Notes on a Green New Deal: From the Watchdog Public to the Public as Operating Stakeholder

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by Alexander Kolokotronis


The Green New Deal represents a significant break from prior environmental and climate policy, and even in more generalized policymaking and administration. This is a break from the public as watchdog, towards the public as an operating stakeholder. The last time we witnessed the public—as represented here by the federal government—act as an operating stakeholder was in the 1930s with the New Deal.

Since the 1940s there have been other smaller scale initiatives and proposals with the public as operating stakeholder. Specifically, in terms of being in the business of direct job creation and employment. These included the 1973 Comprehensive and Employee Training Act (CETA), peaking with the federal government directly employing 750,000 people in 1976, but then completely dropped by Reagan. Other abortive proposals included a job guarantee, proposed but then abandoned from the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, becoming the “New Deal that never happened”. As a result, it is sensible that the first imagining of a nationally scaled operation of the public as operating stakeholder since the 1930s should be called a Green New Deal.


Watchdog Public: Tracking, Taxing, and Disciplining Capital…or Not

The public as watchdog means various things in terms of institutional design and operations. It includes extensive record-keeping and tracking, tax obligations, tax credits, and regulations with threat of penalty or sanction. In the United States we find these policies beginning in 1970s, and continuing into recent years. For better or worse, however, what is the watchdog effectively designed to do? The watchdog public aims to modify the behavior of private actors. Thus, Richard Nixon first set this framework on course by aggregating the array of environmental bureaucrats dispersed across various bodies into one concentrated agency: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Such aggregating and concentration was largely geared towards enhancing the public’s capacity as watchdog. That is to say, as an overseer of government agencies as well as an overseer of private actors, toward the ends of modifying the behavior of both.

Tracking and recording devices and procedures were established by various bills in the 1970s. This included the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act requiring the writing of environmental impact statements, “cradle to grave” tracking of hazardous materials as signed-in by the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and regulation and documentation occurring through various pollution permit arrangements. Given that much of this occurred before the neoliberal turn, the watchdog public was also endowed with limited capacities to discipline capital. Such capacities were created and extended by 1970s amendments to the Clean Air Act. This included enabling citizens to sue actors in violation of regulations (hence, the public as watchdog, and not simply the government as watchdog). The watchdog public’s disciplinary capacities culminated in the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) where a “polluter pays” procedure was established to finance the cleanups of “sites contaminated with hazardous materials”.

The ideation and operations of a watchdog public is compatible with capitalist enterprise. There is a range to the form and content of this compatibility. On the one end, believing that private actors do more good than bad in the world. The public must therefore construct mechanisms that encourage private actors to rein in the externalities of pollution, and so on, into the cost of what they do. On the other, a belief in the virtues and promise of “green capitalism.” That is to say, that the capitalist mode of production is best positioned to innovate towards reducing pollution, protecting endangered wildlife, diminishing our collective carbon footprint, and building up capacities for resiliency. With the neoliberal turn, the latter has become a more common framing. Thus, subsequent to the Carter administration, various capacities and mechanisms to discipline capital have been removed or repealed. Thus, much policy has been geared towards providing tax credits for big and small business. According to this framework, public agencies and bodies are not the best suited for innovating or coming up with environmental impact solutions. Private actors are valorized as the crucible of creativity and innovation, and the same goes for coming up with solutions for ecological issues we’ve faced today and in the past. The idea then is to provide incentives and thereby modifying the behavior of private actors—such as entrepreneurs and asset managers—to self-select into investing in green innovation. The public cannot do the job, only private capital can. At best, all the public can do is what it has done since 1970: watch.


