Friday, May 11, 2007

Is the Green Party Anti-Capitalist?

There's been an interesting discussion developing on the blogosphere, post-election, on how left-wing the Green Party is (or is not). This is partly an esoteric question of ideological labelling, and for that reason is a question very close to my heart.

To start off with I want to say that the Green Party, unlike those parties of the far left, is a pluralist and decentralised party. Long may that continue, no matter what unfortunate problems sometimes spring from that well. Whilst there are tensions within this framework the party is essentially comfortable with itself as an organisation that contains different views and currents. Whilst some debates may get passionate there is never a tang of "we're the real greens" in the same way that parties of the left traditionally denounce their opponents as "not being Marxists" if there is a disagreement.

Whilst I do think it's fair to say the Greens are "of" the left it is unwise to try to pin down the Greens too firmly in any traditional definition. They are a broad church including those who'd define themselves as down the line anti-capitalists and those who'd genuinely and consciously say that we want reforms within the framework of capitalism. I don't think the fact that the party contains out and out reformists makes it a reactionary party, just as I'd be wary of anyone who wanted to paint it in too revolutionary a light.

One thing I should do is define some terms, because I think it's important. Potentially boring, but important. I think it's useful, for instance, to be aware of a separation between subjective and objective anti-capitalism, without trying to claim some kind of supernatural ability to declare whose subjectivity is, and is not, objectively correct.

I hope we can all agree that a person might be in both these categories, neither of them or in one but not the other, i.e. that someone might take radical poses but when it comes down to it they are more conservative than they first appear (a subjective anti-capitalist), and likewise someone may not regard themselves as an anti-capitalist but actually be taking positions that will inevitably lead them into direct confrontation with the forces of capital (an objective anti-capitalist).

Also I think we should use the term anti-capitalist in a loose way, to refer to those who oppose the interests and outcomes of the capitalist system. This means you don't have to be a Marxist or Anarchist or believe in the Leninist model of a revolutionary party to be an anti-capitalist. It also means, perhap
s more controversially, that you don't need to oppose everything to do with the profit motive.

Militant used to talk about nationalising the top 100 companies, the "commanding heights of the economy", without insisting that the local corner shop be taken into workers' control. Lenin presided over the NEP which brought economic reforms designed to help the owners of small businesses and farms - and I'm pretty sure he was an opponent of capitalism, whatever other faults he may have had.

More recently Attac in Europe were a core part of the anti-capitalist movement who were organised around a call for a tax on international financial speculation... they wanted to tax it, not abolish it. We can argue they are/were a conservative part of the movement or that they took right wing positions relative to others sometimes - but there are few who would not acknowledge that they were indeed part of the movement.

I've argued before that the Greens have a progressive consensus and there is a rewarding place within it for socialists that is mutually beneficial to party and member. They oppose wars, racism, privatisation. They are for effective trade unions that stand up for the rights of the workforce, and, as Cllr Matt Selwood recently argued, most members think "that capitalism as a system cannot deliver sustainability and social justice".

Another thing going for it is that it does not use the formulaic and arcane incantations of the traditional left, is mercifully free of patron saints who can be quoted as ultimate sources of authority and does not try to act as a gate keeper to what is and is not politically valuable.

Party policy documents are far too extensive to quote at length here but it may be useful to point to some areas (I hope not too selectively) that indicate a basic anti-capitalist approach to the world. The Core Principles state that "The success of a society cannot be measured by narrow economic indicators, but should take account of factors affecting the quality of life for all people: personal freedom, social equity, health, happiness and human fulfilment."

Policy states that society should be made up of "self-governing communities of a variety of sizes which will regulate their own social and economic activities."

"Economic policy should be directed not to maximising the forms of wealth that can be measured in monetary terms, but to ensuring that the needs of all are met"... "property laws should be designed to ensure that all have access to the things they need... goods need to be accountably managed by the community that depends on them"

Green Party policy also places the economic system itself at the heart of the major global problems that we face today - there's little in the manifesto that could possibly aggravate the left, and much that would have Tories spitting their sherry across the veranda.

