The object of nervous condescension from neoliberals and red-baiting derision from authoritarians, the Green New Deal has prompted an extraordinary spate of activist organizing and planning among progressives, social democrats, and democratic socialists in the United States. Meanwhile the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn acute attention to enduring social injustice, of which the barbaric police killing of George Floyd is the latest instance to highlight deep-rooted connections between structural racism, state violence, and disinvestment. Across the country, decades of environmental racism have left black and brown communities overexposed to the multifarious threats of climate change, as the climate clock ticks on. Recall that among the triggers of the stock market turmoil at the pandemic’s outset was an oil price war. Attempts have been made to use the crisis to rescue the troubled US oil and gas industry, while relief legislation has remained mostly indifferent to proposals for “green” stimulus spending. 1 Fundamentally, however, nothing less than full-scale reconstruction — rather than restoration — can redress the massive social and economic inequities that the double-sided crisis has revealed while also reversing course on climate change.
With all this in mind, we might pause to assess the potential of the Green New Deal by asking what political concepts and strategies this ambitious proposal invokes, what contradictions it faces, and how its ambiguities can be clarified so that its promise may yet be realized.
Oil abolition implies social transformation — a systemic change toward collective freedom.
Drawing on longstanding political traditions, I suggest that, to be truly transformative, a Green New Deal must take an abolitionist stance regarding “oil” and what we might call the Carbon Empire — a regime under which countless lives have been sacrificed to war, racialized colonial violence, and paramilitary conflict, and countless others are now threatened by climate change. In the expanded sense in which I use the word, “oil” names a system of production that begins upstream from the landscapes, cities, towns, buildings, and products that occupy the attention of most climate-change-mitigation strategies. Where these strategies typically deemphasize collective action in favor of technocratic or consumerist “solutions,” oil abolition implies social transformation — systemic change that turns away from the devil’s bargain between “green” austerity and corporate profit, and toward collective freedom. To reverse the dispossession by which the Carbon Empire governs, we must therefore enlarge the historical frame to include not only the expansive reforms of the New Deal, but also the unfinished project of Reconstruction. Oil abolition is, in short, a program of decarbonization as democratization.
Green New Deal and New Deal
Abolition of the oil-and-gas system goes unmentioned in the principal formulation of the Green New Deal, U.S. House Resolution (HR) 109, no doubt because its authors recognize that system’s ruling power. Nevertheless, evocation of New Deal reforms in the resolution testifies to a radical realism, where renewed historical consciousness is a precondition for the deeper and more sweeping change outlined by GND advocates. 2
The Green New Deal points in its very name to a “usable past” for today’s climate politics. HR 109 centers on a call for the United States “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers” by 2050. 3 This implies policies on a scale well beyond even that of the New Deal, a heterogeneous suite of legislation and executive actions put in place under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, principally from 1933 to 1936, during the Great Depression. The New Deal’s second phase (1935-1936) was especially ambitious. In an environment of heightened labor activism, which increased pressure on the Roosevelt administration and on Congress to enact progressive legislation, this period saw passage of the National Labor Relations Act, the Public Utility Holding Company Act, and the Social Security Act, all designed to regulate capital and redistribute material and social goods. Today, these and other New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, are rightly cited by Green New Dealers as evidence of government’s ability to address societal crisis.
The Green New Deal points in its very name to a usable past for today’s climate politics.
Yet I want to consider a different set of New Deal initiatives, linked more directly to energy: The National Industrial Recovery Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority, both dating from 1933. The NIRA regulated industrial competition (including the petroleum industry), protected labor unions, and established the Public Works Administration; the TVA created thousands of construction jobs and provided publicly subsidized electricity to thousands of households. At the same time, the TVA in particular depended upon a racially coded regionalism that, when reconnected to the postwar oil economy, naturalized white, suburban homeownership as a racial “wage,” or primordial entitlement. That is, New Deal regionalism defined what qualified as “American,” while oil nourished a middle-class, property-based “Dream.”
In 1934, Roosevelt insisted that “It is not the purpose of the Administration, by sudden or explosive change, to impair southern industry by refusing to recognize traditional differentials.” 4 The “traditional differentials” in question were discriminatory racial and economic practices that can be traced to the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era, in which characteristics of the slave system were preserved in altered form. The persistence of such discrimination in New Deal policies has been widely noted — just as the partial, fragile overcoming of these legacies can be traced to federal Reconstruction-era programs like the Freedmen’s Bureau, as well as to the political actions of formerly enslaved persons. Acknowledging such facts does not diminish the New Deal’s many achievements, nor its “usability” as a resource for today’s politics. Rather, the call issued by the Green New Deal resolution for a “fair and just transition” to renewable energy asks us to recognize the ways in which past injustices have carried into the present, and to consider how inattention to the cunning of “oil” as a system of domination risks reifying these injustices further.
