My teenage years were a tumultuous time in the politics of the United States. In 2004, George W. Bush won re-election after the Democrats blinked and didn’t run an anti-war candidate against him. In 2005, as if in reaction to the display of apathy, the sectarian conflict intensified in Iraq and in 2006, it reached the height of civilian deaths for the entire Iraq War, abetted by US occupation and outright promoted by US arming of various factions. In 2007, a crisis began in the subprime mortgage market that would spread to bring the entire world into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2008, the Democrats again refused to nominate an anti-war candidate, with Mike Gravel providing during the presidential debates a glimpse of the anger and frustration that would build into the resurgence of the US Left in 2016.
There are two books I read as a teenager that helped me make sense of this world and what place I wanted to occupy in it. The first was “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Plenty has been written about it, including how it returned to relevancy with my generation, so let’s leave that one aside. The other much less well known book is “TVA: Democracy on the March” by the equally obscure David Lilienthal.
While most of you will probably not know the book or its author, you’re probably familiar with the subject: the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was chartered by Congress on May 18, 1933 to be a vehicle of economic development in the Tennessee Valley, one of the poorest regions of the country. The TVA had a particular focus on using the region’s wealth in resources, particularly the Tennessee River, to create wealth for its residents. This intent was due to a political aim beginning in the 1920’s of public rather than private ownership of utilities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went so far as to say that private control of utilities was a threat to US sovereignty, and that the government should have ultimate control of the resources of a country.
David Lilienthal though had a slightly different idea. Lilienthal, nicknamed “Mr. TVA,” began his career as a labor attorney, fighting for striking railroad workers in the Supreme Court (Michaelson v. United States) while also assisting in the criminal defense of a Black man who murdered a white man in self defense when he was attacked by a mob. He was, in short, a bleeding heart, a pinko, and based on the following picture of him facing prosecution in court, definitely a dirtbag leftist:
But he was equally as much a total nerd, and this led him from criminal defense and labor to public utilities law. And his experience in public utilities made him well-equipped for running the TVA. But that part of him that fought for ordinary working people and fought against injustice did not go away.
Lilienthal knew the TVA’s detractors believed the agency was socialist or “over-all centralized economic planning.” But, Lilienthal pointed out, “Planning by businessmen, often under some other name, is recognized as necessary.” Further, he noted that planning had “a single and direct objective…profit” and that “The business planner has rarely felt it necessary to complicate his problem by trying to determine whether the making of profit under his plan benefits the whole of society, or injures it.” So far this is in line with the vision of FDR (or for that matter a modern politician like Elizabeth Warren). Where Lilienthal begins to formulate something else is his belief that planning should not only be for all people but also by all people. “[B]y democratic planning the individual’s interest, the interest of private undertakings, can increasingly be made one with the interest of all of us.” In this way, planning (if democratic) could be transformative and empowering as well as functional and productive. “Here is the life principle of democratic planning,” Lilienthal wrote, “an awakening in the whole people of a sense of this common moral purpose.” Undemocratic planning could not achieve this because without participation by the people, people would not “understand the reason for the law’s plan, or how they are to benefit by it.”
This is the key takeaway for modern advocates of the Green New Deal, the most ambitious planning proposal of all time. A Green New Deal will not succeed, regardless of whether Bernie Sanders becomes president or Congress fully funds it, unless it is democratic: “the people must be in on the planning; their existing institutions must be made part of it; self-education of the citizenry is more important than specific projects or physical changes.” Without it, the Green New Deal will meet “the fate of so many other plans: brochures decorating bookshelves, adornments of what is so often sterile learning.”
Many advocates are already keen to this. Nathan Tankus at Modern Money Network (full disclosure: I’m on the board of MMN) writes that “Politically speaking, indirect financing proposals create longer and more complex chains of decision-making responsibilities.” In other words, if private actors are given control of a Green New Deal (and yes even if they are nonprofits), decision-making will orient more towards profit and away from democracy. That doesn’t mean we are proposing that every single decision of a GND be submitted to popular vote — it means that a GND should be constructed to facilitate democratic accountability and participation, such as through only having public financing as Tankus suggests.