Policy even states that "Extended networks of ownership and control have resulted in communities having little say in decisions which affect them. This stems not only from corporate structures, but also from the legal institution of property on which they are based." (IN104) and that "the highest form of democracy is direct participation."

It's clear that if someone were to believe every dot and comma of the policy documents they would at least be a "subjective" anti-capitalist. There's also evidence that the party may be moving to the left. People like to point towards the election of Derek Wall and Sian Berry as Principle Speakers of the party and the rise of the Green Left grouping inside of the party as evidence of a leftward shift and Peter Tatchell's selection in Oxford East seems to be a further indicator of a desire to move in a left anti-capitalist direction.

These things may well have value in determining the current climate in the party but I want to put that aside for a moment and look at whether the Greens are "inherently" anti-capitalist - and I'd like to argue that yes they are... and no they're not.

The fact is that, like all parties, it is divided into parts. Full time organisers, elected councillors, MEPs, assembly members, activists, passive supporters, enthusiastic supporters (without party cards) and disgruntled card carrying members who don't do anything. It is my contention that the part of the party you find yourself in has a big influence over your fundamental political direction.

Without wanting to make any hard and fast rules about this councillors often find themselves pulled in a more conservative direction and, as a block on a national level, are seen by some as a bit of a problem sometimes. Last year they passed a vote of censure against Derek (before his accession to his current heights of office), essentially for being *publicly* left wing and opposing the Leeds decision to go in with the Tories, a decision that almost everyone outside of Leeds strongly opposes.

Activists who are involved in social movements, like that against the war or in local campaigns often get pulled the other way, because their political activity tends to consist of confronting the status quo rather than compromising and coexisting with it.

It's too big a discussion for one post I suppose but it seems to me that the Greens are undoubtedly a party of the left, but because they didn't spring from the rather sterile traditions of Old labour, Stalinism or Trotskyism they are often free of the linguistic baggage and automatic assumptions that often come with those historical tendencies. This is not always a benefit but it is, I think, healthy. The Greens may not be a traditional socialist party but the ideas of anti-capitalism are the default positions inside the party - although this is not always explicitly acknowledged.

It will partly be the tactical positions the party takes in the future that determine which tendencies are strengthened and become more coherent. Is the main force that changes society elected representatives or social movements? Do we take a position of confronting those we oppose or negotiating and compromising with them? Do we do deals to further the short term gains of the party (a seat on a cabinet here and there perhaps) or do we play for the long term and treat the enemy as just that and fight for real change - no matter if it harms our bank balance and prestige in respectable circles?


Dave Riley said...

Interesting discussion here:
and here:
about the problems in Californian Greens re a major attempt to fuse them with the Dems.

So essentially the whole green party thing is played out in a political context that is very tactically relevant.

Nonetheless, I find the UK far left's seeming disregard of the Greens to be shallow and blinkered -- & maybe grossly workerist in its preference.

It IS an anti-capitalist party and it IS NOT a bourgeois party like the UK Labour Party. Them's the facts.

don fraser said...

Thoughtful article,

I would agree that the Green Party is not a traditional left party and I think that this is a major strength in that we are not hidebound by tradition.

I also think that the analysis of the pressures on elected representatives is accurate. My experience of officials and senior lay representatives in the TGWU indicates that there is a drift towards the right for those that hold positions of authority and power.

The debate around the Leeds situation also highlights an important difference between our selves and other parties. Yes it is frustrating for many of us but at least we don't have either a party hack coming along to tell us the corrent line, or finding your local party branch suspended because you have upset the leader.

In the end we as broad a party as the Labour Party. As we get bigger our internal tensions will increase. Only time will tell if we drift to the centre or, a first maybe, achieve power with our core principles intact.

Don Fraser

Jim Jay said...

Dave: That's a good point that far left can "workerist" when it comes to the greens and generally when discussing the greens the less open minded tend to immediately fall back into knee jerk dogmatism. Although that certainly is not everyone.

