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Ten Reflections for the German Greens

By Peter Siller, head of the domestic department of the German Heinrich Boell Foundation. Published on the Green European Journal

On 22 September, through a combination of their own mistakes (the larger share in the mix) and unfortunate external factors (which were also present), the Greens suffered a painful defeat.

What we need now is collectively to understand precisely what our own contribution to this defeat was and to draw from this the correct conclusions. In this process it will be important to retain a clear focus on why society needs the Greens, needs us. So we are not talking about navel-gazing, but rather about our call for change in this society.

That may sound trivial, but there is a great danger that the frustration felt by many who occupied places on the regional lists (previously) thought to have good electoral prospects, as well as political wings which have (too) long been unable genuinely to play a substantive structural role and which are now unnerved, may lead to hasty decisions which will immediately create the next problems.

For that reason it is now essential to take a closer look and to generate out of the defeat a productive friction which points the way forward. A retreat into the old trenches would just have negative consequences for everyone.

This process of strategic clarification needs to be, more than ever before, a cooperative and collective party process, because since the election it has not (yet) been possible to clearly identify a firm power centre in charge. This too is a situation the Greens have not found themselves in for a long time.

10 (incomplete) theses (each one already pointing the way towards an escape route into the future) by way of a small contribution to the green clarification process. All together short and succinct in 10 sentences (even though each point raises numerous questions and considerations).

1. It was right to bring the social question into the centre of green politics, but we failed to offer our own, distinctive answer, let alone a story (one which would need to take its orientation from the condition of our public institutions/public space).

2. It was right to call for an ecological transformation and for fair shares for all, but we failed to address the economic preconditions for both: green economic policy as the driver for a properly elaborated green industrial policy and as the ally of innovation in the SME sector.

3. It was right to put criticism of factory farming and agribusiness at the forefront of the election campaign, and regulatory interventions are a part of this, but in an area so strongly associated with lifestyles we should have placed more emphasis on the supply side and offered something to consumers rather than announcing a one-day a week ban on meat in public service cafeterias.

4. It was right to express a preference for a Red-Green coalition and to stick to it, but it was even more difficult to understand why, in the event of the numbers not stacking up for that preference, other options were de facto and unnecessarily ruled out.

5. It was right to put the Energiewende at the forefront as the big green project following the nuclear phase-out, but it was an error not to set out a robust and fully worked-out Energiewende 2.0 as evidence of more than just good intentions.

6. It was right to provide an answer on the revenue side that included fair tax increases, in particular an increase in the highest tax rate, but this should have been preceded by a clear and persuasive picture of the rationale for the tax revenues, of the planned investments in public infrastructure. In the end, the investment plans were a hodgepodge, and it appeared as though redistribution was an end in itself rather than a means to a genuine improvement in societal relations.

7. It was right to come clean about our fiscal policy and to set out clearly our revenue calculations, but taking into account the abolition (not transformation) of the option for splitting married couples’ income for tax purposes should have revealed that our adding up was a little overoptimistic.

8. It was right to place our trust in dialogue with the voters during the campaign, but dialogue with the voters doesn’t just come down to plastering posters over every streetlamp (a problem shared by all the parties), nor to an overly friendly comradeliness.

9. It was right to defend ourselves against the attempts by the Union and the FDP to exploit the paedophilia debate during the campaign, but in the final analysis we were acting within a political culture of permanent scandal-seeking, of ritualised bashing of political opponents and of stereotypical calls for resignations to which we had ourselves contributed in the preceding years.

10. It was right, before the election, to go on the front foot  in actively investigating the accusation that in the early years of the green movement there had been a tendency towards liberalisation of paedophilia; but what was missing was an adequate degree of self-investigation on the part of some of the protagonists from those times.

If and to the extent to which the analysis behind these theses is shared in broad outline, one thing is clear: the errors in the election campaign were not just ‘technical’ or operational errors, rather like simply taking the wrong thing out of the toolbox. In most cases they touch on profound conceptual paradoxes and ambiguities within green politics. That is why the path we follow to rectify them has to be a longer one. The path to a new fundamental programme can provide an opportunity for orientation; as of today, the clarification and proper prioritisation of our detailed concepts is on the agenda.

Those with responsibility in the many Laender where we have representatives in the regional government, and where we have a strong power base, will play an important role in this. Perhaps also through a different structure of joint responsibility at the Federal level (after all, almost everything that is now being criticised was waved through).

It is a matter of clarifying the fundamental relationship between ecology and society, and therefore also the deep connection between prosperity and the green economy.

It is a matter of clarifying our own distinctive answer to the social question, our own approach, which in my view has to lie in a clearly recognizable strategy on public institutions and the public space.

It is a matter of clarifying our understanding of freedom and civil rights under a green system.

It is a matter of clarifying our European policy in the wake of the economic and fiscal flare-ups of the last few years.

It is a matter of clarifying the style of our political communications, and of the loss of trust which ultimately affects all parties, their rituals, their language.

And finally it is a matter of combining the good intentions of ecological politics with robust ideas and proposals. After all, the problem was not that our core brand values did not receive sufficient expression in this election, but rather that they were not adequately backed up with solid proposals.

Perhaps it will do the Greens good to have been shaken out of the illusion that they have the sole rights to what is good, beautiful and true. It may help us in many areas to be less full of hot air, less touchy-feely and lifestylish-vague, to become clearer, to identify more clearly our ends and means, to make choices rather than equivocating so often.

Where there is danger, there the means of rescue grows too – Hölderlin famously wrote. Christoph Schlingensief called it failure as opportunity.

The Greens now have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, to improve. A green story emerges not just out of continuity, but also out of errors and obstacles. Almost like real life. What is coming will give us every opportunity!

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10/01/2013 – 11:55


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