making. Such a system could well preserve nature because it would be based far less on indefinite expansion of exchange value, and would instead, pay people a pittance to preserve nature as a use value, and be based on stable oppression rather than expansive exploitation and endless accumulation.
Interestingly, you state that ‘we’ in the north have a responsibility, ‘specially in preventing our own governments from imposing by violence their political values on other countries’ – this dimension of the fight for anti-capitalist climate change is important. Can you explain what you mean and the nature of this responsibility?
Very often anti-imperialism or the national question are phrased in terms of supporting X bad figure: for example, those who opposed the US war on Iraq became apologists for Saddam Hussein. I want to make the simple point that each nation has to essentially start from minding its own business, and that non-intervention in the affairs of other nations needs to be the starting point for world-wide environmental justice and environmental revolution. Quite simply, the US/EU do not have the right to decide who rules other countries, especially but not only in the Third World. This is a necessary element for an anti-capitalist just transition on a world-wide level, because we need to fight for other countries’ rights to determine their own paths, and assess how our own countries are obstructing the exercise of that. Such an assessment is simple, since the US, EU, and the UK intervene constantly, world-wide. What follows are serious campaigns to put a stop to that intervention, in other words, by demanding respect for international law and the dismantling of northern militaries.
One of the exciting elements of the book is that you challenge seemingly radical figures and projects, including the celebrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the US congresswoman, and the GND she advocates. What specifically are its problems, in contrast with the Democratic Socialists of America, for example?
In particular, that document which she proposed envisions sending public money to private corporations through ‘state-private’ collaborations, sometimes softened with ‘appropriate ownership stakes.’ Now, whatever that it, it is certainly not a socialist program. Another major issue: she calls for the US to be a green-tech leader, and for this to be main mechanism for international action within the GND. In fact, this means replacing climate debt payments and putting in their place a new program for the US to be an industrial powerhouse based on renewables exports. She really does not mention class very much in the document: it refers to phantasms like ‘frontline communities,’ to receive special funding. There is no call for the takeover and dismantling of the oil companies. And finally, there is no mention of demilitarization. So, it’s important to highlight that the plan basically ignores the most central sectors of capitalism and is not even remotely anti-capitalist.
You outline a Southern platform for an ecological revolution – can you describe the nature of such a programme and how it goes beyond climate to protect Mother-Earth?
Capitalism and imperialism deeply damage the environment, and that damage extends well beyond climate – it means cancer plagues, the pollution of aquifers, micro-plastics, a biodiversity crisis. In Tunisia, for example, two of the major disaster zones are Gabès and the area near Monastir, each soaked with chemical residues from textiles and phosphate processing. Cancer rates are astronomical. Tunisia is emblematic of a larger pattern of uneven accumulation which has systematically dumped the most polluting industries in places with the fewest safeguards, particularly in the Third World, in effect making the Third World pay the environmental costs of capitalist industrialization. People need to able to have choices about what kinds of production their societies are engaged in, what the costs of different choices are, and what are the feasible alternatives. In many ways, even in the Third World societies are both over- and under-industrialized: insufficient access to electricity, insufficient existence let alone capacity to manufacture machine tools and mass transport systems; yet burdened with export-industries primarily to the profit of northern capital. So, we need to change that system, based on southern demands, in order to construct a just world system that takes care of ecology.
In what ways do you see existing GNDs as Eurocentric?
Existing GNDs, even progressive ones, tend to share the following traits: one, little to no mention of climate debt, the absolutely essential demand from 2010 from the Third World. Two, a techno-fetishism extending to lab meat and biofuels, two frontiers for renewed primitive accumulation of the South. Three, insufficient interest in agriculture, which is at the core of southern questions of development but must also be far more central, eventually, in northern productive systems. Four, lack of interest in appropriate technology development. Five, total lack of engagement with highly developed theories of environmentally uneven exchange, which show that the South has always paid the environmental price for northern development. Those lenses bring the nature of the actual world-system into focus, and if we do not deploy those lenses, we will produce GNDs that are false remedies to a poorly investigated crisis.
You mention how a supposed ‘internationalism’ actually silences the South, and undermines any real project built on climate justice. Why is the ‘national question’ central to your approach and to ecological transformation? How is this approach a key part of achieving climate justice?
The national question, very simply, means that national liberation is the sine qua non, the antecedent, to further national-popular development efforts. This is very visible in the case of Palestine: how can Palestine expect to develop unless it as a nation has sovereign control over its national productive resources, including land, investment decisions, technology, and so forth? Now, the international system is structured to remove those decisions from southern nations, and to remove control of resources from southern nations. So, the national question reminds us that countries need not just political sovereignty or liberation, but also economic liberation, in order to have just and ecologically sustainable transformation. The national question reminds us that national sovereignty is the necessary political shell, or frame, within which to resolve those questions. And that frame imposes particular obligations to activists and militants in the North: in particular, to seriously come to terms with and contest how our governments violate southern sovereignty and our monopolies drain southern wealth.
