Out of the Wreck­age: A New Pol­i­tics for an Age of Cri­sis by Ge­orge Mon­biot

Is there a way out of fi­nan­cial and cli­mate melt­down and an al­ter­na­tive to ne­olib­er­al­ism?

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Wil­liam Davies

That which is dan­ger­ous can also be thrilling. Many lib­eral democ­ra­cies are en­gaged in some­thing dan­ger­ous, as ques­tions of iden­tity, com­mu­nity and na­tion­hood are be­ing asked with a fresh ur­gency, with some of the an­swers turn­ing out to be deeply dis­turb­ing. But is there also some­thing thrilling go­ing on? The ca­pac­ity for democ­racy to throw up sur­prises, such as Bri­tain’s 2017 gen­eral elec­tion re­sult, is mes­meris­ing. Brexit may be a fa­mous act of eco­nomic self-harm, but some­thing new will be born one way or the other. Still the danger per­sists and may be grow­ing.

That this is hap­pen­ing now, as op­posed to 10 or 20 years ago, is a con­se­quence of the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the eco­nomic pol­icy frame­work that has held sway in Bri­tain, the US, the Euro­pean com­mis­sion and many mul­ti­lat­eral in­sti­tu­tions for much of the pre­vi­ous 40 years. That frame­work is of­ten re­ferred to as “ne­olib­er­al­ism”, even if the term ir­ri­tates a cer­tain class of pun­dit, for whom it is some sort of swear­word. Its dis­in­te­gra­tion is pro­duc­ing con­flict­ing sym­pa­thies, as many on the left come to re­alise the xeno­pho­bia that can be un­leashed in the ab­sence of sta­ble mar­ket-based rules.

For Ge­orge Mon­biot, ne­olib­er­al­ism should best be un­der­stood as a “story”, one that was con­ve­niently on of­fer at pre­cisely the mo­ment when the pre­vi­ous “story” – Key­ne­sian­ism – fell to pieces in the mid-1970s. The power of sto­ries is over­whelm­ing, as they are “the means by which we nav­i­gate the world. They al­low us to in­ter­pret its com­plex and con­tra­dic­tory sig­nals”. The par­tic­u­lar story of ne­olib­er­al­ism “de­fines us as com­peti­tors, guided above all other im­pulses by the urge to get ahead of our fel­lows”.

This story may not have been all that at­trac­tive, but it pro­vided mean­ing and clar­ity. It of­fered a guide on what to do and how to live. With the rise of Mar­garet Thatcher and Ron­ald Rea­gan, ne­olib­er­al­ism came to gov­ern how poli­cies were de­signed and in­sti­tu­tions con­structed. More dif­fusely, it came to shape how we un­der­stand our­selves, lead­ing us to take on ever more re­spon­si­bil­ity for our own needs, eco­nomic se­cu­rity and well­be­ing, de­valu­ing so­cial bonds and de­pen­dency in the process.

The grand global dif­fi­cul­ties of ne­olib­er­al­ism are plain to see. The fi­nan­cial cri­sis was tes­ti­mony to the stu­pid­ity of dereg­u­la­tion, while the in­abil­ity to move on from it demon­strates that ortho­dox eco­nomic pol­icy tools no longer work. So­lu­tions to cli­mate change are ham­strung by the need to re­spect ex­ist­ing cor­po­rate and fi­nan­cial strate­gies. But Mon­biot also de­tails con- sider­able psy­cho­log­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence for how the ethos of in­di­vid­ual com­pe­ti­tion harms us all, run­ning counter to our in­nate needs and in­stincts. Lone­li­ness and distrust are not just the defin­ing so­cial prob­lems of our age, but in­creas­ingly pos­ing risks to our health.

The prob­lem is that we have no new story to tell, and are there­fore trapped in a ground­hog day of rep­e­ti­tion. The prin­ci­pal ob­jec­tive of Out of the Wreck­age is to iden­tify exit routes from this mis­er­able con­di­tion. Few of the pol­icy ideas con­tained within it are orig­i­nal to Mon­biot (he cred­its their sources reg­u­larly and gen­er­ously) and some (such as par­tic­i­pa­tory bud­get­ing and ba­sic in­come) have been around for some time, but they are rarely as­sem­bled into a sin­gle over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive. Mon­biot is of­fer­ing his ser­vices prin­ci­pally as a sto­ry­teller. He re­serves par­tic­u­lar en­thu­si­asm for the en­vi­ron­men­tal eco­nomics of Kate Ra­worth and the par­tic­i­pa­tory cam­paign­ing tech­niques of the Bernie San­ders cam­paign.

To con­struct the new story, he leans on the bur­geon­ing ev­i­dence for our in­nately so­cial and em­pa­thetic na­ture. Hu­man be­ings are the “supreme co­op­er­a­tors”, which ex­plains our dom­i­nance in the nat­u­ral world. Al­tru­ism and con­cern for oth­ers’ feel­ings are evo­lu­tion­ary prop­er­ties that are cen­tral to our bi­ol­ogy, hence the fact that “so­cial” pain (lone­li­ness or grief) pro­duces many of the same symp­toms as “phys­i­cal” pain. Most of this re­search was un­known when the ne­olib­eral story was first be­ing told by econ­o­mists such as Friedrich von Hayek in the mid-20th cen­tury, but it high­lights cen­tral as­pects of the hu­man con­di­tion that are ne­glected by our com­pet­i­tive cul­ture.

