The train wreck that seems to be threatening the California Green Party has been very little discussed on the British left, but is of some significance. I have not been following events closely myself, and welcome corrections and clarification from those who know more, and understand better.
The following two blog articles give some background, here and here including some debate from all sides in the dispute.
Why does it matter? Well firstly the California Green Party is relatively large for a progressive party in the English speaking world, with some 40000 members, and has had modest but significant electoral success, despite the fact that the American political system discriminates against minor parties even more than the British system.
Secondly, some of the issues in dispute are relevant to debates in the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) about structure and accountability, and are also interesting for the left as showing both the opportunities and problems for the socialist left orienting on the Green Party.
At one level this appears to be a left/right conflict. The supporters of former Santa Monica councillor Michael Feinstein, are arguing for fusion with the Democrats, or allowing Democrats to be endorsed with the Green party ticket. On the other hand, Peter Camejo, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party (an organisation with a different political tradition from the British SWP) is seeking to rally the left. Camejo is a major player, and was the running mate of Ralph Nadar for the 2004 presidential elections. Itself somewhat confusing as Green party leader, David Cobb was himself running against Nadar.
On the plus side, the American Greens have succeeded in a modest way in building a broadly progressive electoral base for a left of centre party, and also one that has been relatively open to allowing socialists to work within it. The British SWP’s former sister organisation, the ISO, also orients on the Greens now, but from what I gather in a way that is felt by other activists to be a bit of a raid.
However, the difficulties for the Greens have been compounded by a culture of seeking consensus and being seen as nice and woolly. Bizarrely every Green party meeting in California has a moderator, who shouts “Vibes!” if they sense that someone is becoming too passionate or committed to a non consensual point of view! I know that some people on the British left find the GPEW’s culture refreshing compared to the sometimes competitive culture of the far left groups. But Camejo points to Jo Freeman’s classic feminist text, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, to show how consensus doesn’t work.
As Freeman argues: “structurelessness becomes a way of masking power [and ] is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not.) For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit.”
Certainly anyone who ever had any dealings with Ian Bone’s Class War anarchist group in the 1980s will tell you how its lack of formal leadership structures was completely undemocratic.
The Consensual culture of the California Greens requires that if full consensus cannot be reached then an 80% majority is required, leading to paralysis of concerted action.
The tyranny of assuming that ideological and political differences can be subsumed into consensus also leads to lack of transparency and accountability of the leading bodies in the Party. In Los Angeles County, 20000 members were led by a single committee of six, five of whom were Feinstein supporters. What is more, there are serious allegations of financial impropriety of cheques made payable to the Green party being paid into Feinstein’s personal account, with an alleged embezzlement of some $30000.
Clearly there is no suggestion of financial or political impropriety with the GPEW, but I helped a friend recently who was standing as a local Green candidate, and I was shocked by the lack of democratic culture or structures in the party at local level, where democratically agreed leaflets were rewritten without consultation, and candidate selection does not seem to be through a transparent process. This would not be tolerated in, for example the Labour Party.