Green Parties Are Not Enough

Green parties often begin life as radical, campaigning movements – only to join coalitions with establishment parties when they achieve electoral success. In so doing, they have helped push through attacks on workers’ rights, as well as measures undermining environmental safeguards. This flows, writes HANNAH SELL, from their lack of a class-conscious viewpoint and raises the need for a socialist alternative.

Last year a massive 400,000 people took part in the U.S.’s biggest ever demonstration against global warming. The current ban on demonstrations in France, following the Paris terror attacks, means there are not likely to be such large demonstrations outside December’s summit. Globally, however, protests are becoming more common that demand action on climate change as a whole, or oppose specific assaults on their local environment. These include the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated in Stuttgart, Germany, against the Stuttgart 21 rail project. Other recent struggles are the movements against gold mines in Greece, the anti-fracking protests in a whole number of countries including Britain, or the demonstrations against nuclear power in Japan and other countries following the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

For many of those who become active in environmental movements it is natural to look for a political expression for their protests. Those participating in the Greek protests against the gold mines initially turned in the main to Syriza. One of the many results of the Syriza leadership’s capitulation to the demands of the troika and global capitalism was a betrayal of these environmental protesters.

In many cases, however, environmental protestors look to the Greens to give their views an electoral expression. Many Green parties initially arose out of struggles in defence of the planet. The German Greens (Die Grünen), for a long time the strongest Green Party, emerged from the mass movements against nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s. The same is true of Sweden’s Green Party (Miljöpartiet de gröna).

In some countries it is not only those motivated primarily by environmental issues who are attracted to the Greens. In England and Wales their membership quadrupled in 2015 and they received over a million votes in the general election, primarily because they were seen as more left wing and anti-austerity than the three major parties. The election of anti-austerity Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party has now cut across this trend but, depending on the outcome of the struggle between pro- and anti-austerity forces in the Labour Party, the Greens could again become a major beneficiary of the anti-austerity mood in society.

Ecological Compromise

While Green parties may often be perceived as both the best fighters in defense of the environment and as on the left on social issues, their record in government tells a different tale. In Stuttgart, for example, the Greens had a significant electoral surge as a result of the movement and formed a coalition with the former social democrats, the SPD, in 2009. However, the SPD was pro-Stuttgart 21 and so the net result of Green participation in the coalition was only to win agreement on holding a referendum on whether it should go ahead. Following a huge campaign from big business, the Greens lost the referendum.

Stuttgart is just one local example of a general trend. From the early 1990s up to 2015, European Green parties have participated in national government in 21 countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Ukraine. Many of these were ‘red-green’ coalitions with ex-social democratic parties, but by no means all. In the Czech Republic, Latvia and Ireland, Greens entered coalitions with right-wing capitalist parties. The Greens have also taken part in government outside of Europe, including in Brazil, Mauritius and Kenya.

On not a single occasion has such participation led to qualitative improvements in government policy on the environment. The German Greens, for example, were in government coalition with the SPD for seven years from 1998 to 2005. In that time the number of wind farms increased significantly but by 2005, according to the World Wildlife Fund, nine of the 30 most harmful European coal plants were found in Germany, five in the top ten. One was in second place, just behind Greece. Having come to prominence in the anti-nuclear power movement, the German Greens in government signed up to a deal for nuclear power to be eliminated over the following 20 to 30 years, effectively guaranteeing the nuclear power industry a secure future for decades.

In France, the Greens (Europe Écologie – Les Verts) took part in a coalition with the Parti Socialiste, along with others, from 1997 to 2002. Securing the environment ministry, the Greens effectively abandoned their opposition to nuclear power. In Ireland, the Greens joined a coalition with Fianna Fáil and promptly acquiesced to Shell Oil getting permission to develop the Corrib gas field off Ireland’s west coast. There had been a mass campaign against this, previously vocally supported by the Greens. While Shell got permission to drill, environmental protesters who had campaigned against them were left languishing in prison.

A Woeful Role

It is not only on environmental issues that Greens have played a woeful role in government. The Irish Greens accepted other measures that they had campaigned against in opposition, including the use of Shannon airport by the U.S. military for “renditions” – the forced removal of suspects to secret locations for interrogation. Having opposed incinerators, they then oversaw the building of one of the biggest in western Europe.

All of the governments the Greens have participated in have been in the age of neoliberalism and have – to a greater or lesser extent – overseen privatization, deregulation and attacks on workers’ rights. The red-green coalition in Germany presided over the introduction of the Hartz IV laws and €1 jobs – the biggest attack on welfare and workers’ living standards since the second world war.

