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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, Existential Threat Versus Existential Crisis

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here

[Note for TomDispatch readers: Here's a special book offer for you. Steve Fraser, my partner in starting The American Empire Project, a highly successful line of books by authors most TD readers know well, is also a superb historian of capitalism. You'll get a taste of how he approaches the subject in today's piece. His new book, Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History, has just been published. It's a rewriting of the American saga with class conflict at center stage (a bit of which first appeared, I'm proud to say, at TomDispatch ). Over the next week, for a donation of $100 ($125 if you live outside the U.S.), you'll be able to get a signed, personalized copy of the book. Just check out our donation page for the details and help keep this website rolling along! Tom]

The way greenhouse gasses have poured into the atmosphere since 1965 -- more than a third of them attributable to the products of just 20 fossil-fuel companies -- should represent the crisis of any lifetime. In a fashion previously unknown to humanity, existence on this planet will change in ways that should prove grim indeed. (The Audubon Society, for instance, recently released a study suggesting that, if the global temperature rise is not kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius and instead reaches the 3-degree mark, nearly two-thirds of all North American bird species could be lost.) Unfortunately, while planetary heating from those human-produced gasses might, in the end, endanger our way of life and, absorbed into global waters, is already increasing the power of extreme storms, most of us are not yet experiencing the climate crisis as the extreme storm it will prove to be. (A recent exception: if you happen to live in the parts of California that just lost electricity thanks to a PG&E preemptive shutdown linked to extreme fire fears.) No wonder then that, as TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser, author of the new book Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History, points out today, of the two New Deals -- the one from the 1930s and today's Green one -- only the first was treated in its time as a response to the economic equivalent of a category five hurricane.

In reality, the crisis of an overheating planet has been building for decades without most of us taking it in. To cite just one example, as early as 1965, a science advisory committee for Lyndon Johnson, a president about to be swept away by the more immediate disaster of the Vietnam War, laid out with remarkable prescience the effects of global warming in the early years of this century. Johnson was, in fact, the first president to warn Congress about the phenomenon. So, honestly, we should have known.

Or to put the matter more personally, the other day I came across a 1990 collection of Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes comic strips on a bookshelf of mine. As I was flipping through it, I noticed one from 1987 in which an angry Calvin approaches his mother saying, "Hey Mom, What's this I hear about the greenhouse effect?" He adds, "They say the pollutants we dump in the air are trapping in the sun's heat and it's going to melt the polar ice caps!" Looking even angrier, he continues, "Sure, you'll be gone when it happens, but I won't! Nice planet you're leaving me!" His mother comments, essentially to the reader, "This from the kid who wants to be chauffeured any place more than a block away." Calvin throws his hands in the air and adds, "Hey, nobody told me about the ice caps, all right?"

We're talking Greta Thunberg more than three decades ago. In other words, even then knowledge of global warming wasn't restricted to the world of science. It was already in a comic strip I read at the time. And yet, like so many of us, I didn't take it in. With millions starting to protest the climate crisis globally, perhaps now's the moment to do so -- and perhaps for Americans, as Fraser suggests, the Green New Deal, whatever it truly turns out to be, will prove at least part of the answer. Tom

The Greening of the New Deal
The Great Depression and the Climate Crisis, New Deals Then and Now By Steve Fraser

"We are in a new era to which I do not belong," ex-President Calvin Coolidge confided to a close friend on a cold December day in 1932 when the country and the world were already in the depths of the Great Depression. A few weeks later, he punctuated that melancholic thought by dying.

Coolidge was right. Within months of his death, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, also known as FDR, would launch a "New Deal," a wide-ranging set of programs to promote economic recovery that would recreate the American political universe. From that moment to this one, it has served as ground zero for the country's political imagination, the Rosetta Stone for understanding every enduring political development of the last 75 years.

President Harry Truman's "Fair Deal" (including proposals for universal health insurance and federal aid to education) and Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" were conceived as elaborations and extensions of what the New Deal had wrought in the 1930s. "Neo-liberalism" and the "new conservatism" were invented to undo what their creators considered its damage.

Today, the "Green New Deal" -- a 10-year plan introduced by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey to transition to 100% renewable energy, while embarking on major social reforms -- marks the far horizon of the left-liberal imagination. For those opposed to it, the Green New Deal, like the original one, is already considered little but camouflage for a program to introduce socialism to America.

Like its predecessor, it arrives on the scene at a fateful moment. There is no way to exaggerate the gravity of the Great Depression in its time or the looming prospect of climate catastrophe in ours. The question is: Could the Green New Deal do what the first one did to stave off the worst -- or even do more? In this case, facing the reality of a fast-heating planet in a country whose president is Donald J. Trump, looking back is a way of looking forward.

Truth and Consequences

Republicans and conservatives of every stripe defamed Democratic President Roosevelt's New Deal from its inception, as has been true of the very idea of a Green New Deal in the age of Trump. Vitriol was then and is now focused on two supposedly fatal flaws in those plans. The New Deal was quickly denounced as a form of fiscal suicide, of reckless venturing into deficit spending sure to bankrupt the economy and so the country. Its promise of recovery from economic disaster was decried as at best a chimera, at worst as cynical political chicanery meant to win votes in the here and now while leaving future generations to deal with the consequences. As if that weren't bad enough, such an ambitious program focused on enlarging the government's presence and power would surely open a highway to communism.

More than eight decades later, the very same charges are surfacing again to undermine support for the Green New Deal. It is said to be a financial monstrosity that can't conceivably work. One critic typically slammed it as "economically, technologically, and historically illiterate." Another warned that it was not only "unrealistic," but "the economic and social devastation it would cause is... serious and real." And just in case it were to somehow work, it's guaranteed to turn twenty-first-century America into a collectivist hell.

In his moment, President Roosevelt was acutely sensitive to such accusations. At first, he adhered to the sacrosanct orthodoxy of balanced budgets. He even went so far as to delay the payment of bonuses promised to veterans of World War I, a decision that had already blackened the reputation of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. (Hoover had also sent in troops to violently disperse a "bonus army" of protesting vets encamped outside the White House.)

Even when the New Deal reached its heyday, FDR would never feel completely comfortable with deliberately unbalancing the budget to spur the economy. Indeed, what was known as the "Roosevelt recession" of 1937-1938 -- an economic nosedive in a moment of seeming recovery from the depths of the Great Depression -- could be blamed, in part, on his decision to rein in government spending. For the next two generations, however, once-taboo deficit spending became the new liberal orthodoxy for a simple reason: despite the prophecies of opponents, it worked.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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