Don: i tend to agree on Leeds, it's the price to pay if we're to have a decentralised party... but there is a discussion that needs to be had about the necessary tension between national policy and local councillors (and eventually MPs etc.) I don't want to be more centralised than the pager led New Labour project but I also think people should obey national policy eg opposition to ALMOs and council housing sell offs

Philip Booth said...

An enjoyable read with many truths - capitalism is indeed a powerful economic system but many tend to forget it is also a system of ideas - read Mollys' blog entry:

There are anti-capitalists and anti-capitalists - and as you note there are Greens who believe in some changes and others who want to see complete overthrow. Generally elected Greens have been a force for social progress far to the left of Labour on all issues.

Greens are also well to the left of the Socialist Alliance and Respect on questions like women's and gay rights, health care, animal welfare, the environment and world development.

But words like 'anti-capitalist' are a turn off to most people - our message is positive so lets 'sell' it - too often we get pigeon holed for being anti everything - yet in reality we are almost the only ones with any vision and policies to go with them.

FoE in Scotland did an analysis on the parties - and only Greens had the policies to tackle climate change....want to write more but have an appointment....

Mato Ska said...

Why is it necessary that the Green Party BE anti-capitalist? The Greens work as an electoral party and as a component of an common international experience. It has never been presented as a means of repreating the socialist or communist failed experiement. It was started after the collapse of European socialist and it has grown as a counter-current of the totalitarian outlooks and presents a new definition of ecological democracy. It presents a new project in the politicization of human rights. If you want to talk Green economics looks to a redefinition of how growth and basic needs can be met in the context of sustainability and bio-regionalism. If you want to address anti-capitalism as a political force then look at Greens as a project that upholds national integrity but does not seek to excuses the smaller despots any more then it excuses the bigger despots. If you look at anti-capitalism as a component of anti-globalist social movement look at Greens as a representative of the calm and not the maelstrom. We uphold the transformation not the revolution. And in the process of acquiring political power, we seek to redefine the future sufficiently to establish a new pattern not repetitive of the worst of the past.

The left has demonstrated repeatedly it stands as a reaction and not as a creator. It has demonstrated the irresponsibility of promoting death over life in the process of its own political empowerment. It speaks a foreign policy blind of anybut what it chooses to see in its own world. It presents NO contemporary analyses and vision. There are new seeds planted and they have their own blossom for the old flowers have wilted.

Alan Howe said...

Mr Jay,

I don’t seem to fall into any of your categories, never mind. I am a member that doesn’t get involved with the party much, but that doesn’t mean I am passive. I am also a member of Greenpeace and am very active in the local Agenda 21 group. One element of the emerging consensus appears to be that politics is not the only method available to achieve our “aims”.

I can’t describe myself as an “anti-capitalist” simply because I’m not sure what “capitalism” really is. I can however, relate to phrases like “a system that commodifies nature and people” – from Matt Sellwood on his blog.

However, I am wondering whether it is the “system” that has produced this effect, or whether it is the greed, selfishness, arrogance and stupidity of human beings. Some would have it that any system is at the mercy of such human tendencies. At the risk of sounding like the “nearly departed”, do we have to look more closely at the “causes”?

Incidentally, I know a few Tories who are “spitting their Sherry across the veranda” at how “capitalism” has lost its way and is out of control.

Jim Jay said...

philip: thanks for the comments, i too wouldn't want to see the GP stridently announcing at every turn its anti-capitalist credentials (which would be far more about posture than reality) but I think its a worth while discussion as to what GP's relatinoship is to anti-capitalism, a movement that many of its members have been intimately involved with

mato: I don't think it is necessary for the green party to define itself as anti-capitalist - what I'm asking here is "is it?" But I would say that holding the Eastern Bloc up as the only altenrative to capitalism isn't going to cut much ice with me... power to the people it was not.

although i'm not sure of some of the points you're trying to make I'm happy to agree with you that the left (in the uk at least) has been far weaker at posing positive initiatives than it has been at denouncing and opposing those it regards as enemies.

alan: fair enough about the categories - I was only trying to make a generalised point about the fact that people with different relationships with the party often hold different kinds of views in the party too.

