When the Green movement first erupted onto the political scene a generation ago, its message was often confused, sometimes refreshingly naiive, occasionally even absurd. Yet the Greens provided a ray of hope. This was because, at best, they pointed towards a politics that transcended the shop-worn prejudices of right and left and took a holistic view of the individual, society and humanity's place in the web of life. Green politics, defined as beyond left and right, would, it seemed, balance individual freedom with human interdependence and the interconnectedness of all life.
They would challenge the narrow, linear view of 'progress' measured by continuous economic growth, the uncritical casting aside of tradition and the centralisation of economic power. In place of that 'progressive' formula, favoured equally by socialists and conservatives, Greens would emphasise decentralisation, diversity (both ecological and cultural), cooperation in place of competition or 'struggle', small-scale enterprises, and decentralised political institutions that emphasise locality and diversity. Green politics would be about achieving a balance between continuity and change, because neither can succeed without the other. In other words, being Green would be about working with, rather than against, the grain of humanity and nature. This was an attractive, positive and thoroughly workable alternative, both to the various socialist models and the free-market ideology that was rapidly gaining ground at the time.
Green politics have failed to live up to this promise. In Britain, North America and much of Europe, they have become an appendage of the left's culture of protest and authoritarian group-think. The extent of this sad transformation was apparent last autumn, when the Green Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) united with the left in blocking the appointment of Rocco Buttiglione as European commissioner for justice. This was because of Buttiglione's professed belief that homosexuality is a 'sin' and his traditionalist view of women as mothers and homemakers. The campaign against him evoked the two-minute hate sessions in George Orwell's 1984, in which brainwashed workers were compelled to chant vitriolic slogans against Goldstein, Big Brother's semi-mythical enemy. Nonetheless, the anti-Buttiglione campaign was hailed by the Greens as a triumph for 'progressive values' against the forces of reaction.
Greens competed with, and often outdid, the conventional left in their predictable, ritualistic denunciations. The website of the Green Party of England and Wales spoke gleefully of 'the homophobe Buttiglione' and the progressive political stake placed through his heart. Other prospective commissioners received a remarkably easy ride from the Greens (and the left), including those who support war as a legitimate means of problem-solving, or who equate obeisance to 'market forces' with progress, or who are seemingly unrepentant former members of Stalinist regimes.
The treatment of Buttiglione tells us little about the right-wing Italian politician's shortcomings, or the problems associated with his ultra-conservative interpretation of Catholicism. It tells us more about the ethical, indeed spiritual, crisis of Green politics, and the need for the Greens to return to first principles to fulfil their promise of human and ecological liberation. First, the Green's position took a patronising view of the two constituencies they claimed to defend: namely, women and homosexuals. By no means all women regard themselves as feminists.
Indeed, a growing number dislike the term itself. Those who are feminist are a far more diverse group than political activists usually assume. Some base their philosophy on nurturing, and reject the career-woman model promoted by the left - and zealously imposed by the free-market right. This principle of nurturing extends to the relationship between humanity and planet, between human beings and other species, and between men and women, who respect and complement each other, rather than being in competition or conflict.
Thus, it is the nurturing version of feminism that has relevance to the Green vision, rather than the left's unisex model, which is a travesty. In the same way, most homosexuals reject the left's slogan-chanting, flag-waving version of gay liberation as the political counterpart to 1970s disco music: noisy, vacuous and out of date. Some are traditionalists by temperament or religious by inclination. Others take a more thoughtful view of gay, and human, rights, and so oppose censorship and denunciation. After all, the arguments against Buttiglione sinisterly mirror the discredited, prejudiced claims of the recent past that homosexuals are 'unsuitable' for certain jobs. In the Buttiglione affair, the Green MEPs displayed an essentially totalitarian attitude towards the human person. They assumed that personally held, religiously-based views preclude an objective approach to issues of discrimination.
This is to acknowledge a concept of 'thought crime' and make a presumption of guilt rather than innocence. Furthermore, the Green stance mistakes for objectivity the highly subjective, one-sided claims of left-wing activism. It therefore discriminates against any women who fail to be enthused by unisex feminism and the left's promotion of struggle between the sexes. It discriminates equally against homosexuals who do not identify with the agendas and methods of gay pressure groups. Buttiglione became the foil for a campaign of invective not against conservative or fundamentalist religion but religious belief in general. This inflexible variant of secularism discriminates against millions of European citizens and runs counter to the original Green approach, which was to reconcile politics with the spiritual impulse in its broadest sense. Political thought can, and should, adapt and evolve, absorb new influences and respond to fresh challenges. But it can also mutate beyond recognition or be taken over by narrow-minded, sectarian interests.
