Inside Man? Green Party Co-Leader, James Shaw: For the best part of a decade the Greens have been wrestling with the Outside/Insider dilemma. Tired of being ignored by the insiders “who make the important decisions” they have steadily de-prioritised “their freedom to speak their version of the truth”, and devoted themselves, instead, to proving that they are equal to the task of following the “sacrosanct rule”.
IT’S ABOUT AS CLOSE to a conversation with the Devil as any decent politician should get. Not that the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Larry Summers, hails from the infernal regions – far from it! Nevertheless, the question he put to the then Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, contained the choice with which Lucifer, in whatever guise, eventually confronts every person who enters political life with serious intent.
So, what was the question that Summers put to the system-challenging Greek economist?
“There are two kinds of politicians,’ he began: “insiders and outsiders.
“The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.
“So, Yanis, which of the two are you?”
Varoufakis chose to go on speaking truth to power – and remains an outsider.
It would be comforting to believe that the Green Party of Aotearoa, when presented with the same choice as Varoufakis, made the same decision. Comforting. Yes. But it would not be true.
For the best part of a decade the Greens have been wrestling with the Outside/Insider dilemma. Tired of being ignored by the insiders “who make the important decisions” they have steadily de-prioritised “their freedom to speak their version of the truth”, and devoted themselves, instead, to proving that they are equal to the task of following the “sacrosanct rule”.
This shift, from Outsider to Insider status, is all-too-evident in the way they present themselves to the public.
The seven Green MPs elected to Parliament in 1999 were a genuinely radical assortment. When asked to pose for the cameras their response was to clasp each other’s hands high above their heads like a team of counter-cultural prize-fighters who had just – to their utter amazement – delivered a painful left-hook to the Establishment.
But, oh, what a transformation 18 years and six general elections have wrought upon the Greens. The May 2017 edition of North & South features an extraordinary cover photo of Green Party MPs and candidates – all of them posed in conscious imitation of Vanity Fair’s annual “Who’s Hot In Hollywood” cover shot.
Nothing counter-cultural here. The Green Co-Leader, James Shaw, impeccably turned-out in a sharp business suit, adopts the posture of an up-and-coming CEO. The Green women, shimmering in designer evening-gowns, smile demurely at the camera. As a full-on application for Insider status, the photograph is a little masterpiece. (This time, Lucifer obviously came disguised as the photographer!)
If New Zealand’s Greens do achieve insider status at this year’s general election, then their political trajectory should not be interpreted as something unusual. When it comes to moving inside, the inventors of the green brand, Germany’s Die Grunen, have already been there and done that.
Born out of the 1980s militant pessimism, Die Grunen’s apocalyptic visions of an industrial civilisation in irreversible decline succumbed relatively quickly to the argument that, in politics, all that really matters is the ability to “influence powerful people and outcomes”. If that meant abandoning the “fundamentalism” of uncompromising planetary defence, for the “realism” of promoting corporate evolution through green technology, then – so be it.
The Right’s fear and loathing of the Greens is, therefore, unwarranted. It is also counter-productive. North & South’s cover, alone, should convince political conservatives that the Greens are now a party they can do business with. Indeed, it is the reflexive hostility of those who never met a tree-feller, river-polluter or climate-change-denier they didn’t like, that makes the Greens’ bid for insider status so difficult to sell to its followers.
Capitalism has never faced a more serious challenge than the militant environmentalism which its relentless ecological devastation continues to inspire. If the increasingly obvious consequences of global warming are not to become eco-socialism’s most effective recruiters, then the smarter sort of capitalist, along with his/her political representatives, needs to enlist the Greens as their allies on the inside – and quickly.
The Greens’ Memorandum of Understanding with Labour expires at midnight on Election Day. How desperately they must be hoping that the electorate delivers enough support to get them safely admitted to the House of Insiders. Those New Zealanders looking for a more uncompromising party of planetary defence will be hoping for a different outcome. Never has there been a greater need for political outsiders committed to prioritising the truth.
What the Devil knows, and ambitious politicians forget, is that once admitted to the House of Insiders, the only “powerful people” to whom they can speak the truth are the ones demanding their silence.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 June 2017.