Brian S. Roper takes an in-depth look at the policies and politics of the Greens.
As indicated by the major polls, support for the Green Party ranged from around 11% to 13% throughout 2014. The Green Party received 11% of the vote and 14 MPs at the 2011 general election, compared to Labour’s 27.5% and 34 seats. Yet despite having 20 fewer MPs than Labour and only six more than NZ First (6.6% of the vote and 8 seats), it has been much more effective as an opposition party within parliament than Labour. Indeed, on virtually every major issue during the Key Government’s second term, including asset sales, mining in national parks, the corruption and ‘crony capitalism’ of the Key Government, and the GCSB legislation, it has done a better job than Labour of criticizing the Government and, more importantly, has done a lot more than Labour to mobilize its members on the streets.
Whereas Labour is almost entirely an electoralist party, the Green Party attempts to combine a focus on winning elections with encouraging its members to get involved in flax roots activism. Many Green Party members are experienced and respected activists who have established a laudable track record of working in a non-sectarian and co-operative manner in progressive struggles and campaigns with others on the left, including the International Socialist Organisation (ISO).
The Green Party also addresses vitally important issues such as climate change and global warming, socio-economic inequality and other problems generated by neoliberalism, New Zealand’s involvement in imperialist wars and interventions, the disproportionate influence of business over government, the dirty politics of Key and his cronies, and the relative disadvantage experienced by Maori, Pasifika, and women. Many people on the left are attracted towards the Greens, either being party members or at least voting for it, because they think that it can have some real effects on government policy in the short-term. Thus the members and supporters of the Green Party think it is the best political vehicle available for those seeking progressive change.
We readily acknowledge that on most issues the Greens are to the left of Labour, make many important criticisms of the Key Government, and unlike Labour put more emphasis on putting this criticism into practice in struggles and campaigns outside parliament. Nonetheless, there are very real problems with the Greens’ reformist strategy for political change, especially its reliance on bringing about change through parliament, its overall political programme, the class basis of its membership and electoral support, and the wider intellectual vision of the party with respect to capitalism, global warming, and the democratic socialist alternative.
A Green New Deal? Green Party Policy
In response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), in 2009 the Green Party advocated a Green New Deal. Drawing a comparison of the GFC and the world recession that followed with the Great Depression of the 1930s – undoubtedly the two greatest global economic crises in the history of capitalism – the Greens argued the Government should be following the example set by US President Roosevelt who engineered a set of policies aimed at increasing growth and reducing unemployment in response to the Great Depression. “The New Deal is best remembered for its major spending by the Government. Capital works and infrastructure programmes provided work, stimulated economic activity and provide a socially fair basis for the future economy. The New Deal also reformed banking and finance regulations, supported trade unions, provided for social welfare programmes, stimulated education and creative endeavours, and supported many industries. President Roosevelt’s integrated programme of activity addressed a myriad of problems simultaneously.” (The Green Party, Green New Deal: The Green Stimulus Package, May 2009, p.2).
Although these policies are definitely preferable to the pro-business neoliberal policies that the Key Government has used to manage the economy, they are very much aimed at reforming rather than fundamentally changing the capitalist economy and society we live in today. In other words, the Green Party’s approach to making policy and managing the economy is in the tradition of what political economists term ‘social democratic Keynesian reformism’.
‘Social democratic’ because it is similar to the politics and thinking of social democratic parties like the Australian, British and New Zealand Labour parties during the 1950s and 1960s prior to the adoption neoliberalism (tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor, free trade and free markets, and so forth) by these parties in the 1980s.
‘Keynesian’ because Green Party thinking is heavily influenced by the approach of the great Cambridge economist – John Maynard Keynes – who as a disillusioned defender of capitalism argued that ‘markets make good servants but bad masters’ and that capitalism is OK if managed properly by the government.
‘Reformism’ because the political ideas and policies of the Greens are not aimed at building a new society but improving the social, economic and political arrangements of capitalism.
The reformist politics of the Green Party is clear from the three main slogans of its 2014 election campaign: For a Cleaner Environment; For a Fairer Society; For a Smarter Economy. These are obviously desirable goals, but would the Green’s policies, even if fully implemented actually achieve them? The policies of the Green Party are spelled out in a number of documents that can be accessed on their website – www.greens.org.nz – and I can’t describe them all here. But it is worth considering the Green Party’s policies that focus on managing the economy, reducing socio-economic inequality, employment relations, and countering global warming.
