Our Theory of Power A collective document of the Green New Deal Campaign Committee
1. The Challenge
Just as any good organizer knows we have to meet people where they are, any good strategist knows that they have to work in the historical context in which they find themselves. Our current context is not conducive to building power from below, given the dismantling of working class institutions and organizations over prior decades, foremost among them labor unions. Yet we can afford neither inaction, nor a strategy on the timescale of many decades: the ecological crisis and the crisis of economic precarity and immiseration continue unabated, with inequality and global warming accelerating by the day.
We know that there are no shortcuts to winning power and systemic transformation. We also know that change occurs in uneven and sometimes unexpected leaps; periods of relative quiescence can harbor the building of relationships and organizing infrastructure, as well as political education and training, that enable seemingly sudden bursts of grassroots activity (like the mass uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd). Indeed, while recent achievements on the Left required tremendous organizational energy, all of them defied prior expectations of what was possible: the massive upsurge in labor organizing; socialist electoral victories at all levels of government; the aforementioned mass uprising—which was the largest, most racially and geographically diverse protest for racial justice in US history—and more.
The key question is how to replicate such victories in a sustained and coordinated fashion, targeting the climate-capitalism nexus by means of a socialist Green New Deal and making substantial progress in under a decade. Such a horizon requires popular activity in all arenas: ballot boxes, streets, workplaces, neighborhoods, and more.
2. The Conjuncture
For the next two years, we will organize for a Green New Deal in the context of a neoliberal Democratic administration over which the Left has limited power or influence. The following four years will be more of the same if we are lucky; the prospect of Trump 2.0 is a serious possibility. A primary challenge to Biden from the left is unlikely to happen, and even less likely to succeed. In the House, there is a slim Republican majority alongside an expanded Squad (albeit with only three DSA-endorsed members), while Democrats narrowly maintain control of the Senate. At the state level, Democrats made gains in many places in 2022, but Republicans still control 28 state legislatures, 22 of which are trifectas (Democrats have 19 and 17, respectively).
Lacking the organizations and institutions in which to develop into a “class-for-itself,” the working class remains fractured along the cross-cutting lines of occupation, geography, race, gender, and citizenship. Such a constituency will not emerge as a political force without strategic, targeted, and relational organizing that commences well in advance of the electoral cycle, and in turn builds on past electoral campaigns and other struggles.
We see the Green New Deal as a minimum response to capitalism in transition amidst a crisis of its own making. However, the Green New Deal we’re fighting for and what the capitalist class has in mind could not be more different. The Green Deal in Europe and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the US are both attempts to consolidate the prevailing capitalist order–not to build a path away from class and ecological destruction. Through a combination of subsidies and mandates, these policies attempt to shepherd firm profiteering through a technological transition by any means necessary. Thanks to the efforts of organized segments of the working class, some measures—such as incentivizing a prevailing wage for clean energy construction—create political openings for alternative futures. However, on balance, the IRA fails the labor movement. The bill’s actual provisions, moreover, are oriented around our privatized electricity system, individual purchases of electric cars, and one-off retrofits for homeowners, not public goods for collective benefit.
The Democratic Party celebrated the IRA as climate action par excellence, a win for employers, workers, and marginalized communities alike. In the process, they attempted to co-opt the spirit if not the letter of the Green New Deal, raising the stakes of clarifying what it is—and what it can be.
It is not enough to articulate the Green New Deal as a vision of racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice. A socialist Green New Deal contests the ongoing green capitalist transition by vying for democratic control over key economic sectors: energy, transportation, and construction. Our proposals are rooted in a concrete analysis of ruling class power, which is located in control over investment and production of surplus value. Capitalist responses to climate change and other environmental crises attempt to use this control to initiate technological transitions which further exploit and immiserate the working class, and are insufficient solutions to the crises at hand.
3. What is to Be Done
The following tactics, arenas, and organizational forms encompass a set of complementary and inter-related elements that in turn constitute an overarching theory of power. This theory of power ought to guide our ecosocialist praxis in the near and medium term.
- Win “nonreformist” or “structural” reforms that increase public sector capacity: Materially consequential, highly visible, and explicitly politicized victories that simultaneously (1) improve the conditions of working class life; (2) build socialist political power in government; and (3) heighten the capacities of self-organization among the working class. Capital relies on the state to bind and enforce the conditions for accumulation. To weaken capital’s grip over our society, we must contest political power in the arena of the state, and in so doing, generate struggles in other areas of life.
- Build core elements of a party apparatus: Prioritize building independent organizing infrastructure that remains in DSA and does not rely on liberal, foundation-funded NGOs or their staffers or consultants. Legislative campaigns should build DSA as a working class institution that can contest for state power without relying on external partners and build an organization that can co-govern with the socialists we elect to office. This will also require significantly expanding our fundraising capacity, for GND campaigning and otherwise.
- Win class-struggle elections: Elections of DSA candidates to local government have already been critical to advancing GND-related goals in chapters with well-developed electoral capacity, such as Chicago and NYC. Other chapters like Maine and Portland DSA have won significant GND-related ballot measures. Since the political power of socialism emanates from the participation of masses of people, we need numbers. Widespread and systematic contact with the working class through carefully planned large-scale field work and follow-up build DSA and expand our capacity to mobilize. DSA-endorsed Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Cori Bush, alongside progressive allies, will continue to expand the national profile of universalist GND policies. Building our electoral capacity from the lowest levels of government will ensure a long-term bench of candidates who can contest higher office with direct organized input from DSA’s membership. As DSA’s National Electoral Strategy lays out, “chapters should view elected officials as a vehicle for organizing campaigns, and vice versa.”