I think there are lots of people like you (there certainly are in cambridge) who are members but do little party activity - but are very active in camapigning activity.

Richard Bergin said...

I think most people hold anti-capitalist values and don't realise it. If you want to preserve the environment and achieve sustainability within our western model of free market capitalism, then you are going to have a hard time trying to apologise for such a veraciously consumptive economic system. Capitalism demands we consumes our natural resources and an exponential rate so the economy can stay afloat, if growth is not sustained then investment does not continue, the business collapses. Trees grow at 3% pa. which is not as fast as money in the stock market where you could get over 10%, so to an economic rationalist it makes perfect sense to cut them all down and invest the money from the sale of the timber. Never mind having air to breathe or your future, that’s just an externality. The world is getting worse not better, why don’t people realise that they are drowning in the externalities of a system gone mad

this guy said...

Apart from Mato Ska and alan Howe, you're all on another planet. Red rather than green. Most people are not on the hard left. We're brainwashed by the Meeja? OK, so we won't be voting for you anyway.

You celebrate getting 26 local seats. At this rate, how long will it take you to overtake even the Libdems? About 400 years. But you're happy in your own little world.

By the way, you've misspelt Croydon Greens.

greeengage said...


I think there is much electoral milage to be made out of point out presenting GP policy as radical and progressive. In my experience, voters are often pleasantly surprised.

Interesting question about tactics. Personally I think it's essentially to get involved in government where possible. Yes, there will be compromises, but it's only by getting things done that we will refute the all too common assumption that a green vote is a wasted vote. But that doesn't mean that policy has to go out the window! To me, it goes without saying that councillors should act according to national party policy.

Jim Jay said...

this guy: well I wish I was on another planet sometimes... but I'm not going to think something because the majority do or do not think it and seeing as climate change is upon us I don't think catering policies to fit focus groups or the media is what is called for. We might not get the action needed, but the consequences of falling short are not pleasant to contemplate, so it is encumbant on us to fight for what we believe in.

richard: I agree that most people agree with some anti-capitalist ideas. Anyone who has gone out and argued for them will know that as you say, but of course this does not mean that the majority are consistent or coherent anti-capitalists, far from it - but the more we raise the ideas and push them in practical ways the more people we can win over to anti-c in practice - which is where it's important to my mind.

g-gae: the green vote = wasted vote is a common asumption and something we really need to fight. I think its clear from the last election where we get a presence on the council we can really build up momentum and people start viewing us as a real alternative, which of course we are in norwich, brighton and the rest.

Peter said...

To get to the heart of it, the Green Party is opposed to economic growth, and believes that we have to use different economic indicators to measure success than GDP.

Economic growth is the main justification of capitalism as a system for increasing the wealth of everybody. Even though the poor's share of the pie may not get bigger, the pie itself becomes larger, due to growth, so everybody becomes wealthier.

Greens say - that may or may not be the case. The problem though, is that if we use up or degrade the earth's resources, then eventually there will not be much wealth left for anybody to enjoy. We cannot look just at the wealth of our own generation, but must take into account that of future generations.

We have to ask ourselves whether it is possible or desireable to have a capitalist system without growth. If not, then the Greens are anti-capitalist. If it is, then there is nothing to preclude Greens from being pro-capitalist or capitalist-ambivalent.

So I would put in plea that people explore this central issue if they want to discover whether we are anti-capitalist or not.

Anything else is window dressing.

Peter Cranie said...

Hi Jim,

I don't know if this is widespread knowledge yet, but the Greens have pulled the plug on the Leeds coalition over the issue of waste incineration.

They don't have the leverage to fight it within the coalition after these elections, so with both Tories and Lib Dems set to push ahead, they have come out on a Green principle.

