Van of action

Illustration by Dave Murray

When environmental and social activist Van Jones was recruited in spring 2009 by the Obama administration to serve as the White House’s special advisor on green jobs, many saw it as a clear sign that the President was committed to building a low-carbon economy, both to tackle climate change and boost employment. Jones, who had just published the New York Times bestseller The Green Collar Economy, believed the move to a clean energy economy was a way to “green the ghetto” and lift millions of Americans out of poverty. California Congresswoman Barbara Lee called the appointment a “wonderful addition” to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and credited Jones for being at the forefront of the green jobs movement. But less than six months into the job Jones found himself the target of what he called a “vicious smear campaign.” Considering it a distraction he resigned from his position, telling media his mission is to “fight for others, not for myself.” And fight for others he is. In 2011 Jones launched his Rebuild the Dream campaign (rebuildthedream.com), a “people-powered” initiative with 600,000 members aimed at fixing all that’s wrong with the American economy. Corporate Knights had an opportunity to chat with Jones, 44, about the campaign, the failures of the political left, and the role that clean capitalism can play to mend a broken social contract.

CK: What will the Rebuild the Dream campaign be focusing on in the lead-up to and immediately following the election? It seems so far that tuition fees and home ownership have been two big issues for you.

JONES: A college education is part of the springboard out of poverty and into the middle class, just like home ownership. But these days, getting a college education and buying a house seem more like trap doors into poverty for the middle class, and we’ve got to change that. So we launched two very aggressive campaigns to keep the interest rate on student loans from doubling, and also to get relief for homeowners with underwater mortgages. That effort is building credibility in the media. We will then be pivoting at the end of the year when the big budget battle goes down. We’ll be fighting a major war to prevent the Bush tax cuts for the rich from being extended, and to protect essential programs from the meat cleaver.

CK: You’ve said you see potential for creating a Tea Party for the left, and that the left has to start playing hardball. Can you explain that?

JONES: The Tea Party is a brilliant invention because it took previously existing donors and activists and ideas, repackaged them, and positioned them both inside and outside the Republican Party. The Tea Party now has all the benefits of being a third party in America with none of the downside. They can present their own ideas. They can make electoral challenges to Republicans they don’t like in the primary season. And they can even chip into certain pieces of legislation. But when it comes to a general election they’re able to walk back into the Republican Party as it is, and essentially have their cake and eat it too.

CK: And this is lacking on the left?

JONES: For progressives, who make up the majority of the Democratic Party, we have no such mechanism. So even though many of our ideas are quite popular as far as tax fairness for all Americans and concern about income inequality and big money and politics, we have not yet evolved a mechanism to push Democrats to stick up for that agenda. We think that is a weakness for progressives, but also a weakness for the party overall because the spine is not visible all too often. Therefore it’s a weakness for the country, because we think our ideas are good. Take strong private-sector initiative, balance it off with smart tax policy and intelligent regulation, and you get a great country.

CK: That all sounds like common sense.

JONES: In some ways, so-called progressives are actually very conservative because they are trying to conserve some of the wisdom of our grandparents, who, after the Great Depression, knew they had to keep Wall Street on a fairly tight leash and protect the working people. In some ways, people who want to call themselves conservatives are quite radical and reckless because the ideas they are pursuing were not only thrown in the garbage can by our grandparents when they created the New Deal, but also have proven quite disastrous in every other country. That’s the idea that you can have a country where the market is free but the people aren’t, because they are subjected to elections that are bought and paid for by the rich and they have to live under fear of unemployment without any social safety net or sturdy ladders of opportunity. So in a way, the Tea Party is really the party of aggressive radicals and our ideas are the sturdier and more proven ideas of trying to build a middle class in a country. But it does require that wealthy people who have done well in America do well by America by paying their taxes, respecting our air and water, and creating good jobs here.

CK: Is America broke?

JONES: There’s this big myth out there that America is broke. America is not broke – we’re the richest country in the history of the world, even today. Our economy is almost twice as big as China’s with a third of the population and our economy is as big as almost all of Europe right now. It’s not that America is broke, it’s that the social contract is broken – the idea that by creating a positive business environment and protecting property rights, people who work hard and play by the rules can get ahead; that those who get ahead pay America back in the form of good taxes and wages. That’s the social contract we’re trying to hold onto. But here, today, we have people making more and more money and not wanting to pay America back to keep the game going.

CK: Somehow it seems Tea Party types have turned the story around, suggesting that the kind of return to the social contract you mention is almost un-American.

