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The government’s inadequate climate policy presents an opportunity for Die Linke



Mario Candeias,

Demonstrators strike for radical change in climate policy, climate protection, compliance with the 1.5 degree target and exit from coal policy in March 2022 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: IMAGO / IPON

Die Linke faces a necessary decision: does it want to position itself as a social-conservative party, defensive against neoliberal deterioration and the consequences of ecological — and social — modernization, or does it want to be a vital social-ecological force with a socialist perspective, i.e. a party of the future?

Mario Candeias is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis in Berlin.

The socio-economic line of conflict — market vs. welfare state/redistribution — still exists. The so-called “culture wars” over social modernization that occur between progressive-liberal and conservative-authoritarian camps continue to be virulent. But one conflict stands out: the battle of an ecological modernization project vs. a project to defend — sometimes aggressively — a fossil-based mode of production and life.

Across these lines, a debate over the future orientation of foreign and security policy is now emerging with new strength and explosive potential: what lies ahead is a decision over whether a rearmament project and new global bloc confrontation with Russia and China or a new global and European security architecture based on a post-fossil and more a just — global — economy are solutions to contemporary crises.

Political forces and parties in Germany are rearranging themselves along these lines, which run through all parties. Yet, no new hegemony has emerged, and we are witnessing struggles over the re-composition of the power bloc. All projects that seek to position themselves as hegemonic — including forces willing to participate in future governments such as the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) — must adopt a position on the issue of the long-term ecological crisis. They must propose and pursue appropriate transformation strategies, or will have to deal with occupying subordinate positions within the power bloc and becoming marginalized entirely.

Whose Transition?

This development has strategic implications for the German socialist party, Die Linke. The party has to decide whether to position itself as a social-conservative party on the defensive against ongoing neoliberal cuts to the social welfare system — as in the days of the Agenda 2010 reforms — and against the consequences of ecological and social modernization, or to position itself as a future-oriented, social-ecological force with a socialist perspective, as a party of the future — defending the survival and liberation of all oppressed classes — and therefore, humanity as a whole.

Excluding non-voters, Die Linke lost most of its voters to the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. The actual government — composed of those parties and the Free Democrats (FDP) as a third partner — will certainly take more far-reaching measures to protect the climate than all of its predecessors. Therefore, the importance of debates and political struggles in this field will increase in the coming era, as will social tensions during this transformation.

It is obvious that the tempo of restructuring on the part of the government is increasing drastically, and also that it urgently has to increase to meet the devastating consequences of global warming. The process of re-configuring is even taking on a new quality — even if militarization is slowing down this process at the moment. The requirements for reducing greenhouse gases from the EU and German climate protection law make a tripling of the pace of CO2 savings necessary, as well as the expansion of renewable energies. The end of the combustion engine has been decided: the entire mobility industry has to convert to a climate-neutral mode of operating, and the scope of the necessary ecological redevelopment of buildings and cities is stunning.

Within the capitalist system, we are no longer dealing with some adjustments but rather a leap of faith with, in many respects, no certain outcome — a leap that will change the system as a whole. It is not just technological, economic, and social inertia that will create enormous areas of tension and conflict. In addition to classic points of contention such as who will bear the costs, or what dangers of social displacement or shifting of the problem — possibly abroad, such as in the case of hydrogen imports — are to be expected, questions of acceptance, such as with wind power expansion or bidding farewell to individual fossil-powered modes of transport, are raising their heads in previously unknown dimensions.

At the same time, the Climate Protection Act lays out annual CO2 reduction targets for the period from 2020 to 2030 for six sectors: energy, industry, transport, buildings, agriculture, and waste management. For the first time, it could become evident that environmentally friendly growth is impossible, as the necessary savings in greenhouse gas quantities cannot be achieved with it. Already now, doubts are increasing about whether the prevailing profit-oriented system will be able to provide social security for the period of necessary change in this country, and to shape it in a globally fair way.

It is to be expected that the German government — not only thanks to the (neo)liberal FDP acting as “guardian” against excessive burdens on the economy, against too much climate protection or too much welfare — will fall far short of what is required to meet the upcoming social challenges. This will produce a lot of disappointment, and it already is.

