A much shorter, modified version of this interview appears in The Progressive Magazine
When I first read about tens of thousands of students across Australia going on a #ClimateStrike, I immediately thought of someone who apparently has never traveled “Down Under,” but who was the first person I ever heard talking about the idea of a “Climate Strike.” When establishment media began to cover the Green New Deal, I thought “there’s a backstory here that should be widely shared.” I know I’m not the only one who saw these two seemingly independent developments and thought of Ben Manski.
Movements don’t just happen, they are made because of the actions of people. More pointedly, movements usually happen because deep thinkers and strategists like Manski have been laying the groundwork. That is definitely the case with both the Climate Strike -and- the Green New Deal. It’s also been the case with other political happenings that seem inevitable to many today, but which years ago seemed so radical as to be deemed “impossible” according to conventional wisdom at the time. Manski uses an approach that has put him ahead of the curve time and time again, so much so that some folks in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin took to calling him “The Manski with The Planski.” I interviewed Manski in the days leading up to March 15th’s climate strikes.
Cobb: The Green New Deal and the Climate Strike are in the news right now. What are they and what is the context these ideas come from?
Manski: The Green New Deal is a plan to transform the global economy by replacing a system that produces climate disaster and wars for oil with one that is climate safe and truly renewable, that provides rewarding labor for all, and that is accountable to and democratically managed by working people. There are different versions of the Green New Deal, of course, and there are versions for particular countries and regions, but all of them share at least some aspects of this program.
The Climate Strike is just that: A withdrawal of participation from business as usual, with the goal of hastening the transition to a new economy.
The leading forces behind the Green New Deal, at the moment, are gathered through the leadership of the Sunrise Movement and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The current leadership for the Climate Strike has come from hundreds of thousands of young people in Australia and Europe the world who have actually done it and will be doing it here in the U.S. and around the world on March 15: Gone out on strike, shut down schools, closed roads, and forced the agenda articulated in the Green New Deal into the center of politics.
Cobb: That’s clear and succinct. It introduces what is happening now. But let’s assume our readers know a bit about the Green New Deal already. Where did it come from?
Manski: Well, I can speak to that from personal experience and also, to some extent, as an observer. Let’s start with the Climate Strike. In 2014, I authored with Jill Stein “The Global Climate Strike: Why We Can’t Wait.” In that essay we argued the necessity of a true global strike that “stops the economic and political systems responsible for the climate crisis.” In the following years, through the Global Climate Convergence and other networks, and in particular through annual “Earth Day to May Day”mobilizations every April 22nd through May 1st, we propagated the idea of the Climate Strike as a means for achieving the Global Climate Convergence’s agenda for climate democracy. Notably, Australians took these ideas most seriously, and a number of campaigns were built by young people there as well as in Europe, with Greta Thunberg becoming a leading spokesperson for the wave. It’s exciting to see. But of course, there’s also a lot more work that needs to be done to bring together the kind of global strike committees of labor unions, farmers and peasants, indigenous communities, professional associations, and young people’s organizations necessary to actually force a transition to a new economy.
Cobb: Do you have a plan for that?
Manski: Yes, there is a plan for that. All that’s lacking are the resources.
Cobb: By resources, do you mean just money?
Manski: Mostly, yes. In the 1970s and 1980s it was still possible to live on very little, work part time, and volunteer full time. I remember those days, but they are long gone. Generations X, Y, and Millennials are the most indebted generations in U.S. history. We need more organizers, and organizers need food, shelter, and a future, just like everyone else. Let’s pause on this; could we come back to this question further on, if that’s ok with you?
Cobb: You bet. Well, that’s the Climate Strike. What about the Green New Deal?
