The following article was written at the end of February and the first days of March, just before the world was hit by the crash of the stock markets on the 9 March and the full impact of the coronavirus pandemic. This sharp change in the situation obviously also changes the plans of the ruling class. But the underlying economic and political tendencies at play are still the same, although the issue of climate change obviously was pushed to the background. In the case of the Green parties, their character as parties of the ruling class is even-further confirmed in these times of crisis.
This showed itself best in Austria, where they are the junior partners in the national government. To protect the specific interests of the Austrian capitalists, the government refused to criticise Hungarian President Viktor Orbán for his dissolution of parliament and other dictatorial measures. The Greens quietly took part in this policy. What “champions of human rights” they are!
In the last year or so, Green parties all over Europe haven risen to new heights in polls and elections. This is the case especially in the German-speaking part of Europe, which we will examine more closely here.
In Austria, the Greens dropped out of parliament in the general election of 2017 as a result of a series of severe leadership crises and splits. After the collapse of the conservative-nationalist government in late spring 2019 after a series of scandals, and an ongoing crisis of social democracy, the Greens bounced back into parliament in the general election of September 2019. In these elections they scored their best national result ever. With 13.9 percent of the vote share, they not only re-entered parliament as the fourth-strongest party, but qualified to be chosen as the favourite junior partner in the new conservative-led government.
In Switzerland, the Green Party also scored their best result ever in the December elections last year, with 13.2 percent.
In Germany itself, after a surge in the polls last year which for some time even indicated that in new elections, the Greens could become the strongest party, they still poll solidly over 20 percent. The next regular national elections for Germany are scheduled in autumn 2021. The governing parties of conservative and social democrats meanwhile are both in constant internal crisis, reflected in fast-changing, unstable leaderships. The SPD changed their leaders seven times since 2017. Also “Die Linke” is in a constant political crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down as the party leader of the CDU in the autumn of 2018, and her successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gave up as a party leader in February 2020, re-accelerating the ongoing unresolved divisions and splits in the leading party of the German bourgeoisie.
The current Green success in the German-speaking world objectively helps the political stabilisation of capitalist rule. The movement against climate change was a decisive factor in its surging popularity. But its success also represents to a degree a backlash against the racist propaganda and the surge of the right, which for years has dominated the public debate and to which the workers’ parties capitulated again and again. The youth especially is very conscious about this. In a poll in Germany last year, three-quarters of people under 25 who were asked said that the discrimination against people because of their appearance and origin has increased in the last years. And 71 percent said that the question of “refugees” by the media is overblown and more important topics are not discussed for that reason.
The Greens positioned themselves as the force that stood out most clearly as against climate change and racism in this situation. In this sense, this surge reflects to an extent the growing anger with the traditional parties and the crisis of the capitalist system. But there can be no illusions in the Greens being a “progressive” or even left-wing force in any way, shape or form, which would actually help to overcome climate change – or any of the problems the capitalist system produces on a daily basis.
From “radicalism” to normal bourgeois politics
Initially, the Greens developed as a by-product of the big movements against environmental destruction, nuclear power, armament and women’s oppression at the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s. In the beginning, as a result of the militancy of these movements, they quite often had an aura of petty-bourgeois radicalism surrounding them. They would often try to appear “revolutionary”, but much of their actual politics was reactionary.
In the German-speaking countries, quite a few students from the numerous “communist” groups and grouplets joined them and even came to dominate some regions, especially in Germany itself – as with their progressive aura, the Greens seemed to be an alternative to the sterile and bureaucratic social democratic parties which were bound head and tail to “social partnership” with the state and the bosses. But without any link to the organised workers’ movement and little appeal to most workers, the only way forward for these parties was a slow integration as a less and less “radical” and more and more “normal” bourgeois party into the political system.
In Germany, from the mid ‘80s onwards, there were a number of Social Democratic-Green local governments, which strengthened the “realist”, right-wing of the party. By the end of the ‘90s, this process had gone so far that the Greens were a totally reliable force for the bourgeoisie and they were “knighted” as the junior partner in the SPD-led government of Gerhard Schröder, which under the cover of its “progressive” image attacked the workers with the harshest counter reforms since the end of the Second World War. How far the Greens had come was revealed in the fact that the Green ministers and deputies (who all came from the “peace-movement”) sanctioned the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the first time German imperialism waged war since 1945. And quite a few of these deputies and ministers were former “communists” or “revolutionary socialists”, who now had made a nice career in this party.