Inattention to the cunning of ‘oil’ as a system of domination risks reifying historical injustices.
The NIRA legislation was struck down in 1935 by a conservative Supreme Court. But some of its key provisions were reinstated that same year in the Connally Hot Oil Act, which regulated the circulation of petroleum and petroleum products in excess of governmental quotas (“hot oil”). The Connally Hot Oil Act remains in force. The TVA, too, remains an active public authority. Both New Deal programs offer history lessons, but of different types. Where the NIRA provides a specific legislative precedent that may yet be applied, the TVA appears to us as what Walter Benjamin called a “dialectical image,” a historical fragment that, in its startling conjunction with the present, reveals contradictions that ricochet through our own times.
Critics on the right have often denounced the New Deal as an undemocratic form of centralized planning that presumptuously interfered in “free” markets; others, usually on the left, have argued that New Deal legislation subordinated the needs and perspectives of affected communities to the ideological priorities of elites and technocrats. It is notable, therefore, that HR 109 calls unambiguously for “the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers” in order to implement the social, economic, and technological changes it demands. 5 Beyond the meaningful participation of disenfranchised groups in decision-making, however, what might a properly democratic Green New Deal look like?
In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), his revisionist account of the post-Civil War United States, W. E. B. Du Bois introduced the concept of “abolition-democracy.” His argument was a warning to liberal white New Dealers to pay close attention to history’s blind spots, by showing that the abolition of slavery was a necessary though not sufficient condition for the establishment of a just, democratic polity. More recently, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, George Lipsitz, and others have linked abolitionism to anti-imperialism, making explicit the ties between structural racism, mass incarceration, and economic and electoral disenfranchisement. 6 Returned to its historical contexts — both Reconstruction and the New Deal era — abolition democracy establishes a benchmark for the Green New Deal, one that links political disenfranchisement with economic dispossession along the axes of both race and class. It also pinpoints unresolved conflicts with which any GND coalition will have to grapple.
The postwar oil economy naturalized white, suburban homeownership as a primordial entitlement.
Post-Emancipation, the exploitation of black workers reproduced slavery’s governing ethos; as Du Bois showed, poor white workers in the South formed an alliance with planters to undermine the democratic project of the Northern abolitionists, and to secure the continued oppression of African Americans. Seen from this perspective, the racial and class antagonisms laid bare by the Great Depression were Reconstruction’s unfinished business, and the New Deal its ghostly rerun. By midcentury, what Du Bois called the “American Assumption” — more commonly the American Dream, the myth of self-reliance translated into a metaphysical attachment to landed property — bound the predominantly white middle classes (many with working-class origins) to the white ruling class. In our own era, the capital-friendly response to the Great Recession re-consecrated this unholy alliance, not least by shoring up predatory financial institutions that profit from a conversion of the symbolic attachment to property into personal debt.
In the 1930s, Du Bois documented a counter-history of black struggle and achievement, in order to redeem a “Black Reconstruction” erased by a white supremacist “propaganda of history.” In the process, he submitted the contradictions of public policy and capitalist development during his own time to the clinical gaze of the historical sciences. Today, the climate question asks us to revisit the social order of which Du Bois wrote, as the property relations that sustain racial, economic, and ecological apartheid take on new forms, like financial wealth, in places like the increasingly multiracial (and sometimes de facto working-class) suburbs.
What Du Bois called the “color-line” now draws the frontlines of the climate crisis in the United States — and, in related ways, internationally. The focus in HR 109 on “frontline and vulnerable communities” recognizes this. At the same time, however, a climate apartheid is being prepared under the sign of “resilience” in boardrooms, municipal planning offices, and architectural and urban design studios around the world; when life boats are provided for some but never for all, race and class remix in new ways, with gender never far behind. 7
What Du Bois called the color-line now draws the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Urgent calls to declare a “climate emergency” are thus caught, as is the current public health emergency, in a double bind. Necessary as such calls are, we must remember that states of emergency are a formal precondition for anti-democracy. This tension, too, is a legacy of the interwar, New Deal, post-Depression era. 8 We might therefore follow the Green New Deal back to its historical and conceptual source — the New Deal, Reconstruction’s imperfect second act — and ask, with Du Bois, what must be abolished so that democracy may finally rise, and what else must change so that a just future may be secured.
