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A Green Revolution?

As we approach the 2016 elections, many on the US have rallied behind the candidacy of Jill Stein. Should the left support her campaign and is the Green Party a useful tool for advancing socialist politics?

Ian Steinman

November 1, 2016
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The unprecedented popular discontent with the two candidates of the American political establishment has created one of the most substantial openings for third party candidates in recent history. While the disaffected right rallies around the Libertarian Gary Johnson, for those on the left Jill Stein and the Green Party have been the main alternative.

While Stein and Johnson have mostly been ignored by major media outlets, they have received critical coverage. The proliferation of alternative media and social media have also greatly expanded their reach among younger generations. Stein has been polling around 2 to 3 percent recently, with generally higher numbers among those 18 to 35 years old. Actual results may be significantly lower; while she polled about 1 percent in 2012, she only received 0.36 percent of the popular vote.

Support for Stein comes not only from disaffected sectors of the Democratic Party and the Greens, but also from wide sectors of the socialist left that have seen her candidacy as worth endorsing. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative have both seen in Stein the opportunity to channel the discontent represented by Bernie Sanders into a form outside the two-party system.

Both embrace the idea that an endorsement of Stein represents a move
towards establishing a political party independent of the two-party corporate duopoly. However, while this “small step” or “down payment” towards independence is endorsed, you will find few elaborations of the wider path along which it is located.

An August editorial by Socialist Worker laid forth the ISO’s endorsement of a vote for Stein: “A vote for Stein, on the other hand, won’t be a vote for the winning candidate in 2016. But it will send a message… and take a small step toward building a more effective independent challenge in the future.” More recently they called on readers to “stand with Jill Stein and the Green Party.”

For Socialist Alternative´s Kshama Sawant, a vote for Stein “would be a down payment for a whole new kind of politics in the years ahead, and a new party based on social movements and ordinary people—a party of, by, and for the 99 percent.”

Both embrace the idea that an endorsement of Stein represents a move
towards establishing a political party independent of the two-party corporate duopoly. However, while this “small step” or “down payment” towards independence is endorsed, you will find few elaborations of the wider path along which it is located.

How exactly does a socialist endorsement of a non-socialist, mixed-class party lead to real independence? How will a Green Party campaign break the power of the Democrats or the US political establishment? That which is most important to prove is instead taken for granted.

Taking small, incremental steps forward without any map or guide often leads the wayward traveler in circles or to a dead end. In politics it has led to far worse.

To map out the possibilities of a Green Party candidacy, it is best to start by taking them at their word: the political platform Jill Stein has been advocating and that which is endorsed alongside her.

The Green New Deal

The centerpiece of the Green Party electoral campaign is their proposal for a “Green New Deal” as a path out of economic crisis towards sustainability and social justice. As a list of reforms it contrasts strongly with the neoliberal continuity of the Democrats. It guarantees the right to full employment at a living wage. It provides universal healthcare, affordable housing provisions and “democratically run” state-owned utilities.

For environmental reform it advocates that the US “invest in green business…with an emphasis on small, locally-based companies.” It promises large-scale funding for renewable energy research and claims that green jobs will be the source of full employment.

It essentially advocates the transformation of the US into a Scandinavian-style welfare state. It stakes out a position at the left wing of capitalist possibility.

The platform advocates breaking up large banks (much like Sanders promised) and highly regulating the rest. They want to establish public federal, state and municipal banks as an alternative and provide government relief for student and homeowner debt. Finally, it includes a slew of democratic reforms to open elections to other parties and a 50 percent cut in military budget with an end to overseas bases and occupations.

As a platform, it presents a radically different alternative to the neoliberal consensus of the ruling parties, while at the same time remaining within the bounds of imaginable, capitalist reform. It essentially advocates the transformation of the US into a Scandinavian-style welfare state. It stakes out a position at the left wing of capitalist possibility.

Stein has indeed alluded to a more socialist society, in the particularly american way in which “more socialist” is understood as more like Scandinavian social welfare. Yet the proposals and rhetoric remain those of a privately owned, capitalist society. The problem is not capitalism, the problem is that corporations and the elite have taken capitalism too far. Green, environmentally friendly business is an alternative. The platform is about saving the system from itself, curing its problems through super-charged green keynesianism.

Imagining Implementation

What would this platform transition into in practice? The Democratic Party platform, after all, once included full employment and the repeal of Taft-Hartley (a notorious anti-labor law). This never stopped it from ignoring those provisions after every election.

Were the Green Party to actually be in a position to implement many of its proposals, most of them would reach far beyond what would be tolerated by capital or by its enforcers in the judicial and political apparatuses. It is almost easier to imagine a socialist revolution than the complete overhaul of the US political system that they are proposing. Consistently pursuing just full employment–not to mention a vast array of green reforms that could threaten to slow capitalist growth–would fundamentally threaten the capitalist system. In addition, any of the worst practices by the banking and financial sector are precisely those powering the bubbles which keep the US capitalist economy from even more stagnant growth. Resistance from the elite would be ferocious and reach far beyond the electoral arena.