The Green and the Grey: From the Worker-as-Producer to the Worker-as-Steward

Writers of the Green New Deal resolution point out that there are various problems to the watchdog public—and therefore private capital as green innovator—paradigm. For one, it is not simply the effectiveness of the paradigm that is in question. The paradigm itself is eroding, even on terms that are compatible with capitalist monetization. This occurred with repeated failure to pass a cap-and-trade bill, as shown by the American Clean Energy and Security Act passing the House in 2009, but not being taken up by the Senate. In many ways, private capital wants the public, at most, to watch private capital watch itself.

Even if resurrected there are still numerous major issues to the watchdog public paradigm, as outlined in a draft text for a Green New Deal Select Committee. For one, private capital has hitherto not provisioned the innovation and production necessary to tackle the ecological crisis. In fact, it is many ways responsible for the ecological calamity that is around the corner. More to the point, even in recent years, private capital has not modified its behavior to a point sufficiently or substantively otherwise to how it has behaved since the dawn of industrial capitalism. If watchdog approaches and incentives have not worked so far, why should we believe they suddenly will? The burden is on private capital to prove otherwise, even if we are all—and more so those not of the top 1%—saddled with the pain and suffering that will come and is already arriving with ecological catastrophe.

Even if private capital were up to the task, the GND draft text indicates that the pooled financial resources of much of a big private capital is insufficient. The government as currency-issuer is better positioned to finance the vast investment required. Additionally, the writers of the Green New Deal Resolution assert that climate change is a “threat-multiplier.” A number of the threats to human livelihood are those that are part-and-parcel to how private capital has behaved. This includes poverty wages, maldistribution of healthy food, mass under- and unemployment, and host of other issues related not simply to distribution on enumerative terms, but ones related to social identity and recognition. 

Similarly, the Great Depression was proving to be a threat-multiplier the social ills festering below the surface of a supposed capitalist economic boom. The New Deal opened up possibilities for tackling varieties of issues and man-made privations. That is to say, of turning the threat-multiplier of Depression, into a comprehensive vision operating as a benefit multiplier. Thus, the New Deal facilitated the recording of oral histories, mass literacy and education, public artmaking, and of course the many infrastructure projects that we most widely recall. Here, we begin to find that conceptualizing the public as watchdog is inherently self-limiting. With the public reinforcing its own situatedness as watchdog, the "doing" of credit-generation, price-generation, and job-generation is conceded in an increasing variety of ways to the private sector. In more substantive terms, what does concession mean? Conceding what? Conceding the creation of credit and jobs as well as setting of prices. Credit-creation through public banks offering loans and follow-up guidance in development. Though more quazi-public in its cooperatavist status, an example of this is Mondragon's 1970s and 1980s Caja Laboral. This financial cooperative provided financing and human resource support for startup worker cooperatives. Examples of job-creation include New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. Or, as Harry Boyte, cited in a recent lecture, the New Deal's Federal Music Project which by 1939 "had employed 7,000 musicians and sponsored 225,000 musical performances engaging 150 million people. Or, as Boyte also cites, the Federal Art Project, which "provided jobs to painters, sculptors, graphic artists and art teachers, employing 5,000 artists" creating "108,000 easel paintings, 17,700 sculptures, 11,200 print designs, and 2,500 murals." Another New Deal initiative was the National Recovery Administration, which went as far to even give the public a role in directly setting prices. In the decade following World War II, more than just job-creation, credit-creation and price-setting was conceded to the private sector. We see this with the eroding of the National Labor Relations Act, the reworking of finance such as with the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the unraveling of things like rent-control. Here the watchdog public engages in another round of concession: from conceding creativity and content-creation, to conceding any kind of participation in setting the terms of private financing, employment, and pricing.

The public as operating stakeholder reverses the conceding of content-creation and participation in term-setting. In fact, the public as operating stakeholder is not in binary oppoisiton to the public in its watchdog capacity. Rather, in its own doings, the public alters the dynamics between itself and private capital. It no longer allows itself to be rendered intert and passive in the face of and in relation to private capital. Thus, direct job creation enhances the capacity of private sector employees to unionize their workplaces—or to even take the chance in the first place. That is to say, content-creation in one setting enhances the capability to set terms in another. All of the above, however, still may fall into a productivist subjectivity of labor. In this way it does not necessarily constitute a sufficient break from the neoliberal era's exacerbation of ecological harm and damage. Thus, we do not find ourselves in pursuit of a total reenactment of the 1930s New Deal that gave way to 1940s war-mobilization, but a Green New Deal that itself redefines what work means and is.

