Interview with Thea Riofrancos by Rubén Martínez
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | There are aspects of the Green New Deal (GND), particularly that of the US, that I’d like you to explain for us. But first of all, could you tell us what the GND is and what’s new about it?
THEA RIOFRANCOS | The GND is a novel paradigm for addressing climate change through a combination of public policies, public investments, and social mobilization. What’s new about the GND is the profound connection it makes between the climate crisis and the crisis of socioeconomic inequality. In doing so the GND rejects market-based paradigms or policy approaches, such as setting the right price for carbon in order to fix the market failures that ostensibly produced climate change. So, instead of technocratic, market-based, elitist solutions, the GND maintains that we need to expose and focus on the connections between the climate crisis and the everyday problems that ordinary people face. The way to approach the climate crisis is, therefore, through public investment on a massive scale. This would bring material improvements to everyday people’s lives while, at the same time, mitigating the climate crisis.
The GND is also a multiscalar concept: you can apply the basic principles to any scale of government. We can think of an urban GND, but also about a province-based, national, or global one. We could even go to the neighborhood level or inside a social housing unit and think about how the GND applies to that domestic sphere. So, it’s malleable at all levels because that connection between inequality and the climate crisis, as climate justice movements have long pointed out, exists at every single level of the governance we live under. Some of these policies already exist, others are yet to be implemented, but one great example is green social housing. This is social housing provided by governments, whether at the municipal or national level, in which buildings are made more energy efficient, are electrified, and may even have their own localized energy generation in the form of solar panels. The focus is on addressing the housing crisis and the climate crisis at the same time, and on creating dignified, unionized jobs in the construction process.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | In the development of this type of program, contradictions will undoubtedly appear. In fact, you have rigorously analyzed various of these, along with potential strategies for dealing with them. Could you explain some of these contradictions?
THEA RIOFRANCOS | There are different types of contradictions, but I want to begin by addressing a political challenge that is itself rooted in the economic system. In the US, we’ve seen the difficulties in getting Congress to pass bills on even basic climate spending and public investment in a social safety net. And I’m talking about the Democratic Party here, forget about the Republicans who are outright climate deniers. Even among Democrats, some very corporate-friendly senators are blocking this very minimal version of a GND. They’re opposed to common-sense measures because they get outsized donations from the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, and real estate agency industries. You can immediately see how a GND’s political possibilities are constrained by the relationship between capitalism and a weak form of representative democracy. This is a blockage and, at the same time, a political challenge, but how can it be overcome? We need more forms of extra-parliamentary disruptive collective action that makes life impossible for these representatives, and more close connections with the labor movement. In the US we’re seeing higher levels of strikes and labor disruptions than we’ve seen for a few decades, but we also need labor militancy to be connected with environmental and eco-socialist demands.
Let’s address some even deeper contradictions. I’d like to highlight two.
The first is the inevitable internal contradiction of any transitional program. In the process of transition there will be tensions between the kinds of vested interests, modes of production, and economic sectors associated with the whole paradigm that you’re trying to get rid of, on the one hand, and the new economic sectors that you want to engender, on the other. So, transitioning produces tensions between traditional and new economic activities. In addition, and while we still live under capitalism, the economic kind of investment and sectoral growth of renewable energy or green technologies won’t be entirely worker-owned or due to public investment. There are capitalists investing in these sectors. And, in the short to medium term, we need that private investment. At the same time, we also want to shift away from this and tilt the balance towards more public and worker owned forms of economic investment, because this is a faster path to decarbonization and enables rational democratic control over investment, as opposed to the myopic interests of profit-seeking capitalists. But we can’t change from one mode of accumulation to another overnight. In the meantime, we need the private sector to decarbonize too, and we need public policies that push it to do so, without overly empowering a new class of green capitalists that has a vested interest in the profitability of green sectors. More specifically, care should be taken to ensure that public policies to incentivize or require decarbonization don’t hinge on the guarantee of profit or returns on investment (i.e., “de-risking”); this is because some investments are not profitable but are necessary for social well-being or for planetary health. However, more generally, powering this new class of “green” investors that doesn’t get at the root of the problem entails a risk. It’s a risk, but it’s inevitable, and you have to confront it through a mix of public policies and social mobilization in this transitory period that, by the way, has multiple outcomes. We could transition to eco-social democracy, bringing us closer to socialism or we could be enroute to eco-fascism: there are multiple layers of uncertainty.
