Ineffectual reformism or pointless irrelevance: The only options for the greens?

The present New Zealand government is currently engaged in the widely expected post-election neoliberal hatchet job and I for one am very happy that the Green Party of Aotearoa went nowhere near a role in this government. But even when governments around the world are at their progressive best, their social, economic and environmental reforms are, from a green perspective, generally rather modest. They do very little to promote social justice, rein in corporate power, or institute real sustainability.

When your vision for the future is radically different from the present state of affairs, you have to ask: Are such modest reforms actually of any use at all?

Some greens seem convinced that a pathway of gradual reform is a slow-but-sure route to social change that simply takes more time and demands more patience to arrive at the same destination. But let’s not kid ourselves. Mild reform is on an entirely different trajectory from radical social change, one that will never deliver equity, justice or sustainability. Indeed, tinkering around the edges of deep-seated social and environmental problems can actually undermine the chances for much needed thoroughgoing change.

It is often argued that capitalist society’s flexibility and willingness to accept minor adjustments and reforms is part of its adaptive resiliency and a significant reason for its longevity. Mild and modest reforms are instituted with great fanfare, and even more spin, and everyone is happy for at least the next 24 hours because something appears to have been done. The capitalist economy then continues on its merry way as social injustice, economic exploitation and environmental destruction continue largely unabated. Carbon emissions trading schemes would be the finest recent example I can think of.

Having understood this problem of the mediocrity of ‘reformism’ all too well, for many decades now the various fragments of the radical left have, for the sake of an entirely theoretical ‘revolutionary’ purity, studiously avoided any taint of reformism. As a result, they have achieved little except complete isolation and political redundancy.

And therein lies the problem that I’m interested in from a green point of view: the perplexing choice between ineffectual reform or pointless irrelevance.

Voters around the world have elected greens onto representative bodies at every level from local boards to national assemblies, so what should such representatives do when faced with complex decisions? Should greens engage in reform campaigns that may deliver modest short-term adjustments or maintain independence and political distance from others in the long term hope of gaining major changes? For example, should greens in the EU support reductions of 20% in carbon emissions that have widespread support but are pathetically small, or press for the 80% reductions that are probably necessary but seem to lack any backing from mainstream political parties?

A few years ago, Robin Hahnel, one of the driving forces behind participatory economics and a leading voice in the ZNet collective, wrote on this very problem in an insightful piece entitled “Fighting for reforms without becoming reformist.” In this article, Hahnel uses the term ‘equitable cooperation’ to describe the alternative economic system that he would like to see replacing the competition and greed of capitalism. He writes:

Reforms alone cannot achieve equitable cooperation because as long as the institutions of private enterprise and markets are left in place to reinforce anti-social behaviour based on greed and fear, progress toward equitable cooperation will be limited and the danger of retrogression will be ever present.

Given that, a different approach to advocating for the replacement of capitalism might be in building alternative economic institutions within capitalist economies. These can be seen in cooperatives like Mondragon or collectives like the South End Press. Nevertheless, however successful these individual ‘experiments’ are, Hahnel argues that they cannot build a sufficiently large alternative economy within capitalism because

the rules of capitalism put alternative institutions at a disadvantage compared to capitalist firms they must compete against, and because market forces drive non-capitalist institutions to abandon cooperative principles. … our experiments will always be exposed to competitive pressures and the culture of capitalism. … [Thus] concentrating exclusively on organizing alternative economic institutions within capitalist economies also cannot be successful.

So reform won’t work and building alternatives won’t work, because capitalism is just too powerful. What do we do? Give up? Well, no, of course not. Hahnel argues as follows:

Only in combination will reform campaigns and imperfect experiments in equitable cooperation successfully challenge the economics of competition and greed in the decades ahead. … [They] are both integral parts of a successful strategy to accomplish in this century what we failed to accomplish in the past century – namely, making this century capitalism’s last!

Working in reform campaigns can be difficult for radicals, as Robin Hahnel rightly points out, for the simple reason that many of those currently involved in reform movements are not in the slightest degree motivated by anti-capitalism. And “most of the leadership of reform campaigns and movements will be even more likely to defend capitalism as a system and argue that correcting a particular abuse is all that is required.”

Yet the lack of  any big picture analysis or social critique within a progressive organisation, movement or party is no reason for those with a more radical vision to avoid it. Neither does it mean that radical activists must abandon or play down their own politics. In fact, radical activists voicing their own position is perhaps the only way the essential process of ‘joining the dots’ will begin for others in the organisation.

Working on building the alternative institutions is equally difficult, whether the alternative is a local currency system, a producer cooperative, a consumer cooperative, a community garden, a sustainable intentional community, or a participatory collective. As Hahnel says, “it is important not to put any particular experiment in equitable cooperation on a pedestal and blind oneself to its limitations.” But at the same time, “it is most important not to under estimate the value of living experiments in equitable co-operation in general.” Developing and participating in ways of living and working that are sustainable and equitable – and, most emphatically, enjoyable – is the only way to demonstrate their practicality such that others will willingly enter into such ways of being.

What this says to greens is that there is no one right way to push for change. But also it tells us that green parties must recognise that parliamentary reformism will not do the job alone. A green social movement is an essential component of creating green change, a movement which is self-consciously engaged in a myriad of social and environmental NGOs and pressure groups, and is exploring a host of visionary experiments in alternative ways of living and working.

Hahnel’s article does not underestimate the scale of the challenge at the personal level. The key to individual survival in such circumstances is two-fold, I feel.

Firstly, there must be a recognition of the importance of actually starting to make each of those individual contributions. If the replacement of capitalism is essential for any real justice, any real equity, any real sustainability to be truly experienced by the planet and its people, then, as Gilbert Rist wrote in his book The history of development, this work is “so important that we do not need to hope it will work before beginning to try”.

Secondly, there must be a sense of belonging, an awareness that one is engaged in a large scale collective endeavour towards the goal of a sustainable, equitable, cooperative society and that this global collective effort is operating on a thousand different worthwhile issues.

The progressive media have played this role of creating a collective identity for a couple of centuries at least and the internet provides this awareness today like never before: to give just one instance, I read (in Hahnel’s article) that in the United States there are more than 10 million people who are worker-owners in more than 10,000 employee-owned companies, and there are more than 40,000 consumer cooperatives. And this is hugely encouraging because it reminds me how many people are engaged in this collective effort towards creating a different world, and that each individual is part of a much greater whole, a network of power.

It’s time to connect with and add to that power.


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