Saturday, January 13, 2018

Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage

The book cover says the book "provides the hope and clarity required to change the world." Well, he certainly tries. He's got a plan of action that's possible, but I didn't get the requisite hope necessary to be spurred to action. It's a bit of an overview of many ideas from different places, many of which are already in action somewhere in the world, and it left me with a solid  book list to peruse, but it also left me with a sinking feeling that this will never work. We're never going to get our shit together enough to do any of this. But I've been wrong before.

The first part is a mix of Charles Taylor's notion of social imaginaries, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, Robert Reich's Inequality for All, and Noam Chomsky's talks on solidarity. Then he gets into specifics about our ideas around our communities, environment, economics, and democracy.

He starts with the idea that we need a new story to guide us. Our cultural mythologies (or social imaginaries) give us the range of behaviours that seem reasonable. Monbiot describes it as "narrative fidelity":
 "Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? . . .  We believe familiar narratives despite evidence to the contrary. Effective stories are . . . easy to understand, briefly summarised, internally consistent, concern particular characters, with a direct connection between cause and effect, and a resolution that is positive and inspiring" (2-3).
There are two opposing stories we tend to follow now: the social-democratic story that our problems are due to unrestrained elites, and the neoliberal story that the world fell into disorder as a result of state control, which is tantamount to Nazism. Like Taylor, Monbiot thinks we need a new story to understand ourselves if we want to move forward (but he clearly leans towards the social-democratic side of things): We need to believe we are naturally good but consumerism and competition has alienated us from one another. "It propels us down a narrow corridor of self-interest, self-enhancement and immediate gratification" (19). We see ourselves as against one another, and we need to reconnect with community-building. When we see ourselves as consumers more than citizens, it "intensifies our competitive urges and encourages us to behave selfishly. Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chain stores" (65).

[ETA: This idea I first heard from Taylor is gaining traction. Now this discussion of Patrick Deneen's book suggests something similar: "sometimes you can’t renew an order, as ours clearly needs renewal, until the political imagination becomes capable of imagining and desiring something different."]

Like Chomsky, Monbiot believes that we've been misled to think that we're naturally competitive, a "story told by neoliberalism" (29). He describes that von Mises and Hayek neo-liberal origin story at length, and makes a case for it being the antithesis of democracy: for Hayek, "liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take" (32). But they successfully made hero narrative of the wealthy as trail blazers, whose merit got them where they are (despite their inheritances), and convinced us that the poor are unenterprising.
"In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind come to be defined and self-defined as losers....These shifts correlate with a sharp rise in certain psychiatric conditions in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom: self-harm, eating disorders, depression and personality disorders. Performance anxiety and social phobia spread like fungus. They reflect a fear of other people, who are perceived as both evaluators and competitors: among the few remaining social roles neoliberalism envisages" (35).
Freedom from trade unions, regulation, taxes, and privatisation of public services all led to massive inequality not seen since the beginnings of the Great Depression.
"The most remarkable aspect of neoliberalism is that it is still here. Its evident and devastating failures have not dislodged it. When the system it built came crashing down, the ideology survived. . . . For all its flaws and failures, we can learn from neoliberalism the most important political lesson of all. To change the world, you must tell a story: a story of hope and transformation that tells us who we are" (39-41).
Remnants also exist because, when the crash came in 2008, there wasn't another idea prepped well enough to take over. We can't just revert to Keynesian economics because it no longer works in the globalized free trade world and job-free growth due to automation, but, more importantly, it works against environmentalism by promoting "constant economic growth driven by consumer demand seems destined to exacerbate our greatest predicament" (46).

Like Chomsky, he thinks the Democrats have some of the same flaws as the Republicans: "During the first three years of [Obama's] presidency, an astonishing 95 per cent of the income growth in the United States was captured by the richest 1 per cent of earners....Obama pressed for trade agreements that appeared to have less to do with bringing down tariff barriers than with transferring economic and political power from citizens to corporations" (49). But, in the U.K. he sees some hope in the rise of the Labour Party, but they still need a new narrative.

