Can Europe Make It?

A new political story to get out of the neoliberal wreckage

George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (Verso). Book review.

Pablo Castaño
25 February 2020
George Monbiot after being removed from Trafalgar Square during an Extinction Rebellion protest, October, 2019.
Dominic Lipinski/PA. All rights reserved.

The importance of discourses and narratives in contemporary politics has been made evident by the recent rise of populism in Europe and the United States. Both far-right leaders such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, and progressive politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Pablo Iglesias have transformed their political systems through a carefully designed rhetoric that has allowed them to articulate disperse political grievances in a populist manner.

However, right-wing populists share most economic policy proposals with mainstream neoliberal parties, while progressive populist leaders are finding it difficult to break with the tradition of social democracy. The writer George Monbiot proposes a new path for the Left in his book Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (Verso): a brand new political tale that overcomes the social democratic tradition while reinvigorating progressive forces.

George Monbiot proposes a new path for the Left in his book… a brand new political tale that overcomes the social democratic tradition while reinvigorating progressive forces.

All political tales share the same structure, according to Monbiot: “Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero — who might be one person or a group of people — revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order” (p. 3). This is the structure of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings… but also of the two major political tales of our times: social democracy and neoliberalism. For social democrats — Monbiot explains — the 1929 economic crisis provoked a great world disorder that was eventually solved by the social state. For its part, the neoliberal story points at collectivism as the great evil that led to Nazism and Stalinism. According to the successful neoliberal tale, the deregulation of the economy restored democratic order, protecting individuals’ freedom.

Even though he supports certain Keynesian economic proposals, Monbiot warns against the temptation of trying to revive a social democratic tale that he does not considers adequate for our times, for two reasons: first, unlimited economic growth is not viable any more due to the ecological crisis; second, the old social democratic tale is not able to trigger the political awakening that the Left needs. Thus, elaborating a new progressive tale, as powerful as its predecessors, is a necessary and urgent task.

Monbiot’s story

Monbiot proposes the following story: human beings are essentially cooperative but an ideology of extreme individualism and competition (neoliberalism) has hidden this truth from us, leading us to a situation of growing isolation and loneliness. The solution is building the “politics of belonging” based on the idea of community. Community should be the basis to build a democratic and participatory political system, together with an economic model that respects the environment and guarantees welfare for all. In that society, the natural altruism of human beings would become evident again. Monbiot underlines the importance of small-size communities, but also recognises the need of a strong state to guarantee equality.

Monbiot underlines the importance of small-size communities, but also recognises the need of a strong state to guarantee equality.

Progressive initiative

Throughout Out of the Wreckage, Monbiot makes tangible his discursive proposal with a wide review of progressive political initiatives from all over the world, in fields as diverse as electoral systems, taxes, environment and employment.

For instance, Monbiot explains innovative policies such as different forms of basic income put in place around the world. However, the major strength of the author’s compilation of innovative policies is those projects that simultaneously meet different aims (participation and social justice, protection of the environment and popular empowerment...). One of these examples is the ‘community bill of rights’ set up by certain American cities, which has allowed some communities to legally reject threats to the local environment such as fracking – an example that suggests that re-municipalising politics can pave the way to more progressive and inclusive policies, as shown by Ada Colau’s government in Barcelona.

In a similar sense, Monbiot explains how participatory budgets have succeeded in improving Brazilian cities’ social policies, reducing infant mortality and reinforcing healthcare. The book also pays great attention to community-related projects, such as Rotterdam’s dense network of 1,300 cultural and social community projects, which range from cultural hubs to care cooperatives and green projects.

The gender dimension is not excluded from Monbiot’s analysis, but the book would have benefited from a more explicit adoption of a feminist approach. The long list of political proposals reviewed by Monbiot shows that today’s societies are not as paralysed as the ruling elites would like, but in some points the explanation reaches such a high degree of detail that the reader might forget the main thesis of the book: the need for building a new political tale.

Inspiring courage

Regardless of the degree of efficacy or feasibility of each one of the policies addressed by Monbiot (some are short-term reforms while others are more ambitious), Out of the Wreckage has the major virtue of proposing a courageous utopia, which at some moments seems slightly naive, but never stops being inspiring.

This book is particularly valuable in a period in which short-term issues monopolize parliamentary politics in many countries. State institutions all over the world seem impermeable to the major questions faced by modern societies: which kind of economy do we want? How to guarantee sufficient living standards for all? How to slow climate change and guarantee a fair ecological transition?

Out of the Wreckage in addition spells out what progressive discursive politics should look like.

Besides, the specific story proposed by Monbiot might be more or less convincing for certain readers, but Out of the Wreckage in addition spells out what progressive discursive politics should look like. Having the best analysis and the most effective policy proposals is not enough; in order to achieve a radical political change, it is necessary to build alternative macro-tales and dare to propose them to society.

To do so, Monbiot considers it necessary to trust the cooperative character of most people, a certainty on which great emancipatory projects have been built in the past. Lastly, Out of the Wreckage is an effective vaccine against the temptation of the social democratic revival: Monbiot explains in a convincing manner that the so-called Glorious Thirties will never come back. As Bob Dylan famously put it, “The times they are a-changin” – a new progressive story is needed.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics based on class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put the need for protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this an opportunity for a realignment around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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