Wednesday 19 February 2020

Burning Down The House: Will The Greens Be The Death Of The Left?

Collateral Damage: For the Green Phoenix to be reborn, the funeral pyre so patiently assembled by its identity politicians over the course of many fractious years – but with growing intensity over the past three – first has to be ignited. The terrible probability, of course, is that, in setting themselves on fire, the Greens will end up immolating the hopes and aspirations of the whole progressive movement.

CAN THE GREENS get themselves back on track? Once a political party has made the decisive turn towards identity politics is there anything short of electoral disaster capable of inducing a change of direction? There are two problems here. The first relates to ideology, and is at least theoretically fixable. The second is about the political praxis of identity politics – how Greens actually perform politics. Sadly, to fix that you’d need a neutron bomb. [A particularly nasty kind of nuclear device that kills people, but leaves structures standing. – C.T.]

Tom Walker is a British comedian whose alter-ego, Johnathan Pie, has gained a worldwide audience by addressing the follies of – well – just about the whole cast of characters encompassed by the United Kingdom’s manifold political catastrophes. One of Walker’s latest offerings depicts the dire consequences for Pie (supposedly a journalist covering politics for one of the big television networks) that flow from his innocently allowing a participant in a pro-Brexit rally to take a selfie with him. It is a chillingly funny piece of satire – as applicable to the New Zealand Green Party as it is to the increasingly “woke” workplaces of the UK media.

The toxic culture satirised in Walker’s vignette is the inevitable result of interpreting events through the severely distorting prism of identity. Once embarked upon, this journey proceeds towards its inevitable denouement in utter organisational disintegration and failure.

One of the very first local instances of organisational collapse brought on by identity politics was the New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA). Beginning in the late 1970s, the student movement’s activist minority persuaded NZUSA to restructure itself to reflect the growing strength of the so-called “New Social Movements” – especially Feminism, Anti-Racism and Gay Liberation.

NZUSA “Vice-Presidents” proliferated accordingly, and the May and August meetings of the organisation became ideological battlegrounds where the identarians fought to wrest control of the student movement from the Marxist Left. With every passing year, NZUSA drifted further and further away from its core functions until, in the early-1990s, the entire “politically correct” (originally a left-wing term) structure was demolished by the champions of “ordinary” (i.e. conservative) students.

A very similar fate awaited the highly successful aid organisation, CORSO, which was taken over by Maori nationalists and transformed into an instrument for promoting the early-1980s movement for “Maori Sovereignty”. Unsurprisingly, the tens-of-thousands of Pakeha donors who had built CORSO weren’t having a bar of it. They voted with the feet – and, more importantly, with their chequebooks. CORSO’s new managers received these defections as proof positive of the pervasiveness of Pakeha racism – even on the political Left. They may well have been right, but being politically correct wasn’t enough to save CORSO.

Similar challenges assailed the trade union movement, but the entrenched power of the traditional Left was more than equal to the task of stopping the identarians in their tracks. It took Bill Birch and the National Party to destroy what identity politics couldn’t dent. Interestingly, by the time the Employment Contracts Bill became law in 1991, a great many of those engaged in identity politics had already made their peace with the hegemonic ambitions of the neoliberal economic and political order. The latter was only too happy to see the activist energy formerly devoted to smashing capitalism diverted into building iwi corporations, placing upper-middle-class women on the boards of New Zealand’s biggest companies, and seizing the commercial opportunities of the pink dollar.

What is truly surprising about the Greens is how long a party more-or-less constructed out of the new social movements of the 1960s and 70s was able to resist the centrifugal forces inherent in identity politics. So long as the battle to save the global environment remained the central focus of the party, and so long as in fighting for the environment the Greens were willing to pit themselves against its deadliest foe – Global Capitalism – then the other social movements, while important, were unwilling to dilute the political potency of the party’s prime directive: Save the Planet!

In this respect, they were assisted immensely by the charismatic leadership of individuals like Rod Donald, Jeanette Fitzsimons, Sue Bradford, Keith Locke, Sue Kedgely and Nandor Tanczos. These individuals could not, however, hold at bay forever the claims advanced on behalf of Te Tiriti, gender equality and the rainbow agenda. Neither was it possible to drown out forever the siren song of parliamentary power, nor the ideological compromises necessary for its acquisition. If the Tangata Whenua, Third Wave Feminism and the Rainbow Community could make their peace with the realities of neoliberal globalism, then why not Green Environmentalism?

Could the Greens be argued out of their present, deeply compromised, political orientation? Theoretically, yes. Never before in human history has the need to resist environmental despoliation been more urgent or self-evident. If Capitalism is not defeated, then the fate of humankind is sealed. The evidence admits of no other conclusion: uncompromising resistance to the capitalists’ wilful destruction of the biosphere is the only rational political choice. A strong leader would have little difficulty in making out this case in a movement whose prime directive is – Save the Planet!

