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.