Why George Monbiot is fighting to build a 'politics of belonging' to better our world

Left-wing and right-wing governments around the world have fallen into the same trap, a failure of leadership to inspire a cohesive vision of society that ordinary citizens can share. What is to be done? Author George Monbiot suggests a new way of conceptualizing the common good, and forging a politics of belonging.

The British writer offers a new vision for society built around our capacity for altruism

Author George Monbiot points toward a new way of conceptualizing the common good and forging a politics of belonging in his book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. (Dave Stelfox/Verso Books)

*Originally published on September 11, 2020.

This episode is  part of our series called The Common Good. Throughout the season, we will ask one basic question: what do we owe each other?

What we share in common, and how best to make sure we share it equitably is an eternal puzzle for George Monbiot. From globalization, advertising, health, genetic engineering, hunting or farming, he always has his eye on fairness. 

The British writer continues to keep this challenge at the fore of his column for The Guardian and in his most recent book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, underlining the principle: what do I owe my neighbour and how can we better citizens? 

"Here are some of the things I try to fight: environmental destruction, undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency," Monbiot writes on his website.

Writer George Monbiot was arrested in London's Trafalgar Square, October 16, 2019, for defying the climate protest ban. (Peter Summers/Getty Images)

The former investigative journalist is now a prolific activist with a call-to-arms to re-imagine politics and activism in this age of crisis. He argues a 'new politic' is what we need in a world driven by toxic ideology and extreme individualism. The way forward, he says, is to envision a future with a new story that will re-engage people in politics.

"Without a new political narrative that tells us where we are, who we are, how we got here and where we're trying to go, it is impossible to move on," Monbiot tells IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

"We remain stuck within the old narratives which shaped the way that we perceive politics, and the way that politics is executed. And what you see in the case of all successful political and religious transformations is that they are accompanied by a new story."

Communities of belonging

The new story we need, Monbiot says, is one that is based on the idea of community, and of place. 

"We should defend the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful, the defenceless against the armed. We should defend the biosphere that gives us life: both because it is wonderful and because those of us who possess agency (who are alive today and have money) have no right to deprive others (who are not yet born or who are poor) of their means of survival. We must treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves. None of these aims can be passively achieved. All involve confrontation. " — George Monbiot 

He argues that our new story must deny what neo-liberalism has created, "that we are individuals rather than societies, and that we should see ourselves as a solution for all our problems, rather than recognizing that there are such things as structural problems that has thrown us into serious disorder."

Monbiot argues creating communities of "mutual concern, of mutual aid, where we support each other, as indeed many people have been doing during the coronavirus pandemic" is key. 

"We create a sense of belonging, whoever you might be, wherever you might have come from, however briefly, you might stay in this area while you are there — you belong," says Monbiot. 

"And out of that, we start to rebuild political society. We start to rebuild political action based very strongly on local initiatives to improve the lives of all."

'The mess we got ourselves into'

So how did we get here? Where systems have failed to give us a functioning community or a sustainable global environmental system? Monbiot lists neo-liberalism, capitalism and governance as the culprits.

"We are societies of altruists governed by psychopaths, that those who claim to represent us, those who get into positions of power, are very often wildly different in that psychology to those whom they claim to represent."

Monbiot admits society is greedy and selfish (a bit) but he adds research shows "our overriding values are the opposite. They are empathy and altruism and community-spirit and family belonging.

"They're all about being with other people, working alongside other people, doing good stuff with other people."

However, Monbiot points to studies that show for those in power who govern, selfishness and greediness tend to be dominant values. 

"Somehow we, as broadly altruistic people, have allowed profoundly selfish and grasping psychopathic, narcissistic people to govern us and to tell us how our lives should be run.

"And I think we've sort of been just led into that incrementally, step-by-step until we can't stand back far enough to see the mess we got ourselves into."

*This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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