Book Review: Out of the Wreckage

Since I seem incapable of writing blogs these days, I thought I would go back to basics.  Read a book, write a review.  Here’s hoping this helps me get back in the habit of blogging more regularly.

In the book Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, author George Monbiot seeks to identify the root causes of what he sees as the breaking down of our social, political, economic and ecological systems, and chart a path towards a better future.  On my bookshelf at home, I have a number of books about what inclusive and participatory democracy/just and sustainable economics/meaningful community and social connections, would look like (each with only one or two real life examples).  At some points in Out of the Wreckage, I thought it would be similar to those: a lot of good ideas, no meaningful attempt to argue for how to get from where we are to what they are saying would be a lot better.  However, ultimately Monbiot’s book takes us farther on two fronts.  First, it explores and seeks to define the central causes of our current situation (as my IBP colleagues can attest, I’m rather insistent on good problem identification and analysis).  Second, it gives some concrete steps for action that could make a difference, while also articulating a broader vision of a direction for change.

I often think that things need to get worse before they can get better.  Indeed, had this book been written five years ago, it might have just been a decent diagnosis and a collection of good ideas.  Our deepening crises have allowed for a clearer understanding of the problem, and some inspiration from some recent attempts to move us in a better direction.

Let’s start with the problem.  Monbiot is a journalist by trade, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he focuses on stories and narratives.  At first I was a bit skeptical, thinking that he would say that this is the only cause or that the solution is just to tell a better story or tell it better.  He does say that the dominant (though increasingly invisible) narrative of neoliberalism is a root cause of our crises.  The neoliberal project has eroded the innate drive to connect and support each other that makes us human.  Monbiot points to the 100’s of small acts of kindness that humans do; this is what separates us from the rest of the animal world where it’s down to survival of the fittest.  Neoliberalism preaches this same doctrine, and was – unsurprisingly – taken up with enthusiasm by wealthy individuals and corporations.  The ideology was cloaked in the language of liberty and embedded in political parties from the 1980’s onward (the book does focus more on the USA and the UK; the parallels to countries like Brazil and India are certainly relevant, even if the path has been different).  Despite the fact the policies it has led to have made most people worse off, it has seldom been challenged.  Most center-left parties over the past 25 years have just sold a neoliberal-light formulation that has become increasingly less compelling.

In other words, this is narrative and ideology married to political and economic power.  That’s what makes the neoliberal project so persistent and far reaching.  The result has been the decimation of community, wellbeing and ecological balance.  Along the way, powerful actors have had to increasingly undermine democracy in order to continue their project, and in doing so, have been able to make neoliberalism increasingly invisible.  Thus, few people understand the root causes of our present crises.   Even the gross inequality that is increasingly obvious, or the clear efforts to destroy our democratic institutions, do not in and of themselves tell us why things moved in this direction.  It was the power of an ideology that justified a radical transformation of the state, economy and society, cloaked in a story about an overbearing state, freeloading welfare queens, and the glory of individualism.  The greatest casualty along the way has been our sense of belonging; our propensity to live in community.

True to the title, Monbiot spends more of the book talking about alternatives than the problem.  As I mentioned, he covers a lot of familiar territory, from participatory budgeting that leads to lower infant mortality in Brazil to Scandinavian cooperatives that laid the foundations for social democracy.  But the most important parts of the book are about how to change our societies and our politics, not what those changes would entail.

Monbiot points to the ways in which we can enhance community life, and the impact this has on our values.  Helping us express our innate propensity to solidarity and kindness that our current politics and economics continually undermines.  He notes that our political preferences are increasingly driven by our identity and values, and those we think represent them.  Education and information can help, but often pass through the filters of our internal narratives and values.  So to change our politics, we need to reshape our values and thus tell ourselves a different story.  The political movements that created the welfare state in many countries started out by creating political community that sought to change peoples’ values, then educate them about political possibilities, and only then generate political action, and eventually public policies.

