There’s something cruelly ironic about the departure of Bob Brown, and the subsequent coverage of it — the acres of identikit propagandorial cost the death of countless trees to cover the career of a man whose life’s work was to save them.
Throughout News and Fairfax, national correspondents with zip to go on — because they rarely bother to talk to individual Greens senators about their beliefs, priorities and pollies — tried to conduct some sort of guessing game about the likely effect of Brown’s departure. Was Christine Milne too strident for the public to take to? Would the Greens go the way of the Democrats? Was this departure a product of factional splits within the Greens? The Democrats, would the Greens go the way they had gone? Was there conflict between state and federal branches? Would the Greens, suffer, well the Democrats, you know what happened to them?
And on and on. It was mainstream Australian political commentary at its usual worst, devoid of ideas, insight, or any anchoring to the greater political and social movements of the world. The cynical and intellectually limited people who make up the bulk of the mainstream press gallery are instantly at sea when dealing with a political movement that is effective in the mainstream and yet connected to a wider and more comprehensive movement. When they look at the Greens, they are as the colour-blind looking on a Jackson Pollock — they can discern general shapes but none of the real essence.
So the story, repeated ceaselessly across all media, has been one of a crude factional split between the so-called “greenies” — identified with Brown, Milne and one or two others — versus the “watermelons” — ex-Trotskyites and Communists identified with Lee Rhiannon. Adam Bandt tends to get lumped into this latter category, due to his involvement in the “Left Alliance” student group in the ’90s, and a PhD on a Marxist legal theorist, which has acquired an occult mystery status second only to the lost Gospel of St Thomas. The general story/hope of many commentators is that, without Brown’s charismatic presence, these factions will fall on each other like wolves, and the public vote will collapse.
This, it must be noted at the first, is a pretty recent reversal in the press gallery’s group think about Brown. For year he was the charisma-free, mung-bean eating, pious and ascetic, blah blah, when he was not, in the words of someone like Greg Sheridan a “sly and cunning” leader, an ideologue having maintained deep cover as a dutiful doctor and nature lover, called to politics in his mid-30s, his long “sleeper” nature as a normal human being complete. He was described, utterly erroneously, as a “deep ecologist” — one who believed in radical population reduction, deindustrialisation, etc, to fit humanity back into nature.
But this endlessly repeated narrative had to be abandoned when Brown and the Greens began to win seriously and consistently — otherwise it would be an affirmation of deep ecology itself. Furthermore, as Brown spent more time in the public eye, and became known for a plain-spokenness, an anti-charismatic speaking style, and a wry humour, the frame didn’t fit. So two new narratives were introduced. The first was that Brown was the reasonable man holding back the deep Greens he had hitherto been accused of membership of. Now he was the guy in the suit, fending off the bush crazies who would come into town ahead of the Greens AGMs, take over the party, nominate a whale to the Senate, and mandate vegan dog food.
This story didn’t last a hugely long time either — once Brown was joined by more than one other Senator, and it became clear that their concerns were more than merely environmental, the non-emergence of the ferals had to be explained. By the mid-2000s, the Greens had been reshaped by external events — the refugee crisis and the war on terror. Standing firm against the “emergency” politics of both, they earned a decisive switch from a whole social class who had been wavering between they and Labour for most of a decade. The “cultural producer” class — policy workers, teachers, culture and knowledge creators — those who formed the base of the Labor Left for a couple of decades (after the dissolution of the old industrial left), once they were convinced of the Greens bona fides, switched across and didn’t come back. The solidity of the Greens also dealt a death-blow to the Democrats, as a whole tranche of somewhat more culturally conventional leftists and social liberals made the decisive switch from the old party to the new.
So a third narrative was needed. Brown now became not merely a bulwark against craziness, but a rule-proving exception — a brave and wise man of the people, the Green who wasn’t a Green, the adult in the room. He was now someone to be supported in his lonely struggle against the Red Regiments surging into the ranks of the placid and gentle Greens. As NSW state member Lee Rhiannon, whose past had attracted little attention hitherto, prepared to enter the Senate, her past membership of the born-moribund pro-Soviet Socialist Party of Australia (it had split from the CPA in 1972), became a focus of manufactured obsession.The attack on Rhiannon was full or ironies — the Australian Right is currently full of people like Christopher Pearson and Keith Windschuttle who rejected SPA’s line as hopelessly moderate, and enthusiastically supported the Chinese cultural revolution and Pol Pot’s auto-genocidal Kampuchea. In today’s Oz, another screed on Green “watermelons” is cheek-by-jowl with a piece on New Guinea by Helen Hughes, who was a member of the CPA during its mid-’60s remnant Stalinist period. Then, she advocated revolution in New Guinea and Aboriginal Australia. Now she advocates withdrawal of aid, compulsory imposition of individual land tenure, whether people want it or not. The Stalinist impulse, the adamantine certainty about reconstructing people’s lives survives wherever the politics ends up — yet you won’t see any exposes of Hughes’ past politics in the Oz.
