In early April, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim issued a dire warning about the consequences of global climate change and increasing economic inequality. The combination of the two, he said, are likely to result in violent clashes around the world: “Fights over water and food are going to be the most significant direct impacts of climate change in the next five to 10 years. There’s just no question about it.”
Mr. Kim urged scientists and environmental activists to produce a coherent plan and challenged the World Bank and world leaders to take immediate action:
Is there enough basic science research going into renewable energy? Not even close. Are there ways of taking discoveries made in universities and quickly moving them into industry? No. Are there ways of testing those innovations? Are there people thinking about scaling [up] those innovations?… [The climate change community] kept saying, ‘What do you mean a plan?’ I said a plan that’s equal to the challenge. A plan that will convince anyone who asks us that we’re really serious about climate change, and that we have a plan that can actually keep us at less than 2C warming. We still don’t have one.
Around the same time, Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century began to draw public attention. The French economist compares the increasing concentration of wealth and power among the super-rich to the revival of a new Gilded Age comparable to the Gilded Age, also called the Robber Baron Era, of a hundred years ago.
For the U.S., it means that the prosperity that Americans enjoyed between 1945 and 1980, spawning a huge and affluent middle class, was temporary and has been replaced by a massive redistribution of wealth to the top One Percent. Mr. Piketty’s conclusions aren’t new — Occupy Wall Street activists, progressives, and others have been warning of the collapse of democracy and economic fairness for years — but his book, according to reviews, tracks the evolution of capitalism over the past two centuries in unprecedented detail.
A pair by professors from Northwestern and Princeton universities made news a few days ago when they published a study confirming our suspicions that oligarchy has replaced democracy. The profs found that “policies supported by economic elites and business interest groups were far more likely to become law than those they opposed…. [T]he preferences of the middle class made essentially no difference to a bill’s fate.”
Let’s state the obvious: the combination of climate change and neo-Gilded plutocracy is the defining crisis of the 21st century and it is a political crisis that requires political solutions.
The “Global Climate Convergence: Earth Day to May Day 2014,” subtitled “People Planet Peace Over Profit,” is designed to address this dual crisis with a worldwide “education and direct action campaign.” Running from April 22 to May 1, it will be the first in a series of yearly actions to effect an “emergency green economic transformation.”
Many environmentalists and progressives fail to grasp that the crisis can’t be fixed under the status quo. It’s not reasonable to believe that systemic changes will occur without profound changes in the American political landscape.
By status quo, I mean the exclusive control over government and policy by two parties that swim in corporate money and influence. The GOP denies that climate change is a problem and clings shamelessly to the libertarian capitalist ideology that’s at the root of inequality. Dems only accept ideas that accommodate corporate special interests: emissions trading schemes that allow businesses to trade licenses to pollute; health-care legislation that imposes a direct public subsidy to sustain insurance industry profits; a proposed minimum-wage hike that falls short of a livable-wage standard; modest Dodd-Frank reforms that don’t restore the Glass-Steagall Act and impunity for banksters whose criminal greed triggered the 2008 financial meltdown.
Some Democratic ideas and policies are nearly indistinguishable from Republican: a proposal to slash Social Security; privatization of education (through the charter-school movement) and other public resources and services; a “NAFTA on steroids” trade pact (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated in secret by the Obama Administration) that threatens labor and environmental protections.
Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s candidate for Governor of New York, sums it up: “The Democrats want to repeal the New Deal and the Republicans seem to want to repeal the Enlightenment.”
President Obama wants us to believe he takes global warming seriously, but the legacy of his administration will include fracking, mountaintop detonation mining, pipelines, “clean coal,” no steps to reduce car traffic, and an emphasis on domestic energy independence instead ending fossil-fuel addiction.
The corporate stranglehold over both parties tightened after two Supreme Court rulings, Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), removed important limits on the flow of money into election campaigns. The result is a bipartisan slide, a few miles per hour faster or slower depending on which party controls the White House and Congress, into the abyss.
Progressives of various stripes have lamented the retreat of the Democratic Party from its traditional values and alleged concern for working-class Americans. An essay by Adolph Reed Jr. titled “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” (Harper’s Magazine, March 2014) provoked a small storm of outrage with its detailed account of Democratic Party betrayals since the mid 20th century.
Unfortunately, the usual progressive response to said retreats and betrayals is “We must keep voting Democrat in every election, because Republicans are worse.” Don’t bother to look beyond the two parties.
Mr. Reed agreed with this dismissal when he responded to a critic of his essay in The Nation: “For the record, I don’t argue for backing third party candidacies, which as a rule are quixotic by definition, and I agree with Goldberg that in any given election it’s overwhelmingly likely to be true that the only realistic choice is to vote for whichever Dem is running.”
