Transforming towards living

Leading, seeding and feeding transformative Greens politics

The old world is dying and the new is struggling to be born.

Antonio Gramsci

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy

Greens politics straddles an uncomfortable contradiction.

Many of us like to talk about “doing politics differently” while others talk about “system change”; some half-joke about revolution, and people like me bandy around the word “transformation” – all while running for election to, and working within, parliaments that, frankly, operate to enforce the status quo.

However we choose to articulate it, we are all trying to square that circle of changing the world while living in the world as it currently exists.

Now, this doesn’t need to be an outright contradiction. It can be a creative tension. We rightly ridicule commentators who call us hypocrites for catching planes while campaigning for climate action, or use mobile phones while critiquing capitalism.

But it is a tension – and it only becomes a truly creative tension when we articulate it that way. When we grapple with the contradiction and challenge ourselves to think hard about our responses. When we recognise that any system of power (including those within our own party) works to perpetuate itself, and that seeking power within it will change us, perhaps as much as or more than we change it.

This may be the fundamental test of our success, as a party and political movement: are we changing politics more than politics is changing us?

It’s a question we rarely ask ourselves in any kind of formal way. But it’s one that more and more members and supporters are asking, when confronted by the vast gulf between politics-as-usual and the ecological, economic, social and political crises we face.

As many people have raised with me in conversations over recent months, it’s unsurprising that, as our party has achieved greater success within the current system – winning more seats, securing ministries and mayoralties, building power – our balance feels like it has shifted. Without in any way apportioning blame, and acknowledging the extraordinarily hard work being done and important progress being made, there’s a perception that our party is doing more “working within the system” and less “changing the system”.

This is, I emphasise, unsurprising. Just as the fish doesn’t see the water it swims in, once we become embedded in institutions of power, it becomes ever harder to see them for what they are and to keep challenging them. Apart from anything else, they are designed to keep us so busily responding to their urgent requirements that our deep work for systemic change is de-prioritised. But, equally importantly, when our daily lives are conducted within given parameters, led along given paths, we come to believe the mythology of their permanence. The idea of transformative change becomes more fanciful.

And yet, this is happening right at the very moment when the failures of politics-as-usual, and the need for transformative change, are more apparent than ever. Faced with a government claiming to take the climate crisis seriously while insisting on opening new fossil fuel projects; a government talking about the cost of living crisis while cutting taxes for the rich and leaving the poor floundering, people’s confidence in our system of government’s capacity to keep us safe is crashing. And here we are trying to convince people that we’ll make it work better.

That’s not easy.

Our politics straddles this uncomfortable position because that’s the uncomfortable position our world puts us in.

The old world is dying. And so it should.

What can we – our movement, our party, our MPs and our members – be doing to ease and hasten its passing while midwifing the new world into life?

In Living Democracy, I set out a four step process for how transformative politics can work:

It starts with creating alternative ways of being – cooperatives and urban agriculture, access to housing and healthcare. It cultivates the conditions for these alternatives to flourish – building cooperation between projects, seeking the political capacity to support and enable them, and weaving them into new cultural norms. It withdraws consent from the existing systems – explicitly naming and contesting the power of capital and coercive government that are obviously failing people, and demonstrating a better way. And it reinforces confidence in the new system through creating cycles of trust – continuing to ensure that decision-making power rests with the community wherever possible, prioritising access for all, creating institutional structures that guarantee common control.

Seeding diverse alternatives; cultivating healthy conditions for them to thrive; weeding the ground by withdrawing consent from an old system in crisis; and reinforcing the new alternatives through cycles of trust and structures of support. This is panarchic transformation – destabilising the things we’d like to replace and creating virtuous cycles for those we’d like to grow. It’s overthrowing hegemony – challenging old institutions, creating new ones, and rewriting the common sense. It’s living democracy. 

So many of us in our party and our movement see the need to do this. So many of us are working towards it in all sorts of ways – running campaigns as mutual aid, using parliament as a platform to shine a light on the corruption of the system, dedicating hours and days and months of our lives to helping people to get by, putting in the effort to build trust with people across our communities.

So many of us are working to live this transformation. But it’s hard. It’s the hardest thing in the world – seeking to challenge and replace an entrenched system of power. It’s rarely obvious what needs to be done, especially the deeper embedded in those systems we are. We need to talk about it. We need to create the space to challenge ourselves, to workshop approaches, to share our experiences, our wisdom, our ideas.

That is the special role of the Green Institute. We exist to create the space for strategic conversations about Greens politics that can’t happen anywhere else but are crucial for our movement’s transformative goals. While members, elected representatives, branches and offices rightly focus on policy platforms and process, winning seats and building political power, the Institute asks: who do we think we are, as a party and movement? What type and scale of change are we trying to achieve? What is our role in creating that change, in both the community and parliaments? How do we change the system while operating in it?

The Green Institute exists to remind us that transformative change is possible.

We exist to bring us together to discuss transformative change, and refocus our efforts towards that goal.

Because, let’s face it, politics-as-usual is a dead end. It’s a deadened process that squeezes the life out of us and everything it touches. It strangles constructive debate. It kills good policy. It’s dying, but it’s not going quietly – indeed, it’s making more and more noise in its death throes, to distract us, to keep up the illusion of its own permanence.

But the new world has been born. When we step away from the hurly burly, we can hear her breathing.

Join us. At Green Agenda. At our conference. At our webinars. Listen. Act. Work with us in seeding, feeding and leading transformative Greens politics.

Tim Hollo is the Executive Director of the Green Institute, a Visiting Fellow at the ANU’s School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), and a delegate to the federal council of the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance for the Musicians Union. He was previously Communications Director for Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne, has been a campaigner and Board Member of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, and has written extensively for publications including The Guardian, ABC, The Griffith Review and Crikey. His first book, Living Democracy: An Ecological Manifesto was published with NewSouth Press in 2022.

Image credit. Feature image, Centre of the Universe by Natalia Medd (CC BY-SA 2.0).