June 2021Theory

Socialism, Road Repair and Climate Change: More Thoughts on Biden's Infrastructure Plan

For Marxist socialists, paradoxically, politics ultimately hinges on choice — but not choice alone. As Marx put it, “Men make their own history, but not just as they choose, not under circumstances they themselves have chosen.” Instead, men — and women, too, as Marx should have said — make history “under circumstances given, inherited, handed down from the past.” Material, social and cultural factors all weigh on what is possible.

Marx’s aphorism was in reference to the failed French revolution of 1848, when an uprising that initially seemed likely to establish a new republic instead resulted in a new French autocracy — the Second Empire under Louis Napoleon, nephew of the famous Bonaparte. But French history aside, Marx’s analysis of what went wrong in 1848 is relevant to DSA members in 2021 as we ponder Joe Biden’s proposed infrastructure program, aka the American Jobs Plan.

According to opinion polls, the Biden plan is popular with a majority of US voters, including some Republicans, and several environmental groups hail it as the most ambitious attempt to combat climate change ever proposed by a US president.

The White House announcement of the plan also drew praise from various US union leaders ranging from Robert Martinez Jr. of the International Association of Machinists, Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers on the liberal left, to James Hoffa of the Teamsters, Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers’ International Union of North America and Sean McGarvey of North America’s Building Trades Union on the right. The plan also has been endorsed by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the leadership of AFSCME and the American Society of Civil Engineers, among other organizations.

Yet as DSA member Zach Eldredge recently reported in the Washington Socialist, the Biden plan’s scope is still much too modest to make the changes to our economy needed to head off climate disaster over the next decades. At best, Eldredge said, it can serve as the first installment in a series of other climate measures yet to come. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, soon after the Biden plan’s release, tweeted that in some ways it was a good start, but that “If we actually want in good faith to make this vision and the commitments that they’ve put down happen we need a more robust investment.”

The climate campaign director of the People’s Action network, Kaniela Ing, has stated that the $2.3 trillion Biden plan represents “a strong start” towards solving “competing and long-term crises of climate, justice, jobs, and housing” facing the country, but that it is not large enough in scale to get the job done. In Ing’s words, “In order to actually solve today’s overlapping crises, we need to invest at least three times more over the next decade … It’s time for transformation, not just recovery.”

The infrastructure plan is not “socialist” in any meaningful sense. Instead, if Biden can get it through Congress and put into action, it could help the US economy transition into a new version of New Deal liberalism that might stabilize US capitalism for another generation or more. On the positive side, such an outcome could (a) help to bury neoliberal worship of market outcomes, at least for a while; (b) put the US back on the road to a renewed government activism with many attractive social-democratic features; and (c) ease economic conditions for tens of millions of Americans, including many working-class people and people in oppressed communities that democratic socialists hope to recruit and represent. That’s the good news.

On the other hand, a long-term stabilization of capitalism is not something many democratic socialists and climate activists believe is either sustainable or desirable. Given capitalism’s incurable addiction to economic growth, even a reformed and regulated capitalism would trigger global environmental disaster in the long run. Some climate activists say the “long run” is already here.

Yet if the Democrats can’t enact a progressive infrastructure plan, probably through a budget reconciliation bill brokered by Bernie Sanders, Biden could lose a chance to deliver new infrastructure jobs to working-class Americans and new profit opportunities to selected capitalist enterprises and investors. The resulting voter disillusionment, combined with eager Republican organizing, might help the GOP recapture an evenly divided Senate, a narrowly split US House or both in next year’s elections. And that might enable Donald Trump — or some other Republican who is nearly as nice — to recapture the White House in 2024.

As radical journalist Thom Hartmann has argued, passage of the infrastructure package and some other Biden initiatives may be essential to protecting our society from long-term autocratic rule by a “brutal” American oligarchy.

So, should DSA members (including climate activists) work to mobilize support for the Biden plan, as a needed safeguard against a resurgence of Trump-style authoritarianism, racism and/or fascism?

Alternatively, should we righteously oppose the plan, as inadequate to meet the long-term climate challenge as well as many unmet social needs?

Should principled socialists perhaps take no position at all on the plan, but focus on organizing for more radical approaches to climate emergency and social ills that might ultimately meet the challenge?

The choice is ours, but under circumstances definitely not of our own choosing. So, what should we do?