Since climate policies should not damage the fossil fuel economy too much, all transformative climate measures will remain rather moderate. This is likely to particularly annoy many Green voters. Moreover, we can doubt whether the SPD will be able to position itself as a guarantor of a socially fair transition to a green capitalism, exceeding the gestural reform of the minimum wage. So far, the so-called “citizen income” promoted by the SPD has only been a verbiage of ideological character, motivated by public perception that the Hartz IV system is outdated. The SPD is not advocating for freedom from sanctions or a significantly higher level payment, despite the high and rising price of energy and food forcing the government to raise social compensation payments. These payments remain, however, far below rising consumer costs.

Higher pension levels, a rent moratorium, a re-regulation of work, a citizen insurance for everybody — including high-income households that would bring more money into the social security system — are all central political projects that the SPD and also the Greens wanted to implement in this government. They have all been postponed. The right-wing conservative camp, sometimes aggressively defending fossilist visions, is additionally stabilizing the government’s course. The CDU is still searching for its role within this context: in order to keep the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in check, it has to take on its profile on the right and clearly present itself as the leading force of the opposition.

Waves of layoffs in the automotive and third-party supplier industries also speak to a serious social-ecological course being taken. And currently, Russia’s aggressive war in the Ukraine not only leads to great human suffering and intensified geopolitical confrontations, but also causes a massive rearmament and a dangerous rollback when it comes to energy policies, promoting fracking, gas, coal, and even nuclear power in Germany and Europe.

Taking stock, the German government’s climate policy will have a negative distributional effect and still fall far short of what is necessary in terms of climate policy. Some social compensation measures will probably be taken, but there will be no slowdown let alone reversal of the increasing inequality in society, which has accelerated during the pandemic and from rising energy prices due to the war.

Another sticking point for the transformation is the question of financing. Massive investments for ecological transformation and a reconstruction of a resilient social and material infrastructure are needed, to finance sectors from the health and educational system to energy supply and public transport. The costs of the pandemic and of the necessary investment in new infrastructure cannot be financed if the administration still refrains from indebting itself, sticking to the so-called “debt brake”, without shadow budgets for public companies and institutions, and above all without redistribution.

Therefore, intensified struggles over distribution, the role of the state and public ownership lie ahead because a radical social-ecological transformation requires not only a resolute funding policy, but also strong regulations and a much larger role for entities like the public sector, public property, public companies, and other non-profit economic forms. This is also necessary in order to accelerate the transformation instead of waiting for the market to regulate it. Moreover, an acceleration is not possible without high levels of political participation and much more economic democracy.

A Social and/or Ecological Left

In this respect, the coalition government of SPD, Greens, and FDP is certainly not the best solution for the diverse social and ecological problems of this society. However, it offers an opportunity for Die Linke. This is a paradox and must not be understood as comforting after Die Linke’s dramatically poor election results. Rather, it is a sobering description of the opportunity: there is a lot of opportunity for the only opposition party to the left of the government, if only it knew how to make use of its chance. There is no room for automatism in this.

In order to exploit its chance, Die Linke has to solve its own problems and address internal contradictions, so that it can win back credibility and act effectively. The face of the party has been shaped by intra-party conflicts and power struggles, which the media keenly took up and intensified. This is especially true with regard to the way the party dealt with ecological questions.

For the party’s majority, social and ecological issues are inextricably intertwined, which also becomes visible in surveys of Die Linke voters — and this creates an important difference when compared with Green party voters, for example. However, an assertive minority in Die Linke accuses the party of just following the path of the Greens with its radical ecological programme, claiming that this is a distraction from the core topic of social issues. Because of these ongoing disputes, the party appears undecided or even divided on this central point.

Besides, Die Linke is the only party represented in the German parliament that supports the 1.5-degree target with a concrete programme, which is understood by representatives of relevant environmental associations and the climate movement, including Fridays for Future. However, as leading representatives of the party and above all of the parliamentary group(s) repeatedly question this stance in the media — if Die Linke is represented in the media at all — a lack of credibility is the result.

Way before the last election, we warned that the party would not be able to attract significant numbers of Green voters and, at the same time, ran the risk of losing a large proportion of its own voters to the Greens. Unfortunately, this occurred. With its ambiguous polyphony, the party scared off and unsettled many voters and activists. This was particularly important in a so-called “climate election” — a common expression in the media during the election campaign — especially since the SPD appeared to have a stronger social profile and had good chances of seeing their candidate become chancellor. In specific constellations like this, it is difficult to influence the tactical behaviour of voters. This again reveals that having the right programme does not serve Die Linke if the party cannot credibly represent it to the public due to ongoing internal frictions.

