Monbiot Gets It Right…and Wrong Again
Opening my inbox this morning I found Z’s Daily Commentary, today courtesy of George Monbiot and entitled “From the Bottom Up”. Feeling that I pretty much know what I am going to get from Monbiot, I was about to skip down to my next e-mail when I caught a glimpse of the first sentence of the text: “For the first time in my life I resent paying my taxes”. As first sentences go, this was a real grabber – intrigued, I continued reading, and, to my surprise, found that the first four paragraphs held a very accurate description of the absurd joke that parliamentary politics is and the obvious alienation it generates in all (well, most) people who live their lives in these Western ‘democracies’.
Characterizing the purpose of taxes as “subsidising the excesses of a parasitic class”, Monbiot reaches the peak of his reality-as-sick-and-cruel-satire description with the following nugget: “Unmolested by the public, corporate lobbyists collaborate with this empty political class to turn parliament into a conspiracy against the public. Revolted by these phantoms, seeing nowhere to turn, we withdraw altogether, granting them even richer opportunities to exploit us”.
As bleak as this picture is, it is always refreshing to read something truthful, so I was invigorated by Monbiot’s sudden understanding of our current political system. Unfortunately, this good feeling didn’t last for long, as he immediately fell back into his own/old self when proposing what to do about this utterly disgusting situation, asking people to follow the lead of MoveOn and “bombard their representatives with emails and phone calls, to raise political funds and to propose new legislation.” In short, where there is no movement at all apart from direct action factions or NGOs, he wants us to build a movement – to pressure politicians! And if we’re lucky, it just might reinvigorate the Labour Party to the point where a British Obama comes forth! Wow. You are indeed a true visionary, George!
At this point I’d like to acknowledge that it isn’t exactly a good point of departure for serious discussion to make fun of other points of view. Still, I’d ask the reader to show understanding for the frustration underlying my recourse to irony: how long, exactly, are we going to continue walking into the same dead end? How is it possible that after an absolutely scathing indictment of the system, represented accurately by the parliament-as-conspiracy quote above, the author goes on to suggest we mobilize and organize to – pressure parliament! It beggars belief.
Perhaps it is easier to understand if we make it small scale: imagine a small community, perhaps a Welsh one at that, of 100 people. 2 of them control almost all the resources; the little that is left is owned by another 8 of them, and another 10 or so work in quite close collaboration with these people at the top, while the rest work for them (forgive me if I skip a few layers of class-stratified society). Then, at a certain point in time, the workers become quite unruly demanding better conditions, so those at the top (after having 3 workers working as policemen kill a couple and jail ten of their fellow workers) decide to institute a committee of five people, and allow the community to vote to elect the members of this committee. Then…. I could go on, but you’re probably bored by now. Use your own knowledge to fill in the blanks of who does what and what will happen to this little community if it is a miniature of our society and its development during the 20th Century. Then ask yourselves: would the answer to the problems of this community be to a) strip the owners of their control over the resources and dissolve the committee and institute a system of allocating resources and making collective decisions where everyone has equal say in matters where they are equally affected, or b) to start making phone calls, writing letters, or – since this is small scale – making house calls to the committee members trying to pressure them into making better decisions?
Isn’t the response kind of obvious? Can you then understand my frustration at the fact that this obvious response completely eludes the author and he manages to choose the wrong one of the two options above?
Sure, you may say that it is not so simple to ‘strip the owners of the control’ etc – fine, I agree, it is not simple. But you know what: meaningful change is never going to be simple, and any change at all will have to be preceded by substantial organization, so why not – why on earth not!? – organize around and for something that can actually accomplish meaningful change?
And here’s a thought: maybe, just maybe, it is not just me that gets completely turned off by Monbiot’s lame suggestions and, for this reason, keep retreating into myself and my own life. Maybe, just maybe, this is a general problem applicable to an important part of the disillusioned and currently passive population: we need something we really believe in to start fighting, something to make the effort worthwhile. If the suggested course of action is to ask the “soulless technocrats” in Monbiot’s text to be a bit nicer towards us, then perhaps we cannot be bothered. Maybe we feel that the raging insanity of the current order calls for a better response than asking those responsible for it to behave better, like Shell cleaning up an environmental disaster they caused in the first place, or a pedophile working kindergarten to make amends, or whatever simile you prefer. Maybe we feel they should be behind bars and we should be making the decisions ourselves.
And maybe, just maybe, if enough people started demanding that goal, people like me who are currently not very active but do have a predisposition for activism might get involved. And if enough people like me start organizing around a goal like that, maybe some in the greater mass of disengaged people might be motivated to join in….
Like I said before, all change requires organizing. The real question is what we organize around and for. And it is my strong belief that quite apart from being the right thing to do (shouldn’t we always demand freedom rather than partial slavery?), organizing around what is called much more ‘radical’ goals also stands a better chance of motivating people. For contrary to the logic that says ‘people will only be motivated if they see that the goal is within reach in the short term’ and so we have to focus on tiny reforms, I believe in the logic of ‘people will only be motivated if they think their participation contributes to something really different’ – as they are already completely alienated by both big 20th Century options: capitalist parliamentary ‘democracy’ and communist command economy in a one-party state. They, we, want something radically different, something with a serious, credible and plausible possibility of filling big words like democracy, freedom, justice et al with meaning again. No more empty politicians, soulless technocrats or corporate lobbyists. No more corporations. No state, in its current conception. Coordinated self-management.
That’s what I want, and I dare say I’m not alone. Can you understand that, George?