Out Of The Wreckage, A New Politics for an Age of Crisis – George Monbiot.

Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.
Ben Okri, A Way of Being Free
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You cannot take away someone’s story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace it with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum.

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Those who tell the stories run the world. The old world, which once looked stable, even immutable, is collapsing. A new era has begun, loaded with hazard if we fail to respond, charged with promise if we seize the moment. Whether the systems that emerge from this rupture are better or worse than the current dispensation depends on our ability to tell a new story, a story that learns from the past, places us in the present and guides the future.

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Stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the Emotional Brain makes sense of the information collected by the Rational Brain.

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A string of facts, however well attested, has no power to correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative ‘truth’ established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story.

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Effective stories tend to possess a number of common elements. They are easy to understand. They can be briefly summarised and quickly memorised. They are internally consistent. They concern particular characters or groups. There is a direct connection between cause and effect. They describe progress – from a beginning through a middle to an end. The end resolves the situation encountered at the beginning, with a conclusion that is positive and inspiring.

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Our minds appear to be attuned not only to stories in general, but to particular stories that follow consistent patterns.

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In politics, there is a recurring story that captures our attention. It goes like this:

Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero – who might be one person or a group of people – revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.

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Stories that follow this pattern can be so powerful that they sweep all before them: even our fundamental values.

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The two most successful political stories of the twentieth century – both of which have survived into the twenty-first – are diametrically opposed to each other, but follow the same narrative pattern.

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The social-democratic story explains that the world fell into disorder – characterised by the Great Depression – because of the self-seeking behaviour of an unrestrained elite. The elite’s capture of both the world’s wealth and the political system resulted in the impoverishment and insecurity of working people. By uniting to defend their common interests, the world’s people could throw down the power of this elite, strip it of its ill-gotten gains and pool the resulting wealth for the good of all. Order and security would be restored in the form of a protective, paternalistic state, investing in public projects for the public good, generating the wealth that would guarantee a prosperous future for everyone. The ordinary people of the land – the heroes of the story – would triumph over those who had oppressed them.

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The neoliberal story explains that the world fell into disorder as a result of the collectivising tendencies of the over-mighty state, exemplified by the monstrosities of Stalinism and Nazism, but evident in all forms of state planning and all attempts to engineer social outcomes. Collectivism crushes freedom, individualism and opportunity. Heroic entrepreneurs, mobilising the redeeming power of the market, would fight this enforced conformity, freeing society from the enslavement of the state. Order would be restored in the form of free markets, delivering wealth and opportunity, guaranteeing a prosperous future for everyone. The ordinary people of the land, released by the heroes of the story (the freedom-seeking entrepreneurs) would triumph over those who had oppressed them.

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Because of their narrative power and a disastrous failure to develop effective countervailing stories, they have yet to be replaced. The facts changed, but our minds did not. If the rupture is to be resolved for good rather than for ill, we need a new story. Our challenge is to produce one that is faithful to the facts, faithful to our values, and faithful to the narrative patterns to which we respond.

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Like many people who seek a generous, inclusive politics, I have been listening for such a story, waiting for its bugle call to resound, so that we can rally in the expectation of a better future. The wait continues. Most mainstream parties seek only to tweak existing narratives.

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Despair is the state we fall into when our imagination fails. When we have no stories that describe the present and guide the future, hope evaporates. Political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. Without a new story, a story that is positive and propositional rather than reactive and oppositional, nothing changes. With such a story, everything changes.

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In seeking to develop a restorative political story around which we can gather and mobilise, we should first identify the values and principles we want to champion. This is because the stories we tell propagate the beliefs around which they are built.

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When stories are designed for a political purpose and circulated to advance this purpose, they have the power to change or strengthen our values. The most grotesque doctrines can look like common sense when embedded in a compelling narrative, as Lenin, Hitler, Georges Sorel, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Ayn Rand discovered. The failure to tell a new story has been matched by an equally remarkable omission: the failure to discern and describe the values and principles that might inform our politics.

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Values are the bedrock of effective politics. They represent the importance we place on fundamental ways of being, offering a guide to what we consider to be good and worthwhile.

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Our values tend to cluster around certain poles. Social psychologists sometimes describe these poles as intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic values, in their purest form, are expressed as compassion, connectedness and kindness towards all living beings, including oneself. Extrinsic values are expressed as a desire for self-enhancement, through gaining, for example, status or power.