Manski: Let’s begin not only by recognizing the current leadership of the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but also by acknowledging the historic leadership going back into at least the 1970s that has made the Green New Deal a thing to be talked about. I see Green New Deal as being rooted originally in the efforts of labor and community organizers in the 1970s to develop an ecological program for their unions and organizations. The goal then was to get beyond what Richard Grossman and Richard Kazis called “Fear at Work,” in which working people and vulnerable communities are blackmailed by major corporations into accepting the poisoning of ourselves and our environment so that we can afford to eat and pay for shelter and other necessities. Gar Alperovitz, among others, has been a leading thinker and doer in this area since the 1970s. The idea was to build a program for transitioning to an ecological economy that provided rewarding sustenance for all: Sound familiar?
Cobb: It sure does. But there was more to it than that, wasn’t there?
Manski: Yes. The roots of today’s movements to overcome corporate power and to democratize elections, education, workplaces, security, law, you name it - those also go back to the late 1970s and to some of the same lessons that activists of that period had learned. But to focus on the Green New Deal for the moment, the important thing to recognize is that the labor/environment, blue/green, and later red/green politics never went away. They kept developing. The 1990s gave rise not only the rise of the environmental justice movement, but also that movement’s development of a series of programs for economic transition and community sovereignty; for instance, the work of Winona LaDuke and the White Earth Land Recovery Project in leading the way on converting to renewable energy. The 1990s also produced a series of key labor union-environmental group alliances to take on major corporations, NAFTA, the MAI, and the World Trade Organization. Judi Bari -the Earth First! IWW organizer﹘ was an inspirational leader in those efforts, and there were others. By the 2000s those efforts were becoming mainstream through big, well funded projects like the Apollo Alliance and eventually, the brief Green Jobs for All program of the early Obama administration (largely abandoned by Obama, let’s not forget, in the face of attacks by the Chamber of Commerce).
Cobb: Wait, where’s [the New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman in all of this?
Manski: (laughing) Thomas who? I’m joking. I’m sure he’s had a role in convincing some elites to get involved. But his role in all of this is significantly overplayed.
Cobb: Tell me about your role in the Green New Deal.
Manski: My central role was as the Green Party’s presidential campaign manager from 2011-2013. I was part of some of the earlier history as well. And it’s critical to acknowledge that from the 1990s into late 2000s the Greens of Germany, England, Wales, and Scotland, and then Europe, led the adoption of a Green New Deal agenda by the international alliance of Green Parties called the Global Greens. But here in the U.S., it was with Jill Stein’s presidential campaign in 2012 that we really put the Green New Deal on the national map for the first time.
We were the only presidential ticket in 2012 that ran a truly national television campaign, with ads about the Green New Deal appearing on screens across the country. We ran a major social media ad-buy around the Green New Deal as well (major for us, at least, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars). We estimate that we put the central message of that campaign - “A Green New Deal for America” - into at least 50 million households with some truly creative (and award-winning) advertizing. And it wasn’t just a slogan replete with a 1930s WPA-style bald eagle and sunflower logo on buttons and memes and t-shirts, it also was a substantive and detailed printed program, a 70 minute opening video address that Jill Stein gave in English and Spanish, and the subject of just about every media interview that Jill Stein, Cheri Honkala, and campaign staff ever gave.
Putting the Green New Deal on the national map was one of three central goals of the 2012 campaign ﹘ the other two were putting the Green Party back on its feet, and then, of course a long shot, winning the election. I made that clear whenever I was asked by reporters about our goals. A look at Google trends shows that the highest number of searches for “Green New Deal” prior to 2018 were briefly in January of 2009 (when Obama was inaugurated), the second half of 2012 (when Jill Stein first ran for president), and then in November of 2016 (when she ran a second time). So I am more than happy that the Green New Deal has entered the mainstream, and I appreciate the leadership of Sunrise in moving it forward. I also think this goes to show that despite all the obstacles independent parties face in this country, and the problems they usually internalize as a result, it is possible for a party like the Greens to platform a radical policy agenda, popularize it, and create an outside pressure - a demand - for change.
Cobb: “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” right?
