Sunday 27 September 2009

Figuring Out the Greens

Managing the message: The late Rod Donald's greatest political achievement was in keeping the various currents of Green Party thought - environmentalism, eco-socialism and eco-evangelism - flowing in the same direction. His premature death in 2006 allowed these competing currents to diverge, and the resulting intra-party power-plays have triggered the departure of their most articulate parliamentary representatives.

The exchange of comments between myself and Green Party member "Go Figure" over my 25 September posting "Sue Bradford Resigns" has raised a sufficiently large number of Green Party-related issues to warrant a separate posting of their own.

THE MOST ALARMING ASPECT of the Greens’ political style is the sheer number of heroic assumptions it makes about the world it is trying to save. Foremost among these is the assumption that by exposing the ecological dangers and social pathologies threatening human civilisation, Green Parties can, and will, secure the political changes required to eliminate them.

The social-change model at work here is straightforwardly educative. Since the self-destructive and ultimately unsustainable policies of current governments are (according to the Greens) based on an insufficient understanding of their ecological and social effects, all that is required to remedy the situation is for the evidence amassed by the world’s natural and social scientists to be placed before the world’s politicians, and the problems will be solved.

That’s what my statement: "At the heart of the Green ideology is a conviction that natural science is devoid of political content" means. It describes a world in which scientific evidence arrives without political baggage. And it explains why the Greens have been so spectacularly unsuccessful in translating the reality of global warming into a commanding electoral position.

They have proved singularly incapable of constructing an effective strategic (or even tactical) response to the brute political fact that, in spite of all the evidence amassed by the world’s leading climatologists’, their own country’s – and the world’s – political leaders refuse to act decisively. Their policy-making model: amass the evidence-present the evidence-effect the change; doesn’t work – and they simply don’t know what to do about it.

Another example is the Greens handling of the Genetic Engineering issue. They promoted and (thanks to the Alliance) eventually secured a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the controversy. Their assumption was that, once the Commissioners were presented with all the evidence of the dangers of GE , they’d adopt the precautionary principle and recommend that the Labour-led Government’s moratorium on GE activity outside the laboratory remain in place.

When this didn’t happen they had no real answer – other than to temporarily sever their relationship with the Labour Party. Not even when Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust revealed to them how effortlessly the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had prevailed over the Prime Minister’s and her advisors’ initial determination to expose and rectify the accidental release of genetically modified corn, the Greens were unable to mount an effective political attack.

The dangers inherent in the Greens’ educative model are demonstrated in their policy on the Treaty of Waitangi. Though the signing of the Treaty, like all historical events, is the subject of multiple, and often sharply contradictory, interpretations, the Greens have adopted an unequivocal and quite inflexible interpretation of the Treaty’s meaning. So much so that when some of their own members, unconvinced by the official party line, openly questioned it’s accuracy, they were deemed ineligible to stand as Green candidates by the Party leadership.

That the dissidents’ views on the Treaty of Waitangi were actually more in tune with those of the majority of Pakeha New Zealanders was an "inconvenient truth" to be overcome by – yes, you guessed it – a taxpayer-funded traveling road-show which would take the "true" meaning of the Treaty directly to the ignorant Pakeha masses and educate them into full conformity with the Greens’ historical interpretation.

This authoritarian aspect of the Greens’ political style is nowhere more apparent than in their so-called "consensus-based decision-making" constitution. Described as a means of "seeking positions that the maximum number of people can support, rather than a simple majority", what these rules actually make possible is the ability of a tiny minority to over-rule and/or subvert the will of the majority.

In practical terms, it allows the leadership of the party, either directly or through their surrogates, to prevent the membership from directly challenging the Green Party caucus’s political strategy and tactics. Rather than promoting the open contest of conflicting political options, it fosters the cobbling together of compromises. Also, by imposing enormous emotional pressure on dissenters, it drives opposition below the surface of party affairs – a situation which, once again, privileges those in senior positions, and makes rank-and-file challenges to official party policy extremely difficult.

Offsetting these massive political liabilities, however, was the presence in the 1999-2008 Green Party caucus of eco-socialist politicians Sue Bradford and Keith Locke, and the eco-religious activist, Nandor Tanczos. The formers’ Marxist backgrounds provided them with a very different social-change model, one based upon the understanding that ideas – even scientific ideas – arise out of the political, economic and cultural context of social classes in unrelenting conflict, and that the only truly effective means of defending Planet Earth is by organising the victims of socio-economic and/or ecological violence against the economic and social forces responsible for inflicting it. In other words: without assembling the mass movements required to make those responsible for assaulting the planet and its peoples cease and desist, simply presenting governments with evidence of their ecological and social crimes is never going to be enough.

Eco-religious activism can be of enormous help in this regard. By adding a metaphysical gloss to the political exigencies of what remains, fundamentally, a class-based conflict, the existential aspects of the issues at stake can be brought into sharper focus. When all is said and done, the struggle is about nothing less than the long-term survival of our own, and countless other living species. It is a battle for the very possibility of a just and abundant human future.

More than any other Green Party leader, Rod Donald understood the critical importance of keeping all of these aspects of the Greens in play. A natural and highly effective political campaigner, he knew how important it was to have clout on the streets as well as in the House. He knew, too, the value of Nandor’s gentle eco-evangelism in a society increasingly bereft of religious and spiritual nourishment. In Sue and Keith, he recognised two potent links to New Zealand’s radical socialist traditions. And, in the environmental work of Jeanette Fitzsimons, he appreciated the value of a well-argued case, based upon solid empirical research. It was Rod’s great skill to keep all of these ideological currents flowing in the same direction. Tragically, his premature death allowed them to diverge, and the resulting intra-party power-shifts have led to the departure of their most articulate representatives.

Sue is merely the latest of these critical individuals to go.

Others will follow.

They will not be replaced.


Swimming said...

And lets hope they go sooner rather than later.

Olwyn said...

I was an electioneer at the last election, admittedly at a small voting station in the inner city, and I was surprised at the end of the night, when I was waiting for the early results to ring through, at the number of National/Green split votes. I wondered at the time if it was our version of the Bradley effect - give your party vote to National, and your candidate vote to a Green who is unlikey to get a seat - thus you can say with a clear conscience that you voted Green (to match your recyclable shopping bag) while you look forward to your tax cut. It would come as no surprise to me if the Greens abandoned or downplayed the socialist aspect of their platform, but I am not sure this would mean a win-win situation for them: they might gain among the new urbanites with the recyclable bags, but would lose the people who have voted for them as left-of-labour. They remain, after all, the largest part of what is left of the Alliance.

Unknown said...

Good post Chris.

Labour has realised that it needs to be a wide church but one with a coherent centre to succeed. Sue Bradford was the voice of the left for the Greens (all due acknowledgment to Keith Locke).

Without her they look like an environmental party that could go right wing or left wing, and Russell Norman's behaviour is a strong indicator of this.

I have been a pretty strong green supporter. I have donated money to them and delivered their pamphlets. I do not think that I could do this now.

Nandor Tanczos said...

Hi Chris

A better argued post than the Sept 25th one, IMHO ;).My reply there addresses some of what I see as the errors of that post.

I think that here you are absolutely right that the Greens have been extraordinarily naive at times about the power of evidence. One of my questions over the years has been 'what is the Green extra-parliamentary power base'?. Votes are not enough, as the so-called 'winter of discontent' (2001?) demonstrated. Labour has the union movement. National has sheer economic power. If the Greens want to make serious moves to address the causes of ecological degradation, this will entail, ultimately, a new economic system - a steady state economy of some description that does not depend on increasing consumption. And those who most benefit from the status quo won't give it up very easily.