This can be framed otherwise. The aforementioned public job-creation could be imagined under a Green New Deal, but what about the ecological dimension itself? How does an ecological approach work back onto the design and operation of work itself? And how does the ecological dimension map onto turning the threat-multiplier of climate change to a Green New Deal that operates as a benefit-multiplier?

Some assert that a job guarantee would simply create busywork. That automation can provide for us. These critiques and others discussions of a job guarantee remain within a productivist framing. These are conceptual enclosures inherited from the dominant discursive and material paradigm that is neoliberalism. That labor as such must have to do with production. Theorists and laborers in social reproduction demonstrate otherwise. Within the terms of the ecological dimension of the Green New Deal, the notion of green and grey infrastructure also point to conceptualizing labor as something other than productivist. Green infrastructure can be defined as “strategic use of networks of natural lands, working landscapes, and other open spaces to conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations”  Grey infrastructure can be defined as “the human-engineered infrastructure for water resources such as water and wastewater treatment plants, pipelines, and reservoirs. Grey infrastructure typically refers to components of a centralized approach to water management.”

Private capital has proved unable to provision the buildup of grey and green infrastructure for ecological sustainability and resiliency. Though not said in these terms, this is expressed in both the GND Resolution and draft text for a Select Committee. The public can no longer simply watch. It can neither watch in such a way that provides carrots and sticks for modifying the behavior of private actors, and it certainly cannot watch others watch themselves. This is whether the latter comes in the form of individualistic personal responsibility (e.g., individuals self-monitoring their water usage, lining their homes with solar panels, or implementing LED lights), or believing private capital will come up with its own solutions that are ultimately solutions for all of us. These are both insufficient, but also even if erected on such terms, do not amount to a well-organized or coordinated infrastructure. They cannot constitute a smart green and grey infrastructure. One thinks of the New York City’s uncoordinated disorganized mass transit erected by private capital, prior to the creation of a public subway system.

Green and grey infrastructure—and particularly the former—are less premised on a productivist model and subjectivity, and more on stewardship. For example, it is debatable as to whether community gardens and urban farms can self-sufficiently produce food for feeding all people in cities, but its positive communal and social effects are recognized. It is difficult to argue against the notion that stewarding parks, community gardens, and urban farms are not valuable forms of labor. That they do not possess great pedagogical and psychological value. A job guarantee can allow us to proliferate green spaces that do not simply enhance flood mitigation infrastructure, but operate as sites of paid communal labor and organic gathering points of neighborhood assembly. As such, the worker-as-steward is one that does not only steward the land transformed from grey and concrete to green and animate. They are also stewarding the reproduction of themselves, others, and gradually revitalizing the sociality of neighborhood life. Furthermore, municipalities from coast-to-coast, have green infrastructure, resiliency, and other types of ecologically-oriented plans. Plans that require the type of labor illustrated above.

All of this brings up questions of: who is the public? Who will constitute the public as operating stakeholders and how? Is it the artists, craftsmen, oral historians, and popular educators and those they educate, or is it back-office administrators and agency bureaucrats? Will this always require partnership with private capital, such as with neoliberal “public-private” partnership? Or can we conceive of alternatives, such as the “social-public”, for provisioning and stewarding? The former tends towards the bureaucrat as the supervening representative of the public as operating stakeholder in proximate deliberation with capital. The latter tends towards “front-line communities” and labor reflexively representing itself and in healthy engagement with multi-scalar making and remaking of what it means to be public and social.

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