George Monbiot: How we get out of the wreckage caused by neoliberalism

The Independent's Kirsty Major speaks with writer George Monbiot at Momentum’s World Transformed festival to figure out exactly how we get out of the mess created by neoliberalism and whether Labour is going far enough

Kirsty Major
Friday 06 October 2017 11:43
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George Monbiot at The World Transformed: "I felt hope on June 8th"

If there is one thing that most people – no matter their political persuasion – can agree with, it is that we are in a pickle. We’re facing problems caused by wealth that never seems to trickle down, no matter how many times we are told that it will get to us eventually; a professionalised political system, filled with MPs whose legitimacy is tautological (they are in power because they are suited to power); neighbourhoods that are anything but neighbourly, and an environmental system that is turning against us after years of abuse.

The majority of us can just about muster the energy to let out a sigh and mutter, “I don’t know, something has to give though.” That is, unless, you are George Monbiot, who has been carving out an escape route for us all in his new book, Out of the Wreckage: Politics for an Age of Crisis.

I met Monbiot at Momentum’s World Transformed festival – the physical expression of the ideas set out in his book – to talk about how much more radical Labour needs to become if they want to truly bring change to the UK.

In your book you say that politics has been explained using two stories: neoliberalism and social democracy. Since we’re here at The World Transformed, with Labour Conference around the corner, can you explain how Labour and Momentum fit into these narratives?

The social democratic story is basically the Keynesian story that says an economic elite grabbed all of the resources and the power, and was allowed to do so through the laissez-faire economics of the Victorian age, and it was a disaster with the depression, mass unemployment and mass destruction of wealth.

John Maynard Keynes came up with a proposal for a fairer economy, in which a paternal state would raise taxes and use those to create a real social safety net. To create vibrant public services, so that no one would be allowed to fall through the cracks and money would be recirculated, which would then be used to buy stuff and create growth. The story was that the land fell into disorder because of the economic elite and the heroes – the working and middle class – were able to bring order back to the land.

The neoliberal story is the opposite. The overwhelming power of the state has crushed individualism and crushed freedom and will lead to totalitarianism. What we need is neoliberalism, and we achieve this by freeing the market from regulation and tax, and the entrepreneurs will be the heroes of the story and they will save us.

What is interesting about these stories is that they have different conclusions, but the same narrative. They are both variants of what I call the ‘Restoration Story’: disorder is caused by nefarious forces until heroes overthrow those forces and restore order.

This is a crucial political narrative structure which our minds seem innately prepared for. We are creatures of story. What we look for when we try to understand the world is a coherent story; facts and figures are kind of irrelevant.

The problem we face today is that we have no new story; both of these stories ran into trouble. The Keynesian one ran into trouble in the Seventies – some external, some internal to the model. It is hard to see how we avoid those problems happening again.

There’s also a much bigger problem associated with it: the model, like neoliberalism, depends on growth. It is about stimulating consumer demand, getting people to spend more when there is a dip in economic activity, and that gets you out of trouble in a recession, but that demands actual growth, on a finite planet. The approach, commendable as it is in many ways, runs head on into the environmental crisis.

The neoliberal story collapsed spectacularly in 2008, when all the nostrums of the self-regulating market and the heroic entrepreneur who could head off into the sunset without any constraints, and all the wealth would trickle down and everyone would live happily ever after – that fell apart, but it is still with us.

The contest is still between these two clapped out models, because we haven’t come up with a new story. It seems to be that there is a crucial need to create a new Restoration Story that will once more transform politics and provide us with a way forward.

This idea of stories can be applied to the UK right now. During the election, Labour’s critics evoked the 1970s financial crisis and the failure of social democracy. Corbyn’s defenders didn’t have a narrative to counter that. How do you see the Labour leader’s project fitting into your new ‘Restoration Story’?

The hopeful side of it is that this is a political movement which is open to argument. The frustration during the New Labour years was trying to get new ideas into the public domain and being met with a brick wall of indifference... As we now see with the incredible World Transformed and the Corbyn movement, people are ready to hear new ideas.

The less positive side is that they are not there yet. What we are seeing is a retreading of the same old Keynesian social democratic project. It is hard to see how that is going to work in the 21st century – partly because of the environmental crisis that it has nothing to say about.

Corbyn and McDonnell talk about stimulating the economy through a Keynesian proposal of putting spending back through the public sector, and then they talk about the environmental crisis and there’s no attempt to integrate those two strands of thinking – that’s because they don’t integrate. They repel each other, like two magnets pushing each other apart. It is clear we need a new story. I’m not sure if Labour is ready, but in time hopefully it will be.

But these radical conversations are happening – they are just happening here at The World Transformed festival, not at Labour conference. And these ideas are pushing the party from the left. Do you feel like this is happening?

Yes, the World Transformed does tap into the party, and conference looks traditional and stodgy by comparison – you have all this exciting stuff happening here and it’s not on the outer edges. The margin is pulling the centre toward it... but there is a long way to go.

