from 23 sept 2005
blue vol IV, #26
Opinion Archive

Ideology and Big Government

by Steve Welzer

The Green Party needs to be careful about falling into a pattern of sounding too much like a liberal or social democratic party, especially around the issue of big government solutions to problems.

In Germany we saw a coalition between the Greens and the Social Democrats, but many in the U.S. are not clear about what the latter party represents. Greens need to know in order to understand how our political tendency is differentiated.

Social democracy historically has been the reformist branch of the international socialist movement. The debate: Reform or Revolution? arose soon after the inception of the Socialist International (founded in 1889) and by 1920 had split the movement into the Communist wing and the Social Democratic wing.

Most of the original socialist parties had been called "Social Democratic." After the 1917-1920 schism (in the wake of the Russian Revolution), the revolutionary-faction parties started to call themselves Communist while the reformist-faction parties retained the name Social Democratic (or, alternatively in some cases, called themselves "Labor" or just "Socialist").

The Social Democratic parties of Germany and Sweden (and many other countries), Labor parties of Britain and Israel (and other countries), Socialist parties of France and Spain (and other countries), as well as organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) all belong to what's still, after all these years, called the Socialist International. But none of these parties still advocate what originally was the essence of the movement: collective ownership of the means of production.

After the 1917 schism the Communist Parties had formed into a Communist International, which existed from around 1920 until about the mid-1950s. Those parties continued to hold to the idea of extensive socialization of the means of production, while the Social Democratic parties in most countries instead just advocated for a strong public sector which could regulate and countervail the power of the large privately held industrial enterprises (i.e., instead of calling for public ownership of the enterprises).

Now Communism is all but gone as an historical force (the new, more radical, left-of-social-democratic party in Germany wouldn't think to call itself "Communist" - it just calls itself the Left Party). Social democracy still thrives as a political tendency, but the Social Democratic parties have become quite establishment. They govern ideologically a little to the left of how the U.S. Democratic Party does (they advocate more in the way of welfare statism, a stronger public sector, etc.).

The Green parties arose in the 1970s and '80s as leftish alternatives to the Communist, Socialist, Labor, Social Democratic, Liberal, etc. parties.

"Alternative" in what sense? Some think the Greens are essentially liberals or social democrats who happen to pay a little more attention than most to environmentalism. Some (like Rush Limbaugh!) think the Greens are essentially eco-socialists. But among the hundred or so Green parties established worldwide, I've never heard of one that advocates extensive socialization of the means of production (at an industrial scale).

The Green parties were formed to represent something new.

Among our Key Values, I think that the following are commonly shared with the other left-of-center parties:

Social Justice
Respect for Diversity
Personal/Global Responsibility

I think the following distinguish us as a new political tendency:

Ecology (as a central principle)
Community-Based Economics

That's why it makes sense to see the Green Party distributing a bumpersticker that sums up the distinctive points of our movement as follows:

Ecology and Community
. The Green Party .

(several of the state parties offer that bumpersticker)

Most of the world's liberal, social democratic, and socialist parties tend to be too sanguine about big-government solutions to problems. This is precisely where conservatives score points against them and gain support - by criticizing the leftist parties as Big Government lovers.

I think the communitarian orientation of the Greens ought to differentiate us by correcting that problem. But I'm afraid that it rarely does - because we don't emphasize it enough. The call to downsize political units or devolve power is sometimes felt to be "too outside the mainstream discourse."

The German Greens originally (during the early 1980s) advocated a "Europe of the regions," i.e. the breakup of the larger nation-states into bioregional units. After gaining entrance to parliament they de-radicalized much of their program and dropped the regionalization idea.

I realize that it's a "new paradigm" type of notion which will take some time to gain credibility. Someone wrote me that size of government should not be an issue:

>The point is democracy: If we need art and
>recreation centers, we vote to build art and
>recreation centers. If we need a school, we vote to
>build a school. If we need a park, we create a
>park. If we need medical centers, we build medical
>centers. This is governance. Governance need not be
>a powerful and alienated 'state' but could be an
>integrated, interactive, responsive and
>cooperative form of social dialoguing - big,
>small, or whatever the scale of government.

I responded:

"Your example of recreation centers, schools, parks, and medical centers involve decisions that can be made at a local level. So your ideas re: 'If we need art and recreation centers, we vote to build art and recreation centers. If we need a school, we vote to build a school' etc. are fine because those decisions can be handled by local democracy.

"You and I are in agreement that the goal is democracy. I think we agree that it can be achieved at the level of local government - where 'an integrated, interactive, responsive and cooperative form of social dialoguing' among the populace is feasible.

"But how about mass production decisions and decisions involving things like large-scale roadbuilding, military expenditures, etc. Is it feasible to have such 'social dialoguing' when the context is giant industrial enterprises or a giant national government? I maintain that it's not feasible and that history shows no example of such feasibility."

There are things big government can do well. There was an article in the New York Times the other day about how efficiently the state-owned railway system in India is run (and we know that the trains ran on time under Mussolini!). Medicare in this country has lower overhead costs than does private insurance coverage.

But is "Efficiency of Bureaucracy" a key value of the Greens? Centralized state decision-making can at times be efficient (though most of the time big government legislation is egregiously filled with pork) - but my contention is that it can never be democratic in the sense that Greens care about, which is a grassroots, participatory form of democracy.

Informally I believe most Greens tend to be appropriately critical of big government, but it's questionable whether or not Greens do a good job of translating those sentiments into policy positions. Regarding the latter, I think we need to be clear that our communitarian values mean we prefer decentralist to big government solutions.

This has important implications in regard to economic relations:

Socialists advocate social ownership of the means of production as a principle. While Greens should not reject social ownership, we don't hold it as a universal principle. Public ownership *can* be perfectly workable - democratic, not bureaucratic - as long as it is community-based.

In fact, Socialists and Greens share quite a few values, including economic democracy - subjective control of the economy. The idea of gaining popular control by "expropriating the expropriaters" was one of the primary ideas leading to the genesis of the socialist movement. Greens fully agree with the goal of gaining popular control - but we differ with the socialists in regard to the question of how to achieve that goal.

I think that analysis of the failure of socialism leads to the conclusion that scale was a major unrecognized factor (though not the only one). Scale: Can tens or hundreds of millions of people conduct "an integrated, interactive, responsive and cooperative social dialogue" or act as a coherent "agency of control" of the economy? I don't think so.

In a communitarian context public ownership of the means of production is fine, and in a Green world of decentralized polities (call them regions, call them mini-states, call them bioregions, whatever) I bet you'd see some that prefer mostly public ownership. Alternatively, in a communitarian context private ownership of the means of production is fine, and in a Green world I bet you'd see some polities that prefer an economic system based on mostly private ownership. Advocacy of public or private ownership (i.e. of a particular model of property relations) does not need to be a principle of Green ideology. Participatory-communitarian subjective control of economic forces *does* need to be a principle and is expressed in our key value: Community-based Economics.

- Steve Welzer
Green Party of New Jersey

First posted at:

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