In the document Economics Policy – Thinking Beyond Tomorrow, first released in 1999 and updated in 2011, the Greens outline their “vision of a country where human needs are met without damage to the other species that share the earth with us”, and argue that “Government, citizens and business must work together to make it happen.”
Specific policies include: better monitoring to “measure success differently” taking into account unpaid work, natural resource use and environmental degradation, and social well being; “more public sector support for self-employment, small business, co-operative and community owned enterprises”; improved government support for businesses doing research and development; protecting and supporting the manufacturing sector; “actively promote fair, rather than so-called ‘free’ trade in international agreements”; tighten controls on foreign investment and restrict land purchasing to New Zealand citizens; monetary policy aimed at keeping the value of the NZ dollar down to a competitive level; supporting increased investment in renewable energy production; “tax pollution more, work and enterprise less”; and urban planning to improve cities and reduce reliance on fossil fuels with better public transport networks.
To its credit, the Green Party has made reducing inequality a major focus of its opposition to the Key Government and its 2014 election campaign. Noting that Aotearoa has become one of the most “unequal among highly developed countries”, the Greens “have chosen to focus on inequality and its effects on children because income inequality has been shown to be the single most important cause of a wide range of social and economic problems” (Mind the Gap – Combating Inequality in New Zealand). In contrast to Labour with its Vote Positive campaign, the Greens propose a set of policies that would alleviate poverty and significantly reduce some other aspects of inequality if fully implemented.
Recognising that changes to the taxation regime since 1984 have been central to increasing inequality, the Greens propose to make the first $10k of income tax free paid for by increasing the top rate of tax from 33 to 39 cents in the dollar for income over $80k and introducing a capital gains tax (excluding family homes) that will eventually generate an extra $4.5 billion of government revenue per year. New Zealand is one of the few advanced capitalist countries that does not have a capital gains tax, and it means that wealthy individuals and companies can make enormous sums of money, for example, by investing in property or selling assets for more than they paid for them, without having to pay any tax at all.
The most disappointing aspect of the Greens’ tax policy concerns GST. “The Green Party supports a broad-based GST within the context of a progressive tax system” (Taxation and Monetary Policy). Even Winston Peters and NZ First, well to the right of the Greens and Mana on most issues, advocate removing GST from food. The reason that this is so important is that GST is a highly regressive tax meaning that the poor have to pay much more of it relative to their income than the rich. While those on low and middle incomes spend every cent on consumption to survive, the rich save and invest most of their income to generate capital gains that are tax-free. This is why Mana is committed to scraping GST altogether. In reality there is no way that you can build a genuinely “progressive tax system” without either greatly reducing or else eliminating GST.
Considered as a whole package, the tax changes proposed by the Greens do not go anywhere near far enough to re-create the progressiveness of the taxation system that prevailed in New Zealand from 1935 to 1984, let alone create a genuinely egalitarian society. To put this in perspective, under National Party Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon in the late 1970s the top income tax rate paid by the richest 2% of New Zealanders was 66% – it makes the top rate of 39% proposed by the Greens look very far from radical!
Even worse, most of the so-called Eco-taxes proposed by the Greens, such as the introduction of carbon tax on petrol and gas, will actually hit the poor hardest. Consumption taxes like this are unfair because, as noted above, the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of your income that you spend on consumption rather than saving and investment. In contrast, the rich can usually find ways of avoiding these taxes, such as running company cars with tax deductibility for depreciation, maintenance and fuel costs.
If the Greens were serious about using the tax system to create a more equal and environmentally sustainable society, they would increase the taxation of corporate profits instead of increasing the amount of consumption tax paid by workers and the poor. More generally the truth is that carbon taxes, like all market-based solutions to environmental problems, don’t work for the reasons I outlined above.
Other policies aimed at reducing inequality include the following. Progressive electricity pricing, which provides households with cheap electricity up to a certain amount, then prices electricity above that amount at a higher rate while also making large business users pay a higher rate than households. Welfare policies addressing poverty such as extending In-Work Tax Credits to all low-income families with dependant kids, including those on benefits, and re-establishing a discretionary Special Benefit to address cases of extreme hardship. Funding 6,000 new state houses in the next three years and improving the rights of tenants in rental properties.
