Book Review by Alex Diggins
Prophecy is a lonely profession. The ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ might be presaging the coming of a new messiah, but it could just as easily be the ranting of a friendless crackpot. Often, we can only tell the difference with hindsight. For this reason, it seems an odd thing for a journalist to indulge in; journalism being, at heart, a collaborative act. Film and TV feed us a narrative of lone crusaders for justice, hammering away at keyboard or typewriter, harried by the forces of whatever Big Government/Faceless Corporate – delete as appropriate – evil they happen to be tilting at that day. The reality, though, is markedly different. Good journalism involves sniffing out stories, gathering research, eliciting quotes, checking and re-checking facts, and ruthlessly editing copy, activities which are united in their reliance on one crucial element – other people. Posing as an embattled island of reason in a furious sea of disinformation and manipulation, cheapens the story and cons the audience, undermining the credibility of the former and preying on the gullibility of the latter.
To my mind, this posturing is the greatest flaw in George Monbiot’s otherwise admirable book, How Did We Get Into This Mess?, a collection of his writings from 2010 to 2015. I do not wish to discourage its potential readers. Far from it: these essays are finely written, and their messages – about the dangers of unchecked, unmoored Globalised capitalism, the rise of corporate power, and the destruction and denigration of the natural world – chime deeply with me and, I suspect, many readers of this blog. They are urgent, necessary and timely; they are the very forces with which we must contend, individually and as a society, if we are to salvage a world worth living in, for ourselves and for those who come after us. However – and this significant ‘however’ – they are not revelations. Rather, they are well-disseminated and popular ideas which resonate across all levels of society; and, indeed, despite what many on the left would like to believe, have significant traction outside of the Guardian-reading choir that Monbiot tends to preach to.
The voice crying in the wilderness, with a verified Twitter account
This is why Monbiot’s book, though elegantly wrought and usually well-argued, left me frequently squirming in my seat. Consider the introduction, for instance, which argues on its second page that, “for every independent voice with a national platform, there are one hundred working on behalf of plutocratic power.” Which is excellent rhetoric, but less convincing as journalism – it goes on: “so few are the countervailing voices, and so thoroughly have they been excluded from most of the media … that the dominant forms of power remain unchallenged.” Rubbish. Where’s Monbiot’s evidence for this great silence? Aren’t the protests of the last eight years – the Arab Spring, Occupy Movements, Black Lives Matter, the anti-Brexit movement, the Women’s March against Donald Trump, to name just a few – sufficient evidence that the neoliberal consensus has failed a significant minority of the world’s population? Hasn’t an outcry been heard from the many who feel silenced, marginalised and pissed off by carelessness and callousness of the ‘dominant forms of power’? To an alert and engaged observer, as Monbiot so assuredly is, in what world do those “forms of power remain unchallenged?”
The conclusion we must draw from this selective ignorance is unfortunate: Monbiot is beginning to believe his own hype. Finding it easier to pose as a tyrannised minority, than to work within the avenues of power – don’t forget he is, himself, an “independent voice with a national platform” – to make changes. Feeling like one’s words fall on deaf ears is never a pleasant sensation. But it is an inescapable part of being a writer – it has been the fate of the vast majority throughout human history. Monbiot would do well to recognise the potential and privilege of his position and leverage it furiously; blaming a conspiracy of left-bashing, oligarchic power that strangles independent media might be fun, it might even be accurate, but it does precious little to change the status quo. It is a disservice to Monbiot’s arguments and their readers – both should be given more respect than that.
And what arguments they are. For first-time readers and returning fans, this collection gives ample indication of the pleasures of Monbiot’s writing: the breadth of his passions, the clarity of his thinking, the poise of his prose. Whether he’s castigating the casual users of cocaine – “You’d probably cause less human suffering if instead of discreetly retiring to the toilet at a media drinks party you went into the street and mugged someone” – or describing how predator drone operators view casualties as ‘bug splats, since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed’, his writing is always supple, forceful and clear. It is frequently original as well. I particularly enjoyed the essay ‘Civilisation is boring’ which, among other things, described how the advent of farming irreparably marked human consciousness:
Only with the development of farming did we have to discipline ourselves to think linearly: following a plan from one point to another across weeks or months … Now almost every aspect of our lives is lived within grids, either abstract or concrete. Linearity, control and management dominate our lives … Thus we box ourselves out of the natural world.
This is heady stuff: excellent journalism that trespasses on the boundaries of pioneering scholarship and research. It is the essay form as cat’s cradle: pull on one thread, and all sorts of ideas and disciplines, scientific, sociological, philosophical, prove themselves tangled up within it. Extricating a clear line of reasoning from such complexity can be difficult. It is a testament to Monbiot’s powers as a thinker and a writer that his readers may frequently be provoked by his arguments, but they are rarely lost within them.
Come for his thinking, then, but stay for the beauty of his prose. It’s a common slur against journalists that their writing is functional but rarely elegant. To which one might be tempted to scatter a handful of names – Dickens, Twain, Orwell, Hitchens – who’ve proved how baseless that argument is. On the basis of this book, Monbiot would have to be added to that list. He is a superb wordsmith. His writing though scrupulously researched – check out those endnotes! – is nonetheless alert to the musicality of words and the rhythms of good prose. It is characterised by a love of language as much as by a dedication to telling the truth, such as he sees it. Take this stinging rebuke to the fallacy of our economic model, built on infinite growth from finite resources:
Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live our lives is treated as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how to measure the depths of this problem: our inability even to discuss it.
There’s much to admire here. The colloquial phrasing – “statements of the bleeding obvious” – that sits so incongruously yet so effectively in that first long sentence that is piled high with sub-clauses, threatening to unravel into incomprehension. Notice too the music of ‘impossible proposition’ which foregrounds its absurdity. See as well, the damning tricolon of ‘so sane and normal and unremarkable’ which, through accumulation, savages our careless consumerism. And, finally, appreciate that perfectly balanced last sentence: an equation that memorably concludes both Monbiot’s argument and the essay. These riches and others are scattered throughout the book, and they are encountered with surprise and joy.
A mixed bag
How Did We Get Into This Mess? then, frustrates and fascinates in equal measure. Its pleasures will be self-evident for anyone who’s familiar with Monbiot’s work: its subjects are diverse and various; its arguments original and limpid; its prose precise and perfectly-pitched. However, Monbiot’s insistence on his own persecution, and more generally that of the Left as a whole, is unfortunate. For those who care about the natural world, about others, and who see it is as a duty to extend the comforts and liberties we enjoy in the West to all, the world today can seem a bleak and unpromising place. However, anger, frustration, and pique, though understandable, are ineffective reactions by themselves. They play into the hands of those who wish to diminish and deaden the furore around issues like equality, sustainability, and global justice. The louder we cry horror, the easier it is to write off our concerns as the whingeing of left-wingers.
A burning sense of injustice has its place: some shots of life only appear after fire. However, when used too frequently, fire has the potential to erase the possibility of new growth utterly; other tools must also be employed. The issues that Monbiot discusses are too important to be left in the hands of a concerned few: they impinge upon our collective survival as a species. Monbiot, then, should use his enviable platform to espouse a new kind of leftist politics – one that remains true to its core beliefs in a duty of care for the planet and fellow man, but that also reaches across the fractious political divide. ‘Common Ground’ is the title of one of his essays in this collection – it would serve as manifesto equally well.