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Book Review - Against All Odds by John Rensenbrink

Against All Odds: the green transformation of American politics

by John Rensenbrink

Leopold Press, 1999

256 pages, $19.95

Out of the fires of many struggles over what it means to be Green, John Rensenbrink, one of the longest-term participants in US Green politics, has fashioned a masterful integration of ecology, politics, state, and society. In Against All Odds he imagines a new politics that is neither boring nor a distasteful-but-unavoidable duty. Instead, it is a truly ecological politics that is a natural, organic element of human life — a politics that can fulfill our highest possibilities.

Rensenbrink shows that the apoliticism rampant in American society has deep cultural roots reaching across the political spectrum. The Christian tradition views the state as a necessary evil, as does propertarian individualism. Marxists see the state as a temporary stage, while anarchists look upon it as inherently a tool of hierarchical domination. Little wonder that disgust with politics and government is so easy to elicit, or that drawing people into politics is like pulling teeth.

Rensenbrink finds inspiration in older traditions of citizenship, from the Greek tradition of the citizen to the revolutionary heritage of Paine, Jefferson, and Hamilton. These traditions view public life as the best contribution an individual can make. The vital connection between the tradition of the free citizen and ecological consciousness, which makes Green parties so much the natural vehicle for a transformation of politics, is “intelligent caring for the whole.” Ecology “represents a tremendous breakthrough for viewing res publica (public things) as a natural sphere.”

If politics and government seem too often to bring out the worst in us rather than the best, that goes with the turf, for this realm is “where tough decisions get displaced.” Politics is our means for resolving the conflicts that inevitably arise in human life. “It is the only real alternative to warfare,” Rensenbrink observes.

Rensenbrink's views have been tempered in the political wars that have flared up along the fault lines of Green politics in the US. Those fires have refined a sense of expansiveness desperately needed by grassroots political activists, who have often battled one another over narrow points of ideology. No matter how “progressive” or “radical” they have proclaimed themselves, they nonetheless represent a dated view — “either-or” and the polarization of opposites. Transformation, in Rensenbrink's view, entails getting to the “both-and.” It is rooted in a very basic understanding, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, applied to the political realm: “No one observer, no one discipline, no one institute or organization, no one of anything can claim to see everything about a given object or context or whole.”

Green hallmarks, including diversity and democracy, lead to a new politics that respects the limitations of any one view, seeks a balance of many, and stays open to new information. The transformation of politics is the application of quantum and ecological understandings, says the author: “Nature is diverse, dynamic, interactive, replete with difference, and always open to evolutionary change.”

Much of the book details the conflicts that broke out in the early '90s among Greens and continue to percolate. The group that Rensenbrink represents, oriented to broad outreach to the mainstream and engagement in electoral politics, essentially hit a brick wall among “new age Greens” interested in building alternative community institutions and left-anarchist Greens deeply suspicious of conducting politics above the municipal level.

A “both-and” approach, in which Greens pursued the various strategies that drew their passion while respecting the choice of others, could have held the Greens together. For a politics driven by human energy rather than money, this kind of diverse and experimental approach makes lots of sense. But it was not to be. Left Greens, insistent on central control that was far more Old Left than Green, essentially drove Rensenbrink and electorally oriented Greens out of the national organization, which was then rechristened the Greens/Green Party USA (GPUSA)

“They often seemed to exude all the trappings of a left activist culture, a kind of ideo-fundamentalism more concerned about the letter than the spirit, about being pure of dogma rather than actually bringing about change,” Rensenbrink writes. But having “no conceptual tools” other than “left vs. right” with which to view the issue, the Left Greens characterized Rensenbrink et al. as Right Greens and elitists, charges some still echo today.

The absurdity of those claims is evident in this book's sections on Green economics, multicultural society, and the emerging “Oligarchy USA.” Rensenbrink, who headed the national organization's platform process before the big breakup in the early ‘90s, details Green positions that are progressive in every way and resonant in many respects with those of democratic left groups such as the Labor Party. The added strength of the Green view is embedding those positions in the wholistic perspective of ecological citizenship.

In a sense, the national break-up set Rensenbrink and others free to pursue their own agenda, which manifested as formation of state political parties across the US, the Nader '96 campaign, and the founding of the Association of State Green Parties (ASGP). Now, while people from the two national organizations continue to fire shots at each other, perhaps the issues that divided them are fading. In particular, the debate about whether to go electoral at all levels has gone to the “yes” side in both groups, while many GPUSA members are also part of ASGP. In effect, “both-and” is prevailing.

John Rensenbrink urges us, as does Ralph Nader in his introduction to this book, to get on with the life-fulfilling project of citizenship and public life. It entails going beyond the protest mentality that has shaped grassroots progressive politics since the 1960s — an approach Rensenbrink correctly identifies as a childish hectoring of the parental powers that be. Instead, we must prepare ourselves to take charge, to offer a full set of alternative policies that make sense to a broad reach of the population, to fully involve ourselves in democracy, and ultimately to transform politics and America itself. The odds against this may be imposing, but the kind of clear thinking Rensenbrink lays out in this book improves them substantially.

Reviewer Patrick Mazza is a former co-chair of the Association of State Green Parties. He currently serves on the Coordinating Council of the Green Party of Seattle.

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