So, how do we deal with social contradictions? Naturally, they also run through the party and the different strands of the left-wing movement. How can we take them up and not reproduce them, or resolve them in a one-sided manner, without a dividing effect? How can we find ways of working on them in a progressive and forward-looking way? In this context, realignment of the party means building a strategic centre, including the party leadership as well as parliamentary group leadership — a strategic centre that reliably stands for a different approach to contradictions, defining a common path for exchanging different views and resolving conflicts. We do not need party discipline without debate, but also need to lessen the cacophony of dissonant voices.

To this end, we need to be more specific, as we are facing a challenge: people long for change, but at the same time are overwhelmed by the manifold crises they experience. A great many of people are afraid of the transformations ahead — which turned out to be of disadvantage for us during the last election. Our ideas for far-reaching transformation often seem too out of reach, calling to mind the phrase “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

On top of this, these visions also unsettle many of those whom we want to address: how is all this supposed to work? Calls from the Left for limiting consumption are issued without taking class differences into account, adding to existing fears and estranging voters. This does not mean that we have to weaken our positions. Rather, we should combine our demand for a far-reaching transformation of the prevailing modes of production and living with comprehensive and concrete promises of security. Without a promise of security, a significant part of the population may within a short time drift to the right (see COVID-19), into the fossilist and anti-progressive camp.

Moreover, we must not only argue with the urgency of ecological conversion and draw up negative or apocalyptic scenarios of the future. Unfortunately, prevalent catastrophism is quite justified. It mobilizes the youth, but it also paralyzes large sections of the population, not least in the working classes, which are central to the Left. We all need the pressure of Fridays for Future, it’s great, otherwise we wouldn't make any progress at all. However, in the end, as a party, we need strong positive images and stories of what can be won.

Above all, the social-ecological aspect of the necessary transformation must be spelled out as a social question of the twenty-first century, as it is this that describes the core of left-wing politics more accurately than “climate policy” or “global climate justice”. Here, we should not be just defensive, for example suggesting that we must avoid burdening those with small incomes. Rather, we should argue from a more progressive and bright perspective. This is what we have to win with the transformation and create more meaningful employment, more free time, more social security, and cities and landscapes worth living in.

Finally, the lower social classes and groups are most affected by both the consequences of climate change and the consequences of ecological modernization — under a greenish capitalist prefix. To help build alliances, we have to succeed in breaking down the — false — contradictions between ecology and employment, and between climate protection and social progress.

The social-ecological approach is able to connect such different “milieus” as industrial workers, those employed in local transport, or the young activists of Fridays for Future — by the way, Die Linke has lost voters in all these groups. Die Linke must connect these groups for a social and ecological class politics and a new social welfare model that is against corporations, but in line with both the worker and environmental movement. This orientation has to be worked out clearly — conceptually as well as in practice. In light of the coming transformation and upheaval, this pathway would correspond better to the new era. We have to make sure that people can imagine what their life could look like after such a transformation, as an imagination of a positive future. This imagination is also worth getting across on the ballot.

Social-Ecological System Change

Die Linke has already developed convincing concepts, such as the “left-wing Green New Deal” primarily developed by Bernd Riexinger and his team. To avoid misunderstandings: the central point here is not the term. This term was chosen for its compatibility with international debates, for example the discourse led by Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and, at that time, Jeremy Corbyn. A broad international debate developed around this term. At the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, we have always used the terms “social-ecological transformation “or “green socialism”. These terms make sense conceptually, but they are less suitable for the purposes of propaganda and as general slogans.

So far, our party compromised over a “social-ecological system change”, which connects to the social-ecological transformation and the system change of Fridays for Future and other activist groups. Moreover, it suggests a socialist perspective. We have to decide which term makes sense depending on the target group. Every term requires explanation, as long as the broad social Left does not come up with a better slogan.

Briefly put, the Green New Deal has the following priorities: 1) Expansion of social infrastructure as the core of a renewed welfare state or a future “infrastructure socialism”; 2) Social-ecological restructuring of industry — which does not only mean decarbonization but asks the key questions about what we want to produce; 3) An investment plan for the next ten to 15 years and corresponding financing, involving the wealthy and capital paying for the costs of common goods more than nowadays; 4) A More Keynes, meaning the socialization of both the investment and the innovation function.

An ecological class politics around these focal points combines radical measures to contain the ecological crises on equal terms with social and employment issues. The latter is of high importance because an enormous amount of labour is required for a social-ecological transformation, both concerning ​​​​alternative industrial production and the expansion of social infrastructures with a revaluation of the so-called “systemically relevant” workers like nurses, cashiers, bus drivers, etc.

