Any Green New Deal must avoid the imperial mistakes of the past, and value the global south as much as westerners, says Dalia Gebrial.
The mainstream transatlantic left has been acting different lately. Having been subsumed into third-way politics for several decades, it seems we are growing back some teeth in our bite on the big systemic issues of today. From Labour calling for a national climate emergency, to prominent Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declaring capitalism “irredeemable” – we are slowly unzipping ourselves from the straitjacket of incrementalist politics. The left has a new centre, and it’s not messing about.
It is nonetheless critical to ground these struggles in their long history. Indeed, many post-independence struggles in the global south have been struggles against capitalism and the political and ecological injustices it produces. Take climate change. We are finally seeing something of a start to the kind of mass mobilisation and political will needed to rise to the challenge. Most importantly, Labour’s successful call to declare a national climate emergency marks a well overdue shift from the idea we can solve this by changing individual behaviours, in which climate change becomes the responsibility of working-class people who just need to behave themselves – eat less meat, use fewer plastic bags, have fewer kids. If real action follows, the move signifies promising recognition that this crisis requires rapid, large-scale political action and systemic change – and it is the companies and institutions responsible for the crisis that need to pay.
However, alongside the hope, we also need to acknowledge we are miles away from where we need to be. While our political leadership has continually acted as if rising global inequality and conflict is merely bad management of an otherwise rational system, communities in the global south and indigenous populations have been giving their blood, sweat and tears to resist an economic system that puts profit above people and planet. Whether it’s Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was murdered in his struggle to break the political bond between Shell and the Nigerian government, or the 1977 Egyptian bread riots, in which hundreds were killed resisting the IMF-mandated neoliberalisation of the economy, the connection between capitalism as a system and its injustices is something the global majority is well-versed in.
This isn’t limited to popular movements – governments across Latin America and the Pacific Islands have harboured an organised resistance to the manifold ways in which global capitalism poses an existential threat to the lives and livelihoods of millions. Many of these efforts have not only been ignored, but actively sabotaged by US and European state leaders. This history of resistance does not emerge from some kind mystic internal knowledge held by black and brown people. It is down to the material fact of white supremacy, which means the brutalities of neoliberalism have been felt in their most extreme by what we call “developing countries”. The IPCC report declaring us to be in “decade zero” was not a shock in Dominica, where a single hurricane set back development by a generation. Or in Pakistan, where the 2015 heatwave claimed 2,000 lives. 1.5C might seem like new science to us, but the chant “1.5C to stay alive” has been screamed from across the global south for years.
However, a certain colonial mindset sees many of these struggles as heavily localised; as part of the pathological conflict of black and brown people, rather than politically salient movements we could do with learning from. And this can be seen in the framing of the US and UK as “leading” the fight against neoliberal capitalism and climate change. Not only is this historically wrong, but it risks sabotaging the very aims of our movement going forward.
We certainly have a role in the urgent action required to face up to the crisis. We must contribute our fair share to the global effort to stay under 1.5C warming. This means no more incrementalism: it means immediately dismantling the neo-colonial role played by our energy companies throughout the world; contributing our fair share to the global transfer of wealth needed for mitigation programmes in the global south, and breaking the political bond between the City of London and the fossil fuel industry. It also means radically changing the role we play in global climate negotiations, which has historically been one of talking over those suffering the sharpest edge of climate chaos. These negotiations need to be democratised, legally binding and a space in which we listen, learn and then take action.
This means understanding that any “Green New Deal” or “green industrial revolution” cannot be bound within our nation’s borders, or prioritise the wellbeing of westerners over black and brown lives in the rest of the world. As we make these moves towards climate emergency, it is important that progressives do not internalise the colonial principles that got us in this mess, either by simply ignoring the global historical context of resistance to emergency issues, or even actively arguing we should under-develop “Bombay” to deliver growth in Wigan. Indeed, the industrial revolution was financed and sustained by the blood money and infrastructure of slavery and colonialism; a “green” version of this is no better.
By centring ourselves in the resistance to neoliberal capitalism and ecological crisis, we will likely repeat the mistakes of the past. A “green colonialism” or “socialist imperialism” is no victory worth claiming, and it is the default left position if we do not actively fight for a different vision. We must come into this space not as self-appointed leaders, but figures of solidarity. We are the last to join the party – let’s not behave once again like the world’s policeman and have it shut down before it’s even begun.
Dalia Gebrial is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and an editor at Novara Medi.
This article has been republished from The Guardian.