Can you speak about your theoretical framework – you use ‘dependency theory’ which positions the focus of global political economy into centre or core nations and the periphery. You write, ‘the West has systematically shifted its dirtiest industrial plants to the semi-periphery… even in the core the dirtiest waste processing is often sited close to Black neighbourhoods’. You also use the term ‘Environmentally Unequal Exchange’ – can you explain these terms and the ways it helps to enrich our understanding of the processes underway and what needs to be done?
Simply, core, semi-periphery and periphery are best understood as relative positions in the world division of labor and accumulation on a world scale. World accumulation is by its nature polarized and continually polarizing. Wealth concentrates in some places: the core. And it is produced, yet flows outwards from, the periphery. Semi-peripheries, such as China, may import value from places like Vietnam yet on the whole they are exporters of wealth and value to the First World. These terms remind us that overall, most wealth and value comes from the working classes, popular classes, of the periphery, and most of the material components that are inputs into value come from the periphery; and finally, the periphery unequally suffers from environmental pollution, including unequal use of or access to world space for CO2. In that way, we can see that the nation, and of course classes within nations, are part of the structuring units of our world system, and even working classes in the core and the periphery may, at least without intercession, have different interests because of different levels of access to world wealth. Those obstacles are superable, but superseding them must start by recognizing them and the problems they impose on planning for world-wide transformation. In particular, the core left has to do a better job on defending demands from the periphery, including ones which seem tough at the moment: climate debt payments, for example. Otherwise the world-system will remain permanently uneven.
On the other hand, environmentally uneven exchange and dependency theory remind us that those suffering the hardest impact of climate change, environmental degradation, and capitalism are in the periphery, not the core. This includes those outside the formal labour market, or indeed who are involved in subsistence based social reproduction, as Lyn Ossome has argued. Such people in fact are central to creating what Archana Prasad calls ‘socially useful nature,’ on the one hand, and on the other, are central to producing human beings who become a labor reservoir. Thus, these sectors of people are absolutely central to the world-wide accumulation of capital. Insofar as such sectors successfully defend the land and territories from unwanted environmental degradation and produce sufficient use-values for their own purposes, and then take part in sovereign popular-ecological development strategies, they will be the fulcrum for a transformation in the world system. So these populations are absolutely central to a just transition on a global basis.
You see national sovereignty as central to the protests of progressive movements across the world. From this, you argue that the right of subjugated nations must be central also to climate justice. Can you talk us through this argument?
This is a question of defending the positive achievements of struggles against war, racism, and colonization. The UN Charter and the anti-colonial national liberation struggles and covenants from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were all crystal-clear that subjugated peoples under occupation and colonization had the right to achieve full political sovereignty, the right to form nation-states fully as equal as other nation-states within the international system. A modern corollary is that nations should have the right to be free of unilateral coercive measures, including sanctions; and perhaps these sanctions or other coercive measures may soon include forms of unilateral ‘environmental’ protectionism or invasion under the aegis of ‘rights to protect’ the environment, as has recently been advocated in for Venezuela. We cannot accept discourses of ‘the environment’ being used as a justification to violate national sovereignty, any more than we can accept discourses of ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘development’ or ‘civilization,’ and because the default ideology in the core states is to accept the ruling class propaganda of the right to intervene, it is necessary to insist on this point, rather than accept the refrain ‘we are all against intervention.’ It is absolutely not the case, including within the metropolitan left.
At the centre of the book is an anti-capitalist eco-socialism which is revolutionary but also pro-Third World sovereignty. This last element is missing from most accounts, including Jonathan Neale’s recent book reviewed by us a few months ago. Why do you see this as key?
The classical arguments for Third World sovereignty went well beyond political or state sovereignty, to questions of natural resource sovereignty. They also saw economic national liberation as flowing organically and extending the achievements of political or legal independence. For example, the Iraqi re-nationalization of its natural resources, for example, flowed organically from its re-acquisition of national sovereignty in 1958. It was a continuous process which lasted some decades, and led the US to set in motion the destruction of Iraq in 1980. Colonialism is in large measure about the denial of Third World states to have the full right to dispense of their natural resources, which certainly includes the capacity to set prices for them through commodity cartels (something that people like Robert Vitalis apparently fail to understand). Furthermore, if you look at investment treaties, they often constrict southern self-determination and sovereignty when it conflicts with the newly written rights of the large monopolies, overwhelmingly based in the North.
So, the question is achievement of, defense of, and expansion of southern or Third World sovereignty as a critical element of Third World environmentally-sustainable development. Indeed, the entire range of arguments for Third World development from the 1970s and 1980s rested on individual and collective self-reliance, and planning for this reached a fairly advanced stage, at least in the Arab region. Clearly, such sovereignty goes well beyond legal ascension to statehood but implies the full exercise of sovereign rights, including the right to make alliances and erect alternative economic, and environmental, architecture.