If we think it through this in a logical way, ecology and employment are not opposites. With a reduction of weekly working time to a “short full-time for everyone” — between 28 and 30 hours per week — the necessary work can be distributed more evenly among people. This includes wage labour as well as socially necessary care work, but also time for leisure and social commitments (see, for example, Frigga Haug’s “4 in 1 perspective”).

Such a perspective needs to be defined specifically in every single field, for example for the transformation of mobility. In order to achieve the climate goals, a shift away from motorized individual transport and towards the environmental network of rail, public transport, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic is needed. The necessary increase in passenger numbers would multiply these by a factor of 2.5 — thus, not only creating a need for many more train drivers and bus drivers, but also more trams, electric buses, regional trains, and other forms of public transport. We have calculated the potential this would have for employment: A conversion towards such an alternative production would create up to 314,000 additional — industrial — jobs. And the potential would be even higher if a “short full-time for everyone” approach is taken up: here, we’re talking about a total potential of up to 436,500 new jobs.

However, the car corporations will not comply with this transformation if not compelled. They’re happy to continue flogging a dead horse, or in other words: as long as the invested capital yields high profits. So, the struggle for such a transformation has to be undertaken against the corporations and side-by-side with the workers. Moreover we have to bring up the questions of ownership.

In general, an ecological class policy needs clear antagonists, as the campaign “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co” demonstrated. Concerning the matter of mobility, questions of who will pay for the expansion of public transport arise. At present, the federal government is providing additional funding, but it is not sufficient. The expansion of public transport needs stable financing, and a “third pillar” adding to those of ticket revenue. Additional funding such as municipal subsidies to cover the costs of the expansion of public transport, for example by introducing a fee for companies, or contributions of beneficiaries, or specific taxes (such as in Bremen and Berlin) instead of a toll for everyone or only by increasing the price of parking spaces is necessary. The latter would lead to a social imbalance during transition.

A study by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation explores what such funding could look like. If mass transit is increased in such a way that it reduces car traffic, it would lead to more environmental justice, as lower-income groups and poor working-class segments of society, often migrant and female, and those in the Global South whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change are most affected by urban pollution. At the same time, an expansion of public transport would ensure more social justice because it is precisely the poorer sections of the population that are most dependent on public transport, as they cannot afford cars.

The point of ecological class politics is to develop new alliances to create a common practice or, as the Fridays for Future authors’ collective Climate.Labour.Turn put it: “Ecological class politics means accumulating the power resources of diverse movements and unions, in order to fight together for social change.”

We’re Too Late, So Now What?          

So, this could work — or, let’s say, this is how we might start a conversation. However, left-wing concepts for avoiding climate change are immediately confronted with some strategic problems.

Disregarding the insufficient policy of the new German government or the difficult global situation, let’s imagine we could start implementing the Green New Deal tomorrow. The first problem is that the resources necessary for such a transformation, such as lithium, nickel, copper, and rare minerals will not be available in the necessary amounts. The expansion of wind and solar energy or hydrogen technologies will also hardly be able to keep up with demand.

Due to competition for the use of resources and energy for an ecological conversion, not everything is possible at the same time — even for the Left’s Green New Deal. The consumption of raw materials when constructing and using wind power, photovoltaics, or electromobility is comparatively low. However, the use of raw materials in other production areas, for example in the automotive and construction sectors, would have to be immediately drastically reduced in order to compensate for the expansion of the green energy sector. This competition over the use of materials forces us to instantly ask questions about what we can and what we should produce.

The second problem is that we are already too late. The target to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees can no longer be reached. Even if we were to tackle all the necessary changes immediately, this target is no longer reachable. Laying the foundations for doubling the amount of public transport or more, or spurring on the climate-neutral conversion of industry — including doubling of net electricity supply and the output of wind power and photovoltaics — is hardly feasible in ten or 15 years. Maybe it could be done by 2040, but this is not in time for the 1.5-degree target.

That means, as leftists, we have to talk much more about adapting to climate change and initiate a discussions about Left perspectives on the problems ahead, as we tried to do in the new issue of LuXemburg. This stands out as necessary for building resilient structures, or dismantling others, so that we can drastically reduce consumption — not only with the help of decarbonization, but simply by consuming less energy and less material goods.

