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Are the Greens Progressive?

Are the Greens a progressive party? Are they enemies of the labour movement that need combatting alongside the Tories, UKIP, LibDems and the rest? I ask because, as Graun readers may have seen, Ian Sinclair posed the question last week; “why does the left ignore the Green Party?” It’s a fair enough question to ask.

Ian provided a list of policies most Labour types wish we would take on board. Wild ultra-leftist promises like renationalising rail and public utilities, which also happen to be backed by the public at large. All progressive, all would go some way to making Britain a better place to be. Yet the reasons why the left and the labour movement don’t treat the Greens favourably is only partly thanks to the enduring image of sandal-wearing, lentil-snorting hippy-types.

The main reason, which is occasionally articulated by the far left, is that the Greens are anti-modernist and mainly based on an “alien” class force – the petit bourgeoisie. Or so we’re told. Is that really the case? Are the Greens an organisation the left should shun, despite their demonstrably centre-left political programme?

The basic tenet of Marxist approaches to capitalism is the antagonism between the owners of capital and the owners of labour power. The former need the latter to work in their factories and offices to churn out commodities. The latter require the former to pay them a wage to reproduce themselves physically and culturally/intellectually as human beings. Capital appropriates the social surplus by not paying labour the full value of its labour power, and constantly struggles to take more and more of a share of that surplus. Labour, for its part, resists and wants to extend the amount of value it receives as a wage.

So the class struggle in capitalist societies is set. It can be ameliorated to an extent by the law, state intervention and collective bargaining between individual capitals and workforces but as base the conflict is fundamentally irreconcilable. It is less a contradiction, more an antagonism. From this the (at times under cover, at times in the open) struggle is manifested across a social formation in all manner of ways. The classical Marxists used to talk about the contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of appropriation, and the lock jam between the forces and the relations of production.

This, however, is not the only irreconcilable antagonism capitalism cannot escape from. Capital-in-general has an incessant compulsion to grow. Individual capitals (businesses) have to win new markets or corner existing ones to keep the show on the road. Whether ambling along or chasing the money, capital is constantly on the move. If it stands still in comes a competitor and it’s out of business.

When Hobbes spoke of his war of all against all, it was as if the existential life of capital-to-come imposed itself on the past and was refracted through his pen. Or perhaps he caught something of the spirit of the then nascent English bourgeoisie? Either way, capital consumes vast quantities of labour and resource to churn out commodities that, in turn, (hopefully) yields a profit in competition with other commodities in market-based economies. This insatiable craving to consume natural wealth and transform it into something else is the basis of capitalism’s second antagonism.

Capitalism plunders the ground, fells forests, drains lakes and diverts rivers, exhausts the land, poisons the air and the seas, and has put enough carbon into the atmosphere to make the warming of the climate unavoidable. And, despite this being the scientific consensus for over 20 years, the world’s biggest polluters are unwilling and unable to decarbonise their economies. As with all things, there are markets for green technologies but from a power generation point of view, they are niche and are likely to remain so as fossil and nuclear fuels rule the roost.

Yet the problem will not go away. Capitalism is despoiling the environment. We as human beings, as thinking animals, are as part of that biosphere as any other organism. The extreme weather, the droughts, the water and food shortages, all these nightmares stalk our future as capitalism interferes with and imperils our ability to reproduce ourselves as a species. Capitalism therefore is hacking away at its roots, at the human bodies that make its existence possible.

Under the first antagonism, it is simple to see who the vehicle for a society based not on class struggle but on the sharing out of the surplus is. And that, of course, is the propertyless class of people who depend on their labour power in order to live. That counts in the immense, overwhelming majority of people alive today.

Yet the second antagonism pits capitalism against the environment and people-in-general, at least on paper. Wealth and power insulates the owners of capital from the consequences of climate change to a degree. As human beings their long-term interest lies in a post-capitalist future. But, in a society such as ours, while people own capital, in a very real sense capital owns people and they are compelled by the dynamics of accumulation to follow their short-term interests as investors. For as long as that continues, it will be the propertyless – mainly in the developing world – who bear the brunt of climate change. The universal interest is always filtered through the prism of class divisions and struggle.

Labour movements are the natural home for environmental as well as class politics, right? That is the case, generally speaking, in the global south. Not in the countries of advanced industrial capitalism. Up until the 1960s, labour movements and socialist/communist parties had very little to say about environmental matters. Partly because the countries of “actually existing socialism” emphasised economic growth and development above all to overcome backwardness and catch up with the West. And partly because the core constituencies of those parties and movements were fixated with producer politics, of redistributing wealth, of securing a greater share of the surplus product expropriated by capital.

Rising affluence and a crisis-of-expectations fed into the revolutionary explosions of the late 1960s. Consumer conformity was out in the West, quality-of-life issues were in. In a dialectical chuckle history is fond of, the satisfaction of material wants, the post-war roll in of greater economic security made possible post-material politics. Ronald Inglehart argued that as countries become more affluent and educated, the less concerned the populace are with productivity deals and wage bargaining. This was the basis for the new social movements of the late 60s and early 70s – women’s liberation, gay liberation, anti-war, anti-racist/black power movements. And in the conventional political arena, the 1970s saw the founding of Green Parties across Western Europe. In other words, Green Parties were thoroughly modernist in origin.

