Once upon a time, planet Earth’s inhabitants faced a multi-pronged crisis, so frightening and sad that many people could scarcely bring themselves to think about it, let alone act: climate breakdown was underway, and land use and agricultural systems had driven biodiversity to collapse. Inequality was soaring, and this gap between rich and poor both exacerbated the causes of environmental destruction, and hampered people’s ability to respond. Meanwhile, a strange and wicked beast called ‘neoliberalism’ sprinkled its toxic ideas over the land like an invisible dust, hypnotising an already down-trodden people into a belief that politics was pointless, and that society could only change through the economics of ‘the market’. Earth’s inhabitants were indeed in a tight spot (some tighter than others), and catastrophe loomed. Despair was rife; some had already given up. But then, in the final hour, something amazing happened…..
This was the story that the journalist and campaigner George Monbiot came to tell us in a packed lecture hall at Swansea University on Thursday night, except he didn’t leave us on a rubbish cliffhanger. Instead, he perched before us on the stage and, without notes or slides, earnestly described a way out of this wreckage with a captivating story of community, democracy, and people power.
But surely some comforting tales are the last thing we need in these most disastrous of times? Not so, believes Monbiot. No big political change has ever happened without a compelling narrative to sweep people along with it. The world is a terrifyingly (or beautifully, depending on how you look at it) complex place, and it is impossible to make sense of unless we have a way to structure this complexity around a coherent narrative about who we are, where we are, how we got here, and where we are going. The big problem now, as Monbiot pointed out, is that the old story of neoliberalism is a dead story walking. It died in 2008 when the financial crash, coupled with increasingly dire environmental warnings, exposed the deep flaws in neoliberal logic. And yet its toxic dust still hangs in the air because no other compelling story has yet taken its place. New stories have begun to proliferate in the cracks of neoliberalism, but they aren’t all pretty. Fascism offers its own irresistible cocktail of plots and characters to quench people’s thirst for a meaningful story – we only need to look as far as the likes of Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, and the rise of the far right, to understand this.
We need a story that can light a path to a better future, not just moderate the slightly shitty situation we have now
It is clear that we need a new story – one that, as Monbiot put it, can light a path to a better future, not just moderate the slightly shitty situation we have now. Crucially, whatever this story is (and in contrast to many previous versions of socialism), it cannot be based on a model of continuous economic growth, because that is physically, chemically, biologically and morally impossible on a finite planet.
So, what might this new story be? The good news, it seems, is that the plot is a tried and tested one, guaranteed to get bums on seats (and out in the streets) … it goes a little something like this (you might recognise it): “heroes confront and overthrow evil forces and restore life on earth”. So far so Star Wars, but what about the content? This is where Monbiot’s years of experience as a researcher and journalist really showed. By carefully compiling evidence of what really works to dismantle structural neoliberalism, he laid out four interlinked chapters of a heroes’ revolt:
1. Strengthen our geographical communities (and not in a racist, xenophobic way)
Recently, the notion of ‘strong communities’ has fallen into the hands of the far right, increasingly synonymous with exclusivity and racism, and predicated on keeping ‘others’ out. As a recent editorial by the Dark Mountain project asks, ‘how do we celebrate belonging when ugly nativism is on the rise across the world, twisting a love of land into exclusion and division?’ And yet feeling that we belong is vital, not only for our own well-being but also as an urgent political task. When communities are atomised and people are lonely, the story of fascism gets a foot in the door, offering people a sense of belonging in the form of a shared ideology.
A new story needs to include a re-invention of the idea of community, based on inclusivity and sharing. The ways that we can do this are many, and those that are particularly successful are ones that create a common interest and which, as a recent report on participatory culture shows, are relatively ‘low threshold and low commitment’. This means activities which don’t require a particularly brave leap to get involved, or huge amounts of time and energy to sustain. Like eating, for example. The etymology of ‘companionship’ is ‘com – panis‘ – ‘with bread’. Eating together is one of the best ways of galvanising a sense of community, regardless of race, age, gender, or class. Street parties, food festivals, and sharing cooking are all ways of doing this. Other shared activities can also provide catalysts for community participation: from childcare to cider presses, garden tools to bulk buying food, people are increasingly recognising the benefits and joys of sharing responsibilities and resources with their neighbours.
