A People’s Green New Deal offers a much needed and clear rebuke to current green new deals to save capitalism. Its author, Max Ajl opened this year’s International Summer School of Political Ecology in Ljubljana, Slovenia. In the interview he discusses why military coups can sometimes be progressive and how indigenous people’s knowledge and ideas on how to prevent and prepare for climate change have been pushed out of public discussions and progressive politics. Senior Fellow at University of Ghent he is currently working on a sequel to A People’s Green New Deal, focusing on positive visions of national liberation and popular ecology. Native of the New York City he also works at the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment, researching the roles of the popular classes and of political decolonization in national liberation and how heterodox ideas about popular ecology, de-linking, sovereign industrialization and the role of ecology developed historically in the Arab region.
A People’s Green New Deal was published in spring 2021. A great deal of political focus has been since redirected to war in Ukraine. You analyze the consequences of imperialism and settler colonial systems, from Palestine to the USA, and write about the need for demilitarization if we recognize in our responses to climate breakdown an opportunity for a systemic change. Given the present situation would you have emphasized anything differently?
I would change very little. The book was foremost an intervention into the discussions about mostly social-democratic green new deals and green transformations from above along pro-capitalist lines. It pretty much analyzes what was in August 2022 enacted with the US Inflation Reduction Act.
When it comes to the war in Eastern Europe, it has been on the table for over a decade; and my arguments for the abolition of armed forces and about the imperial core remain the same. The emphasis the book gives to agriculture and agro-ecology is being mainstreamed within the progressive spaces. Perhaps it should have more focus on China, which is becoming more central in progressive debates given its progress in the transition to renewable energy that sets the pace globally.
In the last years people seem increasingly lost between the belief that small acts can importantly contribute to changes and the reality of powerlessness in the face of natural disasters or military coups like the one in Niger. Have the power dynamics changed in the last years if the aim is dismantling of destructive capitalist system – are the centres of power more entrenched?
When I wrote the book the existing centres of power seemed not only to set the pace of transformations but also to dictate the discussions. And the power system has not changed. I have never had any hope in the European social-democratic plans. Thus, the situation remains the same. If anything, certain developments give me more optimism, for example the events in Niger, which relate to the broader picture and the entanglement of ecology, militarism, war and imperialism. For me, the events in Niger are progressive. West African countries have macro-economically and macro-financially never freed themselves from the French colonial influence. France has maintained total control over their financial infrastructures and currency and kept these countries poor. The control is exerted through institutions and laws, which are historic and material reasons for the underdevelopment of these countries and their inability to set in motion sovereign development programs that would serve their people. Resistance to this control is messy because the world is a messy place full of messy human beings but it is nonetheless progressive. It is progressive as it aims to remove the political blockades so changes can occur. If military bases are removed from a territory, where they have served as the armed complement to colonial financial arrangements, then the possibility to reform these arrangements is greater. Polls in Niger show that people overwhelmingly view the non-Western bloc more positively than the Western. This does not relate to economic or political texture of Russia and China – the two biggest non-Western economic powers. Countries in the West Africa are carving out their own way to overthrow the colonial system as part of their self-determination, including strategies to decolonize. We are, unfortunately, still talking about decolonization and not about socialist construction. This is tragic but this is how things are. France, although it should, has not left the African continent and the events of the past years in West Africa are part of a historic transformation in the world system. They are spots of light together with Indonesia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where we see attempts to reaffirm national control, including inside value added processes that relate to their mineral resources, for example the lithium in Zimbabwe.
Are these events occurring along socialist lines through socialized and working class centred control over means of production? No. This is clear. However, also during the new economic policy in the Soviet Union there was an acceptance that capitalism had a role to play in socialist construction during the 1920s. Yes, in the majority of the countries, carrying out policies changing the structure of the world power, these changes do not follow socialist ideas. However, this does not disqualify them from being historically progressive.
Can you explain?