Finally, the Green Party recognises “workplace democracy and collective organisation are essential to address the inherent potential for inequality of power between employers and employees” (Industrial Relations Policy). Accordingly it advocates improving employment rights for casual, seasonal and fixed term workers, changing or scraping the Employment Relations Act to encourage collective bargaining and allow multi-employer bargaining, protecting union members, activists and officials against employer discrimination, improving union access to workplaces, increasing penalties for employers who breach employment law, and strengthening the ability of unions to prevent employers from undermining union membership by passing on the terms and conditions of collective agreements to their non-unionised workers. Importantly, the Greens support “the right of workers and their unions to campaign for political, environmental, social and work-related industrial issues, including the right to strike in support of these.”
In addition, the Greens propose to increase the minimum wage and provide annual adjustments “to ensure that it equates to no less than 66% of the average wage”. Youth rates are to be scrapped and the statutory minimum wage will apply to all workers aged 16 and older. Introducing a 35 hour working week will be considered, a set of measures to improve the flexibility of working hours for workers with children is also proposed, and paid parental leave is to be extended to 13 months. Gender inequality in paid employment is to be addressed with new legislation and the establishment of a Pay and Employment Equity Commission.
These policies are clearly worth supporting. The three key questions are: How are real reforms that would benefit workers, women, Maori, Pasifika, the disabled, elderly and students to be achieved? Can we really rely on well meaning politicians such as Metiria Turei and Russel Norman to bring about such reforms through parliament? And, thirdly, do these reforms go far enough in addressing the underlying causes of the problems that they are meant to address such as poverty, inequality, bosses having far more power than individual workers, and a lack of democracy in workplaces? I’ll address these questions in the remainder of the article.
In a remarkably revealing interview in the NZ Listener, the Green Party’s co-leader Russell Norman states: “capitalism was ‘humanised’ between the 1930s and 1950s and ‘the next challenge is to green it’”. It may surprise some people to learn that Norman is pro-capitalist. “I support a market economy with an important role for the state. I am not radically different from an old-style social democrat.” Far from being anti-capitalist, “the Green Party envisions an Aotearoa New Zealand in which businesses are locally celebrated, nationally valued and internationally renowned for their economically successful, environmentally sustainable, and socially responsible practices” (Sustainable Business Policy). As this shows, the assumption underpinning all of the Greens’ policies is that a partnership between “government, citizens and business” is both possible and desirable.
This completely ignores the fact that under capitalism production is organised for corporate greed not human need. The huge inequalities that exist in the world between rich and poor are caused by the exploitation that is at the core of the capitalist system. Further, because capitalism internalises the benefits of industrial production in the form of profit, while externalising the costs in the form of environmental destruction and pollution, there is no way that the world’s major environmental problems can be solved as long as capitalism continues to exist.
The Environmental Destructiveness of Capitalism
It is vitally important to be crystal clear about why capitalism is highly destructive to the natural environment and environmentally unsustainable in the long-term.
First, the history of capitalism from the 16th century to the present shows that it has an unprecedented drive and capacity for economic growth. In several centuries capitalism has expanded from its beginnings in England and the Netherlands to encompass the globe. Marx considers capitalism to be ‘an unstoppable, accelerating treadmill that constantly increases the scale of throughput of energy and raw materials as part of its quest for profit and accumulation, thereby pressing on the earth’s absorptive capacity’ (John, Bellamy-Foster, Ecological Revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2009, p.48).
This is exemplified by unsustainable agricultural practices and techniques of industrial production that generate negative environmental effects such as green house gas emissions, pollution of waterways, and the exhaustion and erosion of soils.
Second, capitalism undermines ‘the human and natural conditions on which its economic advancement ultimately rests’, for example, by accelerating use of non-renewable resources such as coal and oil (p.48)
Third, capitalism privatises the benefits of economic production through the appropriation of profits and the accumulation of wealth by the small minority that owns and/or controls the means of production, and the socialisation/externalisation of the environmental costs that are borne to varying degrees by everyone else.
