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Art Of The Green New Deal: An Interview With Ann Pettifor
Michael J. Brooks , October 26th, 2019 09:01

With the ideas behind her new book The Case for the Green New Deal making headlines, British economist Ann Pettifor talks to Michael Brooks about Brexit, Extinction Rebellion, and the presidency-to-come of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

It’s certainly not every day that one has the opportunity of interviewing someone who might legitimately be said to have actually changed the world for the better. Musicians, artists and authors might present us with a prism of their own careful crafting through which we are invited to perceive the world, and at its most potent might change our own inner-lives and relationship with the world for the better. But to actually make a positive material change on that world on any profound scale is something else entirely.

Ann Pettifor, the economic analyst, author and activist, is someone who can without hyperbole be talked about in such terms. Before staking her claim as being one of those handful of public commentators who ‘predicted’ the Global Financial Crisis in her books The Real World Economic Outlook and The Coming First World Debt Crisis, Pettifor was, in the words of The Independent, “the genius behind the Jubilee 2000 campaign”.

Jubilee 2000 was established in the 1990s as a campaign for the cancellation of third world debt by the turn-of-the-millennium. As one of the leading figures of this movement, Pettifor worked closely with big-name supporters including Bob Geldof, Quincy Jones and Bono – who would go on to morph the Jubilee campaign into Drop the Debt – and ultimately succeeded in wiping out approximately $100 billion of debt owed by some thirty-five countries, often racked up by tribal despots as a means of maintaining their foothold on power and provided by exploitative western creditors.

Since then, Pettifor has turned to environmental economic theory and in 2008 was one of a group of high-profile thinkers and activists who published The Green New Deal which made the case that the globalised capitalist system characterised by unlimited free markets, financial deregulation and limitless credit creation, needed to be fundamentally overhauled as a means of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

There is a sense that the Green New Deal is a concept whose time has well and truly come, with Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion mobilising a growing sense of urgency around the world, and politicians at long last starting to pay heed. Pettifor has, since 2018, been advising the rising star of the American Left, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has adopted the Green New Deal as her policy programme; and she continues to advise the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose recent party conference adopted the Green New Deal as part of their policy programme ahead of an inevitable General Election. Could this be then, the time when Pettifor’s work and ideas – laid out in a concise, erudite and thought-provoking new book The Case for the Green New Deal – finally start to gain mainstream political traction?

You start the book by explaining that the Green New Deal was essentially thought up by a group of environmentalists and economists in your apartment. Can you set the scene for us about these evenings, were they convivial, urgent, argumentative?

They were really convivial but there were also arguments. I would always cook a big meal for the eight of us. Everyone else would bring bottles of wine. Colin Hines would be there, a very good-humoured laidback man; Richard Murphy, a bolshy character; Andrew Simms was our wordsmith; Caroline Lucas would hold us all together. We would have rambunctious arguments between the middle of 2007–8, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. We thought we were the only ones who could see something terrible had happened and that things were really breaking down, but the world went on as if it was all normal. We had arguments about how to finance Quantitative Easing and how it works, but we didn’t have any arguments about the environmental stuff. We meet even more regularly now than we did then.

You grew up in South Africa, what informed your politics when you were younger?

I grew up in the bush basically – Welkom – probably the most backward in political terms of the South. We had apartheid but in the Free State there were additional laws. For example, Indians travelling on trains couldn’t get off to buy food. It was ghastly in many ways to grow up in. You were so embedded in the racism as a child that you didn’t really understand, but I gradually became more aware and more religious. I went through a phase where I would go to church as I couldn’t make sense of my world.

The church said you had to ‘love thy neighbour as thy self’, except if they were black. What really fired me up as a kid was the hypocrisy of the system, the racism and the pretending to be good Christians while at the same time being such racists. When I got wind of that I got quite angry and at university started to become quite active politically, which was quite hard in those days as the National Union of Students had been banned. I joined the Anglican Students Federation – the only multi-racial organisation allowed – because the government had not yet made churches officially segregated. In the end, I decided I didn’t want to end up on Robben Island so saved up enough money and moved to the UK when I was quite young.

Did you think you risked going to Robben Island (or somewhere similar)?

Yes, it was very easy to get into trouble and easy to get my family in trouble. I was on demonstrations and because it was multi-racial, the Anglican Students Federation was being watched closely. The secret service was pretty formidable. The pressure was really about my family and exposing them. They didn’t want to make trouble, they wanted to make a living and survive within the system.

You write that the “spur that drove [you] to write the book was a worrying lack of support for a sound and rational programme for tackling climate breakdown and economic injustice”. Do you see signs of that changing?

I’m so excited by young Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. Remarkably, despite all their work, I still don’t get the sense that the establishment really grasp the scale of the threat and of course we now have many authoritarian governments so I think things are steadily getting worse rather than better actually.

You write, “by conservative estimates, one third of the world’s wealth is held offshore, with 80% of international banking transactions taking place there”. You point to localisation as a means of moving towards a new system of greater self-sufficiency and localisation of economic activity. What might that look like in practice to the every-person on the street?