Like Snyder and Brown wrote recently, it's vital for us to connect with each other. We're too alienated from the system and each other, which has rendered us disengaged and untrusting. He starts with education as a root of the problem:
"School, the first sustained contact with both the state and the professional classes, is, for many people, a humiliating and oppressive experience. They are made to feel inferior. They come to see the system as dismissive of their personalities and their intelligence. They find themselves at war with the representatives of this system: the teachers" (57).  
And to some extent, higher education is fruitless for some because of outsourcing and automation. But there's a problem when elites are automatically hated, and sometimes that includes anyone with a degree, "or even a salary" (58). People are suspicious of knowledge, so they have no engagement with big questions and prefer to retreat into celebrity culture, shows, and games.

Then he takes it to the streets, which were once the commons, the place of daily interactions that help to foster a sense of community. He reports "a powerful inverse relationship between the number of vehicles using a street and the degree of social connectedness" (60), and he suggests banning cars for specific periods of time regularly (maybe like Groningen). Like Jane Jacobs wrote about extensively, we need walkable cities. This lack of significant regular connection is making us profoundly lonely:
"The story of splendid isolation is so pervasive that when people suffer the psychological consequences of their disconnection from society, they might struggle to identify the cause. Plenty of exotic theories are proposed to account for the remarkable rate of mental health disorders now reported in many nations. But it seems to me that the erosion of community and our separation from others is sufficient to account for much of it. We are alienated from each other, from the systems that govern our lives, from the spirit of inquiry, from the natural world, and from tangible reality" (66).
He calls that perception of our degraded situation as normal, the "Shifting Baseline Syndrome." We've got degradation creep. He shifts a bit to philosophy, doing a cursory job of explaining Kimberley Brownlee's work who argues against social deprivation insisting that our right to association is not just about hanging out in a rabble-rousing groups:
"The right in question is the human right against social deprivation. In this context, ‘social deprivation’ refers not to poverty, but to genuine, interpersonal, social deprivation as a persisting lack of minimally adequate opportunities for decent human contact and social inclusion. Such deprivation is endured not only in arenas of institutional segregation by prisoners and patients held in long-term solitary confinement and quarantine, but also by persons who suffer less organised forms of persistent social deprivation."
We need forms of group membership that will bring us together in person. A tipping point is reached with just 15% of citizens engaged. Politically, he looks at the work of Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels: Citizens making decisions acted on by government is not how democracy has or will ever work. There's too much to understand individually:
"we act politically not as individual, rational beings, but as members of social groups, expressing a social identity. We seek out the political parties that seem to correspond best to our culture, with little regard to whether their policies support our interests. Better information and civics education do not seem to help....One conclusion we could draw from this work is that, if politics is an expression of social identity, we cannot change politics without changing social identities....A political movement that articulates these values and connects directly with participatory cultures is likely to spread rapidly, as people take their political cues from those with whom they identify socially" (85).
Strong communities can band together for better environmental quality. He suggests some virtues of community action: The results are often beneficial even if they're not transformative. The steps taken can be pleasant. The group can be open to all, and often community changes can be enacted without any governmental permissions necessary. He has lots of examples of successful "commoning" including shared forests, irrigation systems, software, jounals, Wikipedia, crowdfunding, community-run taxi services, etc. He explains that the tragedy of the commons theory was always mistakenly based on assumptions of selfishness that don't play out in most real cases where commons are well-monitored by the people involved, which is why Wikipedia is a reasonable encyclopedic source.

His idea of the benevolent commons only works where there is a strong community presence, which explains why the oceans are over-fished, and it says something that my school's cafeteria microwaves are always disgusting. It speaks to a lack of community. It also suggests that whenever people free-ride on other's behaviours, we can stop it by developing community belonging.

