James Shaw – a New Direction for the Greens?

On Saturday the Greens elected a new co-leader. The winner was James Shaw, a relative newcomer to parliament and national politics. But who is he? Before this election few had ever heard of him.

James Shaw grew up in Wellington and completed an MSc in sustainability and business leadership in London in 2005. He continued working with large multinationals such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers and HSBC. Since returning to New Zealand he joined the Green party and ran in Wellington for them in the last two elections. His business orientation and background has always been popular within the halls of parliament. In fact, he quite often receives accolades from his opposition particularly within the National party.

A Green friend of business

Shaw has cultivated the image of a pro-business, ‘new’ type of Green. In his maiden speech in parliament he quoted Margaret Thatcher on the dangers of climate change. This was an indicator of James Shaw as a political operator. One much in the mould of Russell Norman, freely able to argue for his brand of green capitalism in the words of the right wing and the free market zealots. Unlike Norman, however, Shaw has no past left baggage he has needed to shed. His background makes clear his fit within ruling class worlds, coming from work with “respectable businesses” PwC, Shell, Cadbury, RBS and HSBC. The Greens have, over the last decade, been carefully tilting right – shedding an activist image with the departure of Sue Bradford; offering ambiguous enough noises about working with National in order to send long-term signals to the capitalist class without causing revolt in their own ranks, and setting course for the centre. Shaw’s win continues and strengthens this trajectory.

Indeed right-wing political commentators, such as Matthew Hooton and John Armstrong have singled out James Shaw previously as a leader in waiting. For them, he is someone that National can do business with. Shaw has played up, and his maiden speech ended on a distinctly bi-partisan note: “…Presently we are stuck. To get unstuck, we will all need to let go of some things and to be more committed to finding the answers than to being right or to others being wrong….If any other member of this House from any political party – or any member of the public listening – hears this challenge and wants to rise to it, my door is open…”

Contradictions within the Green party

There is more than one layer to all this. As Gordon Campbell points out, Shaw’s reference to Thatcher is very deliberate – even his claims of how much he likes the market were in the wider context of stressing that the state routinely needs to intervene in and to regulate the market. He is not a neoliberal zealot. However regulating using price signals and the correct incentives has its own problems too. The development of this strand within the Green party – something that is seen as absolutely necessary to grow their vote and become a serious challenge to become a majority government is something that also compromises both their goals of attenuating climate change and their social justice platform. Shaw’s election epitomises the contradictions that have been developing within the Green party from its beginning. On the one hand he is undoubtedly committed to social justice – but also to the rights of business. In reality the Greens do what any other parliamentary party focusing on votes does – attempt to achieve the politically possible instead of the socially necessary.

This is the painful truth of the structure of parliament – its function is to manage competing interests of capital – the parameters of what is politically possible is set by the wealthy elite and the interests of business, those with access to the halls of power.

The courting of the right wing puts most of the Greens’ political aims in jeopardy; both a socially and environmentally sustainable response to climate change and social equality are not possibilities under capitalism. Another right wing commentator Fran O’Sullivan recently wrote an editorial titled Turei needs to quit as well if the Greens want power, trying to encourage the Green party to split entirely from any sense of social justice, of which Metiria now represents within the party – since her previous election campaigns with Russell Norman.

So the election of James Shaw to co-leader marks no major new direction for the party. The Greens have never been a radical or left-wing party, and have had those hopes thrust upon them by people demoralised or disoriented by Labour’s poor performance as ‘main’ opposition party and by the decomposition of the wider left. A lacklustre Labour party which has consistently kept tacking to the right to chase voters from National provided ample space for the Greens to operate as a sincere and socially progressive opposition. This never came from a base commitment to the workers’ movement or the left, however. Russell Norman also was elected to the leadership from seeming obscurity – he wasn’t even in parliament when elected to the position. He too tacked right, arguing for fiscal conservatism, for new market incentives to reduce emissions and for his infamous comments claiming he was more for free- markets than National. It was easy to seem like the party in opposition when the traditional left wing party – Labour – had continually dragged itself further right for generations. The election of James Shaw is likely to continue that style of debate. His business background, connections and outlook will facilitate further collaboration with other parties, and chielfy with National.