- Orient to state and local politics: To stop planetary catastrophe at the scale and speed required, the federal government needs capacity to create money and coordinate resources. But because of the presently unfavorable federal terrain and our relative lack of power, such an intervention is not yet feasible. However, we can win GND-style reforms at the state and local level and build the public sector capacity, fighting labor movement, and mass working class base to get us there. Contesting for power via legislative, budget, and contract struggles builds our organizing muscle and relationships to win larger fights in other arenas to come. Ultimately, we see local/state/federal terrains as potentially mutually constitutive arenas for consolidating socialist political power and concomitant policy victories—but such a synergy across political scales is rooted in the overarching goal of winning and wielding state power.
- Prioritize labor solidarity and class struggle as workers: Despite promising recent trends of increasing union militancy (e.g. UAW and Teamsters elections) and new organizing (e.g. Starbucks, Amazon, graduate workers) in the US, union density in this country is still only around 10%—near historic lows. There are no shortcuts to labor power, especially amid intensifying gigification and worker precarity. Rebuilding, growing, and radicalizing the labor movement into a fighting force, to shape the terms of a just transition for all workers and a caring economy for all, is critical to winning a Green New Deal this decade. Worker organization can serve as a parallel, oppositional force capable of wielding power against capitalist interests and winning concessions from the state. In particular, our campaign should focus on: (1) expanding and radicalizing organized labor through coalition campaigns that build worker power; (2) building and strengthening national networks of rank and file union members in sectors like the building trades, transportation, and education; (3) implementing popular education and worker organizer trainings for DSA members and allies—union, non-union, and unemployed workers—focused on the intersection of labor and the environment as well as our campaign priorities. This multi-pronged approach mirrors the multi-tactic labor strategy adopted at the 2019 and 2021 Conventions, focusing on both expanding organized labor (“organize the unorganized”) and radicalizing organized labor (“rank and file”) with the goal of empowering ecosocialist leadership in the labor movement.
- Create counter-hegemonic socialist media: The corporate media was a critical factor in kneecapping the Sanders presidential campaign in the US in 2016 and 2020. Capitalist media companies are largely hostile to our cause, and no amount of griping about unfairness will change that. Alternative media created by socialists and fellow travelers has grown dramatically in recent years, and has facilitated the growth of left politics—but these outlets are largely led by people who are extremely online and remain disconnected from an organized base, which leaves it vulnerable to undisciplined attempts to intervene in procedural politics that are driven by moral catharsis rather than material power and organized relationships. DSA must engage mass media platforms that can reliably transmit our democratically determined priorities, and continue to package our materials for mass consumption on social media, especially amplifying the perspectives of workers and organizers who can convey an expansive sense of the “frontlines” of the climate crisis, the benefits of a GND for the multiracial working class, and mass organizing strategies to win GND victories.
- Develop a concerted program of political education: A GND was overwhelmingly voted as a DSA national priority in 2019 and 2021, but we must develop real consensus across the organization about what it entails and how to organize to make it possible—and to develop a national political education program that can reach our whole membership. We must create easily digestible material that lays out how the climate crisis shapes the entire political terrain for our society this decade, a socialist vision for a GND, and what working class organizing priorities must be for a GND in the near term. These materials should be well understood by all DSA members as part of basic political education within our organization, and be easily accessible for workers. We must work to develop structures across DSA that facilitate political education around our democratically prioritized goals.
- Recruit and train organizers: Organizer development is still uneven across DSA’s membership, and falls largely to chapters to develop effective organizers through local campaigns. Organizational capacity directly depends on the number of leaders or cadre in a chapter. The GND Campaign must recruit Black socialists, Indigenous socialists, and socialists of color to be leaders in our struggle to organize a working class majority across racial divides. The Campaign must also train and coach chapters to recruit new members and train new leaders. Ecosocialism draws members primed for climate concern by their education, professional work experience, or nonprofit-led activism they have participated in. These can be useful entry points, but can limit the scope of organizing efforts if not further developed through lessons learned from campaign organizing experience that is oriented toward building working class power, and developing new working class organizers, especially BIPOC.
- Coordinate to rapidly respond to crisis: DSA has not done the legwork for rapid response and mobilization either on a national scale or in many local contexts. We must develop capacity for street mobilization and direct action that puts pressure on the state by targeting specific actors and agitating around crises of climate and disinvestment.
- Integrate an internationalist perspective in all areas of our work: Although this document is firmly focused on the horizon of building socialist power in the US—itself a monumental task—as ecosocialists, we commit to an internationalist perspective on the climate and ecological crisis and on the underlying system of global capitalism of which it is a symptom. However, internationalism is not just about politics at the “international” scale: for ecosocialist work, it is about orienting towards global climate justice, anti-imperialism, and global economic redistribution in every facet of our campaigns, while simultaneously developing substantive relationships with socialist movements around the world For example, using frameworks such as “divest/invest,” rooted in the Black radical tradition and the Movement for Black Lives, means demanding the defunding of police and militarism that has destroyed so many lives beyond (and at) our borders; or, in another policy area, demanding public goods over privatized consumption is a key means of reducing the extractive resource use of the Global North, and all the dispossession and contamination in the Global South such extraction causes.
These tactics, arenas, and organizational forms are fundamentally interrelated: winning structural reforms makes it easier to elect socialists by tangibly demonstrating the material effects of insurgent campaigns for elected office; deepening political education enables better socialist analysis and framing in our media work; electing socialists facilitates the work of recruiting and training organizers, many of whom might get their first experiences with organizing by volunteering for an insurgent campaign; rebuilding and radicalizing the labor movement, and renewing its organic connection to the socialist Left, helps win non-reformist reforms. These complementary elements comprise the overarching theory of power that ought to guide our ecosocialist work in the near and medium term.