Out Of The Wreckage – George Monbiot. A story of our times, ‘The Politics of Belonging’.

We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

.

Our astonishing tendencies emerge so early in our lives that they seem to be innate. In other words, we appear to have evolved to be this way.

.

We survived despite being weaker and slower than both our potential predators and most of our prey. We did so through developing, to an extraordinary degree, a capacity for mutual aid. As it was essential to our survival, this urge to cooperate was hard-wired into our brains through natural selection. It has not been lost.

.

The emotional pain caused by isolation from other members of our group drove us to return to them, so that we did not get picked off by predators or die of starvation. Social pain and physical pain are processed in our brains by the same neural circuits (emotional pain, at some point in the evolution of social mammals, seems to have hijacked the physical pain network).

.

Social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation, which might explain the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

.

Social pain can be harder to bear than physical pain, which could be why some people self-harm in response to emotional distress: it could be interpreted as an attempt to replace emotional injury with physical injury. As the prison system knows too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement. We, the supremely social mammal, cannot cope alone: we need connection – togetherness – just as we need food and shelter.

.

Our extraordinary capacity for altruism and our remarkably social nature are the central, crucial facts about humankind. Yet we remain, to an astonishing degree, unaware of them. This is partly because our minds – which are always on the lookout for signs of danger – emphasise the rare but spectacular acts of violence a small proportion of the population inflicts on others, but not the daily acts of kindness and cooperation the rest of us perform, often unconsciously. This tendency is reinforced today by news reports.

.

We remember, for example, the two terrorists who murdered twelve people in Paris in January 2015, and our recollection of that horror persuades us that evil is a central feature of the human condition. Less prominent in our minds are the 3 million people in France and the millions elsewhere who gathered, lit candles and marched in public places in solidarity with the victims. These people, not the two terrorists, represent the human norm. Our innate tendency is to stand together against threats to our well-being, to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.

.

This is what we are. But something has gone horribly wrong.

.

An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world. Once considered an affliction of older people, it is now tormenting people of other generations. Our time is distinguished from previous eras by atomisation: the rupturing of social bonds, the collapse of shared ambitions and civic life, our unbearable isolation from each other. There are over 7 billion souls on Earth, but many people are unable to find anyone with whom they can connect.

.

We live in an era of astonishing material wealth – albeit poorly distributed. But the great general advance in material conditions has not been accompanied, as our forebears might have expected, by general happiness. Instead, this age of atomisation breeds anxiety, discontent and dissatisfaction – conditions that afflict even the wealthiest classes.

.

Craving contentment and a sense of connection, we succumb to compulsions that often find expression in a frenzy of consumption. We chase brief spikes of satisfaction, which soon subside, to be replaced by the urge for another hit.

.

Consumerism – ever restless, never sated – threatens us with climate breakdown, helps catalyse a sixth great extinction, imperils global water supplies, and reduces the many wonders of the living world to the same grey waste. We rip the Earth’s living systems apart to fill the gap in our lives, yet the gap remains. This compulsive, joyless hedonism consumes not only the wonders of nature, but also ourselves.

.

Society, the world’s living systems, our happiness, our self-control, our sense of belonging: all are falling apart. Why has this happened?

.

The pursuit of material satisfactions dulls our concern for other people and for the living planet. It blinds us to our place in the world and the damage we impose on others. It propels us down a narrow corridor of self-interest, self-enhancement and immediate gratification.

.

These tendencies are reinforced by an economic system that puts a price on everything and a value on nothing; a political system that promotes economic growth above all other aims, regardless of whether it enhances human welfare or damages it; and organisational and technological changes that could scarcely have been better designed to drive us apart. We were once brought together by work, travel and entertainment. Now these activities tend to estrange us.

.

Globalisation has weakened our connections with our neighbours and neighbourhoods. Jobs are outsourced to cheaper workforces, causing, in some cases, the collapse of local economies and the communities that depended on them. Power is outsourced to global institutions we cannot influence, undermining our sense of self-ownership and political community. A globalised media creates the impression that, wherever we might be, life is elsewhere.

