Over the last year or so, the Guardian has assumed a place alongside the New York Times and the Washington Post as essential reading. In addition to excellent reporting, the publication carries thought-provoking columns--one of which prompts this post.
George Monbiot, the author, reminds us that what we are dealing with in the U.S. is part of a very troubling worldwide phenomenon.
You can blame Jeremy Corbyn for Boris Johnson, and Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump. You can blame the Indian challengers for Narendra Modi, the Brazilian opposition for Jair Bolsonaro, and left and centre parties in Australia, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and Turkey for similar electoral disasters. Or you could recognise that what we are witnessing is a global phenomenon….
In these nations, people you wouldn’t trust to post a letter for you have been elected to the highest office. There, as widely predicted, they behave like a gang of vandals given the keys to an art gallery, “improving” the great works in their care with spray cans, box cutters and lump hammers. In the midst of global emergencies, they rip down environmental protections and climate agreements, and trash the regulations that constrain capital and defend the poor. They wage war on the institutions that are supposed to restrain their powers while, in some cases, committing extravagant and deliberate outrages against the rule of law. They use impunity as a political weapon, revelling in their ability to survive daily scandals, any one of which would destroy a normal politician.
It’s hard to argue with any of this. Monbiot says we are in an era of “new politics,” one built on “sophisticated cheating and provocative lies,” and that we need to understand just what it is that we are facing, and devise new strategies to resist it. No argument there. He points to Finland as a country that has resisted this trend. (I would note that Finland is widely recognized as a leader in public education…and I would wager a substantial sum that there’s a connection…)
In Finland, on the day of our general election, Boris Johnson’s antithesis became prime minister: the 34-year-old Sanna Marin, who is strong, humble and collaborative. Finland’s politics, emerging from its peculiar history, cannot be replicated here. But there is one crucial lesson. In 2014, the country started a programme to counter fake news, teaching people how to recognise and confront it. The result is that Finns have been ranked, in a recent study of 35 nations, the people most resistant to post-truth politics.
Monbiot suggests that “progressive parties” hold Google, Facebook and Twitter to account, and form a “global coalition promoting digital literacy, and pressuring social media platforms to stop promoting falsehoods.”
It’s hard to fault that prescription. His next one is more dubious.
At the moment, the political model for almost all parties is to drive change from the top down. They write a manifesto, that they hope to turn into government policy, which may then be subject to a narrow and feeble consultation, which then leads to legislation, which then leads to change. I believe the best antidote to demagoguery is the opposite process: radical trust. To the greatest extent possible, parties and governments should trust communities to identify their own needs and make their own decisions.
Monbiot compares his approach to ecological “rewilding.”
Rewilding – allowing dynamic, spontaneous organisation to reassert itself – can result in a sudden flourishing, often in completely unexpected ways, with a great improvement in resilience.
The same applies to politics. Mainstream politics, controlled by party machines, has sought to reduce the phenomenal complexity of human society into a simple, linear model that can be controlled from the centre. The political and economic systems it creates are simultaneously highly unstable and lacking in dynamism; susceptible to collapse, as many northern towns can testify, while unable to regenerate themselves. They become vulnerable to the toxic, invasive forces of ethno-nationalism and supremacism.
He cites examples: participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Decide Madrid system in Spain, and the Better Reykjavik program in Iceland, where, he says, local people have “reoccupied the political space that had been captured by party machines and top-down government.”
The results have been extraordinary: a massive re-engagement in politics, particularly among marginalised groups, and dramatic improvements in local life. Participatory politics does not require the blessing of central government, just a confident and far-sighted local authority.
Monbiot is calling for “radical devolution.”
Unfortunately, “devolution” is a lot more complicated than he seems to realize.( I’d hate to be black, gay or Muslim in a “radically devolved” Alabama, Kentucky or even Indiana–states with a noticeable deficit of “confident and far-sighted local authority.”)
It depends upon what you are “devolving”–and who to.