Greens Parties Go Nuclear: Will it happen here? An emerging shift internationally reveals a technocratic logic

Guy Rundle

6 Apr 2023

Finland was, by Nordic standards, a fairly backward country until a few decades ago, after which it became a world leader in innovations in education, telecommunications, open source software, social services and much more. Recently, it chalked up another first, with its Green party Vihreät announcing that it had reversed its policy opposing nuclear power due to the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change and the continued use of fossil fuels. This was prompted, of course, by the European gas supply crisis arising from the Russia–Ukraine war, which has made it necessary for Germany to re-open its coal mines in order to keep energy supplies at constant, and growing, levels. Vihreät’s party manifesto now states that nuclear is ‘sustainable energy’ and the party is pushing to streamline the approval process for small modular reactors. Just some fringe party with a perverse take on an issue others regard as settled? No. Vihreät has 20 seats in the 200-seat parliament, is in the ruling four-party coalition, and holds the foreign and environment ministries. Its shift is a pivotal moment in Green politics.

Vihreät is ahead, but not alone, in a green recommitment to nuclear power. The German Greens party has backed a pause on the decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants due to the gas emergency, and while its various factions fight it out. In France, the Green party remains anti-nuclear, but a majority of its voters are in favour of the country renewing the vast nuclear system which provides 70 per cent of its power. Other parties are finding it near impossible to hold an absolute line. Thus Ireland’s Greens, also in the ruling coalition, oppose home-grown nuclear power but back the ‘Celtic interconnector’, a France–Ireland cable to sell nuclear-made electricity to Ireland. And on it goes. Around the world, Green parties are being drawn to the retention, extension or recommitment to nuclear power.

Some might be tempted to see this as an expression of the Greens being drawn fully into the mainstream politics of compromise and mild reform—even cynicism—about their own values. But this would be a misinterpretation. It should be seen as an expression of the Greens’ ends-based policies—a sustainable, social democratic world, with social, cultural and way-of-life diversity within a fully modern framework—determining not merely the means they will adopt, but the de facto beliefs of their new members and supporters and the social groups they come from. The political Green movement, founded in Tasmania then Germany, is now a half-century old, and is changing with the deeper social and cultural changes that are occurring underneath it. The global movement will soon become preoccupied by a multifactional, multidimensional struggle over whether nuclear power can be dubbed Green or not.

This will come as a surprise and a shock to many when it develops full flare, but it should not. Though the German Green party was born out of the convulsions and debates of the New Left and the notion of a radical transformation of the framework and character of everyday life, the dominance of this approach did not survive much beyond the mid-1980s. The party drew on the anti-industrial New Left, the cultural critique of the Frankfurt school, urban squatting movements and other ideas to imagine a society which had radically scaled down its energy consumption levels and restored (equally distributed) production and living by hand-based techniques. But by the 1980s, a new cohort, post-New Left and raised in the conventional social movements, was coming to the fore. Many in this group were tertiary-educated and more socially integrated than the first Greens. Epic factional battles then occurred between the ‘Realis’ and the ‘Fundos’—realists and fundamentalists—which were won by the former.

By the 1990s the Greens were the party of the tertiary-educated in the humanities-sciences boundary areas, getting into state and local government coalitions and then national government. By the time the 9/11 attacks reframed world politics, Germany’s foreign minister was a Green. Joschka Fischer, from Germany’s radical era, now elaborated Green bombing policy: yes to the invasion of Afghanistan, no to Iraq. The German Greens were simply in advance of what would happen to such parties all over the advanced world. As a new social group trained in the creation and running of knowledge/information-led economies came to the fore, the Greens’ notion that a better society could be made by ‘stepping back’ from received life practices made them the natural representatives of such a social group. Though the Greens’ ‘stepping back’ had come from a more radical tradition, the method fit neatly with the new members and supporters flocking to the party. Their desire for a new society without waste, destruction or oppression was, and is, genuine. But now they saw the ever-more-developed intellectual tools and practices of a high-tech civilisation as the means by which this would be achieved, with themselves as the ‘natural’ group to achieve it. A green social democratic technocratic politics has replaced civilisational transformation at the party’s centre.

Thus, where the New Left-influenced ‘first Greens’ saw the application of intellect to life as a reflective, interpretive act leading to a reflexive social politics—using the power of reason to conclude that not only the decommodification, but the detechnologisation of certain areas of life was necessary—the ‘smart’ solutions to social problems are now overwhelmingly contained within a highly technologised framework. This framework’s ‘first move’—the abstraction of wholes into parts, following the ‘arrow’ of the sciences from observed to atomic to sub-atomic—sets up both a general approach to social problems and a blind spot of inability to reflect on the assumptions about social life that make the generalisation of such a method possible, as John Hinkson elaborates in this issue of Arena Quarterly.

The inevitable result of this is that nuclear power, which is the technological possibility arising from the essential process of abstraction of elements to new levels of constituent parts, must eventually suggest itself to the large sections of the Green movement that no longer have the radical transformation of everyday life as part of their political imagination. Given the likely and persistent gap between renewables and demand for power, it seems quite likely that such policies might be subject to a rapid turnover. And just as Labour parties became parties of capital when full socialist programs became not merely difficult, but had the appearance of being archaic and possibly absurd, so too the resistance to nuclear might come to seem like the last hangover of a discarded New Left civilisational critique, like UK Labour conferences singing ‘The Red Flag’ right into the Blair years.

The character of nuclear power—as a method that finds a solution to a present problem by both intellectually and literally atomising and sub-atomising the ground or context in which the challenges present themselves—is also homologous with the deconstructive logic that many drawn to a Greens’ politics deploy in dealing with inherited ensembles of oppressive social relations. Thus the strand of internationalism within the Greens that calls for the abolition of national governments in favour of global governance, or the dealing with the complexities of sex and gender via full gender self-affirmation, multiplicity and fluidity, is the same sort of approach that might make the notion of a safe, boutique process of pulling apart the constituents of nature appear to be the ‘obvious’ answer, if one could ‘be brave’ and ‘overcome inherited prejudices’. Some who support such social and cultural measures will remain anti-nuclear, oriented to such by its abhorrent destructive capabilities. But those who go the other way may well become increasingly exuberant in their release from the heavy demands of what they might see as a superseded way of thinking with impossible demands compared to the ‘natural fit’ of the deeper logic of nuclear. This is a question, a debate, possibly a war, in the Greens’ future, not their past. Those in Australia who want to maintain the party’s anti-nuclear approach cannot be complacent. Australia’s strong anti-nuclear traditions do not mean we are invulnerable. Just as when mass becomes energy it does so with tremendous force so, here—like but not like Finland—to use the local vernacular, when it goes, it bloody goes.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #13


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