There's a drive to commercialize social wealth even with academic publishers that prevent the public from having free access to work that was researched for free. They even charge academic libraries  with the money going to publishers, not to the researchers. Aaron Swartz protested at length about this, going so far as to briefly hack into JSTOR to make it public. The capitalist mentality puts barriers around knowledge and prevents open sharing of resources with the result of a concentration of wealth and an alienation of people from resources. But extending the commons costs nothing, and it's happening in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.
"The role of the state is then to manage resources that are either too large or too diffuse to be responsibly stewarded by private concerns or commoners; to provide services and infrastructure that cannot be as fairly or comprehensively delivered by either by either the market or the commons; to set and enforce common standards for environmental and social protection; and to address deprivation by transferring wealth from richer to poorer communities through tax and public investment" (102).
This will need to be constantly re-negotiated, but that's a good thing.

Then there's land ownership: He recognizes the problem of renting land for a profit that was outlined by Karl Marx, but furthered by Winston Churchill (his words here):
"[The landlord] renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which is own enrichment is derives . . . The unearned increment on the land is reaped by the land monopolist in exact proportion, not to the service, but to the disservice done" (103).
Community ownership of lands in trust - watersheds, transport systems, the atmosphere - can dramatically reduce permits to pollute it. Public ownership invites public responsibility. We have a childish belief that if the environment was that big a deal, someone would stop us from eating all the fish or using palm oil or flying around the world for fun.
"Some people switch from denial (it's all nonsense, nothing's going to happen) to resignation (it's too late to do anything, we're doomed) without pausing for a moment's resolve (it's real, and we must act). To be an environmentalist, to see what others refuse to see, is to struggle every day against hostility, denial and, above all, indifference. It is to find yourself fighting almost everyone in a position of power. It is to find yourself locked in a constant cycle of determination and despair" (116).
We have to focus on soil erosion. Right now, only 60 years of harvests are left. The idea of moving to Mars is "the ultimate negation of belonging" (118).
"This is what is delivered by a system that insists we are subject to no resource constraints. . . . For this ingenious rubbish--much of which is unlikely ever to be used, since its primary purpose is to trigger an impulsive reflex among bored consumers--we have exchanged a world of natural wonders: coral reefs and ice sheets, rainforests and wetlands, whales and rhinos, bees and birdsong, streams and meadows, and all the tiny marvels whose loss is seldom recorded. For this junk, we have reduced our chances of survival. . . . the accelerating use of materials--which requires the accelerating degradation of ecosystems--is recorded as a triumph; the reduction of resource use as failure. To succeed, we must destroy ourselves" (118-120).
He shifts to how we understand economics with the reframed donut model developed by Kate Raworth, which takes into account the finite nature of the system and reminds us we're citizens:

"It turns out that treating the living planet, the core economy, the commons, energy, materials, and most of the world's people as white space on the map, then praying for the divine intervention of the invisible hand and hoping for the best, does not succeed. Who knew? Raworth asks us to be agnostic about growth: instead of 'economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive', we need economies that allow us to thrive 'whether or not they grow'" (125).
We need new ways to measure progress. He doesn't mention Tim Jackson's Prosperity without Growth, written almost a decade ago, but that's a good go-to for this as well.

And back to democracy: Switzerland's is less flawed than most. In the U.S. the president can do significant things without legislative authority and there are barriers to running in an election. In the U.K., there are no limits on donor money. And, like Snyder, he recognizes how our patriotism leads us to find rationalizations to accept whatever leader we have: "Just as Raskolnikov's mother, in Crime and Punishment, once she begins to suspect that he is an axe murderer, reflexively praises her son's many qualities to everyone who will listen, so the political, media and academic establishments glorify the US political system as a temporal paradise" (135).

Monbiot questions granting power to representatives rather than a more direct version of the democratic process. We need the state to defend us from common threats (139), but we could also have a constitutional convention: regular meeting where only citizens without any role in politics could vote on government principles. And he prefers the Single Transferable Vote version of proportional representation. He wants to give people the experience of direct democracy, so they're better prepared when there's a referendum (like Brexit). "If participatory democracy is to become more than a slanging match between uninformed people about unrelated issues, it should become a familiar and trusted form of political expression" (151). In Switzerland, there are about ten votes each year, any law passed can be challenged with enough signatures, and citizens can propose amendments to the constitution. The internet should be used to provide verifiable information to be voted on, instead of a huge bill delivered right before the vote.
"The great emancipations--from women's suffrage to Civil Rights, to independence from empire and the end of apartheid--came about through the mass mobilisation of citizens. Future political revolutions will follow the same course. Big change requires Big Organising. . . . the more you ask of people, the more likely they are to come forward: 'far more people are willing to step up if you ask them to do something big to win something big then . . . if you asked them to do something small to win something small" (168).
BUT, we can't do this without a regime change. Like Chomsky, he cites Sander's rise from obscurity as extremely hopeful, and he cites extensively from the "most encouraging book":  Rules for Revolutionaries, which is all about the Sanders's campaign. "To read their book is to release yourself from the poverty of imagination that has locked us into despair" (173).

