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George Monbiot: Continued from Now Then #35

Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with award-winning investigative journalist George Monbiot. In Part 1, the focus was on the man himself, the media and public access to independent information. In Part 2 we move to discussing the 'Big Society', economics, politics, and what we can all do about it. Always intelligent and informed, whatever your opinion we're certain you'll find George Monbiot's an extremely thought provoking read. So, if you're seated comfortably... What do you see as the core principles of David Cameron's Big Society? 'Big Society' is one of those phrases which is a bit like 'Care in the Community', in that it says the opposite of what the government is actually doing. Care in the Community was Thatcher's way of dumping mentally ill people on local authorities without proper support - a complete absence of both care and community. In Cameron's case, what he's saying is the state doesn't have to engage as much in welfare, health and education because voluntary bodies can take up the slack. Yet at the same time, the money available for voluntary bodies is being greatly cut, both by government and as a result of the economic downturn. He's effectively throwing vulnerable people into the voluntary sector, just as these resources are shrinking drastically. The Big Society is just a PR-friendly way of saying, "We are no longer going to take responsibility for those who need help. If they sink, that's tough. We're the Conservatives and we don't do welfare". Don't forget that Cameron's background is as a PR man. That's his expertise and he's very good at it. He knows how to sell a completely unacceptable set of policies as if they were something positive. Would you say that, particularly since New Labour, this PR heavy, somewhat Americanised form of politics is becoming more prevalent in Britain? Blair was also a specialist in this stuff and he, as well as the people around him like Mandelson and Campbell, were extremely clever at manipulating public perceptions and opinions. To the extent that, after a while, all that really counted was perception rather than policy. Then the only policies which were allowed to pass were the ones that did not interfere with the perception of New Labour as a party that was friendly towards both business and the people. So effectively, policy was retrospectively fitted around presentation, whereas what we're told happens is that presentation occurs only once you've got the policy. It is the reversal of that relationship between policy and presentation that has mortally wounded democracy in Britain. By replacing political substance with political presentation, at the same time as destroying any substantial policy differences between Labour and Conservatives in a lot of policy areas, Blair destroyed hope. He destroyed people's expectation that they could have something better from politics. Alongside the Iraq War, I see that as Blair's great crime. It ensured that a very large number of people felt there was no point in voting and it's that political disenfranchisement and disillusionment that Blair presided over which is his lasting legacy. It will take a long time to heal, especially since he's been replaced by someone very much like him. You've defined the UK spending cuts as a symptom of 'disaster capitalism'. Can you elaborate on that theory for our readers? The idea is that those who want to shrink the state - in order to reduce taxes for the richest people in society and create a system governed by market fundamentalism, which ensures there is no restraint on corporate moneymaking activities or the wealth and actions of billionaires - have a preexisting agenda which cannot be implemented until there's an economic crisis. When such a crisis comes along, they say we must shrink the state in order to save the economy. But it's not about saving the economy; it's to fit their ideological requirements. An economic crisis is the best thing that can happen for them as they wouldn't be able to implement these sorts of cuts in any other circumstance. Naomi Klein coined the phrases 'disaster capitalism' and 'shock doctrine' and showed how this has happened again and again around the world in different governments. What's going on in the UK is no different. It's been a long-standing Conservative agenda. All these crocodile tears about how hard they are finding it to make these cuts and that "we're all in this together". It's complete nonsense. The worse the economic crisis, the more cuts they can make and the closer they come to bringing about that pure, idealised world they want, with no state interference in the money-making activities of big business. Where is the radical left in all of this? There doesn't seem to have been a coherent campaign against these actions. It has been very slow, but there have been some good campaigns. I'm very impressed by [tax avoidance campaign] UK Uncut, as they're doing a great job of taking the battle to the enemy in exactly the way it should be done. Some of the students have been very good too, particularly the way in which they've broadened the campaign from tuition fees towards other issues which students weren't that interested in in the past, like the treatment of university staff. They've become involved in political issues outside the usual student concern and that's what we need to see. At the moment it is still slow and muted, but that's another aspect of the shock doctrine. [American economist] Milton Freidman spelt it out very clearly, as Naomi Klein shows - he said you've got six to nine months to hit people with everything and make them so punch-drunk that they cannot respond in time. Even former members of the Monetary Policy Committee have pointed out that there's no need