2. Build a participatory political culture (see Iceland for details)
People ought to be given the power to temper a government’s decisions throughout its term; electing it into power based on one set of issues should not give it free rein to make decisions on an entirely different set of issues. The Better Reykjavik project, for example, does this by providing an online platform for city residents to suggest and vote on ideas to improve their city. Each month, the City Council processes and votes on the most popular 10-15 ideas, and any rejections must be accompanied by a very detailed justification. To date, nearly two-thirds of Reykjavik’s population have participated and the city is increasingly designed for its people, by its people.
3. Participatory economics and economic democracy
Alongside participatory politics, people need to be given control of the budgets that influence their lives. When people are treated like intelligent adults and are handed the purse strings in a democratic fashion, they respond by allocating resources far more effectively amongst their communities, and consequently human and environmental well-being improve.
At an even more fundamental level though, there is a need to re-imagine what the economy is. We tend to think of the economy on a left-to-right axis: ‘The State’ on the left, and ‘The Market’ on the right. But this ignores two realms which are central to how economies function. The first is the household – all the unpaid work that goes on behind closed doors, still carried out largely by women. As long as this work is undervalued, so too are women. When Adam Smith (18th century father of free market economics) talked of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ keeping our lives ticking over, he might more accurately have acknowledged the ‘invisible hand’ of his mother, who cooked his dinner every night throughout most of his adult life.
The second invisible realm that needs to be brought into the spotlight is the notion of the Commons. Commons are cultural and environmental resources, accessible and governed by all members of society. A commons cannot be bought or sold and, as such, it is in a community’s interest to sustain it. Positioning commons (rather than profit and growth) as a central tenet of economics would therefore be inherently more compatible with an ecological vision. This is a tall order: one fundamental commons, land, has been siphoned off into private ownership to such a degree, in the UK as with elsewhere, that it is difficult to know where to start. And yet there are places that we can start (for example, here and here), and from these we can learn and build.
4. Big Organising
The linchpin of the new story, Monbiot urged, is Big Organising. And although all the other elements – galvanising community, participatory politics, and democratising economy – are vital in their own right, Big Organising is what can make it all go viral. Big Organising makes the seemingly impossible, possible: it is, after all, what propelled a virtually unheard of and unfunded Bernie Sanders to within a hair’s breadth of becoming the Democratic candidate in the 2016 US presidential elections. It is what, in a similar fashion, created the conditions for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, backed by the Momentum movement, to deprive the Conservatives of a majority in the 2017 UK general elections. Both these movements relied almost exclusively on the passion, dedication and expertise of volunteers who had been asked ‘to do something big to win something big’, and became virtually unstoppable as a result. The proven might of Big Organising offers a glimmer of hope that power need not be tied to corporate wealth, and it should compel us to politely but firmly tell the neoliberal monster under the bed – who wants us to believe the story that politics is dead – to piss off.
Monbiot’s story of strengthened communities, decentralised decision-making and shared commons coupled with collective political will is, indeed, hard to resist. There are, as always, many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that could be levelled at this kind of utopian vision, and each element needs the other in order to succeed. But, importantly, this is not necessarily a pipe dream – all the elements that Monbiot described for transforming the world as we know it are already happening, somewhere and in some form. At the very least, this ought to make despair untenable. At the very best, it provides us with ideas, inspiration, support and know-how for growing the movement. As the writer William Gibson has put it, the future is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed. It’s up to us all to identify the futures we want, and to weave them into our thoughts, conversations and actions until we have a story that really is impossible to put down.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Jeffrey Rogers of Swansea Labour Left for organising the event, and to George Monbiot – for the thought-provoking talk, and particularly for the innovative post-lecture discussion!