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

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

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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