For common good

Print edition : September 14, 2018
The book is at its core an optimistic injunction against outmoded and failing economic models.

DESPERATE times call for desperate measures. Today’s neoliberal world order calls for radical ideas to end the widening disparity between the 1%ers who have benefited from the socio-economic boom and the rest, whose economic situation is still to see any improvements. We are standing on the edge of the abyss, a disaster orchestrated and defined by the market upheavals and disruption caused by neoliberalism. This narrative dominates modern-day politics and remains a vexed issue in George Monbiot’s latest book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, which at its core is an optimistic injunction for activism against outmoded and failing economic models.

Monbiot argues vehemently that it is imperative to have a sense of ownership and active engagement with the political process if we are to overcome the blight of neoliberalism. But the powerful rich, the corporate lobby and leaders of the neoliberal dispensation will be relentless in holding on to wealth and power at the cost of the 99%. Moreover, the disease of neoliberalism has not only affected the economic fortunes of millions of people but has spread its tentacles to ethnic and tribal wars, causing the United States Supreme Court to uphold the Donald Trump administration’s law prohibiting entry to people from Muslim-majority countries. The ban not only goes against international law but also abrogates the core values of multiculturalism on which the U.S. is founded. The underlying motive is blatantly economic.

Stories, Monbiot observes, are “the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals.”

The archetypal story of all time is a confrontation between the hero and a world of deeply unsettling disorder that in the end results in the restoration of order. In the social democratic story, the enabling state, along with its people, is the hero who prevails over the elite, whereas in the neoliberal grand narrative, the business community and individual entrepreneurs overpower the authoritarian state.

The story of neoliberalism is an awakening to the reality of humans being “competitors, guided above all other impulses by the urge to get ahead of our fellows”. Individualism takes priority over any socialist altruism, a toxic ideology of competition “that disallows any comfort of hope for a life of common purpose”.

Monbiot looks at a future when humanity, a biologically self-sacrificing species, initiates “a new politics of belonging”, a dynamism in the making that thwarts the predatory world view of the free-market economy. This is the radically improved narrative that will usher in a better world: “When we develop the right story, and learn how to sell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. Those who tell the stories run the world.”

If the story is “consistent and comprehensible” and told with conviction and “narrative fidelity”, it will demand attention. If it is comprehensible, with a plot that has a beginning, middle and end signifying the trajectory of progress, it gets a large following. Such stories capture the mind, notwithstanding the diversity of beliefs and values that exist among people.

The two stories of the 20th century that Monbiot elaborates in the book are Keynesianism that flourished for over 30 years followed by a virulent and extreme kind of capitalism termed as neoliberalism developed by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. For Monbiot, the “story” of neoliberalism began in the 1970s with the failure of Keynesianism.

He explained in a recent interview: “The social democratic story is basically the Keynesian story that says an economic elite grabbed all of the resources and the power, and was allowed to do so through the laissez-faire economics of the Victorian age, and it was a disaster with the depression, mass unemployment and mass destruction of wealth.”

On the other hand, the end of elitism would come when the working class of the world unite, overthrow the elites and triumph over the oppressors. This is the neoliberal story that holds the collective forces of the state as villains and valourises the individual and his dreams, upholding the rhetoric of progress and the logic of the free market economy that would guarantee wealth and prosperity for all. The two stories, argues Monbiot, did not live up to what they set out to achieve, while a new story still awaits to replace the existing ones. In it lies the future welfare of the people of this world. In the absence of any global economic rules, nations, now under the hypnotic spell of neoliberalism, feel free to employ any economic policy that benefits them disregarding its adverse impact on other nations and on the deprived millions across the world.

Neoliberalism has remained entrenched ever since U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced an era of self-enterprise and individual responsibility for economic well-being at the cost of the disappearance of the basic human drive for the life of a community and its basis of social bond.

Self-indulgence and profit become the standard, leading to frustration and, as a consequence, suicides. The figures tell the full story and so do the financial crisis of 2008 and the current trade wars aggravated by Donald Trump. Deregulation has been a fiasco and there has been no aspiration to develop new models/stories for the future.

Understandably, there are no easy ways out except the solutions already under consideration; requisites for basic salary and budgetary participation or the delinking of economic policies from selfish industrial or corporate agendas that drive the opposition to a sensible policy on climate change. Participatory politics as well as environmental economics become the crucial areas to concentrate on and build our new story on if the human race is to survive.

Social need

The central feature of the human condition since the birth of civilisation has been altruism, empathy, and standing up for the common good in times of need. When these basic human instincts are abandoned for personal fulfilment in a competitive culture, history takes a swing towards the inhuman or the posthuman where social pain or grief goes unheeded. The factor that defines us as human beings with an intrinsic social need and commitment to each other has been largely ignored and must underpin the new narrative for the future.

Although Monbiot recalls Hobbes to explain the role of the state in safeguarding the rights of its citizens, this is too optimistic a yearning. We all would like it to be so, but the only solution remaining for the Left is to understand the extraordinary capacity for altruism and empathy that will finally save the human race. Integral to this vision is the need to take back the reins from the elites and move on with a narrative that tells us of the victory of the oppressed.

This may sound esoteric but it is entirely human, especially when the new model suggested by Monbiot is based on the urgent need for a synergy between economics and ecology, the successful inter-relation of which will determine our survival on the planet. It is not possible to go on in the Keynesian mood of an incessant mode of production and consumerism, which causes irremediable damage to the ecosystem and runs into environmental limits. There has, indeed, been no effort to reconcile Keynesian economics with ecological imbalance.

Somewhere along the way, Monbiot argues, we forgot that our shared collective empathetic biology paved the way for powerful evolutionary progress in our human journey. Without cooperation, the human race would not have survived, especially being the weakest species in the formidable animal world.

Rivalry is, therefore, not the only authentic consolidating motivator for human activity. The tragedy is that we do not see it like this. We continue to miss out on community projects and pursue “an economy through enclosure” where people grab land and then exploit it for their own profits by shifting the burden on the people. We will need the community to run the economy or the political affairs of the country. It is preposterous that a few hundred representatives are allowed to run the affairs of millions. We, therefore, need a more representative electoral system where representation is rightly moderated through public involvement. A powerful political narrative engaging enough to sell to the people lies at the heart of Monbiot’s vision. It is firmly grounded in hope and camaraderie as the only liberator from our dismal present.

This is the “grand new restoration narrative” that Monbiot hopes will guide the human race through the 21st century.

One could respond to Monbiot’s proposition by disputing that self-effacing altruism and self-serving neoliberalism are extreme positions and, therefore, each is untenable. Running societies on altruism or collectivism could be as much a misconception as neoliberal ideology of individualism and self-interest. For any social order to function sustainably, the political process must be participatory and inclusive and seek the promotion of the common good. For that, a compromise is usually the path with the least disruption that will guarantee long-term viable results. Yet, it is undeniable that despite the delusory nature of utopianism, institutions and societies continue to struggle for the ideal. Human history remains fluid and unpredictable and progress will never follow a single linear world view. We will stumble, fall and rise as we negotiate the thorny business of human progress.

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