green politics today - a view from the cultural fringe...
The cultural wave was led by the avante garde, people who like fast progress. The further ahead they got, the more the trend-followers felt like giving up so the latter settled in the vacant space between leading edge and normalcy. The psychology of gradualism took over, so they advocated that progress had to be incremental. The interface with mainstream culture became their domain. They are liberal socialists.
The consequence nowadays is a cultural divide between remnant leading edge thinkers - free spirits – and the occupants of the political correctness mindset, who believe in conformity. The Labour party consists entirely of the latter group, whereas the greens consist of both.
Recently someone posed the question `ought we to ask the Greens to make climate change an election issue?' Immediately beset by so many conflicting feelings that it rapidly became apparent my answer would turn into an essay, I passed on the opportunity to respond. Who's got time to either write or read one these days? Ill health has since forced me into an early retirement but because the question was timely & pertinent it continued to niggle at me - so I have written it! Readers clinging to an idealistic view of the Greens may find my view unpalatable. Too bad! The truth often hurts.
Responses to the query were all over the place (typical greens) – not a good sign when common cause is advanced via like-mindedness, but I have enough natural empathy to see that it reflected the subjective realities of respondents. I will try to transcend my own subjective stance on the issue sufficiently to advance our common cause in the big picture but you will be the judge of whether I succeed.
My instinctive response was to reply `yes, of course'. The need for action is now urgent. Then all sorts of contextual reasons loomed to deny that such a response was wise so I need to digress into the historical context somewhat. The psychodynamics of political groups are such that the past is always playing out in the present - usually to the extent of throttling the future at birth.
Hard to imagine there's anyone left who still thinks that either wing of the Nationalabour party is potentially able to provide a better alternative to business as usual. Business has been trashing the planet, ripping people off & poisoning both our food and environment continuously because ruling parties of the left and right have been condoning it right round the world for at least the past 40 since I started to take notice & probably decades earlier. The left/right collusion has been made explicitly evident since the more-market reforms a quarter-century ago.
Mainstream kiwis keep performing the binary flip/flop at election time like good little robots, but there's a much greater constituency for a 3rd alternative nowadays. Can the Greens capture that constituency? Not while they keep trying to be an alternative Labour party. You'd think they would have learnt from the failure of New Labour in the early '90s. Current polling is promising, but will it again turn out to be a false promise? I advise an intelligent approach, which would require acknowledging that the constituency for a 3rd alternative has existed for years, identifying it explicitly, and electing to represent it effectively. The Greens have a couple of young leaders who come across quite well in the media without displaying any sign of grasping the potential of their strategic situation.
I need now to distinguish two green political constituencies. I've been green consciously since the late '60s – and, in a mystic sense, tacitly since childhood in the '50s. So let's define a green as someone who believes in protecting nature, creating a healthy society & implementing a sustainable economy. We can then define a Green as a member of the Green Party. I was both between Dec '90 & mid '95, otherwise the former for more than 40 years. The Greens are a minor subset of the greens in this country. The greens are likely to vote Green without being motivated to identify with the Green Party! The greens are a political constituency that could be wooed by the main parties if they weren't too stupid to try. Call them a tribe. Having been so long a member of this tribe, I'm happy to speak for them. I could even represent them to this country's media given the opportunity. Nobody else has even done them the courtesy of acknowledging their separate existence to the Green Party so they could be grateful if I did! I always self-identified with the avante-garde, and never approved the trend-followers' later perversion of the message of the movement.
In my view the Greens (politicians & activist members) cannot be credible representatives of my tribe unless they get their act together and provide a genuine 3rd alternative to National/Labour. They seem at times to be trying to, but it's more a semblance than a substantial provision. The need to seem normal, innocuous, & timid is evidently congenital. Hard to see such limp-wristed types beating the slow-learners around the head with the 4 by 2 of climate change, isn't it? Liberal socialists are incapable of being forceful.
Still, if they are serious about solving the problem, the answer must be yes – provided that they advocate the solution. Could be done, with sufficient finesse, but it's a daunting challenge. [You will observe that I'm responding too late for this campaign: I know, the Greens deserve one last chance to make good so I refrained from engaging. It was clear long ago that Key would win this election.] The question still deserves a full answer. The problem is multi-dimensional, so the solution must be also. It'll still be there next election! We (humanity) become victims if we shirk the challenge, therefore we must engage it.