As DSA members consider the question, it’s worth recalling the argument Marx was making in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon concerning the French debacle of 1848. Louis Napoleon was hardly a genius, Marx believed. His success in converting a potentially democratic revolt into the foundation for his own imperial rule, following his previously quite undistinguished public career, confounded the expectations of many. But what guaranteed the man’s triumph was not his political talent, but the extreme disorganization and disunity of his opponents.

Following the 1848 collapse of a restored French monarchy, a group of revolutionary proletarians in Paris made an insurrectionary grab for power, and all the other social classes and political factions united to stop them. After this, the Parisian workers basically dropped out of political life, and the coalition that had defeated them fractured as one class or political faction after another — the big French bourgeoisie, the smaller capitalists, the advocates for a liberal monarchy and so forth — all blocked each other’s attempts at forming a stable government.

Finally, only Louis Napoleon remained above the fray, and his famous name, fond memories of his uncle and support from the French peasantry — the largest social class in France — ensured his rise to imperial power.

If “the people united will never be defeated,” as some leftists proclaim, the would-be French revolutionaries of 1848 never became united, and because of their disunity, they lost. If more unity had been achievable under French circumstances, it might have saved them. That’s one reason Biden’s “American Jobs Plan,” with many of its provisions apparently designed to foster unity among progressives of many stripes, should interest socialists today.

Whatever its other shortcomings, the Biden infrastructure plan has the political potential to unify — at least temporarily — a huge range of sometimes-clashing interest groups in this society around a single economic program. It offers significant economic and/or political benefits to climate activists and construction contractors and their workers, to home healthcare workers and auto companies, to historically Black colleges and universities and to rural white people and tribal nations who currently lack access to fast broadband connections.

As this is written, some highly debatable provisions of the plan call for programs to subsidize research on, and otherwise encourage, carbon capture technologies and CO2 sequestration. This is total folly in the eyes of many climate activists, since investments in such technologies can be used by corporations as an excuse to continue extracting and investing in fossil fuels, thereby further delaying the world’s needed transition to sustainable energy.

However, last year the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis recommended efforts to “Develop, Manufacture, and Deploy Cutting-Edge Carbon Removal Technology” as one step necessary to achieve the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target for keeping global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2050. After 2050, the committee’s report concludes, further use of carbon capture and sequestration will be needed to achieve “net-negative” carbon emissions during the second half of the century.

Of more political interest, the carbon capture and sequestration provisions in the Biden plan appear at press time to have reconciled the United Mine Workers (UMW), the largest US union representing coal miners, to the idea of a future increasingly shaped by renewable energy. As the price for addressing climate change, the UMW insists on measures to ensure some economic future for coal mining, along with programs to provide truly effective job retraining for displaced miners and to put unemployed miners back to work reclaiming abandoned mines and capping methane emissions from oil and gas wells. In its design, the Biden plan includes enough language to this effect to win the UMW’s support — at least for now — for an infrastructure package that many climate activists also like.

A few weeks ago, the infrastructure plan’s provisions to ensure something like a just transition for displaced miners also seemed to have won over West Virginia’s conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin. That may no longer be the case: Manchin increasingly seems to have switched sides again and is calling for “bipartisan” cooperation between Democrats and Republicans on infrastructure — a political mirage that will only help the GOP sabotage Biden’s best ideas, in the eyes of Manchin critics. But if it endures, the UMW’s apparent willingness to endorse a greener energy economy in exchange for programs to care for displaced miners and coal-dependent communities could be an historic breakthrough for climate sanity.

Moving from climate concerns to public health, the Biden plan proposes to allocate some $111 billion for the nationwide elimination and replacement of lead drinking water pipes, both in private housing and in public drinking water systems — a belated effort to address the risks facing residents of Flint, Michigan, and thousands of other communities where leaded drinking water is poisoning people. Another, smaller proposal in the plan calls for efforts to reduce lead pollution risks in up to 400,000 public schools.

A provision that has evoked sharp opposition from Republicans, and currently seems to be a sticking point for Manchin, would allocate some $400 billion to making home healthcare more affordable for millions of US families while also (at least in theory) providing better wages and benefits for home healthcare workers. This is not traditional infrastructure spending, but it may win support for the Biden plan among even relatively affluent middle-class voters who aren’t especially concerned about fixing roads and bridges, but do face severe difficulties in caring for elderly relatives. SEIU president Mary Kay Henry sees this provision as “a game-changer for tackling racial and economic inequality,” since its efforts to permit nationwide union organizing among home healthcare workers could “turn poverty jobs into living wage jobs with secure benefits” in an industry primarily composed of women of color.