In Ireland, the Greens in government initially signed up to the EU/IMF savage austerity, including the household charge, water charges, VAT hikes and major public spending cuts, only belatedly pulling out as their poll results reach vanishing point. In France, over five years, the “plural left” government privatized more than previous conservative governments. Air France and Air Inter were privatized, and the national rail company, SNCF, was partly dismantled.

In Italy, the Greens (Verdi) signed up in 2007 to the then prime minister’s program for “liberalization” (ie privatization) of public services, and immediate action to cut the public sector. Since the Romano Prodi-led coalition collapsed, the Greens have disappeared as an electoral force in Italian politics. Per Gahrton, the author of Green Parties, Green Future: From Local Groups to the International Stage, comments: “It is impossible to know if the electoral losses and the eradication of the Greens as an independent force in Italian politics is related to their participation in government, or rather an effect of the chaotic political landscape in the country.” In fact, it is an iron law that Greens suffer electoral losses as a result of government participations, as their largely left-wing electorate is disillusioned by the grubby reality of Green representatives seeming to sell their souls for a ministerial portfolio or two.

Mind the Gap

Why is the gap so big between the radical aspirations of many Green voters and members, and the reality of the Greens in government? At root it is related to their attitude to capitalism. Green parties’ central motivation is saving the planet. However, generally, their leaderships do not conclude that ending environmental degradation is linked to ending capitalism. Some do not even define themselves as being on the left. The Brazilian Greens (Partido Verde) clearly say: “PV does not accept the narrow polarization between left and right, we are in front.” What does “in front” mean?

As Per Gahrton expresses it: “Most Green parties explicitly accept private ownership and the market economy – less as a matter of principle, more because such an economy is considered the least bad system known.” The net result of accepting what they believe is “the least bad” system has been a preparedness to join capitalist governments in the hope of getting a few concessions for the environment, while ending up agreeing to policies that are in the interests of capitalism but are a disaster for the environment, humanity and the Green Party!

Many Green parties support some limited nationalization. In the 2015 general election in Britain, for example, the Greens stood for re-nationalization of the railways – although not the energy companies, banks, or wider industry. Globally, however, their record when in power has been to abandon these pledges and to acquiesce to further privatization of public services.

Rather than capitalism itself, Green parties lay the blame for climate change with consumerism and economic growth. The Italian Greens put it in their program as follows: “A Green is someone who sees in economic growth the original cause of the degradation of our planet.” However, they are not able to explain how they intend to end economic growth without ending capitalism, which has the drive for unplanned and wasteful growth written into its DNA.

Unsurprisingly, opposition to economic growth is held less firmly by Green parties in the neo-colonial world. The Benin Greens say, for example: “To be able to travel in all Africa, locally as well as internationally, the Beninians should be able to dream about bicycles, normal trains, express trains or airplanes, under comfortable and secure conditions.”

The Need for Economic Planning

This sums up one of the difficulties of the Greens’ condemnation of economic growth. For much of the world’s population, economic growth is vitally needed. Worldwide, 1.3 billion people still do not have access to electricity. More than 700 million have no access to clean water. On a world scale, capitalism is not providing even the basic elements of civilization to billions. Workers not only in Benin but throughout large parts of Africa and Asia dream of a modern transport system, along with decent housing, electrification and so on.

Equally, condemnation of “consumerism” in the economically developed capitalist countries is one-sided. Of course it is true that modern capitalism encourages people to buy ever more unnecessary products. Nonetheless, many consumer goods genuinely improve the lives of working-class people. Fridges, vacuum cleaners and washing machines, all improve people’s lives, particularly those of women who continue to shoulder most of the burden of domestic work. They are part of the accumulated standard of living of sections of the working class, won through the struggles of previous decades.

But is it possible to support economic growth in order to meet the needs of humanity, while at the same time preventing the destruction of the planet? Not on the basis of capitalism. Capitalism’s relentless drive for profit and its inbuilt need for economic growth have already wreaked havoc on our environment, bringing the world close to catastrophe. The current Tory government in Britain is systematically getting rid of the few measures to encourage renewable power that previously existed. This is no surprise given the character of British capitalism – a third of the current value of the London Stock Exchange is made up of ‘high-carbon’ energy and mining companies.

However, a democratic socialist planned economy – based on bringing the major corporations into democratic public ownership – would be able to plan economic growth in order to meet the needs of humanity and also to protect the planet. With massive investment into renewable energy, the link between economic growth and environmental degradation could be broken. Moreover, a socialist planned economy, organised to meet humanity’s needs rather than an insatiable thirst for private profit, would not have an “inbuilt” need for continual economic expansion.