I have already given my answer to the first question: abolish oil, as an industry and as a form of social organization. In this, I simply restate a truism of climate politics, which holds that a sustainable, democratic, demilitarized future depends on the rapid elimination of fossil fuels from regular, widespread use, with a “just transition” for oil workers. Like the slave system, “oil” is more than a sector of the economy, or a source of physical energy that can be substituted by some other, less extractive form. Expressions like “oil wars,” “petro-capitalism,” and “fossil capital” delineate the ties that bind the world’s predominant energy system to its most intractable conflicts. 9
But it may be surprising to learn that the regulation of a burgeoning domestic oil industry was in fact an important, if lesser known, aspect of the New Deal’s flagship legislation. Among the provisions of the NIRA in 1933 was Section 9 (b), regarding oil pipelines:
The President is authorized to institute proceedings to divorce from any holding company any pipe-line company controlled by such holding company which pipe-line company by unfair practices or by exorbitant rates in the transportation of petroleum or its products tends to create a monopoly. 10
In the midst of the Great Depression, the NIRA and the agency it created, the National Recovery Administration or NRA, authorized quotas on oil distribution in order to curb crippling overproduction and get-rich-quick competition that had driven oil prices to unsustainable lows — a market failure that threatened the entire industry and contributed to dire working conditions. 11 The act’s measures against monopolies were followed by a prohibition against the interstate circulation of “hot oil.” This measure, Section 9 (c), was struck down even before the rest of the legislation. But its provisions, including criminal penalties for violation, were reinstated as the Connally Hot Oil Act of 1935 — and this law, as I have said, remains in force.
Singling out the oil industry for its speculative excesses, the NIRA established administrative bodies covering hundreds of economic sectors, which were tasked with developing and enforcing “codes of fair competition” that would regulate production, wages, and prices. These bodies were made up mainly of representatives from various trade associations working with labor unions, under federal oversight. 12 The NIRA, in other words, was corporatist, not socialist, with policy decisions devolving ultimately onto private interest groups. The law gestured toward nationalization only as a last resort; the bulk of its effort was delegated to industry in often reluctant, conflicted partnership with government. In the case of oil, associations of independent producers negotiated their differences with the “majors” (Gulf, Shell, Standard Oil, Texaco, and others) to establish the regulatory codes, their mutual interest being to avoid federal seizure of pipelines for noncompliance. Breakup (or “divorce”) of production from distribution was understood as a prelude to public-utility status, an outcome feared by the small producers and the majors alike.13
A Green New Deal could build on existing statutes, and begin oil abolition by nationalizing existing pipelines and prohibiting their new construction.
Timothy Mitchell has shown how, in contrast to coal, the petroleum industry’s dispersed network of wells, refineries, and pipelines has minimized opportunities for effective organizing and labor actions. 14 Yet, as the Coalition for Standing Rock and the civil disobedience aimed at blocking the Keystone XL pipeline have demonstrated, this geographic and administrative dispersal can also be exploited to democratic ends. The very extent of oil pipelines means that they must cross multiple sovereignties along their length, and this renders them more susceptible to lawful contestation — both on the ground and on paper — than the petroleum system’s more territorially bounded elements, such as oil wells and refineries.
But while proposals like the Green New Deal are nationally based, “oil” is a global system. Thus, welcome calls to nationalize (and to transition) the beleaguered oil majors rather than to bail them out must also include pipelines, refineries, and other distribution infrastructures, to avoid the mere substitution of “foreign” oil for domestic. 15 There is no reason, then, that a Green New Deal cannot build on existing statutes like the Connally Hot Oil Act, and begin the process of oil abolition by nationalizing existing pipelines and prohibiting construction of new ones. Such action would provide for a democratic phaseout of private ownership that delinks from global oil and contributes to the development of fully public utilities based on renewable energy such as wind and solar. It is with such public-utility logistics in mind that we can turn now from the NIRA to the TVA, in order to ask how the unfinished business of Reconstruction might furnish a basis for confronting the social and ecological crisis of planetary warming.
The most extensive New Deal program for generating public electricity was the comprehensive infrastructural transformation of the 40-thousand-square-mile Tennessee River Valley, overseen by a new federal body, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Given its environmental and social costs, hydropower is not viable as a large-scale alternative to fossil fuels in the 21st century. Still, the TVA offers an important lesson for a future Green New Deal; TVA legislation provides a compelling precedent for the public development and management of renewable energy and the provision of “green” jobs. But it is also an object lesson in the durability of racial and economic injustice.
Initially proposed as a means to improve navigation, control flooding, and repair deforestation in an area the size of England, while providing well-paid construction jobs to an impoverished rural population, by 1940 the TVA included eleven dams with a generating capacity of about 1.4 million kilowatts.16 When completed in 1954, the system totaled 32 dams of both the high-head storage and low-head navigational types, 26 of which were built or owned by the Authority. The high-head types were usually built on tributaries of the Tennessee River; the low-head types, which yielded greater electrical output, were on the river itself. The first low-head installation constructed by the Authority was Wheeler Dam, about midway between Florence and Decatur, Alabama.