Fourth, this means ‘the logic of capital accumulation creates a rift in the metabolism between society and nature, severing basic processes of natural reproduction. This raises the issue of ecological sustainability – not simply in relation to the scale of the economy, but also, and even more importantly, in the form and intensity of the interaction between nature and society under capitalism’ (Bellamy Foster, 2009: 49).
Fifth, the socio-economic inequality and concentration of wealth and economic power characteristic of advanced capitalism, means that business is able to exert more political influence than environmentalists.
Sixth, the particular kind of state that exists in New Zealand, a so-called ‘liberal democratic state’ is inextricably linked to, and fundamentally committed to maintaining, capitalism. Therefore it is receptive to business lobbying and will not implement environmental reform that is fundamentally contrary to capitalist interests.
For these reasons Eco-socialists consider that the project of ‘greening capitalism’ is doomed to fail.
What’s Causing Global Warming?
In the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) most recent major report, released earlier this year, it observes “Evidence for a warming world comes from multiple independent climate indicators, from high up in the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. They include changes in surface, atmospheric and oceanic temperatures; glaciers; snow cover; sea ice; sea level and atmospheric water vapour. Scientists from all over the world have independently verified this evidence many times. That the world has warmed since the 19th century is unequivocal” (IPCC, AR5, p.98).
Virtually everyone now agrees that the major cause of global warming is carbon emissions that have increased at an alarming rate since 1750. But why have carbon emissions increased so dramatically since then? Primarily because capitalist production and distribution relies heavily on carbon emitting energy sources such as coal, oil and gas and uses non-renewal raw materials, including oil, at an accelerating rate.
Indeed, “oil is the world’s most important commodity. Without oil, today’s industrial society would simply be impossible. Oil and natural gas are the fuel for the engine of modern capitalism, with Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations accounting for two-thirds of all oil consumed in the world. Oil and gas are not only the source of 62% of the energy used in the world, they are integrated into the production of many goods and products that we take for granted” (Sephri, 2002, p.79). Furthermore, “The U.S. uses 25% of all the energy consumed in the world, Japan 5%, and Western Europe 18%. The U.S. is the biggest consumer of oil in the world, using 19 million barrels of the 77 million barrels used in the world daily.”
The Guardian provides a useful interactive map showing where the companies that own the bulk of the world’s coal, oil and gas are based and it hardly comes as a surprise that they are based in the United States, UK, European Union, China, Russia and Japan. These countries thus are hugely dependant on, and their companies have massive investments in, carbon emitting energy sources. This is why these states are unlikely to support effective measures to shift energy production to environmentally sustainable renewal energy sources. Current systems of production, freight movement, transportation, heating, and so forth, are all fuelled by oil, gas and coal. Changing this would require a comprehensive transformation of capitalism – so comprehensive in fact that it would cease to be capitalism at all.
One of the most frightening things about climate change is the very real possibility that it could accelerate suddenly due to feedback mechanisms and tipping points in the process of global warming. For example, ice is white and bounces light back into space, as the polar icecaps melt there is less white ice reflecting light and more water absorbing it. This is called abrupt climate change and scientists know it could happen because they have data on the last 24 times the world warmed gathered from polar ice core samples. Every time the planet warms it does so fairly quickly, when it cools it tends to do so at a slower rate.
Yet despite the mounting threat of rapid, and potentially catastrophic climate change, so far environmental policy responses to climate change by the world’s most powerful governments have been largely ineffective. In particular, the UN Framework for Climate Change, which later became the Kyoto Protocol, and the ‘cap-and-trade’ Emissions Trading Scheme it established, has completely failed to reduce CO2 emissions. “Ultimately, these market schemes fail because they are based on an untenable contradiction: the idea that the cause of global warming –the unplanned and unfettered capitalist market – can also be its solution” (Williams, 2009: 124).
Capitalism is inherently and unalterably environmentally unfriendly because the process of capital accumulation internalises and privatises profits while externalising and socialising costs. When large industrial corporations run plants that pump pollutants into the sky and/or waterways the costs of this pollution are externalised or pushed onto others. The profits, however, go to the executives, directors and major shareholders who own and control these corporations.
It is not a case of the odd business being irresponsible as the Greens imply, but of all businesses necessarily seeking to maximise profits through minimising costs. Because recycling and technology that reduces pollution add to production costs and reduce profits, business will generally try to avoid investing in these areas.
