Economic Democracy and Environmental Justice

           [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

We are in the middle of both economic and environmental crises. As we look for solutions, the two cannot be separated—matters of the economy are entwined with the environment and vice versa. Our profit-driven market economy ensures that only a tiny minority of people decide where and what to produce, at the expense of workers who are disempowered and controlled through a network of corporate hierarchies, and at the expense of the natural world. As climate change has worsened, it has been working class people who are most affected, especially women and people of color.  Subsequently, the effort to achieve environmental justice must also be an effort to achieve economic democracy and classlessness—an economy where no group rules over another. In the spirit of the strategic and visionary approach of much of today’s environmental movement, this article will look at what practices and policies, specifically around issues of class and the economy, the environmental movement should—and in many cases has—embrace that will ensure it will be a leading factor in the struggle for a clean, green, equitable future. 


An Equitable and Green Economic Vision

    Only when people have a say in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected—economic democracy, or self-management—will they be able to truly take environmental concerns into account and enact green policies. Until then, it is always going to be a matter of trying to persuade and pressure people in power to take action, and even then, the current institutions will stand in the way, as you’ll see why.  Economically speaking, this requires institutions that are conducive to and foster self-management, as well as evaluate the true social costs of economic transactions; for example, pollutants should be priced high to discourage their use, and environmentally friendly goods should be low cost. 

     Proper determination of social cost and the corresponding prices is made impossible by the existence of markets  as a mode of allocation, because markets do not have a mechanism to properly price items (as a result, mispricing everything) and fail to take externalities—like environmental effects—into account . Self-management is stifled by private ownership of productive property (not personal possessions like toothbrushes and clothes but  land, business, capital, machinery, etc) and corporate divisions of labor between workers, managers and other coordinators, and bosses. This leads to workers being denied decision-making input and to all the main economic actors—capitalists, coordinators, and workers—not having enough information to make responsible, informed decisions that take into account accurate social costs, such as effects on the environment. Our vision should be to replace these undemocratic economic and environmentally destructive institutions with ones complementary to our aims. Markets need to be replaced with a form of federated (meaning decisions are made at the appropriate level—i.e. district, city, state, federal—with each level accountable to the one below it) and democratic planning between workers and consumer councils ; productive property should be controlled by all of society; and corporate division of labor should be replaced by balanced jobs—where empowering tasks and rote work are shared by everyone. All of these factors are necessary for a classless, equitable, and green economy..

    Once we know this, the task is to outline alternatives to these institutions as our vision for the future—simply stating a set of values will not be enough. There is more to this than just daydreaming of what we want the world to be. Rather, it is crucial to how and what we fight for in campaigns in the present and near future. This is important for having a direction to our movements that will make it worthwhile for oppressed sections of society to be apart of. For example, if our vision calls for a future economy that gets rids of capitalists but structural elevates a coordinator class —mangers, doctors, lawyers, planners—above workers, working people will not be running to join our movement. Also, our vision is instrumental to incorporating the seeds of the future in the present. Oppressions stemming from class, race, gender, and sexuality—just to name a few—are so interconnected and entwined that to build a diverse movement with its roots in communities most affected by our current oppressive and environmentally destructive system, we need to incorporate liberatory practices in our movement that reflect our new vision.


A  Real Green New Deal

    The reforms that we struggle to implement in the here and now should reflect our vision and leave us in a position closer to our end goal.  Practically applied to economic and environmental issues, it translates into judging our actions by how much they empower working class people—individually and materially as a class—and at the same time shift our economy away from the use of dirty energy and dirty modes of production.  We see this taking form in the current efforts to get green jobs and renewable, clean energy—a Green New Deal—at the forefront of our political agenda.  Multifaceted approaches like these are exactly what we need to be doing. Accompanying our demands for green jobs should also be demands for the passage of laws that strengthen the ability of workers to organize—like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). EFCA would make is easier for workers to join a union and come to first contract agreements, as well as stiffen penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first-contract negotiations.

    The increase in workers’ bargaining power that comes with unionization—and with increased freedom of workers to take action and organize independently from unions—will allow them to dictate more and more of what goes on in our economy; thereby increasing their capacity to demand the creation of green jobs and funding for such measures. However, encouraging more rank and file, bottom-up participation is needed to counter the top-down structures and tendencies of the current labor movement. There are also many other problems within the labor movement that EFCA does not address. I believe in the current context it’s passage is essential, but, again, the goal is an empowered, working class engaging in self-management, not merely increased union rosters.

    Additionally, the prospect of workers and organized labor having more clout opens up space for workers currently staffing dirty energy plants to take job actions in support of clean energy. For example, there have been several actions to try and stop the building of  new coal plants and to shutdown the operations of current ones. What if the workers constructing the new plants or working inside existing ones put down their tools in the name of both preserving a habitable planet for their grandchildren, and for want of dignified work that was not so dangerous and harmful to themselves?  Moreover, what if they demanded that the resources and capital being put into building the new plant and operating the existing one be used to produce renewable, clean energy, and retrained them to occupy the jobs necessary to do so? With a stronger workers movement, one that has more social and political power, this doesn’t seem so far fetched, and it would definitely hasten the transition to a  clean energy economy. However, without such a movement and the conditions to build one—like more favorable labor law—the prospects of such action happening lessen. Furthermore, without the real power to demand the reallocation of resources into clean energy industry that will create jobs for the former workers of the dirty energy industry, there is little incentive for workers to risk their jobs and take action.