The unfinished business of Reconstruction might furnish a basis for confronting the social and ecological crisis of planetary warming.
Conceived as civic monuments by a design team led by Harry B. Tour, Roland A. Wank, and Mario Bianculli, TVA dams invited a voting public to witness firsthand a spectacle of raw concrete, rushing water, and spinning turbines. Visitors to Wheeler were welcomed in an elegant reception room, which introduced them to the TVA’s grandeur with gridded displays of maps, photographs, and streamlined slogans. Adjacent to the exhibition, separate restrooms matter-of-factly divided black citizens from white.
The conflict to which these restrooms testified was memorialized in a jarringly forthright construction detail of “Typical Drinking Fountains” used throughout the TVA, as reproduced for architects in a 1939 issue of Pencil Points. An unadorned marble bowl sits discreetly in a gridded niche lined with glazed tile and illuminated by a recessed fixture. Above, sans-serif chrome letters serenely admonish: WHITE. 17 Such evidence reminds us that racial discrimination in the New Deal was not only a matter of legislative compromise. It was a matter of ordinary, “regional” common sense translated into the language of technical standards and modernist design.
Racial discrimination translated regional common sense into the language of technical standards and modernist design.
Though potentially transformative, the NIRA and NRA aimed principally to restore the social and economic order disrupted by the Depression, central to which was the racial order of the Jim Crow South. Progressive New Dealers, including Roosevelt, repeatedly made concessions to Southern Democrats that preserved racial discrimination in order to secure their votes in Congress. Although not stipulated in the legislation, in practice the NRA’s codes acknowledged existing racial norms not only by maintaining segregation in public facilities such as restrooms and fountains, but by excluding farm work and domestic labor — which, as Ira Katznelson points out, meant “excluding the majority of southern blacks from their minimum wage and maximum hours benefits.” These exclusions extended to work related to agriculture performed largely by African Americans like canning, citrus packing, and fertilizer production. 18 The TVA was officially race neutral. But its hiring quotas also significantly underrepresented black workers, who were likewise excluded from training for higher-paid skilled jobs. The Authority’s other provisions for workers — notably housing — perpetuated Jim Crow as well. In Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois explained the historical origins of contradictions like these.
Du Bois published his study in 1935, the same year that the Supreme Court struck down the NIRA, and two years after the TVA was formed. Presenting portraits of three social types from the Reconstruction era (1865 – 1877) — the “black worker,” the “white worker,” and the “planter” — Du Bois argued that, after the Civil War, landowners “disappeared as a separate aristocracy.” 19 Nevertheless, these elites, who comprised only a small fraction of the white population in the South, maintained their privilege by securing a racial alliance with white laborers. It would be imprecise, then, to see those New Deal Southern Democrats committed to preserving racial discrimination as simply descendants of the planter class. The two remaining groups — black farmhands and non-landowning whites, workers both — were economic competitors; poor whites, who looked to the planter as a social ideal, saw their wages depressed by the availability of a newly liberated “reserve army” (in Marx’s language) of black labor. In compensation, the white yeoman farmer partook of what Du Bois called a “public and psychological wage.” 20 David Roediger, following Du Bois, has termed such benefits the “wages of whiteness” — the symbolic rewards afforded by white supremacy. 21 Difficult to quantify as such benefits may be, we should not underestimate their force and depth. In preserving a racialized division of labor, the New Deal preserved — and quite possibly strengthened — the alliance between white workers and white landowners in the South.
Du Bois wrote in 1936 that the New Deal had done “nothing for the tenant-farmer and sharecropper.” This initial skepticism was justified; what the act called “national recovery” was mostly white. 22 By 1944, however, Du Bois had changed his mind. Endorsing Roosevelt for re-election, he argued on the basis of his own belief as a socialist that
the wealth of a nation like this should be increasingly socialized; that the primary resources, the capital goods and machinery should to an increasing extent be owned by all the people and not by private persons for private profit; that the object of industry should be the common wealth and not the building up of enormous individual fortunes. 23
In particular, Du Bois celebrated “such vast undertakings as the TVA,” while noting that Roosevelt “has openly championed the cause and rights of union labor and fought race discrimination in employment. His housing program and efforts at land buying for farmers, rural credit and rural electrification are all in this line.” 24 Writing for the Independent Voters’ Committee of the Arts and Sciences for Roosevelt, Du Bois predicted that, “If Roosevelt is defeated it will be because of his championship of organized labor and the Negro.” The Committee’s editors politely rejected the endorsement, wary that “even our more liberal sponsors would take issue with your frankly socialistic point of view.” 25 Du Bois’s assessment was nonetheless accurate. The TVA represented the most direct and systematic New Deal effort to reorient industry toward the “common wealth” through state ownership of the means of production — in this case, the production of energy.