As can be clearly seen from the example of Syriza and many other reformist experiments, when these progressive reforms come into conflict with the reality of capitalist power, they are forced to choose between capitulation and revolution. A reformist leadership will lead the masses into compromise and surrender. Even if they were willing to transgress the limits of capitalism, none of the foundations for a revolutionary struggle will have been laid and defiance will appear impossible, a self-fulfilling prophecy. A transitional program or demand without revolutionary organization and consciousness is merely wishful thinking.

It is unlikely that the Greens will be tested in practice, however. The Green New Deal is a platform for propaganda; there is no expectation of the Green Party even winning a single congressional representative. It stakes out a theoretical position at the extreme left-wing of capitalist possibility in the United States. The impossibility of its implementation is besides the point: it’s there to apply pressure and push the debate and the democratic party to the left.

The reality of power, implementation or betrayal of their platform is far from the perspectives of the Green Party. The central question is whether this kind of Green propaganda can be effective for the socialist left. And if we should–as some of some of the largest socialist organizations in the United States like the ISO, Socialist Alternative and Solidarity have–endorse, vote for or participate in the Green Party campaign.

The Role of the Greens

While one can look directly at the political platform of the Green Party, or compare it to similar Green Parties around the world, it is important to look at it as a product of the US political system and analyze the function it plays within it.

Within this system the Green Party plays a few roles. At the local level it has managed to win some offices. However, where officials have won office, a large number have used it as a platform into working with and ultimately joining the Democratic Party.

A reformist leadership will lead the masses into compromise and surrender. Even if they were willing to transgress the limits of capitalism, none of the foundations for a revolutionary struggle will have been laid and defiance will appear impossible, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

San Francisco is perhaps one of the regions where the Green Party has come closest to wielding actual power. In 2003, Green Party politician Matt Gonzalez became run-off mayoral candidate and lost to Democrat Gavin Newsom by only a few percentage points. This narrow defeat was delivered with help from the entire national structure of the Democratic Party, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and others.

Victory was certainly possible. Yet Gonzalez politics, while traditionally progressive, would have been vastly different than socialism. An environmentally progressive capitalism, with green business, green police carrying out green arrests and evictions. It would be a threat to the corrupt, local democratic establishment, but not to capital. Gonzalez has since advocated support, for example, of right-wing pension reforms . Any socialist activist endorsing Gonzalez would eventually have had to explain why they were confronting their Green Mayor’s police force in every workers’ and popular struggle in the city.

The Green police force became a reality shortly afterwards. While Gonzalez retired from local politics, Ross Mirkarimi took his place on the board of supervisors. He made history by banning plastic bags, then moved on to be elected as sheriff. Under his sheriff’s department, inmates have been tortured and forced to fight each other in gladiator-style battles . Mirkarimi himself was arrested for domestic violence. He was defended by the SF Green Party in a statement that reduced the charges to “interpersonal conflict” and commended Mirkarimi for his “important act of taking open public responsibility for his family’s health and well-being.” One would be hard-pressed to find such an apology for domestic violence even within the ranks of the Republicans.

What are the results of Green Power in San Francisco? The defense of domestic violence and a sheriff’s department that has become notorious for racism and torturing inmates. This didn’t even earn much loyalty from Mirkarimi, who—despite being a founder of the California Green Party—switched his affiliation to the Democrats to further his political career, like many other Green Party members who have achieved local office.

While easy to dismiss as merely one case, San Francisco was essentially the landing pad for the Green Party as a party capable of governing in power. If this is how they govern where the prospect of actually holding power is within grasp, then this is how we can expect the party to govern. There has been no repudiation by the Green Party of this sordid history; the statement defending Mirkarimi remains online to this day.

Merely from the perspective of women’s liberation, revolutionary socialists can not be part of a party which defends and glorifies those convicted of domestic violence.

National Elections

On a national scale, far away from any prospects of power or influence, the Green Party has played a different role–but one which remains largely functional to the system. The exceptionally restrictive conditions of the US winner-take-all system has made any third party a marginal force in politics.

Currently their main goal is to achieve 5 percent of the vote and, with that, meet the requirements for federal election funding. That funding would be far from enough to compete with the major parties, and would do nothing to resolve the contradictions of the electoral system. It would allow them to broadcast their message more effectively, receive more media attention and establish a larger public profile for their ideas. As we have stated already, however, the ideas they would advance are far from socialist.

At the national level, the Green Party voter base is mixed. The character of the electoral system means that for a large number of people in “safe states,” their vote will not impact the real winner. A number of left-leaning Democrats vote Green in attempts to exert pressure on the Democratic Party. The idea being to force the Democrats to compete on the left once again.

In 2004, the party fully capitulated before the anyone-but-Bush pressure and called for a “safe states only” strategy. This was a major setback–one which they have not repeated since. However, it shows the limits of their willingness to themselves break from the two-party system.

