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Out of the Wreckage: George Monbiot searches for the common good

The environment writer believes we need to build an “inclusive economy”.

Like Margaret Thatcher and her followers, the Guardian columnist George Monbiot wishes to change “the heart and soul”. Where Thatcherites wanted a nation of individualism and competitiveness, Monbiot wants one of “altruism and reciprocity”. Their overriding goal was to create markets; Monbiot’s is to create communities in which people have a sense of belonging. They saw Britons taking control through choosing the providers of pensions, power, healthcare and other services previously handed down by governments. He sees Britons taking control through referendums, constitutional conventions, online consultations and assemblies of “participatory budgeting”.

Britons would then, Monbiot believes, set about building an “inclusive economy” based on the principle that natural resources – land, forests, water, wild fish, the electromagnetic spectrum – should be owned neither by the state nor the private sector, but deemed part of “the commons”, held in trust for the general good. Users of the commons would be charged fees to create “social wealth” funds that could be used in a variety of ways. Locally, they would develop community assets such as youth clubs, libraries, parks and playing fields. Nationally, they would finance environmental restoration, greener technologies and the universal basic income that has a growing following among politicians and economists.

It should be said at once that we are desperately in need of new ideas for a society and a democracy where trust in all established institutions is at a record low and even a Tory prime minister admits the country doesn’t work for everyone. Monbiot’s ideas are clear, well-reasoned and sometimes compelling. Many will mock his attempt at a “story of hope and restoration”; even some of his Guardian colleagues call him “George Moonshine”. Human beings, his critics will say, are inherently selfish and self-maximising. Give them the opportunity to freeload off others’ efforts and they will take it.

Such objections are easily dismissed. Yes, there’s a self-interested streak in all of us but, as Monbiot observes, we also have instincts for co-operation and sensitivity to others’ needs. Think of the hundreds who volunteer to run food banks and of the thousands more who donate to them. Think of those Europeans who, at great risk to themselves, sheltered Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. The altruistic instinct can be kindled in almost anybody. It is suppressed, however, in a society that rewards the selfish but penalises – and brands as “mugs” – those who are more mindful of our needs, and the planet’s. That society has led to loneliness, high levels of mental illness and increasingly discordant political discourse. Shouldn’t we at least try developing a society that does more to nurture the better angels of our nature?

Other objections are harder to contest. Monbiot’s communities, “built around the places in which we live”, coming together “to own and manage local resources”, will sound too narrow and exclusive to many. The golden age of communities – ramblers’ clubs, co-operative societies, workers’ self-improvement ventures – began in the late Victorian era and continued to the end of the 1930s. “Community” then meant only one thing; most people lived, worked, shopped and married in a single locality. There were few distant relatives to visit, no old college mates to keep up with, no friendships made on holidays overseas, no online communities of common interests or common sexual preferences, few significant ethnic divisions. The leisure industry was in its infancy, offering little beyond pubs, football and, later, cinemas and dance halls.

Relying on revived communities to create a more humane and responsive politics strikes me as a big ask. Monbiot’s view of the world sometimes seems perilously close to Theresa May’s belief that people who have multiple loyalties can be dismissed as “citizens of nowhere”. And his visions of engaged citizens sometimes seem as joyless as Thatcher’s visions of atomised consumers. He re-prints a progressive economist’s diagram of how the economy should work. It includes energy, water, food, health, education, housing and “networks” – but no sport, arts or entertainment.

Like many of those who practise or write about politics, Monbiot seems oblivious to the levels of boredom and indifference that the subject induces in large sections of the population.

Most would not want to attend constitutional conventions that would most likely be hijacked by obsessive axe-grinders and extremists boring on long past when the pubs close. Oscar Wilde complained that socialism interfered with one’s evenings, but whatever -ism Monbiot advocates – he doesn’t give it a name and avoids mentioning socialism – would probably occupy one’s weekends and holidays as well and leave us all very short of sleep. 

Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis
George Monbiot
Verso, 224pp, £14.99

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia