Politics and Narratives

By | September 28, 2017

In the aftermath of the 2015 general election I made the point that Ed Miliband’s Labour had – and the polls confirmed it – popular policies, but that it lacked a narrative that bound them together and exercised a broad and deep enough appeal to the electorate. Its plot, such as it was, certainly did not engage its once traditonal but now disillusioned and anomic working-class support-base. Years of New Labour neglect had taken its toll. I have elsewhere written of ‘disconnected fatalism’ in precisely this context. Miliband tried to construct a new narrative, but in the face of obdurate Blairite opposition, as well as UKIP’s surge, it was barely recognisable as such, too thin and too late.

George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage identifies and addresses this lack of a coherent, credible narrative envisioning a better society: ‘the only thing that can displace a story is a story’.

Streeck and others have argued that capitalism may well be on its last legs (which I am inclined to believe), in part because there is no opposition to a near-ubiquitous neoliberal ideology (and again I am inclined to concur). If so, the race is on for the creation of a truly oppositional narrative that is more effective for the working-class (understood in its broadest sense) than it is for the governing oligarchy.

Monbiot’s short book is elegant, wide-ranging and convincing. I first list the principles that guide him and the ‘basics’ of his thesis. Monbiot’s principles are:

  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 jusgements 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, withjout 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 faily and widely distributed, in which shared prosperity is a general project, and the purposre 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.

It is worth noting that these principles are Monbiot’s; might be classified after Gilbert Ryle as ‘hurrah principles’ (who – at least in the ‘west’ – could dissent?); and are likely to have a stronger general appeal to professional and middle-class readers (and who else will read his book?), and a stronger particular appeal to those I have designated elsewhere as ‘dedicated meta-reflexives’. But these qualifications do not undo Monbiot’s prescriptions.

So Monbiot’s narrative is informed by his/these values and principles. A precis of the narrative it spawns comprises:

  • The longing for belonging – humans possess a capacity for altruism and reciprocity that has been suppressed by the ideology of neoliberalism and competition that have led to alienation and loneliness. We have been mislead into aspiring to compete successfully. ‘This has frustrated our potential to do what humans do best: to see a threat to one as a threat to all; to find common ground in confronting our predicaments; and to unite to overcome them.’ We need to perceive and name the power – neoliberalism – that has exacerbated our isolation and collective loss of agency. By confronting this power ‘we rekindle our imagination and discover our power to act.’
  • Good fellowship – community projects proliferate into a vibrant, participatory culture that transforms neighbourhoods and strengthens our sense of attachment and ownership. A flourishing community stimulates our ‘inner urge’ to cooperate. Community building also exhorts a new politics.
  • The common weal – community management and ownership of resources ensures that wealth is shared and the sense of belonging strengthened. Using common riches to fund universal benefits provides everyone with security and resilience. A kinder world stimulates and normalises kinder values. Moreover, by taking control of public investment, we take ownership of both our localities and our lives. We become – and see ourselves as – political agents rather than supplicants. These shifts help us embrace a new, environment-friendly economics.
  • Owning the system – reclaiming democratic power builds a communal politics. A real democracy is one that allows the people to design the system. New systems allow for every vote to count and ensure that financial power can never vanquish political power. Representative democracy is reinforced by participatory democracy. Global bodies that have seized power without a democratic mandate are either dissolved or democratised. Decision-making is returned to ‘the smallest political political units that can discharge it.’ ‘Power becomes a function of community.’
  • The wisdom of crowds – ‘organising self-motivated networks of volunteers, using the wisdom of crowds to refine and enhance new political techniques, we mobilise a force that the power of money can never match: mutual aid, operating on a grand scale.’
  • Coming home to ourselves – restoring community, renewing civic life and ‘claiming our place in the world’ promises a future and society in which our (species-specific) altruism, empathy and deep connection is released. ‘When we emerge from the age of loneliness and alienation, from an obsession with competition and extreme individualism, from the worship of image and celebrity and power and welath, we will find a person waiting for us. It is a person better than we might have imagined, whose real character has been suppressed. It is the one who lives inside us, who has been there all along.’

Much of Monbiot’s book is devoted to mapping political and policy means to his principled ends, and to spelling out specifics. But my focus here is on narratives per se.

When dealing in specifics, especially economic reform, Monbiot draws on Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. I mention this for two inter-related reasons: first, Raworth’s book is refreshingly innovative; and second, it is innovatve precisely because she refuses to be held captive by numerous long-held an dundisputed premises of capitalist economics. This second point is important. It embraces not just classical and contemporary schools of economics but also, on occasions, critics, including Marx and neo-Marxists.

I have a number of comments to add to Monbiot’s text. First, I agree whole-heartedly that there is an urgent requirment for a convincing ‘left narrative for change’. Monbiot contributes to this.

Second, Corbyn’s appeal has allowed for a range of policies dismisseed during post-1970s financial capitalism as ‘Old Labour’ or, worse, ‘socialist, to be revived. ‘Socialism’ is no longer a dirty word (as Tory ideologists using it as such are slowly discovering). Incidentally, this shift brings to mind the resurgence of interest in ‘communism’ among European philosophers and theorists, who see in it utopian potentials beyond Soviet usurpation; but we are not yet ready for the word however much of value and promise nestles within the historical concept!

Third, there is in a sense a need for a double-narrative. Monbiot’s input is into the first of these: a wide-ranging manifesto for social transformation of a kind familiar to socialists here and overseas. The second is a slick encapsulation of the manfesto somewhere between ‘For the many, not the Few’ and a detailed and costed programme. Off the top of my head, the five Rs:

  1. Revitalising the economy
  2. Reducing inequality and insecurity
  3. Restoring a sense of community
  4. Respecting the environment
  5. Redirecting foreign policy

Ok, I’m no advertsing executive!

Fourth, it is important that the narrative is underwritten by a determination to follow through, no mere rhetorical device. This requires its anchorage in an extra-parliamentary movement. As Ralph Miliband argued, a handful of elected politicans must serve such a movement not command it (and it’s said he had two sons to prove he was right).

Finally, and this is a source of continuing frustration for me as a sociologist, it is no good having a compelling narrative, even a double-narrative, unless there exists alongside it a plan of implementation that takes due account of the forces that can be summoned against it. A quick perusal of Monbiot’s principles and embryonic programme for change should be enough to alert us. Monbiot is of course aware of this. So – perhaps the key question now facing we sociologists – how is power to be transferred from the few to the many: (a) without violence, and (b) without such a power shift being a mere interlude between financial capitalism and a successor phase?



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