‘It has seeped into our language, our understanding of the choices we face and our conception of ourselves,’ he writes. ‘We cannot step back far enough to see it’
In Out of the Wreckage Monbiot tells the story of the idea, its rise to power as an ideology and the major hand he sees it play in the gross inequalities, environmental destruction and political upheaval of today. ‘We cannot contest a narrative until we’ve named it,’ he says. It’s getting late, night is rolling in on our confused neoliberal world and Monbiot sits down to tell us a story.
He recounts the word’s beginnings in the 1930s, when it was coined by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek as a counter to meddling governments: ‘Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as examples of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as Nazism and communism.’
During the 20th century, neoliberalism became a model whereby ‘the freedoms of the opulent should be absolute... just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable,’ explains Monbiot. In a world according to Hayek, taxation, trade unions, universal health care and the conservation of natural resources are obstructions to the individual’s triumph.
Hayek’s principles largely became mainstream with Margaret Thatcher, who ‘according to Labour party folklore’ kept a copy of his manifesto in her handbag. However, most remarkable to Monbiot ‘was the ideology’s adoption by the parties that once belonged to the left, such as Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the United States.’ Because the Democrats became so beholden to the deep pockets of financial institutions, he believes ‘the very rich owned both halves of the presidential contest’ last year.
“His take-home point is that we are selling ourselves short”
Monbiot believes neoliberalism’s principles of selfishness and competition do not describe us as accurately as they claim to, despite its global influence. ‘We are better than we are told we are,’ he argues again and again. ‘We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about welfare.’ With the aim of abating our self-hate, he reels off examples of communal strengths: groups turning streets into temporary playgrounds, others banning cars for ‘pocket parks’, guerrilla gardening schemes and community libraries tackling the loneliness epidemic. He points out that community projects do not exist in any standard economic models, but argues that they should.
Further, he offers that the solution to bouncing between the market and state- led politics is to extend and defend the ‘commons’, which have been ‘conspicuously absent from both the economic models and the most dominant ideologies’ for the past two centuries. These can be common resources such as the land, the air, seeds or fisheries, as well as more virtual commons such as academic knowledge – Wikipedia and the internet.The latter is especially relevant – last May the US Federal Communications Commission proposed to overturn net neutrality rules. If it succeeds, internet providers could designate fast and slow ‘lanes’ for web traffic depending on which content providers pay them more. Monbiot calls this ‘the enclosure of the internet’.
“Increasing the commons, he admits, would undoubtedly cause conflicts, especially where it would need the reclaiming of land”
As the old Mark Twain adage goes ‘they aren’t making it anymore’ – almost all land is already enclosed by private individuals or the state. When it comes to the state, the role he gives to it is unexpected, and his criticisms of its ‘top-down’ services are surprising.
The true success of Out of the Wreckage is Monbiot’s ability to explain complicated political theory in approachable terms. His thoughtful, yet succinct quips such as ‘man is born free but is everywhere in chain stores’ captivate from start to finish. Vitally, though, his vision comes from a feeling of well-founded hope that the human race is not so bad after all. It is a hope backed up by findings in science, psychology, and economics and, as he explains, is demonstrated by the thousands of selfless actions people make as communities every day.
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