Monbiot vs Marx

15 Feb

George Monbiot’s last two Guardian columns have been on a similar theme, as summarised in today’s piece:

[T]he government is not managing the economy for the people of this nation. It is managing it for a tiny transnational elite, a kind of global gated community. … The politicians who get to the top in these circumstances don’t just present no threat to the gated community; they actively do its bidding.

Or as he put it last week, concerning changes in corporation taxes to benefit transnational corporations:

I’ve realised that injustice of the kind described in this column is not a perversion of the system; it is the system. … Our ministers are not public servants. They work for the people who fund their parties, run the banks and own the newspapers, insulating them from democratic challenge.

I think Monbiot is right to shift the focus from “abuses” or “failures” of the economic system (language which implies that the system itself is fundamentally just and sound, or would be if properly regulated) to the inherent injustices of the system itself.  However, his rhetoric has some significant dangers in it, because it personalises what are really matters of social relations, impersonal economic forces.

Monbiot presents capitalism as a system in which a wicked “transnational elite” deliberately and maliciously sets out to oppress the rest of us. That’s an analysis which can lead as easily to fascism as to the liberal/democratic/socialist agenda which Monbiot would presumably support. “Transnational elite” is uncomfortably close to “international financiers” – and we all know what that was code for back in the last century. (Hint: try googling “transnational elite” and “zionist”. And then wash your hands.)

Blaming the individual beneficiaries of the economic system – indeed, encouraging us to hate them, the exploitative, gated-community-dwelling, political-system-perverting, Tory-party-financing bastards - is a dangerous path. As a great philosopher put it:

Beware the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will…

What’s needed is not populist rhetoric about the “global gated community”, but a greater awareness of how economic power operates, regardless of the personalities who operate it or benefit from it. Perhaps someone could suggest Monbiot adds some Marx to his reading list?

5 Responses to “Monbiot vs Marx”

  1. Philip Walker 15 February 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Well, there is such a thing as public choice economics, which suggests that there is a conflict between politicians’ noble, public ambitions and very practical, private needs (and that the private needs can tend to dominate). But it is not a global conspiracy, and it is completely nonpartisan in its effects: Labour, Tory and Lib Dem are all as prone as each other, but in different ways and directions. Crucially, the conclusions we draw from that kind of analysis are the exact opposite of the conclusions Monbiot wants to draw from his rather overblown ideas.

  2. Liz W 15 February 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I agree that the terms of the debate need to shift from how we can best tinker with the existing system to whether the system we have is the right one. Good take on the personalisation issue, too.

    The thing that worries me, though, is what we can do in practice to create a better system – one that would be just and sustainable. None of the attempts I’ve seen to describe one really impress me, and all the mainstream parties (including mine – I’m a Lib Dem) seem to be stuck at the tinkering stage. I’m not an economist, so I don’t feel qualified to do the heavy lifting on this. Even if I were qualified, I wouldn’t have very much of the other resources required – time, energy etc. How can we, as individuals, actually help to move the debate forward – and meanwhile, how far can we ethically go in supporting parties that aren’t even framing the problem adequately yet?

    • Martin 24 February 2011 at 9:03 am #

      A better system, which would be both just and sustainable, is G.K.Chesterton’s Distributism: The means of production should be distributed as widely as possible among the populace; they should neither be hoarded by a oligarchy, nor controlled by the government.

      Distributism argues that security in private property is essential to the security of all our natural rights. It follows that an essential task of government is to prevent the excessive concentration of too much property into too few hands and at the same time prevent the creation of large groups of propertyless citizens.

      There are three economic theories struggling for supremacy in the modern world. They are Capitalism the doctrine that property is best concentrated in large masses in the bands of a few people; Socialism the doctrine that property is best owned and controlled
      by the State; and Distributism the doctrine that property is best divided up among the largest possible number of people. Broadly speaking, we may say that Distributism means every man his own master (as far as possible); Socialism means nobody his own master, but the State master of all; Capitalism means a select few their own masters and the rest of us their servants.

      • John H 26 February 2011 at 3:12 pm #

        Martin: Thanks for this.

        I’d class “distributism”, as described by you here, as a form of non-statist (and by implication libertarian) socialism – rather than identifying socialism with state ownership.

        I’m hoping to post something on a similar-sounding proposal which I read recently – watch this space…

  3. Robert 16 March 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    I don’t think lumping somebody into the same category as fascists and anti-semitic conspiracy theorists just because he used the terms “transnational elite” and “global gated community” is being fair. Anybody who has read George Monbiot’s books and is familiar with his ideas knows that he is very much aware of the systemic roots of economic disparities and is not just blaming individual beneficiaries. That said, George Monbiot is a polemicist and emotional rhetoric is to be expected from him. There are, after all, real peoples’ lives at stake here.
    Anyways, if anybody is guilty of stirring up populist class-hatred, it is Marxists. So what’s the point?

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