There's been no real sign of intelligence in Labour since Lange & Palmer, and they lacked the cerebral capacity for exploring alternatives (let alone embracing them) anyway. So the Greens acting like user-friendly Labour clones seems pointless. Better to spit the dummy, admit the left is an intellectual vacuum, a tribe bereft of original thought, lacking the wherewithal for engaging the real world in a constructive and effective manner. What's required instead is political leadership that is staunch in outlining the way forward on a common-interest basis.
I'd like to see the greens working together with the Greens but that'll not happen as long as the politicos remain captive to the system. Sure, changing the system from within has always been possible. One can allow that significant gains have been made in improving this country's political culture, and the Greens deserve credit for pioneering that trend. But we hardly need yet another bunch of suit-wearing dorks in parliament. Why should our political representatives be forced to wear an antique 19th century uniform? I grew up rebelling against that shit, along with all the opinion leaders in my generation around the world. Cowardice is hardly a stance worthy of our support. Are they really so stupid as to be unaware that they are visually signally to the world that they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution? Only if they demonstrate the ability to transcend the parliamentary game will there be genuine solidarity between the greens & the Greens. No sign of that yet.
I joined the Greens after they got 7% in the 1990 election. At a regional party meeting in Tuakau in the summer of '91 leading activists told me they were bogged down in a major collective problem. They kept being unable to build the party structure due to being unable to agree to proposed party rules. As someone who can normally figure out how to solve difficult problems, I volunteered to engage the situation & was accepted into the standing orders committee. It was simply a matter of making suitable textual alterations to achieve agreement between the key players and all the problem clauses fell into place. During the process the party made me convenor of the SOC, so I drove the group process through each of the necessary party forums to formalise the agreements. Together we proved consensus decision-making does actually work if you do it right. Then, 4 years later, I posted the newly-adopted Green Party constitution to Sir Geoffrey Palmer so he could register the party with the Electoral Commission, and bailed out.
That registration was the essential legal step to enable the Greens to contest parliamentary elections. If I hadn't spent that part of my life getting that job done those people wouldn't have been playing their parliamentary game ever since. You may think someone else may have been able to do it if I hadn't: based on the impression I formed at the time I have the contrary opinion. The leading activists were a bunch of mainstream primadonnas competing with each other rather than collaborating, and they'd got themselves into a real catch-22. They couldn't make collective decisions because they couldn't agree to the rules for doing so, but agreeing to the rules required collective decisions! As a non-mainstreamer I was able to think outside that square whereas they were in a collective funk due to their mass inability to do so. I'm sure you can see the parallels to our collective situation globally today. Same psychodynamic applies.
I had several good reasons to exit the party but going into them requires another essay. I still vote green as the best of a bad lot. Have they put “none of the above” as a tickable option on the ballot paper yet? Seems like about a third of the country has been clamouring for that for ages – usually they just don't bother voting. I was with them in '75 when the Values Party showed up (yet I voted for it in '78 because Shadbolt joined). I remember watching the launch coverage on the evening news, astonished & then amused that they apparently thought the country would buy the notion of a bunch of mainstreamers being able to implement a radical agenda. Naturally they proceeded to prove that they weren't really radical and thus incapable of doing what was required.
So yeah, the green movement often defeats itself by refraining from adopting the right stance on issues. Hard to feel solidarity with such ongoing incompetence, eh? Anyone who shows up with genuine ability is liable to freak out the activists & followers alike: the activists see someone who gets results as too much competition, the followers get scared when anyone starts advocating radical solutions. Neither bunch has the brains or guts to face up to the fact that the social problems that the green movement engages have always required radical solutions. That's been the case the past 40 years, do you really want it to continue any longer?? Incrementalism has always been a flawed strategy. I've been feeling I need to resume activity among the greens, and flushing out the syndromes that afflict both greens & Greens is a good way to start.
Careerism, for instance. You'd think the more talented people in the movement the better, so why do the leading green activists compete with each other rather than collaborate? Human nature, indeed, but that's not a sufficient excuse. We can only achieve our common goals by transcending such petty behaviour. Ever wondered why so many different environmental organisations? I could never find any that seemed credible enough to join.