The question of class politics arises as well as we ask questions about who has to adapt, and how. For example, we should urgently develop our own ideas on the question of what we can do to prevent overheating in cities. The heat problem will have its greatest effects in the concrete fortresses of the disadvantaged districts and will mainly affect people whose housing situations are constricted and who already live under bad climatic conditions. We need to ask how we can get the problem of overheating under control without crowding people out because of the gentrification following the ecological renovation of buildings, or when measures such as car free zones and the greening of urban spaces become necessary.

Another example of environmental degradation in urban spaces is the problem of flood plains, which has just gained public attention. The opposite of flooding, increasing droughts and water shortages, is also becoming more extreme and we now face it in many parts of the country, which creates a growing competition between agriculture, private consumers, and industry for access to water. We currently see this in Lusatia, where many areas are no longer used for agriculture and at the same time, the many lakes planned for the renaturation of the coal mines and for tourist use cannot be filled due to lack of water. We can see the problem in Grünheide, where Tesla’s new Gigafactory literally digs off the drinking water for the area, while the forests are already drying up.

Already now, we would have to switch to a different form of agriculture, adapted to the new conditions, including a changing soil, increasing drought and heat, and changed and reduced biodiversity. Already now, we would have to switch to a different water management system and decide what we want to use this scarce resource for. And already now, we would need to stop to soil sealing, creating more compensation for it and new urban cooling spaces, more green areas in cities, and more green space in general. Schools, nursing homes, and hospitals would have to be set up differently to be prepared for heat waves — without overconsuming energy by the extensive use of air conditioning but instead, through structural measures.

Drawing “lessons from the pandemic” means redefining what we absolutely need, especially for (social) infrastructures, and to rethink and deglobalize production lines. Above all, the lesson would be to make the social infrastructure resilient, so that it secures social life fundamentally. Climate change is already in full swing. So how will we deal with it?

If it is true, as stated above, that these negative scenarios most likely contribute to the demobilization of large sections of the population, especially the lower classes and other marginalized groups, then the question is: how do we now get out of this grim picture — we are too late, the climate goals can no longer be reached in time, we have to prepare for catastrophic scenarios now — to a more concrete positive perspective?

Green Socialism, or: Less Is More

Perhaps there is a chance that more attention will be given to far-reaching socialist ideas, or, to paraphrase Willy Brandt, who once said “Let's dare more democracy”: let’s dare more economic democracy and more socialism, because we are running out of time.

We have already outlined the contours of possible socialist entry projects elsewhere. Briefly, bringing about rapid structural changes under time pressure is needed, and this requires elements of participatory planning processes at different levels. Without a doubt, the public sector will have a bigger role to play, including more regulation and investment planning, the upgrading of public companies, more public ownership, and stronger innovation policies. Such planning capacities must first be rebuilt, also in the administrations.

At the same time, this would be an opportunity to link and advance the necessary restructuring with a profound and deep democratization. This will be achieved by opening up the administrations, creating “transformation councils” at different levels, democratizing public companies, and setting up Zukunftsworkshops, workshops about what the future will look like in the countryside and in the city districts. All these institutions and forms of participation must be equipped with the right to decide and means to appropriate the problems.

As people, we should interfere and take up space in the upcoming decisions about what and how is to be produced and for what purpose. The outcome would be a real democratization of the economy, contrasting with a green capitalism, which, despite partial progress in decarbonization, relies on more production, more profit and resource consumption, and which will further intensify the ecological crisis — counteracting and managing the effects of climate change by using authoritarian means internally and through strong border control. We thus have to ask ourselves: what do we need to survive, and what do we need for a good life for everyone?

What should follow here is a whole programme. I would like to single out just one aspect, in the sense of a positive and urgent utopia that combines survival in the face of ecological crises with self-care and concern for others, and a good life — the wealth of free time. We need a new understanding of prosperity, a new concept of wealth in a “reproduction economy” that knows how to limit itself, to become self-sufficient, and at the same time creates new wealth. This wealth is about other social innovations, more meaningful productive forces and, of course, about time prosperity. It demands time for development in every dimension, for friends, family and self-care, space for tenderness, solidarity, support and encouragement instead of competition, for common commitment and political work — for example, to help shape the transformation.

For a “socially and ecologically sustainable economy without growth, enormous redistributions of income and work will be necessary”. Moreover, when society as a whole takes care of people’s fundamental needs, then less really can be more. Many are longing for an escape from the hamster wheel — because, as Karl Marx once wrote, “Time is the room for human development.” This would now also be necessary for ecological reasons. Everything is at stake now, and it is up to us to jointly dispose of and take control of our immediate living conditions and engage in shaping the future.