     All of the dirty energy facilities that we are against give working people incomes, but are  also against their interests in the long run (such facilities are killing the planet, and if we get rid of dirty energy, those particular jobs won’t exist); therefore we need to create a situation where alternatives for them are available, so we’re not simply appealing to a moral high ground. Luckily, an approach that is trying to address the chasm between organized labor and the environmental movement is underway in the form of the Blue Green Alliance, which is a partnership between several labor unions and environmental organizations. It is the start of an approach that needs to flourish even more. The movement for green jobs, along with the passage of EFCA, will help create this situation.

    It cannot be reiterated enough, however, that our goal is not to tame the market and simply redistribute a little more wealth; this would neither solve our climate crisis nor lead to economic democracy—though they are desirable in the short run.  Any proposed Green New Deal, therefore, must look to the federal government for initial aspects—like a green economic stimulus that provides funding for new green jobs and infrastructure—but look to "ordinary" people for its implementation, as much as possible. For example, we could feasibly demand a form of participatory budgeting involving local, democratically elected and accountable planning boards made up of workers and residents, who would form federations for greater geographical regions. These would be able to allocate resources for new public works projects and development.

    Myriads of other arrangements could work and be desirable. The feasibility of their implementation depends on 1) the level of social power we can leverage, and 2) the existence of actual proposals to be implemented. The first is slowly growing, and its actual strength and potential for further growth can be debated. However, the second—Left proposals on how to allocate monies from such things as government stimuli and auctions from cap and trade programs —is, sadly, almost nonexistent, and therefore not even debated. I don’t claim to be qualified enough at the moment to give all the answers, but I encourage people to actually think about it and take it seriously; and maybe some can emerge out of the Reimagining Society Project.

    When thinking of such things, we would do good to remember that by including the participation of everyday people—the people that are affected most by the environmental and economic crises—we are fostering the transformation to democratic economic arrangements. Natural resources, money, and machines are not the only inputs and outputs of an economy—so are people.

    A Green New Deal must also include addressing the failed financial system. A big step towards this is to turn banks into public utilities. If we think of a green economy as an equitable economy, then such transformations will have to take place. As long as banking continues to been done in the private sphere, much of the progress made in the economy will always be at risk, and private dirty energy interests will have more opportunities to inhibit investment in green projects and continue investment in dirty ones.

    For example, while Bank of America was ripping people off and kicking them out of their homes, they were also funding coal and the horrendous practice of mountaintop removal. Recently, after campaigns against them by groups such as Rainforest Action Network and Rising Tide Boston, they agreed to phase out financing companies who use mountaintop removal. However, though it could be considered a victory there is no telling if any action will be made on this promise, and coal is still dirty without mountaintop removal. If Bank of America, and all other banks like it, were taken out of the private sphere and into the public, they are technically subject to public control and oversight. Demands like the elimination of coal financing can actually be considered a matter of popular will; currently it is, by law, only a matter of maximizing shareholder profit, so we have to rely on the "goodwill" of the banks. After making them public movements can claim a democratic mandate for something to be done. Of course, we all know how well our government listens to the people; struggles must still be waged, but the excuse, "they’re a private firm and have legal obligations," can no longer be used. Imagine if the campaigns to stop Bank of America’s financing of coal and mountaintop removal—which raised tons of public awareness—were also coupled with demands to make banks a public utility? The point is, this needs to be looked at as not only an economic demand but a green demand.

    One of the most vocal advocates of making banks a public utility has been political economist, Leo Panitch, and I think it’s worth reproducing his thoughts on the issue:

In a complex society, you can’t have banking for the masses without having state guarantees of deposits. The system has been kept going on the basis of central banks acting as lenders of last resort. The case for the banks being brought into public ownership properly needs to be put on the agenda, much more vociferously than the left is putting it on the agenda.

I do not mean, as in Britain, just giving public capital to the banks and saying please operate on commercial lines, a move involving no executive powers whatsoever. I mean taking the banks properly into public ownership and changing the function of the banks, as Mitterrand did not do in France in the 1980s, so that the criteria on which they invest are redefined as social purposes, to be democratically determined.

    In conjunction with reforming our current financial system, we should also begin—and in some cases, continue—to take the steps to create an alternative participatory one that can parallel a democratized current financial system (This will be talked about more below). It continues to become clear why the struggle for economic democracy and environmental justice are complementary, even when it might seem otherwise.