Two other features that most Republicans despise, but many progressives support, are its call for Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and Biden’s Made in America Tax Plan, which would significantly raise corporate income taxes and eliminate some tax incentives for US-based corporations to produce commodities overseas.

A major theme of the Biden plan, according to a White House fact sheet, is social justice. “Like great projects of the past, the President’s plan will unify and mobilize the country to meet the great challenges of our time,” the fact sheet states. “But unlike past major investments, the plan prioritizes addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice. The plan targets 40% of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities. And the plan invests in rural communities and communities impacted by the market-based [sic] transition to clean energy.”

Depending on who’s counting, the plan seems to call for the building, repair and/or retrofit of some 1 million to 2 million housing units in the US, although critics point out that there are many millions of additional houses in the country needing similar attention. The plan would allocate a relatively modest sum of money, some $10 billion, to the establishment of a new Civilian Climate Corps, echoing (on a far smaller scale) President Franklin Roosevelt’s establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

To address carbon emissions from the US transportation sector, the proposal would allocate some $174 billion toward partly electrifying new cars, trucks and buses. It would establish some 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations along the nation’s highways and replace around 50,000 diesel-powered vehicles and 20% of the nation’s school buses with electric vehicles.

The plan allocates $85 billion to the repair and modernization of public transit systems and another $80 billion to repairs and improvements on passenger and freight rail networks, or at least selected rail networks such as Amtrak lines along the East Coast. And it would allocate $20 billion to disadvantaged communities — often communities of color — whose transportation access to the wider world was cut off by previous federal investments in infrastructure, such as the Interstate Highway System.

In his Washington Socialist article, Eldredge rightly notes that new investments in electric automobiles and EV charging stations, by perpetuating American car and highway culture, would be far less efficient in reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions than comparable investments in public transit. On the other hand, building 500,000 highway charging stations and installing the power lines needed to operate them would probably employ more construction workers and encourage the growth of more jobs in the auto industry than comparable investments in public transit — and thus is likely to be a political win in labor circles. For residents in small towns and rural areas who have been enmeshed in car culture for generations, electrifying the US automobile fleet might be more politically feasible than trying to eliminate it — however environmentally preferable elimination might be.

The Biden proposal calls for expenditure of some $180 billion to foster increased research and development aimed at creating new technologies, in some cases to make industries more sustainable environmentally and in some cases to promote US competitiveness against China and other rivals in world markets.

The various R&D programs proposed would invest in a hodgepodge of technology priorities, from floating offshore wind energy production to quantum computing to hydrogen fuels to carbon capture and storage. Also included would be artificial intelligence and biotechnology research that will supposedly help US industry compete globally, as well as work on “advanced nuclear reactors and fuels.” Many climate activists consider advanced nuclear power a bad joke, but it might prove a harmless one that will please the nuclear lobby without resulting in the construction of new reactors that can compete economically with ever-cheaper energy from solar cells and wind farms.  

Potentially more useful and important innovations that the Biden plan would encourage are new, less carbon-intensive methods for manufacturing cement and steel, two industries that are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  

Other additional provisions would encourage state and local governments to invest in climate resilience measures. These could be important to local communities already threatened by climate change that nevertheless tend to resist calls for climate legislation — for example, Gulf Coast communities and Midwestern river towns increasingly suffering from hurricanes and river flooding, where voters nevertheless are reluctant to address “global warming” for fear of losing fossil fuel and agribusiness jobs and tax revenues.  

Perhaps as a sop to conservation and wildlife groups eager to see more protections for endangered wetland areas and natural wildlife habitats — and also perhaps as a down payment on significant efforts to protect such areas later on — the plan devotes some space to discussions of “natural infrastructure” and how to advance it.

On the downside, at least from a socialist perspective, the American Jobs Plan includes unobtrusive passages in several different places for corporate tax breaks to promote more private investment in needed infrastructure projects, along with “public-private partnerships” that would give capitalist investors important roles in turning the plan into reality.

In a recent article in the UK’s New Statesman, Adam Tooze finds the Biden plan’s proposed funding levels to be surprisingly modest, especially in contrast to what the Chinese are already spending on infrastructure. However, Tooze speculates that this may be because the Biden proposal’s framers expect its R&D provisions to trigger much higher levels of climate-friendly investments by the US private sector — giving an even stronger capitalist flavor to what the American Jobs Plan is supposed to accomplish.