JONES: The debate has evolved into this silly extremism, based on the belief that a totally unregulated market and profit-making with no sense of social responsibility – or even concern for the national interest – is the highest form of patriotism; as if any concern for the impact of American air, water, children, middle class, is somehow anti-patriotic. It’s this nutso form of cheap patriotism that disguises this real wrecking-ball agenda for most of the things that have made America great. We stand for a deeper patriotism. Of course we should excel as a country economically, and we want to continue doing so. But that’s not the only thing to be proud of. That assessment, only measuring market success, makes America way too small. We also led the world in environmental protection, consumer protection and in labor rights, and in civil and women’s rights to grow the number of people who could participate. You can find any old country nowadays where they just let the big global corporations do whatever they want to do. That’s not the pathway to having a great country.

CK: To what degree has corporate meddling in political affairs and intense corporate lobbying contributed to the problem?

JONES: There are some very wealthy elements in the United States who appear to have an agenda; who pour more corporate cash into our electoral system and push more ordinary people out. We don’t just have a budget deficit; we have a democracy deficit. We need big money out and we need ordinary voters in. Super PACs (political action committees) are probably going to spend more money than the presidential candidates themselves to impact our election. Can you imagine running for President of the United States, the most powerful position in the world, and you have to wake up in the morning and turn on the TV yourself to see what the ads are on your own campaign? Where people you don’t know, and by law you can’t have contact with, have more money to spend on your race than you do? I mean, that’s crazy. And that’s not in the constitution. That is so far from democracy. Democracy shouldn’t be for sale. Corporate money should be used for corporate purposes. They shouldn’t be used for political purposes.

CK: Can you point to any of the biggest violators?

JONES: The Koch brothers have done tremendous damage to the country as a whole because they sell their dirty energy and use the proceeds to pump dirty money into our political system. They’re not just fouling our air and water, they’re fouling our process.

CK: Do you see a role for responsible corporations to help improve the situation? Do you believe there can be a more responsible form of capitalism?

JONES: I’m a big champion of socially responsible, ecological restorative capitalism. To me that is a big opportunity if we can use our entrepreneurial genius and our innovation and our enterprise to solve problems, rather than making them worse. Maybe then we can get out of this mess we’re in economically and ecologically. In fact, that’s the only way because governments are good at some things and not others. We want America’s government to be on the side of our problem solvers in the U.S. economy and not on the side of our problem makers. The problem solvers are in the solar industry, the wind industry, organic foods – they are coming up with new technologies that allow people to share their resources without having to buy as much crap. But the government is on the side of the old polluting industries and big global corporations that are continually trying to force feed Americans unhealthy foods and unnecessary products. There has to be some kind of a cultural realignment, economic realignment and political realignment if we’re to have a future that is livable.

CK: Do you think the Occupy movement has legs? Will the voices of the 99 per cent grow louder and more forceful?

JONES: It’s way too early to say what the future of Occupy is or isn’t. Occupy is only a year old. Dr. (Martin Luther) King was 24 years old during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It took him more than a year to win that fight, and you really didn’t hear from the civil rights movement for four years between Montgomery and February 1, 1960, when (black) students started blockading and sit-in protests. So if a year after Montgomery you had tried to make an assessment of the civil rights potential of the country, Dr. King and the generation right behind him, you would have come to a very erroneous view that they had become a one-hit wonder in Montgomery. You would have had the same view two years later, too. But 12 years later it became very clear that that little bus boycott was the beginning of something that changed America permanently. That’s why it’s way too early to make any definitive assessment about Occupy or any of the things that Occupy has set in motion.

CK: Where does that leave your Rebuild the Dream campaign?

JONES: We think the issues of the 99 per cent have to be met by answers for the 99 per cent. The key issues of joblessness, of underwater mortgages, of unaffordable college education, of the environment, have to be met with practical solutions. We have a 10-point program called a Contract for the American Dream – 131,203 people worked together on it online and offline to create that jobs plan, which includes campaign finance reform. There’s a way forward here, and months before Occupy Wall Street we had pulled together these 131,000 people to come up with an equal-authored jobs plan. We’ll continue to rely on it and point to it. We will keep fighting for practical solutions. Part of what happens with our media is it tends to notice things only when they are at a high point of public mobilization. Whether it’s the Tea Party or the 99 per cent or anything else, if it’s not literally storming down the street it’s judged to have disappeared. But just because it’s not on a TV screen doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Latest from Leadership

current issue