The media news cycle has hastened on from the brief glimpse we caught a few weeks ago of the planet’s school students striking in fury over the climate breakdown they rightly foresee for themselves.
It was a promise of a new, pan-global generation that could be motivated, angry and prepared to fight for a fairer future than the rest of us seem to be capable of delivering.
According to author and investigative journalist George Monbiot, when it comes to making sense of the world, the human race, over millennia, has always told stories, almost invariably variations on the DNA-deep narrative theme of restoration. The hero or a group of friends fight disorder wrought by the powerful and the nefarious working against the interests of humanity: Narnia, Lord of the Rings. We’ve seen it a thousand times, he says.
As successive ideologies and theories waxed and waned, these big political narratives reincarnated as a light on the path to restoration and balance, at least until about 2008. That was the point where both Keynesian social democracy and Friedman’s neo liberalism – successively claiming the primal restoration narrative for their diametrically opposed economic priorities – were thoroughly discredited.
However, no new restoration story came forward and since then the toxic ideology of extreme competition and individualism rules the world. It misrepresents human nature and destroys hope and common purpose, says Monbiot, whose most recent book, New Politics for an Age of Crisis was released last year.
We find ourselves taking cues from a discredited doctrine, morally and intellectually stuck in an odd world where action is illegitimate; where Harry Potter or Frodo or Robin Hood should not win. Where the rich deserve their winnings, the poor were meant to come out poor, the homeless are undeserving and the obese – in a world up to its ears in junk food marketing – are merely weak.
“At the heart of capitalism is a vast and scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived,” he says in a Guardian Weekly column this week, describing the economy as an environmental pyramid scheme that dumps its liabilities on the young and the unborn.
“Current growth depends on intergenerational theft. The young people taking to the streets for the climate strike are right: their future is being stolen.”
In a vicious spiral of inequality, the great financial hegemonies are cutting taxes, freeing themselves from democracy and creating patrimonial wealth and oligarchies. If politics continue to stand back, divest and shrink, there are no means for alteration and a new age of demagoguery and a resurgence of fascism becomes predictable, offering a sense of community, if an ugly, exclusive and cruel one.
Only a positive vision – a new creative narrative – can replace it, one that re-engages people in politics and lights a path to a better world, says Monbiot who is tracking a new politics of belonging which is beginning to emerge as a force in the world.
It is built from the ground up and based not on the polarities of left and right politics but on the traditional four pillars which include an equitable sharing of the commons that draws on each community’s own social capital and a supportive and enabling state.
The fourth pillar – also perennially neglected – is the household, without which nothing can happen: the base from which children are nurtured, mostly with unpaid work, and prepared for a contributing adult life.
We need communities that work and that are geographically attached and vested in place. It is, he says, essential for our mental health.
So is a strong sense of belonging as citizens come and go. Each community needs to have a participatory culture, as simple and companionable as eating together, the big projects budding off into community priorities like shared make and mend, bulk buying, anchors and focal points, creches and outreach in what he describes as ‘thick networks’.
If you cannot see the cracks in the brick wall, “stand back, use a different light and the cracks will show”, Monbiot says in justification of his own essential optimism. • Liz Waters