The tendency to put the onus on individuals to change their behavior, rather than fighting for systemic change, means that Greens often support ‘green taxes’ designed to encourage individuals to modify their behavior. However, these are often regressive, hitting the poorest sections of society hardest. Motorway toll charges, congestion charges and fuel taxes are not the most effective means to stop people using their cars, for example, when many people have no other means of getting from A to B. Fighting for a high-quality free or very cheap public transport system would have a far greater effect. This, however, means coming up against the interests of big business.

Non-Class Approach

The Greens globally do not see society in class terms. Per Gahrton writes: “Class or national solidarity is basically a kind of egocentrism, demanding that people feel solidarity with other people of their own type, social or national.” In Britain, the Greens have criticized the historic links between the Labour Party and the trade unions, and have supported the right wing of the party’s destruction of these links. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, praised the Collins Review, which removed the last vestiges of the collective voice of the unions within the Labour Party. She wrote: “To his credit, Ed Miliband has inched towards some kind of reform. So too have some union leaders, who perhaps see they would have more influence if they were not so clearly tied to one party – just like the RSPB [Royal Society for the Protection of Birds] can campaign effectively for birds, whoever is in power” (Honourable Friends: Parliament and the Fight for Change).

No doubt Caroline Lucas would like more trade unionists to join the Greens, but there is no room in the Green Party constitution for organisations, including trade unions, to affiliate to it or have any kind of collective voice. Ultimately, by opposing the existence of a party that represents the collective interests of the working class, the Greens are arguing that the choice should be between different parties representing the interests of the capitalist class.

Socialists’ support for “class solidarity” is not egocentrism, but science. It is a recognition that the working class is responsible for the creation of the capitalists’ profits and that by collective action it is capable of bringing capitalist society to a halt but also, potentially, of building a new socialist, non-environment-degrading society. The struggle for such a society can win solidarity from many beyond the ranks of the working class, even from individuals from very privileged backgrounds who recognize that only by fighting for socialism will it be possible to save the planet.

Abstract Internationalism

Recognizing that the environmental crisis is a global crisis the Greens correctly emphasize the need for global solutions. This approach is their justification for promoting ‘international institutions’ such as the European Union (EU) and the Eurozone. Following the nightmare imposed on the Greek people by the institutions of the EU, most Greens emphasized the need to “reform” the EU, but they have no concrete proposals on how it is possible to reform the completely undemocratic big-business club that is the EU. The Volkswagen emissions tests scandal shows in sharp relief how the EU does not act to protect the environment, or the lungs of its inhabitants, but the corporate interests of major European companies.

Yet the Greens have a long history of not only supporting the EU but of signing up to many of its neoliberal charters. The Greens in the European parliament, for example, called for support for the 2007 Lisbon treaty which included a whole raft of privatization, deregulation and attacks on workers’ rights. They explained their position by saying: “The Greens in the European parliament support the treaty of Lisbon as a further step in the European constitutional process… It is a compromise, and in many ways an unsatisfactory one, however it is indispensable and represents a step forward.”

Probably, many Greens thought it was a necessary, ‘internationalist’ measure to support the Lisbon treaty. But, of course, by backing attempts of big business to impose unity from above in their own interests – replete with privatization and attacks on workers’ rights – the Greens have only helped to fuel the inevitable anger against the EU which has developed in countries across Europe.

Socialist Greens

Per Gahrton may consider “national solidarity” to be a kind of egocentrism, but that is not how Greek, Portuguese or Irish workers would see it, facing the driving down of their living conditions in the name of the EU, which acts almost as a colonial power. A genuine internationalist approach means being prepared to break with capitalism and to fight for a democratic, socialist Europe.

While the leadership of the Green parties worldwide have consistently ended up supporting neoliberal measures when in power, that does not mean that all their members agree. In many countries, anti-capitalists and socialists have joined Green parties. In England and Wales, where the electoral system means that the Greens have not yet been tested on a national basis, Greens have nonetheless shared power at local level with parties of all political stripes. In Brighton council, the Greens formed a minority administration for four years from 2011. Unfortunately, that council consistently implemented the austerity policies demanded by the national Tory-led government, resulting in their losing power in 2015. However, a minority of the Green councillors did take a principled stand and refused to vote for further cuts in public services.

This is a small indication of how forces inside Green parties can play a role in forming part of the kind of ‘real Green’ parties that are needed. Such parties would have to stand unequivocally against the capitalist system which is destroying the planet, and be parties of the working class and oppressed worldwide. They would need to fight for democratic socialism as the only means to both permanently end austerity and halt the degradation of our environment.