Manski: Happy 200th birthday and a salute to Frederick Douglass.
Cobb: A recent article in the New Republic is entitled, “The Democrats Stole the Green Party’s Best Idea.” So, did they steal it? Can they steal it? Is this a win, a loss, what does this mean?
Manski: The important question is not who came up with this idea. If it was, the answer to whose idea it was would be simple: Working and poor people’s movements dealing with the problems of capitalism came up with this idea. The question related to that question that really matters is about the combination of conditions - the cultures, structures, individuals, events, etc - that produced the Green New Deal program. Ideas and politics come out of thoughtful practice, also known as “praxis.” If we think an idea has merit, we should pay attention to where it came from because it may be that in doing so we’ll learn a great deal more about that idea, its applications, its shortcomings, and also about what other good ideas might be there just waiting to get put into practice. In learning about how contemporary movements were built we can make some good guesses about where those movements might go and also make some decisions about what should be done. So yes, it matters that the people who developed this idea in the 1970s-1990s period, nearly all of them, were involved in some way with the Greens. And it matters that the U.S. Greens picked this idea up in 2010, thanks to the leadership of Howie Hawkins and Marnie Glickman and others, and then made it more substantive and also much more widely known in 2012 and 2016. That all should matter to people wanting to know where to put resources. But what matters much more is what could happen next. And I’d say that by analyzing the movement building process that produced the current Green New Deal moment - doing what I call a “movement building analysis” - we can identify particular elements that are available to activists today, as well as note what might be missing.
Cobb: What are some of those things?
Manski: That’s a book. But off the top of my head? Let’s begin with the alliances from below that built the politics of the Green New Deal and that have been built around it. The primary alliances are those between the environmental justice movement, the renewable energy sector, sections of organized labor - particularly the Steelworkers, student and youth mobilizations around climate change, and then, to a lesser extent, progressive cities, cooperatives, and localities and family farm and organic organizers. That’s the alliance from below. It should be built upon, and all those organizational, sectoral, and movement elements need to be energized and not left behind.
Cobb: Has that happened? What do you mean by “left behind?”
Manski: There’s a tendency for people coming in fresh to a situation to not take stock and to fail to recognize, as a result, the full breadth of what’s present. So in the case of the Green New Deal, it has been my experience that, for instance, some of the climate justice organizers I’ve worked with had little to no prior experience with the labor movement - or worse, negative experiences - and therefore failed to activate lines of solidarity that were just waiting to be activated. Similarly, I rarely see urban activists even mention farmers in talking about the Green New Deal, but farmer and rural organizers have been leaders in this area and they need to be at the table.
Cobb: You describe an “alliance from below.” What about the elites in this movement?
Manski: We’re on the same page. Or that’s the next page, the next point. Another available element that exists around the Green New Deal is that it is a policy package on which the movements from below and certain movements from above have reached some agreement. The movements from above, in this case, involve sectors of technology, insurance, and finance capital, as well as elements of the security and administrative states. They are active and they are a part of the picture, and to the extent that the Green New Deal operates as a restructuring program for surviving climate catastrophe, there can and will be a meeting of the minds on particular initiatives: For instance, a rapid transition to wind and solar energy and a major reconstruction of energy transmission and storage systems.
Let me quickly inventory a set of other elements present at the moment. Available to those moving the Green New Deal are multiple generations of activists and policy people experienced with the politics specific to this agenda; a tactical repertoire that prominently includes affinity group-based direct actions at offices, mass marches, online mobilizations, and the growing use of stoppages through climate strikes; movement networks that are truly global, explicit, and overlapping with various fair trade, antiracist, antifascist, peace, pro-democracy, indigenous, youth, labor, revolutionary left, and of course, ecological networks; and finally, a master collective action frame of the Green New Deal.