Politically, the early Greens were a mixed bag. In Germany, the Greens were effectively the party political wing of the radicalised new social movements. In stodgy old Britain, the Green Party’s forerunner, People, was a conservative (some might say misanthropic) sect with deep green, Malthusian overtones. It was less a case of capitalism’s dynamics paving over the environment and more an expression of an essentialist will-to-power the thinking ape had. Overpopulation was the problem – there was scant, if any, awareness that the planet’s “carrying capacity” shifts depending on the dominant mode of production and application of technique. However, as the 80s wore on Green Parties across Europe became uniformly left (more or less). Shades of deep green dropped to the ground like discarded leaves, though the concern with overpopulation remains. The main factor driving this was the rest of Europe catching up with Germany. Die Grünen was more than just a condensation of New Social Movements, it spoke to an actually-existing constituency. These were born after the war, tended to be well educated (formally speaking), and were concentrated in the professions and/or public service. Like the parties themselves, the natural turf of the Greens were a thoroughly modern development. Hence in the old Marxist idiom, this constituency were less petty bourgeois in the classical sense. Their location in social space was marked by modest but comfortable amounts of economic capital, and a wealth of cultural capital.

From the standpoint of British politics, Labour and the labour movement has, at core, always been an alliance between workplace organisation and socialist societies that represent certain professions. The expansion of the state since 1945 has seen Labour scrap it out with the Liberals and the Tories for hegemony over this important, growing and confident constituency. The Greens however are a natural outgrowth of this category of middling public sector/professional. Thanks to the trajectory of the LibDems and evacuation from it of the Tories, the battle to come here will increasingly be between the Greens and Labour. Therefore, sociologically speaking, as a party of a fraction of the labouring classes that has grown from the expansion of public-oriented services based on need, the Greens are part of a progressive bloc of class fractions who, like Labour’s core constituencies, ultimately live with one foot in the realisation of a socialist future.

True, the Greens’ record in politics is far from spotless, as my erstwhile comrades point out. I’m not even going to start talking about the problems at Brighton Council. Then again, the things many Labour councils are being forced to do as Pickles hammers local government of the wrong political colour are comparable, and the difficulties faced there have been replicated up and down the country. Yet, despite that, the Greens and Labour are both progressive parties. They are both rooted in the antagonisms that cleave deep into British capitalism. As neither are revolutionary parties but seek to change Britain’s political economy, both parties ultimately have an abiding commonality of interest that goes beyond manifesto commitments. Labour is, of course, much larger and as both fish from overlapping parts of the same pond, this presents Labour an electoral headache it could do without come 2015. But if we want to make nice with other parties, if we want to talk about relationships we need to bear in mind who our natural political allies are and not go after them as if they are scabrous traitors.


  1. Ric Euteneuer says:

    On a programme level, there’s quite a lot anyone of the centre-left could support in the Green Party manifesto, which the article admirably points out. I think the problem with the left taking the Green Party seriously has a couple of reasons.

    There is, for one, as pointed out, the traditional far left analysis of the Greens as being mainly based in the petit bourgeoisie – oh, the sweet irony of many SWP/WRP/Left Unity members articulating this viewpoint. But there is a grain of truth in this.

    But there is also our personal experience of dealing with individual Greens. I’ve not myself met that many Green trade unionists, or Green local government officers. I have met many Greens working in the 3rd sector and other, similar employment. Many Greens I have personally encountered have not been of the left, and have shown considerable antipathy towards it, and have often been disillusioned Liberal Democrats, or Labour rightwingers. We’re seen to the average Green, as the party of big industry, rather than SMEs and the voluntary sector, where they have their roots. These types of Greens are just as likely to back the Conservatives as the Labour Party – and indeed, did, on Leeds City Council, when Labour was ousted by a Tory-Lib-Green coalition, the pound of tofu being a couple of Committee Chairs for the 2 Green Councillors.

    So – are the Greens progressive – difficult to tell. We should keep a watching brief on this one. There are individual Greens who we can and should work with, but, the party as a whole ? Let’s wait and see.

  2. Robert says:

    From the standpoint of British politics, Labour and the labour movement has, at core, always been an alliance between workplace organisation and socialist societies that represent certain professions.

    Is that why labour are looking at the Union Link.
    Greens have very little input or say in much they have one MP and 16,000 members.

    Now then look at the Progress party within the labour party it has £2 million in donations from Sainsbury who hopes the Progress party will grow and may grow into I expect an independent party, it has a number of high ranking TUC and Union leaders.

    I would have though that would have been a bigger issue then one small tiny party of greens

  3. swatantra says:

    I’ve always thought of The Greens as Lib Dems who’ve dropped out, or Uncut.

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