But frankly advocates need to be doing far far more. While there is no excuse for advocating for fossil fuel jobs in 2019, the GND advocates need to understand why people in a place like Appalachia may be very skeptical of this plan that has very successfully been framed as the machinations of one (albeit charismatic) Yankee millennial. The War on Coal and accompanying facile attempts of President Obama and others to facilitate an uplifting transition were failures, largely due to the failure to be democratic. As Tarence Ray writes, these efforts by neoliberal bureaucrats and local technocrats are “an effort in narrative-building, bolstered by grants and strategic media coverage.” Unsurprisingly with that focus the programs have been failures if not outright scams, such as a “federal job training program in eastern Kentucky known as TechHIRE, which received $2.75 million from POWER, had directed only seventeen people to new jobs, having promised to train about two hundred.” Rather than learning a lesson, the same bureaucrats and technocrats who have failed the region while enriching themselves blame Appalachia itself: “Amanda Laucher, blamed her company’s failure on the region’s ‘poverty culture’ and the opioid epidemic.” Ray concludes that these efforts’ fundamental flaw is not mere lack of transparency (though there is plenty of that), but an ideological disdain of democracy: “the individual must be shaped to fit society, rather than society changed to fit the individual.”
In 2016, with a 62% voter turnout, Tennessee voted for Donald Trump by about 61%. The Tennessee Valley voted for him at an even higher margin:
Plenty has been written on why working class white people would vote for Trump, and I’m not interested in going over that as anything other than context. Something else interesting happened in Tennessee in the Trump era. On February 14 of this year, the TVA voted to close two coal power plants despite President Trump personally intervening to try to keep them open. While the official justification for the closures was “economics,” it’s hard to believe that it was just about rates when the TVA has been transitioning away from coal since 2007 (coal contribution to the power supply has decreased 30%: well ahead of the national average) and specifically cited the pollution caused by the two plants as part of why they should be closed:
Well the TVA must be really unpopular in the region then, right? Just another foot soldier of Obama’s War on Coal? Nope — in fact, when President Obama considered privatizing the TVA, the Republicans in the region came out against it in mass because they realize how pissed their constituents would be if they didn’t. In fact, some polls show that the criticism local residents have with the TVA, if any, is that it is not prioritizing the transition away from coal enough. Notably, when the TVA several years before was thinking about moderating it’s transition away from coal, broad public opposition kept it on course.
This is what democracy means. Aside from organized labor and government intervention, popular power has little effect on the decision making of private companies like Murray Energy. And undemocratic government institutions fare little better, usually becoming captured by industry and just as much at the whims of technocrats as corporations and nonprofits. As Lilienthal wrote, “Remote control from Washington might not have seemed greatly to be preferred to remote control from a holding company office in New York.”
David Lilienthal is my hero. He fought against both private industry and the FDR administration itself to make the TVA a democratic project. He faced prosecution once and threats of it often, and was labeled a socialist at a time when the label could get you blacklisted from American public life. He took little credit for the TVA despite his nickname of Mr. TVA, writing that “.” And that is the point: Lilienthal did not build the TVA, the people of the Tennessee Valley did, he was just their eloquent standard bearer. And it’s that eloquence that compels me to end this post with his words rather than my own:
We have a choice. There is the important fact. Men are not powerless; they have it in their hands to use the machine to augment the dignity of human existence. True, they may have so long denied themselves the use of that power to decide, which is theirs, may so long have meekly accepted the dictation of bosses of one stripe or another or the ministrations of benevolent nursemaids, that the muscles of democratic choice have atrophied. But that strength is always latent; history has shown how quickly it revives. How we shall use physic betterment — that decision is ours to make. We are not carried irresistibly by forces beyond our control, whether they are given some mystic term or described as the “laws of economics.” We are not inert objects on a wave of the future.