How We Got Here and How We Get Out: George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage

George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis is an uplifting political book.

I know – it’s so rare for a book to be both political and uplifting that it’s easy to believe it’s impossible. But now and then, you find an exception, and this is certainly one of them.

In fact, this is one of the best political books I’ve read in a while, and I’m excited to tell you why. However, I want to note that – as you’ll see in a moment – Monbiot is coming from a very specific part of the political spectrum (one I happen to mostly agree with, in full disclosure). Still, this isn’t a political book in the sense of a manifesto, at least not the kind issued by particular politicians for particular elections. Rather, it’s an incisive and intelligent analysis of our political moment, a hard look at the big picture we find ourselves in, and one I think you – whatever your politics may be – owe it to yourself to engage in. He may not change your mind, but he’ll make you think.

Best of all, this is a political book that does more than criticize – it proposes concrete solutions that could be taken right now by you (yes, you!).

But before getting to that, here’s a few other reasons you need to read this book right now:

  1. Beneath the specific political arguments, Monbiot’s book is an eloquent and necessary attack on what has led to us a time of unprecedented loneliness. And I’m not just talking about Facebook envy or people always looking on their phones. I’m talking about the profound sense of isolation that permeates our lives and, consequently, leads to a feeling of helplessness that can, in the worst cases, manifest itself in desperate, even terrible ways. Monbiot understands that this feeling exists throughout the world and affects us all in one form or another. The fact that he recognizes this particular ailment of our historical period lends a moral force to all his arguments.
  2. Stories – we all know they’re important, but Monbiot will show you how they are fundamental to how we understand the world. To grossly oversimplify his point, we understand issues by referencing a mental framework or story we have. For instance, consider the annual nonsense about “Merry Christmas” vs “Happy Holidays.” Putting aside how asinine the whole debate is, if you’re someone who respects the fact that we live in a diverse world where not everyone believes exactly the same things as you, you’ll see “Happy Holidays” as a way of expressing good will to a fellow human being without ignoring their differences. If, on the other hand, if you believe Christians are under attack in one of the most zealously Christian nation in the world, well, then “Happy Holidays” is an attempt to destroy Christianity and remove it from society (we’ll just ignore that America isn’t a theocracy, so no one should be forced to say “Merry Christmas” to begin with). It all just depends on the story you believe in.
  3. Neoliberalism vs social-democracy – Monbiot expertly shows how our political ideas and beliefs, even our actions, are influenced by, to paraphrase the author, the two more powerful stories in the past century. Monbiot argues that neoliberalism, with its focus on extreme individualism, has largely led to the aforementioned loneliness pervading ourselves and our culture, whereas social-democracy is all about communities banding together and promoting collective good. You might think this is grossly simplistic, but 1. that’s why you should read the book and not just a blog post and 2. that’s part of the appeal of stories to begin with – they’re simple. In our busy lives we just don’t have time to read through political reports and economic analyses and so on. We need something to undergird our thoughts and part of the reasons why broad stories that explain so much are so successful is because they give us a kind of cognitive shortcut. Likewise, if you believe the story that history is the story of freedom becoming more widespread (to even more grossly simplify Hegel’s argument in The Philosophy of History), then you’re likely to support efforts to spread rights to peoples throughout the world. If, on the other hand, you believe people need to be ruled by philosopher-kings and guardians (a la Plato’s Republic), you’re likely to see the spread of democracy as the literal spread of chaos.
  4. On a related note, Monbiot does a great job tying together historical event from all over the world, past and present (including heartening developments in Proto Alegre, Brazil). This comparative – albeit truncated – history helps flesh out and support his argument that the past century and our present moment can be best grasped in terms of the conflict between the aforementioned two stories.
  5. Like all political books, Monbiot of course offers detailed and persuasive criticisms of politicians, institutions, and more. Now, some might argue that taking a critical look at history might undercut your patriotic feelings, but I’m of the opinion that patriotism based on willful ignorance is no virtue, and there’s no shame in being able to simultaneously admire some things about your or any country while condemning others. Complexity and deeply considered analyses of issues aren’t should frankly be encouraged…but I’m getting off topic.
  6. As I said early on, one of the best aspects of Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis is that Monbiot shows us both how we got into this age of crisis and how we could get out. Are his solutions perfect? No. Are they the only possibilities? Of course not. But they are useful starting points for conversations anyone who wants to be an active participant in a democratic society should welcome. Plus, though they aren’t perfect or complete, they aren’t awful or baseless, either. Monbiot draws on a wealth of research from sources all over the world to present often intriguing and always innovative solutions.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ll just emphasize again that this is an example of what I consider the best and most useful kind of political book – one which examines issues in all their complexity, walks readers through every step of every argument, and is infused with the desire to better the world and create one that prioritizes the well-being of others.

And I don’t know about you, but I think we need more books like that.

So go read it. Now.

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