Out of the Wreckage

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Book: Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. By George Monbiot. Verso, 2017

URL = https://www.versobooks.com/books/2732-out-of-the-wreckage

How can we create a new "politics of belonging" to radically reorganize our world?


From the publisher:

"George Monbiot shows how new findings in psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology cast human nature in a radically different light: as the supreme altruists and cooperators. He shows how we can build on these findings to create a new politics: a ‘politics of belonging’. Both democracy and economic life can be radically reorganized from the bottom up, enabling us to take back control and overthrow the forces that have thwarted our ambitions for a better society." (http://www.monbiot.com/2017/08/01/out-of-the-wreckage-2/)


Excerpted from a Truthout interview conducted by Mark Karlin:

* Implicit and explicit in your book is the contention that people are by nature altruistic and communal. Given the current triumph of the rugged individualism narratives in most developed and extracting nations, what evidence underlies your contention that we inherently are part of a belonging society?

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a remarkable convergence of findings in neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and evolutionary biology. They all point to the fact that humankind, as an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology puts it, is "spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals" in our degree of altruism. There's a list of references to scientific papers on this subject in Out of the Wreckage.

We also have an astonishing capacity for empathy, and a tendency toward cooperation that is rivaled among mammals only by the naked mole rat. These tendencies are innate. We evolved in the African savannahs: a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks. We survived despite being weaker and slower than both our potential predators and most of our prey. We did so through developing, to an extraordinary degree, a capacity for mutual aid. As it was essential to our survival, this urge to cooperate was hard-wired into our brains through natural selection.

We do not need to change human nature, we need to reveal it.

But the great tragedy we confront is that this extraordinary good nature has been hidden from us, partly by our own perceptions. We have an inherent tendency to look out for danger. The violent and destructive behavior of the few is more salient in our minds than the altruistic and cooperative behavior of the many.

Of course, in any nation, there are people who do not share the general tendency toward altruism and empathy.... Unfortunately, they are disproportionately represented at the top levels of government and business. The current US president is a good example. We see them, and the way they behave, and tell ourselves that this is what human beings are like. It is not. It is what 1 percent of human beings are like.

But the other reason for this tragedy of misperception is that we are immersed in a virulent ideology of extreme individualism and competition, which tells us, against all the scientific evidence, that our dominant characteristics are selfishness and greed, and that this is a good thing, as it stimulates enterprise, which produces wealth, which will somehow trickle down to enrich everyone. This is the central ideology of neoliberalism, which valorizes and centralizes our worst tendencies, and celebrates the inequality and domination that results. One of our principal tasks is to replace this false story with what the science tells us about who we really are. We do not need to change human nature, we need to reveal it.

* What is the difference between provision of services by the state and the role of robust communities?

I do not want to dismiss the importance of state provision. It remains crucial. The character of a society is determined by whether or not the state provides good public services and a robust social safety net. When governments fail to defend their people in this way, insecurity and precarity rule, and society as a whole becomes harsher and more susceptible to fear, hatred and reaction. But we make a mistake if we imagine that we can leave everything to government alone.

The problem with relying only on government is that it contributes to alienation. The state delivers services from on high and tends to push people into silos to ensure they receive the right provision. Alongside other alienating forces, it can undermine social cohesion and the sense of belonging, if it is not balanced by community action. It can also leave us feeling dependent and highly vulnerable to budget cuts. In fact, many people now suffer the worst of both worlds: mutual aid and self-reliance were eroded by the necessity of state provision, but now that state provision is being withdrawn, leaving people with neither.

So, we need, in pursuit of the new vision I'm seeking to promote, what I call the "Politics of Belonging" to revive community life. There are two ways of doing so that interest me.

The first is the development of a rich participatory culture: community projects designed to bring in as many people as possible, some of which will require very little commitment or skill, which gradually proliferate into what practitioners call "thick networks." There are some spectacular examples, like the movement in Rotterdam that began by turning a disused Turkish bath house into a public reading room, and ended up spawning 1,300 projects and community enterprises. Eventually, you reach a tipping point, at which community participation becomes the norm rather than the exception, and so many social enterprises, cooperatives and other community businesses are formed that they begin to comprise a major part of the local economy.

