Monday, 6 October 2014

Know Your Product

The popularity of the Green Party, and environmentalism more generally, is always a bad sign for the left. This is not because support for the Greens is inversely correlated to the electoral popularity of centre-left parties like Labour, though there is an element of ebb and flow between them, but because it remains a fundamentally conservative project, despite the delusions of self-proclaimed progressives, and thus a pointer to the temper of the times. The addition of 2,000 new members to the Scottish Green Party post-referendum does not presage a radical tidal wave at the 2015 general election, any more than the yes campaign revealed a social democratic nation north of the border. Support for the Greens tends to rise during periods of anxiety, such as the 1980s (recession, nuclear war) and now (recession, climate change), but that support remains centred on small capitalists and the professional middle classes, hence their greater threat to the LibDems (who are now facing a perfect storm in 2015).

The reactionary roots of environmental philosophy are well-known: the valorisation of the indigenous, of stewardship and sustainability (all of which privilege incumbency); the preservation of pre-industrial custom (with its roots in the ethnographic divide and rule of imperialism); the belief in a natural order and harmony that we challenge at our peril (Gaia and similar mysticism); and the tendency to respect most animals more than some people. The tap root of this ideology is the idea of man - historically Western, Christian man - as the image of god and thus god-like in his power. While man is undoubtedly a menace to himself and all other species, and anthropogenic climate change is real, his impact on the planet is akin to fleas on a dog. Man is not "the destroyer of worlds" (Oppenheimer's quote in respect of nuclear destruction is seminal to ecological thinking). He remains a weak and feeble lifeform in an obscure corner of a lesser galaxy. "Befouler of nest" would be more accurate, but less poetic.

Starting in the 1970s, and heavily influenced by the success of anti-nuclear and anti-NATO protests in Germany and elsewhere, Green thinking sought to marry this conservative tradition with radical left concerns such as social justice and participatory democracy, leading to a red-green alliance in many continental countries that appeared to place the Greens firmly on the left of the political spectrum. In reality, this development (and "rainbow coalitions" generally) masked the fragmentation of both left and right radicals around consumption and lifestyle preferences (cycling, craft beer, gay marriage etc), which was actually a testament to the hegemony of market-inflected libertarian thinking. By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley capitalists and chancers like Richard Branson were promoting themselves as green champions.

In the UK, the lack of proportional representation stymied a red-green alliance, as radical left activists either knuckled-down in the Labour Party or joined the Judean People's Popular Front, which has left the Greens fluttering their eyelids at LibDems uncomfortable with the neoliberalism of their Orange Book establishment (in this respect, they are in direct competition with Labour). Since 2008, being anti-neoliberal has become a way for the Greens to present themselves as attractive to both frustrated socialists and anxious conservatives, even to the point of being positioned by some media commentators as the "UKIP of the left". This is not as paradoxical as it might appear at first sight, as the psychological dynamic of both parties depends on a belief in an imminent threat to a settled order, not to mention the psephological waywardness of seaside towns.

The Greens continue to burnish their egalitarian credentials with their support for ostensibly radical policies like a citizens' basic income, without explaining how this could be achieved through economic policies that eschew growth for sustainability. A basic income is simply a mechanism that can be implemented in either a progressive or a regressive way. Without a radical reordering of society (i.e. who owns what), or a progressive distribution of the fruits of future growth (i.e. where the poorest benefit disproportionately), it will inevitably entrench existing inequalities and poverty. A basic income plus sustainability sounds radical, but its practical results would be remarkably similar to Tory policy, namely wage stagnation for the many and an increase in the social power of patrimonial wealth.

The meta-narrative of current political journalism is that the major parties are in decline, eaten away on all sides by fringe parties grabbing market share from voters disenchanted with the Westminster elite (the analogy with the supermarket sector reinforces the trope of politics as a consumption preference). The secular trend has been a decline in each of the two main parties' electoral support from 45-50% in 1945 to 30-35% in 2010. However, another way of looking at this is that varieties of neoliberalism now enjoy over 90% of the vote, if you include the LibDems and SNP. As per its standard modus operandi, fictitious competition has been introduced to a rigged market, with each brand selling the same ingredients in slightly different combinations. If UKIP have (irony of ironies) been positioned as the Aldi and Lidl of political insurgency, the Green Party is trying to be a hybrid of Waitrose and the Co-op.