That last element - the Green New Deal frame - encompasses a series of overlapping frames that are in tension with one another. There is one Green New Deal and there are three Green New Deals: The green one, the progressive one, and the liberal one. Many people have already articulated differences between these. The green version is not only more urgent - demanding more on every front with programs for full employment, a ten year conversion, and so on, but it’s also focused on power: on democratizing production and exchange and on ending the war machine, which itself is one of the major drivers of climate change. The progressive frame excludes the politics around militarism and war and is less systemic in its approach to democratization: There’s a little talk about cooperatives, but it’s not a wholesale democratization of the economy. The liberal frame is technocratic, deals hardly at all with employment and poverty, and is focused pretty much entirely on a technological shift.
Cobb: Where do you see AOC in this?
Manski: Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is clearly articulating a progressive frame for the Green New Deal. And let’s be clear: All three frames encompass policies that, if implemented, would mean system change. Even the liberal approach would, if actualized, mean the end of a sector that has dominated global capitalism for the past century. That matters. Carbon capitalism is a mode of production that produces very reactionary politics, patriarchal social relations, and episodic state violence, as well as, possibly, the end of our world. Even a liberal GND would mean that some other form of capitalism had become dominant.
Cobb: I don’t know whether to boo, cheer, pray, or what.
Manski: Well luckily it’s not just up to liberals. I don’t think the ambitions of progressives or of moderate socialists are limited to a kinder gentler form of high road capitalism. And greens and ecosocialists and millions of young people are certainly committed to a post-capitalist, and better, world. For myself, I think those moving the progressive version of the Green New Deal would do best to find the many areas in which they share a common subframe with greens and the Greens. Rather than pretend that the Greens aren’t a part of this story (and that has been going on), they should think about the role that the Greens can play in the story. Similarly, for Greens and the movement streams they roll with, there is a need to recognize that the Green New Deal is at once system changing and also a compromise from the beginning to end. I mean, I don’t know about you, but for me, a good society is not one in which some people own other people’s labor or own other living beings. Even the Green Party’s Green New Deal doesn’t address those questions, or address them sufficiently. So it’s a compromise, and greens need to own up to the fact that it is a compromise that we proposed and put on the table. Let’s stop complaining about being out-led, and fight for the best version we can get. We made this opportunity: Let’s opportunize!
Having said that, I should also be more charitable to both progressives and greens. Another element present is that those moving the liberal frame have many more resources than those moving the progressive frame. And those of us moving the green frame - Green Party, ecosocialist, and otherwise - well, we’re the least resourced of all. Those who have resources and like what they are seeing should take note and invest in the seed corn, invest in germinating the next big ideas.
Finally, there is at least one more critical element here. The other side - the anti-Green New Deal coalition. That coalition is based in the fossil fuel sector, of course, but it also has other players it has enlisted. Know your opponents.
Cobb: I’ll take that analysis to the bank! Now, I know you called what you just shared with me a “movement building analysis.” What do you mean by that?
Manski: I mean that by studying the process through which activists build movements, it’s possible to identify what’s available to history at a particular moment in time. All too often people see something big happening and make a very quick assessment based on what they can see at that moment. And those assessments are usually not very reliable. Journalists - because of the timescale of their work - are usually the worst culprits, producing all kinds of claptrap about spontaneous protests, a small set of movement leaders, a supposed lack of clear movement demands, etc.. What’s worse, is many people who join these mobilizations get a lot of their first impressions from the media, and they internalize this nonsense. Even social movement scholars sometimes internalize this nonsense. A different approach to explaining movements looks at the movement building process over time, and seeks knowledge from those who build movements about the resources, frames, networks, structures, tactics, strategies that were produced over longer periods of time, on particular terrains, and through the rising waves and abeyant times that characterize every movement. By doing that we learn all kinds of things that are not visible to us when we just take a snapshot at a particular moment and reach immediate conclusions.
Cobb: I know you talk often about what you call “the myth of the spontaneous uprising.”
