Old Wine in New Bottles: George Monbiot’s “New Politics for An Age of Crisis”

George Monbiot, the Guardian’s primary environmental commentator, recently crossed swords with David Attenborough by calling him out for failing to inform the public about the political and economic “driving forces behind climate breakdown” (“David Attenborough has betrayed the living world he loves,” November 7, 2018). Perhaps more importantly Monbiot also challenged Attenborough’s controversial population-obsessed ramblings, explaining:

“If Attenborough’s environmentalism has a coherent theme, it is shifting the blame from powerful forces on to either society in general or the poor and weak. Sometimes it becomes pretty dark. In 2013 he told the Telegraph “What are all these famines in Ethiopia? What are they about? They’re about too many people for too little land … We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”

“There had not been a famine in Ethiopia for 28 years, and the last one was caused not by an absolute food shortage but by civil war and government policies. His suggestion that food relief is counter-productive suggests he has read nothing on the subject since Thomas Malthus’s essay in 1798. But, cruel and ignorant as these comments were, they were more or less cost-free. By contrast, you do not remain a national treasure by upsetting powerful vested interests: look at the flak the outspoken wildlife and environmental presenter Chris Packham attracts for standing up to the hunting lobby.”

Yes, it is true that Attenborough is a keen proponent of out-dated Malthusian arguments, but on this score, Packham is also at fault, as both are patrons of Population Matters – an organisation that was first known as the Optimum Population Trust. (For more on this, see Adam Ramsay, “Why ‘Population Matters’ is wrong,” Green European Journal, February 15, 2013.)

But Monbiot’s own contributions to enabling a deeper public understanding of the “driving forces behind climate breakdown” are likewise highly problematic. For instance, Monbiot’s most recent book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for An Age of Crisis (Verso 2017), admits that “We cannot contest a [destructive] narrative until we have named it” (p.40) but then Monbiot still fails to name that narrative as capitalism – the promotion of profit before human need.

Instead Monbiot oversimplifies history by presenting an overview of the “two most successful political stories of the twentieth century,” social democracy and neoliberalism, which he says are “diametrically opposed to each other” (p.4). On this latter point Monbiot is plainly wrong, as both narratives, or political ideologies, have been content to confine themselves to working within the destructive limits of capitalism.

Monbiot is of course familiar with the one narrative that is diametrically opposed to capitalism (both its social democratic and neoliberal variants), which is revolutionary socialism – a movement that is informed by the powerful working-class ideas of Marxism. This revolutionary narrative of social change is quickly dismissed by Monbiot in typically liberal fashion by equating the life of Lenin, who arguably is Russia’s most famous revolutionary leader, with the reactionary achievements of Hitler. As Monbiot states “The most grotesque doctrines can look like common sense when embedded in a compelling narrative, as Lenin, Hitler, Georges Sorel, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Ayn Rand discovered.” (p.7)

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The closest that Monbiot comes to identifying the capitalist troubles facing humanity arise when he admits that the social democrat ideas of Keynesian economics (promoted in the post-war period) eventually “buckled [in the 1970s] in response to the political demands of capital.” (p.45) As he points out:

“We cannot hope that the strategies deployed by global finance that helped to destroy the efficacy of Keynes’s measures in the 1970s will be unlearned. If the soft Keynesianism proposed by opponents of neoliberalism is to amount to anything but tinkering, it has to confront a wider set of challenges that most of its advocates have yet been prepared to acknowledge.” (pp.45-6)

Too right! Opponents of neoliberalism must move beyond Keynesianism and embrace Marxist alternatives that can, through a class-based program, promote both democracy and socialism.

But Monbiot faces the same challenges too, as he is unprepared to embrace genuine anti-capitalist solutions to the status quo as his only discussion of capitalism comes when he briefly mentions the work of fellow social democrat (and fellow Guardian columnist) Paul Mason. Monbiot writes: “In his book PostCapitalism, Paul Mason points out that ‘work – the defining activity of capitalism – is losing it centrality both to exploitation and resistance’.” Flowing from his adherence to Mason’s pessimistic and ahistorical analyses, this leads Monbiot to wrongly conclude:

“In the absence of a stable, coherent labour force that can defend its interests and those of society as a whole, a new centre of both resistance and proposition is required. The most plausible candidate is local community, formed around participatory culture, building outwards to revive national and global politics.” (pp.89-90)

These are exactly the types of utopian socialist ideas that had been well and truly debunked in the nineteenth century by socialist writers, including not least Karl Marx. (For a discussion of Mason’s book in relation to utopian socialist thought, see Peter Taaffe’s 2015 article “Socialism: past or future?” which is a Marxist critique of of PostCapitalism.)

Monbiot is not always wrong, and he is correct that “Political understanding is made as hard as humanly possible by the billionaire press,” (p.157) and by the endless diversions and ‘fake news’ of the ruling-class more generally. Yet the irony is that, unwittingly, Monbiot and other liberal commentators (like Mason) who make a living by writing for the billionaire press are through their misinformed writings throwing sand in the face of building a united working-class fight-back.

Monbiot’s ongoing commentaries relating to Jeremy Corbyn are perhaps indicative of his overall political confusion. So, while in 2015 Monbiot was an early and welcome supporter of Corbyn, politically-speaking Monbiot has been all over the place ever since. For example, just prior to Corbyn’s outstanding 2017 election results Monbiot tweeted:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, but it has been one fiasco after another. I have now lost all faith.” (January 27, 2017)

Flash back a year, and in 2016 Monbiot seemingly understood that the divisions within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) demonstrated that the party was irrevocably split between the pro-Corbyn forces and the Blairites which led him to tweet:

“It seems to me that Labour has terminally imploded. A split’s inevitable. So where now? An alliance of Corbyn Labour, Greens and other left?” (June 29, 2016)

But in the wake of the 2017 election Monbiot had changed his tune, and despite the massive threat posed by the dominant Blairite faction within the PLP, Monbiot promoted conciliation with the enemies of socialism, tweeting:

“People are calling for a purge of the PLP. This is the wrong approach. Corbyn can now demand that his MPs support him, and they will.” (June 9, 2017)

This is hope substituting for political analysis. Moreover, what Monbiot and the Blairite refer to as a purge is, in reality, just calls for the reintroduction of basic democratic structures within the Labour Party – something known as mandatory reselection. More recently still, this summer Monbiot once again cast his lot in with Corbyn’s critics when he tweeted:

“It dismays me to say it, as someone who has invested so much hope in the current Labour Party, but I think @shattenstone is right: Jeremy Corbyn’s 2013 comments about ‘Zionists’ were antisemitic and unacceptable.” (August 24, 2018)

No one is saying that Corbyn does not have his faults, but we should certainly not be looking to liberal Guardian commentators for guidance in developing a coherent socialist strategy for transforming the Labour Party.

For a start, if the Labour Party is elected in the next few months, the party will need to put in place democratic mechanisms for allowing ordinary members to deselect Blairite MPs who undermine the socialist ambitions of the majority of the membership. In the meantime, Corbyn must hold fast to resisting calls for an undemocratic “People’s Vote” and firmly and repeatedly explain to the public how a socialist Brexit will actually be good for ordinary people. Such moves will be opposed by the Blairites and some confused elements within the Labour Party but must be pursued by Corbyn and his many supporters if Labour is serious about getting elected and acting as a force for socialist change in Britain and across the world.

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