All this comes down to the way in which we manage the financial system. If we’re going to regain power over it collectively as a nation and a people rather than allowing it to be managed by the one percent, then we’re going to need to bring it back onshore. I say this because we know globalisation is evidence of how we have no democratic control over the system and as a result we don’t have the resources we need.

The book is about how I think the monetary system is actually a public system like a sanitation system. It’s very hard to manage a sanitation system from abroad, you have to be there. The monetary system is much the same thing and its best managed at least at a national or even a regional level. For me, localisation is about being more self-sufficient. We’ve got spoilt and used to the idea that we can sit back, relax and get the Bangladeshis to make our T-shirts or the New Zealanders to provide us with toothpicks. This is the capitalist creed, you have one global market, you level it out and lower wages to the lowest common denomination. It’s a delusion, we need boundaries because policy requires boundaries. You can’t have a taxation policy that taxes people a long way away. You can’t manage your pension or social security system unless there are boundaries.

Of course these don’t need to be fixed, they should be as open as possible, but those boundaries enable us to make policy and to manage the financial system. Once we do that, we’re going to have to grow our own green beans, to make our own smartphones (preferably without using rare earths), to move ourselves around, we’re not going to be able to burn fossil fuels to fly.

Self-sufficiency means I don’t have to exploit African farmers for my food supply. It’s about how we learn to live within our means and our ecological resources and limits. What I think it engenders is a greater sense of community and better mental health because people will be less dislocated. Andrew Simms wrote a booklet once about life during the Second World War. If you weren’t a soldier and away from home, actually a lot of the country’s well-being improved considerably, in terms of a sense of community but also diet. People were much healthier at the end of the war. It also led to really progressive policies for collective provision of health and housing, which was an outcome of the localisation required by being at war.

Mark Fisher wrote about ‘capitalist realism’ that “it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. But you explain how actually it does lie within the power of states, with central banks, to exercise some powers at controlling and stemming cross-border capital flows. Will we see more examples of this in the coming years?

It’s already happening post-Global Crisis. I’ve always argued that it will happen when the dollar becomes difficult for Americans. This will be hard – Americans do well when the dollar falls and when it rises – but you can hear President Trump right now complaining about the dollar and about the Federal Reserve not doing enough about it. The dollar is strong because interest rates are positive in the United States, but if it were ever to come to a point where the US was affected by these global flows, the walls would go up straight away.

My worry is that, although I’m deeply in favour of managing flows across borders and against protectionism, I think it’s very likely we’ll get authoritarians and hard-liners who’ll put up their barriers in an irrational way that will make things worse rather than better, rather like today’s trade protectionism is not making things better for those people in the Rust Belt who voted for Trump.

Karl Polanyi argued that in the 1930s, when there was another form of globalisation, people found themselves losing their jobs, housing, education, and so on, and ended up demanding protection from these market forces. To get that protection they looked to a strong man – those like Hitler – but instead of that improving their situation it made things much worse. But the initial impulse was to seek protection, and my theory is that countries will seek protection from unstable flows and put up the barriers which will make things worse. The best thing to do would be to do what we did in 1945, and do it in a collaborative way at an international level. But as we can’t get international cooperation right now and leaders seem determined not to, that doesn’t seem very possible.

I was fascinated by your account of Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and its remarkable achievements – approximately three billion trees planted, 800 new state parks, nearly three million employed over nine years. Is this the kind of hugely ambitious employment project we need to see now?

Absolutely. In a sustainable economy we’re going to need to substitute labour for fossil fuels. Instead of driving around in cars, we’ll need to walk or cycle or find alternative means of transport, and that will be labour-intensive. Then there’s the task of transforming the economy which will take a lot of work.

The New Deal created jobs to deal with the Dust Bowl, but there was a lot to be done and labour was idle. Hoover and orthodox economists were happy for everything to just be idle and potential capacity to be enormous. This is what is promising about the Green New Deal: giving people important and exciting jobs for our survival.

The thing I love about Roosevelt is that he challenged Wall Street on the very night of his inauguration. He didn’t wait. He was a disabled man who admittedly was quite wealthy and aristocratic so didn’t need Wall Street – either in the financial or intellectual sense. He didn’t need to go round after money like, for example, Tony Blair felt he had to. He nearly buckled in 1927 when the debt began to rise, and he decided he had to cut the budget back again, and of course unemployment began to rise straight away so he changed again. For me that’s leadership, and from a person who made mistakes and did a lot of things wrong (there’s no doubt there was a strong racist element to the New Deal), but the fact is he had courage, and we don’t have leaders like that today sadly.

You write that a “key principle of the Green New Deal economy is surely that countries and peoples be as self-sufficient as possible”, and you quote John Maynard Keynes – “let goods be homespun … let finance be primarily radical”. In the context of Brexit and the clamour for new trade deals, is an opportunity being missed?

