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Climate Change Is Too Serious for Political Labels

Opponents of the Green New Deal immediately resorted to last century’s socialist baiting. We’re past that.

A section of a 1933 mural by artist Diego Rivera, whose work often celebrated socialism, including labor, industry, and the use of technology for improving humanity’s condition. ( Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts)

A section of a 1933 mural by artist Diego Rivera, whose work often celebrated socialism, including labor, industry, and the use of technology for improving humanity’s condition. ( Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts)

This month the Green New Deal was introduced in the U.S. Congress with much fanfare, and its opponents quickly mobilized.

The resolution is more than a set of specific legislative proposals. It is a framework for an ambitious commitment to address climate change through eliminating fossil fuels and reducing agricultural emissions while also reducing inequality, creating well-paying green jobs, and providing people the skills to fill them. Given the threat the climate crisis poses to the future of humanity, it is arguably more important than was Franklin Roosevelt’s bold New Deal response to the Great Depression.

What followed was predictable: Opponents, both on the right and in the middle, immediately attacked the plan as unaffordable far-left socialist overreach, clearly hoping that the socialist label would scare people away. I’m sensing that for most of today’s electorate, the threat posed by wildfires, floods, mass extinctions, rising sea levels, and a shifting polar vortex is far more frightening than simplistic political labels.

That’s especially the case for labels like “socialism” and “communism,” which date from a time that for many is ancient history.

Our living spaceship is dying by our hand, and there are no escape capsules, and no place to go if there were. So people, especially the young, are mobilizing to act and to demand action from both government and business.

Some of my generation, however, may stumble on the political labels wielded by the opponents of such a bold vision as the Green New Deal. If the new young leaders are to bring the reluctant along, they will need to understand how terms like socialism and communism gained such a negative hold on our psyche. My own experience has unique elements, but my response to the political labels of our time was fairly typical.

I was born in 1937 and grew up in the post-Depression years in a family of self-identified conservatives in a small town with thriving unionized lumber, pulp, and aluminum plants. The plants’ workers were the customers on which our family retail business depended. We were proud to view America as a middle-class nation free of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized so much of the rest of the world. In my innocence, I assumed all Americans belonged to the middle class—that America was in effect a classless society.

Neither the capitalist, socialist, nor communist labels adequately capture such diversity.

My political consciousness was formed during a time of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. We lived with the ever-present threat of mutual nuclear annihilation. We perceived communism—and socialism by extension—as a mortal threat. To be identified as a communist or socialist was a ticket to social and political exclusion.

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It was my personal fear of the global threat of spreading communist revolutions that led me, the oldest son, to turn away from heading the family business. I chose to devote my life instead to the cause of ending poverty in formerly colonized nations by spreading the secrets of U.S. business success, with a goal of making all nations middle-class societies like the United States.

With time my understanding of the world’s social, environmental, economic, and political realities expanded. My critique of capitalism grew steadily stronger. But my fear of association with a socialist or communist label remained, partly for fear of rejection and partly because it was clear that neither socialism nor communism in their commonly understood expressions offered a solution.

A few days ago I read a thoughtful response from a reader to my most recent column, “Capitalism vs. Socialism Is a False Choice.” The comment included a link to an article that reinforced the key argument of my column. And yet, most of the author’s references were to Karl Marx.

Not long ago, I would have been uneasy with such association. This time I was not. As I reflected on why, I realized that the labels that had previously been so frightening no longer seem to hold consequential public sway. I don’t think I am alone in this. I sense the public may be ready for a thoughtful search for solutions that link public and private initiative beyond the grand labels—a search reflected in the substance of the Green New Deal.

Such a liberation of the public debate is long overdue. The world of my earlier years has changed beyond recognition. The Soviet Union, along with its celebration of armed revolution and the collapse of its self-proclaimed dictatorship of the proletariat, disintegrated almost 30 years ago. The Russia that has emerged is an unabashed capitalist dictatorship of the mafia. China’s Communist party now rules the world’s most aggressive and successful capitalist economy. And in the United States, the middle class is disappearing as the division between rich and poor becomes ever more extreme.

It is now evident to most people that we face a desperate need for deep change. There may be no place in a viable human future for profit-driven global megacorporations. There surely will be a continuing need for democratic governments, public services, nonprofit civic organizations, and a vast variety of family and cooperative businesses. Neither the capitalist, socialist, nor communist labels adequately capture such diversity.

When we talk about the Green New Deal, let’s forget the labels and talk about how to mount an effort up to the existential challenges of our time.

David Korten

David Korten

Dr. David Korten is the author of Agenda for a New Economy, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, co-chair of the New Economy Working Group, a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, president of the Living Economies Forum, and a member of the Club of Rome. He holds MBA and PhD degrees from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and served on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

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