Yet, as we have seen, the TVA partook of the “wages of whiteness” in ways both material and symbolic. The conceptual and practical framework of regionalism adopted by the TVA’s planners allowed the legislation to naturalize these wages. Even as it gathered bipartisan support and implemented sweeping infrastructural reform, the TVA reinforced the white-supremacist social order.
The TVA rearranged the technological, political, and natural geography of the Tennessee Valley by implementing the tools of regional planning; its advocates followed precedents advocated by the Regional Planning Association of America, such as a 1926 study by Henry Wright and Benton MacKaye for the reorganization of New York State around a proposed hydroelectric corridor. 26 The legislation creating the TVA, which Roosevelt signed on May 18, 1933 (a month before signing the NIRA), announced intentions
to Improve the Navigability and to Provide for the Flood Control of the Tennessee River: To Provide for Reforestation and the Proper Use of Marginal Lands in the Tennessee Valley; to Provide for the Agricultural and Industrial Development of Said Valley; to Provide for the National Defense by the Creation of a Corporation for the Operation of Government Properties at and Near Muscle Shoals in the State of Alabama and for Other Purposes. 27
The corporation, or authority, thus established was a federal unit with direct control over the river’s waters and those of its tributaries. Powers of eminent domain enabled the Authority to acquire and develop adjacent lands, and its triumvirate of directors reported straight to Roosevelt. More than any of its other capacities, however, the TVA’s ability to generate large quantities of hydropower and to distribute electricity at rates that undercut local monopolies gave it unprecedented scope in reorganizing the political economy of the Tennessee Valley.
Originating near Knoxville with tributaries reaching into Virginia and North Carolina, the Tennessee River flows southwest into Alabama, glances along Mississippi’s northeastern corner, and turns north again into western Tennessee and through Kentucky, where it meets the Ohio River at Paducah; the Ohio discharges, in turn, into the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois. About halfway along the Tennessee’s 1,200-mile length, at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, stands the Wilson Dam. Begun in 1918 at the close of the First World War, Wilson was intended as a source of hydroelectric power for the manufacture of ammonium nitrate used in munitions. Prior to its completion in 1924, Henry Ford sought but failed to acquire the dam and two adjacent nitrate plants from the federal government, in order to manufacture fertilizer for Southern cotton. In the early 1930s, following in Ford’s footsteps, TVA managers converted the two Muscle Shoals nitrate plants into facilities for the energy-intensive production of phosphate-based fertilizers, to be distributed at no cost to local farmers. Muscle Shoals became, then, the epicenter of the TVA system.
Planners recognized the injustice of white supremacy, but deferred to regionalism’s conciliatory, evolutionist view.
Technically, in terms of scale, the Tennessee Valley is not a region; Howard W. Odum, the most prominent academic regionalist at the time, referred to it as a “subregion.” 28 A sociologist working at the University of North Carolina, Odum studied regional “folkways” as an alternative to the isolating of geographic areas known as sectionalism (which Lewis Mumford called a “term of reproach invented by Northerners” to characterize the secessionist South during the 19th century). 29 Odum’s larger project was to redraw the nation’s internal boundaries so as to replace a formerly monolithic South with a “composite picture” based on hundreds of tabular indexes that measured distinct geographic, natural, cultural, and technological characteristics. Differentiating the colonial Southeast from the newly developing Southwest, Odum divided the country into six loosely bounded regions integrated into what amounted to a national ecosystem. Where sectionalism divided, regionalism united.
Nevertheless, a sense of persistent conflict characterizes Odum’s Southern Regions of the United States (1936), which describes a “Southern people” divided by race. The geographical center of the Southeast was the Black Belt, running through the heart of what had been known as the Cotton Kingdom, a key supplier to the global textile industry. 30 Recognizing the injustice of white supremacy but deferring to regionalism’s conciliatory, evolutionist view, Odum appeals to the long term. “Manifestly,” he says, “it is asking too much of a region to change over night the powerful folkways of long generations.” 31 Writing in 1938, he hailed the TVA as a basis “for the nation’s most realistic experiment in national-regional planning.” 32 “Folkways” and “realistic” planning are euphemisms for racial discrimination.
Of the TVA’s three directors, David Lilienthal, Harcourt Morgan, and Arthur Morgan (no relation), Arthur Morgan was most committed to regional planning. He favored government involvement in electricity distribution and, like Roosevelt, saw the Tennessee Valley as a “laboratory” in which infrastructural development could lead to social transformation. Following what Lilienthal disingenuously called a “grass roots” strategy (another euphemism), the TVA’s planners sought to incorporate local “folkways” into developments like Norris, Tennessee — a model “suburb in the wilderness” built for workers on the TVA’s first project, the Norris Dam. 33 The Norris Dam flooded its valley, which caused significant disruption to the lives and ways of the rural whites who lived there, even as the dam’s construction incorporated “folk” practices of racial division into a new social and technical infrastructure.