.

But above all, I believe, the trend towards social breakdown is driven by the dominant political narrative of our times. This narrative is a reiteration of the story told by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651. He asserted that the default state of human relations is a war of everyone against everyone else. Life in the state of nature, he famously observed, was ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’.

.

Competition and individualism are the values at the heart of the twenty-first century’s secular religion. Everywhere we are encouraged to fight for wealth and social position like stray dogs over a dustbin: competition, we are told, brutal as it may be, will enhance our lives to a greater extent than any other instrument. This story is supported by a rich mythology of rugged individualism, and advanced through an inspiring lexicon of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. The word ‘people’ has been widely replaced in the media by ‘individuals’. The most cutting insult we can throw at someone is ‘loser’.

.

Seeing some people grab vast wealth while others go hungry (at the time of writing, the world’s eight richest people have the same net worth as the poorest half of its population) reinforces the sense that this is a dog-eat-dog world. We either join the fight in the hope of triumphing over others or face destitution.

.

Many economists insist that we are typically selfish and self-maximising. They use a term to describe this perception of humanity that sounds serious and scientific: Homo economicus. Most of them seem to be unaware that the concept was formulated, by J. S. Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

.

We have heard the story of our competitive, self-maximising nature so often, and it is told with such panache and persuasive power, that we have accepted it as an account of who we really are. It has changed our perception of ourselves. Our perceptions, in turn, change the way we behave.

.

One result of this mistaken belief is the loss of common purpose. Our tendency is to stop seeing ourselves as people striving together to overcome our common problems, and to view ourselves instead as people striving against each other to overcome our individual problems. Never mind that these problems are often much bigger than we are, and arise from structural forces that no person acting alone can tackle. As individualism is the religion of our times, it must be the solution to whatever crisis we face.

.

Everywhere we seem to hear the same low, insistent whisper: ‘You are on your own.’ Neither the state nor society will save us. They will not solve our problems, even if these problems – such as climate change or economic crises or public health disasters – cannot be addressed by other means. No solutions are proposed for insecurity, precarity and desperation. Indeed, as the cruel eighteenth-century doctrines of Thomas Malthus and Joseph Townsend – ‘it is only hunger which can spur and goad them on to labour’ – are disinterred, precarity and desperation are recast as the necessary incentives to encourage the poor to work harder.

.

The loss of common purpose leads in turn to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change. Many, in recent years, lost their belief in the promise of democracy: that, through voting, mobilising and campaigning, we can make our political systems work for all of us, rather than just a select few. We have tended to face our crises with passivity and resignation. Faith in democratic norms is collapsing. A study published in the Journal of Democracy revealed that, while 72 per cent of those born before the Second World War in the United States believed it was essential to live in a democracy, this figure fell to just 30 per cent of those born in 1980. One in six of the people surveyed asserted that army rule would be a good or very good development – a proportion that has more than doubled in twenty years. A similar slump in political faith has taken place in other countries.

.

If politics as usual no longer delivers, people look elsewhere for answers. This ‘elsewhere’ often means demagoguery: movements characterised by the extreme simplification of political choices, the abandonment of reasoned argument, and scapegoating. The reaction against democratic failure has licensed a clutch of suppressed hatreds – of women, immigrants, racial and religious minorities, difference of all kinds. We witness the resurgence of the kind of politics that until recently seemed to be everywhere in retreat.

.

The potential consequences are grave. Governments founded on lies and exaggerations are making promises they cannot possibly keep, and blaming an ever wider array of scapegoats when they fail to materialise. If jobs are destroyed en masse by automation, this will enhance the need for distraction. As people become angrier and more alienated, the net of blame will be cast wider.

.

Eventually the anger that cannot be answered through policy will be turned outwards, towards other nations. Lacking other means of disguising their failures or establishing legitimacy, governments will discover the potential of foreign aggression. Terrorism provides ample opportunities for justification. Major war, which seemed until recently a distant prospect, begins to look like a plausible threat.

