New narratives for a new politics

MFL activist Andrew Robert’s reviews George Monbiot’s book ‘Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis’ (published last year) and asks whether, as fairness campaigners, we need to sharpen the way we tell the story of inequality.

In his book ‘Out of the Wreckage’ (published last autumn) George Monbiot presents the political landscape as he sees it. Political narratives drive change, he thinks, and we are now somewhere toward the end of the neoliberalist narrative, which has held sway since it vanquished the previous dominant narrative, Keynesianism. Monbiot asks what’s next?

In answering that question, Monbiot, building on an analysis of political narratives, takes a look at the structure of the neoliberal and Keynesian narratives. He suggests they are mirror images of each other. Both involve a hero defeating a monster; in Keynesianism the state saves us from an economic elite; in neoliberalism the entrepreneur in a free market saves us from the totalitarian horrors of collectivism.

Monbiot posits that the reason the discredited neoliberal narrative has not been finally disposed of is that no compelling replacement has been found. He gives a number of reasons why it’s not possible to simply go back to Keynesianism: political stories have to change, the issues of the 1970s have not gone away; Keynesian growth will inevitably damage the environment.

In searching for an alternative Monbiot points to a growing body of research suggesting that altruism is one of humanity’s unique traits. We show compassion for people we have never met. This, claims Monbiot, is in sharp contrast to the picture presented in the neoliberal narrative, of humanity as inherently only interested in looking after number one.

Monbiot has a number of explanations for our tendency to agree with this false picture of inherent selfishness. Our current leaders often got where they were through sharp elbows – we generalise from them. We are programmed to look out for danger; we are biased to notice bad things (like the Charlie Hebdo killings) more than the good (people taking to the streets in solidarity). And then there are powerful interests who are keen to stress the selfishness narrative.

How to make the most of this altruism? The answer, he thinks, is to empower communities. This can be done in two ways: firstly, creating a participatory culture. One project he cites is Todmorden, where a community garden project has expanded into a number of different projects and these, taken together, have turned the fortunes of the town around. The second is an emphasis on the idea of the commons, that is resources managed by the community. Government could act to recreate the commons by charging a land value tax, with some of the proceeds going to local communities. A citizens’ wealth fund could give a basic income. There could be a Community Right to Buy.

Monbiot is a staunch campaigner for greater economic equality, and his idea of empowering communities could clearly be one mechanism for narrowing inequality, for example through provision of a basic income, or by giving communities much more direct ability to collectively meet housing needs. His analysis perhaps also challenges campaigning groups like My Fair London to reflect harder on whether the story we tell - of the desperate need to reduce inequality - is as fresh, positive and compelling as it needs to be in order to dislodge the neoliberal narrative in people's minds.

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