Talk Nation Radio: George Monbiot on a New Politics
David Swanson: It is my great privilege to welcome to Talk Nation Radio this week, George Monbiot, who is an author, columnist for the Guardian newspaper, and environmental campaigner. Among his books and projects, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, and Human Live, The Age of Consent, Heat: How to Keep the Planet From Burning, and the concept album, Breaking the Spell of Loneliness. He has made a number of viral videos, one of them, How Wolves Change Rivers, has been watched over 30 million times on YouTube. George’s latest book is, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. George Monbiot, welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
George Monbiot: Thanks very much, Dave.
DS: Thanks for coming on. Very much enjoyed your latest book. You want to replace certain neoliberal assumptions with what you call a new story, which I think is well summarized in your first chapter. Can you give us a summary of the summary?
GM: Yes, well the research I’ve been doing suggests that just about every successful political or religious transformation has made use of a particular story structure, which I call the Restoration Story. It broadly goes along these lines. It says the world or the land has been thrown into disorder by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity, but the hero of the story – it might be one person, or a group of people – takes on those powerful and nefarious forces against the odds, overthrows them, and restores order to the land. And you see that story structure used again and again and again, but it’s really hard to identify any successful major change, political or religious, that has taken place that hasn’t used that story structure. And the problem we face at the moment is that even with the evident collapse of neoliberalism – its bankruptcy in financial terms and political terms, in moral terms and intellectual terms – because we’ve failed to develop a new restoration story with which to replace it, we’re stuck with it. And you can’t move on without a new story. You can’t take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. And so what I’ve tried to do is to do the beginnings of building that new restoration story, and it goes something like this.
The world is being thrown into disorder by powerful nefarious forces of billionaires and the think tanks and the journalists who work for them creating the impression that we should all be fighting each other like dogs fighting over a garbage can, that our primary role in life is to compete, is to try to become more wealthy and more powerful than each other, and that the whole of society must be geared to that aim. It must be treated as if you’re a business and as if human relations are solely down to buying and selling, so we can discern who the winners are and who the losers are, the winners are the rich people and they are virtuous, and the losers are the poor people and they are not virtuous. That’s what they’ve told us, and that’s what we’ve come to internalize and believe. But we, the heroes of the story, the ordinary people of the world, can confront those powerful and nefarious forces by creating what I call the politics of belonging. A wholly new approach, which says we will build community, and in building community we build a new progressive politics. We have a statewide process where you start by developing a rich participatory culture with people involved in community projects to a far greater degree than they are at the moment. You then start to build that into a participatory politics and the great example of that is Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, where basically the people now control the city. ******* politics and have completely transformed it. You then build on top of that participatory economics, particularly control of budgets, first municipal budgets and state budgets. In the end I’d like to see federal budgets come under the same idea of participatory budgeting, where basically the people set the budgets, and again this is working tremendously well in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where it began, and in several hundred other cities, in fact, so it’s causing a revolution in social provision and in equality and all sorts of other good things, environmental quality, that we want to see. And then you take the fourth step, which is moving towards, basically, a much more community ownership of the economy, where you see a sort of transfer away from oligarchs, of land in particular, prime urban real estate into the hands of communities who are able to decide how that land is used and for what purposes. And you ally this with a national political project, the sort of thing we’re seeing with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for instance and Ayanna Pressley of gradually taking over the instruments of established power at the national level at the same time. And what you have, then, is a coherent response to those nefarious and powerful forces, and an ability to restore order to the land.
DS: Wonderful summary. The way in which the current neoliberal assumptions came to be is rather stunning as recounted in your book, with this rational, right-wing economic individual who takes part in the games of game theory. You point out that this sort of started as a thought experiment by John Stuart Mill, and then became a modeling tool, and then became an ideological ideal, and then finally became a description of how people supposedly are, and/or should be. How does something that stupid happen?
GM: Yeah, it takes a lot of very clever people to do something that stupid. And basically, this is the story of the evolution of our economics department in our universities, which have just become ever more detached from the real world, from what is actually happening in the real world, and ever more detached also from the idea of what economics is meant to be for. What is economics meant to be for? Well surely its purpose is to discern ways of enhancing human well-being. It’s not for that at all anymore. It’s for trying to boost economic growth as much as possible, and they say oh well that’s the same as human well-being. It’s not in any way the same as human well-being. Especially when that economic growth is almost all falling into the pockets of the oligarchs, of the one percent, which is now the case on both sizes of the Atlantic. And especially when their economic growth is driving the living planet to destruction. You know, it’s not actually enhancing our ***ties, it’s not enhancing our well-being, and at the same time, it’s destroying the earth’s ecology on which we all depend. And so we need a radical new economics, and the good news is that this is happening. And across economic faculties, we now see students revolting against the force-feeding of this ridiculous outdated neoliberal doctrine that dominates and asking for some real-world economics. where economics actually describes the world as it is, not the world as economics professors might imagine it, and an economics which actually tries to make the world a better place rather than just constantly feeding the beast of oligarchy and the beast of inequality.
