Towards a new theory of the Greens: neither left nor right

In which I try explaining why the Greens are neither left nor right, why they never have been, and why that is important to their future and ours

The Greens will never be an environment party, and have never been a left-wing party. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is neither left nor right because that is what their charter says, what their policy shows, and what the existential global challenge, that is their raison d’etre, requires.

Their cause is not the environment per se, or class struggle and injustice per se, but a sustainable society -- in which correcting global injustice and inequality, between species, generations, the privileged and the under-privileged, is a big part. It is a big part because, until those things are fixed, we won't manage the appetite for growth that is pushing the ecological boundaries of our tiny planet.

We know that there are people who care deeply about the environment, but fail to see the relevance and importance of social responsibility and the rest of the mélange of Green policy, get cross about the distractions, and therefore do not vote Green.

Also, there are people who (to paraphrase Ray) know that the right’s favourite solutions are harmful, but also believe that the left’s are ineffectual -- therefore, winning support from these voters seems unlikely while the Greens are seen as a raggle-taggle left-wing bunch of socialists, revolutionaries and eccentrics.

But more importantly, the existential challenge that is the Greens’ raison d’etre, that underpins all of their policy, requires them to reach out to the whole world. In the end, everyone needs to go green.

The first Green Party charter principle, ecological wisdom, says that human beings are part of the natural world, which is finite, therefore unlimited material growth is impossible. It says that ecological sustainability is paramount.

It is the closest the charter gets to the environment. It says: we are the environment, therefore, people policies are environment policies. It says because limits to growth are a fact, we must find ways of sustaining the environment, so that it can sustain us.

“Ecological wisdom” is a comment on hubris, and policy design. The first principle of the Greens is about learning from nature, modelling our own lives on it, not ‘dominion’. It is about building a society that is like an ecosystem: a diverse, integrated closed loop.

“Ecological sustainability” means the Greens are a party for future generations. As defined by the UN, sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of others, now and in the future, to do the same -- not just an environmental principle, but a social and economic one, too.

The second charter principle, social responsibility, says that unlimited material growth is impossible. Therefore, the key to social responsibility is the just distribution of social and natural resources.

Social responsibility follows from ecological wisdom. Material growth is not the answer to inequality, because unlimited growth is impossible. But although “the key to social responsibility is the just distribution of social and natural resources”, this is not socialism.

New Zealand Greens are unique in their choice of “social responsibility” language, and recently one member, in the party magazine Te Awa, wondered if there may have been some confusion within the party or imprecise use of language:

In my opinion, one driver for the confusion has been the more recent (last 10 years or so) use, particularly by MPs, of the term 'Social Justice' instead of 'Social Responsibility'. Social Justice is a conceptual part of Socialism and is but a fraction of the big picture encompassed by Social Responsibility. … I am equally sure that this change in terminology has not even been done consciously, but was a carry over from individuals' pre-Green, socialist politics where it was/is habitually used, without noticing the different wording or thinking through the consequences of diminishing the scope of the Charter and with it, changing perceptions of what it is to be ‘Green’. … I have no quarrel with using the term 'Social Justice' in its correct political place; that place is not as a Green Charter Principle -- not the one I signed up to in June 1990.

Social justice is about the state intervening to reallocate resources and power more fairly -- redistribution of wealth through taxes and social power through the collective.

Social responsibility is about individuals acting to benefit society, rather than society mediating between individuals. It is about taking responsibility personally, for choices and interactions and decisions not to act: personal choices about family size and consumption, interactions with other people, other generations, other species, the natural world. Social responsibility is for the benefit of all -- the collective -- but while it may mean supporting state-administered socially responsible initiatives, the responsibility is an individual one too.

The third charter principle, appropriate decision-making, says that for the implementation of ecological wisdom and social responsibility, decisions will be made directly at the appropriate level by those affected.

Devolved decision-making, and decision-making that lets those affected own their own destiny, is an expression of ecological wisdom and social responsibility, as well as “for [their] implementation”.

The fourth charter principle, non-violence, says that non-violent conflict resolution is the process by which all of the other principles will be implemented.

As well as a process (preference for consensus decision making, civility of Green conduct in Parliament), it also finds expression in policy: animal welfare, disarmament, child discipline, policies about not doing violence to the environment.

From those principles, we can tell some things about what type of government a Green government would be.

Not anarchist because, far from a preference for little or no government, Green principles of social responsibility and ecological wisdom -- and non-violence for that matter -- require a regulatory role for government, and some economic intervention, to safeguard the interests of the socially vulnerable and the environment.

Not Marxist-Leninist (communist) because this is not about whether the people or private enterprise own capital and the means of growth. Greens stand for a different thing. Far from a central planning ethos, Greens stand for resilient, localized, self-sufficient communities, and decentralised participatory decision-making: an ecosystems approach.

Not capitalist because Greens reject capitalist values of unlimited material growth, and short-term maximisation of profits in the interests of shareholders rather than the environment. Too often, owners of capital have also been the oppressors and exploiters of people and the environment.

Not social democratic because it is not about socialism or evolution towards it or any sort of third way compromise, raising up the working class within the established neo-liberal economic system. Green means a new economics.

Neither right nor left, but some characteristics of both.

Greens may favour markets when they work, green growth within the economy relative to the fossil-fuelled kind, and some globalisation, to tackle global challenges, of which climate change is the ultimate one.

However, a Green government would strive for ecological economic efficiency. That is, not small government in the centre of a free-market growth economy, but small economy, of scale (not growth) and resources, within the environment.

It may mean less lavish government spending, because of less and ultimately zero material growth, and instead, the careful generation of wealth, and smart choices about how to use it. It means more community resilience, not big central government, governance delegated to communities and individuals -- socially responsible individuals.

But it also means prudent investment in a strong government sector including state assets, and good public infrastructure, to support sustainability. It does promote social equality, in part through progressive taxation -- addressing inequality as a substitute for growth. And it requires some regulation, for a responsible environmentally-friendly society.

Green politics is neither left nor right because the politics of class struggle and old left-right political tribalism are not only irrelevant, they are a risk.

The problems that confront us require left and right to turn together, to face the real threats. Capitalism is one of these, but looming even larger than that is the ultimate environmental threat, against which political tribalism and entrenched ways of thinking and being are both dangers and distractions.