At a launch of his new book Out of the Wreckage, jointly organised by the Five Leaves Bookshop and the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at Nottingham University, George Monbiot reflected on the possibilities for a new politics in an age of crisis. In this blog post, I will discuss some of the points he made during his presentation.
It is big narratives, he argued, which decisively shape reality as a generally accepted common sense. ‘Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals’ (Monbiot 2017). While Keynesianism ruled supreme in the so-called ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ after World War Two, neo-liberal economics has taken over as new master narrative from the late 1970s onwards. The global financial crisis of 2007/2008, however, has made clear that neo-liberalism does not work. And it does not only not work economically for people around the world, it also has moved our planet to the brink of collapse as a result of environmental destruction, an ‘apparently inexorable slide towards climate breakdown’ (Monbiot 2017). How can we not despair in such a situation?
A return to Keynesianism is impossible, Monbiot pointed out. Partly because politically any return to a previous situation is difficult, partly because national regulatory mechanisms, necessary for a Keynesian economy, have been dismantled by neo-liberalism and partly, and perhaps most importantly, Keynesian economics built on continuing economic growth can provide no answers in view of climate breakdown. Instead, we need a new restoration narrative, Monbiot asserted, allowing us to move beyond neo-liberal economics and Keynesianism alike.
And there is hope, he pointed out. Human beings are not the individualistic, utility-maximising ‘economic man’, economists want us to believe. We are much more prone to altruism, to caring for our fellow human beings. It is on this basis that more generous, inclusive communities can be established, providing a sense of home. ‘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’ (Monbiot 2017). Provided more resources and power are transferred to communities, much more participatory cultures can emerge, which in turn will provide fertile ground for this new type of politics.
To some extent, I am sceptical about the idea that it is grand narratives, which shape the world. There are always material interests behind these narratives, which sustain and disseminate them. Neo-liberal economics is a case in point. When the post-war compromise around Keynesian economics had broken down in the 1970s, capital and here in particular large corporations invested heavily in the dissemination of this new narrative. It is they who have benefitted most from an integrated global economy with production organised on a transnational scale supported by a globally integrated financial market.
Moreover, in my view it is not correct to argue that neo-liberalism does not work. It works perfectly well for the interests of capital underpinning the narrative. While austerity implies misery for countless people in countries such as Greece and the UK, it has facilitated the opening up of public services as profitable investment opportunities for private capital. In other words, any new grand narrative will require a material basis able to contest and confront capitalist interests directly. It is not just narratives, which bring about change, but the social class forces, putting them forward. It is the people who implement and fight for them.
And yet, George Monbiot implicitly acknowledged this inevitable confrontation. It is his emphasis on reviving the commons as a core of the new grand narrative, which directly challenges capitalist private ownership of the means of production. Commons, which are jointly owned and administered by the community to ensure reasonable returns to everyone in a sustainable way, provide a very different understanding of how the economy should be organised. Commons cannot be bought and sold, commons cannot be traded. A move towards the commons will inevitably imply the expropriation of assets, currently held in private ownership.
In short, although not explicitly mentioned in the presentation by Monbiot, there is a clear understanding of the need to challenge capitalist exploitation, and the shift to the commons entails a way of how to bring this about. Wider regime change is possible, he asserted, provided we combine Bernie Sanders’ big organising model with this novel narrative around a new politics based on communities and the commons.
This was a hugely stimulating event, not only because of Monbiot’s excellent talk, but also because of the large number of around 300 people present from all walks of life. It is clear that there is a strong appetite for drastic change. Ultimately, it may be large groups of people like this, who will actively develop the new narrative which allows us to construct a path Out of the Wreckage!
17 November 2017
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net