George Monbiot: Muppet of the Week, part 2

George Monbiot strikes again! He really should read Kropotkin's Mutual Aid!

George Monbiot: Muppet of the Week, part 2

Recently, I exposed the silly claims of George Monbiot as regards anarchism and its (non-existent) similarities with neo-liberalism. After proclaiming that both neo-liberalism and anarchism aimed to destroy the state, Monbiot had to admit a few days later that the former was all in favour of state intervention – as long as it was for the rich. A fact he was well aware of, before deciding to smear anarchism via guilt by association.

Monbiot is, unfortunately, at it again. In a wonderfully self-contradictory article, he takes the claim of right-wing free market capitalists to being “libertarian” at face value and proclaims that “Governments aren't perfect, but it's the libertarians who bleed us dry” (The Guardian, October 23, 2007).

The article is not total nonsense, though. It does, via the life-story of Matt Ridley (the chairman who got Northern Rock into its recent misfortunes), expose the utter hypocrisy of most supporters of free market capitalist who attack state aid for everyone -- bar themselves and their class. Ridley, Monbiot notes, “railed against all government intervention and mocked less enlightened beings for their failure to understand economics and finance” yet when his “libertarian [sic!] business model failed, Ridley had to go begging to the detested state.” Yet, anyone with any understanding of capitalism and its history will know that this is standard practice, although it is rarely discussed in public. After all, it is hard to justify cutting the welfare state for the many while supporting it for the few. As Monbiot put it: “So much for the virtues of unregulated free enterprise.”

Sadly, while exposing one aspect of today’s doubletalk, Monbiot accepts another by allowing the right to appropriate the term “libertarian” to describe their deeply hierarchical and authoritarian system, capitalism. How “libertarian” is a system in which the wealthy few order about their wage slaves while the latter’s liberty is little more than changing masters?

Perhaps this is not too surprising, given that Monbiot accepts the worldview of the very people he claims to oppose. “Ridley's core argument” is that people “act only in their own interests. But our selfish instincts encourage us to behave in ways that appear altruistic. By cooperating and by being perceived as generous, we earn other people's trust. This allows us to advance our own interests more effectively than we could by cheating, stealing and fighting.” Government should “withdraw from our lives and stop interfering in business and other human relations” (except, Monbiot fails to note, to defend private property and the hierarchies it produces).

“Like Ridley,” Monbiot is “a biological determinist” and “accept[s] the evidence he puts forward, but draw[s] completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly.” Co-operation only works if we are “part a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other.” However, “[i]f, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest.”

Yet who are these “strangers” who allow you to act in this way? Who are the people in these “communities” who tolerate such anti-social behaviour? Do they not have any interests of their own? So it appears that only some people have self-interest – the rest are merely walking and talking automations who have no notion of what is in their best interests and tolerate such anti-social people. So, the reformist agrees with the capitalist: “Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish.” Yet, for some strange reason, these “inherently selfish” people act against their own interests and let others “gain more” than themselves. How strange.

Even stranger, our political rulers are of a different species than the rest of us. What other conclusion can be drawn? For Monbiot argues that “we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.” Are governments not made up by the same “inherently selfish” people society is made up of? Are politicians, police, bureaucrats and officials not seeking, like the rest of us, to “gain more from acting only in your own interest”?

What is to stop our political rulers acting as the rest of us, namely (to use Monbiot’s words) when “allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people's resources, they will dump their waste in other people's habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons.” So to stop people acting “without constraint” we are to give some of them (the government) “power and weapons” even though, as Mobiot states, this will mean “no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons.” Which explains his support for world government, presumably. Except, of course, who will stop the world government?

Incredibly, Monbiot is coming out with the same self-contradictory arguments anarchists have been refuting for over one hundred years. For "while our opponents seem to admit there is a kind of salt of the earth -- the rulers, the employers, the leaders -- who, happily enough, prevent those bad men -- the ruled, the exploited, the led -- from becoming still worse than they are" we anarchists "maintain that both rulers and ruled are spoiled by authority" and "both exploiters and exploited are spoiled by exploitation." So "there is [a] difference, and a very important one. We admit the imperfections of human nature, but we make no exception for the rulers. They make it, although sometimes unconsciously, and because we make no such exception, they say that we are dreamers." (Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 83)

Looking at states, we find them acting as Monbiot claims humans do: “we should appease those who are more powerful than ourselves and exploit those who are less powerful. The survival strategies that once ensured cooperation among equals now ensure subservience to those who have broken the social contract.” The words Bush, Blair and Iraq spring to mind! And Monbiot wants to give the state even more powers? Why would centralising power on the world level be any better than centralising it at the level of the nation state?