I still expect us to get criticised that it happened (or was allowed to) but as you say, we are decentralist. The alleged vote rigging by Labour in Leeds is an ongoing issue and you have to ask whether New Labour are actually a better coalition partner.

The buzz phrase seems to be "confidence and supply" which keeps us in a principled position, while using our influence to get decent council policies implemented.

AN said...

Last weekends electins in Bremen throw up a different way of looking at this question.

the Greens (die Gruene) went up from about 4% to 16%, and the hard left (die Linke) from 0% to 8.4%. There is quite a lot of information about the voters.

For example most first time voters opted for the Greens, but the left did much better with the age group 45 -59.

What is intersting is that while the Greens were overwhelmingly seen as the best vote for environmentlal issues the left were seen as much stronger on social justice issues - unemployment, equality, etc. (69% of voters identified die Linke with social justice, and only 39% identified the greens with that).

Now the german greens are a long way to the right of GPEW, but I would like to put forward the idea that while a sustainable economy is inherently unacheivable under free market conditions, ecological sustainabilty is not necessarily linked to social justice and fighting inequality.

so while all greens may be inclined to restrict the market in the interst of ecological sustainability, not all greens need necessarily align with traditional left wing concerns.

This also explains the wide divergence between die Gruene and the GPEW.

On the positive side it also means that both the Greens and the left can coexist as natural allies on some issues, but with diverging interests on other issues.

Jim Jay said...

Certainly the discussion as the whether the Greens of England and Wales are anti-capitalist is very different to some of the european green parties who have definately proved themselves to be pro-capitalism in a big way.

It's definately possible to care about the environment in a very serious way and not be opposed to capitalism - just as it's possible to be wrong on lots of other issues.

AN said...

Yes Jim I agree

And the consequence of that is that if the Green party sees itself first of all as an environmental party, rather than a social justice party (and that is a valid point of view) then perhaps it has to be pluralistic enough to also include those who may have more conservative views on social justice and equality issues.

Where I am coming from here is to recognise that there can be two plitical projects that are both progressive, but are progressive within different frameworks and have different priorities.

As such the Green party (as it seems to me) is never going to be a develop a long-term partnership with the trade unions, even though many green policies match the policies of the unions. Because if the Greens took that step they would be becomming a left and not a green party.

Dave Marlow said...

I know very little about the British Green Party, besides that nutcase David Icke. In America, our Green Party is hopelessly unfocused and has no strong leadership (Ralph Nader is a reoccurring name but under no circumstances a "leader").

Also, while I agree that one doesn't necessarily need to be a Marxist or Anarchist to oppose capitalism, I see no other way than Marx's plan by which to abolish it. I wouldn't discount attempting reforms but only a revolutionary party will being sustained change.

Douglas Coker said...

I found a visit to Wikipedia's pages on capitalism useful when contemplating my own anti-capitalism - here

I think the two key elements of capitalism which are of most concern are the dominance of transnational corporations - TNCs as they are referred to these days, (the term used by Baran and Sweezy - multinational corporations - seems to be rather passe) and markets.

Tackling TNCs needs the combined efforts of bold, progressive, green government at all levels and campaigns encouraging citizens and consumers to take coordinated, individual actions would be useful.

As for markets I prefer to describe these as rigged rather than free. Rigged in favour of the interests of TNCs and other vested interests. But I cannot see how we can easily be comprehensively anti-market in all respects. I hear no credible voice advocating a return to command economies.

So a world where markets have some role, constrained by progressive government and the power of existing TNCs is severly constrained appeals.

Douglas Coker

Derek Wall said...

There are alternatives to both the market and command economies, around commons regimes, open source, etc.

Most useful human activity is neither for cash nor at the instruction of the state.

so lets extend and defend these spaces.

Johnny Rook said...

Adding my two bits, the greens are left, but not anti-capitalist and most (not all Greens) are essentially committed to reform of the present system and making it 'fairer'.

Some of the most infuriating political conversations I've had was between myself and Green party members trying to argue for action only against Esso rather than against oil companies, big buisness in general.

Nevermind eh?