In summary, the Biden plan might help the “people” — including Silicon Valley capitalists along with traditionally oppressed communities and working people — to get “united” enough with environmentalists to pass an unprecedentedly large climate change bill through Congress. Assuming the plan is enacted into law, can democratic socialists and climate activists take advantage of whatever political unity it fosters to push for more progressive measures in time? Or would the plan’s passage lock the US into an improved but still deficient “new normal” that precludes further progress?

In a recent Washington Socialist interview, Metro DC DSA member Ashik Siddique, who serves on the steering committee of DSA’s national Ecosocialist Caucus, agreed with Eldredge that the Biden plan is simply too small to address the climate challenge. Siddique suggests that DSA can leave the plan’s fate, whether positive or negative, to more reformist organizations and constituencies, while continuing to press for a much more ambitious climate agenda and the revival of the US labor movement through organizing for the PRO Act.

“It goes without saying that the Biden plan is more ambitious than anything that’s been presented by a US president to date,” Siddique comments. “But as socialists and environmentalists, we should acknowledge what a low bar that is.”

Kate Aronoff, a left-leaning reporter on climate change and contributing editor to The New Republic, has made a somewhat similar argument. Adam Tooze’s New Statesman article finds the Biden plan itself — minus the private investment it may catalyze — to allocate only 0.5% of the US GDP (at most) to decarbonizing the economy and fighting climate change. An adequate effort would require 5 – 7% of GDP annually, Tooze believes. He thinks a carbon tax with refunds for low-income citizens would be a good way of financing this but recognizes carbon taxes are a non-starter with US voters and with most of the left.

However, a March 31 article published by the Sunrise Movement, “The American Jobs Plan and the Fight for the Green New Deal,” both describes the Biden plan as inadequate and applauds its unprecedented scope. Author Deirdre Shelly writes, “We should feel deeply proud of the power that our movement has built to make a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that centers action on the climate crisis, undoing environmental injustice and racism, and creating millions of union jobs the common sense of the Democratic Party.”

Shelly adds, “If it’s passed, this plan would be the largest investment the federal government has made to address social and economic crisis in fifty years … Still, the plan is nowhere enough to meaningfully combat the climate crisis or transform our society and economy.” The US must invest at least $10 trillion in climate action over the next decade, Shelly declares. But with that in mind, Sunrise supporters can fight for both the passage and improvement of the plan: “If we do our jobs, the plan that was announced today could be the first pillar of the Green New Deal … It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened … [and is] the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation.”

Similarly, Jamie DeMarco, Maryland Policy Director for Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), said in an interview for this article that the Biden plan is “the largest investment in climate and climate justice ever proposed by a US president. We’re excited to help strengthen this and get it passed.” On April 29, CCAN in Maryland held a webinar on what the American Jobs Plan would mean for the state and has supported the Biden proposal in other ways.

Among national environmental organizations, both the World Resources Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund, two groups working to widen support for climate change action among corporations, governments and private NGOs, have strongly praised the American Jobs Plan. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s president Mitchell Bernard likewise praises the plan’s scope, saying, “To create millions of jobs, address our legacy of racial inequities and fend off the worst impacts of climate change, we need to reimagine and rebuild our economy and the nation’s infrastructure ... [Biden’s plan represents] the leadership we need.”

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, on the other hand, has said that although “There’s a lot to be excited by in the American Jobs Plan,” what he finds most hopeful “is that it builds on the path to a more just and sustainable future carved out by years of advocacy from Sierra Club members, supporters, and partners.” Now, Brune says, “we must turn our energy and people power to two tasks … We must ensure that this legislation delivers an even bigger, more ambitious version of this vision … And then, of course, we have to make sure that it passes.”

The Sierra Club’s lengthy report, “How to Build Back Better,” Brune notes, calls for changes going well beyond those in the Biden plan. Reflecting the proposed THRIVE Act, supported by some 75 organizations associated with the Sunrise Movement, as well as added recommendations from the Political Economy Research Institute, Sierra’s “Build Back Better” report calls for an extensive 10-year program to address climate change, job creation, housing and infrastructure improvements and racial injustice.

DSA members with differing political analyses will probably differ on what socialists might gain and/or lose from organizing for the THRIVE Act, involving ourselves in the more radical visions of economic renewal now being put forth by the Sierra Club or otherwise addressing the Biden infrastructure plan. For the next several months, though, Biden’s plan for infrastructure spending will be a major issue at play in national politics. If only to show solidarity with our progressive allies, DSA should be paying serious attention to it.

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