THE TRAGEDY OF THE GREENS’ corruption by neoliberalism is that they simply cannot grasp how completely they’ve been seduced. At its heart, the problem is one of generational experience and perspective. The younger generation of Greens, the ones currently in control of the organisation, simply have no experiential connection to the zeitgeist out of which their movement was born. Their entire adult lives have been lived in the shadow of the neoliberal revolutions of the 1980s and 90s. What came before the revolution has been dismissed by its architects and disciples as existing outside the realm of common sense. Those who preach the values and aspirations of those pre-revolutionary times offer news from nowhere – and no one is listening.
They could, of course, learn the origin stories of radical environmentalism by entering imaginatively into the historical circumstances out of which it was born. Historians do this all the time. Watch Mary Beard’s television series on Ancient Rome and it will soon become clear how thoroughly an intelligent and inquisitive human-being is able to not only comprehend, but also inhabit, the past. Beard talks of being captured by the history of the Roman world from the moment she read Tacitus’ chilling judgement of his own people: “They make a desert and they call it peace.”
The problem with the generations that have grown up in the 40 years since Thatcher and Reagan destroyed the post-war social-democratic settlement, is that they have been convinced the past has nothing useful to teach them.
Like the early cartographers who wrote “Here Be Monsters” in the blank spaces of their maps, the neoliberal ideologues tell frightening tales about the times before their “Year Zero”. Anxious to dissuade those contemplating their own voyages of historical discovery, they warn that only bad and mad things lie beyond the well-charted shorelines of the present. Sadly, they have been remarkably successful. The past remains one of the very few foreign countries that millennial “influencers” have no interest in visiting – not least because “they do things differently there”.
One of the principal reasons for the neoliberals’ success is that their own ideologically-inspired break with the post-war world was strengthened immeasurably by the natural inclination of young people to dismiss the world in which their elders were raised as hopelessly passé. Ordinarily, such youthful disdain is reserved for the fashions, art and music of the recent past – so lacking in the manifestly superior tastes of the present. What the Neoliberals merged so successfully, however, was this essentially harmless generational scorn with their own deep ideological hostility towards the ideas and institutions of the entire modern era.
When Baby Boomers like Catherine Delahunty and Sue Bradford condemn the younger generations of Greens for abandoning the foundational beliefs and principles of the Green Movement, all these younger Greens hear is an ideological version of “Taylor Swift can’t hold a candle to Joni Mitchell.” Or, “Where is your generation’s “Godfather”? Where’s your “Catcher in the Rye”? Your “Sergeant Pepper”? Social-democracy, the Club of Rome, Rachel Carson, Earth Day 1971: Catherine and Sue might just as well be touting the virtues of a dusty vinyl version of “Greatest Hits of the 1960s and 70s”. Okay Boomer.
Lacking a firm grasp of recent history, the generations at the end of the alphabet do not understand that while their parents and grandparents might have laughed at the “RSA Generation’s” stuffy conformism, and marched against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and Apartheid sport, they had nothing but admiration for the extraordinary structures of social care which these earlier generations had built. Moreover, they were full of gratitude for the fact that their own lives would be fuller and more prosperous as a result. The Boomers grew up in the shadow of fascism and genocide. They knew what the generation preceding their own had beaten back – and they loved them for it.
Discouraged from accessing the past, the younger Greens will struggle to understand the extraordinary exhilaration of encountering their own movement for the first time. New Zealand was the first nation to encounter a “green” political party. Inspired by the Club of Rome’s “Limits To Growth”, the Values Party spoke, for the first time, of constructing a future guided by humility and restraint. To hear Tony Brunt and his successors talk about limiting economic growth, and expanding the time in which people could simply be themselves, was to envisage a world “beyond tomorrow”. This was news from a somewhere humankind had yet to reach.
The worst crime against History which the Neoliberals have committed, however, is to convince young people that the past was a stinking cesspit of privilege, prejudice and oppression. That their ancestors were monsters – wiping out indigenous peoples even as their axes and machines laid waste to the forests, lakes, rivers and streams which had sustained them for millennia. By painting the past as a hellscape of irredeemable horror, the tiny fraction of one percent who lord it over the rest of humanity, Paul Simon’s “loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires” are robbing us of the means to rescue the future.
Is there horror in the past? Is it full of murder and rapine? Of course it is – but no more than the horror that daily disfigures the present. Nor are evil deeds all that the past has to show us. Amidst the horror there is heroism. Amidst the murder and rapine there is also empathy and courage, creativity and love.
Human-beings do not suffer injustice meekly, they rise against it again and again and again. Down through the centuries reformers and revolutionaries have dreamed dreams and seen visions. Slavery was abolished. Women were enfranchised. Children were removed from coalmines and cotton mills.
When the armed constabulary invaded Parihaka in 1881, not all Pakeha cheered – nowhere near all. In the end, Apartheid fell. Eventually, gay sex was decriminalised. The past is not simply a catalogue of horrors. It is also an endless source of inspiration and hope.
The Neoliberals would shut the younger generations off from that hope and inspiration. The neoliberals would have us believe that this is as good as it gets. They have – almost – convinced James Shaw and Marama Davidson that the future can only be reached with tiny steps. On a warming planet that is rapidly running out of time, that is deadly advice.
Catherine and Sue, and all those who stand with them, are right: this is no time for tiny steps. Humankind has made giant leaps before – all the way to the moon. But the booster rockets that push us towards the future are fuelled by the knowledge of what human-beings have achieved in the past.
Clio, the Muse of History, is traditionally depicted perusing the book of humanity’s past glories. At need, however, she will put down her book and take up a sword.
Never has that need been greater.
Only when we remember who we are, where we have come from, and what we have achieved, will we find the strength to drive Clio’s liberating sword through neoliberalism’s black and befouling heart.