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Raj Patel: “The New Deal emerged from a decade of worker struggle”

In an extended interview with ourVoices, Raj Patel discusses why diverse labor coalitions are imperative to achieving systemic change.

Freddie Stuart Aaron White Raj Patel
1 May 2020
Global Justice Now, CC BY 2.0

In the second part of ourVoices series on the US election, we had the pleasure of speaking with Raj Patel: the award winning author, film-maker and academic, who is currently a research professor at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin, Texas.

Raj Patel has written several books including The Value of Nothing which was an international and New York Times bestseller, and most recently A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, co-written with Jason W. Moore.

The following conversation covers a range of topics, from the labor mobilizations crucial to implementing the original New Deal, to why reparations are central to an equitable climate agenda.

You can listen to Raj Patel’s extended interview with ourEconomy below – as well as on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Soundcloud:

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


Aaron White: In your piece for Jacobin you mention how a hegemonic common sense stands between progressive politicians and the implementation of the Green New Deal. Can you explain what you mean by that, and why you believe agricultural workers are central to this counter hegemonic struggle?

Raj Patel: It's certainly the case that part of the way that power operates is to make certain things seem normal. And the way that capitalism achieves its hegemony, the way that capitalism is able to make us move forward with ideas and to consent to ideas that are not in our class interest, and not in our personal interest, is by seizing the idea of common sense and making absurd ideas seem normal. That moment of rendering certain things part of the fabric of common sense, involves leadership from not just the financiers and the high capitalists who drive forward class interests, but conscripting members of other classes into this dominant hegemonic block. That's why you're able to see people of color voting for Trump, or immigrants voting for Trump.

If we're interested in mounting a response to this dominant block, then we're going to have to assemble a counter hegemonic block. That is about stitching together the farmers who are pushing back against the hegemonic block, but it's also about farm workers, and about consumers. It's also about folk who are making a living out of processing food, and it's about the workers who are involved in food waste. It's a long chain of folk who have to align their interests in ways that also straddle class divide.

So this isn't a purely working class movement; it involves farmers and farmers are sometimes employers and they are sometimes owners of land. And in that sense, there's going to be some cross class antagonism, but it's important to recognize that because merely saying, “well, you know, the working class are the gravediggers of the ruling class”, doesn't automatically give you the organizing tools in order to transform society. And Gramsci’s idea of hegemony really helps understand and explain why culture and ideology are a central part to this much bigger agricultural revolution.

Freddie Stuart: How successful would you say the progressive movement in the US has been in countering capitalist hegemony? Both the progressive caucus in Congress, but also social movements on the ground and labor movements that might be working within farmers unions to try and push back against this and promote the Green New Deal?

Raj Patel: Well within Congress is the last place to look. We see interesting people on the edges of congressional politics doing interesting things. But that's not where the fight is. And even though the text of the Green New Deal appears as a congressional discussion document, it's not really in Congress that you would expect the changes that it seeks to happen.

If you read the text of the House Resolution that calls for a Green New Deal, it calls for a movement, and you don't want Congress organizing a movement. So you're right to look beyond Congress.

One of the interesting places to look is in the labor movement. You see within the labor movement, schisms that you would expect. So, you know, it's not clear that the auto workers are throwing their lot in with the Green New Deal. But then again, you see some unexpected leadership, and not just from low carbon jobs like teaching or nursing, but from possibly the very highest carbon jobs, like the Association of Flight Attendants. The flight attendants union is aligning itself very strongly for the Green New Deal, in part, because this is an occupational safety issue. If there's going to be air travel in an era of climate change, then who is going to be hit by these increasingly frequent pockets of sudden turbulence and who's going to be injured by them? Flight attendants are lobbying for a future of electric air travel and zero carbon air travel. That seems to me to be a very interesting moment of organizing power.

You're also seeing a group called Farmers and Ranchers for a Green New Deal, and an increased level of interest in other kinds of movements for social justice. The movement for Black Lives, for example, are making interesting connections between ideas of racial justice and reparations and how climate change will disproportionately affect people of color. All of this is happening outside Congress, but it's certainly part of the knitting together of this counter hegemonic movement. So certainly, we're seeing some progress. And insofar as we're seeing that progress, we're also seeing the capitalists fighting back.

Aaron White: Can you speak to strike activity within the legacy of the original New Deal? What can we learn from that level of organizing relative to what we’re seeing on the ground today?

Raj Patel: The New Deal itself has a very interesting historiography where people sort of say, “well, you know, the New Deal happened from the 1933ish until the Second World War, and then the Second World War really took over. And so that was the end of the New Deal. And then, you know, since then it's sort of been in decline.”

But I think it's worth remembering that the New Deal itself emerges from a decade of workers' struggle. For example, you see 4% of the US population on strike in 1919 – which is an incredible number of people who are engaged in labor stoppages and who recognize that one of the most powerful weapons that they have to bend society's to their will is the ability to make their bosses listen to them.

That kind of militancy doesn't happen by magic. It happens because there's widespread organizing, particularly from communists, socialists and anarchists in the United States. There's always been a very important socialist and anarchist history in the United States. The reason we have women's right to vote, for example, was from an emergence of movements driven by anarchist and socialist women's clubs, particularly on the East Coast but also in Chicago, going on strike and taking militancy to the streets in order to achieve the right to vote.

That obviously has been erased in the histories that we have of the United States. So these socialists and anarchists aren't fully featured in any reasonable retelling of the New Deal. But it's important to remember these movements existed and fought, because if we forget that, then we tend to fall into the sort of great man history of the New Deal where it was that: Herbert Hoover was a very bad man and then FDR came along and was a very good man. And that all of a sudden that very good man just did a whole bunch of nice things until World War Two came along. And then Hitler was a very bad man. And then everything fell apart after FDR died.