The save-the-world syndrome is less evident nowadays than a generation back, but it remains the most powerful tacit factor driving the green movement. Young males grow up wanting to be heroes, rescue someone, slay a dragon. Prior generations went off to be cannon fodder but my lot came up with a widespread agreement that nature needed protection from the capitalist dragon. Later it became evident that the communist & socialist dragons were also destroying nature. I'm still driven by the archetype, and I suspect many others are likewise (can't speak for the women of course). [I've long suspected that it's our reincarnational agenda.] I'm willing to deploy my problem-solving ability on behalf of both greens & Greens to serve the common good. They will have to accept my critique, which will be ongoing. They will need to assimilate it and learn from it in order for us to work together successfully.
As a child I read the account of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot. The story provides an archetypal lesson: a famous knot so complex nobody ever solved it. Confronted by the damn thing the conqueror of the known world whips out his sword and slices through it in a fraction of a second. Multi-dimensional problems such as climate change are similarly so complex that people naturally drift into the assumption that they are insoluble (the remainder are silly enough to believe governments can do it). We can always follow the excellent historical example: think laterally & cut straight through to the solution.
It's often necessary to jolt people out of complacent negativity in order to generate social progress. That's why I felt the need to be audacious and identify the solution to the climate change problem – simply because it was clear that nobody else was doing so. I hoped to be able to introduce it during Jim Hansen's visit but a suitable opportunity failed to present. [You know these academic formats: a specialist informs the audience of his/her views, at the end people can ask questions but not make statements, never any opportunity to brainstorm or even discuss the issues. Hardly surprising nobody ever gets anywhere.] Anyway I obtained the outline of the solution by listing the relevant key points from Storms of My Grandchildren. Hansen himself only identified 2 necessary elements to the solution, but on my first reading I formed the impression there were more that he had implied without consciously integrating, so I went through it again and found 16! I hoped to be able to eliminate some of these contenders - my bias is to be concise - but reviewing them changed nothing. You could argue that my perception of the solution is subjective and I would agree! But it becomes relatively objective if others concur, and agreeing on the solution is the best way forward. Hoping others might be able to critique the list and find good reasons to prune it I circulated it to the Coal Action Network requesting feedback but got none.
Several likely reasons for that: too busy campaigning, aversion to intellectual endeavour, not ready to believe the problem can be solved therefore unwilling to recognise the solution when confronted by it, incapable of genuine like-minded collaboration. So I was reminded again of those syndromes afflicting both greens & Greens. I often withdraw when my peer group lets me down, but sometimes I get provocative and do a bit of stirring in the hope of catalysing a change for the better. Hence this essay.
Most greens are motivated by by tacit common interests, but careerism in the Greens limits their credibility when it becomes clear that their personal interests are motivating them more than the common ground. 40 years of watching well-intentioned idealists fail to get their collective act together & created an effective political force is too much for me to tolerate. It's evident that the save-the-world syndrome doesn't suffice, and reliance on tacit commonality renders us politically impotent. Time to make it explicit instead!
So get your head around the following outline of the solution to this political problem. Our common cause must be to agree on the solution to the climate change problem, then advocate it's implementation. Given that the Greens continue to be lame as usual, accept that the greens can only save the world by operating independently – establishing an alternative political movement that transcends parliamentary politics, and getting in behind it to drive it forward until it succeeds. The design of such a group has been clarifying in my head the past couple of years, last year the concept was put through workshops locally, and I have spent recent months compiling it onto this site.
A design is merely a complex meme. We know a meme will go viral in any culture if it resonates with people. The time is right: the common-interest basis for human survival is so vast that any feasible design will snowball globally no problem. The test of feasibility is feedback from others capable of envisioning viability. Remember the climate change solution isn't something I invented, so best not to yield to any temptation to dismiss it as my personal fantasy. I didn't dream it up - it derives from the resonance between Hansen's psyche & mine, generated by the book. If the design resonates likewise with you folk, we're on the way...
People wedded to the status quo normally come up with typical mindless objections to better options: `it can't be done', `that'll never work' etc. Humanity would still be living be living in caves if such turkeys were allowed to prevail. You will need to do better than that with any negative feedback; you'll need to actually identify a valid rationale for any objection or critique to seem credible.
There were several other interventions I made that significantly affected the development of the Greens. In the late '80s the trend toward blue-green environmentalism had bothered me, so I spoke up early at a meeting in '91 when it felt to me that an accommodation with National was in the air. Alienation caused by Rogernomics probably explains that trend, but I knew the Nats would be the kiss of death for the greens and was satisfied when the trend subsequently vapourised. I accept that I may have inadvertently precipitated the too-fervent left-alignment I complained about earlier in this essay! Nothing wrong in working with the Nats now that the ideologues are in hiding & their pragmatists are running the show. Just remember the old saying `to sup with the devil, you need a long spoon'.