DS: Let me ask you a devil’s advocate question, because I basically agree with you that we have been trained to underestimate our community, our altruism, generosity of people, but you write that terrorists are outnumbered by people who oppose terrorism. But I wonder how many of those people – but how many of those people who oppose terrorism also oppose the larger terrorism that we call war that generates the stuff we call terrorism? You write that terrorism is created by a crisis of modernity, but studies actually say that over ninety-five percent of suicide terrorist attacks are conducted to encourage foreign occupiers to leave a terrorist’s home country. So is our altruism limited by our desire not to see our imperialism?
GM: Yes, well, that’s a very good question, and you have this phenomenon called parochial altruism, and that’s not altruism towards humanity in general, but towards a particular group, and the classic example of that is soldiers going into battle together, where they will literally lay down their lives for each other. They have very strong solidarity within the platoon or within the division, and they defend each other to the extent of losing their own lives. But of course, in doing so might well be permitting crimes against other people and causing the deaths of other people, many of whom might be innocent. And of course that is a human failure, and it’s a trap we keep falling into, failing to take a broad enough perspective, on humanity itself and on our place within that humanity. But the extraordinary and striking thing is, that yes, we have this very, very powerful altruistic tendency. It’s all too regularly co-opted in the form of parochial altruism. But the hope is that as we sort of broaden our global perspective with the help of much better communication, it does seem to be that that focus seems to be getting wider and wider, and so we come to see more and more people as having the same basic humanity as we have, regardless of their color, regardless of where they live, having the same basic rights as we have. Obviously, there’s a backlash against that taking place at the same time.There’s a fascist movements and quasi-fascist movements, the demagoguery of people like Trump and Erdogan and Modi and many others around the world, but by and large we see a general widening of the scope of altruism. But the important point to bear in mind here is that we are fundamentally altruistic creatures, even if it’s waylaid into parochial altruism. And this whole economist story of us being fundamentally selfish and greedy has got no scientific basis for it whatsoever. It’s a fairy tale. It doesn’t stack up. There’s been a huge amount of work there, in psychology, in anthropology, in other social sciences, in evolutionary biology, all coming to the same conclusion, that we are remarkably, extraordinarily, by comparison to any other animal, altruistic.
DS: We are speaking with George Monbiot, whose wonderful new book is called, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. George, you actually recommend a sort of action to get to better thinking. You recommend forming communal structures and behaviors locally to help develop habits and modes of thought that facilitate a change in worldview or at least national view, so it’s not think globally, act locally, but it’s act locally in order to think better nationally and I would suggest perhaps globally, not just nationally.
GM: Yes, yes.
DS: Is that right?
GM: Yes, I think that’s a very good summary. And you see the great thing about community building and local action is, you don’t need anyone’s permission to begin. You don’t need any national political party saying, all right, we’ll accept this as a policy. You can just start literally on your doorstep today, by knocking on your neighbor’s door or sending out an email or a Facebook post or just letters to your neighbors saying, Hey, let’s have a street party. Let’s have some shared childcare. Let’s do some bulk buying together. Let’s cook together once a week. You know, those sorts of things. And it is quite remarkable. We can see how those initiatives proliferate. They have – there’s some natural momentum which begins to develop, and some very interesting studies conducted in this country show that once you’ve got about ten to fifteen percent of the local community involved in community activities, you get this sudden takeoff. You get this massive synergetic shift, where it becomes the norm to be involved in community activities. And those who aren’t involved in it begin to feel a bit left out and think, oh, well I’m not involved, I better get involved. Whereas nowadays it’s a bit weird to be involved in community activity. You can – what these studies show is the way you can precipitate that shift, you can reach that ten- to fifteen-percent threshold, and then suddenly it’s totally normal to do everything together, or to do a whole load of things together. And then you can start saying, okay, now we’ve got people of all walks of life in the community working together, of all different origins, all different skin colors, all different religions. Let’s do something which is for the good of all, rather than just for the good of me and my family, or just for the good of my particular faction. Let’s say, once, you know, now we see ourselves as part of a wider group, and we see everyone in that wider group as people like us – that is a great first step towards building a much more progressive and outward-looking politics.