By now, the Greens are an ordinary bourgeois party. In Germany, they are among the parties with the highest average income of its voters, on par with the conservative CDU and only behind the ultra-liberal FDP. Much of their (small) organised base is a mix of small and middle “Green” capitalists, self-employed “start-ups”, better-off civil servants and generally aspirational middle-class people. The leadership of the party is orienting fully toward the wishes of the big capitalists in Germany to get government positions. In this, they more and more orient towards governments with the conservatives. In Hesse, in 2013 they served as “king-makers”, deciding against a coalition with the SPD, and instead went for a “Black-Green” coalition with the CDU. In the region of Baden-Württemberg, with its 11m inhabitants and headquarters of big industrial companies like Daimler, Porsche and Bosch, for nine years a Green (ex-Maoist) Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann has led the government in coalition with the CDU, with the full approval of the capitalists: especially the auto industrialists. Generally, the Greens are preparing for the possibility of a coalition with the CDU at a federal level, which some of the big capitalists are very open towards.
Green policies for German big business
This is no coincidence. To understand the reasons for this, we should not pay much attention to the nice-sounding words the Green leaders speak on national television. It is more telling to listen to what they have to say to their real masters: the big bosses. In June of last year, the Green co-chairwoman Annalena Baerbock addressed the conference of the Association of German Industrialists (BDI), which took place under the telling name of “Perspektive Europa” (which means both “Europe as a perceptive”, but also “perspectives for Europe”).
Now, if you think that her speech was greeted with suspicion (after all, this is the organisation of the big German steel, car, and machine tool-manufacturers, which in reality is a cartel of some of the biggest contributors to climate change), you would be quite wrong. On the contrary, she was better received than all the other politicians, including Chancellor Merkel and the chairman of the FDP, who spoke just before her. How was this possible? To understand it, we will quote her speech at length.
The central theme was the Unity of the European Union – but not a “Europe of human rights and peace” that the Greens normally appeal to. She rather spoke about the need of “more European self-confidence” and “strategic autonomy”:
“On the one hand, there are the Chinese and on the other the Americans, and we should choose whom we follow – I think absolutely nothing of that.”
“What made Europe strong in the last 70 years is that we took our own European way – a European way, which built up a European common market. And I think we have to defend this European common market in the 21st century on the basis of our community of shared values.”
For Baerbock this means, as she further explains, that “critical infrastructure” like the new 5G-network should not be conceded to Chinese tech-companies like Huawei. At the same time, she affirmed that the European common market is big enough that American tech giants like Facebook or Google cannot afford “not to obey to European rules”.
What does all of that mean for her in regards to the question of climate change? She speaks quite plainly. For her, climate change must be seen as a business opportunity for the German capitalists, which cannot compete against the “know how” of the American data-tech giants and the “dumping prices” of Chinese companies. According to her, European rules against climate change must give competitive advantages to European (which really means German) companies. What she really is suggesting is to tweak the CO2-bill in favour of the German capitalists. She explains how German steel producers should develop climate neutral ways to produce steel, which they could sell to German car manufacturers to make up for their dirty diesel and petrol engines.
Chinese companies on the other hand, with their “dumping prices”, should be subjected to so-called “border adjustment taxes” – which is only a fancy word for punitive tariffs:
“Everybody who gets state subsidies has to pay a surcharge of at least 20 percent here. That would be an answer to competition, which in my opinion is unfair, which comes from the outside to the European common market.”
So, the policy of the Greens in Germany is in reality a turn towards protectionism and a pulling together of the EU under the cover of the “fight against climate change”. And that is exactly what German capital needs right now.
The best bet for German big business
German capital must secure its own position in a world pulled apart by trade conflicts, in which for Germany alone it would be impossible to compete against the economic giants of China and the USA. In a situation where the end of the economic upswing is on the cards, this situation can only exacerbate. That is the main reason why German capital is re-orienting itself towards getting more protectionist measures as policies of the European union. In this sense, the question of climate change and the rise of the Greens come as an opportunity for the big industrialists, which are cynically using this question for their own ends, to protect “their” market.
