On Tuesday evening, author Naomi Klein presented her new book in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City. “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal” which went on sale that evening, deals with three types of fire that are spreading across the world today. First are the actual fires caused by climate change. Second are the fires of hate, represented by figures like U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, that worsen the catastrophe. Third, according to Klein, is “our fire”—the passion of a broad resistance movement that is growing around the world. “The climate clock is striking midnight!” Klein proclaimed.
Klein picked a good time to visit New York. On Friday, an estimated 250,000 people took to the streets in lower Manhattan, as part of the worldwide Climate Strike calling for immediate and decisive action against climate change.
In her talk, Klein described how the climate crisis first came to widespread attention in 1988 — at a time, in other words, when neoliberalism was at its peak. In consequence, the belief that governments could not (or at any rate should not) do anything, and that the free market would solve any environmental problems that arose, held sway—leading to decades of inaction, and to drastically rising carbon emissions.
That is why Klein finds the metaphor of the Green New Deal so useful: the New Deal, and she and many others have argued, was the last time the U.S. saw a major state intervention in the U.S. economy. Klein was, however, careful to acknowledge in her talk that New Deal programs had many racist components and violated indigenous rights.
It is also important to remember that a real recovery of the U.S. economy from the depression did not come from the New Deal—it came when U.S. imperialists ramped up war production in a project to achieve global hegemony.
As Klein pointed out, neoliberalism has limited our imaginations, to the extent that it is now difficult for most people to conceive of any other form of capitalism. But the problem goes far deeper. In the fight against climate disaster, the enemy is not just neoliberalism but capitalism itself—and for many, the notion of a world without capitalism is hard to conceive.
This is surely why so much of the debate within the climate movement automatically assumes that any change with have to take place within the institutions of capitalism: within the two parties and the parliamentary bodies of the United States. “We’ve been let down by our institutions,” said Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunshine Movement, during the discussion on Tuesday. “The people in these institutions at the moment are not serving us.” But were these institutions ever designed to protect us?
As socialists, we should support every progressive measure that we can win from the capitalist institutions—anything that can reduce carbon emissions. But we must do this as part of an anticapitalist strategy. We know there can be no solution to the climate crisis within the framework of capitalism. That is why we fight for political independence from the capitalists’ parties, like the Republicans and the Democrats. We rely, instead, on the strength of the working class—workers, after all, keep the entire economy running.
The meeting began with “A Message from the Future,” a short film produced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Avi Lewis, Klein’s long-time collaborator. With beautiful images, the film tells the story of a young woman participating in the Green New Deal over the next 20 years, transforming American society and saving the planet. It is moving—and also deeply deceptive.
According to AOC’s narration, the trigger for radical change will be Democrats winning the White House and the Senate in 2020. The Democrats are one of the two parties that have allowed the climate catastrophe to develop for decades. Will the party be transformed, or will it instead transform the activities of those who join it? AOC has proposed a number of important measures to fight the climate crisis—but has also voted to give 1.7 trillion dollars to the U.S. military, the biggest polluter on earth. And Klein, while stopping short of endorsing the Democrats herself, allowed this event to begin and end with calls to vote for a capitalist party.
Cooper Union’s Great Hall has seen speeches by countless revolutionaries: Petr Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and even Leon Trotsky (during his brief stint in New York in 1917). There is a long tradition of anti-capitalist struggle associated with that space. And the need for such an anti-capitalist perspective—one that calls not only for regulating the corporations, but for expropriating them—is more urgent than ever.