Built as a permanent village rather than a construction camp, Norris consisted of 294 single-family houses, ten duplexes, and five 30-unit apartment buildings. Incorporating features like screened porches, the modest houses were based on a rural vernacular, except that chimneys were moved to a utility core at the center of the house to accommodate the new electrical service used for heating and low-cost appliances. 34 All this was available exclusively to white workers and their families. In contrast to the “separate but equal” restrooms at visitor centers like the one at Wheeler Dam, the utilitarian community center at Norris included one restroom for men and one for women, whites only. The design of buildings at Norris represented, in short, a “Lily-White Reconstruction.” This was the finding of a 1934 report on the Norris project published in The Crisis, the monthly journal edited by Du Bois for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The report’s co-author, John P. Davis, published a follow-up the next year, which emphasized that, while such segregation and discrimination were no different from those practiced in the surrounding communities, at Norris and similar sites, the practices were instituted as federal policy on federal land. 35
The extent to which the TVA does and does not prefigure transformation can help us see the difference between business as usual and real historical change.
Water thus flowed mightily through the TVA system. Its currents were slowed for navigation and channeled for irrigation; its energies were harnessed to electrify the rural landscape; and its intimacies were divided in public restrooms, public drinking fountains, and segregated housing. Today, we might be tempted to consider this coexistence of enlightened modernity and genteel barbarism as an aberration or anachronism. Measured against the incomplete project of abolition democracy, however, the awkward fusion of progressive and regressive tendencies is a sign of an unjust system left intact. Such contradictions must be explicitly worked through if reform is to be truly transformative.
The Green New Deal’s Congressional authors evoke the New Deal as a precedent by which to blunt capital’s sharpest edges — like the racialized wage discrimination and other “traditional differentials” built into Roosevelt’s original — with renewables, remediation, and green jobs. But this appeal to the past requires dialectical care. For today’s twin historical tasks — to turn back demagogic tyranny, and to repair and build a truly just, sustainable world — do not necessarily align. The first task will require a broad coalition of progressive, radical, and neoliberal interests, a coalition of the sort that Roosevelt and the other architects of the New Deal successfully assembled and maintained. The second task implies the transformation of the social and political-economic order as such, the urgent need for which is now amplified by unprecedented systemic shock. The extent to which the New Deal, and in particular the TVA, both do and do not prefigure such transformations can help us see the difference between business as usual and real historical change.
Among the early controversies surrounding the TVA was the question of who would sell and distribute the electricity generated by its hydro-powered turbines. For utility companies eager to profit from the new source, it was one thing for the federal government to supply them with power at wholesale rates, and quite another for the TVA to cut them out entirely by supplying electricity directly to consumers. The issue went the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the government and, in 1934, the TVA began to transmit electricity from the Wilson Dam to customers in Tupelo, Mississippi. Reporting for The Crisis, Davis noted that for the over 11,000 African Americans living in Lee County, where Tupelo is located, cheap electricity “meant nothing.” To enjoy the benefits of electrical service, one had to live in an electrified house, and not in what Davis called “grotesque rented slum dwellings” that landlords found unprofitable to wire. 36
“Millions of kilowatt hours will be generated,” Davis wrote. But, despite public subsidies, this service came “at a price so high that for Negroes it might just as well be lightning from the sky.” Access to this lightning and the mechanized life it promised was therefore among the measurable wages of whiteness. Yet Davis did not reject the TVA’s premise of social change through infrastructural development. Rather, he argued that, in addition to organizing black labor, readers of The Crisis “should demand a program of socialized electrification which will enable Negro workers to have some benefits from the power program.” 37 A decade later, it was a similarly pragmatic view that led his editor Du Bois to reflect positively on the TVA as a prelude to the socialization of “primary resources.”
New Deal regionalism was absorbed into a socio-technical system of an entirely different scale: the suburban and exurban highway network.
It is true that TVA electricity was also distributed through relatively small, collectively owned energy cooperatives founded nationwide under the Rural Electrification Administration, which was established in 1935. This cooperative model has survived and remains viable. Still, from the turbines to the family house, TVA electricity was only partly public; its generation, price, and availability were matters of partially (and dramatically variable) democratic governance. 38 Subsequently, the TVA’s experiment in regionalism, with its “folkways” and “traditional differentials,” was absorbed into a socio-technical system of an entirely different scale: the suburban and exurban highway network that stretched across the country.