But the Green programme, presented by Baerbock, speaks to the hearts of VW, Daimler, Thyssen-Krupp and all the other German industrialists. To get the EU to act on the world market in the interest of German capital, there has to be a “unity of Europe” – voluntary or not,
Only two months before Baerbock spoke in front of the industrialists, an economic deal between China and Italy set the alarm bells ringing in the executive boards of German big business over the possibility of an economic disintegration of the EU, which would be a disaster for German capitalism. A massive campaign, especially with regards to the European elections, “for the unity of Europe” and “against populism” was launched. But the main party of German capital, the conservative CDU/CSU, especially at his time was (and still is to a degree) split down the middle on the question of refugees, which stirred up a lot of conflicts in Europe itself. In this situation, the German capitalists can lean on the Greens with their clear position against “small turf” German nationalism.
That these positions of Baerbock got the hands-down approval of the big environment-destroying capitalists is thus no surprise. One can quite well imagine the cynical, besuited CEOs of the big car-producers winking at each other knowingly when Baerbock spoke of “struggle against climate change”, only to cheerfully applaud every jab against the Chinese competitors and the renegade Italians.
So, it is only logical that since then the German capitalists did their best to push through these kinds of measures in the European Union. The new head of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen (the former German Defence Minister from the CDU) took it upon herself to press for a system of “carbon border taxes”. On 4 March, she officially presented the plan on behalf of the European Commission, although full details are not expected until early next year. Until 2050 the EU should eliminate its carbon footprint altogether, and goods from countries that “are not working to reduce their footprint” will be subjected to tariffs. Time magazine commented on this aptly: “The EU’s plan is a significant escalation, but it’s not a complete surprise”.
When the ground is trembling, you need a solid foothold
But the Greens offer the capitalists something else they are desperately in need of: the legitimacy to rule and a certain base in society. In times when millions of people, mostly school students all around the world, are demonstrating against climate change through the “Fridays for Future” movement, it is quite favourable for the capitalists that a party exists that for years has raised this issue, but is safely in the hands of big business.
The influence of the Greens is a direct threat to the movement against climate change – as they are a “trojan horse”: a tool to enshrine capitalist policies in the programme of the movement. They say: “We like what you do, we will not try to steer what you are doing, but we will be your voice in parliament with reforms that help to tackle climate change” – and in this way, giving the illusion that there is an “easy” way out of climate change under capitalism, but which in reality only puts a leash on the movement.
For example, in Germany and Austria, the Fridays for Future groups adopted the demand for the taxation of CO2, which is a policy long promoted by the Greens as a “realistic” way to stop climate change. This is not the time to go into detail on that question, but this is not only a measure that will not stop or even put a dent into climate change, but in reality will be a further fetter on the working class and the youth in trying to solve the deep crisis of capitalism. In this way, the capitalists are using the Green influence to try to steer the movement into “safe channels”. Instead of radical action against the capitalist system, what they want is a liberal-Green movement with no links to the working class, which could also be used as a lever to push through “unpopular reforms” under the guise of the “struggle against climate change”.
In the end, the Greens can act as a “safe government option” for the ruling class if need be. The example is Austria, where after the break-up of the former right-wing coalition with the FPÖ, the Green party is the new junior partner of the conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz. In all the questions of attacks on the living standards of the workers, and even down to racist policies, the current programme is almost indistinguishable that of the last government. In some senses, it is even worse. For example, this government much more explicitly loads the burden of elderly care on the shoulders of working-class women and is attacking working conditions in the care sector.
The most notable difference in Austrian politics is the excessive use of the words “Green” and “sustainable”. It serves to cover up for a simple fact: the Greens are a bourgeois establishment party like all the others, and offer no way forward for the workers and youth. They are a part of the problem, the “progressive boot” of the ruling class.
At this time, the working-class parties are all in deep crisis, reflecting the general impasse of reformism in our historical period. A clear stand not only against the reactionary right-wing parties, but also against the “progressive” bourgeois projects is a programmatic pre-condition to resolve the deep leadership problem of the working class.
Only in this way can the working class take on the task of overcoming capitalism, and with that also the ills that come with it.