Green Explanations of Environmental Problems
Many people support the Greens because they are concerned about atmospheric pollution and global warming, and other forms of the destruction of the natural environment both locally and globally, including deforestation of the world’s major rainforests, declining stocks of non-renewable resources, and the increasing concentration of hazardous pollutants in rivers, soil and the ocean.
Yet the Greens do not provide a convincing explanation of this destruction. Despite providing a very extensive set of tax and market based policies to counter global warming, the Green Party completely fails to provide a convincing explanation of it. Although there is repeated use of terms like “our greenhouse gas emissions” and “human induced climate change”, you have to search pretty hard to find anything that could be considered a convincing analysis of the underlying causes of rising carbon emissions.
In general, the Greens identify population growth, industrialisation and sometimes human nature as the causes of the environmental problems facing humankind. Environmental problems are being caused by a rate of population growth that is unsustainable and by a process of industrialisation driven by the human urge to exert rational control over nature. Other aspects of human nature such as human greed and material acquisitiveness drive people to continually increase production in order to create more wealth, using up non-renewable resources and destroying the natural environment in the process.
None of this is particularly convincing. Global food production has increased at a faster rate than the rate of population growth during the past century and there is no evidence to support the view that the world’s current population is unsustainable. Even if it were the case that human population growth is excessive, this is unlikely to be resolved until the world’s resources are more equally distributed. One of the major reasons that people in less developed countries have large families is precisely because they lack even the most basic level of material security.
The process of industrialisation is driven forward by the capitalist desire for profit and can only be adequately understood in these terms. Finally, greed and material acquisitiveness are not general characteristics of human nature – all of the historical and anthropological evidence points to the fact that they are behavioural characteristics systematically fostered by capitalism.
What is missing from Green explanations of environmental destruction and climate change can be summed up in one word: capitalism. The so-called ‘industrial revolution’ was actually driven by the emergence of a specifically capitalist system of production, distribution and exchange. In capitalism firms strive to maximise profits in conditions of market competition. This has resulted in a higher rate of growth than that produced by any other mode of production in human history. But it has also led to the destruction of the natural environment on a scale never seen before in history.
Green Party Climate Change Policy: Greening Neoliberalism?
Surprisingly climate change is the weakest area of Green Party policy. It provides an extensive set of policies to address the problem of climate change, many of which would be a step in the right direction. But these policies all assume that capitalism can be greened and that since neoliberal market based policy responses, such as emissions trading, are the only ‘realistic’ mechanisms currently available to counter global warming, the Green Party ends up trying to ‘green’ rather than fundamentally reject and oppose neoliberalism in this area.
This is particularly clear with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, established in 1997 and extended for a second period from 2013 to 2020. Kyoto is an international treaty, which establishes binding limits on carbon emissions and requires substantial reductions of emissions in relation to the level of emissions prevailing in 1990. It establishes a legal framework for carbon trading that allows one developed capitalist country which has not made the required emissions cuts to pay another country for part of their emissions quota. Associated with this, carbon trading is also introduced within each country that has signed the treaty and agreed to a binding target for carbon emissions. This allows companies who fail to reduce their emissions to buy carbon credits from the companies that do. The details are complex but the outcome is clear. Kyoto and carbon trading has completely failed to prevent global carbon emissions from rising at an alarming rate.
Eco-taxes are another market based policy response to climate change. These taxes are supposed to give companies and consumers incentives to shift away from carbon emitting activities towards activities that leave a smaller carbon footprint. For example, if you increase the tax on petrol it will cost people more to run their cars and they are more likely to use public transport. Unfortunately eco-taxes also appear to be largely ineffective and can end up providing governments with a financial incentive to avoid introducing more effective measures, like banning cars from city centres and banning short flights between cities that are linked by rail.
It’s not all doom and gloom however! There are measures that could completely stop global warming if they were implemented on a global scale. Jonathan Neale, in his book How to Stop Global Warming – Change the World, very clearly outlines the scale of the response that is required to stop global warming. Surprisingly he uses the example of what governments around the world did during the Second World War from 1939 to 1945. “The easiest way to show how government action could work to fight climate change is to explain what happened during World War Two. Back then every major power reorganised their whole economy in order to kill as many people as possible. We need to do the same now, but in order to save as many people as possible” (p.50). If the world’s governments invested on a similar scale and with a similar time frame to stop climate change, “with that kind of money, planning and commitment, we could halt global warming in the time it took America to win the Second World War – just three years and nine months” (p.55).