The second contradiction is that manufacturing and developing green infrastructure and technology requires resource extraction. Even if this technology and infrastructure was made in worker-run factories and deployed thanks to public investment in research and development, the fact is, it requires resource extraction. And this is a key political and social issue in Chile, the world’s second largest lithium producer, as well as in Europe and the US, where lithium deposits are being explored and developed. Resource extraction, with the mining sector – including lithium extraction – among the most environmentally destructive forms, also creates its own emissions. We should always try to minimize how much we extract, but whatever form extraction takes, it’ll have an environmental impact. It feels like a gordian knot because to harness renewable energy, and to build a new greener society, an environmental impact must be made, along with a material imprint, and water and energy use.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | Going deeper into extractivism conflicts, which you have worked on a lot, especially in Chile, I’d like you to talk about something I think people hardly ever explain. What scenarios can we aspire to, taking into account the correlation of forces? In other words, how much bargaining power do organized communities from the Global South affected by extractivism currently have?
THEA RIOFRANCOS | We’re in a very fluid, dynamic moment in terms of the balance of class forces. Sometimes there’s a tendency to take a conjunctural snapshot, but I want to stress how in motion these forces are. The dynamism of green capitalism and green technological development at this moment opens up opportunities for both worker and Indigenous/peasant/community movements to refine their strategies with an eye to where capitalism is going. And so, endogenous strategic development can occur with the movements that are attentive to the directionality of change. The basic challenge is organizing under globalized capitalism, with more integrated markets globally. Capital is extremely mobile, and firms can potentially engage in forms of capital flight. The minute workers start organizing or regulations start to limit profits, capital says, “OK, we’re out of here.” Workers and governments are under the constant threat of capital mobility and flight. But what’s interesting about extractive sectors is that they limit capital flight a little bit. Not entirely, because there’s always another copper deposit to mine somewhere else, but extractive resources are, by nature, found in certain places. While it’s also true that not all these resources are necessarily scarce or rare (in a geological sense), there are better and worse deposits, and some are known to be more technologically and economically feasible. Initial investments in exploration and infrastructure in a particular mine or deposit, and getting the permits, are sunk costs. That’s why it becomes less than easy for companies to just leave, because they want to get the full fruit of their place-based investment. So, there’s a little bit of constraint on this pure form of capital mobility or flight that usually happens in other sectors, or in other parts of the supply chain. Potentially, it gives mine workers and affected communities a little bit of extra leverage.
On the one hand, then, the balance of power is highly asymmetric. We have extremely marginalized communities that are in the rural hinterlands, or rural peripheries often far from the centers of urban or cosmopolitan power. These communities have been neglected by public investment and usually don’t have basic services. That’s something that companies often exploit, arguing that they’ll invest in roads, schools, electricity and whatever. And so, these companies, that are multinational and often shareholder owned, begin to fill in for the state. But on the other hand, there are ways for communities to become more powerful and stop a project and even outright obstruct an economic activity, which is something that we don’t always see in other sectors. And not only because of this bit of leverage related to the placed-based resources, but also due to the regulatory role of the state, which implies some basic hoops that the company has to jump through. Sometimes states are the owners of the resource or the land, or, if not, they’re still in charge of environmental impact assessments. Communities can use those administrative regulatory processes as moments for community mobilization intervention. Sometimes, these claims enter public hearings and the public comment periods that states allow for and conclude by stating that the project is environmentally impactful. We’ve seen this in Latin America and also in the US and Europe with lithium and other extractive projects. In summary, the place-based nature of extractive projects and the fact that they involve the state more than other economic sectors provide interesting openings and forms of leverage for communities.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | And is there any possibility for these movements to scale up, perhaps surpassing or going beyond their local conflict?
THEA RIOFRANCOS | Another development that can increase the power of communities to stall, obstruct, or even stop projects is transnational networking. We’ve been seeing this phenomenon over the past couple of decades. The communities affected by sprawling supply chains are spatially dispersed. But affected communities at the extractive frontiers of global supply chains are coming into increasing coordination with one another. This is in part because of the technological advancements in internet and mobile phones that allow communities separated by great distances to be in touch with one another. During Covid, communities have also done a lot of digital activism. I’ve seen cases where communities from Chile, Portugal and Russia are all at the same event, sometimes in the same supply chain or moving against the same company. This coordination both reflects and helps produce an increasing sense of shared interests across these borders, and of wanting to organize at the scale of supply chains, which means transnational organizing.
