An excerpt from my forthcoming book: ‘The British Ideology: a critique of ‘beyond left and right’ variations’ (Zer0 Books, 2013)
For global justice, against emancipation
(or, Monbiot’s imperative)
The environmental campaigner, George Monbiot, might appear out of place in a book on ‘beyond left and right’ ideologies. After all, is he not clearly a man of the left? Has he not devoted his life to championing climate science and criticising neoliberalism? Monbiot’s onetime membership of the antiwar Respect party and ongoing support for the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, appear to support his credentials. Some might even see him as an anti-capitalist radical. Monbiot authored the Introduction to the volume Anti-Capitalism[i] and he has accumulated a large following in the British environmental movement, including its direct action wings.
Certainly, his personal appeal as a maverick adventurer turned professional campaigner is not in doubt. Monbiot champions global justice with a characteristic combination of polemical urgency and pragmatic realism. He combines reverence for science with relentless suspicion of the corporate interests leading governments astray. He pillars those in power for donning convenient blinkers in the face of inconvenient facts. Against the idea that Western governments are successfully implementing carbon reduction targets, his book, Heat, argues that nothing less than 90%+ reductions in carbon emissions will do to avert catastrophe. He has also taken his message to heart and led by example. Where many have pointed to ex-US Vice President Al Gore’s hypocrisy in preaching ecological austerity whilst jetting around the world, Monbiot has generally stuck to his pledge to renounce flying. And he is not afraid to take up positions at odds with mainstream environmentalists either – losing old friends with his change of mind about the benefits of nuclear power.
Notwithstanding this admirable devotion to principles, there are, nevertheless, good reasons to see Monbiot as a ‘beyond left and right’ thinker. What warrants considering him as such can be indicated by the peculiar dichotomies animating his writing. On the one hand, he derides as dangerous cults traditional ideologies of the left like Marxism and anarchism; on the other hand, he extols the need for political militancy. On the one hand, he suggests that climate change prevention policies should be judged solely according to their effectiveness; on the other hand, he rejects subjecting the moral imperative to any consequentialist calculations. On the one hand, he advocates large scale, technocratic solutions to problems; yet on the other he also insists upon retaining those intimate personal experiences leading to political revelation.
These tensions make Monbiot an interesting figure. They also lead him to an inevitable impasse. Monbiot might be almost unique amongst prominent figures of the global justice movement in emphasising the necessity of radical redistribution, but he shares the movement’s unresolved problem of how to realise its ambitions. Monbiot may make exhortations of the need for antagonism and heroic self-sacrifice, yet by refusing to countenance how the interests of social actors can be directed towards such a movement he is left perpetually perplexed by the inertia of the masses. Therein lies the crux of his global justice variation on the ‘beyond left and right’ ideology. An aversion to engaging the interests needed to realise change results in a ‘beyond left and right’ discourse by default. For him, the moral imperative is deemed adequate for bringing people together to fight against a roll call of stock villains: unethical corporations, greedy bankers, hypocritical governments, and decadent Western consumers. But since the antagonists of this hypothetical movement are judged guilty for the ills of the world in the absence of an analysis of conflicts of interest, the demand for antagonism on the part of the movement merely ends up tilting at windmills. Whether Monbiot is advocating the establishment of a world parliament or how to justly ration carbon, without any consideration of who his proposals serve and how they might be achieved they remain little more than castles in the sky. Moreover, the demand for quasi-autonomist activism sits uneasily with his Hobbesian scepticism about the capacity for self-organisation amongst the people.
As this chapter will go on to show, Monbiot is not alone in this problem. Theorists of all persuasions have a problem accounting for the interests necessary to realise transnational campaigns for global justice. Ulrich Beck has questioned why there has been no green October revolution. William Connolly has speculated about environmentally-motivated general strikes. Slavoj Žižek has defended the need for a ‘green terror.’ All share the same problem: a reluctance to examine the issue through the prism of class interests and an overly quick identification of the green agenda with one antagonistic against the ruling classes.
Of course, only Monbiot’s particular rendition of the problem is coloured by distinctly ‘beyond left and right’ hues. By examining the impasses of his militant liberalism, this chapter will conclude that without any analytic of capitalist exploitation, his self-identification as being on the left is confused. So too, it will show, are Monbiot’s demands for political action emerging solely out of voluntary association unrealistic precisely because of his avoidance of the conflicts of interest which are hallmarks of the distinction between left and right.
[i] George Monbiot, ‘Introduction’ in Anti Capitalism: A guide to the movement, eds. Emma Bircham and John Charlton, Bookmarks Publications, 2011