Biscuits in the Parsonage

George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis

Verso, 224pp, £14.99, ISBN 781786632883

reviewed by Tom Cutterham

For a month in 2013, one small neighbourhood in the South Korean city of Suwon banned cars from its streets. Local authorities widened the pavements, and gave out bicycles and electric scooters to residents. ‘Cafes and restaurants spilled into the streets,’ George Monbiot reports in his new book Out of the Wreckage, ‘and people began to connect in ways that were impossible before.’ Without cars and their infrastructure cutting through the common spaces, community could return to old ways of flourishing. As Monbiot had put it 20 pages earlier, ‘the motorcar, I believe . . . is a potent agent of political change.’

Such vignettes of hope and possibility are commonplace in our contemporary political discourse. Books like Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, or Dan Hancox’s The Village Against the World, look for the radical political lessons in really-existing places and situations. Projects like Erik Olin Wright’s search for ‘real utopias’ are meant to help the radical left overcome the public scepticism that surrounds the possibility of change. We are too used to people saying, ‘that’s all very well, but it won’t work in practice, will it?’ In response we have criss-crossed the planet, building databases of experiments that seemed, in some respects, to work.

Monbiot’s use of these real-world examples – unlike Solnit, Hancox, or Wright – is more often illustrative than analytical. They are little windows into what a better world might look like, and to give a whiff of data-driven pragmatism to his cauldron of policy solutions. Monbiot is convinced, and he wants us to understand too, that politics is all about stories. He’s like an inverted Adam Curtis. ‘When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it,’ Monbiot writes on his opening page, ‘it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.’ If only more people knew about Suwon’s car-free streets, maybe political divisions would just fade away.

Most of the stories in Out of the Wreckage are crushingly familiar ones – not least, of course, the one about the power of stories. His first few chapters rehash the histories of neoliberalism and social democracy, in brushstrokes so broad and swift they recall a watercolourist eager to get the sky done so he can start painting the trees. At this point, it’s hard to imagine who Monbiot thinks of as his ideal reader. In the Venn diagram of people who buy Verso books, recognise names like Danny Dorling and Naomi Klein on the back cover, but need a potted primer on neoliberalism and 20th-century history, is there really a hidden constituency of potential converts?

Where the book begins to make a contribution is with its central chapters, and Monbiot’s suggestion that the best way to think about contemporary politics is through a dichotomy of alienation and belonging. That’s where the cars come in – individualised metal boxes that cut through others’ communities even as they ferry us away from our own. Drawing moral support from recent work like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger (2017), Monbiot diagnoses our condition as a fundamental breakdown of belonging and togetherness, as well as a privatising assault on ‘the commons’. His prescription is a politics of subsidiarity, localism and community engagement – what he calls ‘participatory culture’.

These broad commitments bring in their wake a flotilla of specific policy proposals, some of which Monbiot specifically endorses, others he just throws in as suggestions. The big one here is a series of charges – not taxes, he says – for private or corporate use of common goods like air and land, including for the benefits derived from flourishing communities. So rather than private landowners capturing speculative profits from pushed up prices in gentrifying neighbourhoods, those gains would be redistributed through ‘community land contributions’. Pooling these charges in a central fund, Monbiot suggests, could be enough to pay a modest Universal Basic Income.

Alongside this redistribution of resources, Out of the Wreckage proposes political reforms meant to improve representative democracy. These begin with a national constitutional convention, to be composed not of existing or newly-elected politicians, but through sortition—that is, random selection of representative citizens. Such a convention might then be able to implement participatory budgeting mechanisms like the one used in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, perhaps using newly-available electronic methods. Those solutions would in turn require a reassertion of political subsidiarity, in which every decision was taken as locally as possible—a principle that extends upwards to national and supra-national levels.

Instead of the Free Trade Organization, Monbiot says, we need a Fair Trade Organization which would allow developing countries to protect their infant industries just as the developed world did during its own age of imperial industrialisation. The United Nations Security Council should be dismantled, as should the World Bank and International Monetary Fund: in their place, a reformed General Assembly, and an institution charged with minimising international debt. Monbiot’s proposals for the commons also have an international scope, when it comes to control of the oceans and the atmosphere. We should begin to imagine the end of the nation-state.

No-one could call Monbiot’s programme mere tinkering. From street-level to the view from space, his proposals are significant and bold, even occasionally dizzying. Ideas like sortition, while they have their academic sponsors and enthusiastic fans, are still far from the centre-ground of public discourse. This book, of course, hopes to put them there. It’s possible, too, that by including all these disparate proposals Monbiot can build an audience along the fringes, out among the single-issue cranks who each believe that their solution – be it land tax or the right to ramble – trumps the politics of left and right.

Monbiot has always been well suited to this role. Out of the Wreckage reads like an earnest parish vicar haranguing a sceptical retiree over biscuits in the parsonage. He may get a bit overexcited towards the end, but the core message is that somehow, we’ve lost our sense of community. If only things were a bit more like the olden days, when there were fewer cars, and children could play football in the road. We need to recapture our sense of belonging, and bring control back to local people.

There’s no discussion here of class or capital, trade unions or social movements. While other recent state-of-our-politics books, like Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism (2015) or Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future (2015), deal seriously with the economic situation and its likely permutations, Monbiot sticks firmly in the realm of stories. He doesn’t engage with the actually existing party politics of Britain. Even more surprisingly, nowhere among his critique of nation-states and international institutions does Monbiot raise the critical issues of migration and border control. Monbiot wants to offer a sense of direction to those whose political compass has been scrambled by recent shocks. But with neither a systematic long-term analysis, nor a coherent account of the present conjuncture, Out of the Wreckage simply seems adrift.
Tom Cutterham teaches American history at the University of Birmingham, and is the author of Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic.