After two weeks of back to back to back floods and hurricanes in Asia and North America, not to mention a major earthquake in Mexico and ongoing, raging wild fires along the west coast of North America, one might be forgiven for thinking that the end times are here. Add to that the idiotic but dangerous political posturing re North Korea, the unanswered questions re the Brexit vote, and the urge to see the human race in absolutely pessimistic terms becomes irresistible. And yet. Even in this dark, unforgiving place, this cave of pessimism, we tell ourselves stories. It’s an ancient survival technique, making the kind of story we tell ourselves of the utmost significance.
George Monbiot, one of the senior writers at the Guardian, makes a compelling case for the power of stories, especially those he dubs ‘restoration stories’. In a recent article that asks ‘how do we get out of this mess’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/george-monbiot-how-de-we-get-out-of-this-mess?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Bookmarks+-+Collections+2017&utm_term=243020&subid=21624326&CMP=bookmarks_collection
Monbiot tracks the two powerful meta stories that have shaped the course of recent history from the dirty thirties to today. During the thirties, the story was that evil uncaring elites had grabbed all the power and ruined us and that only government intervention could save us. It was known as Keynesianism and it worked until the late seventies and the oil embargo. After that, a new story ascended, now known as ‘neo-liberalism’, in which the government is the traitor and the ‘free market’ and the entrepreneur, freed of all shackles, saves the day. Alas, this story is flawed because it creates huge inequality, brutal exploitation of workers, and a plundered environment that the Pope described as ‘a pile of filth’. In addition, it runs headlong into the built in limits of nature: we simply cannot keep expanding and growing until everything on the planet is used up. But societies in the past–Easter Island, the first civilizations along the Euphrates, the Mayans–they all used up their resources until nothing was left. The question is, can we, as a global force, be stopped from repeating those failures?
A replay of the previous story isn’t going to work for a number of practical reasons, primarily because it, too, is based on the dangerous notion of never ending growth so beloved of capitalism.
So, we are in dire need of a new story, one that pulls us together and gives us hope in a dark hour when the fate of humankind seems to hang in the balance.
Monbiot suggests that we ought to remember what the social sciences know: humanity managed to come out of the trees and take over the globe because it is better at cooperation and altruism than any other species. In contrast, neoliberalism is a noxious, false ideology because it claims we are, at bottom, a nasty, totally amoral bunch that thinks only of ‘me first’. That we have swallowed that doctrine is a testament to the skill with which neoliberal ideas have been sold to us. Tell the big lie and tell it often enough and people will believe you, said Hitler and his friend Himmler, who both apparently understood the power of stories. We have fallen for a story that is a lie, and it is high time that we woke up to that fact. But even if we do, there has to be a new, a better and truer story to replace the worn out promises of neoliberalism.
The new story that Monbiot offers is simple: remember the common good, the commons, the fact that we live in communities. And build on that. He claims that the near wins of both Sanders and Corbyn were possible because they relied on many small groups going door to door, raising small amounts of money, and talking about community values.
He calls this narrative the Politics of Belonging. It has a nice ring to it. The ideas behind it–small, local groups refashioning the current world of extreme competition in their own image, reclaiming the economic system with a different, more humane way of working and living, It sounds lovely. I wish I believed in it. I want to believe in it.
My problem with this narrative is twofold: first, we already have small cooperative ventures in developed countries as well as the so called third world. They are nowhere near taking over or taking power away from the big capitalist players. At the political level, those players pay little attention to them, unless they begin to look like players themselves, as happened with the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns. They failed to succeed because the big boys wouldn’t stand for it. Better luck next time. If there is a next time–the unraveling of the democratic process in the US and Britain is ongoing and shows no sign of stopping. For example, nobody knows where the money for the Leave campaign came from, but we do know that sophisticated software was used to dupe the electorate.
In the US, only half the population votes, which means that roughly a quarter of the voters actually voted for Trump. The power of not changing your mind, of not thinking too hard about anything, is every bit as evident as the power of story itself
I find myself thinking that someone would have to mount a serious PR campaign to convince people of their own, unused goodness and willingness to cooperate with their neighbours to create a different, better world. We have been steeped too long in the opposite narrative for it to be dislodged easily or quickly. It’s going to take time and money to change our minds. Where is that time and money going to come from?
Second, I have an innate distrust of groups. This is the fallout from a childhood spent under the Nazis and the fallout of WW2. One thing you learn from an experience like that is this: the group in and of itself is neither wise nor well intentioned. It is a powerful force that can be harnessed to anything, including fascism. We all know about the peer group power and its ability to manipulate people. I am sorry, Monbiot, but ‘belonging’ sounds suspiciously like high school politics to me. There, you either belong or you’re on the outside, looking in. I never belonged, and I didn’t particularly want to, either. And the group all too easily morphs into the anonymous mass, which is what happened in Germany. The group depends on leaders to give it shape and direction. Sadly, I see no wise leaders anywhere, unless you count Monbiot, Naomi Klein et al. But they are not leaders, they are intellectuals, and so far, no leaders have taken up their cause. Corbyn may do it yet, but Sanders has been sidelined, permanently. The Democratic party has spoken and acted the way it always does: in accordance with the dominant, vicious ideology of neo liberalism.
I think that Politics of Belonging is a lovely idea, but I’m not buying it. Human nature is complex, contradictory, and dependent on conditions. Whether we can create conditions that bring out our latent goodness is very much in question. And we are running out of time.