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Review of Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis by George Monbiot. 2017. London: Verso. 214 pages, ISBN 978-1-7866-3289-0 Paper ($16.95)

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JOURNAL OF WORLD-SYSTEMS RESEARCH
Review of Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis by George
Monbiot. 2017. London: Verso. 214 pages, ISBN 978-1-7866-3289-0 Paper
($16.95)
Reviewed by John Foran
University of California, Santa Barbara
foran@soc.ucsb.edu
A crisis besets us. A perfect storm whipped up out of predatory capitalism, a democracy deficit,
cultures of violence, and climate disruption. Since the 1930s, at least in much of Europe, there
have been four decades of Keynesian-inspired social welfare democracies followed by four
decades of neoliberal, now hyper-financialized, capitalist globalizationan impasse with no
visible exit other than the desultory remnants of social democratic parties and the scary xenophobic
hatred of hard-line rightwing parties. In George Monbiot’s view, what we need is a new story that
makes sense of the crisis and offers enough people a plausible direction to climb out from under
it. The world right now is also ripe for such a story to turn this moment of danger into one of
opportunity.
George Monbiot is perhaps the best political journalist at what may be the best English-
language newspaper in the world, the UK Guardian. Previous books include the instructively titled
How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature (a title I freely borrowed for a class I
am teaching called What’s Wrong with the World?), Manifesto for a New World Order, and Heat:
How to Stop the Planet from Burning; he is clearly a person who likes to take on the biggest issues
around.
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And he is very good at it. His work is thoughtful, well-documented, based on original
research, and very well written. I typically find myself not only in substantial agreement with the
vast majority of his conclusions—save a very few, such as his controversial position that the
climate crisis requires the re-activation of the nuclear industry—but with his political judgments
and ideas about what we might do to, well, get out of the mess we are in. Make no mistake about
it, we are on new ground here in the age of the Anthropocene, staring down a climate crisis that
poses existential questions to humanity, questions that our present economic, political, cultural,
and social lifeways are so woefully short of rising to the occasion to answer that the future looks
more uncertain and increasingly bleak with every passing year.
Along with a growing number of other thinkers I read, Monbiot’s prescription is this: it’s time
that we elaborate a new story capable of simultaneously diagnosing the interlinked crises that beset
us and inspiring action in the name of a vision that is radical, inclusive, and holistic enough to take
us into the whirlwind that the middle third of this century is going to be, with some prospect of
emerging more or less intact by, say, the year 2050.
Public sociologists and scholar-activists alike need to join this conversation and contribute to
it. We need to talk about story-telling, its power, its capacity, and its origins. Sujatha Fernandes
(2018), professor of political economy and sociology at the University of Sydney, reminds us that
In his seminal essay “The Storyteller,” published in 1936, the German
philosopher Walter Benjamin decried the loss of the craft of oral
storytelling marked by the advent of the short story and the novel. Modern
society, he lamented, had abbreviated storytelling. Fast forward to the era
of Facebook, where the story has become an easily digestible soundbite
on your news feed or timeline. The popular stories on social media are
those that are accessible. Complexity is eschewed in an effort to create
warm and relatable portraits of others who are just like us. If modern
society abbreviated storytelling, the digital era has eviscerated it. (2018)
And she raises the question that haunts me: “But are stories really the magical elixir we
imagine them to be?” In the context of her study of our Facebook lives, the answer may well be
that they fall short. Can any story, then, make a decisive contribution to the kinds of radical social
transformation the world cries out for?
Enter Monbiot’s book. Unlike most of the others he has written, he confesses, this one took
about one year rather than three, and was written in a “mad rush, because we felt there was this
great opportunity, as the old system begins to collapse and new systems begin to emerge.
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Obviously, all sorts of new monsters could emerge, and they will do so if a more coherent vision
of a better world is not produced” (Dowson 2017). He goes on to tell us “[t]he reason we need a
narrative is that narratives translate into what we perceive as common sense…. For a government
to take power which is sufficiently radical, we need that new political narrative, and we need it to
be accepted across the majority of the political spectrum as common sense, as Keynesianism and
neoliberalism have been. The only way you can change a story is to offer a new one. And you can
do so only by producing a better story” (ibid).
Out of the Wreckage is an exciting book and grew on me as I got further into it. At first, I
thought, “OK, I know the message: ‘We need a new story. Stories win, they transform the world.’”
So, I wanted to see what George Monbiot’s new story was. Instead, we get analyses, of many
interesting issues and topics, but no new story per se. And I found that frustrating. But, like much
of George Monbiot’s work, it is intelligent, politically astute, and cumulative, and in the case of
this book, it became more powerful as it unfurled.
Starting from observations about the epidemics of loneliness and consumerism, the stresses
of competition and individualism that Monbiot sees in societies like the UK and the United States,
he lays these at the feet of neoliberal austerity as the global elite’s response to the crisis. At the
same time, he castigates the old Keynesian social democrats for having lost the debate and
compromised their original values, instead taking up the language of the right with Blair’s third
way and the Clintons’ triangulation. Obama only went in the same direction, leaving the door open
for Trump when the Democratic leadership did Bernie Sanders’s campaign in: “Nothing was
learned…. The Democratic Party’s groveling ensured that the very rich owned both halves of the
presidential contest” (50). When England was saddled with Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn tried to re-
orient the identity of Britain’s Labour Party but has yet to come up with a fully compelling new
narrative, some “wider story of change.”