  1. The Greens are strong in areas of the country with little history of heavy industry or organised labour. Caroline Lucas is MP for Brighton Pavilion for example and the Greens are quite popular in Norwich in East Anglia. As you point out there may be class reasons for this. Someone may never dream of supporting Labour but will support the Greens. If support for the main parties continues to decline the Greens could become an alternative to Labour in some regions.

    An important text for the Greens is Small Is Beautiful: E. F. Schumacher: 1973. There are some seductive ideas in this book although the ideas on energy are dated as 1973 is pre global warming and Schumacher spent a lot of time at the coal board. An idea that resonates today is "New Patterns of Ownership" even the Tories were looking at the John Lewis Partnership as a positive model at one point. Sadly today even the co-op is under attack. Forced to sell its farms and remodel its governance to look more like a neoliberal PLC,

    Look at Political Parties like tribes. Some are born into one and never quesion it. You offer your support to one but you may not like everything about it. Nick Clegg is a natural Tory. Why is he in the LibDems? He is a fervent pro European and so wouldn't be at home in the Tories. Danny Alexander is a natural Tory he can't be in the Tories they are dead in Scotland. David Laws is a natural Tory but his sexuality was unacceptable in the Tory party for many years. The Greens could provide a home for an anti neoliberal approach.

    The Greens are important because they keep alive an alternative frame of reference. In future it's possible for the Greens to be an alternative to Labour in some regions. Lord Ashcroft tells us that they are at 7% in his poll. A rise in support for the Greens at least keeps pressure on the main parties to include at least some of the Green agenda.

  2. Schumacher's book was essentially a continuation of the reactionary thinking of Chesterton and other anti-Enlightenment writers, advocating a return to a bucolic order in opposition to both socialism and big business. Similarly, the lionisation of John Lewis is bound up with its middle-class ethos: it is a paternalistic sham, not a workers' democracy. Also, do not lament the passing of the Co-op. This (like the wider problems of the supermarket sector) represents the decline of the alimentary in the economy - i.e. the long-run reduction in the cost of food relative to the cost of housing. The CWS was an inherently conservative organisation that passed up the chance to expand into other areas (such as housing) in the 60s/70s. Its asset-stripping by neoliberals is just the final chapter in a long story.

    The notion that politics is "tribal" is a media trope that is both patronising (denying agency to individuals) and superficial (recycling the transactional model of marketing). There are many overlapping and often contradictory dynamics at work, but ultimately it boils down to class interests. Clegg would be perfectly at home in the Tories, not least because it is foolish to underestimate the scale of the pro-EU faction within the party - i.e. the representatives of big capital. I suspect his ambition (and that of the Orange Bookers generally) is to achieve the role that the German FDP historically played with the CDU/CSU. If UKIP do manage to detach a large chunk of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories, and the social liberals desert the LibDems for Labour or the Greens, then the Orange Book rump may well be under pressure to merge with the remaining "sensible Tories", repeating the historical trajectory of the Liberal Unionists.

    Your suggestion that the Greens could "be an alternative to Labour in some regions" is wishful thinking. They can certainly be an alternative in specific constituencies with atypical demographics, such as Brighton (i.e. hipster London-on-sea), but their prospects in Labour's Northern urban hearlands are negligible. This is not to say that they can't have a decisive impact in Labour's target marginals, particulary in the South (e.g. Norwich South), but if they do they will have essentially supplanted the LibDems as a spoiler. They won't have created a new challenge.

  3. Bit pot calling the kettle black if you know about the "reactionary", anti-modern schools of early Socialism.

  4. @Maponus, I'm well aware of the reactionary, nostalgic strand of early socialism (Morris, Guild Socialism etc), but this was always a fringe interest, and largely a stylistic affectation, mainly popular with Fabians and other middle-class gradualists. It was never intrinsic to mainstream socialist theory.

    My point about the Greens is that reactionary thinking is intrinsic to their philosophy (anti-growth + private property = entrenched inequality) and isn't going to disappear no matter how many superficially "egalitarian" policies they adopt, such as a basic income or a land value tax.

  5. This article assumes that labour are still to the left of centre... that's funny...

  6. Au contraire. It assumes that as Labour has moved away from its traditional social democratic locus (i.e. left of centre), the Greens have sought to occupy that space by claiming that they are the egalitarian alternative. This isn't a complaint about Labour's neoliberal infestation, but an observation that the Greens have sought to take advantage of it by playing down their conservative roots.

