At a recent election meeting at the University of Auckland, the prominent anarchist Omar Hamed of the Auckland Anarchist Network presented “an anarchist view on elections” but then admitted he would be voting for the Greens. This was a good example of how the left-wing friends of what is increasingly a party of the establishment must construct a false reality to justify their misfit between theory and practice. Like Christian obscurantists who, despite mounting evidence, continue to present their creationist themes, anti-capitalists who present the Greens as some form of progressive force not only obscure the facts but present an overwhelmingly deceptive image of reality.
The political nature of the Greens
To discover the truth of what the Green Party is all about, who better to go to than its fresh new leader. Russel Norman, a former anti-capitalist associated with the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia, has made explicit his desire not just to save the planet but to save the capitalist system. He has compared the role of the modern-day Greens to that of social democrats of the 1930s who introduced counter-measures against capitalism’s self-destructive tendencies.
In a revealing blog posting in 2007 on Frogblog, Russel Norman presented his thesis on the role of the Greens:
It’s a funny position we find ourselves in. Just as the social democrats (Europe), labourists (UK, Australia, NZ) and new dealers (US) of the 1930s and 1940s had to save capitalism from its own destructive tendencies by introducing a range of modifications and interventions on the market system, so now the Green Parties of the world find ourselves in possibly a similar position. The best of the old social democrats like Michael Cullen are too locked in the old paradigm to understand it, and the sectional interests like the business roundtable and Employers Federation are too narrow to see it, but we have to intervene in the market system to place a price on resource use and pollution so that we can save the planet. And in the process we will quite possibly save the market system from its natural tendency to destroy or consume all resources leading to its own demise as well as the demise of the planet and all of us living on it.
Norman’s comparisons between the Greens and social democratic saviours of capitalism is relevant; however, it needs to be stressed that the Greens are significantly to the right of the old social democratic parties of the 1930s. Traditional social democratic parties, with their working-class base and socialist rhetoric, offered an array of social reforms, partly to dampen growing social divisions and radical sentiments amongst the masses. The Greens’ lack of any substantial social programme shows that they are similar to all other parliamentary parties in operating within the limits set by the reality of modern capitalism. “Oh, but you just don’t know what our economic policies are,” is one reply of the left-wing friends of the Greens. Shall we have a look, then?
The Green Party put forward their left-wing MPs, Keith Locke and Sue Bradford, alongside a number of progressive-sounding policy platitudes. For students they offer moves towards “establishing a public ‘fee-free’ tertiary education system” in the unspecified future while, for the moment, they will kindly cap and maybe reduce fees. For workers faced with the draconian restrictions on the right to strike with Labour’s industrial legislation they dispense with detailed policy and offer support for “a complete review of the Employment Relations Act’”.
Like Labour, the Greens do not presently call for reversing the savage benefit cuts enacted by the Bolger-led National government in the 1990s. Instead they offer beneficiaries “benefit amounts at a level sufficient for all basic needs of the individual/family” and protection of all benefit levels “by linking rates to a fixed percentage of the average wage”.
All this vagueness serves a purpose. Specific policy details can be problematic when moving towards the reins of power and working in the realm of realpolitik. Vague policy statements coupled with statements of long-term desires and principals allow Norman and co to enter negotiations post-election with no “bottom lines” and awkward specific policy commitments that hinder their chances of gaining precious cabinet seats.
Of course, the Greens are no different from the other parliamentary parties with their non-specific policy platforms and flexible maneuvering to stay in the political centre. However, this jars against the attempts by the party to pretend that they are some sort of fresh alternative to political “business as normal”.
With the Green Party’s latest billboards deliberately obscuring what political programme they have, the party conveniently offers its left wing friends a blank canvas on which to paint their desires of what the Greens stand for. That the Greens don’t explicitly distance themselves from their radical supporters points to the usefulness of having a bunch of anarchists and radicals providing them with a left-wing cover.
This left wing cover is particularly important as the Greens move to the right. For example, whereas left-wing supporters of the Greens do occasionally point to capitalism as anathema to an environmentally sustainable economy, the Greens have adopted a controlled market approach to the environment. As pointed out previously on this blog, the Greens are increasingly adopting a pro-capitalist orientation towards environmental issues:
Note, for example, the Greens’ new climate change plan announced recently called “Kicking the Carbon Habit”. In this, the Greens propose that global warming can be averted by making use of an international emissions trading market in which New Zealand businesses essentially buy and sell permissions to emit pollution. This market approach has been welcomed by everyone from Labour and National through to the forestry industry. Right-wing and business interests are starting to realise that they can actually do business with the Greens.
The Green Party’s distance from progressive politics is most strongly exposed with its statements on immigration and economic nationalism. In these areas they have often competed with the xenophobic New Zealand First party for appealing to reactionary ideas about economic nationalism.
In 2006 the Green Party reacted strongly to proposals from a visiting Chinese minister who put forward the position for allowing increased numbers of Chinese workers here on temporary visas. A Dominion Post article of 5 October 2006 said “but the Green Party says it would trigger a ‘race to the bottom’ for New Zealand wages and conditions”. Also: “Dr Norman said there would have to be a genuine shortage of New Zealand workers and the Government would have to prove it had made efforts to offer training to local workers to fill vacancies.” Such statements are not only reminiscent of Peters’ revolting racist rhetoric directed against Asian immigrants in the 1990s, but also of the White New Zealand policy implemented for much of the last century.