The history of the world system of global capitalist accumulation, which is essential and distinctive part of my book, is key to understand the possibilities of the green transition. Capitalism in the peripheral regions of the world is different from the capitalism in the core regions. Reasons vary but the central one is that capitalism relies on an unevenly distributed access to production. Capitalism is a system of polarized accumulation: internally within national spheres it relies on exploitation, entanglement and dependence of people, who do not own the means for their own social reproduction; and internationally between nations it creates massive labour reservoirs in the periphery for its own stability. The peripheral countries are systemically disabled and prevented from carrying out policies to reduce unemployment. This is central because underemployment and unemployment enable the suppression of wages in the periphery as well as, with its secondary effect in the core.
One reason for high unemployment in the periphery is the absence of developmental policies that offer decent employment. Peripheral countries suffer from capital constraints that push them to foreign loans. If they were able to develop value-added processes and industries, the capital would circulate and be locked locally, enabling states to extract part of it through taxes and other active fiscal policies. This would enhance the ability of the state to conduct more developmental processes, thus, increasing the added value instead of losing it to the monopoly capital from the core countries. This would be the beginning of a rupture away from dynamics of the peripheral accumulation. We see Zambia and Zimbabwe trying to retain the value added processes inside their spheres of influence rather than just export their commodities – they are trying to shift in their favour the overall structure and patterns of the production and accumulation in the world system. By succeeding to increase the production of national wealth also workers are then able to influence the state policy-making through working class struggle. The power to improve the working class’ wellbeing is one of the fundamental components of an egalitarian transition to an eco-socialist world system.
Attempts we see are not ideal. This is not 1970s. In 2020s the situation is different, the popularity of socialist transformation has either decreased or is deemed unfeasible. There is no funding for socialist or communist political parties in the periphery and little institutional support. Therefore these different, less favourable types of historical transformations on the periphery can be no surprise – and they are nonetheless better than none or what was attempted in 2018 and 2019. So for me, the events in West Africa are extremely positive – historically, socially, politically, from the emancipatory perspective … They are, as I see, indisputably negative only from the French colonial or the US neocolonial perspective. The possibilities are opening up.
But how can these events lead to more emancipation – power is currently in the hands of the army?
It is important to distinguish between popular and procedural democracy. The latter can be deeply undemocratic in its substance and can go against popular interests. Semi-functional parliaments and free elections can result in undemocratic outcomes if we understand democracy as the capacity of people to have control over their lives. People in West Africa have not democratically accepted to be part of the Central African Franc system, bound to Euro, but were forced into it as a legacy of the partial French colonial retreat.
The reacquisition of popular democracy may look alien by form if the ideal is a liberal electoral parliamentary democracy. But the popular democratic content of this reacquisition might be huge and very important for the social transformation. Historically – and this is not taught in schools any more …
The liberation struggles were armed?
Not only that. The Arab military coups, now popularly defamed because their ultimate outcome has been linked to their lack of internal democracy, enacted substantial redistributions of land. If we want to learn from history in a way that is useful for actual popular emancipations, we have to acknowledge that this was the result of militarized and undemocratic coups in Syria from 1963 to 1970 and in Egypt from 1952 to 1967. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian coup leader was revered across the Arab region. Yes, there were many problematic aspects; the social transformations did not go deep enough; but people, poor peasants who had had nothing, expressed in surveys in the 1980s positive perceptions and memories of the agrarian reform. For me this was an example of a positive outcome and of popular democratic policies expressing the popular will despite the form of non-democratic military coup. The institutional form of these changes had flaws but if we understand democracy as the people’s control and emancipation in their day-to-day life then a military coup importantly advanced these. By looking only at institutional forms of the transformations we can miss a lot about what is for people important in these changes.
In the book you emphasize the importance of climate debt the core countries owe to the peripheral countries and you have just mentioned the working class struggle, which, you write, is international, while inequalities are entrenched also nationally. In the book you write about the national question as an important part of the solution. Why is that and how to ensure that the impoverished workers of the core support and stand in global solidarity with the periphery demanding just transition and repayment of the climate debt by the wealthy?