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People with a strong set of intrinsic values and a weaker set of extrinsic values have high levels of self-acceptance, strong bonds of intimacy and a powerful desire to help other people. They are strongly inclined towards empathy, understanding, and independent thought and action. Research across seventy nations suggests that intrinsically motivated people are more open to change, have a stronger interest in universal rights and equality, and a stronger desire to protect and cherish both human beings and the natural world than more extrinsically motivated people.

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Surveys of both children and adults reveal that the value which tends to be favoured above all others is what psychologists call ‘benevolence’, by which they mean protecting or advancing the welfare of people we know.

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The smaller number of people at the extrinsic end of the spectrum are more attracted to prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth. They are strongly motivated by the prospect of individual reward and praise. They have little interest in cooperation or community. People who emphasise these values tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end.

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We are not born with these values. They are strongly shaped by our social environment, by the cues and responses we receive from other people, and by the stories we tell ourselves and each other. They are also shaped by the political environment. If people live under a cruel and grasping political system, they tend to normalise and internalise it, absorbing its dominant trends and translating them into extrinsic values. This, in turn, permits an even crueller and more grasping political system to emerge. If, by contrast, people live in a country in which no one is allowed to fall out of the boat, in which social norms are characterised by kindness, empathy, community and freedom from want and fear, their values are likely to shift towards the intrinsic end. This process is known as policy feedback, or the Values Ratchet.

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If our purpose is to create a kinder world, we should embed within the political story we tell the intrinsic values that promote this aim: empathy, understanding, connectedness with other people, self-acceptance, independent thought and action.

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Those who promote this story should know what their values are and be able to name them without hesitation or embarrassment. In doing so, they help to develop a social environment that fosters their aspirations, turning the Values Ratchet in the right direction.

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Principles could be seen as the soil that derives from the bedrock of values. Political principles are the fundamental propositions at the heart of a political philosophy. In other words, they are a description of the world as we would like it to be. Again, they need to be expressed clearly and overtly, so that they can be explained and spread with pride and conviction.

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A Statement of Principles

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1.We want to live in a place guided by empathy, respect, justice, generosity, courage, fun and love.
2.We want to live in a place governed by judgements that are honestly made, supported by evidence, accountable and transparent.
3.We want to live in a place in which everyone’s needs are met, without harming the living world or the prosperity of future generations.
4.We want to live in a place in which the fruits of the work we do and the resources we use are fairly and widely distributed, in which shared prosperity is a general project, and the purpose of economic life is to enable universal well-being.
5.We want to live in a place in which all people have equal rights, in practice as well as in theory.
6.We want to live in a place in which all people can feel secure, confident, safe and cared for.
7.We want to live in a place in which, regardless of where they were born, everyone has a neighbourhood of which they feel proud, where they can freely participate in the life of the community.
8.We want to live in a place which, proudly and consistently, supports people in need of help, including those fleeing from danger and persecution abroad.
9.We want to live in a place in which a thriving natural world provides a refuge both for rich and abundant wildlife and for people seeking relief from the clamour of daily life.
10.We want to live in a place whose political system is fair and fully representative, in which everyone has a voice and every vote counts, and whose outcomes can neither be bought nor otherwise engineered.
11.We want to live in a place in which decisions are taken at the most appropriate level, to enhance democratic participation and connection.
12.We want to live in a place in which everyone has access to the information needed to make meaningful democratic choices, and in which political debate is honest, accessible and inclusive.
13.We want to live in a place in which education is a joyful process, encouraging children of all abilities to engage with enthusiasm, and adults to continue learning throughout their lives.
14.We want to live in a place in which good housing, fast and effective healthcare and a healthy, sufficient diet are available to everyone.
15.We want to live in a place that helps to build a safe, prosperous and resilient community of nations.
16.We want to live in a place that is open to new ideas and information, and that values creativity, research and discovery.

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A set of principles, important as it is, does not constitute a story. Nor can all the principles I have listed be incorporated into a story – they cover too much ground to create a coherent or satisfying narrative. But in seeking to develop one, we should be constantly aware of what we are trying to achieve. If the story succeeds, is it likely to advance these principles or clash with them? Is the political environment it creates likely to nurture the society they describe?

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Out Of The Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis
by George Monbiot

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Amazon.com

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