The second is the reclamation of the commons, one of the four great sectors of the economy that we always forget. (Our debates tend to focus on only two: the state and the market, neglecting both the commons and the household). The commons [are] resources owned, managed and shared equally by a community. It has been relentlessly attacked by both state and market. I believe that the restoration of the commons is crucial for the restoration of community, democracy, a sense of belonging and the living world. It is the commons that makes sense of community. In the book, I give examples of what this means and how the restoration can take place.

* What is your answer to an individual who asks, "How do I begin to step into this new story of communal belonging?

I believe that the Big Organizing models developed by the Sanders campaign in the US and the Corbyn/Momentum campaign in the UK provide a thrilling template for how we can change politics at the national level. The technique is in its infancy, and its use in both campaigns was experimental. But in both cases, from a standing start and under highly inauspicious circumstances, these models gave the candidates a real chance of gaining power.

Since then, the techniques have been developed and refined, and it's not going to be long before we see a series of spectacular wins by genuinely progressive candidates on the back of this model. But it can also be deployed, especially in conjunction with the very useful tactics developed by the Indivisible movement, in pursuit of specific campaigns. I feel we are only just beginning to see what proliferating networks of volunteers using digital technology as well as direct human contact can now achieve. If we get this right, it is my belief that we will become unstoppable." (http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/42340-george-monbiot-we-need-a-new-political-story-of-empathy-and-sharing-to-replace-neoliberalism)


George Monbiot:

Without a new, guiding story of their own, allowing them to look to a better future rather than a better past, it was inevitable that parties who once sought to resist the power of the wealthy elite would lose their sense of direction. Political renewal depends on a new political story. Without a new story that is positive and propositional, rather than reactive and oppositional, nothing changes. With such a story, everything changes.

The narrative we build has to be simple and intelligible. If it is to transform our politics, it should appeal to as many people as possible, crossing traditional political lines. It should resonate with deep needs and desires. It should explain the mess we are in and the means by which we might escape it. And, because there is nothing to be gained from spreading falsehoods, it must be firmly grounded in reality.

This might sound like a tall order. But there is, I believe, a clear and compelling Restoration Story to be told that fits this description.

Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are, in the words of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, “spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals”. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

We are also, among mammals, the supreme cooperators. We survived the rigours of the African savannahs, despite being weaker and slower than our predators and most of our prey, through developing a remarkable capacity for mutual aid. This urge to cooperate has been hard-wired into our brains through natural selection. Our tendencies towards altruism and cooperation are the central, crucial facts about humankind. But something has gone horribly wrong.

Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but perhaps the most powerful is the dominant political narrative of our times. We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. The story of our competitive, self-maximising nature has been told so often and with such persuasive power that we have accepted it as an account of who we really are. It has changed our perception of ourselves. Our perceptions, in turn, change the way we behave.

With the help of this ideology, and the neoliberal narrative used to project it, we have lost our common purpose. This leads in turn to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change, frustrating our potential to do what humans do best: to find common ground in confronting our predicaments, and to unite to overcome them. Our atomisation has allowed intolerant and violent forces to fill the political vacuum. We are trapped in a vicious circle of alienation and reaction. The hypersocial mammal is falling apart.

But by coming together to revive community life we, the heroes of this story, can break the vicious circle. Through invoking our capacity for togetherness and belonging, we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid. By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can restore the best aspects of our nature.

Where there is atomisation, we will create a thriving civic life. Where there is alienation, we will forge a new sense of belonging: to neighbours, neighbourhood and society. Community projects will proliferate into a vibrant participatory culture. New social enterprises will strengthen our sense of attachment and ownership.

Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we will develop a new economics that treats both people and planet with respect. We will build it around a great, neglected economic sphere: the commons. Local resources will be owned and managed by communities, ensuring that wealth is widely shared. Using common riches to fund universal benefits will supplement state provision, granting everyone security and resilience.

