Monbiot, George. How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. London: Verso, 2017. 342 pages. $9.99 ebook, $16.95 paperback, $19.96 hardback.
There is a small, but growing, field invested in interrogating the convergences between postcolonial theory and critiques of neoliberalism. In their 2000 work Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point to an overlapping matrix of state actors, supranational organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and philanthropic organizations as comprising a sort of neoliberal imperial order, what they call Empire, and which they argue has displaced modernity’s European empires. Arundhati Roy argues that institutions governed by neoliberal economics have taken the place of the colonial British Empire in her 2014 text Capitalism: A Ghost Story. George Monbiot’s recent How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature, a work critiquing many right-wing aspects of contemporary Britain as well as its former colonies and purporting to offer a “countervailing voice” to the globally “dominant ideology” of neoliberalism, then, would seem to be able to slot nicely into this genre of popular academic texts linking the imperialism of the past and the economic structuring of today. The resulting work is an interesting, passionate, and at times brilliant one, but one that misses several opportunities for analysis of racism and imperialism and as such, winds up with significant gaps in the story it is trying to tell.
How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature purports to be an accounting of the political, economic, and environmental movements and mishaps that have built twenty-first century society. It is particularly invested in critiques of neoliberalism, which Monbiot defines as “market fundamentalism,” or an ideology that argues, “that the market can resolve almost all social, economic, and political problems. The less the state regulates and taxes us, the better off we will be. Public services should be privatised, public spending should be cut and business should be freed from social control.” This ideology, according to Monbiot, has led us to our current “mess.” As indicated by the subtitle, by assessing the rise of neoliberalism and how it has atomized our politics, increased inequality, and destroyed nature, Monbiot hopes to, in his words, use his writing in the service of “naming and challenging power” with the end goal of helping to “materialise” a better world. “His role,” according to Brian Morton of The Herald Scotland, “is to tilt against every symptom of the heedless neoliberalism… that governs our postmodern world.” While this is a noble goal, Monbiot’s taking up of “every symptom” works better in some cases than in others. Because his larger project is to name and critique “the ideology that now governs our lives” (neoliberalism), and because, in his view, all elements of our society may be traced to the root cause of neoliberalism, Monbiot has a tendency to gloss over important societal symptoms like racism in his eagerness to connect everything back to this one particular economic ideology. In other words, he sometimes misses the trees for the forest.
In his weekly columns for The Guardian, George Monbiot regularly and eloquently inveighs against neoliberal economics and politicians, environmental degradation and climate change, and corporatist influence on contemporary society. Levying leftist critiques at neoliberalism, what he calls “the ideology at the root of all our problems,” Monbiot’s forte is selecting a specific issue, bill presented to Parliament, or event, crisply analyzing it in approximately 1,000 words, and leaving the reader with a sense of general unease and of wanting to act. His columns are connected by the common thread of disgust at neoliberalism, whether he is discussing land clearance in the Amazon, children’s rights in Britain, or the Scottish independence movement. It is fitting, then, that How Did We Get Into This Mess? sticks to his tried-and-true format: the book is a compendium of his articles written for the Guardian in the twenty-first century, grouped into ten thematic parts with titles like “There Is Such a Thing as Society,” which argues for the need for the public good, rather than private gain, by looking at topics like loneliness, competition in the workforce, and the right to public space; “Riches and Ruins,” which considers growing wealth inequality through the lens of the environmental impact of global consumption and the legacies of Thatcherism and Reaganism; and “The Wild Life,” a collections of essays which looks at environmental treaties, population growth, and general human engagement with the natural world. This strategy is a useful one if the reader is interested in The Collected Works of George Monbiot, but less so if the reader wishes for a coherent explanation of how, exactly, we got into “this mess.”
“This mess,” though never specifically defined, can be assumed to refer to the toxic morass of the philosophy of profit-over-people, both blatant and more nebulous forms of racism, environmental destruction, and wanton assaults on the Keynesian welfare state that make up contemporary Western society. However, the failure to coherently define “this mess” is indicative of a larger problem with this particular book: the collection of articles, though individually quite sharp, persuasive, and engaging, at times does not hang together as a completely unified work. One can glean, generally, that neoliberalism in various iterations got us here to the mess, and Monbiot does an excellent job of excavating particular pockets that prove his point, but he is essentially mining gaps here and there, rather than the full seam.
How Did We Get Into This Mess? is at its best when concerned with ecological and environmental issues. The 2014 column, “Everything is Connected,” is a wry look at “the remarkable connectivity, on this small and spherical planet, of living processes,” through the unexpected medium of whale poo, and 2007’s “Leave It In the Ground,” urging political actors to simply leave fossil fuels in the ground, comes with a headnote that the article “began the discussion that eventually helped lead to the development of a global movement,” though Monbiot never specifies what that global movement is. It is in one of his environmentally-focused articles, “The Grime Behind the Crime” (2013), that Monbiot touches on the topic of environmental racism which, truthfully, only highlights how very little he integrates discussions on race, racism, and colonialism into his overall oeuvre.
It is his failure to engage thoroughly and full-throatedly with these subjects which should, in any truly complete and well-rounded study, be central to overall conversations on neoliberalism and environmentalism that is the biggest sticking point for How Did We Get Into This Mess? “Colonialism” appears nowhere in the index, “imperialism” just twice, and “racism” only three times (the mention of environmental racism above included). Both mentions of “imperialism” come in an essay on the British Empire’s treatment of the Mau Mau, while the glancing references to racism come once in that essay, once in the previously-mentioned “The Grime Behind the Crime,” and once with regards to the United States government cracking down on money transfers to Somalia (“Unremitting Pain,” 2015). The lack of a sustained commitment to fully interrogating these topics and connections reads like a sorely missed opportunity, and one that the British Monbiot might want to explore a little more with regards to his country’s very recent misadventures in the Middle East, not to mention the lingering legacies and impacts of imperialism on the contemporary United Kingdom. Though the selections for this work seem to have been finalized pre-Brexit, it would be intriguing to treat that referendum, racism, imperial amnesia, neoliberalism, and coloniality in tandem as well. Reading How Did We Get Into This Mess?, those interested in empire and its new forms are reminded by Paul Gilroy’s 2006 work Postcolonial Melancholia, or, even further back, Salman Rushdie’s “The New Empire Within Britain,” published in 1982: why does Monbiot, sharp, insightful, and scathing as he is on many subjects, seem to ignore these particular subjects with what feels like deliberate intent? This work had several options for accommodating these concerns. Monbiot has published several works on racism and imperialism in The Guardian: take a look at “Black Shirts in Green Trousers” from April 2002, which takes environmental activists to task for not doing more to combat the far right, or “We Share the Blame for Zimbabwe” from April 2000, which explicitly takes the British to task for their imperial misadventures in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe. Inclusion of more essays of this stripe would have helped flesh out the book and both given the reader a fuller picture of Monbiot’s work and a more complete examination of what exactly “this mess” entails.
All this said, overall How Did We Get Into This Mess? is a good resource for those interested in contemporary British politics, economics, and culture. One might be able to mine the gaps as well as the presences for insight into the state of the British left. While failing to deliver a sustained, cohesive argument, the collection of essays that make up the text provide interesting and perceptive snapshots into particular elements of our contemporary political and social moment.