Is this unrealistic? Of course it is, but why is it currently unrealistic? “The example of World War Two shows us what can be done, and scale of what must be done. It shows us that the problem now is not the money or the technology. It’s that the people in charge are not seriously committed to stopping global warming” (p.55). In other words it is unrealistic not for technological or scientific reasons, but for social, economic and political reasons. It the large corporations and the states acting in accord with their interests that are currently ruling the planet that are not interested in undertaking measures on the scale required to halt global warming.
What is required to effectively counter global warming is not policy that attempts to modify markets. Global warming is the greatest example of market failure in human history. What is required is massive state intervention and investment including: rationing fossil fuel use; constructing clean and renewable energy generation such as solar, tidal, wave and wind generation; changing building regulation to shift construction away from concrete to wood and to ensure better eco-design and construction; massive expansion of public transport networks using renewable and clean energy sources, fewer cars, ban cars from large parts of cities, more cycling, less air travel, and so forth; substantially reduce the output of the three industries – “cement, refineries and steel – that account for more than half of all [industrial] emissions” (.p92). To be fair, the Green Party recognises the importance of shifting the economy and society in this direction, but it fails to recognise that this will require the state to play a much larger and more active role than its reliance on market based solutions suggests.
It is not inconceivable that once the first manifestations of catastrophic climate change start to take effect, such as massive storms, flooding, rising sea levels, droughts, and so forth, that the world’s ruling classes may demand that governments act in this manner to save what’s left of advanced capitalist civilisation. But by then it will be too late. The only truly effective way of stopping global warming is to change the world by eliminating capitalism.
The Limits of Green Reformism
The Greens’ four key principles – ecological wisdom, social justice, non-violence, and democratic decision-making – are broad principles that socialists also endorse. But we reject completely the idea that they can be achieved while capitalism dominates the globe.
The Green Party mentions the need to create a more equal distribution of power in society but it doesn’t take seriously enough the fact that business has far greater resources than workers and environmentalists to influence government in a direction favourable to their interests.
Power and resources are very unequally distributed in environmental conflict precisely because capitalism is a system of exploitation that generates class inequality. While many Greens recognise that big business is able to exert a disproportionate influence over government, few think of this as being part of the normal operation of a capitalist society in which a small greedy capitalist minority actively exploits the large working class majority.
Class is a word that is even more conspicuously absent from Green Party discourse than capitalism. Despite the incontrovertible fact that class inequality has increased substantially since the mid-1970s when the long post-war boom collapsed ushering in a prolonged period of economic stagnation and mass unemployment, there is absolutely no class analysis in any of the Greens’ policy documents. Instead, there is the constant use of ‘our’, ‘we’, ‘human’. We hear that it is our economy, our land, our resources, and we emit carbon, we pollute rivers, we have to do better.
This is nonsense. Over 80% of the people who live in this country do not own or control ‘the economy’. The economy is most definitely not our economy and we certainly don’t own it. The means of production, distribution and exchange are predominately owned by capitalists (including capitalist farmers). New Zealand society is actually made up of classes – the working class, middle classes, and a capitalist class – and you can’t make sense of what is going on socially and politically unless you recognise this. Putting it bluntly, it is the capitalist class that is exploiting the majority, generating high levels of inequality, and that is also doing a pretty effective job of fucking up the environment.
Related to this, the Green Party doesn’t fully appreciate the extent to which real reforms that would benefit workers, women, Maori, Pasifika, the disabled, elderly and students can only be achieved through mass struggles, involving strikes, occupations, rallies, and protests outside of parliament. The most important waves of reform in New Zealand’s history have been carried on high tides of mass working struggle, such as the reforms introduced by the Liberal Government in the 1890s following the 1890 Maritime Strike, the rise of the Red Federation of Labour from 1908 to 1913 that led to the formation of the Labour Party and eventually the first Labour Government that introduced the welfare state in the wake of the Depression Riots, and the highest levels of working class struggle in New Zealand’s history that combined with Maori protest movements and the women’s liberation movement that pressured the third Labour Government into introducing major reforms from 1972 to 1975.
