The Green New Deal or the greenwashing of capitalism

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Media campaigns on climate change often pit the urgent necessity to stop releasing greenhouse gases against the particular needs of workers or even “the uneducated”. We have the Yellow Vests in France originally protesting against a carbon tax that would make the cost of petrol prohibitive when there is no adequate public transport, or the slogan “Trump digs coal” as he pretended to defend the coal industry and the workers who rely on it. The campaign for a Green New Deal (or sometimes a Green Industrial Revolution) claims to solve the problems of climate change, unemployment and inequality all at the same time. For example: “The Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal would eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and other sectors within 10 years. It would also aim for 100% renewable energy and includes a job guarantee program ‘to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one’. It would seek to ‘mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth’”.[1]

The need to address the destructive effect of capitalism on nature, and particularly the danger of greenhouse gases driving climate change, is undeniable. So too is the increase in the inequality intrinsic to capitalism, and the fact that economists are already pointing out the way increases in debt and the trade war between the USA and China are signs of a new recession. It makes the Green New Deal sound like a no-brainer.

If it sounds too good to be true…

Those who warn against con-men often say that if a deal sounds too good to be true it probably is. So let’s take a hard look at the Green New Deal – from the point of view of its reference to the state capitalist measures of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s; from the point of view of the inability of the capitalist nation state to address a global problem; considering the implications of the policy for the environment; and most importantly the way the policy hides the real nature of capitalism and acts to undermine the development of the working class’ consciousness and struggle.

The Green New Deal takes its inspiration from a state capitalist policy in the 1930s, to restart economic growth in response to the depression[2]. The New Deal itself looked back to the state direction of the economy in the previous Great War in 1917-18, and as well as paying for much needed infrastructure the Public Works Administration “built numerous warships, including two aircraft carriers; the money came from the PWA agency. PWA also built warplanes, while the WPA built military bases and airfields[3]. In this it was not unlike the policies in Germany at the time, when many of the autobahns were built as part of the process of gearing up for the coming war.

 Climate change is a global problem, one that cannot be addressed nation by nation, yet the Green New Deal wants to do just that: “A green new deal for the UK…”, “Scotland is uniquely placed, given its abundance of renewable resources …”[4], “Aiming to virtually eliminate US greenhouse gas pollution…”[5]. This is nonsense: even the accounting of greenhouse gas production on a national scale is fraudulent, for instance 40% of UK consumption of commodities whose production gives off greenhouse gases, being imported, are not counted in the national figures. Capitalism pollutes world-wide, and this spreads to the furthest reaches of the oceans and the most desolate parts of the Arctic.  

Facile ideas of new growth based on green energy may promise to sustain economic growth, based on state spending, but they are not founded on any real global consideration of the effects of the environmental destruction and greenhouse gases they will cause. Moving to renewables requires large quantities of rare earth metals, the mining of which is causing huge pollution in China where 70% are extracted. Production of lithium in the Atacama desert in Chile has already destroyed salt water lakes relied on by flamingos and robbed the freshwater aquifer, destroying the farming in the region. Meanwhile 2 firms, Albemarle and SQM, blame each other for flouting the rules. Cobalt is now to be mined from the ocean floor, without understanding what this will do to the ecology of a part of the world we know precious little about – and since it is necessary for renewable energy this is supposedly to ‘save the planet’. If we need to buy new electric cars, this will no doubt sustain the car industry, but who has accounted the greenhouse gas emissions from such production?

To understand how capitalist civilisation can be so profligate with the very world on which we all depend it is necessary to understand the nature of capitalism itself.

Distorting the truth about capitalism

The Green New Deal promises to overcome capitalism’s destruction of the environment, particularly climate change, through the bourgeois state, but this is not possible. Capitalism is not a government policy whose various laws can be chosen or altered at will by a parliament, but the result of the long historical development of the mechanisms of the capitalist mode of production. An important step in this was the separation of the producers from their means of production, for instance when peasants were driven off the land in favour of sheep for the more lucrative woollen industry.

This created a system of generalised commodity production, production for the market. In place of peasants who could produce almost all they needed from the land, there were wage workers who needed to buy everything. The capitalists they work for – whether an individual businessman, company, multinational or state-owned industry – are in competition to sell at a profit. The Green New Deal can do nothing to change the way capitalism works.

Capital has a real Midas touch: everything it produces must be sold at a profit if the business is to survive, everything accounted in the bottom line, regardless of what is produced. But for capital the resources of the natural world are a free gift, as Marx showed. “Natural elements which go into production as agents without costing anything, whatever role they might play in production, do not go in as components of capital, but rather as a free natural power of capital; in fact a free natural productive power of labour, but one which on the basis of the capitalist mode of production represents itself as a productive power of capital, like every other productive power.[6] In capitalism what costs nothing has no (exchange) value, can be used and despoiled at will. In this framework a priceless rainforest is worthless. A farmer who cuts down trees of the rainforest because he wants to plant oil palm, soya, or another crop, is forced to do so, because he can make most money with this, or even because it is the only way he can make enough to live. Within capitalism the question of an economic activity serves the needs of nature and humanity cannot be posed, only whether it is profitable. 

In the 19th Century, when capital was expanding across the globe, it was already polluting and destroying nature. The pollution from mining and industry is well known, as is the history of raw sewage flowing out of large cities. The effect on the soil is less well known. “In modern agriculture, as in urban industry, the increase in productivity and the mobility of labour is purchased at the cost of laying waste and debilitating labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.[7] What Marx showed for the 19th Century has only worsened. By the end of that century Kautsky could write “Supplementary fertilisers… allow the reduction in the soil fertility to be avoided, but the necessity of using them in larger and larger amounts simply adds a further burden to agriculture – one not unavoidably imposed by nature but a direct result of current social organisation. By overcoming the antithesis between town and country… the materials removed from the soil would be able to flow back in full.[8] Since then agriculture, like industry, has expanded enormously, its yields and productivity have grown on a huge scale, and the fertilisers necessary to maintain this have become a real menace to the soil and waterways.

However polluting, murderous and exploitative capitalism was while it was expanding across the globe, the period since the First World War has seen a spiral of destruction of nature, and of human life. World War 1 was followed by World War 2 and local wars backed by bigger imperialist powers have multiplied ever since. And capitalists and states were forced into sharper economic and military competition destruction of the environment has only reached new levels. Capitalist business, whether private or state run, has increased its pollution and robbery of the earth’s resources to unprecedented levels. To which we must add the pollution and destruction carried out by the military and in wars (see ‘Ecological disaster: the poison of militarism’ on our website[9]).

 The danger posed to the environment, to the climate, in a word, to nature, cannot be overcome without overthrowing capitalism. The Green New Deal will be no more successful than the emissions trading scheme which tried to limit greenhouse gas emissions by market mechanisms. Worse, by providing a false ‘solution’ it can only spread illusions in the working class, thus prolonging the life of this system and increasing the danger that it sinks into irretrievable barbarism.



[2] See ‘90 years after the 1929 crash: decadent capitalism can never escape the crisis of overproduction’,

[6] Marx, Capital vol 3, Penguin books, p879

[7] Marx, Capital vol 1, Penguin books, p638

[8] Kautsky, The Agrarian Question, vol 2, quoted in John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology, p239


Supplement on Ecology