  7. Herbie Destroys the Environment12 October 2014 at 16:41

    The greens have a conservative history if we think of a defence of Feudalism but in Modern Britain it does try to address the damaging impulse of capitalism, its need for speculative production, its resolution of crises through production for productions sake etc. The greens do articulate this, however inadequately.

    A dialectical fusion of the green conservative tradition with the radical left's concern for exploitation, inequality etc is better than ignoring the problem, it must be admitted.

    1. I'm afraid the fusion you suggest is impossible. Both capitalism and its coeval socialism are the products of accelerated growth (i.e. population + technology). The one seeks to accumulate and concentrate wealth, the other to accumulate and distribute. The conservative impulse seeks to limit growth because it is threatening to the established order, whether that growth manifests itself as rising wages and consumption (pro-social) or as the nouveau riche and NIMBY-provoking development (pro-capital).

      A combination of zero-growth and egalitarianism is a logical impossibility if you make the social-democratic assumption that equality is achieved by a progressive allocation of the fruits of growth. It is only possible in a zero-growth economy if you substitute the expropriation of existing capital for growth. Green Party proposals for a land value tax and the renationalisation of railways, though sensible, are trivial in the larger scheme.

      Arguably, the 21st century will be a good time for conservatism, including the Green variety, because we appear to be reverting to the lower levels of growth (ca 1%) seen < 1914. This is the core message of Piketty and the secular stagnation theorists (albeit with different explanations). Where growth is low, established capital becomes ever more powerful, which leads to a reluctance to invest in new capital formation (we're already seeing this) and the political dominance of the rentier mindset (exploitation, inequality etc).

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment13 October 2014 at 18:01

      I agree with your general point, except:

      1. I am not suggesting anything

      2. While something may be impossible it can still raise pertinent questions, think of the Feudalist critique of capitalism and how that provided a body of valuable material.

      3. Wherever capitalism has dominated the conservative impulse has been to accumulate and accumulate even more. Your idea that conservatism seeks to limit growth where capitalism is dominant is impossible when you think about it.

      In fact the radical critique of capitalism has talked about this anarchy of production, whereas the conservatives have defended it.

    3. @Herbie, re your point 3 ...

      Capitalism has always been advanced primarily by liberals, not by conservatives. See for example the dialectic between the Liberal and Tory parties in C19 Britain. In countries where liberals had minimal political influence, capitalism developed later and often in stunted and repressive forms that sought to preserve the old order, e.g. Russia.

      Industrialisation has tended to benefit conservatives as they are usually incumbent property owners (e.g. landed aristocrats benefiting from railways and coal mines), however that hasn't stopped them having their cake and eating it by lamenting its deleterious effects. The contradiction in their stance is that the desire to hold back social change is undermined by the capitalist forces that increase their own wealth.

    4. Herbie Destroys the Environment14 October 2014 at 17:48

      The problem it seems to me with your argument is that the best examples to back up your argument are from C19 Britain. I may have agreed with you back then but not now.

      Capitalism cannot exist as a system without a dominant exploiting class and without fit and healthy workers. Conservatives provide the ideological science behind elitism and also provides the necessary discipline for workers. So workers must be law abiding, drink in moderation, don't take drugs, have a stable home life etc, the better they can be exploited. Conservatism as we know serves this system and is in no way contradictory to it, and it most certainly does not challenge it or try to limit it's growth!

      The C19 'liberalism' was always doomed to end up in 'conservatism'.

      And of course, if we ever have socialism those radical socialists of today will inevitably become conservatives of tomorrow!

    5. @Herbie,

      To give you a more recent example, Maragaret Thatcher undoubtedly advanced capitalism, but she did this by implementing neoliberal policies in the face of opposition from conservative "wets" in the Tory party. However, she was also obviously very conservative in many respects herself, hence her opposition to selling off Royal Mail and her support for the Poll Tax and Section 28.

      My point is not that conservatism contradicts capitalism, but that it seeks to channel and amend it in accordance with its own conflcting desires to both preserve and expropriate. You can see these conflicting neoliberal and conservative impulses on the right today, with the Orange Book LibDems and "modernising" Tories in the former camp and the Eurosceptic Tories and UKIP in the latter.

  8. The basic point is that the Greens are not based on the interests and organisations of the working class. Nor are they committed to the removal of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist society. They don't claim to be of the Left - instead we get the woolly, meaningless catch all terms like radical and progressive to describe their politics. As a capitalist party they act accordingly when attaining any positions of power in local government. Despite their shopping list of politics, what really gets their juices flowing is still the environmental stuff.