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George v Boris: old habits die hard

January 18, 2010

George Monbiot ran into Boris Johnson recently (When George met Boris…), and the notably good-humoured exchange was, I thought, regrettably predictable: George went after the rich people and their gas-guzzlers. I think it is time the old and ingrained left/right reflexes are retrained, because potential allies are made into enemies not because they disagree, but because they are branded with entrenched and all too convenient political labels.

Monbiot’s recent article on redefining humanity (I would have said ‘redefining society’ or ‘redefining reward’ myself) was for me the most pertinent of all the arguments he has put forward. I while back I wrote a book whose premise was that our civilisation is like a car that consists entirely of filler, tape, patches and fixes, none of which can hide the fact that the vehicle in which we all travel needs to be replaced now instead of just patching it up some more.

Capitalism grew from feudalism as a means to assuage a population becoming better educated and acquiring means we had been denied, in part because manufacturers need markets and if they kept us in base poverty, who would they sell their goods to? But democracy as it stands is a sham. It is still controlled by, and heavily biased toward, the interests of the few at the expense of the many. Its economic paradigm – capitalism – fails relentlessly and repeatedly, as it has done from the South Sea Bubble onwards. Capitalism is divisive and unfair, and we see that in the divide between rich and poor, both individuals and societies, and the relentless exploitation of all of us that capitalism is predicated on.

Capitalism, for all the effort we have put in to it, and all money it has lost over the years, does not work. It can be made to appear like it does, but the illusion is always dispelled by the next crash, the disappearing pensions, the huge debts and of course the wars. It is a magic trick where all and sundry can see the strings pulled, the tarnished mirrors and the smoke machines. We are not fooled, but we cling to capitalism just the same because it is the known. I don’t know how true it is, but I read that women in abusive relationships will sometimes stay in that relationship because, perversely, they find some kind of security in the predictability of the abuse. I think we are rather like that.

So we appear to be locked in that old car, refusing to get out and find a better vehicle for our aspirations. And a marker for that intransigence is our dedication to adversarial systems, of which the politics of faux-democracy is the most prevalent. This political paradigm is sinking COP15 and no-one should be even slightly surprised. We are so used to fighting each other, the fight has become all we know. My material (rather than tactical) criticism of George’s approach was that, while extolling the virtues of a more appropriate paradigm for society, he is habituated to view people like Boris as the enemy, the opposition, someone to attack rather than engage.

Boris could be our ally, but only if we stop seeking to score political points by attacking his ideology. This is too big an issue for the old divisions of right and left, rich and poor, to be appropriate as a way of viewing each other. There are many inequalities for sure, but they are history. We need to consider how we can improve tomorrow, not cling to yesterday’s agenda while we get our heads kicked in by the wholly indifferent and considerably more powerful forces of nature.

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