That's not a correct telling of the long history of class struggle that characterized, not just the emergence of the New Deal, but the emergence of resistance before the New Deal. I mean, in a longer version of this article, Jim Goodman and I talk a lot about the history of The Populists. We're told these days that we're in a moment of populist fervor, but that's not doing any service to the original Populists – an interestingly diverse coalition, where black populism was an important feature of how different groups in the United States saw their autonomy and possibility from the federal government and from capitalism. The idea of The Populists was, among other things, to control the money supply and to be able to think about how cooperatives would supply cities and provide fair wages for farmers, and provide parity between farmer's wages, and the industrialist wages. All of these ideas are forgotten in the histories that precede the New Deal.

So when we think about the Green New Deal now, it's important to remember that the New Deal itself built on histories of struggle and of popular organizing and of working class theorizing that are very much necessary today if we are to have a Green New Deal that is worthy of the name.

The World Bank is not fit for purpose. An appropriate response is to defund it, and pay reparations for the damage it has caused.

Aaron White: Trade agreements are central to our discussion of today’s Green New Deal. Can you comment on how USMCA was just passed without mentioning climate change? But also, more broadly, the connection between trade deals, multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, and climate policy?

Raj Patel: I mean, there have been a few moments where I have found myself in the awful position of having to agree with Donald Trump, and this is because Trump is a skeptic when it comes to free trade, and I am too. When I and thousands of others were protesting against the World Trade Organization in the late 90s, for example, we were protesting because trade agreements have by design the consequence of pitting working classes against working classes, pitting farmers against farmers and of opening up pipelines of low cost suppliers of labor and of commodities for the multinationals that profit from pitting Vietnam against Peru or against Cambodia.

Now the trouble is that xenophobes and bigots also don't like trade agreements because it means their particular caste of white people get thrown out of a job. And often when we were fighting the World Trade Organization, we had to tell the fascists to f**k off, because their analysis was not our analysis, even if they didn't like the World Trade Organization.

What has happened with the USMCA is cosmetic window dressing around environmental labor standards – the same kinds of ability for companies to take countries to court remain central to the USMCA. It has effectively tied the hands of future administrations that want to mess with domestic sourcing regulations, for instance, that might have very positive impacts on carbon sequestration, but will allow corporations to sue for lost profits as a result of better climate policy.

So, these trade agreements historically have had the effect of generating more pollution. And the trouble is that what they've also done is build courts that allow corporations to sue countries for countries doing the right thing from time to time. And that's one of the greater dangers of trade agreements. When you hear trade agreements, really what you're hearing is mechanisms for companies to sue, that's why they're very keen on these agreements. And while the US has stymied the World Trade Organization by not appointing any new judges to its Dispute Settlement body, the USMCA is a renewal of that kind of commitment to ensuring that there are ways for companies to get their pound of flesh.

And sometimes these trade agreement issues are very tightly enmeshed with, as you say, what the World Bank and the IMF are up to. Because if countries are heavily in debt (and I mean, obviously the US is a heavily indebted country, but it's the kind of country that doesn't have to worry about its debt because it can just print more money) such as low income countries and former colonies, they have to cede sovereignty to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

And the IMF and World Bank will offer helpful solutions like, “well why don't you drop down this forest and export it? Or why don't you get this oil out of the ground and sell it on the international market for dollars, then use those dollars to pay back the loans that you owe us.” And those kinds of ostensibly well meaning sound macroeconomic advice, ends up being just a way for foreign investors to deepen their hold on local economies, but also allow a dominant bourgeoisie to get itself involved in the natural resource economy and to freeze the status quo of a country in the Global South, in a way that perpetuates the misery not only of its working class, but indigenous people, and locks entire countries into these these post-colonial relationships of domination.

Freddie Stuart: Just a brief follow up on that. Is there anything that you think a progressive administration could do to help reform those institutions like the IMF and World Bank that you mentioned? Or is it going to be a case of lobbying against them, and looking to replace them in the long run?

Raj Patel: Well, the IMF and the World Bank started off as typical bankers – the Bank for Reconstruction and Development. And after World War Two, there was a need to rebuild Europe, and in so far as there is a need to rebuild the post carbon economy, I think there are institutions that are required to do that.

But the World Bank has grown beyond its reconstruction mandate and is now very much in the providing advice and easy paths for international finance and business to be able to settle themselves into an economy. The bank is not fit for purpose. And I do think that an appropriate response to the bank is both to defund it, but also to pay reparations for the damage it has caused.

And that very much puts any future progressive administration at odds with the Bank and the Fund. That’s as it should be. I think that they have a great deal of blood on their hands through their macroeconomic policies, that have resulted in deaths and in malnutrition, that have resulted in generations of children being forced to pay for education and for healthcare. Those kinds of things ought to be recognized and named in some sort of future process of reparation, in which the United States and Europe recognize the harms that it has done and conducted through these institutions and tries to make amends for that.

Aaron White: Lastly, can you speak to the subject of reparations within the context of a Green New Deal?

Raj Patel: We have models of reparations that exist in other countries, that even municipalities are starting to engage in. It's not hard to imagine an accounting of what the United States has done with its fossil fuel economy, with its military protection for the extractive industries around the world – and to imagine how it might begin to repent and atone for that in a way that is not a private atonement, but it's very much a public one, that doesn't privatize the act of asking for forgiveness in the same way that so much else has been privatized, but recognizes that collectively this government and the state has done harm. That as part of a move towards a regenerative economy, it will recognize the harms that have been done both in the conducting of the transatlantic slave trade, and in the genocide of indigenous people who continue to live in the United States. I can already see that we have the infrastructure, we have the political processes underway in which reparations are thinkable, and part of the job of a counter hegemonic bloc is going to be to push for these.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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