Van Jones, one of the Bay Area's most important activist leaders and a well-known progressive voice nationally, has been appointed to serve in the Obama administration as "green jobs czar," charged with developing policies for federal investment in environmentally sustainable economic projects.
While many have hailed Jones's appointment as good news for environmental policy, it poses an old question for the left--about the role of activism, and the relationship between social movements and state power.
Jones himself raised this concern in a March 16 interview with GreenBiz.com in which he said, "When Nelson Mandela came out and the ANC took over, people left the townships and went into parliament, and the movement politics and the township politics really suffered. I think that it had a negative impact."
Jones went on to say that he was "not concerned" about something similar happening as a result of his own appointment because the movement was "growing" and he could be replaced.
But, of course, any serious comparison of the strength of the South African freedom movement and the state of the American grassroots left makes it clear that if South Africa's social movements could be drained of their strength in the townships by joining the government, that danger is only greater here because the movement is weaker organizationally.
In a March 11 interview with Cy Musiker on KQED radio, Jones said, "What's good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don't put themselves up and wind turbines don't manufacture themselves."
Jones popularized these ideas in his best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. The book is filled with ideas for reforming the economy in order to maximize job creation, especially for inner cities devastated by unemployment and racism, and to reduce the free market's destruction of the environment. It has won praise from many quarters, including activists like Winona LaDuke, and it even boasts an introduction by Al Gore.
The fact that Barack Obama chose Jones to work in his administration is a welcome sign of his break with the know-nothing, oil-drenched policies of his predecessor.
Like the appointment of Hilda Solis as labor secretary, Jones's selection partially reflects Obama's belief in the need to restore labor to having some voice in government and to address the escalating environmental crisis--as well as a basic recognition that he owes his victory to pro-labor, pro-environment voters.
But that doesn't change the fact that Jones's appointment raises another set of questions which the left must consider carefully.
In the same KQED interview, Musiker asked Jones, "You've always been a...