This seems to have happened to the Green movement, at least in its party-political incarnation. The Buttiglione saga is but a prominent symptom of a far greater malaise: the capture of Green politics by an unreconstructed, unreformed left. In England and Wales, the explicit leftism of the Greens is expressed through a lengthy position paper called 'Leaving Labour', which has the ringing endorsement of the party's principal speakers, Margaret Wright and Darren Johnson. 'Leaving Labour' is aimed at the type of left-wing campaigners who made the Labour Party unelectable in the 1980s (and thus aided enormously the neo-liberal agendas of Margaret Thatcher and John Major). It is trenchant, and quite accurate, in its critique of New Labour as the extension of Thatcherism by other means. But instead of proposing a Green alternative, it invites nostalgia for centralising, bureaucratic forms of nationalisation, and appeals for a radical extension of state control over the lives of individuals and communities.
There are no equivalent appeals to disillusioned Conservatives or Liberals. The preference for attracting former Labour Party militants is clear, and makes a mockery of the Greens' claim to be 'inclusive'. Much of the rhetoric of inclusion is aimed at attracting support from ethnic minorities and gays. But rather than being valued and respected as individuals, people from these sections of society are appealed to insultingly as nameless, faceless 'minority groups' or 'communities'; as are women, who are not even a minority at all. Most tellingly, 'Leaving Labour' proclaims that 'many former Labour supporters have joined the Green Party, and many more could do so without needing to change their outlook'. This would seem to be the ultimate negation of Green politics, which are based on the assumption that everybody needs to change their political outlook. They are about a change of consciousness in the individual, as well as a wider cultural and political shift.
At the individual level, green consciousness points away from acquisition and consumption as ends in themselves. Instead, the emphasis is moved towards creative and sustainable work, friendship, voluntary activity, a sense of community, and 'family values' - without the bigoted or exclusionary connotations put on them by the right. These are already the priorities of much of the population, except for a small minority of authoritarians and workaholics, many of whom are political activists. Most people, therefore, are small-’g’ greens without knowing it, and are prevented from realising their true goals by a distorted economic and political system. The Green transformation of society is about realigning economics and politics with human and much wider ecological needs.
To be 'Green' is to be simultaneously radical and conservative: radical in the sense of addressing social issues from their roots upwards; conservative in the sense of restoring underlying concepts of society to their original, workable meaning. In the case of politics, this means restoring the link between citizens and government and appealing to 'real' voters over the heads of special interest groups. be they the corporate lobbies of the right or the 'politically correct' lobbies associated with the left. Politics, after all, derives from the ancient Greek word for citizen. Economics must also recover its true meaning: the law of the household, which implies wise use of resources, learning to live within limits and awareness of the surrounding environment. This contrasts with the left-right consensus of relentless expansion, growth for its own sake and inflexible, one-size-fits-all 'models' into which individuals and whole societies are compelled to fit. Green politics are therefore very far removed from the left's preoccupations with struggle (based on class or the more modern obsessions with race or gender), the proliferation of state bureaucracy, and group consciousness without respect for the individual.
Indeed, Green principles are as far removed from the left as they are from the right's dogmatic and superstitious cult of market forces, or the darker right-wing tendencies towards imperial ambition and racism. It would be destructive and dangerous for green politics to identify itself with the toxic political culture of the right. But equally, the present identification with the left is grossly compromising to Green political thought. More than that, it denotes a poverty of ambition. In Britain, the electorate has consistently rejected the programmes and ideologies of the Labour left. By becoming a left echo of Labour, the Green Party can hope at best to occupy a small and parochial niche in British politics. Electoral facts bear this out. The Green Party's highest vote - 15 per cent - was achieved in the 1989 European parliamentary elections on the strength of appeals to 'soft' Tory voters instead of the 'hard' left. This was the highest Green vote in Europe and has not been approached by the party since. The party's determination to position itself on the left has alienated large swathes of the population, both from the party itself and also, far more dangerously, from ecological consciousness in general. Appealing across the political spectrum would offer the Greens more rewards, as well as more human interest, than the present clinging to the left's ideological wreckage.
Real Green principles are genuinely democratic, in that they can be grasped by men and women from any political background whatsoever. Liberation from the left would enable the Greens to emerge as the party of genuine diversity and choice in real contrast to the post-Thatcherite Tories and New Labour and their pale imitations of these ideas. In short, the Greens should jettison much of their 'Manifesto for Sustainable Stalinism'. They should become the anti-bureaucratic party, committed to politics and economics on a human scale. Greens must appeal over the heads of the left-wing and right-wing chattering classes to the uncommitted majority of the electorate, especially to the poorest citizens, who bear the brunt of environmental degradation and suffer most from the emphasis on consumption. To voters of all backgrounds, left/right politics have become irrelevant and dangerously disconnected from their experiences of life. This is a gap that Green politics should fill. Is the existing Green Party up to this task? Regrettably, 'Leaving Labour' and the Buttiglione affair suggest otherwise. They suggest that the party is fatally attached to the authoritarian left. If this is so, then it will be necessary to rescue Green principles from that attachment. This means nothing less than a new Ecology Party. In the next issue Aidan Rankin will describe what a new Ecology Party might be like
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2005