It is important that we understand the nation state not as the normative framework but as a starting point. If we look at Zimbabwe; the state is in a position to nationalize resources and enter co-production agreements on value-added processes with lithium. It can write laws and enforce them. The state provides in the current historical moment a set of mechanisms, institutions and tools that can be used immediately in the interest of popular classes. A nation state can ban exports of lithium. A nation state can follow the population and throw out foreign military bases. A nation state can oppose or support certain international actions.
I am a pan-Arabist. I do not view the nation state as the finalized normative framework. To achieve all sorts of political objectives it is important to work across and beyond nation states. Political movements exist across national borders. What we see in West Africa is a regional phenomenon, where events serve as inspirations beyond national borders. Even domestic social transformations have international aspects and once the emancipation starts people do not restrict their visions to nation states. Nevertheless, this is a set of historically given institutions that have to be modified to carry out further transformations. Nation states are our historical heritage but in no way should they be our final aim.
Most of the left parties in Europe, similarly, agitate for national reforms while they have different positions on the EU. Focus on the immediate utility of a nation state, as the initial unit for social transformation, is not necessarily narrow nationalism.
But when we talk about the differences between the core and the periphery we need to be rigours and technical. Poor people are not the same as periphery. Peripheries are defined by the logic of accumulation, for which external forces set the pace and pattern – whether it is the commodities or subcontracted products, the periphery does not control the demand. The pace of economic growth or contraction is outside of the sovereign control of periphery. The national question is also important because the OECD countries generally are not subject to sanctions, they do not have foreign military bases on their territory nor do they need to worry about a foreign military intervention. The national question connects to political sovereignty regime – the political arrangement achieved by the national liberation movements: all countries of the world system have the same rights as full members within the world community of nations. It is the democratic principle on the world scale. However, the political sovereignty regime has never been respected by the European states or the USA. Proofs abound on South American or African continents with histories of foreign supported military coups. National question is therefore important to understand that the survival of a political leader can not depend on his or her likeability by the northern states – people everywhere have the same rights as Americans have to elect either Donald Trump, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. Part of sovereignty is the political self-determination. In Niger it is again being ignored by the prospect of the Ecowas intervention.
And this relates also to the duties of the core arising from the climate debts?
Yes, the climate debt underlines how the development of the core has been bound to the underdevelopment of the periphery. There is very good research on this from different parts of the world: by Gordon Means on Indonesia and Southeast Asia, work by Eric Williams and historic studies by Walter Rodney and Samir Amin … They all show that the wealth of the core is built on the pillage of the periphery. Anyone who lives in the core benefits from this wealth – be it the infrastructure, public transport or the healthcare systems. Core countries are built on the historical process of wealth extraction. Almost no one denies this. However, politicians like Todd Stern under the Barack Obama administration say they simply do not care and refuse to accept any historic responsibility. They reject reparations and any accountability, although it is basic equity. We can debate how to implement the repayments of the climate debt, which is a serious question with no straightforward answers. But already putting this topic on the table in the core countries is complicated. However, without redistribution of wealth along national lines from the core to the peripheral states we condemn the latter to poverty.
But the response you mentioned – no one cares – seems to prevail. Tunisia has not got a debt relief but has been further burdened by the EU, which out-sources its responsibilities about migrations. We see rise in eco-fascism and authoritarian ethnocentric politics not least fuelled by the uncertainties and calamities of the climate break down. How to fight this politics of fear and hate and the delusion that the best thing is if nothing changes?
History cannot tell us how easy it is going to be or how successful we are going to be. In the USA there is a wide support for increasing foreign aid to peripheral countries – yes, people tend to overestimate the amounts currently given and are mostly unaware that foreign aid is used as a tool of neocolonialism. However, there are bases to popularize the concept of a climate debt in progressive movements. It is not complicated to tell people that we want to massively increase wealth taxes and income taxes on the upper class with the portion going towards climate debt repayments. Conveying that to people in the core countries is not impossible. People give money to charities and the poor give proportionally more than the rich.
Undoubtedly, the messaging will be context dependant and in some countries with popular-fascist governments it is not going to work in the short term, for example in Hungary. The possibilities for a progressive transformation are bleak in many countries. But capitalist counterrevolution happens exactly through assertions that the current distribution of wealth and income is immutable and permanent, at most it can be gently reformed. Systems are not frozen in time. They were historically created and can be changed. Our job, if we believe in the emancipation for the planet and in liberation, is to state they can be changed. They can be completely overthrown. People have argued this in much worse circumstances, persevered to organize and succeeded. We can do it too.