.

We are better than we are told we are, better than we are induced to be. By recognising our good nature and coming together to express it, we can overcome the multiple crises we face that cannot be solved alone. By reconnecting with each other we can conquer loneliness, unhappiness and the loss of our sense of meaning and purpose.

.

Though we still need it, we can no longer rely only on the state. Nor can we rely on the workplace to supply either social connection or economic security. But we can find some of the help we seek in community. By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can recover the best aspects of our humanity. We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours.

.

We will no longer walk alone. We will no longer work alone. We will no longer feel alone. We will restore our sense of belonging: belonging to ourselves, belonging to our communities, belonging to our localities, belonging to the world. In turn, we will develop a politics and an economy that belong to us. By rebuilding community, we will renew democracy and the hope we invest in it. We will develop political systems that are not so big that they cannot respond to us but not so small that they cannot meet the problems we face. We will achieve something that, paradoxically, we cannot realise alone: self-reliance. By helping each other, we help ourselves.

.

The strong, embedded cultures we develop will be robust enough to accommodate social diversity of all kinds: a diversity of people, of origins, of life experiences, of ideas and ways of living. We will no longer need to fear people who differ from ourselves; we will have the strength and confidence to reject attempts to channel hatred towards them.

.

By rebuilding community, we become proud of our society, proud of our institutions, proud of our nations, proud of ourselves. By coming together we discover who we are. We ignite our capacity for empathy and altruism. Togetherness and belonging allow us to become the heroes of the story.

.

We are astonishing creatures, blessed with an amazing capacity for kindness and care towards others. But this good nature has been thwarted by a mistaken view of our own humanity. We have been induced by certain politicians, economists and commentators to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other, and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.

.

Though it is not the only factor, this has helped to usher in an age of loneliness, in which, on this crowded planet, we are disconnected from each other as never before. The result is an epidemic of unhappiness and of psychological and physical illness. The atomisation we suffer has eroded our sense of common purpose and sapped our belief that, by working together, we can change life for the better. It has undermined democracy, and allowed intolerant and violent forces to fill the political vacuum. We are trapped in a vicious circle of alienation and reaction.

.

By coming together to revive community life, we, the heroes of this story, can break the vicious circle. Through invoking the two great healing forces – togetherness and belonging – we can rediscover the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid.
Where there is atomisation, we will create a thriving civic life. Where there is alienation, we will forge a new sense of belonging: to neighbours, neighbourhood and society. Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we will develop a new economics that treats both people and planet with respect. Where we are ignored and exploited, we will revive democracy and retrieve politics from those who have captured it.

.

In doing so, we can reclaim our happiness, reclaim our self-reliance, reclaim our pride, and reclaim our place. We will belong once more both to society and to ourselves.

.

I propose a name for this story: ‘The Politics of Belonging’.

.

Community, togetherness and belonging are values invoked across the political spectrum. Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke might have agreed on little else, but in this respect they seemed to be as one. Paine wrote: ‘The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together.’ Burke famously insisted: ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.’ Few people would disagree with either writer on this point.

.

Many of those who have voted for demagogues and extremists have stumbled into this choice through disillusionment, alienation and the absence of stories that make sense of their lives. Most are not ill-intentioned. When they heard someone calling through the political void – someone who, instead of speaking in robotic platitudes, named their problems and promised solutions, however crude and unlikely those solutions were – they responded. A few years previously, they might have voted for parties that emphasised entirely different values.

.

The task of effective politics today is to reach across the divides and find common ground.
*
I have sketched out the basic components of a new story. But if it is to help to catalyse change, we need to know more. We need a deeper understanding of the problems we confront.

.

The central task of this book is to show how community can be rebuilt and how the politics of belonging might develop.

.

I see this book as just one of the many building blocks required to construct a new politics. It sits upon the foundational work of many inspiring people, and I hope it will encourage others to contribute to a new political architecture. Like all the best things in life, this is something we should build together.
***
Out Of The Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis
by George Monbiot

.

get it from

Amazon.com

.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s