Where we are ignored and exploited, we will revive democracy and retrieve politics from those who have captured it. New methods and rules for elections will ensure that every vote counts and financial power can never vanquish political power. Representative democracy will be reinforced by participatory democracy that allows us to refine our political choices. Decision-making will be returned to the smallest political units that can discharge it.

The strong, embedded cultures we develop will be robust enough to accommodate social diversity of all kinds: a diversity of people, of origins, of life experiences, of ideas and ways of living. We will no longer need to fear people who differ from ourselves; we will have the strength and confidence to reject attempts to channel hatred towards them.

Through restoring community, renewing civic life and claiming our place in the world, we build a society in which our extraordinary nature – our altruism, empathy and deep connection – is released. A kinder world stimulates and normalises our kinder values. I propose a name for this story: the Politics of Belonging.

Some of this can begin without waiting for a change of government: one of the virtues of a politics rooted in community is that you do not need a national movement in order to begin. But other aspects of this programme depend on wider political change. This too might sound like an improbable hope – until you begin to explore some of the remarkable things that have been happening in the United States.

The Big Organising model developed by the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee is potentially transformative. Rather than relying on big spending, big data and a big staff, it uses proliferating networks of volunteers, who train and supervise more volunteers, to carry out the tasks usually reserved for staff. While Hillary Clinton’s campaign was organising money, the Sanders campaign was organising people. By the end of the nomination process, more than 100,000 people had been recruited. Between them, they ran 100,000 events and spoke to 75 million voters.

His bid for the nomination was a giant live experiment, most of whose methods were developed on the job. Those who ran it report that by the time they stumbled across the strategy that almost won, it was too late. Had it been activated a few months earlier, the volunteer network could have abandoned all forms of targeting and contacted almost every adult in the US. If the techniques they developed were used from the outset, they could radically alter the prospects of any campaign for a better world.

When, after reading a book by two of Sanders’s organisers, I argued in a video for the Guardian that this method could be used to transform the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, I was widely mocked. But it turned out to be true. By adopting elements of the Sanders strategy, Labour, supported by Momentum, almost won an election that was largely predicted to be a Conservative landslide. And the method that propelled this shift is still in its infancy.

I believe it could become still more powerful when combined with some of the techniques identified by former Congressional staffers in the “Indivisible guide to influencing members of Congress”, an online “practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda”. These people studied the methods developed by the Tea Party movement and extracted the crucial lessons. They discovered that the key is to use local meetings with representatives to press home a single demand, film and share their responses on social media, then steadily escalate the pressure.

The Tea Party honed this technique until its requests became almost impossible to resist. The same thing can be done, though without the harassment to which that movement sometimes resorted. Supported by the Big Organising model, using its proliferating phone-bank teams and doorstep canvassing, the Indivisible methods could, I believe, be used to flip political outcomes in any nation that claims to be a democracy.

But none of this will generate meaningful and lasting change unless it is used to support a new, coherent political narrative.

Those who want a kinder politics know we have, in theory at least, the numbers on our side. Most people are socially minded, empathetic and altruistic. Most people would prefer to live in a world in which everyone is treated with respect and decency, and in which we do not squander either our own lives or the natural gifts on which we and the rest of the living world depend. But a small handful, using lies and distractions and confusion, stifle this latent desire for change.

We know that if we can mobilise such silent majorities, there is nothing this small minority can do to stop us. But because we have failed to understand what is possible, and above all failed to replace our tired political stories with a compelling narrative of transformation and restoration, we have failed to realise this potential. As we rekindle our imagination, we discover our power to act. And that is the point at which we become unstoppable.


Richard Douglas:

"While there is much to admire in this book, there are also serious shortcomings – serious in that they relate not just to this book but to an extensive philosophical hinterland. Nowhere is this more the case than in the absence here of any metaphysical or transcendental context for human life. It’s striking, for example, that in all the talk about the need for bottom-up institutions to build a sense of community, Monbiot makes no mention of the role of churches; while his only references to religion are to the secular religion of individualism. His is, indeed, an intensely secular, disillusioned version of the good life: it not only ignores traditional religions, but – in recognition of the environmental limits to growth – denies the modern faith in material progress towards a technological utopia. What, then, are we left with? Despite Monbiot’s rightful recognition of the centrality of narrative, the story of our lives offered here is thin gruel. There is nothing to connect us to explanations in response to the big questions: not least, where do we find a sense of permanence and purpose in lives we know to be mortal?