DS: And then you see the ideal leaders differently, and you have a different approach to politics that conceivably actually has an impact on a larger scale.
GM: Well you know it’s very interesting that you say that, because you also see those leaders beginning to emerge from those community-building activities, and you know, the classic example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she came from exactly that. And she was sort of tested through community building, and she emerged from that as this remarkable, charismatic, highly organized, graceful person who people thought, ooh, we want her representing us. And you sort of suddenly start to see the potential within your own community, you don’t need someone sort of parachuted in who is going to come along and say, oh I can lead you, and you say, well who are you? You say, ooh, that’s someone who’s part of our group, who actually lives here, who can represent us. Because she, you know, has proven herself already in these community activities, and you know, she’s got this proper grounding, she’s got her feet on the ground, in the community. She knows what we want, because she’s one of us. Her pain is our pain. What she’s experienced is what we’ve experienced. And that’s true leadership. You know, true leadership comes from among the people that you’re seeking to lead. It’s not just a billionaire who turns up and says, Yeah, I want to lead you because I’ve got a big mouth.
DS: Right. Let me ask a, maybe it’s a United States–centric question, but in the – and it’s related to budgets, which the book deals with budgets – in the U.S., out of federal discretionary spending sixty percent is militarism. Forty-seven percent of federal income taxes, sixteen percent of the overall federal budget, goes to killing large numbers of people.
GM: Wow. I didn’t know it was that stark. I mean I knew it was horrendous. I didn’t know it was that bad. That’s horrific.
DS: Well I can send you the citations. It’s a trillion dollars a year, one trillion dollars a year not counting debt payments, and we could tax all the billionaires, all the millionaires, out of existence, and not be dealing with this kind of money. It’s the biggest potential source of money with which to try to save the environment, and it is the biggest destroyer of the environment, militarism. Why do we not talk about it? Why do we write books about budgets and economics and not mention the primary thing that the government does, where all the money’s going?
GM: Yeah, it’s a good question, actually. We tend to box it off, don’t we? We tend to say, all right, okay, I’m going to write a book about war and about the damage done by the military, and when I’m done I’m going to write a book about civilian life and what we do about civilian life, and you’re right, there is a sort of invisible wall that’s between the two that probably isn’t very helpful.
DS: Well I don’t know how the wall can exist at all when three percent of U.S. military spending could end starvation on earth.
GM: Yes, no you’re right. And the same in the U.K., I mean we, you know, we’ve got a ridiculous military budget, and why, you know? Who’s going to invade us? I mean even the Ministry of Defense, which is, you know, our Pentagon over here, it’s equivalent to the Department of Defense in the U.S., actually has published a document saying we face no threat of invasion. Now we are not threatened by any other nation intending to invade our shores. So okay, so why have we got all these nuclear submarines, and why have we got all these ships rusting away in harbors, and why have we got all these tanks. What are they all for, if that’s the case? Well the only thing they’re used for is going abroad and causing trouble. Is that what we’re paying for? Have we opted to pay for that? Well of course we haven’t. And so it’s a con. It’s called defense. It’s not defense at all, you know. The only thing we ever use it for is attacks.
DS: You know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who you’ve brought up, was asked on cable news not too long ago, how are you going to pay for all of these wonderful things you want to do? This is the eternal question, which Bernie Sanders repeatedly answered, Well I’m going to raise taxes but not really, and only these taxes, and here, look at the fine print, and he never got around – “they’re going to raise our taxes!” – Ocasio-Cortez had a very different answer. She said, I’m going to cut a very tiny percentage of military spending. And that shut them up immediately. And there are now four, as I count them, four women who have won Democratic primaries in Democratic districts, in one case a state senator nominee, who have that answer: cut military spending, pay for good things. Is that a step up, or is Bernie Sanders right to sort of avoid the whole topic of where all the money’s going and –
GM: I think you’re absolutely right, we mustn’t avoid it, and the defense – I mean, it is crazy. You know, what are we fighting? You know, we’re fighting aliens? No. You put together the world’s defense budget, the tax budgets, rather, and who are they aimed at? And yet, at the same time, we’ve got things we desperately need to fight, like climate breakdown.
GM: You know, you put the same money into fighting that, and we’ve solved the first essential problem, that, you know, there’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the money that is being deployed against an imaginary threat, but this is a real threat. Not just a threat, it’s a reality. It’s happening right now. The climate is breaking down.