Manski: Yes, as an activist involved in building up to and through the Seattle WTO protests, the Ohio Recount, the anti-war movement of 2001-2008, the mass backlash against Citizens United, and particularly the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011, that phrase has long rankled me. And not just me. I think you know a thing or two about most of those, yourself, to make an understatement. And on this note, one major mobilization that particularly influenced me was the youth-led anti-austerity and pro-education actions in Italy in 2008. A prominent media figure in Italy described those actions as an anomalous wave; the activists ridiculed that idea by taking on the name “Anomalous Wave” themselves to describe their uprising. They created a leader, a Max Headroom-like meme figure they named “Anna Adamolo.” She became a face of that movement. And they became one of the models for the Wisconsin Wave.
As an academic these days, I’ve turned the activist focus on movement building into a source of scholarship. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day, but anyone who is interested can read more at my website, BenManski.com.
Cobb: A lot of people believe we are in a historic moment from which there is no going back. In other words, a conjuncture from which there is no “going back.” Do you agree that the terrain is shifting so radically that history is shifting gears to a place from which there is no going back? Are we in that type of “new moment?”
Manski: There are so many forces in motion right now, such major systemic shifts in play. How could that not be the case? Technological developments - from distributed ledger technologies (like Blockchain and Holochain) to quantum computing - are beginning to disrupt, transform, and replace the means of work, communications, and exchange, none of which, mind you, have stabilized in the least since the last technological revolutions of the 1990s-2000s. Climate catastrophes are now a regular feature of global life. Global supply chains crisscross the world, and we’re all bound up in them. The racial structures of the United States and throughout the global north are undergoing profound demographic, economic, and political-cultural changes. The role of the United States in the world system remains hegemonic, but it’s a tenuous hegemony increasingly contested by China. For movements here in the United States, this all means that we can have particular expectations for the next decade. I think most activists I know expect conditions of precarity and indebtedness to widen, and for the few remaining employment sectors that have demonstrated some stability to lose that stability.
I think most of us expect the politics of resentment - of white supremacy and misogyny and xenophobia - to remain a terrible force in U.S. culture in the near term - until it is defeated not just politically and culturally but also economically.
I think many of us are beginning to see a sunrise coming over the horizon: A series of great possibilities that are becoming more probable, including the possibility of genuine democracy as direct democratic governance and exchange become evermore technologically viable at scale and as expectations for democracy rise and are raised up. In the 1990s you and I and a relatively small network of activists were talking about the need for a democracy movement in the U.S., and began working to build that idea and the practices that go with it. Today there are many pro-democracy initiatives underway and the frame of “democracy movement” is much more commonplace.
And yet we - nearly all of us, I think - see major disasters coming sooner rather than later. We know there will be more climate disasters in the coming year, and years. We know the global financial system is nearing its next major, quote, “correction” . . . a correction in which again tens of millions lose their jobs, their savings, their homes, and all the things that we rely on that flow from those: health care and personal health, our families and support networks, and so much more. The last major economic crash hit hardest in 2008-2009, and yet it was two years before there was a major popular response in the United States. It should not have taken the Wisconsin Uprising to get the protest wave of 2011 going in the United States.
Which leads me to another point. In addition to the external conditions that we can predict will shape our years to come, we can pay close attention to the internal elements of the movements of which we are a part, and which so many of us have been building together. As you and I have just discussed, on the terrain of climate, those movement elements include the Green New Deal as a policy package, the climate strikes as part of our tactical repertoire, the collective action frames of climate justice and climate democracy and generational justice, and a great deal else. And that’s just climate. That’s not the only terrain.
We need to be asking ourselves: What are the major terrains through which our allied movements have been engaged these past 10 to 15 years? What have our movements produced on those terrains: What resources, activists and leadership networks, cultural knowhow are available from those struggles? And then, the final strategic question, which is that of how we can bring those elements effectively into play - as well as how can we develop missing elements that we expect may be needed - in not only countering future threats but also in making the most of the opportunities we expect to become available to us in the years ahead?