Nothing in Green Party policy addresses the fact that tinkering with the electoral system and the legislative framework for local government will do little to seriously increase the amount of influence that citizens can exert over government. Even if they were implemented the Greens’ policies would not fully reverse the neoliberal policy agenda that has made the rich much richer, and most of us poorer.
The Middle Class Support Base of the Greens
The Greens are reluctant to criticise capitalism and propose more effective solutions to environmental problems because many of those who support the Greens do quite nicely out of capitalism and prefer market and tax based policies to combat climate change. Many of those committed to alternative lifestyles are members of what Marx referred to as the petite bourgeoisie – small business owners. The Greens also have a lot of support amongst students, the professional middle class, and relatively highly paid skilled workers such as public servants, teachers and nurses. They have very little support amongst the blue-collar working class, and weak support from Maori and Pasifika whom are disproportionately concentrated in the working class and more likely to vote for Labour or Mana. In short, the Green Party of Aotearoa is very much a party of the middle classes.
The Green Critique of Socialism
The Greens are reluctant to identify capitalism as being at the heart of the global environmental crisis because this would commit them to acknowledging that much of the socialist critique of capitalism is sound. It would also commit them to taking socialism seriously as a democratic and environmentally sustainable alternative. Instead of doing this, the Greens opt for the politically convenient path of equating socialism with the brutally repressive and environmentally devastating regimes that existed in Eastern Europe (and still exist in China and North Korea).
The problem with the Greens’ perspective on this is the fact that these Stalinist regimes presided over a system of heavily bureaucratised state capitalism that had nothing in common with the radically democratic vision of socialism developed by key figures in the Marxist tradition like Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Gramsci. According to these Marxists socialism involves the comprehensive democratisation of society and introduction of environmentally sustainable forms of production – something clearly not existing in Stalinist Russia or China. It is, therefore, fundamentally misleading and dishonest to suggest that Stalinism was ‘really existing socialism’.
From Green Reformism to Eco-Socialism: The Democratic Socialist Alternative
We agree with the Greens on a significant number of issues but we can also see that there are very real limits to the radicalism of the Greens. The major problem with the Greens can be summed up in a phrase: the veneer is radical but the substance is not. Ultimately the Greens are committed to reforming rather than transforming the existing capitalist system. This is particularly clear with respect to the way in which the Greens explain the destruction of the natural environment and equate socialism with Stalinism.
As Eco-socialists and revolutionaries we consider that another world is both necessary and possible. It is necessary because the capitalists who exploit working class people also exploit the natural resources and have no interest in stopping global warming. It is possible because the people who do have a strong interest in stopping global warming far outnumber those who don’t: we are many – they are few! If you really are concerned about the destruction of the natural environment, social justice, democracy and collectively creating a non-violent world, the place to be is in the International Socialists struggling for an egalitarian, democratic and environmentally sustainable socialist alternative to capitalism.
Resources and Further Readings
My interviews with Bryan Crump on Radio NZ Nights can be streamed online: (1)
Suggested Reading on Global Warming and Eco-Socialism
The single best book on climate change is: Jonathan Neale (2008). Stop Global Warming: Change the World. London: Bookmarks.
Other books well worth looking at include:
Bellamy Foster, J. (1999). The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Bellamy Foster, J. (2000). Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Bellamy Foster, J. (2009) The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, New York: Monthly Review Press.
Boardman, P. R. (2010). Governance of Earth Systems: Science and Its Uses. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Burkett, P. (1999). Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. New York: St. Martins Press.
Burkett, P. (2006). Marxism and Ecological Economics. Leiden, Boston and Tokyo: Brill.
Callinicos, A. (2003a). An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto. Cambridge Polity Press.
Dale, G. (2007). Corporations and Climate Change. International Socialism, 116, 117- 138.
Hughes, J. (2000). Ecology and Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, G., & Hollier, G. (1997). Resources, Society and Environmental Management. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Kovel, J. (2007). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London: Zed.
Peet, R., Robbins, P., & Watts, M. (Eds.). (2010). Global Political Ecology. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.
Pepper, D. (1993). Eco-Socialism: from Deep Ecology to Social Justice. London: Routledge.