This lack, both of a metaphysical map on which to place humanity and of faith in intergenerational progress, cramps the moral philosophy at work here. Monbiot offers us a kind of virtue ethics in which the human virtues are empathy and altruism. It is to his great credit that he treats these with the seriousness they deserve, it being all to easy to damn them with the faint praise of just “being nice”. But still, they hardly exhaust the human virtues: what about man as a creative, thinking, achieving being – one who does not just relate to his or her fellows in the here and now, but seeks to make sense of existence, realise ideas in practice, give one’s life to something or for someone? Humans are, uniquely, thinking beings who are aware of their own mortality. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, this makes permanence into an urgent task, giving rise to culture as a “huge and never stopping factory of permanence.”

Excluding religion and culture from the human essence, the human stage is reduced to the domestic sphere, the good life narrowed to the considerate conduct of the individual in their local time and place. Monbiot’s stated aim is to supplant Homo Economicus with Homo Empatheticus. But while this sounds like a profound change, one is just the flipside of the other (in much the same way, we might say, as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is the flipside of The Wealth of Nations). Certainly, one is altruistic, the other selfish; but both are equally private, self-contained individuals. Both are economic in the Aristotelian sense, of the self as pertaining to the private household rather than the public stage.

Monbiot’s unwitting commitment to individualism causes him serious problems when he considers the role of community within the good life. Having identified empathy as the essence of humanity, he sees the implication that one must be embedded within a community in order to be fully human. Straightaway, however, he registers a protest: the last thing he wants is to live in the kind of “drab conformity” that characterised the “thick” sense of community that used to obtain in the old days. Tellingly, he misidentifies the “thick” sense of community of Britain in the 1950s as being a product of the top-down welfare state, in the process revealing his animus against all conventional forms of collectivism, whether administered through state bureaucracies or embodied in social roles and conventions. Indeed, as he makes clear, the communities he values are those “vibrant” with individual agency. And here we have it: this is community as a network of liberal individuals, each free to enjoy their own lifestyle however they see fit, the glue that binds them being an empathetic respect for the sovereign individuality of each other.

To be fair to this vision, any such empathetic respect for individual difference must involve identifying oneself with others, and thus implies the discovery – even if weakly developed – of a shared common identity on some level. And Monbiot rightly identifies that this sense of identifying with others can be built up, through local projects which bring people together. Unfortunately, in keeping with the subjectivist persona of Homo Economics/Empatheticus, he overlooks the essential “project” which is the lifeblood of community: work. Work, that is, in the sense of the efforts and roles necessary to the reproduction of a living community: for what is a community but a collection of people who depend on each other? But far from advocating the reintroduction of meaningful and necessary jobs, Monbiot buys into the “end of work” thesis (incoherently, we might add, since ongoing automation depends on a continued growth in energy use, seemingly quite incompatible with his understanding of environmental limits). Thus the projects he suggests are such artificial concoctions as “World Cafes”, where people sit and eat together, and talk and talk and talk until they all agree on something.

Such problems with community naturally extend to Monbiot’s political vision, and the democratic practices he sees necessary to protect the good life. Here he faces the problem of reconciling individualist agency with the twin needs, both for a political authority to exercise power over society, and (in order that this power be legitimated) for a collective identification with that authority. In keeping with the individualistic temper of his times, Monbiot bridles against representative democracy: in part, one suspects, because it is simply inauthentic, an infringement of one’s sovereign individuality to be represented by someone else (with more power), who necessarily agglomerates one’s interests with other people’s. Above all, however, he is wary of elites manipulating the structures of representative democracy to wield state power for their own neoliberal ends (and with some good reason).

