Beyond Tomorrow: Unless the Greens recapture the visionary elan of their predecessor party, Values, the Greens - like the Alliance - are doomed to electoral oblivion.
I am delighted to introduce Bowalley Road’s first Guest Posting, penned by my good friend, Dr Chris Harris. In the light of the departure of Sue Bradford from Parliament, and hoping to expand and illuminate the debate about the Greens’ future it has sparked, Chris kindly agreed to contribute the following essay.
WHEN is playing it safe not safe? When you're a Green Party, it would seem.
In a poll conducted just before Sue Bradford's shock resignation, Colmar Brunton put the New Zealand Greens on 4.3 per cent. This is a dangerous number, less than the MMP threshold.
Sue Bradford was one of the most obviously radical of our nine Green MPs. She was certainly the stroppiest and will leave a big gap.
The Greens should be making hay at the expense of a climate-sceptic government and the clash of transport philosophies in Auckland. Yet clearly, they are not.
What is happening is that the Greens are suffering the same eclipse as other 'support parties' before them, such as the Progressives, New Zealand First and United Future.
It seems that Ms Bradford wanted the Greens to make more of a noise, to put more of a distance between themselves and the two main parties. But they have not seemed able to do this.
Thus, like our national brand 100% Pure New Zealand or the climate-threatened snows of Kilimanjaro, the Greens seem to be melting away.
The performance is even more tragic when we compare it with the outcome of the German elections, held within hours of Ms Bradford's resignation.
The German Greens, and even more so the Left Party—die Linke, an essentially Marxist organisation—set out to capture protest votes against the two main parties, which were actually in coalition with each other and not just similar on many issues, as they are in New Zealand.
The German Greens won 10.7 per cent of the vote and the Left Party a whopping 11.9 per cent.
Summing the two, a pair of parties that stood out from the crowd won 22.6 per cent. Whereas our Greens, in the shadow of the two main parties and invisible, score 4.3 or perhaps less this week.
WE COULD CALL the German outcome a protest vote. But such large protests herald change, in the same way that the 21 per cent vote for Bruce Beetham's Social Credit in 1981 probably helped to kick-start Rogernomics. (Beetham detested the Rogernomes, but as Karl Marx said, we make history in ways that are not always of our own choosing.)
That winds of change are blowing across all Europe, and not just Germany, has been sensed by the conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
In a rather uncharacteristic speech delivered on the 14th of September, M. Sarkozy declared that the current financial crisis was nothing less than the first act of a revolution:
"A tremendous revolution awaits us... Ladies and gentlemen, how can we not see that we’ve got a problem? All over the world, people think that they are being lied to, that the figures are false, that they are being manipulated… For years we told people whose lives were becoming more and more difficult that their living standards were rising. How could they not feel deceived? ... In 18 months something remarkable has been achieved. A collective debate has now been engaged. It will never stop.... The crisis isn’t just making us free to devise other models, another future and another world. It compels us to do so."
Why have Greens and Marxists done so well in Germany by standing outside a mainstream consensus?
Why does a conservative French President make a speech in which he sounds like a 1968 radical about to throw a petrol bomb? Or, like Mikhail Gorbachev announcing drastic changes to the Soviet Union?
At bottom, of course, the reason is the global financial crisis.
Here in New Zealand, we imagine that the crisis has been fixed, and that pretty soon it will be back to speculation as usual. But in Europe they are not so confident.
The banks have been propped up for now by taxpayer bailouts. Many bankers think that they will be allowed to keep the bailout money.
We read in our newspapers and in British ones that a generation of fiscal austerity must now follow. That is to say, ten years of austerity for the little people, who were not the architects of the crisis.
But European politicians know that on their continent, it is out of the political question that the bankers will be allowed to keep the bailouts; that further upheaval is to come once the schools, universities and fire brigades start to close, as they have been doing in California.
The very iconography of modern European states bears the imprint of generations of revolution and the threat of revolution.
The logo of the French government features a female revolutionary (the famous Marianne) and the motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Italy's features a red-rimmed star, a garland of leaves and a cogwheel, embodying Italy's constitutional status as a "democratic republic founded on labour."
Austria's features a black eagle wielding the hammer, sickle and mural crown, symbolising the liberation of the worker, the farmer and the citizen from Imperial forms of oppression (a broken chain was added after 1945).
As Mark Twain said, rumours of his death were exaggerated. So it is, in fact, with radicalism, socialism and even Marxism.
It's common in NZ to talk about "failed socialist experiments" without the least understanding of what socialists, of various sorts, have said over the generations, or why they said it.
Or, whether it is still relevant today.