Thus, Monbiot sees a line of action around a narrative of connection and belonging, with small acts of engaging people in community life.  However, he is also influenced by the politics of the United States over the past two years.  He focuses on the volunteer-led Bernie Sanders campaign and the political tactics of Indivisible.  Putting these together, he sees a possibility to engage people in a campaign, and a political movement, that could reform our democracies.

Monbiot notes what many others have observed when big protests are sparked but then fizzle:  a protest, unless it’s so big that it topples a regime (even then, mobilizing people in a massive protest is far different than building a political organization – a lesson from the Tahrir square movement and other protests), is a wasted opportunity if it’s not directly tied to an ongoing campaign and organizing.  What the Sanders campaign realized, too late in the process to fully unleash it, was that when the right message (and/or messenger) motivates people, they can create an ever expanding volunteer network that can run most of the campaign.  In other words, when you have a narrative, you can unleash peoples’ collective capacity to organize and to connect to each other.  The campaign was predicated on people organizing themselves to reach out to other people to talk about politics and about Sanders.  Some of those people joined the organizing network.  Social media allowed this to expand even more rapidly.

This has obvious implications for a political campaign, one that can run on people power rather than corporate money.  But what about between elections?  This kind of ‘big organizing’ could be married with the political tactics of Indivisible, and punctuated by protests that would make the movement more visible and let people take a first step of engagement.  Participants would be encouraged and guided to take the next – carefully pre-pared – step in the campaign: calling their congressperson, signing up to volunteer, etc.  A limitation of this prescription is that it doesn’t sufficiently engage with the patchwork of existing organizations and movements out there, but suggests building a quicker – but thinner – individual-to-campaign infrastructure: mobilizing rather than organizing, which has constraints.

Despite some limitations, this does seem like an interesting combination, and one that will surely be attempted sometime in the remainder of the Trump presidency, if not the next presidential campaign.  However, this is a means to an end.  Monbiot suggests that this approach could lead to a major reform, the most pressing – and difficult – of which is perhaps that of campaign finance.  But his longer term vision is not just a successful campaign, or even a new way of successfully campaigning, but the renewal of political and social life.  Out of the Wreckage is a manifesto for a new narrative, based on a new set of values around belonging and inclusiveness, and a corresponding way of doing politics that empower people and allows them to live out their values in the political domain.  This aligns with what scholars of institutional change (like Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail), have argued: we must change politics before we can change our institutions. There is no shortcut out of this mess, no institutional quick fix or silver bullet policy reform.  Change must take place on multiple, mutually reinforcing fronts in order to address the root causes of our current challenges.  Monbiot’s book gives us a better sense of what these causes are, and how we can start to move in a different direction.

Obviously, I liked Out of the Wreckage, perhaps more than I thought I would.  Maybe this is because I’m desperate from a hopeful message during this bleak time in the US.  But also because it has some elements that I like to see in any change strategy:

  • Problem diagnosis and analysis – these are not the same things, and Monbiot does spend a fair bit of time peeling layers of the onion to get to some root causes of our current situation.
  • Theory of Change and Theory of Action – Monbiot talks about how change can happen (for better or worse) more generally, including how we got to where we are now, but then frames his change strategy within that broader understanding.
  • Multi-level strategy – Monbiot articulates a change strategy with multiple levels and time frames: individual actions each of us can take; campaign tactics that could be used over the medium term; and long-term shifts that could address the deeper causes. This overlays nicely with his problem analysis, while providing options for different actors across the system.
  • Intermediate and long term indicators of progress – Monbiot sketches out some long term changes in the political, economic and social realm, but also points to smaller shifts that would indicate some incremental progress. He gives a sense of how these small, incremental pieces could add up to more than the sum of their parts.

So that’s what I took away from Out of the Wreckage, a hopeful message but also a vision of change grounded in some solid strategic elements.  Obviously, this is only one diagnosis of the problem and one suggestion about the road forward.  Many others are likely just as valid and compelling, and would be required for a more holistic understanding of our current situation and to inform action.  But Monbiot’s book is a good place to start.

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