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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, Existential Threat Versus Existential Crisis

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So, too, the president tried again and again to reassure the business world that the New Deal was designed to save capitalism, not overthrow it. During a ferocious debate over his administration's "wealth tax act," FDR tried to explain: "I am fighting communism... I want to save our system, the capitalistic system."

Indeed, the New Deal would do just that. All the mechanisms it installed -- deficit spending, redistributive tax laws, government regulation of industry, welfare and labor law reform, social security, a vast range of public works, including significant efforts at reforestation and conservation -- helped rescue American capitalism from what had looked like a terminal crisis.

Just as bogus are today's charges that the Green New Deal will crash the budget and serve as an antechamber to socialism. Calling it out as a financial disaster waiting to happen sounds especially hollow coming from a Republican Party that has already created a budget deficit surpassing a trillion dollars for the first 11 months of fiscal year 2019.

In addition, the idea of financing the transformation of the energy sector to alternative sources was bound to generate fierce opposition from the fossil fuel industry and its allies. No less disturbing to the equanimity of its opponents are ideas like creating specialized public banks, eliminating subsidies to that very industry, and passing new taxes on the wealthy and business to finance what will indeed be an expensive overhaul of the economy.

Yet the Green New Deal contains no frontal assault on private enterprise. For that matter, it doesn't even threaten to completely abolish the fossil-fuel industry itself. A carbon tax -- a levy on the carbon content of fuels -- and "cap and trade" -- placing a limit on carbon emissions while allowing firms that exceed it to buy the right to do so from those that stay under that ceiling -- sometimes appear as part of its portfolio of solutions. Neither, however, represents a fundamental threat to capitalism's reliance on the marketplace as the ultimate arbiter of what to produce and not to produce.

Nuclear power remains an option under the plan, as do future possibilities for carbon capture and storage; for, that is, the development of a technology for capturing carbon waste from the atmosphere and storing it, possibly underground, which would allow coal and gas production to continue. Nor does the Green New Deal flirt with nationalizing the energy sector. Like its predecessor, this New Deal remains focused on leveraging private investment with public funds. Its vision of creating public enterprises and joint public-private projects is neither more nor less radical than the public works undertaken by the original New Deal, which led to the creation of much of the country's once massively successful, now deeply decaying infrastructure.

Indeed, the Green New Deal's promise that millions of decent-paying jobs will result from its climate-change-oriented investments echoes the rationale and real accomplishments of the first New Deal's recovery efforts, especially its various public works. Neither then nor now, however, were or are proponents inciting the working class to run the new industries to be created.

The original New Deal and the Green one are both responses to profound ruptures in the existing order of things. Both embrace reform of that existing order. Neither contemplates its extinction.

It's important to add that the Green New Deal, despite the bow to the old one in its name, is anything but pure imitation. To begin with, the scale of its public investments would dwarf those of the original, which allotted an estimated 13% of the country's gross domestic product to its public works spending. Green New Deal projects, as now imagined, would probably at least double that.

Furthermore, at least as a proposal, the Green New Deal is even more socially capacious than the old one, embracing as it does the need for universal health care, a guaranteed annual income, a program of affordable housing, commitments to truly clean water and air, and a revolution in the production of healthy food. In the way it forefronts the struggle for social, racial, and environmental justice, it also goes beyond anything the original New Dealers contemplated.

Perhaps its most potent political promise is to heal the deep wound that has opened up between abandoned parts of rural and urban America, the zones most damaged by the deindustrialization and financialization of the economy over the past half-century. People in both of those areas survive by working in prisons or in the vast warehouses of retailers like Walmart located in the American outback. They do temp work, are employed as piece workers in the online gig economy, or hustle in underground enterprises, while prey to toxic environments. They have much in common, but peer at each other as if across a vast abyss or from enemy encampments. The Green New Deal, like its political forebear, offers the hope of mutual recovery by explicitly siting some of its renewable energy projects in the ghost towns of once industrial cities and on the economically exhausted and depopulated landscapes of rural and small-town America.

All of this suggests that, very much like its predecessor, it conceives of itself within the framework of capitalism as we have known it, even while offering a menu of reforms daring enough to challenge some of its underlying premises. Both New Deals pose this question: In worlds of grotesque inequality, which shall prevail, wealth or commonwealth?

Capitalism may sometimes be restrained or civilized, but it is by nature predatory like a great white shark. In the 1930s, when mass mobilizations drove it to the left, the original New Deal pressed against the limits of the existing order. The Green New Deal may contain that same potential. At some point, assuming it becomes more tangible than a prospectus in a world in which Donald Trump and crew are no longer running things, its promoters will face choices about how to treat that order.

Yet, kindred as they may be in substance and intention, the circumstances that gave them life differ in fundamental ways that may bear heavily on what lies ahead.

Through a Glass Darkly

Advocates of the Green New Deal talk ominously about the existential threat that global warming poses to civilization. And that threat visibly grows more real with each passing year. The Great Depression, however, was not a threat that was likely to happen soon -- or sooner or later. For millions of people across the country it was the all-encompassing reality of the here and now. Think of the difference in the two moments as one between an existential threat and an existential crisis.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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