In view of the financial crisis, and of Europe’s past, present and possible future, a quick review might be in order, so that we may have less heat and more light.
THE ESSENCE OF MARXISM, and in a wider sense all serious forms of modern-day radicalism, lies in the idea that industrial capitalism is a bounded historical era with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Modern industrial capitalism is not the same as markets, "the market," or even capitalism, which in one form or another has been around since at least the time of the Renaissance merchants.
The Romans and the Greeks also knew how to make their talents increase, as the biblical parable has it.
Nonetheless, what is new about modern industrial capitalism, of the kind that has developed since about 1815, is that it is technically progressive to an almost revolutionary degree.
Modern capitalism is itself revolutionary, exploiting innovation and economies of scale to transform the economic landscape every few years. And quite often, the cultural, social and ecological landscape as well.
In this respect modern capitalism is quite different to simply growing a cash crop or lending money in ways that would have changed little, in ancient times, from one century to the next.
Since the early nineteenth century goods at first expensive, have become cheaper and cheaper in the space of a few years or decades.
We need only consider how much cheaper computers became between 1960 and 1990, for example. In 1960 there were hardly any computers; by 1990 nearly everybody in the developed world had access to one and within a few months more they would start to be hooked up by the Internet.
Yet there was nothing new about that. Between 1860 and 1890, a century before, the price of steel underwent a similar fall.
From the Middle Ages until about 1860, steel was a scarce expensive material used for making swords, spectacle frames and medical instruments--the titanium of its day. Cast and wrought iron, grossly inferior materials, were used for industry.
Yet by by 1890 steel was was used for every industrial purpose and the idea of a world effectively without steel just seems impossible to us today, as impossible as a world with only a handful of computers and no Walkmans or Ipods.
And in between steel and the computer, the same sort of revolution occurred in the worlds of telephones, radio and TV.
To Marx, and many others, what this kind of transformation meant was that modern capitalism was laying the foundations for a future society of utopian abundance, at least in the Gandhian sense that there would be enough for everyone's need, if not their greed.
But that, at the same time, the possibilities for profit must also ironically decrease with time. Utopia was possible. But it would not be profitable.
Between the industrial revolution and the future utopia would have to be another revolution to get rid of the old mental habits, if not the capitalist themselves.
Revolutionary as it was, this argument was not much different from what modern business economists call the theory of the product cycle.
A new, cost-cutting invention is costly to develop. But the high prices prevailing at the time (e.g. for steel in 1860, or computers in 1960) pay for the development costs. Over time, as everybody starts making the product in the new way, the opportunity for profits evaporate. Smart companies then move on to do something else, while the not-so-smart end up being caught in a ‘commodity trap’.
In business economics, the product cycle applies to one product at a time. But what if this tendency to cheapening were quite general? To some extent the cheapening tendency is general. That is why people have become wealthier over time, in the sense that their wages, on average, will buy more stuff. We record the same fact as the growth of national income—that is, GDP and GNP.
The general cheapening tendency poses two threats for modern, industrial capitalism, both of which herald at least the possibility of a social utopia.
The first of these is that the workers may take their increased wages in the form of leisure rather than the same hours to buy more stuff.
Again, this is precisely what has happened, to some degree. Working hours have got shorter over time under capitalism, when a long view is taken.
In the green-tinged 1960s, many pundits looked forward to a "leisure society" in which formal working hours might be cut to 30, or 20 hours a week, largely through the new automation technologies then coming on stream.
The other threat is a more radical one. This is that even with rising output, manufacturing may become less and less attractive as an outlet for investment, compared to finance and real estate.
In finance and real estate—more precisely, a finance-real estate nexus, in which banks lend on land and rising land prices secure more lending—it is possible to generate paper profits and capital gains indefinitely without anything being produced. And thus without any threat of the product getting cheaper.
Thus the dream of the leisure society disappears, as workers work longer hours to pay the mortgage. As the cost of manufactured goods falls, so the cost of land and mortgages increases.
The boom in finance and real estate looks like a magic fix for a post-industrial capitalism, from the private investor standpoint.
But from the point of view of society as a whole, it is a failure as serious as anything to be found in the Soviet command economy that Gorbachev inherited.
How can housing be getting more expensive, if the economy is supposed to be progressing?
In fact capitalism under these conditions regresses to a pre-modern system, dominated by the two estates of landlords and usurious moneylenders at the expense of the third estate of all the productive classes.
In ways that would be obvious to a leader like Sarkozy, this sets the system up for a crisis of political legitimacy remarkably similar to the French Revolution.
But such tendencies do not necessarily mean revolution on a clockwork timetable, as many Marxists fondly imagine.