As a teenage rebel in the '60s I used to wonder why adults acted like sheep. It was particularly evident when you hit them with comments about significant stuff going on, such as the implications of news headlines. Their congenital aversion to real life got dramatic a few years later if you started talking about politics. It was weird seeing grown men get so evasive as to display fear. I had a knack for sincerity and getting to the point real fast, so maybe that's why. I never suffered the `tall poppy' syndrome!
My political consciousness dates from 1970, when it became clear to me that western governments of the right were essentially fascist and the older generations were too stupid to see it. The following year I realised the left were merely a lame version of the right pretending to be good guys, rather than a credible alternative. You couldn't choose between right & wrong - they were both wrong! Many of us became apolitical & got into personal & cultural development instead. A decade later the greens emerged as a tribe from the environmentalist matrix with the notion that they were `neither right nor left, but in front'. I felt that it was an entirely correct diagnosis and a political slogan I was happy to identify with. I kept hoping they'd realise that it ain't enough to talk that talk – to translate that aspirational slogan into collective action, they actually need to walk the walk. That means making the 3rd alternative explicit. Continuing to keep it tacit ensures that the stance remains impotent. I'm not into associating myself with such incompetence.
I accept responsibility for having helped the Greens to go mainstream via playing the parliamentary game, but they must accept responsibility for the fact that their collective performance has kept their public poll support exactly where it was when I joined the party more than 20 years ago. [Since I wrote the first draft of this essay last winter it has floated up a couple of points – time will tell if this is merely due to hot air.] The public has been correct in concluding that they have failed to provide a genuine alternative to National or Labour. They must expand their constituency sufficiently to seem substantial: a comparable 3rd force. It makes sense that they start by reconnecting to the greens. Then they ought to go beyond that, and establish solidarity and consensus with all of this country's environmental groups. That done, the public would sit up & take notice. Media & politicians would be impressed by such political savvy & the result. If it was done on the basis of solving the climate-change problem, it would give the younger generations hope for the future. However the design of a sustainable economy likewise languishes as a job half-done, so I advise recognising that as an essential part of the requisite 3rd alternative approach to politics.
I've always been a potential recruit for a political movement that is staunch & accurate in advocating solutions to social problems & I'm confident I'm far from alone in that. The Greens have done much that is good thus far, but that vehicle is stuck in 2nd gear. The complacency has gone on way too long. People need to see them as a viable part of government, but they seem afflicted by the delusion that they can do that by pretending not to be a threat to business as usual. Either that or they're genuine about not threatening business as usual – hard to tell which of the two options is worse, really! Can't save the world with either handicap. Are they addicted to greenwash?? That's a threat to our survival in itself: pretending to be part of the solution while covertly enlarging the problem. The Greens must become an authentic part of the solution – pretence is no longer good enough.
If they do ditch the pretence, embrace the solution & extend their constituency base they'd promptly move into 3rd gear and I would confidently predict poll support to consolidate in the double figures and trend upward. Embed that via serious determined solidarity in collaboration for a few years & I'd expect it to escalate to 20%, at which point the sheep are likely to disengage the traditional right/left electoral oscillation. When folks discern that a significant movement away from business as usual is happening, they will start to wonder if they ought to follow. That's how sheep operate.
Getting a third of the country behind a better alternative will require something more – political linkage to a global context. The green consensus that has been emerging round the world is that context, and it remains but to formalise the common ground. Why does it need to be formal – why can't we just be lazy & let it remain tacit? Because if you formalise strategic agreements, the media report them and the public can see you're actualising what has previously merely been potential. Actual achievements impress the public. Credibility enhancement inevitably translates into electoral support.
Any greens with intellectual capacity ought to get their heads into doing this work ahead of the trend, so we can ride the wave with ease when it arrives. I've learnt from my experience with the Greens that contenders are thin on the ground, but I propose a call for volunteers anyway. It would help for green politicos in different countries to acknowledge the need for such communal enterprise and organise a suitable online process for participants. Once everyone sees concerted action happening round the world, the idea of a new global trend will take hold in the media. Coverage & discussion will catalyse perception of the greens as a genuine 3rd political force and a viable alternative to the traditional left/right. Getting the third option into everyone's heads will enable kiwis to identify with it readily. Business as usual keeps failing. People want a better option.
Dennis Frank, 11/10/11