GM: And we’re just sitting there and fiddling our thumbs as the world burns. So this is a crazy misallocation. It’s just insane. You know, and the whole national threat is completely distorted, you know. What are the real threats that are facing the world? None of them can be solved with the sort of Hollywood movie approach of blowing it up or shooting at it. You can’t solve climate breakdown by shooting at it. You can’t solve inequality by shooting at it. You can’t solve the housing crisis by shooting at it. You can’t solve the wildlife crisis by shooting at it. You know, none of these things actually have a military solution. The solution has to be, just, you know, a political solution, plus financial solutions where we actually spend the money right.
GM: So of course you’re totally right about it.
DS: I’m very glad to hear you say, I very much agree. Well said. The idea that you bring up toward the end of the book that I very much think is needed and would help in this regard, of a world parliament – how do you envision getting to that?
GM: Well, this is, I mean it’s a tough one. In fact, I wrote a whole book, 10-15 years ago now, about how we would try to build a global democracy where a world parliament is one element of that. Now, you know, it is very difficult. But it’s not impossible. We have such a thing as a European parliament –
DS: Right –
GM: Where 27 nations are represented. It’s soon to be 26, but currently 27 nations. And it functions pretty well, and it’s a democratic forum in which we hold the bureaucracy, the European Commission, plus the nation states in the form of the European Council – you hold them to account with the European Parliament. And why can’t we have that model at a global level? Because at the moment, when you look at how global governance operates, it’s totally undemocratic. You’ve got the UN dominated by the Security Council, by the five official nuclear powers. Well why should they dominate everyone else? Why should they have a veto on everybody else’s business? you know, when there are 190-something members? Why are those five members the ones who are able to call all the shots, literally in some cases call the shots?
DS: How can the other 195 countries overthrow that power of those five countries?
GM: Well, I mean obviously, this is the question. But the only way you’re going to do it is by mobilizing, on a very large scale, within those nations, and to do that you’ve got to get this stuff to the front of people’s minds. You’ve got to say, it’s not enough only to look at the community on the national level, we have to look to the global level too, because what we try to do locally is constantly undermined by global forces. It’s undermined by trade rules which are sometimes grotesque in their effects on people’s ability to defend their local environment, defend social standards from the left, it’s undermined by the World Bank and the IMF, which are controlled by the rich nations but mostly operate in the poor nations, which have no democratic control over them at all, and it’s undermined by this grossly unfair military dispensation, which is a sort of neocolonial dispensation governed by the U.S. Security Council, where basically the big nations can bully the small nations. So, unless you also address that, you know, and I know, it’s a tall order, I’m saying, you know, we’ve got to act locally, we’ve got to act nationally, we’ve got to act globally. But, you know, we have to. We have to look at the whole system, and systems thinking, systemic thinking. Looking at structural causes for why we’re in trouble and structure solutions for what we need to do about it. That is the essence of good politics. But we keep getting waylaid by petty issues, by trivia, by personalities, by the drama of politics, by the spectacle rather than the substance of it, and I think our duty is to get back to the substance, and to get the substance back into the public domain, and say, hold on people. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s not about he said, she said, it’s not about images and slogans and symbols and sensations. It’s about real issues. And here are the real issues. And unless you get people talking about what’s happening on the global level, you’re never going to address that stuff. So the first thing always is to get people informed and educated about it, then you start saying, look, there’s some good solutions here, then you start mobilizing people in pursuit of those solutions.
DS: We have a minute and a half left. I find it easier to persuade people we need to move power down to the local level. Is it possible to persuade people of a coherent argument for moving power in two directions, to the local level and to the global level, because of problems at the nation?
GM: Yeah, now the thing is, we’re not trying to move power to the global level. There’s already enormous power at the global level. We’re trying to democratize the power at the global level. At the moment there’s huge power, no democratic accountability at all. But we just accept it, and their world, you know, world’s run by might rather than right. And you say, no, wait a minute, we’ve got to make sure the world is run by right. And so –
DS: Well, there’s not the power to stop U.S. wars, not in the United Nations.
GM: No, well, well, I mean this, you know, we, we – you know, the power is all wielded by the U.S., and to a lesser extent the other four members of the Security Council, and now increasingly China and India and one or two others are beginning to get a foot in the door, but, you know, that – might does not make right. That is the fundamental principle of all democratic politics, but it doesn’t apply at the global level, so we have to work on the mechanisms to make sure that it does.
DS: Very well said. The book again is called, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, by George Monbiot, who has been our guest. George, thank you very, very much for coming on Talk Nation Radio.
GM: Thank you so much, David. It was really my pleasure.