The failure of the market

The contradiction becomes evident when we start to talk about what the Greens overall goal, the attempt to reduce and attenuate the issues of climate change is and how to achieve it. Though now it is openly talking about market mechanisms it was clear from the beginning of the Green party that there was no other option for them to be able to tackle climate change. The Green Party, despite its image and cadre of grass roots activists, is a party that is not interested in fundamentally challenging the economic system we live under. Despite its focus on reducing emissions, little attention has been paid on the relationship between capitalism and climate change (on this see Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs the climate). Capitalism by its very nature is chaotic, and unplanned, therefore consistently breaks down with increasing regularity. Letting market mechanisms and incentives dictate the battle against climate change will either do too little or actively harm us. The emissions trading scheme is a good example. It has now become a way to monetise forests while the industry grows them before they are logged. The forestry industry in New Zealand with its appalling death rates and huge profits has taken advantage of this system – with little to no benefit overall for a reduction in emissions.

Capitalism due to competition and the need to make ever higher profits cannot allow any law to get in the way of making money. Regulatory laws on emissions also just become another cost, one easily circumvented and with Carbon taxes and other market mechanisms that target users also negatively impact the poor far more than the rich since these costs make up a larger proportion of the poor’s income. Much like the regressive tax GST, something else the Greens support.

The reality is that capitalism is based on exploitation of both workers and the land itself. In order to produce commodities capitalists must ravage the land for raw materials in ever greater quantities to increase their profits. Similarly they must do this with their workers as well. As investment and the expansion of production cycles continue the cost of machinery and raw materials stays relatively constant. The capitalist cannot control these prices. What they can control however is the pay of the worker. If you earned the full amount of what you produced for your work each day there would be no profit at all for the boss. The exploitation of both the worker and the land lie at the base of the two goals of the Green party – the battle against climate change and the battle for social justice. But as hard-fought as even a small reform is, they can only ever be temporary – for when capitalism falls into crisis any law that stands in the way of profit is swept away – in order to recover profits for the economy and the capitalists as a whole. 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.

Business and parliament

Businesses influence has become quite substantial within the Green party over the last few years with the Party out-fundraising Labour for the last election. This continuing increase has had an effect on their policies. Russell Norman joined the government committee overseeing the oil exploration legislation as opposed to being outright opposed to it – and in the process tacitly supporting the confiscation and alienation of the foreshore and seabed from Maori. What can be considered the core policies of the greens can quickly change depending on the political advantages.  Most businesses are aware of the dangers of climate change and they freely admit them, even funding large scale “green” programmes, Shell Oil for instance. However, they cannot implement the systemic changes needed to solve climate change. Other businesses although they recognise the danger, due to the competitive nature of the system cannot even allow small regulatory measures to go through and will lobby heavily against them. The new film on New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme by Alister Barry “Hot Air” is an excellent documentary exploration of this. Parliament is heavily weighted in favour of business, its measures of success come from its measurement of how well business is performing (growth in GDP), access to its ministers come from heavy donations and even legislature can be written by industry and then handed to parliament for voting into law. The goal of Parliament and the parties within it is to manage capitalism – to look out for its best interests, not the interests of the people.

Slowly these contradictions within the Greens are working themselves out. By trying to achieve what is politically possible through parliament they compromise those ideas and can only achieve temporary reforms at great cost, if they achieve them at all. The only real solution to climate change and social injustice is a complete redistribution of wealth: that is the easiest and quickest way to solve both issues. It involves a complete dismantling of the economic system of capitalism, an end to imperialism, an end to exploitation, in short, a revolution. What we demand is more democracy, more accountability, and more transparency – all three things parliament cannot deliver.

If this is the continuation of the “New” Green party, a party that has adopted the lingo and mechanisms of neoliberalism then it will go the way of “New” Labour in Britain – betraying its supporter base for the continuation and promotion of the interests of capital. That’s what National and the right wing pundits in the media desperately want from the Greens – a reinvention of themselves into a green style Thatcherism. Those are the two paths that lie ahead for the Green party, one championing social democracy the other preaching the “third way” of market fundamentalism. But both options are doomed to fail in the long run. Climate change gives these questions strategic urgency. Capitalism at every attempt has always sought to leap past the boundaries put in its path, but the climate is not a boundary we can surpass. It is the greatest challenge our species has ever faced and we cannot leave it in the hands of the unplanned, chaotic forces of the market.

The Greens are a political party divided – a party that cannot tackle climate change or social injustice and just as the Green party has been all along, an attempt to slap some green paint on the crumbling edifice of capitalism.