We must not deny the obvious: this is an asymmetric class conflict with hand-workers and communities on one side, and multinational companies on the other. But I want to just emphasize that there are tools and forms of leverage available to workers and communities. I see that companies in every economic sector and governments are extremely concerned about disruptions to their supply chains, a concern that increased during the pandemic and again with the global economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This concern is even more marked and apparent in new technological sectors that are just getting off the ground and that really haven’t fully built their supply chains yet. The battery and electric vehicle sectors are a very good example of that. The good thing about this is that disruption can have more impact because governments and companies are so concerned about supply chain security. If they see a threat to that, whether it’s a protest or a strike, they might be quicker to come to the negotiating table and to try to meet community or worker demands. But there’s also a negative side, which is the increasing role of the state in ensuring supply chain security. And once you start to have the state trying to ensure that production continues, the state sometimes uses more repressive means against workers and communities to protect production and profits.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | Thinking about municipalist experiences like the one in Barcelona, what kinds of wholesome relationships do you think there can be between public power and movements?
THEA RIOFRANCOS | Radical municipal experiments, in Spain and other places, are the result of a mobilization at the scale of the city. This mobilization to some extent institutionalized into political forces that cultivated organic leaders as electoral candidates for city councils or mayoralties, candidates who in many cases make their way into government. But it’s almost there that the challenge begins. I’ve seen this very clearly in a different but parallel context with the pink tide of leftist governments in Latin America. One big initial challenge is getting in power against all odds, under conditions of oligarchy, global capitalism, and limited democracy. But the greatest challenge begins once you’re in power with the contradictions of a transitional program and the sort of tension you get between the local scale of governance and the global scale of capitalism. At the same time, these experiments also demonstrate the limitations of the urban scale, some of which can be mitigated, perhaps through transnational alliances of mayors and City Council members. But let me get into this a little bit more.
There are at least three things that I think are big positives for eco-socialist governance in cities. The first one is that this type of experiment often comes out of social movements and provides a more institutional and durable form to help them to continue to exist after the moment of protest has abated. There’s a risk in this institutionalization but entering government can provide continuity. The second advantage is the fiscal and policy tools available to the state that movements don’t have access to unless they’re installed in the halls of power. And the third, and most directly related to the green agenda, is the potential capacity to articulate the climate crisis with social equity. We know that, in cities, some of the biggest contributors to emissions are buildings. Everything about our energy system moves through buildings. When we have heating, electricity, and cooling, all of these are connected to our fossil fuel energy system. But, as I said, and as the work of my collaborator Daniel Aldana Cohen shows, you can totally change how buildings are built or retrofitted and modify how they produce and regulate the temperature or distribute electricity. Buildings are great targets for decarbonization and reunifying, distributing, and storing energy, and under the very same GND approach, you must increase equitable access to housing. Another big source of emissions is transportation and it’s clear that this depends on whether it’s regulated at a national or city level. If you can channel more people into mass transit, walking or cycling, if you can do what Barcelona or Paris are attempting to do and really reduce the number of cars, you can put a dent in emissions. With a big role for the public sector, you can reduce this localized pollution by pushing the concrete public health benefits of improving decarbonizing transportation and buildings.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | I suppose that some limits or risks must also be taken into account here, like the one you raised about the institutionalization of movements.
THEA RIOFRANCOS | The opportunities and limits are two sides of the same coin. You have movements that get into power and that’s a big benefit. But then there’s the trickiness of keeping the movement mobilized. You need to cultivate leaders from the grassroots in an ongoing manner so that you can run people in every city council race, every mayoral race, etc. You also need connections to the staff of the administrations of those mayors because they don’t act alone and need advisers and people connected to the movement that can act in their government. Movements should actively generate more leaders to populate these different government positions, but at the same time, you need an external presence to hold elected leaders accountable to movement demands. And sometimes that means holding elected officials to their word, but sometimes it entails defending them against conservative and reactionary forces to make sure that they have the political support to counter the financial interests of those other sectors, such as real estate or the utility industry, that are always going to be aligned against them. So, there are both offensive and defensive modes of mobilization, but you need them all because you have to assume that Ada Colau, or whoever, is going to be operating in a very hostile environment. And so, the tricky thing is, once you institutionalize a movement, you’ll run the risk of demobilization. So how do you continue to cultivate mobilization and movement energy once you’re in power? That’s a big challenge.