This is because periods of stagnation in capitalism, and backsliding toward a pre-1789 system, alternate with periodic capitalist renewal due to new products and processes.
This possibility of capitalist revival epoch was identified by an early Soviet economist, Nikolai Kondratiev. Pessimistic about capitalist collapse, Kondratiev recommended a left-wing mixed economy, like the one that would later develop in Sweden, as a better course than hard-line Communism.
To borrow a distinction that would develop later on, Kondratiev proposed a "concrete utopia," a better society that could actually be achieved in the actual historical situation, as opposed to "deadly utopias" imposed by hard-liners of some kind, whether of the right or the left.
Such views offended Stalin, the hardest of hard-liners, who had Kondratiev taken out and shot. Nonetheless, of all Soviet economists, Kondratiev is the one taken most seriously these days.
IN COUNTRIES LIKE NEW ZEALAND, the restoration of a declining local capitalism has historically taken the form of a new kind of export commodity.
Gold is replaced by wool, which is replaced by frozen meat, and so on, on a somewhat faster timetable than the fifty to seventy year cycle between periods of exhaustion that we see in the industrial economy proper.
James Belich's cycle of "boom, bust and export rescue" in his new book Replenishing the Earth is Kondratiev applied to settler societies.
Taking everything into account, the big, historical question for New Zealand today is whether there is another "export rescue" on the horizon.
Or, whether due to a combination of factors including sheer ineptitude, the profitability of New Zealand capitalism will depend more and more on real estate speculation, leaky building construction, and outright fraud.
If that is the case then capitalism does not have much of a future in New Zealand, which could easily become 'post-capitalist' in the same sense as Argentina, an essentially exhausted country.
A microcosm of this problem is the way that Fonterra, to develop its biotechnology arm and avoid a commodity trap, needs a capital injection from its farmer-owners.
But New Zealand farmers, who have been lately farming more for capital gains than anything else, are maxed out on debt to the point of owing five years’ income to the banks, and don’t have anything left for research and development. Argentina, here we come?
For the world, the question is whether green technology can rescue capitalism from a similar if slightly less serious condition of exhaustion, in the same way that the development of mass markets for automobiles and home appliances rescued it after the Great Depression and World War II.
No doubt some kind of a historical recovery for world capitalism can be cobbled together to a degree that will prevent all out revolution of the more physical kind.
In any case, since the days of reforming leaders like Gorbachev in Russia and Deng Xiao Ping in China, even remaining Communists mostly believe that Kondratiev was right and Stalin was wrong.
To put it another way, there are far more Chinese and Russians than North Koreans and luckily for world peace, the Chinese and Russians no longer pursue systems completely antithetical to our own.
But whether the twenty first century's mixed economy will have the same generally laissez-faire character as the long post-War boom of automotive suburbia is a different matter.
For instance, the global swing to rail, driven as much by congestion as anything else, implies a much more planned future for the city.
In a society where private consumption is increasingly seen as "un-green," there is likely to be a swing to more social forms of consumption, and shorter working hours.
Traffic and the daily grind may give way to a society where people spend more time hanging out in traffic-free streets.
Pension funds might well sacrifice financial returns for social security, through investment in cheap housing, public transport and solar water heating.
Innovation may be undertaken socially as well. The rise of the open access software movement is a sign of this trend.
So too is the growing demand that drug formulae also be developed in the public domain so that the drugs themselves can be mass-produced cheaply without patents.
IT'S INTERESTING that most of these likely 21st century changes concern the city. In fact, nowhere more so than in the city does the concept of a concrete utopia have meaning.
The city is literally, in its physical embodiment, either a concrete utopia or a concrete dystopia. The city has been described as an engine of inequality; yet at the same time it is a nest for talent and creativity. The abode of a lonely crowd, and a place where we meet people. A place to which we belong, and a place where all the best seats have been taken.
The city is also the abode of democracy, which is largely unthinkable without cities and nearly always concerns urban issues when it is at its most meaningful. And the city is also the most characteristic form of human settlement since the Industrial Revolution.
The great weakness of the left is not, as we now see, its diagnosis of capitalism as something historically bounded and precarious, that keeps running out of sources of profit and grinding to a halt. Most academic economists would probably agree with that view, even if the textbooks paint a more static picture.
The problem is, rather, that socialist movements have often taken an undemocratic form that overlooks both the city as a place to live, and as a place to practice democracy and the building of concrete utopias.
It is no coincidence that one of the first opposition movements to spring up in 1980s Eastern Europe was called Civic Forum.
