I’m going to praise the heck out of yet another terrific book I’ve just read while yet again exclaiming (into a deep empty echoing canyon?) my bewilderment and outrage at the glaring omission it makes — the same one as all the other books.
George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis is part familiar; part original, creative, and inspiring; and pretty much all right-on and necessary. Its first chapter should be required reading everywhere — with the hope that whoever needs or wants the details will finish the book.
However, there remains something bizarrely off about any book on politics, and chiefly on U.S. and British politics, with a particular focus on economics and budgets, that avoids any mention of military spending. This is perhaps even odder in a book focused on alienation and togetherness, hostile separation and communal belonging. I don’t want to minimize the bowling-alone forces of societal atomization found in road construction and deunionization, but some might argue that murdering thousands of people from airplanes is also a force opposed to community, belonging, kindness, and altruism. And even those who won’t agree with that must be hard-pressed to give a basic outline of public spending without noticing the existence of war.
Now, one can give Monbiot some slack for being British. Military spending is much bigger by every measure in the United States, and even most Democratic candidates for Congress won’t mention it, even the Bernie Sanders campaign for president that Monbiot points to as a model to emulate wouldn’t touch it. But the commonness of being wrong doesn’t alter the status of being wrong. And this book focuses on U.S. politics, about which virtually all U.S. commentators are usually wrong.
In the United States, 60% or so of the money that Congress decides on each year (because Social Security and healthcare are treated separately) goes to militarism. That’s according to the National Priorities Project, which also says that, considering the whole budget, and not counting debt for past militarism, and not counting care for veterans, militarism is still 16%. Meanwhile, the War Resisters League says that 47% of U.S. income taxes go to militarism, including debt for past militarism, veterans’ care, etc.
UK military spending is less, less per-capita, less per-GDP, etc., but still enormous, still the only place one might find money that is being either wasted or spent destructively in sufficient amounts to do what needs to be done constructively. Monbiot discusses environmental destruction without mentioning militarism as its greatest cause, just as he mentions economic insecurity, the erosion of rights and liberties, the defunding of useful programs, the spread of distrust and bigotry, the growth of terrorism, etc., without mentioning one of the primary causes of all of these. I am not, let me reemphasize, picking on Monbiot. This is true of most books from the U.S., U.K., or anywhere else. I bring it up yet again, in part just to repeat it yet again, and in part because perhaps Monbiot is someone who can provide an explanation for it — one that I would be eager to hear.
What this book gets right is wonderfully summarized in the first chapter, whose list of principles omits peace, but whose outline of a “new story” is critically important, and dovetails with the new stories told by those promoting peace. What distinguishes humanity from other species, Monbiot writes, is altruism and cooperation. Terrorists who disproportionately make the news, he explains, are far outnumbered by those who rally against terrorism. I think this is right, even though those who do so also tend to pay war taxes without protest and avoid noticing how that contributes to generating the lesser but more objectionable terrorist blowback. Later in the book, Monbiot suggests that terrorism is a response to a crisis of modernity, a commercial society, etc., while in fact almost all foreign terrorism and some domestic terrorism is a response to bombing people and occupying their countries.
Because we are altruistic, or can be altruistic, Monbiot goes on, the story we need to undo is the Hobbesian tale of competition and individualism — a belief system that indeed unites those who call themselves conservatives, libertarians, moderates, and many liberals. The rational rightwing economic individual fantasized as taking part in the games of game theories, Monbiot points out, started as a thought experiment by John Stuart Mill, became a modeling tool, became an ideological ideal, and then evolved into a supposed description of how people actually are or even how they must always be. But in fact living humans are not the selfish, isolated units so imagined. And thinking that one must always rely exclusively on oneself for solutions lends itself to the political belief that some other individual, a dictator, a Trump can better arrive at solutions than a democratic process could.
Monbiot wants us to think of ourselves as altruistic, communal creatures who belong to each other. He might agree with those who on U.S. Independence Day announce their support for Interdependence Day instead. He also wants to elevate community above government or workplace as a source for solutions, even while recognizing the need for government on the largest scale. He calls this the “Politics of Belonging.” (Hey, that was ACORN’s idea! It seems to have powerful opponents.)
I agreed with this when I spoke recently of the underestimation of both altruism and sadism. What is overestimated — I would agree with Monbiot — is selfishness, independence, individualism, greed.
I did not disagree with this the many, many times I’ve proposed abandoning entirely the concept of “human nature.” Monbiot, later in the book, speaks of altering human nature. Once you’re speaking of something that can be changed, you’re not trapping yourself in the philosophical and nonsensical concept of an immutable human nature that must be somehow followed even though not following it would supposedly be impossible.
What I would do is amend Monbiot’s evolutionarily accurate and politically beneficial portrait of humanity to include a sense of global, not just local and national, community — in fact prioritizing the local and regional and global over the now-exaggerated national — and to include a shift to nonviolent resolution of conflict rather than institutionalized mass murder. I’m confident this would be taken as a friendly amendment.
But how do we get people to think of themselves, of ourselves, differently? Monbiot suggests that a neoliberal Hobbesian view of humanity has outlasted all sorts of real world failures because people have so internalized it as to not even be aware of it, and because an alternative story has not been presented to them. So, we need a sort of societal therapy that makes people aware of how they have been thinking, and provides a preferable way of thinking as an alternative.
Monbiot, as I read him, suggests a sort of think-globally and act-locally form of therapy through action. By forming communal structures and behaviors locally, we can develop habits and modes of thought that facilitate a change in worldview. But this means inverting, or making a cycle, of the concept “think globally, act locally.” We must act locally and then work on improving our thinking about a larger scale.
I say “larger scale” because Monbiot mostly writes about nationalist thinking, not globalist. He does, however point to models to follow from various parts of the globe. Monbiot’s proposals, well explained in his book, include Scandinavian cooperatives, taxing land rather than houses, developing commonwealth trusts including a trust protecting the atmosphere for future generations (I would note that the U.S. military claims to own that, as well as outerspace beyond), a universal basic income, participatory budgeting, electoral reform, and the rejection of insane fantasies like moving the Mars when the Earth is fully trashed.
On page 160 of 186, “war” gets a one-word mention in a list as a problem to be handled globally. Monbiot wants, as I want, to move some power down and some up. He wants to move some from global institutions to nations, while I’d like to move a lot from nations to localities. Yet he also wants to rework global institutions to democratize them, on which subject I recommend checking out the winning entries in the recent Global Challenges competition, as well as my losing entry which I’ve not previously published but which I’ll post below. Monbiot proposes a Global Parliament. Good idea!
To give us hope, Monbiot points to the Bernie Sanders campaign. I think U.S. readers would benefit more from a review of Jeremy Corbyn’s political efforts. And there is a U.S. improvement on Bernie Sanders, in the form of the campaign of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — an improvement also in having actually succeeded.