And, therein, lies the problem. Organisations which have fallen victim to the self-consuming logic of identity politics become viciously intolerant of anything even remotely hinting of strong leadership. Nothing twists together the component strands of identarian culture faster than the prospect of a single individual taking back control of the political narrative. And, almost always, those strands end up being twisted around the offending individual’s neck. What this process fosters is not leadership, but the very worst sort of “palace politics”. All trust is lost; every back becomes a target; nothing strong or inspirational is permitted to survive; and the hard-won wisdom of experience is dismissed with a snappy “Okay, Boomer!”

For the Green Phoenix to be reborn, the funeral pyre so patiently assembled by its identity politicians over the course of many fractious years – but with growing intensity over the past three – first has to be ignited. The terrible probability, of course, is that, in setting themselves on fire, the Greens will end up immolating the hopes and aspirations of the whole progressive movement.

And with the time remaining to save the planet so very short, that would be a crime.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 February 2020.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Identity politics does not exist in a vacuum. There's no point in just railing about it if you don't do something to make sure that those who engage in it receive the same treatment from the political system as the straight white majority. Until that happens it will still exist.

Bill Wright said...

Absolutely right Chris, the Green party has become a disaster forsaking its founding values and becoming Woke.

I read about the Values Party in the Ecologist magazine in 1972. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1973 I immediately joined the Auckland branch of Values. In 1975 I campaigned with Values's Northland candidate. Back then, the thrust of the party was on environmental concerns.

In recent years I have watched with dismay the descent of the Green Party into entanglement with issues far removed from environmentalism and the global climate crisis.

I cannot subscribe to the dishonest reinterpretation of the simple 1840 treaty. Further, one has only to look at events in Europe to see the consequences of mass economic immigration and so-called diversity.

The September election presents a dilemma, I can no longer support the Green Party and Labour trends in the same direction. Neoliberal National has always been a nonstarter.

greywarbler said...

Very interesting thinking. There is a connecting line that runs through the different positions and that is purity; the 100 per centers, utopians. They will not tolerate any diversion from the straightness of path, the rightness of their ideas, differing views are a perversion of them. Ultimately dictatorship controlling - a reverse of The Handmaid situation.

I cannot look forward to the loud, stinging, self-righteousness of any group that cannot tolerate any dissent. And that does not allow consideration for humans to behave like humans are hard-wired to do which is to go off the rails without time for reflection on ethics with reason.
Parents in company with a thoughtful, nurturing society need to teach, and model, behaviours that allow harmonious living with reasonable freedoms but also trust that individual excesses will be limited.

What chance would we have to return to a more friendly, open and trusting society if the present 'woke' Greens gain more power directly or indirectly? The purity of the 'identity' arguments results in them soaring above differing opinions and aspirations from many on the previous left. Rigidity in behaviour that is not essential for the good running of the planet and the reasonable needs of the community, acts divisively to kill community. There will be increased splits and venom as the anxious population divides and shifts to the right who then rule their own, and monitor the rest of society with suspicion and dislike.

Cults will proliferate tending to extreme and isolating style along the lines of - Destiny, Gloriavale, Scientology or Exclusive Brethren. The bigger ones are wealthy and predatory. This group consider themselves a good-living community.
Then with strong cults that are secretive - if they got hold of major media, we would be stuffed for real knowledge of the power-plays within the nation. If Stuff is sold to the other major newspaper - how would we get information on the dirty tricks brigade wherever they arise?

Anonymous said...

Very nicely written.

Shane McDowall said...

" What do we want? Land rights for gay dolphins ! When do we want it ? Now ! "

I have been using this witty line since at least the mid-1990s.

And this member of the Takata Whenua has not surrendered to neo-liberal globalisation.

I give my party vote to NZF, not out of love for Winston Peters, but because the party is a consistent opponent of neo-liberalism.

Being a small party there is sweet f.a. they can do about neo-liberalism

For anything to change the Labour Party is going to have to lead the way.

As for the Greens, well, I have never liked them and never will.

Beardy-weirdy tree-hugging homosexual worshipping pacifists they are, always have been, and alway will be.

David George said...

GS The political system (and "the system" more generally) will naturally tend to reflect and support the interests and attitudes of the majority; non democratic tyrannies excepted. Identifying with the majority (in our case "New Zealander") first (and whatever else second) looks like a good idea and helps negate the problem of everyone advancing their particular interests based on some aspect of their identity. The "straight white" folk deciding to play the identity politics game themselves being the obvious next step.
As if the Greens racist "colonist" dog whistling isn't reason enough to discard them, their totalitarian inclinations and the biting austerity that would result from implementation of their deranged policies are.

greywarbler said...

Other commenters here don't seem to realise that their answers are no answer. Concentrating on green environmental issues ignores the fact that we are vulnerable animals too and can't be ruled by a Stalinesque green-oriented group. Nor can Green concerns be dismissed as inferior bleatings.
These are thoughtful human beings, but like all of us inclined to either silo approaches, or to excessive universal demands. Balance and trying to consider everything, and do a triage in these perilous times is necessary.