Socially, schools have become conveyor belts of alienation, which new forms of celebrity or
social media entertainment only deepen; “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chain stores”
(65). “We are alienated from each other, from the systems that govern our lives, from the spirit of
inquiry, from the natural world, and from tangible reality. Socially, emotionally, intellectually and
physically, we are in a poor state of health. The political consequences can be catastrophic” (66).
Monbiot seeks a new politics grounded on “belonging” and rooted in the community, and he
sees initiatives along these lines sprouting into life all over the world. Once drawn in, people
blossom, and a participatory culture starts to thrive. When ten to fifteen percent of a community is
engaged, tipping points are breached, and this can propel such experiments up to the city level, as
in examples taken from Rotterdam, Barcelona, and elsewhere. What he would like to see is a
further scaling up of these hopeful initiatives into political movements based on these experiences
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and techniques, building outward from new participatory communities to the national and global
levels. He thus acknowledges that at some point state power must be contested.
The second half of the book elaborates on how a new hybrid economy with elements of the
market, the state, the commons, and the household could develop. Local consciousness of living
within limits must scale all the way to the global level, and here he introduces the work of Kate
Raworth, “whose work is the most considered and far-reaching of the materials I have read while
researching this book” (122), and whose book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a
21st-Century Economist (also reviewed in this symposium) merges the “Planetary Boundaries”
earth systems thinking of John Rockström and other scientists with the Degrowth perspective of
Giorgos Kallis and other social scientists to pull the global economy back from the brink before it
destroys the physical and natural bases of life on the planet, while still achieving a socially just
outcome across the world. Part of this comes back to the community, where the model of
“participatory budgeting” that comes out of Brazil might be generalized more widely.
So, then, how to go about this? In large part, it requires the reframing of the commonsense
stories we live by to see all of this as possible and preferable. It would certainly be opposed by the
present holders of economic and political power. The book therefore concludes by exploring
political projects such as convening constitutional assemblies, crowd-sourcing new democratic
charters, referenda, innovative voting methods such as the Single Transferable Vote (where voters
rank candidates to ensure that whoever wins garners majority support), and others, up to the idea
of a world government, as discussed in depth in Monbiot’s earlier Manifesto for a New World
Order.
The book concludes with another look at the 2016 Sanders campaign, as theorized just
afterward by staffers Beck Bond and Zack Exley (2016) in Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big
Organizing Can Change Everything. From it, Monbiot draws these lessons for changing the world:
have big ideas, display radical trust in people and ask them to do things, and devolve decision-
making, or at least operational power, to the local level. For Monbiot, it is time to “start imagining
how campaigns of any kind—not just to win elections but to win the battle over climate change,
or rights for asylum seekers or for universal healthcarecan be transformed. It is to understand
how we can mobilise the enthusiasm of the many against the control of the few. And it shows us
how a political campaign can belong to everyone who chooses to participate, rather than just a
small cadre of professionals” (173-4). “By allowing people to appreciate how powerful they are
and how useful they can be, and how politics and government can belong to all of us rather than
only a remote elite, we will become unstoppable” (181).
But do we need a single encompassing story? I tend to agree with Drew Dellinger and the
Zapatistas that what we really need is rather many more stories (or perhaps chapters) that fit
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together into a new and better world, what Dellinger (2018) calls a “kaleidoscope of stories.” Most
obviously missing from Monbiot’s tale is a sense of the spiritual, non-material roots of many of
the stories struggling to be born or retold around the world. Dellinger points out that already forty
years ago, in 1978, Thomas Berry wrote an essay called “The New Story,” which prefigures
Monbiot, as it opens with these lines: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now
because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story—the account of
how the world came to be and how we fit into it—is not functioning properly, and we have not
learned the New Story.” In this genealogy lies other voices and traditions, ecological, indigenous,
and Buddhist among them. The new story is likely to be plural, and its co-creators many, across
multiple generations and continents. And these are stories that will be carried by movements and
taken further by networks that span time and space.
They are popping up everywhere, and we have only to look for them and amplify their voices
so others can find them and they can see each other. Let’s join them wherever we are and forge
networks of the like-minded, with all those who choose life, love, hope, and embrace beauty,
dignity and creativity. Out of the wreckage of the present, toward the horizon of the future. Those
stories are the next book we need. Perhaps George Monbiot, or one of our readers, will help write
it.
References
Bond, Beck and Zack Exley (2016) Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change
Everything. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Dellinger, Drew. (2018) “New Generations and the Power of Story: Change the Worldview,
Change the World”; Kosmos Journal (summer);
https://www.kosmosjournal.org/kj_article/new-cosmology-and-social-justice/.
Dowson, Nick (2017) “Monbiot: ‘We Need that New Political Narrative.’” Resilience, October
20; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-10-20/monbiot-need-new-political-narrative/.
Fernandes, Sujatha (2018) “The Evisceration of Storytelling.” Naked Capitalism, June 30;
https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2018/06/the-evisceration-of-
storytelling.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A
+NakedCapitalism+%28naked+capitalism%29.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything
  • Beck Bond
  • Zack Exley
Bond, Beck and Zack Exley (2016) Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
New Generations and the Power of Story: Change the Worldview
  • Drew Dellinger
Dellinger, Drew. (2018) "New Generations and the Power of Story: Change the Worldview, Change the World"; Kosmos Journal (summer);
Monbiot: 'We Need that New Political Narrative
  • Nick Dowson
Dowson, Nick (2017) "Monbiot: 'We Need that New Political Narrative.'" Resilience, October 20; http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-10-20/monbiot-need-new-political-narrative/.
The Evisceration of Storytelling
  • Sujatha Fernandes
Fernandes, Sujatha (2018) "The Evisceration of Storytelling." Naked Capitalism, June 30;