The German Greens
The experience of the German Greens offers a sobering reading of where the New Zealand Greens could be heading. The German Green Party formed in the mid-1970s and drew in a number of activists, including many active in the anti-nuclear movement. In the early 1980s they won seats in the West German parliament. In the late 1990s they formed a coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Germany in a so-called Red-Green Alliance and were a partner in the federal government from 1998 to 2005. The Greens’ leader, Joschka Fischer, acted as Germany’s foreign minister.
Like the Greens here, the German Greens shifted to the right as they moved closer to the reins of power. In contrast with the New Zealand Greens, this opportunist political shift caused a split in the German Greens between the “fundis” who held some attachment to the party’s radical-pacifist traditions and the “realos” who were maneuvering the Greens into being a mainstream capitalist party.
The formal break from its past came when the party, at a Green conference in Bielefeld, endorsed foreign minister’s Fischer’s support for NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. Also, the German Greens as part of the coalition government took part in comprehensive attacks on social services and working-class living conditions.
The Green Party in Germany’s rapid move to the right can be seen as partially a result of the social make-up of the party. Like the Green Party here, the German Greens have a predominantly “middle-class” make-up. With few ties to organised labour in the form of unions, the party could easily swing from being one focused on concerns of the liberal middle class, such as nuclear proliferation, to being a party promoting right-wing austerity measures.
Although the German Greens’ shift away from pacifist politics certainly disquieted many of their supporters, its participation in attacks on social services and working-class conditions can’t really be seen as a betrayal, as the Greens never had a working-class base or significant working-class support.
The Greening of the left
What has led to anarchists, socialists and anti-capitalists embracing the Greens, or at least giving them some form of “critical” support? Is it a matter of the party being viewed as a lesser evil, whose elevation will alleviate some of the suffering caused by the all-embracing capitalist system?
Certainly the presence of former radicals Sue Bradford and Keith Locke provides hope for left Green supporters. Yet the presence of former anarchists, Maoists and Trotskyists in the German Greens equally excited many on the left there.
Does their support go even further than this - is there an honest belief in the transforming possibilities of the Greens? In the way that Barack Obama, with his vague calls for change, has become a blank canvas for the American electorate to paint their hopes and fears on, the New Zealand Green Party is a broad church accommodating many.
Take the Green Party caucus. The caucus, rather than being a cohesive unit, appears as a collection of single-issue individuals held together by an implicit pact to be accommodating, or maybe neutral, towards each other’s pet projects - workers’ rights, anti-imperialism, consumer issues, etc. That this pact extends out into the wider party is partly an explanation for the accommodation towards anarchists and other anti-capitalists who have made the Greens their home. That these anti-capitalist Greens feel no need to engage in any serious reflection on the rightward drift of the party points to them at least subconsciously buying into this pact.
Another explanation for the greening of the left is to see this process as an extension of the tripod theories that became fashionable in the 1980s. The tripod theories held that class should no longer be the primary concern of the left - gender, race and class where to be given equal status in terms of analysing society and in terms of engagement in political action. Disillusioned Stalinists and Maoists, who were desperate to discard their unfashionable baggage, enthusiastically embraced this new approach.
Tripod theories can be seen as a variant of post-modern approaches to struggle, with no form of oppression or identity given primacy and a tolerant, non-critical approach given to various avenues of struggle. That most of these struggles, although progressive, not only do not challenge the capitalist paradigm, but also have been actually embraced by the establishment (for example, anti-racism, gay rights, anti-sexism) is telling. Has the tripod approach extended out to be a quadpod approach, with environmentalism having equal status alongside class, race and gender? Does this offer some explanation for the left’s embracing of the Green cause?
Taking the red pill
In the Matrix film Neo, the protagonist faces a seminal moment when he is offered a chance to see the truth. Neo is taken to Morpheus, a resistance leader, who explains that he lives in a false reality, that what appears as “real” is a constructed mirage to hide the truth. Morpheus presents Neo with two pills. If he takes the blue pill, Neo will wake up and “believe whatever you want to believe”. Neo takes the red pill and faces an epiphany where he is shown the world as it is, “the desert of the real”.
Metaphorically taking the blue pill and waking up to “believe whatever you want to believe” is often the less painful option. Being faced with reality can hurt. Many seek comfort within constructed realities. For those who recoil from the mystery and growing uncertainties of capitalist existence, what better comfort than a party that offers an easy panacea to the nightmare of the real.
The Green Party in New Zealand has openly reconstructed itself as a party of the centre, willing to do deals with any other capitalist party with no “bottom lines”. Despite the deceptive image various leftists hold up of the party, the scenario played out in Germany with the Greens may prove not to be a unique one.
So, will the Green Party’s left-wing friends dare to take the red pill and see this party for what it is? The truth can be painful.
(This article first appeared as a guest blog on Liberation.)