British writer and columnist, George Monbiot, has recently published an important book about national and global politics and the need for radical, cultural and political transformation. Entitled “Out of the wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis”, the book boldly tackles economics, environmental threats, widespread voter alienation and the political corruption that pervades modern democracies. The author offers a new narrative to replace neoliberalism, which he considers responsible for many of the crises that now confront humans everywhere.
Central to Monbiot’s critique of neoliberal ideology is his rejection of the idea that people are simply self-centred, acquisitive, individualistic and competitive beings. He recognizes that the neoliberal narrative has greatly reinforced those attributes and contributed to widespread loneliness and social alienation. But he cites evidence that humans are also incredibly altruistic, generous, loving, empathetic and unique co-operators, and that the new story must build on these attributes and cease promoting a culture of consumption and self-aggrandizement.
Global preoccupation with markets, economic growth and government minimalism, that ignores or downplays the consequences of wealth and income inequality and environmental damage, is threatening the viability of human civilisation.
This narrative which has dominated human culture everywhere for four decades and has been adopted by political parties on both the left and the right, has persisted through and in spite of the disastrous global financial crisis of 2008. The author believes it has persisted, because a compelling alternative narrative that addresses current problems was not available to displace it at the time. Representative democracy in its present form has been corrupted in most places by the needs, interests and dictates of international corporations and the super rich, who have systematically entrenched their control over political processes and will not surrender it lightly.
But he claims that the two surprisingly successful campaigns of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US Democratic Primary race and of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 UK election, offer a lesson in the kind of political campaign that can activate the electorate, including young voters, and restore ownership of democratic ideas to the community. Personal engagement by volunteers with every voter about the new story that motivates the candidate is central to the “Big Organising” approach that lifted both these candidates from obscurity to unexpected near-victory.
Monbiot’s new story is called “The Politics of Belonging”. It places the well-being of all humans, and the ecosystems on which all life depends, as the central focus of the economy and public policy. He thinks that a flourishing human future will result from a new emphasis on community collaboration, equity, empowerment of families and neighbourhood groups, as well as the development of new measures of human progress, to replace our spurious dependence on growth in the Gross Domestic Product.
The new story seeks an approach to “the commons”, which are the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including air, fresh and sea water and habitable land. In the ideal world these resources might all be held in common and managed for collective rather than individual benefit. But much of the commons is currently owned and managed privately for profit; some is managed by the state and much is not really managed at all. Monbiot argues strongly for long term reform of land ownership while recognizing that for now there are commons that are currently owned and “managed” by the state that would be better managed by local communities.
So, how realistic is all of this and how relevant to Australians is Monbiot’s politics of belonging? Continuing with “business as usual” driven by the neoliberal narrative is seen by millions of thoughtful people around the world to be guaranteeing a catastrophic human future. But displacement of the current narrative by a new one will require an enormous effort and a huge army of advocates for this new story. Monbiot is certainly not alone in recognizing that without a compelling new one, the neoliberal story will persist.
I, for one, am persuaded that the politics of belonging might rescue our species. But there is no time to lose.
Bob Douglas is a former ANU Public Health Academic, a Director of Australia21
(www.australia21.org.au ) and a committee member of The Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy ( www.canberra-alliance.org.au)