to be going so far or so fast with these cuts. There's a strong political reason, which is that throwing everything at us at once makes us politically ineffective, because we lack the resources to respond and are taken by surprise. By the time we do respond, it is likely to be too late. Given the apparent failure of protests against the Iraq War, for example, is that form of protest no longer an effective tool? No, I wouldn't say that. What we were up against there was a government which was peculiarly fixated on a policy which wild horses could not have persuaded it to drop. That was solely because Blair was so obsessed with appeasing the United States and trying to acquire some of its power by standing on its shoulders that it was almost as if he was a man possessed. I don't think that anything short of a coup could have prevented the Iraq War from taking place, so don't draw too wide a conclusion from our failure to prevent it. We were up against a peculiar man, doing a peculiar thing in a very peculiar psychological space. So do you think protest is still an effective method of reform? It's the only effective method we have. What would the other side like us to do? It would like us to give up because we thought we weren't effective. That's the message that is constantly propounded by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph and the like. They want us to conclude that protest is a waste of time. What we should therefore conclude is that protest is anything but, because if they don't want us to do it then there must be a good reason for that. Although the radical left appears fragmented, the radical right, especially in the US, seems incredibly organised. How have they managed this? First of all - money. There's been a great deal of cash poured into the radical right by people like David and Charles Koch, who have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into it. That enables them to hire professional organisers and the best public relations money can buy. They are also pushing on an open door as far as much of the media is concerned, particularly Fox News and similar outlets, so they have a ready-made echo chamber. This helps generate popular movements, because you're constantly hearing in the mainstream media, "you've got to get out there, you are the people that must remake America", and a lot of people hear that and believe it. What we are up against [on the left] is the exact opposite, where we're constantly being told by the popular media, "You people are scum, go back to your houses and stop messing about." So they have that great advantage, but there's also a weird phenomenon, which I've noticed on both sides of the Atlantic, whereby the left claims to be in favour of solidarity and collective action and yet is generally composed of the most extreme individualists you're every likely to meet. The right claims to be in favour of extreme individualism and yet they go around like a bunch of herd animals and would follow a bucket on a broomstick if it had the right label stuck to it. It's a strange political paradox, where both sides say the opposite of what they do. We do tend on the left to be too egocentric and I've noticed that since the old class politics of solidarity have gone, what's replaced them is this egocentric politics of a hundred people, each with their own plan, instead of people working towards a common goal. Left-wing politics seems in some circles now to be a competition to impose your views and we need to do much better than that. We need a much stronger sense of collective action and meeting each other half way in order to campaign more effectively. We need to find a way of acting together. Any ideas on the best way to do that? [Laughs] There's no magic formula! Unfortunately, you can't say, "If we walk three times widdershins around the Trade Union Congress, it'll work." It needs a lot of hard work, a lot of negotiations in now smokeless rooms and a lot of preparedness to compromise and act together. It's possible that the tough and unpleasant times we're about to go into will pull people together, but they might push people apart, so we have to have some good strategic thinkers begin to work out the best way of ensuring we regain that solidarity and collective action out of this crisis, rather than further atomisation. I am not one of those strategic thinkers. I'm okay at the theoretical stuff and pulling together the research, analysing what's happening and working out in broad terms what need to happen. As far as actual negotiations go, that's not one of my strengths, so I'm not the person to ask about the mechanics of how that should best be done. Last year, we interviewed Tony Benn and asked him how he'd managed to avoid cynicism and stay so positive throughout his career. How have you managed this? Well, I'd like to point out to your readers that my career hasn't been quite as long as Tony Benn's! He is a wonderful inspiration and an example to all of us of how to keep going despite everything. I think what keeps me going is probably the same as what keeps him going, which is the spirit of other people, the support you get from others and also the sense that there are people prepared to make great sacrifices to do extraordinary things in the pursuit of what they believe to be right. That's an inspiration which gets you through some very dark days - and we all have dark days. People with progressive politics have had a very rough time of it over the past 20 or 30 years, so you need that inspiration. The thing I fear most is other people's cowardice and the thing that inspires me most is other people's courage. George Monbiot will appear at the Showroom on March 2nd. Read his articles at Disaster capitalism explained - How to stop tax dodgers in their tracks - )

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