However, it was also true that the attitude of the small but active and influential Marxist “far-left” to the Greens had changed. Having made various serio-comic attempts to create a unified electoral bloc, and gaining about 1% of the vote, this was abandoned in favour of supporting or even joining the Greens. By and large this wasn’t a strategy of “entrism” as practised by Trotskyite groups in UK Labour in the ’80s, but it was an attempt to give activist backbone to a party whose branches were often composed of nice people, wanting to make the world a better place, and yet as dippy as a three-tier chocolate fountain. The increased effectiveness of the Greens over the past decades has come to a significant degree from the tried-and-tested organisational skills many of these people brought to the party.
The rise of Rhiannon, and of a red phalanx allowed the Right to construct a simple narrative of red versus green. The “reds” in this analysis were watermelons — they allegedly had no real concern for the Green causes they wrapped themselves in, using the party only as a vehicle for a century-old Marxist struggle. The idea that Marxists might believe that the destruction of the planet as an entity supporting human life might constitute a genuine historical emergency, and an inevitable consequence of capitalist alienation, was too complex to understand (and would require the acknowledgement that there was a genuine historical emergency), and would involve recognising them as full human beings. So the mad conspiratorial theories became obsessively dominating.
The red/green pseudo-split underestimated the degree of environmental concern on the left — and also the degree of leftist critique on the Brown/green side. The green Greens had never been indifferent to the idea that capitalism, by its very nature, must expand its productive base to retain its level of profitability, and that this eventually brings it into conflict with social and natural life — the movement globally, had simply rejected doctrinaire notions of class struggle, and revolutionary socialism. Green politics is implicitly social democratic/democratically socialist in that it believes that the key production decisions — output levels, pollution levels and costs, etc — should be in democratic hands (whether through the state or interlinked co-operatives or a hundred other possibilities), rather than set by capital, and enforced by an unquestioning growth state.
Furthermore, the notion of a simple red/green split obscured the most interesting development of a “third force” within the Greens — the post-Marxist leftism represented by Adam Bandt and a half-dozen leading figures who entered the Greens (many as senior advisers) in the 2000s, and began to reshape its politics. For the dim-bulb depress gallery, there was only one Marxism — far-left Trotskyism, with its political schema of classes, labour theory of value, etc, essentially unchanged since before the First World War. But the “Left Alliance” group with which the “Bandt faction” had been involved since the ’90s had constituted itself in direct opposition to this sort of Marxism. Using theorists such as Ernesto LaClau, Foucault, Giorgio Agamben and others, there has been a long-standing attempt to theorise a world dominated by intellectual production, global fluidity, the changed role of culture in personal formation, etc. A pretty clear statement as to how this approach to the world fits with a green philosophy was contained in Bandt’s maiden speech, republished in The Age, in which he affirmed that a Green politics of collective ownership of the planet fits into a wider notion of radical equality — which then necessitates a commitment to same-s-x marriage. Rather than being a grab-bag of progressive policies, this approach puts a whole series of social and environmental policies on a common ground. It’s a philosophy with which the Greens can go consistently into the future.
What’s most noticeable is that this “third force” Greens faction’s ideas fit more neatly with the Green Greens rather than the Red Greens they are supposed to be in alliance with. The Bandt faction want to distance themselves as much as possible from old crude anti-imperialist struggles — such as the pro-Palestine BDS campaigns in NSW, on the grounds that left politics can no longer be squeezed into such simplistic strait-jackets. Ditto, the Bandt faction support for involvement in Libya, which was crucial to the party adopting the stance in full. Interestingly none of this complexity appeared in Sally Neighbour’s one-dimensional article on the Greens in The Monthly, which brought that publication’s obsessions to the issue, and missed the wider story. Indeed, the major factional struggle in the future will be between the Bandt greens and the old red Greens, something the MSM has missed entirely.
The Greens have nearly 40 years continuous history in one form or another; they are part of a global movement — which they did much to foster — which has held government in numerous places. They have a deepening and expanding philosophy which makes factions possible without tearing the party apart; they have a class base. I reckon they will survive the departure of their key figure. Whether the MSM depress gallery can survive their continued existence remains to be seen.