Inside Our Movement

    As was mentioned, the form that our movement takes is as important as the policies we struggle to win. And if we are seeking a classless society, our movements should not be structured as to render them reliant on big donors or have coordinator class domination over leadership positions. With that said, that doesn’t mean we have to be purists—we need to face our objective reality. Right now, wealth is so concentrated and controlled by various foundations that we’ll need to rely more on them then is desirable; and workers are disempowered and worn out everyday that we will possibly have a disproportionate amount of people who come from privileged backgrounds in leadership positions. However, if we are serious about building a new future for generations to come, our movement needs to get over that hurdle. It will have to be transformative in that it helps change power relations between various institutions, as well as transforming the people who are part of the movement.  This entails creating a culture and structure welcoming to working people, and one which they have control over the direction. 

    Our focus should be to become as self-sustaining as possible. If we are growing, building, and making real gains, then we should be able to transition to greater reliance on our own participatory institutions for funding of projects like cooperative green businesses, as well as utilizing grassroots fundraising efforts; and any funds from foundations or donors should be no strings attached, to protect political independence. An important example of what I mean by "our own participatory institutions" is the creation of participatory credit unions and utilization of already existing Community Development Credit Unions (CDCUs). This is a way to ensure funds are available for the projects we need to build a strong, independent movement for economic and environmental justice, and at the same time create the financial infrastructure for a new participatory society.

     As much as possible, our movement should try and distribute empowering tasks amongst its members—giving each person a vote in decisions is not enough. They need to actively participate in some aspects of planning and conceptualization that go into the items being voted on, such as what campaigns to pursue and other matters of strategy. They also need to be informed and have ownership of the ideas and concepts within our movement. One of the trickiest parts to all of this is time. Working class people tend to have less to time to do extra reading, research, and attend meetings. A focus on internal and accessible education can be an important tool to combat such problems. Moreover, regarding meetings, they should be as short and concise as possible, with a clear focus and agenda. This way time is not lost going in circles.

    It will make all of this easier as long as we keep our movement rooted in the working class and other oppressed communities. Accountability and participation are the best roads towards democratic practices.


    The environmental movement is vibrant, diverse, and growing. It has taken an approach to the burning (literally) issues of our time that is holistic, strategic, and visionary. Much of what has been laid out here is only meant to build on what has already been accomplished and written before. The message that the crises and solutions of the economy and environment are intrinsically linked is spreading. By moving forward with a vision of a clean, green future, let us remember that economic democracy is essential to environmental justice, and we will live to see our vision come to fruition. 




     See Against the Market Economy: Advice to Venezuelan Friends by Robin Hahnel for a damning case against markets <http://monthlyreview.org/080101hahnel.php>
     Robin Hahnel describes this process at length in Overcoming Blind Spots In Left Vision: Participatory Planning, an opening essay for the Reimagining Society Project. <http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/21474>
     For a more in-depth look at the class structure I’ve laid out, read Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s, "A Ticket to Ride: More Locations on the Class Map," in Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Walker (Boston: South End Press, 1979).
    Regarding students, youth and class, see my essay "Did You Just Say Class?" Chris Spannos’ book, Real Utopia (Oakland: AK Press, 2008)
     That’s right. Cap and Trade. I did not get into it because it sadly remains controversial on Left, and it deserves a whole piece of its own. However, a comprehensive cap and trade system—unlike any we have implemented thus far—is necessary to stave off climate crisis, pending the replacement of capitalism. It is yet to be published, but I feel it necessary to quote an article by Robin Hahnel that addresses the very question of the Left and cap and trade:

It is one thing to play the role of Kafka and point out the ultimate absurdity of putting prices on different parts of a natural environment which is, in fact, a single interconnected ecosystem that all life, including human life, depends on. It is another thing to "denounce" those who seek to increase the price of carbon emissions from zero, which it is at present, to a much higher price in order to force emitters who respond to market forces not moral appeals to take into account the damage their carbon emissions cause. It is one thing to insist that nature should belong to no one and everyone. It is another thing to sit on the sidelines when corporations are being awarded property rights to emit carbon dioxide while ordinary citizens receive none. It is one thing to point out that human beings should plan how to use and preserve the natural environment in a democratic and equitable way — bearing in mind that we are dealing with ecosystems whose complex dynamics we do not fully comprehend — rather than leave those decisions to be made very poorly by market forces. It is another thing to ignore the fact that decisions about how to use the environment are actually made, and will continue to be made for some time, by market forces where key prices — the price of carbon chief among them — are completely out of whack, and where the least responsible and deserving among us are taking personal advantage of this mis-pricing. Finally, it is one thing to say: "I don’t want things decided by market forces and market prices." It is quite another thing to say: "Even though things are being decided by market forces and market prices I don’t care what those prices are, and those who attempt to get prices ‘right’ are doing nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

     Qtd in Solidarity, <http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2009/01/04/marxist-economists-comment-again-crisis-3-leo-panitch-chain-broke-weakest-link>
     In the Reimagining Society Project essay, Towards a Participatory Recovery Plan, Atlee McFellin outlines the possibility and need to do such a thing.

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