Somewhat ironically, Monbiot vaguely recognises this. He states that the “democratic challenge . . . is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop. We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing. At the same time, we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good.” Except, of course, the state is based on a delegation of power into a few hands, who have the means of enforcing their decisions (i.e., “punishes us” for disobedience to its decisions and laws). That is why elites have always turned to the state – it disempowers the many so that the few can rule and fleece them. This is the case under laissez-faire capitalism as any other regime:

"while all Governments have given the capitalists and monopolists full liberty to enrich themselves with the underpaid labour of working men [and women] . . . they have never, nowhere given the working [people] the liberty of opposing that exploitation. Never has any Government applied the 'leave things alone' principle to the exploited masses. It reserved it for the exploiters only . . . nowhere has the system of 'non-intervention of the State' ever existed. Everywhere the State has been, and still is, the main pillar and the creator, direct and indirect, of Capitalism and its powers over the masses. Nowhere, since States have grown up, have the masses had the freedom of resisting the oppression by capitalists. . . The state has always interfered in the economic life in favour of the capitalist exploiter. It has always granted him protection in robbery, given aid and support for further enrichment. And it could not be otherwise. To do so was one of the functions -- the chief mission -- of the State.” (Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 96)

So if, as Monbiot asserts,“[h]uman welfare . . . is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation” then our task is to get rid of the state. For, ultimately, how are the powerless to punish the state when it “acts against the common good”? How is that “common good” to be determined when the communal institutions required to formulate it (federations of community and workplace assemblies) are replaced by the state? If the people are in a position to formulate “the common good” and have the power to “punish” the state when it contravenes it then why have the state at all? Why give a few political, economic and social power when you know that they will abuse it and you need to organise to resist it? Hence the pressing need to abolish state along with capitalism and other social hierarchies.

Thus we have the central contradiction in Monbiot’s ideology. If people are as selfish and self-seeking as he claims, then giving only some of them power is a bad idea. If we do give an elite such power, then we will need to organise to resist it. And, as anarchists have long argued, if we organise to resist it then we are more than able to do without it – i.e., govern ourselves directly.

The state has the power to act against the common good for a reason – it is an instrument of minority rule. Its history is rooted in destroying popular organisations which can contest elite rule (see Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid”). As such, Monbiot is rewriting history to assert that “[s]elf-serving as governments might be, the true social parasites are those who demand their dissolution.” Governments have, in fact, always been the means by which “social parasites” have ensured their position in society. Unless, of course, the various monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships and bureaucracies the general public have been subjected to have, as they claimed, really expressed the “general will” after all – which is a highly unlikely situation.

We need not bother too much in wondering whether the current pseudo-democratic state is any different. Clearly, it is not – as Monbiot himself has documented the neo-liberal agenda is being imposed by such regimes as well as by dictatorial ones. Nor do we need to ponder whether the state is regulating society and the economy for the many or to ensure that the few are secure in their position. For, as Malatesta noted, the "government cannot want society to break up, for it would mean that it and the dominant class would be deprived of sources of exploitation; nor can it leave society to maintain itself without official intervention, for then people would soon realise that government serves only to defend property owners . . . and they would hasten to rid themselves of both." (Anarchy, p. 25)

In the meantime, anarchists argue people subject to exploitation and oppression to organise to defend themselves and society from the negative effects of market forces and concentrations of power – to collectively practice mutual aid and direct action in their own self-interest. That is, precisely the kind of popular self-organisation and self-activity the state represses in the interests of the few (as seen, for example, by Thatcher’s attacks on the unions).

Monbiot, like many a reformist before him, simply confuses actions to secure the health of the system as a whole (which can often clash with the interests of specific capitalists and firms) with a fundamental antagonism between state and capital. It is something else he shares with the so-called “libertarian” right. And, it should be stressed, few right-“libertarians” seek to dissolve the government. Most are minimal statists, seeking a state which will defend private property and (usually unstated) the social hierarchies and economic power that goes with it. The few (so-called “anarcho-capitalists”) who seek the abolition of the public state simply want to privatise its defence of property functions – in other words, private police protecting private power. Very few anarchists, needless to say, consider this remotely libertarian – we seek to dissolve the state at the same time as we dissolve private power (capitalism).

So genuine anarchists have always been aware that capitalism requires state regulation to keep it going. We would agree with Monbiot’s statement that “[u]nless taxpayers' money and public services are available to repair the destruction it causes, libertarianism [sic!] destroys people's savings, wrecks their lives and trashes their environment.” That is why we argue capitalism needs to be replaced by a genuine libertarian system, one rooted in community and workplace self-management. We disagree that free market capitalism has anything to be with “libertarianism.” Sadly, Monbiot is aiding the right by allowing them to appropriate “libertarian” for their agenda of replacing the state with private serfdom.

Perhaps if Monbiot had read, say, Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid” or “The State: Its Historic Role” he would not write such ignorant and self-contradictory nonsense. But, as he has proven so many times before, ignorance of something does not stop him waffling on about it – particularly if it has something to do with anarchism.

Comments

A little correction

A solid critique, my compliments...with one reservation. Have you never seen a muppet movie? Muppets are the epitome of mutual aid rendered accessible to a juvenile audience and, if anything, would have provided Kropotkin himself an ideal refuge upon his escape from the Peter and Paul Prison (why he stopped running before ever reaching Sesame Street is beyond me, what could be more perfect than a Prince Pyotr muppet?). So please, no more calling evil clowns like Monbiot a muppet, it denigrates muppets and the anarcho-communalism they embody. Seriously.

  


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