The campaigner knew that voters would be most affected by conversation with a person: "The deep need for social contact that defines our species can also change our politics. . . . [a conversation will] not only motivate people to vote for a candidate, but can also 'change deeply held attitudes regarding controversial issues . . . [which] can endure over time'" (169). And they were able to mobilize a ton of people to have these conversations. The educated them, then trusted them to get the word out. Chomsky, Snyder, Reich, Hedges, and Monbiot all believe that, when you look at the issues that matter most, there are way more of us than them. With solidarity, we can,
"'swamp the influence of big money, corporate media and other establishment players'. However much money the billionaires pour into the campaigns of their favoured candidates, they are unlikely to be able to hire enough staff to contact everyone. . . . A bold, generous, inclusive politics can mobilise volunteer numbers that those who buy their influence could never hope to attract" (173).
We need good demonstrations. "It should be a demonstration against forces we oppose, and a demonstration of the better future we envisage" (174). And then he takes to task the marches that are so often in vain. There are lots of people, but then planning disintegrates. This mirrors my own experience with marches: we chant while we walk really slowly, and then hear a few speeches that can make us feel a sense of solidarity, which can be amazing, but often they ramble on for ages to give time to every person that had anything to do with it, the mood begins to deflate, and then we all go home. He suggests speakers be chosen, three only, who can captivate and inspire with an excellent sense of pacing. They have to focus on explaining the issues and the next steps (176).

We all want the same thing - respect, decency, equity, sustainability. We can have it all, if we're willing to get together to make it happen. But that's up to us.


The Mound of Sound said...

It has taken us eight centuries to get from Runnymede to genuinely liberal democracy. The high water mark was reached, I contend, with the introduction of universal suffrage. The embrace of neoliberal globalism ushered in democratic decline, authoritarianism and the rise of oligarchy.

I can't fault Monbiot's insights but, like you, I see the goals he maps out as unrealistic.

The Global Footprint Network estimates that mankind, just one species, first exceeded the planet's ecological carrying capacity when our population swelled to three billion in the early 70s. Since then mankind's footprint has soared from a combination of three multipliers - raw numbers, human longevity and our per capita consumption levels. We've gone from three billion to 7.5 billion. In the West at least, longevity has now stretched to the upper 70s and our per capita consumption has likewise swelled, particularly with the massive emergent 'consumer class' in economic giants China and India.

How do we deal with this? There are two options. We do what's needed of our own collective volition and on our own terms or, two, we wait while nature takes its course. To do it ourselves we would need the overpopulated countries to rapidly depopulate, i.e. mass sterilization, but we could hardly justify that unless we, the over-consumptive countries of the developed world agreed to rapidly slash our consumption to free up resources to share with the less advantaged world.

Could you imagine the peoples of China and India lining up for mass sterilization? Can you imagine your friends and neighbours agreeing to revert to an earlier lifestyle of less of everything, what James Lovelock has called "sustainable retreat"? I can't imagine any of that happening.

We could sharply cut our population within a generation if we adopted mass sterilization but I think it's far more likely that we'll experience some mass die off, a combination of man-made and natural events, not of our choosing.

Marie Snyder said...

Yes - it's curious that Monbiot doesn't mention population at all. I tend to see the choices as sterilization or genocides. A student recently argued in class that incentives alone will be enough to curb population growth, but I suggest our individual reproductive drives will overpower our longterm survival of the species to the extent that we'll need something more persuasive or forceful. People are still not ready to come to terms with that.