Megalopolis, or, the Carbon Empire
In 1940, as military build-up intensified demand for electricity, the TVA added coal-fired steam plants to its portfolio. By 1959, electrical output from the Authority’s coal plants was three times that of its hydroelectric installations. 39 A particular source of increased demand was the U.S. military’s decision to locate its energy-intensive atomic-weapons research program in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, about sixteen miles from Norris Dam, and some 30 miles from the TVA’s first coal-powered steam plant at Watts Bar. The Cold War order was thus born in no small part on the banks of the Tennessee River. 40 But perhaps the most significant postwar outcome of Depression-era policy was the absorption of the rural-and-urban dynamic into what the geographer Jean Gottmann, writing in 1961, called “Megalopolis,” or what we today call suburban sprawl. 41
In this sense, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 might be considered not only the New Deal’s logical extension, but also its antithesis. To the over 600,000 miles of state and local roads built under the New Deal, the 1956 Act added 40,000 miles of interstate highways. Unlike the TVA, however, this massive infrastructure program was oriented toward private homeownership — the American Assumption or American Dream, pervasively imagined as a single-family house in a white suburb — rather than toward public power.
As Odom’s six geographic subdivisions suggest, the “regional structure” of the United States in the New Deal Era could roughly be discerned through the cardinal coordinates — North, South, East, West. By the time of the Kennedy Administration, Megalopolis, or the urban-suburban complex running from New Hampshire to Virginia, had emerged for Gottmann as a “very special region” requiring its own terms of analysis. 42 In place of traditional distinctions between country and city, Gottmann found a symbiotic interpenetration of rural and urban across a wide range of factors, from land use to labor, with a new, national “main street” running along the East coast. By the 1980s, the “main street” corridor of the Eastern seaboard had been further reshaped into a polycentric system extending across the continent and linking up with others around the world. 43 This is the “oil” system as it exists on the ground: the United States as a primary node in a global Carbon Empire.
Interstate 95, the highway (or “main street”) along which Megalopolis formed, cuts through the region formerly known as the South. During the 1968 presidential election, the spatial and social reorganization to which I-95 corresponds became an essential component of Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Indeed, the historian Matthew Lassiter has described this notorious targeting of white Sunbelt Democrats through racially coded appeals to a “silent” — white — majority as a “suburban strategy.” 44 (The very existence of the Sunbelt was predicated on displacement of Black Belt populations due to northern migration in the postwar years.) The “suburban strategy” attempted to domesticate the demagogic populism of Nixon’s third-party challenger, George Wallace, by appealing to economic racism in lower Megalopolis. Conservatives have since radicalized Nixon’s approach into a virulent, elitist-populist racial pact, in which the post-Reconstruction alliance of rural white workers with planters has been reborn among the white suburban middle classes.
The Green New Deal has been greeted most enthusiastically in urban areas, and least so in rural ones. But it has polled relatively well in suburban districts. 45 This pattern might suggest — surprisingly — that the social relations of Megalopolis consolidated in the Carbon Empire could generate the GND’s decisive source of support. The impression may be illusory, however. Recent electoral results have favored dogmatically “centrist” approaches. Especially when it comes to “oil” and the climate crisis, market-oriented reforms ultimately preserve “traditional differentials” grounded in a metaphysics of property, as an illusory alternative to an openly white-supremacist tyranny.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 was a massive infrastructure program oriented not toward public power but toward private homeownership.
The Highway Act that helped to build I-95 also helped to unite the nation in its dependence on petroleum, as public funds underwrote vast suburban and exurban landscapes of modest private wealth. Due to racially exclusive real-estate practices like redlining and deed restrictions, the middle-class suburbs that grew out of the highway system were overwhelmingly white at their inception. In the 1970s, what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has called “predatory inclusion” replaced redlining with federal guarantees on “subprime” mortgages aggressively offered to low-income African Americans in disenfranchised urban areas, thus maintaining segregation while incentivizing foreclosure upon economically vulnerable homeowners. 46
More recent suburban diversification, which is linked in part to urban gentrification, has been significant. Nevertheless, whatever upward mobility now exists in suburban areas for African Americans, Latinx, working-class immigrants, and other historically disenfranchised groups has come about largely by virtue of access to homeownership. Such access remains de facto restricted (as the 2008 financial crisis showed), and reinscribes class divisions within these groups as well as among them. As Taylor points out, in 2018 the Brookings Institution reported that, in metropolitan areas, “homes in neighborhoods where the share of the population is 50 percent black are valued at roughly half the price of homes in neighborhoods with no black residents.” 47 Segregation, which has always mixed race with class, now extends from cities and rural areas to exurban and suburban zones, and the color line now delineates frontline vulnerability to the climate crisis. From New Orleans to Flint, unequal exposure to environmental dangers is exacerbated by unequal access to healthcare, education, and other social infrastructures crucially correlated with housing. As a slogan alluding to the socioeconomic disparities of “sheltering-in-place” sums up: “Housing is Healthcare.”
