By Richard Sandbrook, October 6, 2020
This is the decisive decade for humankind and other species. We tackle dire trends now. Or we face a bleak future in which our constricted pandemic life now becomes the norm for all but the wealthiest. Our rational and technological prowess, in combination with market-based power structures, has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Can movement politics be part of a solution?
The challenges appear overwhelming. Getting nuclear weapons under control before they destroy us, preventing a climate meltdown and untold species extinction, defanging right-wing authoritarian nationalism, reconstructing a social contract attaining racial and class justice, and channeling the automation revolution into socially supportive channels: these interrelated problems are confounding in their complexity and in the political obstacles to the needed systemic changes.
How can progressive activists respond effectively and quickly? To make matters more difficult, people are understandably preoccupied with the day-to-day challenges of living with the pandemic. What is the most promising strategy in these dire circumstances? Can we make the impossible possible?
Politics as Usual Is Insufficient
Relying on electoral politics and the submission of impressive briefs to elected officials and popular media are necessary activities, but insufficient as an effective strategy. The extent of the needed changes is just too far-reaching for the gradualism of politics as usual. Radical proposals meet with condemnation by the privately owned mass media and conservative parties, are watered down by lobbyists and public-opinion campaigns, and challenge the modus operandi of even progressive parties (such as the British Labour Party, the Democratic Party in the US), whose establishments demand moderation to appeal to the political middle. Meanwhile, the voices of right-wing populism grow stronger. Politics as usual is not enough.
The Extinction Rebellion slogan ‘rebellion or extinction’ points us in a more efficacious politics – provided rebellion is understood as limited to non-violent political action consistent with democratic norms. But the actions themselves will only part of a much larger process of building support among receptive sectors of the population and constructing a coalition of movements so strong that its integrated message cannot be ignored. Unity can be built only on a program that combines the objectives of single-issue movements. We need to replace the cacophony of voices with a single melody.
Needed: A Unifying Vision
Building such a unified movement is a monumental task. ‘Progressives’ include a wide array – left-liberals, social democrats, socialists of various persuasions, racial, human rights and economic justice proponents, some trade unions, many feminists, many indigenous movements, most (but not all) climate activists, and most peace activists. Progressives find much to disagree about. They differ regarding the nature of the fundamental problem (is it capitalism, neoliberalism, imperialism, patriarchy, systemic racism, authoritarian populism, mal-functioning democratic institutions, inequality, or some combination?), and thus they differ over the required solutions. The recent advent of the Progressive International determined to forge unity among progressives globally despite the divisions, is a welcome sign. “Internationalism or Extinction”, the provocative title of its first summit in September 2020, attests to its ambition.
What program is best positioned to unite the concerns of single-issue progressive movements? A Green New Deal (GND) is increasingly regarded as a common denominator. The Leap Manifesto, the forerunner of this program in Canada, contained most of the elements. They included a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050, the building of a more just society in the process, the enactment of higher, and new forms of, taxes, and a grassroots movement to back the needed changes and to deepen democracy. Green New Deals, or programs with similar names, have been adopted widely, from the European Green Deal, to those of some national governments and many progressive parties and social movements. The degree of ambition varies, however.
The Green New Deal offers a simple and alluring vision. People are asked to imagine a world – not a Utopia, but an achievable world – that is green, just, democratic and prosperous enough to support a good life for all. The logic is straightforward. Impending climatic disasters and species extinctions demand ecological transformation, but this cannot be achieved without deep economic and social changes. GNDs involve not only restructuring the economy to achieve net zero carbon emissions within a decade or two, but also a just transition to sustainability in which the bulk of populations benefit from the economic shift. Good jobs for those lost in the transition, free education and retraining at all levels, universal health care, free public transit and justice for indigenous and racialized groups are some of the proposals encompassed by this integrated program.
For example, the GND sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in the form of a resolution in the US House of Representatives in 2019, follows this logic. Denounced as a socialist plot, the plan is closer to a Rooseveltian New Deal for the 21st century. It calls for a ‘10-year national mobilization’ to achieve 100% renewable energy, giant investments in infrastructure and a carbon-free economy, and jobs for all who want to work. Accompanying the transition are measures that are mainstream in Western welfare states: universal healthcare, free higher education, affordable housing, enhanced labour rights, a job guarantee, and remedies for racism. Enforcement of anti-trust laws would, if successful, weaken the economic and political power of oligopolies. We can argue about the degree of systemic change that is needed. Any effective plan, however, must garner support through a vision of a better life, not just fear.
Conservatives, especially right-wing populists, have become climate-deniers, partly on the grounds that combatting climate change is a socialist Trojan horse. They are certainly right that the GND is a progressive project, but whether it is necessarily a socialist project is debatable. It depends partly on one’s definition of socialism. For the sake of unity in a diverse movement, that debate is one we should avoid.
We need, in sum, to provide a hopeful message that a better world is not only possible but also winnable. It is useless, even counter-productive, just to dwell on how dire the human prospect is. To focus on the negative is to risk paralysis of the will. And preaching to the converted may make us feel good; however, it serves only to build solidarity among a small and largely uninfluential group. We must learn to engage ordinary people (especially the young) in this, the decisive, decade. It will not be easy because people are bombarded with information from all sides and remain fixated on the coronavirus threat. Attention spans are short.
We need to have a dream, like Martin Luther King, and again like King, that dream must be simply stated, reasonable and realizable. Of course, we do not have a detailed road map for a just transition. But we cam agree on the direction we must head, and the social forces and agency that will carry us forward to that better world. We must appeal to the hearts as well as minds of people. Success will depend on a broad coalition of movements.