The book focuses on Cochabamba People’s Agreement from 2010 as an example of a progressive blueprint. Why are these important to you?
I was in Cochabamba in 2008 to meet people from social movements and have closely followed events in South America since I was a teenager. In the years after the Cochabamba People’s Agreement I was surprised how it got erased from the climate discussions even when climate gained popularity. In 2019 no one mentioned it on the Left. I find it very important to highlight that there have been concrete and successful plans – not named “green new deals” but nonetheless offering a framework, similar to the transition and changes we have to undertake. These plans have a wide support of popular social movements and were discussed even in the core states; Naomi Klein wrote a 2009 article for The Nation magazine supporting the repayment of the climate debt but has later stopped talking about it.
I do not believe that progressive politics are less popular today than they were in 2010, even in the core continents of North America and Europe. I think it is the opposite: these politics are more popular but public intellectuals and “progressive” political parties have stopped talking about truly transformative politics and climate debt. This came with the ascent of the “green new deals” and “progressivism”. But these ideas and needs are important because they are based on analyses, which emerged from the peripheral countries between 1960s and 1980s, focusing on decolonization and on dismantling of the neocolonial economic world order. Cochabamba People’s Agreement has grown from these analyses and extends them to the ecological sphere. It talks about decolonization of the atmosphere: colonial wealth accumulation and neocolonial systems of power have allowed the core countries to “enclose” the atmosphere and use it as a toxic waste dump. Countries and movements in South America clearly asserted that this was unacceptable and that a different world was possible by creatively fusing national cultural heritage, multi-national states, different cosmo-visions, anti-capitalism and indigenous visions. They created a coherent political vision and made an agreement that had the support not only across the continent but the entire world. It offered a counter-hegemonic pole for what a worldwide transition might look like. The Left politics in the core countries ignore it. Many people know about it, many comrades work on these visions but no political party has taken this on. These visions lack power also in the global progressive conversation and therefore it remains an ongoing struggle. The global conversation is presently a form of resignation to the existing system. It aims only for certain modifications but it is not anti-capitalist; the argument being, that we can be anti-capitalist in 40 years time but now we have to deal with climate. However, this is not a serious option for most of the humanity – it is an option only for Europe and Northern America.
A restoration of capitalism?
A social-democratic capitalist restoration, yes. It can be fine if you have the wealth to redistribute it but it is untenable if you lack the wealth and still need to develop your productive forces and armour your society against climate breakdown.
This is, for example, the case of Tunisia. Tunisia needs national popular ecological policies that support the green transformation right now. They need to start today. Trees need to be planted on the streets of Tunis where they have been uprooted or have died, making the streets unwalkable in summer. Tree canopies can reduce the temperature for around 8 degrees. During the heat people do not walk around and this affects economic activities. Businessmen from the core countries said, that climate change would not impact economic activities because most of these take place indoors where there is air-conditioning. This is ignorance and arrogance talking. Our societies need ways to preserve rainwater, we need public spaces with water fountains and centres that are cooled and accessible to everybody, especially elderly, we need drip irrigation systems, energy from renewable sources, more drought resilient crops, adaptation and research in agro-culture along the ecological principles, air-conditioned public transport system that connects distant places … none of these are self-evident public services. In Tunisia travelling can often be like moving inside an oven. Needed public policies are wide and many. Therefore, Tunisian government needs debt negotiations and debt relief. Questions of underdevelopment are closely linked to the national question and sovereign popular ecological policies. They all need to be in the centre of our conversations. People in the core countries need to understand that Tunisia needs debt relief to carry out policies for when there is 48 degrees Celsius for weeks in summer, that people can still live decent lives. This is a message many people in the core countries care about and understand.
The UN has recently called for debt relief, stating that the present financial-economic system does not work. There are many initiatives, models of Democracy Collaborative in the localities in the US and in the UK, of participatory economy, the concept of degrowth … do you see these ideas and initiatives connecting to build a stronger solidarity front?