Nor, that the Austrian coat of arms, which dates back to 1919, features the hammer, sickle and a symbol of the city, whereas undemocratic socialism has always dropped the latter in favour of symbols of labour alone.
But even western Labour parties, though far less fearsome on this score than Lenin, Stalin, and all the rest, have also curiously undervalued the city.
Though the factory and the large, industrial city are both products of the Industrial Revolution, Communists and Labour parties alike have championed the factory and the worker, while ignoring the city and the politics of everyday life.
This is true, even though Labour parties ought to be able to offer city-dwellers far more than parties that exist primarily to look after the land speculator, the mortgage lender, or a booming market for automobiles.
In European countries, where Labour parties or their local equivalent have looked after the city-dweller, or at least balanced standard economic objectives and the quality of urban life, they have tended to remain in power for decades.
The concrete utopia of the city is all the more important if, in fact, standard economic objectives are becoming harder to meet, due to capitalism’s tendencies to exhaustion and the cheapening of goods.
An absence of profit can be countered by excellent public transport, exuberant public spaces, rents and mortgages that return to the government in lieu of taxes, and an absence of speculative pressure on housing affordability.
If future left wing parties embrace the city—and if Green parties rediscover the city as well, and put their own stamp upon it—the dream of the leisure society, "crucified on a cross of gold" as one nineteenth century radical put it, may yet be seen.
IF THE ICONOGRAPHY of European states reflects past waves of socialist revolution, it’s also curious how often the iconography of hippies, Greens and the counterculture also pays homage to what has been called the "radical nostalgia" of such socialist artists as William Morris and Walter Crane.
A good example of such radical nostalgia is the poster for the 2009 Oregon Country Fair, an instant classic.
We tend to think of socialists as usually looking to the future and Greens as looking backward to some sort of lost golden age. But actually these are two sides of the same coin of building a concrete utopia.
The Green perspective ensures that utopia is on a human scale, and does not try to overly straighten the crooked street, as utopians might otherwise be tempted to do. Looking backward, it also reminds us that the landscape was once a common treasury, and that it might yet be again.
We can thus propose a movement that is like the two headed eagle, symbol of continuity amid revolution, which looks to a beautiful past and an even more beautiful future, Beyond Tomorrow - as the Values Party Manifesto of 1975 put it.
As Churchill said, the further back you can see, the further you can see forward as well.
Looking backwards and forwards makes it possible to step over the ugly present of motorways and leaky-building speculators, in which mainstream politics is mired. A week is a long time in that kind of politics, but that is not the kind of politics a party like the Greens should be building.
There is even a place for conservatives in this movement. A tremendous revolution awaits us in the 21st century, of that there can be little doubt. But we can make it an urban, urbane revolution. Perhaps the knowledge that this may, in fact, be the best way to inoculate the body politic against a worse kind of revolution accounts for the sudden conversion of a Sarkozy.
After this irresistible revolution—which, rather than the French revolution, may be more like the Industrial Revolution in reverse—there will still be inventors, entrepreneurs and clever people doing clever things.
But whether the capitalist business corporation will remain as the primary mobiliser of social talent and industry is a very good question. Indeed it’s not at all clear that the for-profit sector is the most progressive or innovative part of the social system even now. Whereas, in the days of Ford and Edison, it clearly was.
If the quest for profit becomes relatively unimportant as a force for social progress and innovation—so that the corporation becomes a dinosaur relative to an Internet mediated collegiality, for example—the era of modern, or high capitalism identified by Marx and the socialist movement will indeed have come to a close.
That will be the case even if the quest for profit survives in sectors such as real estate or corporate control of retail, utility networks, music and broadcasting, but in the form of a "dead hand" over the elements of those systems that are genuinely creative; the architects, the urbanists, the musicians, the journalists. Perhaps, even now, modern capitalism has entered the brittle twilight of a historical age, in which the old ways continue for a while, and are reaffirmed in the face of growing evidence that they have lost their effectiveness.
Alternatively, there may be another swing of the Kondratiev cycle. But each episode of upheaval leaves its mark, nonetheless, and should be treated as an opportunity to build a concrete utopia.
For the Greens, the challenge is whether they recognise such a revolution coming, and more importantly, whether they can, or will, articulate the vision of a concrete utopia, a gulf between what is, what ought to be, and what could be.
Such a vision, of a world beyond tomorrow, is the element that is essentially lacking in mainstream politics right now. If the Greens can articulate it, they need have no fear of ever falling under the five per cent threshold, and may do considerably better.
If the Greens cannot do this, if they drift from issue to issue and campaign to campaign, they will become just another support party and gradually suffocate in a mainstream political bear-hug.
Without vision the people perish; and so too do support parties.