Coalitional Movement Politics
What would such a coalition look like? Is it conceivable that a progressive movement of movements might develop, within and across countries, to push an agenda like a Global Green New Deal? The challenge is massive, but within the realm of the possible.
This era is, after all, one of rebellion and grassroots action worldwide. The multi-dimensional socio-economic and ecological crisis is spurring political dissent. The most extensive wave of protests since 1968 erupted in 2019, and this wave continued in 2020, despite the pandemic. Protests engulfed six continents and 114 countries, affecting liberal democracies as well as dictatorships. As Robin Wright observes in The New Yorker in December 2019, ‘Movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale – from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut, to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila and even Moscow. Taken together, the protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization.’. The United States, for instance, is undergoing the most extensive civil unrest since the 1960s’ civil rights and anti-war protests, precipitated by the police killing of African-American George Floyd in May 2020. The protests not only sparked extensive protests worldwide, but also mobilized substantial support outside the black community.
Although local irritants (such as a hike in transit fees) ignited the largely non-violent protests throughout the world, the protests vented virulent anger. A common theme was that self-serving elites had seized too much power and directed policy to self-aggrandizement. Popular rebellions signified, above all, the need to reconstruct broken social contracts and restore legitimacy.
We can just discern the stirrings of a movement of movements whose elements are moving beyond critiques towards an increasingly integrated program of structural change. Major strands include climate/environmental organizations, Black Lives Matter and the larger movement for racial/indigenous justice, movements for economic justice, including trade unions, and the peace movement. I have already alluded to the climate movement. Although environmentalists span the ideological spectrum, runaway climate change and the need for rapid and fundamental action have turned many toward more radical policy positions. As protests have expanded worldwide, the Green New Deal has an obvious appeal.
Demands for structural change have also arisen under the banner of Black Lives Matter. ‘Defund the police’ focuses demands not just on weeding out a few racist policemen but forging new structures to end systemic racism. ‘Cancel rent’ devolves into a demand to regard housing as a social right, not just a commodity. The response to the crisis is intersectional, with support for Black Lives Matter from any disparate groups and with protests including large numbers of white people. But is the racial justice movement likely to form part of a larger movement for a just transition? The systemic roots of racism, including the role that market forces play in racially segmenting and segregating populations, suggest a confluence of interests. Martin Luther King gave credence to this view in the late 1960s in explaining the meaning of the black rebellion at that time: The rebellion, he said, is ‘much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes…. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced. It is … forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism’. Intersectional alliances build solidarity on this insight for potential systemic change.
The goals of climate activists and racial-justice groups overlap with many demands emanating from economic and social justice movements. This category includes diverse groups such as activist trade unions, indigenous groups (in North and South America particularly), feminists, gay-rights activists, human-rights campaigners, co-operative movements, faith groups of various denominations, and groups oriented to international justice involving the rights of refugees and migrants and north-sought transfers of resources to deal with ecological and other inequities. The GND links up with the needs and rights of workers, indigenous people and racialized minorities. Green jobs, job guarantees, housing as a public good, high-quality and universal health care are just some of the non-reformist reforms that have emerged. As a recent article in the New York Times indicated, the left at the grassroots is remaking politics throughout the world.
The peace movement forms another component of a potential grassroots alliance. In 2019, the risk of an accidental or deliberate nuclear exchange climbed to its highest point since 1962. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its famous Doomsday Clock forward to 100 seconds before midnight, citing nuclear proliferation and the retreat from arms control as accentuating the danger of nuclear war. Arms-control and disarmament treaties, negotiated painstakingly in past decades, are falling apart, owing largely to US intransigence. All the major nuclear powers – United States, Russia and China – are modernizing their nuclear arsenals. In this atmosphere, the US under Trump is seeking to spur allies into joining it in a new Cold War aimed at China. Threatening actions and rhetoric aimed at Venezuela, Iran and Cuba and the widespread recourse to cyber-warfare compound international tensions and have galvanized peace organizations widely.
The goals of the peace movement, and its integration as a movement in North America under the auspices of World Beyond War, have drawn it closer to the other three strands of the emergent coalition. Its goal of cutting defense budgets, canceling new arms procurements, and channeling released funds to human security reflects a concern for social rights and decommodification. Human security is defined as the expansion of social and ecological rights. Hence the connection with economic and social justice initiatives. In addition, links between climate change and security concerns have brought the climate and peace movements into dialogue. Even a small nuclear exchange would initiate a nuclear winter, with untold consequences for drought, starvation and generalized misery. Conversely, climate change, by destroying livelihoods and rendering tropical regions uninhabitable, undermines fragile states and exacerbate existing ethnic and other conflicts. Peace, justice and sustainability are increasingly seen as inextricably linked. That is the basis for coalitional alliances and mutual support of each movement’s protests.
Making the Impossible Possible
We live in the decisive decade, facing serious challenges that endanger the future of all species. Politics as usual in liberal democracies seem incapable of grasping the enormity of the challenges or acting decisively to manage them. The rising chorus of authoritarian populist-nationalists, with their racially tinged conspiracy theories, erect a major obstacle to rational and equitable solutions to the multi-dimensional crisis. In this context, progressive movements of civil society are playing an increasingly central role in pushing for the needed systemic changes. The question is: can unity of single-issue movements be built around a common program that avoids both Utopianism and mere reformism? Also, will the movement of movements muster enough discipline to remain non-violent, oriented steadfastly to civil disobedience? The answers to both questions must be yes – if we are to make the impossible, possible.
Richard Sandbrook is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).