They can connect. However, diverse people struggle in different ways. There is sometimes too much emphasis on the forms of solidarity that are removed from immediate political tasks and immediate political confrontations. Tunisia needs a debt amnesty. If people in Europe and in the USA want to show true solidarity with the people in Tunisia, the immediate thing is to cancel the debt.
However, many people in the core countries, democracies, feel powerless, especially at such demands. There has been criminalization not only of solidarity but of calls to boycott, sanction and divest, for example in the case of Palestine under the Israeli apartheid regime. This, warn activists, might well extend also to calls for boycott of fossil fuels companies. Expressing criticism is being sanctioned and calling for respect of international law is deemed “lawfare”.
Yes. People are being disempowered and the Right is on the constant offensive – in respect to Palestine but also in respect to the climate. Everybody is struggling from where they are. Furthermore, also the media – and particularly the progressive media – is not doing a great job of bringing these issues to public attention. The media and publishers who position themselves on the Left need to do better. What is “hot” for the publishers? To blow up a pipeline! Excuse me? First of all, no one is going to blow up a pipeline. I am sorry. No one is doing that – the exception being the Nord Stream but that is off topic. There is this phantom, an intellectual, political and popular debate circling around the idea of blowing up a pipeline and around violence in climate mobilizations. This is a big joke! It is ludicrous! If you want to do something about climate change in the core countries that benefits the peripheral states, then call on your country to cancel the debts, so that peripheral countries can enact popular ecological development policies. Do not inflate adventurous fantasises, selling a million books about blowing up a pipeline, which no one is doing, least of all the communities most effected by the climate and ecological breakdown. There is a responsibility on the part of the people who help set discussions in the core countries but they are not taking this responsibility seriously. Discussions do not just happen. Consciousness does not magically emerge in random ways. People discuss certain themes and people push ideas into the public sphere all the time. We need to be concrete and clear about the bad ideas and where they come from and put in their place good ideas if we want to carry out emancipatory project that benefits everyone.
In the book you emphasize the role of agro-ecology and how our societies should be organized differently; nationalizing and centralizing certain services and planning, on the one side, and on the other, giving more autonomy to local communities. How to build an autonomous system of cooperation and coordination that does not become a hostage of the, likely-to-soon-become autocratic, leader?
Every historical experience of social transformation had a leader. However, a leader is not someone who tells you what to do. A leader is not so much a person as is a relationship between the people and someone who has a certain role in the political processes or in a political institution. It is a relationship and thus, it can be a dialogue, participatory in and of itself. Historically we saw this with Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution when people sometimes corrected Chavez in his policies. There are different models of leadership and leadership per se is not necessarily a problem. Even failed emancipatory attempts with Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders rested on a certain level of leadership. In our time in history this is somehow the norm and not necessarily fundamentally problematic.
The bigger question is the balance between centralization and decentralization. With agro-cultural production there should be centralization of university teachings for agro-ecological engineers, although allowing also for regional capitals to be the centres. Unless we break up nation states, the funding for these public universities will come from the centralized state budget for agro-ecological training and policies. On the other side, the involvement of the training centres in the farming processes should be decentralized and cooperation of the engineers with the farmers should be participatory. If there is a set of cooperative farms they should be workers’ controlled in terms of their production methods. However, should they be only workers’ controlled in terms of their surplus and its allocation? I do not have a clear answer. It depends how a society or a state defines the land – whose is it? If we say the land is workers-farmers’ private property, we are back in capitalism. Is the land state’s or does it belong to past, present and future generations while workers-farmers only have the privilege to use it? Is the land a common property of the people living on a certain territory? Does the right to use the land stipulate that they will use it for the benefit of the common good and common wealth? In this case, workers-farmers should have a great deal of democratic control over their production processes and they should clearly benefit from their labour, however, the surplus should be further distributed to the rest of the population who also has the right to food. Therefore, we need an adaptive and responsive balance of centralized and decentralized processes and logics, and their combinations, based on the implications of different levels of control over the processes.
The text has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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