It’s tricky for me because in a sense some Brexiteers are asking for just that. But I think the majority are asking for that from the point of view of globalisation. They want protection from globalisation but the problem with Brexit as far as I can see is that the people advancing it want a global Britain, which seems incredibly contradictory. They don’t want the self-sufficiency, they are actually free-traders wanting to align themselves with the United States. The Lexiteers have been caught in this trap and failed to understand the real project – it’s not that Britain is to be self-sufficient and homespun, it’s about turning Britain into a colony of the United States. I’ve always understood Brexit in political rather than economic terms.

We need to manage, here in Britain, our own ecosystem, but we also need to work internationally with our partners because the atmosphere and ozone layer have no boundaries. It’s not a closed nationalist story, it’s a story about not draining others of their resources; be as self-sufficient as possible but always let us cooperate.

You were appointed to Labour’s Economic Advisory Committee in 2015. Is that still operational?

What happened the day after the Referendum was that all the other economists on it blamed Corbyn for the result and wanted to resign. I disagreed with them, although sharing some views on how the campaign had been managed, but it was clear to me that Remain lost because Leave had been more sophisticated. I remember being in absolute fury when George Osborne and Alistair Darling combined to say to the nation, “if you vote Leave, we’re going to punish you with more austerity”. I couldn’t think of anything more stupid or likely to induce an anti-vote than that. It was so reactionary and wrong. So I tried to say that it was wrong to blame Corbyn. I argued with the likes of Daniel Blanchflower, Mariana Mazzucato, Simon Wren-Lewis. I now work with the Progressive Economy Forum, not advising directly but providing analysis which they can use. So I remain independent but I am close to them.

You write about how Keynesian policies were blamed for 1970s inflation, and New Labour’s spending was blamed for the recession and austerity. How could the Green New Deal approach the inevitable information war that will be waged against it?

When we started Jubilee 2000 to cancel third world debt, the misinformation was: all of those black people are really incompetent and furthermore not trustworthy, unlike us. So that campaign was really an anti-racist campaign. We began the process with no money. We had a little shed near Waterloo above Christian Aid. We started producing briefings about the nature of the system and the way in which creditors dominate the system internationally, how we flogged those countries loans, and so on. Nobody had ever heard of the Export Credit Guarantee, but we shone a light on this activity.

We were campaigning in the early 90s when the internet was just taking off. We were so lucky in that respect. We were up against the IMF, the World Bank, the Paris Club, the G8 governments – these were big enemies to have. We started just educating people, and my proudest moment of all was when a Treasury official came to me one day and said “what the fuck is going on?!”, because Chancellor Gordon Brown had had to hire new people to help deal with all the correspondence that was coming in about the debt. This official said to me that they’d get letters saying “Dear Sir, we understand that you’ve chosen such-and-such date as the cut-off date for Uganda’s debt. I disagree with you…,” they couldn’t believe that someone had explained Uganda’s debt cut-off debt to people – and that was us.

In the end, the G8 decided to write off $100 billion of debt. I have huge confidence in people’s intelligence and their ability to work around Fake News and to go after what’s really going on. I also think there’s a conspiracy amongst economists to keep their subject closed and inaccessible, it’s a deeply flawed approach. Because they are so closed, they don’t get corrected when they go badly wrong. I think the economic profession would like to keep the language, the theory and the policy a secret, but everyone is capable of understanding it, and that’s what this book is about.

A criticism of the Green New Deal, particularly in the US, has been that it’s become an all-encompassing socio-political agenda, with other policies like universal healthcare, jobs guarantee, etc. grafted onto it. Is there the risk that this makes an environmental response a bipartisan issue when really it should be being prioritised as a response to a crisis? Should compromises be made in the aim of broader support?

No, I think it’s the opposite. For too long I’ve watched the environmental movement being fragmented, and too concentrated on behavioural and community change. The problem is that by keeping it at that low level, and not raising it to a systemic level, the greens have failed to have any purchase on this debate until now. The Green New Deal is about systemic change.

The greens have tended to leave the economy to others. I’m generalising, but there’s been a tendency to hug trees and worry about the ecosystem, but not make the connection with the economy, or they think doing so is too difficult. It was that inclination to go for individual action and then not talk about the economy that meant the green campaigns never made any progress.

You’ve got to be so specific about what you’re demanding, what you unite around. You’ve got to have a big idea. The Green New Deal is an umbrella, and there is a risk of it being diluted, but because it is systemic you can fit Medicaid, jobs, and all kinds of other things under it and still remain coherent. It’s why suddenly Bernie Sanders can talk about a $16 trillion Green New Deal, he couldn’t talk about it before, we were leaving it all to individuals to change their lifestyles and that’s not the way to change the world I’m afraid.

Is Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez a future President in the making?

Oh definitely! She certainly has the nerves of steel, she’s proved so intelligent and brave. But I’m watching the current campaign and Elizabeth Warren is doing well, so I do think women are going to come to our rescue! But yes, AOC definitely has what it takes.

The Case for the Green New Deal by Ann Pettifor is published by Verso Books