To counter this problem he draws on a panoply of suggestions for supplementing (in practice, circumventing) representative democracy: tranches of MPs to be chosen through sortition rather than election; citizens’ conventions to determine policies the government would be mandated to execute; constant feedback from online forums; lots of binding referendums. Through such means, “The great constitutional question – where should sovereignty reside, in parliament or the people? – [will be] decisively resolved in favour of the people.” Of course, it is hardly as if “the people” would be exempt from the influence of elites of some sort or another. In fact, Monbiot bakes the need for citizens to be influenced into his system: citizens’ conventions must be educated by “expert tutors” and steered by “facilitators”, and the will of the people subject to veto by a constitutional court. Here we recognise the attempt, common to many advocates of direct or deliberative democracy, to reintroduce rule by a technocratic elite by the backdoor. The problem for such theorists is, is it really possible to do so much to undermine respect for political authority, and not undermine intellectual authority at the same time? Having removed the legitimacy of any opinion which elevates itself above the popular will (or the most voluble articulations of it), where are the brakes to stop the whole system careering down the slope to demagoguery and dictatorship?

In the most surprising passage of this book, Monbiot goes beyond such an accidental opening of the door to demagoguery: in his enthusiasm for the possibilities of political transformation he comes close to embracing it himself. In this, he takes his inspiration from the zeal displayed by volunteers on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Presenting accounts of barnstorming events that hint at the atmosphere and form of evangelical meetings, he senses that the Sanders campaign has discovered both a powerful thirst for reform and a template for mobilising it effectively. Refining this template, Monbiot imagines movements based around rallies in which “the energiser” whips the crowd into a frenzy, before leading them in an anthem and directing them towards their next tasks. The frankly sinister overtones of such an image are thankfully undercut by the comfortingly British suggestion that candidates for role of “energiser” could be found from among the ranks of “DJs, motivational coaches, fitness instructors, bingo callers, sports commentators, auctioneers and chat show hosts.”

Be that as it may, how does Monbiot, the arch-valuer of individual conscience, get to the point where he imagines losing himself in a crowd, unified in the persona of a charismatic leader, and directed under the pressures of moral conformism? To understand this it might be useful to go back to the topic of virtue ethics. Within Monbiot’s virtue ethics, we recall, human beings are naturally good; we just need to understand this, to see who we really are, and we will necessarily be good people. In practice, his picture of humanity is less universalistic than this. While “we” are good, many of “us” have been manipulated into forgetting this by “elites”. This implies three classes of humans: the Awakened, who realise their true natures and are thus naturally good; the Duped, who have been tricked into forgetting their true natures and thus are good, but only as the potentially Awakened; and the Elites, who do not appear on the map of humanity at all. This contrasts with what we might call the proper form of a virtue ethics, which applies equally to all human beings, but does not say that any are innately good: rather, it describes the ideal of a human being, and thus sets out the attributes for us all to seek to live up to in order to be a good person. In this light, we might understand the conception of the Awakened to belong less to the framework of a virtue ethics, and to be more akin to the idea of a spiritual elect – virtue in this case to be the recognition that one is already virtuous. Within religious movements, it is necessary for there to be a group of such people in order to establish this status as a category to belong to (as well as a category of the wicked or damned to define oneself against). Hence, perhaps, Monbiot’s identification with an anonymous mass of likeminded others. Perhaps what this most illustrates is simply that, caught between liberal individualism and universal disillusionment, life becomes unbearably lonely: the longing for belonging rushes in.

For all of its flaws, Out of the Wreckage has some great strengths: above all its positive tone and economic style. It succeeds, where so many environmentalist texts fail, in inspiring confidence in our collective potential to achieve political transformation. Even its dicing with demagoguery is based on a positive vision of human nature, a welcome contrast to the prevailing anti-humanism which colours most of the theoretical literature on the Anthropocene. It will be directly relevant to anyone with an interest in realising a vision of sustainable prosperity. What it highlights – its flaws above all – is the dependence of such hopes on developing a political philosophy, based on an understanding of what it is to be human." (https://www.cusp.ac.uk/themes/m/rd_out-of-wreckage-review/)

More Information