Even as a minority party, much of what people are voting for in them is an attempt to pressure the Democrats to the left so as to force them to recapture the progressive vote. This goes a tremendous way to explain the consistent gap in how the Green candidates poll and what they actually receive in votes (often one third or less than what they poll). The Greens are seen as a way to exert pressure upon and influence the Democratic Party from outside.

No one fools themselves into thinking the Greens are going to win a presidential election. Thus, left supporters save themselves from ever being betrayed. However the mass of active and undecided voters are not fooled into believing the Greens are a real alternative for them. The absence of a strategy, of a road to power through which people see their votes as really laying the foundation for a better, future alternative has confined the Greens and their left supporters to the margins.

Breaking the Two-Party System?

How do we actually break the two-party system? Most of the left correctly identifies this as a central political struggle in the United States. It is a challenge which exists at several levels–in national politics, within the labor movement and among broader social movements.

One could perhaps imagine a radical shift in which the Green Party faced off against an amalgamated Republican-Democrat Party. For example, early in Sanders’ career, the Democrats and Republicans both endorsed the candidate running against him.

However the recomposition of the two-party system in San Francisco in 2003 around a Green Party-Democrat Axis did little to bring us closer to the revolution or advance the cause of labor and social movements.

While popular rejection of the major candidates has created a temporary opening for the Greens, at the same time this election year has created a long term, strategic problem. From a left-liberal position, Sanders was far closer to achieving a victory within the rigged democratic party than the Greens have ever been to overtaking the Democrats. Greens, including Stein, basically openly endorsed Sanders and merely attempted to convey that he could never win within the Democratic Party.

The Green Party may be temporarily buoyed by votes of discontent from Sanders followers, but in the long run it may be sunk by the example of Sanders’ internal struggle to reform the Democrats. They lack the class foundations and political armament necessary to resist the assimilation of their base. You cannot both endorse a major candidate for a party and break from that same party.

The Greens are not even a reformist workers’ party that stands on a class basis or analysis. They find their supporters among small “Green Businesses,” the left-wing of the NGO bureaucracy and a mixed-class sector of those disillusioned with the two-party system.

To really break the two-party system, we need an unshakeable foundation, a commitment to independence which knows that there is no “greater good” to be found bargaining for reforms under capitalism. Few will risk existing reforms for a distant promise of better ones. Audacious politics require an audacious vision, a new world in which we will end the tired miseries of the old.

We need campaigns which call for breaking the grip of the two-party system–not merely in the electoral arena, but those that will take on its material base within society. The Democratic Party’s power lies not only in the logic of lesser-evilism, but in its material bastions in the union and NGO bureaucracies. Their logic of mediation, containment and restraint has led our class down a dreary path to evisceration on the altar of capitalist profitability.

There is no struggle for political independence that can be achieved without class independence. There is no class independence without a relentless struggle against the bureaucracy.

The Tasks of the Left

The Marxist left mostly agrees with this, that is after all why it primarily organizes as parties and not as members of the Green Party. Yet for them, the political situation just isn’t open to a socialist, or even class independent campaign. The United States is so right-wing, or class consciousness is so weak, that all we can do is support any effort to break from the Democrats in the hope that this will take us further down the path of class independence. We know what is really needed to achieve even those green party reforms, but in our intervention in the political arena we will substitute what we know is necessary, for that which we believe will be more appealing.

Whether under the pressure of 30 years of reaction or as a consequence of the political weakness brought on by that period, the US left has become so accustomed to marginality that it can not seem to honestly present its own politics.

The year 2008 marked a spectacular blow to the capitalist order, yet one which has tragically left most of the old habits of the left intact. Whether or not they were justified in the prior political period, the political opening created by the crisis has created a generation open to anti-capitalist, socialist, even communist ideas.

We need the left to tell the truth. For any party that aims to gain the support of the working class there is no more central principle than to always present the class with the truth, a real analysis of the challenges facing us. The Green Party’s fairy tale reforms convince no one. By subordinating ourselves to this fairy tale, we are telling the masses that there is an imaginary bridge in the hopes that enough of them will stick around following us to take the long, hard march through the mountains.

It’s a recurrent problem among wide sections of the US left not only in their approach to the elections, but generally in the methods adopted in movement and union work. They remain trapped in a siege mentality, beholden to the idea that our own ideas are too marginalized to stand on their own.

We must break with this self-defeating viewpoint. Key to that is recovering a self-critical and challenging spirit. Too often political opportunism has been justified in terms of the left’s continuing and repeated failures. It has become a substitution and self-perpetuating solution for the inability of the left to embed itself in the working class and among workers of color. Our real politics are declared impossible or untenable in the current political environment instead of reflecting on the areas of our work, our history and our organizations which should be rigorously criticized and improved.

Respecting our class, our allies and those we aim to make our comrades starts with telling them the truth. No serious marxist believes that anything less than a socialist revolution or the threat of one will achieve substantial, lasting reforms.

By abandoning the Green Party, we lose very little. The left has the ability, organization, and above all, the ideas to be able to stand on our own and present our class with a road to power. In an era where millions vote for a self-proclaimed socialist within the Democrats, we can and we must seize the moment to build truly socialist electoral campaigns.

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