Monday, 16 October 2017

The Twin Pillars of Survival: What is the Green Party For?

"We cannot tackle climate change unless we address the system that has caused it,"
 John McDonnell, now Labour Shadow Chancellor, writing in Another World Is Possible - A Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism in 2007.

Ten years on, there was the same man, just yesterday, on the BBC Marr Programme, doing his best to reassure the audience that a Labour Government would prevent any post-election run on the Pound by working hard with the City to keep the confidence of the financial speculators, something he has already been busy doing. Marr himself signed off laconically with the observation, "I do like the picture of John McDonnell sitting down with asset managers all the time."

McDonnell's caution is understandable - the precarious situation of the Tory-DUP pact makes a further election far from an impossibility in the coming months. Labour's vulnerability to the fury of the capitalist media and quite inaccurate but well-embedded psychological fiction that greedy Tories are better with public money has lost them more than one election.

Yet, for all Labour's exuberant return to its programme remains inherently social democratic rather than socialist. And for all Mr McDonnell talked about tackling climate change yesterday, his economic plans remain fully anchored in 1940s style Keynesianism, with continued growth at their heart. It may be a welcome shift in emphasis from the grasping privatisation of the Tories (and discredited New Labour), but it is avowedly not a Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism, nor indeed for 21st Century Survival. For, with the climate emergency threatening to overtake us and deep scarcity looming across a range of vital resources in barely a decade from now, traditional economics are no longer fit for purpose, whether touted by the Tories or by Labour.

This conundrum much occupied the agenda of the Green Party conference last week. For the Greens, the General Election was a bitter-sweet outcome: their decision to stand down in upwards of 35 constituencies may have made sufficient of a difference to deprive the Tories of their outright majority, but equally the party saw its vote halve from its 2015 record over over 1.1 million votes and in spite of huge efforts in several seats it failed to advance on its solitary MP, the Co-Leader, Caroline Lucas - though it is worth bearing in mind that this was still its second best-ever General Election performance, both in terms of its national aggregate poll and votes-by-seat.

Under the circumstances, some degree of reflection was both to be expected and very necessary. Corbyn's manifesto had swept up a wide range of Green proposals from 2015 and with them had taken several hundred thousand Green voters - where now, then, for their twin pillars of environmental sustainability and social justice? Time, some suggested, to return to their verdant roots and focus on being an ecological party. Two motions proposed that climate change should be included in every conceivable message. Another called for all talk of alliances with Labour to be closed down. A workshop on campaigning heard demands for the Greens to focus on winning Tory votes and to drop calls for taxing the rich or taking resources into public ownership.

Fortunately, all these were voted down - the Greens were not, after all, so ready to stop highlighting their commitment to social justice alongside tackling environmental sustainability. Indeed, many questioned why anyone would doubt the interdependency of the one with the other - as even a longstanding ecologist argued, a steady-state economy would not be feasible without massive redistribution of wealth.

Yet by itself, this reaffirmation of the twin pillars of their values is far from enough to give the Greens' continued resonance and purpose in the political arena. The ecologists were right to argue that the party needs to highlight its differences with the Labour Party rather than appear like a willing subset of Momentum. The need to campaign on climate change in these days of Trumpian America and a British Government with Brexititis is daily more evidently critical - but far, far beyond raising the threat of global warming, the party needs to focus on what is central to defeating it: economics and ownership.

The cruel fact is this - Labour's social democracy will fail. For all their inspiration and well-meaning, Corbyn and McDonnell inevitably are dragged down by the bureaucracy and incumbency and even conservatism that comes with leading the Official Opposition. Hence the Marxist lamb sits down with the Asset-stripping lions and cautiously pushes change within the contradiction of consistency - a word McDonnell repeatedly used in his interview with Andrew Marr. 

Sooner or later, in a world of systemic collapse, it will not be enough. In a time when politics has never been more volatile, with voters earnestly or even desperately searching for new answers to increasingly challenging questions, only a party or movement convincingly embracing genuine radical change, far, far beyond building new roads and stopping PPI hospital contracts, can offer a positive way forward. All else leads ultimately to ever more pain and chaos.

As we face a world slipping week by week further towards climate chaos, the challenge to the Greens is whether it is they who can fashion a clear, radical and egalitarian economics - one founded on a steady-state economy that brings nearly all resources into common ownership, that embraces the bounty that new technology can bring in freeing people from labour and that stewards our limited resources fairly and sustainably. To do this, they need to address how to remove the market system from large swathes of economic activity and so reduce waste and inequity. They need to develop a clear narrative of how localised economies can work for the benefit of all.

Then they need to show how all of these things would work, day by day, for citizens, for families and communities. In a Green society, how would you get a house, or an education? What sort of jobs would exist and what would your working conditions be like? How would you travel about and would it still cost anything? What would you be able to do with the free time gained from a shorter working week? What new possibilities might open up post-capitalism, post-scarcity, post-rat race?

They also need to get angry: they need to bare their teeth not just to the frackers and tree-cutters, which so many Greens and their allies have very bravely done so well of late, but to all the vested corporate interests that are commodifying everything on our planet - even, it turns out, our individual DNA. Such behemoths will not go gently into the night; Greens need to gird themselves for a harder and longer struggle than Mr McDonnell seems willing to contemplate as he sups with the Futures traders, regardless of the length of his spoon.

And with the imbalance of wealth, nationally and globally, at historically obscene and environmentally unsustainable levels, yes, they need to take on the rich because the rich are not the friends of humanity nor of our planet. They never were, they are not now and, no matter how much charity a few of them dole out, they never will be.

But beyond them, beyond their fetish for accumulation and alienation, the rest of us, the vast, overwhelming majority of homo sapiens can transform our world and share it equitably.

Of all the parties capable of producing a first blueprint of that new world, perhaps only the Greens have the space to dream it into being, to fashion it into something real, meaningful and genuinely transformative. Many good policies are already in place covering everything from citizens' income to a maximum wage to employee ownership - but they have still to be joined up and given a compelling narrative, a true vision of tomorrow. 

It must be one they are open to sharing with other radicals on the left as the dynamics of our politics remain as potently fluid as they are now. They need to stand ready to work with those with shared values from other parties, transcending the tribalist barriers that all too often have frustrated the popular will - and one of these parties, for the foreseeable future by far and away the largest, will be Labour, or at least part of Labour.

Unencumbered by the Establishment weights increasingly affixed to McDonnell and Corbyn, the Greens can be the forge to generate the ideas and build a movement to create the conditions for deep, radical cultural change. Through this we can then finally unleash, in the words of the ecosocialist Murray Bookchin, "the basic sense of decency, sympathy and mutual aid (which) lies at the core of human behaviour."

Murray Bookchin, ecosocialist