Democratic Party politicians hear this message very clearly: “It doesn’t matter what you do in office, you can count on progressives to keep voting for you.”
As long as no other competition exists, Democrats, while competing with Republicans for fat campaign checks from corporate PACS and the One Percent, can take the support of voters who care about economic justice and the health of the planet for granted.
That’s why the “lesser of two evils” justification for remaining loyal to the Democratic Party amounts to a capitulation. When challenged on this point, many progressives shrug and assert that electoral politics doesn’t change anything, sometimes adding “We have to build a movement first.”
This is a dangerous attitude. If little or nothing can be accomplished by voting, then it’s hardly worth making the effort to do so. In fact, the lack of motivation to vote and resulting low turnout in U.S. elections reinforce the status quo in every election cycle more than any other factor.
Dissidents of a century ago weren’t so short-sighted. Eugene Debs and his fellow Socialists understood that movements don’t survive long unless there’s an institutional structure to sustain them. They organized political parties and ran for public office.
Nor were historical alternative parties as quixotic as Mr. Reed claims. The history of third parties is also a history of the urgent ideas they introduced, which were later adopted by one or both of the ruling parties: abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, break-up of monopolies and trusts, the eight-hour day and 40-hour week, workplace safety and organizing rights, even the balanced budget.
Many of these reforms began to erode in the late 20th century, when such parties were at low ebb. The assault on workers’ rights and emergence of big-business cartels and conglomerates with the competition-killing power of monopolies are consequences of exclusive D and R rule.
The Future Will Be Green Or It Won’t Be At All
The major crises of the 21st century won’t be solved by ideas that come out of the established parties.
Despite their differences, the mainstream of both parties remain loyal to unregulated markets, privatization, corporate consolidation, and variations on President Reagan’s discredited trickle-down formula. Ds and Rs will continue to compete for fat checks from corporate PACs. Democrats in the White House will, like Mr. Obama, continue to stack their administrations with Wall Street operatives. Dems in Congress will always squander their power to enact genuine progressive and environmental legislation, as they did in 2009 and 2010 when they held a majority of seats in both houses.
The convergence that needs to happen now must be independent and it must include an electoral component.
The political party that best represents the ideals of the Global Climate Convergence is the Green Party. It’s no coincidence that Greens, especially 2012 presidential nominee Jill Stein and running mate Cheri Honkala, have been the main organizers and promoters of the Convergence.
Many progressives, labor activists, and environmentalists remain skeptical of independent parties and movements, either because they can’t think beyond the Democratic Party, because they’re squeamish about electoral politics in general, or because they cling to the canard that Green presidential nominee Ralph Nader “spoiled” in 2000 and enabled George W. Bush to take the White House. (Adolph Reed Jr. debunks this myth in his Harper’s essay.)
The Green Party or something like it has become an imperative for the 21st century, analogous to the Republican, Populist, Socialist, and other historical third parties. Greens seek to wed a politics of class and ecology, and the best Green activists and elected officials like Mayor Gayle McLaughlin of Richmond, Calif., who stood up to the power of Chevron and foreclosing banks on behalf of her city’s residents, are doing exactly that.
The impending climate catastrophe and rise of economic inequality won’t be solved with a few pieces of legislation in Congress. These crises are the reality we’ll live with for decades to come. They demand new kinds of political thinking.
Events like the Global Climate Convergence must become permanent fixtures. They can’t be a temporary set of protests, rallies, and encampments like the antiglobalization movement of 1999 to 2003, antiwar movement (2003 to 2008, ending when Barack Obama moved into the White House — just when we needed it most), or Occupy Wall Street (2011 to 2012). The Occupy movement lasted less than a year, although lingering versions still exist.
A political party can maintain the goals of activists long after initial enthusiasm has faded. The global democracy and fair-trade demands of those who demonstrated against international trade cabals 15 years ago remain the agenda of the Green Party.
Movements, actions, and convergences must remain defiantly separate from the two corporate-money parties if we want them to have a lasting effect. In an essay titled “Social Movement and Electoral Movements, Not One or the Other,” Michael Trudeau writes
“Social-movement-only activists are correct that [social] movements have a tendency to fizzle out when they reach electoral politics, but that is because in recent history most of these movements have ultimately been funneled into the Democratic Party, by electing or appealing to Democrats. What else should we expect when we allow a corporate party to become the umbrella organization for noncorporate, grassroots activism?… Social movements die in the Democratic Party, but they grow in independent, alternative parties.”
Without an independent movement, independent electoral politics, and actions like the Global Climate Convergence, the One Percent’s power will continue to grow into a 21st-century version of fascism or feudalism and the two-party establishment’s response to the effects of climate instability will be fatal to democracy, basic human rights and freedoms, and the well-being of most of the world’s population.
It’s time to stop capitulating and start converging. We’re in this for the long haul.