Speaking of a long way to go there, is a chapter in your book about ‘Big Organising’ – a concept created by Becky Bond and Zack Exley, who were involved in the Sanders campaign. It’s the idea that if you give volunteers something big to do, trust them, then they will do it and this is how you make change. Do you think Momentum is doing the ‘Big Organising’ over here in the UK?

It is very much an example of ‘Big Organising’. There are two main parts to it: one is a massive proliferating spontaneous network of volunteers, with some guidance from the centre. The Sanders campaign recruited one hundred thousand volunteers, organising one hundred thousand events, speaking to 75 million Americans. That is truly big organising.

But in order for that to happen, you need the second element of Big Organising, and that is Big Objectives. If you say, “We are Big Organising, so that we can have a little bit of triangulation there, nipping and tucking, and it is not going to be the quite the same austerity programme as the Conservatives have got,” you are not going to get anywhere.

People aren’t going to commit their time and effort to pursuing those pathetic objectives. When you have big objectives that are worth fighting for, then you mobilise this incredible enthusiasm of the kind we are seeing here at The World Transformed. But you need that big vision to stimulate that.

On the topic of visions, the Labour manifesto put people's immediate concerns at its heart – for example, how to manage if you are precarious worker. But of course, soon, the environment will be our biggest concern. But for some reason this isn’t at the fore of our minds. How do you change that narrative?

You can’t pick these problems off one by one and treat them individually, which is why we need a big new holistic narrative in which all of those things are embedded.

One interesting set piece for this idea was your discussion on housing in your book, and the idea of a ‘land rent’.

Part of this story is recognising that there are four parts to our economy – not just the state and the market, but also the household and the commons (meaning the land, sea, sky). By ignoring the commons, both the state and private enterprise just grab as much of our common wealth as they want, and stuff it in their pockets. This has devastating consequences for community and for the living world. And what we need to do as one of our urgent priorities is to bring back the commons.

When it comes to the issue that you raise, land, which is just one example of this, the objective should be eventually to put people back in charge of the land on which they depend, including the land where their houses are.

This starts with a rent that landlords should pay. Actually, they have nicked this land off us – they didn’t invent it, they just grabbed it and said: “This is ours and you must pay rent for access to it.” It’s a classic rentier economy that we have created, through the enclosure: the seizure of our common resources.

So first of all they should pay this land value taxation or community land contribution, which should be pretty steep: that brings down the price of land significantly by charging a steep fee for owning it. Some of that money would go to the state and Local Authority, but the residue goes to a community land trust.

One of the things it can do with that money is to buy land itself at lower prices, and then it becomes the owner, and it can use the land to make sure the revenue goes to the community – not just the owner who puts it into his pocket never to be seen again. It can either be used to create community investments such as libraries or youth centres, or you can create a dividend that the local community can put towards a basic income.

But that’s part of a bigger story I am trying to tell. And that’s the restoration story.

And before we finish, can you expand on what that story is exactly?

This story is inspired by the remarkable new findings in neuroscience, anthropology, evolutionary biology – by comparison to other species of animals, humans are bizarrely altruistic.

We are constantly told that we are this selfish grasping species, and that everyone wants to grab as much wealth as they can and get everyone else out of the way – and yes, that is how our leaders behave, and Trump is an example of that, and the news is dominated by people doing stuff like that, but what we don’t realise is that these people are highly atypical.

About 1 per cent of the population are psychopaths, who don’t have those capabilities for altruism or empathy: sadly, a lot of them end up in charge. Studies show a massive preponderance of psychopaths in power.

And we allow ourselves to be dominated by that politically and socially, and we begin to reproduce that, but in doing so we ignore all the mundane daily acts of altruism, which if we saw in another species we would be astounded – helping people who are not related to us, or giving money to charity.

There are far more spectacular instances. My Dutch mother-in-law's family, during the Second World War, took in a six year-old Jewish, boy – a complete stranger – and hid him in the house for two years. The next door house was occupied by the local German commandant, with soldiers and officials in the road all the time. If caught, the whole lot would have been sent to Auschwitz. Now that would seem weird if we saw that in any other species, but that’s who we are.

That capacity has been thwarted... by the neoliberal ideology that’s says you are selfish, you are out for your own and that is a good thing. Greed is good. Extreme competition is good. Extreme individualism is good. We absorb that, believe it and accept it, but that is not who we are. And our task is not to change human nature, but to reveal human nature for what it really is.

We do this by rebuilding community, and rebuilding political life, and you have to do that from the top as well as from the bottom. There is so much you can do at the community level, creating this participatory culture, by creating thick networks of community projects – like bringing in the commons which make sense of community. A community has an economic presence: an economic reason to sustain itself, and a way of sustaining its own members.

We need to transform politics, to get the money out of it, the ridiculous voting system changed and temper that with participation – but we do so in that overarching narrative, which is to restore our amazing capacity for altruism.

To bring that to the fore and to allow that through community life, through recreating and rebuilding community activism, we create a society that is in us, just waiting to come out – this is the new restoration narrative. We the heroes of this story overthrow the nefarious elite who have caused disorder, through their ridiculous neoliberal ideology, and bring order back to the land, restore order to the land by building community and a politics of belonging.

George Monbiot’s book Out of the Wreckage is published by Verso.

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