books politics

Book review: Out of the Wreckage, by George Monbiot

Those familiar with George Monbiot‘s Guardian column will know his usual foes: irresponsible corporations, cowardly politicians and vested interests. In his new book he lines up against something unexpected: alienation.

Modern society is atomised, he argues. We are encouraged to see ourselves as heroic individuals, forging our own way in the world. We’re supposed to be competing, pushing ourselves forward, taking all we can. “Our tendency is to stop seeing ourselves as people striving together to overcome our common problems, and to view ourselves instead as people striving against each other to overcome our individual problems.”

This is a view of humanity shaped by neoliberalism, argues Monbiot. It’s a philosophy based on competition and individualism, treating everything as a market. But we humans aren’t really like that. We’re capable of altruism – the only animal that is, to all intents and purposes.

Aggressive consumer capitalism tells us a story about ourselves that doesn’t reflect who we really are. It incentivises our most selfish instincts, and inevitably that has led to a society wracked by loneliness, disillusionment and mental illness. At the same time, it has undermined our ability to cooperate to solve our biggest problems. Democracy atrophies, and climate breakdown looms.

The neoliberal meaning story can only be countered with another story, “a story of hope and transformation that tells us who we are.” Monbiot has one. He proposes that “by confronting the politics of alienation with a politics of belonging, we rekindle our imagination and discover our power to act.” A politics of belonging starts with local action, with community projects that demonstrate togetherness, mutual support and civic engagement.

That local action is supported by wider changes including a revitalised democracy based on participative budgeting, a more proportional Parliament (STV, for those who want to know). He argues for land value taxation, and eroding consumerism through ‘public luxury’ – why would we need to consume so much individually if we had access to world class parks, museums and amenities?  Finally, he discusses how we might actually be able to vote in that kind of radical change, drawing on the ‘big organising’ behind the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The book also features Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, using her ideas as a starting point for a sustainable economy.

On reading through Out of the Wreckage, all of those aforementioned irresponsible corporations, cowardly politicians and vested interests are there. But what the book does is sketch out a new story that draws them all together, and describes a better way of seeing ourselves. It’s an inspiring story that unlocks the possibility of real change. And because it’s based on local action that fosters a sense of belonging and trust, it begins right where you are.

13 comments

  1. Many of us are of course already acting locally. What we need is a phrase, perhaps a short paragragh, that sums up Monbiot’s point and which we can all use, thus showing all our little efforts are part of one larger whole.

  2. Neoliberalism comes from Calvinism and that too has its roots in earlier thinking, since Calvinism is in part product of Western Catholicism, part a reaction against it, and part a survival of Manichean thinking.

  3. I did raise with you how many environmental groups also contribute to this emphasis on personal responsibility and treating the downstream symptom rather than the cause. This is a systemic problem as well.

    1. Absolutely, and it’s much easier to give people a list of personal actions than to do the hard work of community engagement. There’s no substitute for meeting people, going door to door, building relationships. And that always take long term commitment and a big volunteer force that most groups can’t rally.

      1. I still wonder if localization and grassroots community actions will be enough if the establishment has business as usual. They will resort to some diversion or scapegoat as they always do. At least in the UK you have Labor but one wonders how much they will be allowed to achieve if the market turns on them?

        1. That’s true, and I am sceptical of those who pin everything on localisation. What I like about Monbiot’s book is that it shows how grassroots projects can build the democratic structures that would be able to influence things on a bigger scale. And I’m with you on Labour. I don’t think they have sufficient unity to bring in radical changes. But if they were to act on previous promises and fix the electoral system, it might open a door for something more progressive in future. Whichever way you look at it, it will take decades.

          1. You guys still have 1st past the post? Changing that would help. I really like sortition and people’s assemblies and I’m not sure it will take decades if it all falls in a heap, things might change fast. & it would be a shame if it happened on Labours watch and it was somehow blamed on them. Which we know full well that is what the mainstream media will say so it goes without saying growth in alternative media is essential.

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