Just one thing. We have too many old people who are a weight on society and family can't nurse their demented last years alone, most need to be held in a secure facility so they don't wander and have to be watched over like babies. Is there a willingness to allow those who want euthanasia choice done individually? No. Every problem shows up with heavy weights dragging it away from practical scrutiny. Attempts at honest, intelligent thought are attacked, and emotion poured out about the latest example of a failed system. Reaction is the way forward, half a step then sliding back two. It seems hopeless to stir the complacent, and those who have never taken responsibility yet are allowed the right of a vote. Fence-sitters but climate change is burning them or flooding them away under the bums.

Anonymous said...

Good article !
I sit w " Bill Wright " above...asa Values voter when they began and the election following.
The dishonesty now,of the left in NZ(woke bullshit artists) is staggering. I am of the view, supporters who are politically "aware ", and who genuinely follow their( NZ Greens ) dogma are either morons, or fundamentally dishonest!
I now support David him or loathe him...he has integrity !

David George said...

The lost world of Left-wing patriotism

Peter Shore. "Above all else, he believed in the right of the British people to take the decisions that governed them. For many on the Labour Left, opposition to membership of the Common Market was based on its enshrinement of a capitalist economy in treaty form. For Peter, that was merely a by-product of its fundamental flaw — that it destroyed genuine representative democracy.

It’s striking from reading his speeches how directly relevant Shore’s arguments remain today, contributions that go as far back as the early 1960s, and the time of Hugh Gaitskell’s famous 1962 party conference speech, in which the then Labour leader argued that membership would mean “the end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history.”

But there was a far broader thrust to Peter Shore’s politics than mere opposition to the Common Market. It’s that word patriotism. For Peter, patriotism was not the flag-waving nationalism of caricature but a deep seated imperative to improve the lot of one’s fellow citizens."
"Speaking on ITV’s Weekend World, he criticised an outlook that sought to build a majority by mobilising minorities. A majority could not be won “based upon the principles of solidarity and community consciousness which we need in the Labour movement, if you try to enlist the single issue, egotism and selfishness of particular groups”. Labour needed, rather, to develop a broad appeal to the majority of voters."

AB said...

Right-wing eugenicists occupy both the White House and Downing Street and there are those who have been identified by the right as inferior. Capitalism will exclude the disempowered and it is the right that has isolated groups based on identity. While I think the left has failed to understand and educate on the links between capitalism and group exclusion, it is hardly useful to blame those who politically identify with those excluded for the failure of the left to build a sufficient coalition to protect the disempowered from the right-wing extremists.

Phil Saxby said...

Maybe use your vote to help NZFirst over the 5% threshold?
They may be necessary for Jacinda to remain as PM.

David George said...

AB: "the links between capitalism and group exclusion"
I wonder just how valid that simplistic claim is? It suits the identity politics agenda but is it reality or something else.
These are US statistics but I'm sure we have similar results here.
"The plain fact is that people regularly come to the USA from countries where cars are a luxury item, such as Pakistan and Vietnam, and out-perform our native-born citizens. When the U.S. Census Bureau recorded this data in 2014, the top three income-earning groups in the USA were Indian Americans ($100,295 per year), Taiwanese Americans ($85,566), and Filipinos ($82,369). Nigerians also did quite well; American whites, analysed together as a group, earned $57,355 per household and finished behind 18 minority immigrant groups."

The assertion that economic (or other life measures) success equals oppression just doesn't stack up when one considers the relatively minor difference between group averages and the orders of magnitude differences within groups - the poorest Filipino versus the wealthiest for example.

David George said...

Very good points Chris.
With the Greens (largely via foghorn in chief Marama) out to alienate vast swathes of potential voters their close association with Labour will likely drag the NZ left into ignominious defeat. Anyone non Maori is apparently a "colonist" (even if you were born here) now she's telling the feminists to STFU: trans with penises are women! They've picked a fight with some pretty feisty females with that one.
The British Labour party also seem intent on self destruction over identity politics. Good write up from an actual trans, even he/she can’t believe it.
“So when they talk about self-identification, it seems to me that the Labour Party has chosen to identify as unelectable.”

greywarbler said...

Speak slowly, then repeat. Consider and hold as a base idea to bring forward constantly while minds run rampant with possibilities whose time is not yet, if ever.

Phil Saxby says it right. Motto and method: Keep Calm and Carry On. At the end of the day, and that is every day until the election, this is the message to remember:

Maybe use your vote to help NZFirst over the 5% threshold?
They may be necessary for Jacinda to remain as PM.

John Hurley said...

The Greens are UK Labour

Mike Grimshaw said...

Traditionally, environmental concerns have often been more on the right than they were on the left; indeed we have seen the return and rise of eco-fascism on the rise that looks back to that history: anti-urban, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-modern.
The rise of the left-greens occurs from the 1960s as a form of counter-cultural left anti-modernism and it is this that positions much of the current green party in NZ on the counter-cultural identity-politics left of nz politics.

Both eco-fascism and eco-marxist approaches alienate that much larger centrist block of voters who have genuine environmental concerns that they wish to see recognised within a more centrist form of capitalism - whether it is National or Labour as the majority party in a government.

In short, a centrist environmental party is the great lost opportunity in NZ politics- a party that explicitly says it is willing to work with either National or Labour to further environmental issues.