Unfortunately, there is a common conception that to lift up sovereign is to downplay internal class struggles. But it is the opposite: internal environmental class struggles need sovereign states within which they can advance. Furthermore, many social scientists and planners, from the 1970s, saw that certain northern conceptions of environmentalism were being parlayed into a denial of the south to develop. As the Founex Report, for example, stated: ‘concern for [the] environment must not and need not detract from the commitment of the world community—developing and more industrialized nations alike—to the overriding task of development of the developing regions of the world,’ since development in the periphery would better allow for countries to overcome environmental problems.
What role does the struggle of the oppressed and working classes play in the north in advancing and championing eco-socialism?
To begin, although the oppressed peoples and working classes of the North are unlikely to lead the struggle for eco-socialism – a struggle whose programmatic elements were laid out in 2010 in the Cochabamba People’s Agreements – this does not mean northern working classes can be excluded from strategic plans and horizons. It simply means that we cannot lapse into an economism which looks at those demands in the absence of internationalist horizons, normalizes the blindness to the Third World which is the default ruling class ideology in the West, forgets demands for Land Back from Indigenous movements, and accepts that blindness as simply ‘the normal’ ideological basis for building up better lives in the core.
However, organized labor can be central to a just transition, insofar as the move, for example, to change the nature of first world industrialization goes hand-in-pen with the demands from the periphery: climate debt, prior consultation and informed consent for resource extraction. Take, for example, the heavy presence of electric cars in the Bernie Sanders proposal for a GND. That emerged from trying to get the large amount of organized labor in the auto industry on board. However, there is no reason the target for that industry could not be nationalization, and conversion into producing the vehicles for nation-wide public transport, with a far lower environmental impact. Those are political decisions.
On the other hand, agriculture is a sector which, if done sustainably, in principle involves no extraction from the Third World. There are some small collaborations between ranchers and Indigenous people in the US West around sustainable landscape management, for example. And the move to entirely convert US farming to carbon-dioxide-absorbing agro-ecological production could create a community of interest between the migrant labor force, especially if massive minimum wages and agrarian reform are part of the agenda, family farms, and indeed consumers, who prefer healthy meat and produce from entirely ecological farms. There are opportunities to suture the interests of separated sectors, which are themselves the product of capitalist alienation of production and consumption. However, those sutures need to be carried out through political organizing which keeps the long view in mind.
Finally, what role do you see ‘industrialisation’ playing in the eco-socialist future?
Unfortunately, far too much of the debate around industrialization is trapped in false binaries: between an anti-industrial anti-extractivist or post-extractivist position, for example, and a high-modernist super-industrial position. We should not treat that false debate as innocent. Indeed, one can find precisely the same set of journals and institutions – Historical Materialism, Verso, etc., and behind them German foundations like Rosa Luxemburg which fund and platform the set of intellectuals who crystallized the theory of ‘extractivism’ – simultaneously blasting the Bolivian government for investing rent in infrastructure or just using gas proceeds for popular needs, criticizing that same government for not having immediately implemented an agro-ecological revolution, while also platforming Aaron Bastani to talk about space mining and the Green Revolution, and bizarrely totalling ignoring agro-ecology or the agrarian question as Third World development strategies except when useful to berate Bolivia. Such a ‘debate’ is fundamentally unserious and antagonistic to serious political thought and practice.
It’s actually necessary to clear away this deliberately created confusion in order to have a real discussion. First, what is industrialization? Following Colin Duncan, we can say most essentially, industrialization is the transformation of abiotic, or dead material like lead, copper, oil, gas, iron, into various things humans want and need. It differs in principle from manufacturing or agriculture in that the latter do not produce wastes and can be smoothly integrated into the environment while industry produces poisons – illusions of ‘industrial ecology’ about circular economies to the side. So ideally, we want an eco-socialism that is extremely modern in the sense of socially interdependent with complex divisions of labor, and with an extremely sophisticated and highly technically advanced, yet controlledindustrialization. We want and should treasure industrialization, but industrialization within the limits of what we can remediate, clean up, and control using existing technologies, not ‘prospective’ technologies which justify current environmental degradation. That probably means overall on an absolute basis, a less industrialized but far more evenly industrialized world, assuming we demand roughly equivalent per capita access to public transport, computers, energy, and advanced medical care – some of the sectors which need industry. On the other hand, many things which are made using industrial methods, like textiles, for example, or furniture, can be made using far less industrial methods, using natural materials at a minimum. Think oak cabinets instead of metal ones, or linen and cotton clothing instead of polyester. How much of a change that implies remains to be seen – we will make the path by walking it.
Max Ajl is an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University. He has written for Monthly Review, Jacobin and Viewpoint. Max is a regular contributor to ROAPE and roape.net.