By the mid-20th century, during the first phase of highway construction and suburban expansion, the racial and class resentment felt by those whom Du Bois called “poor whites” spread to the emergent, predominantly white, suburban middle- and lower-middle classes. Since then, an upward redistribution of wealth has encouraged middle-class homeowners, including members of the professional-managerial class, to identify with financial elites (the “1%”) not only through a real-estate system that protects their equity, but through financial markets that maintain the value of their retirement plans. This largely suburban, stock-and-bond holding plurality tends to vote with its economic interests. Which is to say that, despite their relative cultural liberalism and their professed support for the GND or something like it, these “moderates” of both parties tend to vote eyes-wide-open against racial and economic justice. 48
Such social and political tendencies are a potential obstacle to achieving the Green New Deal’s most ambitious goals. Should the GND underestimate the racial conflict, xenophobia, and racialization of property values simmering in the suburbs and along the highways, it risks defeat at the hands of those who maintain “folkways” still intimately tied to petro-culture, which delivers the wages of whiteness as a real-estate transaction.
The price of gas is the price of citizenship in this landscape — where many depend on fossil fuels without receiving a share of the profit.
“Oil” in this context is a way of life in both the energy-providing petrochemical sense, and as a major element in the financial imaginaries that help to shape social belonging. You are more likely to find a bank and a gas station than a library on the nation’s now-decentralized “main streets”; the price of gasoline is the price of admission to corporate citizenship as enforced by this landscape — where many live precarious lives that depend on fossil fuels without receiving a share of the profit. The mere substitution of one energy source for another will not change the rules of this game. If actions to address the climate crisis stop short of transforming these material, cultural, and political-economic infrastructures, “sustainability” will mean nothing but sustaining the inequalities of petro-capitalism. So if the Green New Deal is to decolonize the Carbon Empire, it must begin by exchanging the New Deal’s river valleys for intersecting, socio-technical networks and sub-networks. To do so, it must turn regionalism on its head.
The central function of the petro-state is not to prevent a war of all against all. It is to incite that war, as a distraction that maintains the rule of property and keeps the oil flowing. In a related ruse, the federal rescue of a banking industry swamped by the 2007-2008 financial crisis in “underwater” mortgages may seem like a dry run for a version of the GND that amounts to a form of “Green Keynesianism,” a partnership between capital and the regulatory state.
After the Civil War, the conservative Southern Democrats who opposed Reconstruction were known as Redeemers. Their successors in the 1930s blackmailed progressive New Dealers into preserving Jim Crow. This history returned to haunt our present in the bailout after 2008. Financial elites renewed their bond with a predominantly white middle class through the material and symbolic Redemption — rather than the Reconstruction — of homeownership and the oil-and-gas system to which it belongs. The bailout betrayed homeowners whose futures were foreclosed by mortgage and investment banks. All the while, the racialization of housing markets turned on two contradictory premises: 1) The vision of homeownership as implicitly white and suburban; and 2) the American Assumption that property is colorblind.
Democratizing oil infrastructures will require breaking the alliance of white suburban homeowners with fossil capital and the petro-state.
The regionalism that governed the Tennessee River Valley reconfigured state power around hydropower; in doing so, it helped to naturalize segregationist “folkways,” preserving racist social systems to offset the upheaval caused by the TVA’s dams and reservoirs. The Carbon Empire with which the TVA eventually merged has incorporated these segregations into new networks of pipelines, refineries, power plants, highways, and subdivisions. To break the chain, Green New Dealers must abandon the old regionalism, and learn to think with — and against — these networks.
This means rethinking decarbonization as abolition democracy in Du Bois’s sense, not by region, but along the infrastructures (including highways, energy grids, and power sources) that currently determine who will live and who will die on the color lines of climate change. The democratization — let us call it, with Du Bois, socialization — of energy infrastructures is a necessary step toward repairing the centuries-old damage wrought by the wages of whiteness, which include uneven exposure to ecological and environmental threats as well as to economic precarity, voter suppression, police violence, and other manifestations of racialized injustice. Doing so, however, will require breaking the alliance of predominantly white suburban and exurban homeowners with fossil capital and the petro-state. Socialization — that is, democratization without markets — is also the surest path to decarbonization. Oil abolition forces this dialectic out into the open, reconnecting race with class along infrastructural lines.
Ultimately, the Carbon Empire includes every pipeline and highway around the world, so any reawakening of democracy based on the abolition of oil must be planetary from the start. There is no guarantee that today’s oil wars will not be replaced by tomorrow’s solar wars or wind wars. Nevertheless, to truly live up to its name, a Green New Deal for our times must replace the myth that nothing will change with the truth that everything must. In the Carbon Empire’s silent suburbs, let the Green Reconstruction of the planet begin.