What this sug­gests, Mon­biot ar­gues, is that a new po­lit­i­cal story must priv­i­lege be­long­ing above all. We need to feel we be­long to a par­tic­u­lar place and a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity, with whom we can achieve com­mon goals. We need to com­bat the epi­demic of alien­ation with a new set of in­sti­tu­tions, through which in­di­vid­u­als can col­lec­tively shape their own lives and en­vi­ron­ments. Out of the Wreck­age makes an im­pas­sioned and op­ti­mistic case for greater democ­racy in vir­tu­ally all ar­eas of life, from global to lo­cal, kick­ing big money out of pol­i­tics in the process. At the same time, Mon­biot’s in­tu­ition re­gard­ing “be­long­ing” res­onates with the present po­lit­i­cal mood. Was it not a de­sire for be­long­ing that drove much of the Brexit vote, or at least a sense of not be­long­ing to Brus­sels?

This is a highly con­tem­po­rary book, po­ten­tially of­fer­ing the left a set of im­ple­ments with which to win ar­gu­ments on ter­rain of­ten dom­i­nated by the pop­ulist right. Af­ter the de­press­ing sight of Boris John­son tour­ing ex-in­dus­trial re­gions in a bus promis­ing NHS fund­ing that he knew would never ma­te­ri­alise, the need for a more sin­cere vi­sion of how peo­ple might “take back con­trol” re­mains press­ing. Mon­biot’s hope­ful, prac­ti­cal en­ergy is pre­cisely what the left needs. Some of it bor­ders on the utopian, but then so did Hayek’s story.

Op­ti­mism does pro­duce its blind spots. Mon­biot is alive to the thrill of pop­u­lar power, but the dan­gers are ab­sent. He touches on the pes­simistic vi­sion of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th­cen­tury philoso­pher who ar­gued that the cen­tral func­tion of the state is to stop us slaugh­ter­ing each other, given our in­nately sus­pi­cious and ar­ro­gant na­ture. “To­day,” Mon­biot re­as­sures us, “know­ing what we do about the na­ture and ori­gins of hu­man­ity, we can state un­equiv­o­cally” that Hobbes’s view “is mis­taken”. We’d all like this to be true (even Hobbes would have done), but that’s a brave call, es­pe­cially on the post­ne­olib­eral precipice on which we stand.

The yearn­ing for be­long­ing has his­tor­i­cally been as­so­ci­ated with ro­man­tic con­ser­vatism, although Mon­biot of­fers some good coun­terex­am­ples, such as the Clar­ion mag­a­zine, which formed so­cial­ist so­ci­eties and ram­blers’ and cy­cling clubs dur­ing the 1890s. In the cur­rent cli­mate, this poses a cou­ple of ques­tions, at least for the less op­ti­mistic reader. One is whether demo­cratic par­tic­i­pa­tion can de­liver the same sense of be­long­ing as the darker po­lit­i­cal forces that are stir­ring, with their prom­ise to look af­ter their own and lock out the oth­ers. If the left is to start a con­ver­sa­tion about be­long­ing, it needs to be con­fi­dent that it can fin­ish it. Af­ter all, there is an­other sto­ry­teller in Bri­tain, also chal­leng­ing the cult of GDP growth and pri­ori­tis­ing a sense of be­long­ing: his name is Nigel Farage.

It is far from cer­tain that democ­racy will pro­duce the happy so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal out­comes Mon­biot ex­pects it to, in­clud­ing a re­spect for science. The in­de­ter­mi­nacy of pop­u­lar power is both its thrill and its danger. At one point Mon­biot writes ex­pertly on how to com­bine mu­sic, “en­er­gis­ers” and speak­ers to con­vert the vi­tal­ity of protest marches into more last­ing cam­paign out­comes. “The en­er­giser would bring back the mu­si­cians to lead the crowd in an an­them: there’s no bet­ter way of gen­er­at­ing a sense of sol­i­dar­ity and shared emo­tion,” which sounds as much like a Trump rally as the ones that at­tract Mon­biot’s sym­pa­thies.

Mon­biot might well re­spond that se­vere dan­gers have al­ready been re­alised, in the form of cli­mate change, po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress and in­equal­ity. Why live in fear of emerg­ing en­e­mies, when the es­tab­lished ones are al­ready run­ning amok? Out of the Wreck­age is partly an ac­tivists’ man­ual, which aims to co­or­di­nate and en­er­gise those who want a dif­fer­ent world. You don’t build an evoca­tive story out of warn­ings and fears. I hope it suc­ceeds.

Mon­biot’s hope­ful, prac­ti­cal en­ergy is pre­cisely what the left needs

224pp, Verso, £14.99

To or­der Out of the Wreck­age for £10.49 go to book­shop. the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on­line or­ders only. Phone or­ders min p&p of £1.99.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.