Another challenge relates to the mismatch between the scale of governance and the scale of investment. On one hand, there are all these local policies that can help decarbonize and make the city more equitable, but many of these policy areas involve national policy, and you need enough funding from this national scale to really embark on these changes. There’s also, as I said before, capital mobility and flight, and cities are really at risk when it comes to this. Whenever you regulate capital and this affects real estate capital interests, i.e., a localized Amazon warehouse, the threat is very acutely felt at the municipal level where there’s a big dependence on these sectors and firms for employment and tax revenue, etc. Cities literally compete against one another to attract these companies through public-private partnerships, often in joint ventures. And it’s hard for a city to take the high road with regulation, with ensuring public well-being, because they might risk losing private investment and new jobs, and this can also make the local municipal government less popular. I think that you can only protect these local governments from those risks through forms of people power.
But I guess I would say that, ultimately, local governments are not enough. Obviously, you need change at all scales, but in this case, the national one is more important for our purposes, because we need to ensure more equitable and similar regulations across different municipalities. This unevenness is part of what gives capital opportunities to fly to places where conditions are better for their profits. The big issue in a federal country like the US, but also in Spain, is that you need a more equitable distribution of financial resources to provinces, municipalities, to whatever the lower scale is, so that local governments have enough to work on, and are not dependent on sales taxes and those types of tax revenues that are actually pretty regressive and very dependent on private capital.
RUBÉN MARTÍNEZ | I have one last question about the moment we’re in, but with a broader focus. We see that a part of the status quo calls for a change in the current model. I’m thinking of the editorial in the Financial Times demanding a “reset of capitalism” and the need to implement, as they put it, “reforms to conserve.” At the same time, some progressive sectors demand changing the model, and, for this transition, non-reformist reforms are needed. So, here’s the dilemma: how can we be sure that these non-reformist reforms, which want to avoid greenwashing and a situation in which nothing changes, are not in fact reforms to conserve?
THEA RIOFRANCOS | Let me put it this way. In a passive revolution, pretty substantial reforms can be implemented, but at the same time, these changes conserve the power of the ruling class, usually through a form of modernization. The modernization that we’re witnessing today is part of the transition to green capitalism. I’m referring to this kind of technological innovation that has the goal of internalizing, to some degree, capital environmental costs, of making forms of environmental harm into news sites of accumulation. The idea is that, through some regulatory changes and the development of new markets, you can incentivize capital to invest in things that should help preserve the planet and obtain a modicum of social stability, by for example shifting from fossil fuel based infrastructures and technologies to those based on renewable energy. But this is a “modernization” that preserves the prevailing kind of class dynamic through powering private capital as the main investor which also continues exploiting workers and nature.
Conversely, maybe we’re witnessing non-reformist or structural reforms, with movements demanding achievable but strategic changes to the status quo. If this is a non-reformist dynamic, then the next step is that this victory will empower movements to be even more militant and push for more radical changes. The point is that the same reform could serve either function: to maintain ruling class power or to empower working class militancy. For example, you can invest in green social housing which is affordable to poor working-class people and this green investment also helps stabilize capitalism and decarbonize to some extent. The demands of movements and of capital are addressed, and the working class is no longer mobilizing around the housing issue because their demands have been met. But also, it could occur that mobilization continues for more housing, or for housing managed by the tenants themselves, or with better labor conditions for the workers who build them, etc. And I think that you really can’t know which way it’s going to go in the abstract. You can only answer that question by looking at the process through which the change came about and, depending on this, the same reform can have either stabilizing or emancipatory implications.
Maybe it was a preemptive technocratic move on the part of the state or capital to guard against the possibility of more disruptive social action. Or maybe it was the result of movement tactics that forced the government with external pressure or through a combination involving having allies in the government. If the latter is the case, social movements can look at that as a victory and be empowered, seeing the connection between collective action, political agency, and material improvements. That can catapult movements to an escalated level of political consciousness and radicalize their own demands. And we also can see mixed paths. A reform can have a provisionally stabilizing effect, but maybe, in the medium term, it went under the radar because there’s some political development among the working class or some other subaltern political subjects. And in the next round, they’re stronger. Conversely, sometimes something looks like a movement victory, but they end up demobilizing. These dual and mixed possibilities are always there in almost any type of reform, but so much hinges on the political process through which the reform came about.