Bristol Society and Space

George Monbiot’s appeal to community: Why we shouldn’t despair.


By Ellen Cheetham

A few weeks ago, I went to a truly inspiring talk given by the journalist and political activist George Monbiot. Simply, he informed us, we should not despair. That in a problematic current political and environmental climate, he has hope, and so should we.

We live, certainly, in a troubling world: post-Brexit relations have encouraged hostility among multicultural communities, resource consumption is leading to a climate “breakdown,” and inequality is rife. Monbiot considered neoliberalism responsible for these crises – the idea that human society should be defined in terms of market relations, where relationships operate as financial transactions, where inequality is the norm, and where the wealthy elite of society receive benefits whilst trade unions are disbanded. This was not always the case: Monbiot recalled the period of Keynesian economics. However, as opposed to considering the shift in political and economic structure as attributable to a political party, Monbiot argued the opposite. Changes arise from new political narratives.

Narrative is a crucial conception here. Monbiot considered that it is only dominant narratives that can overtake social orders, particularly considering the current neoliberalist philosophy in which we have been contained for years. In order to reverse this he believes we need a new, radical, narrative. Harking back to the old Keynesian model will not do; the economic growth it promotes is unsustainable in the era commonly coined as the “Anthropocene,” where the activity of humanity is considered as exerting a geological force on the planet. We have environmental limits. No, Keynesian economics will not do. We need something new. Something more radical.

Monbiot troubled for us the linear spectrum of state and market, as a scale in which to establish ones political orientation. The economy is not so simple, he argued; it has four economies. The other two? The household, and the commons. Why do we need to admit these into the political realm? The household is crucial in the economy; the unpaid labour of (predominantly, but not universally) women invests labour into the development of future generations. And the commons, a community resource that is unable to be sold and that is controlled by the local neighbourhood, provides a hugely significant opportunity for the locale to benefit jointly from a shared resource. Here, I think of the well-known Gibson-Graham “iceberg model,” where the authors propose that we can pursue community economies that evenly distribute surplus, and recognise community interdependence beyond the realm of financial economics. Where we draw from the commons (that is, the land), but in a means that allows us to care for it, sustain it, and replenish it.

But how to rejuvenate this in the era of neoliberalism? Well, Monbiot seemed to have a solution. Granted, it has its obstacles. But a hopeful vision? Certainly. It envisages a solution that enhances the quality of life, without requiring a constant growth and expansion that is dangerously encroaching on environmental boundaries and thresholds.

The land was once a commons. Now however, it has become compartmentalised, enclosed, renovated, and turned into private property, appropriated for profit. Monbiot instead proposed an alternative strategy: an initial high taxation rate is given, not to the landlords, but to the local governments. Part of this profit can be extrapolated for various social projects and endeavours. And the remainder can be given back to the local community, in order to create a community investment into land. This investment is community orientated, directed, and managed. He used the example of affordable housing, where people could design their own homes, forming communities in the process through interaction and co-operation.

This is a phenomenon directly applicable to one of the commonly accepted cultural hubs of Bristol: Hamilton House. The Hamilton House project began in 2008, where four local people took on a derelict building space in Stokes Croft in an attempt to invigorate the local community. It was a resounding success: the centre is a thriving heart of art, live music, and employment prospects for the local community. However, the centre is under threat where a vacant possession order has been handed to the centre managers, threatening jobs and future community activity. The current campaign to save Hamilton House demands the centre be sold into community ownership in order to continue the project. You can find the campaign here:

Here we see the potential of Monbiot’s vision: a community led “commons” allowing the locale to sustain creative community relations and enhance the vicinity through generating local job prospects, community services and activities. At this point, Monbiot particularly valued the potential of humans to be altruistic: supposedly, we are the only species capable of this. Does the potential for a new political narrative lie here? A political narrative that is altruistic, giving, generous, and community orientated? A politics that thrives on local co-operation? Rather than continue in the neoliberalist strain of alienation and loneliness, we can cultivate a politics of belonging, inclusivity, a bottom-up approach that concentrates on local needs and demands, as opposed to those of the elite. One that is driven by not just financial profit, but cultural and creative profits, too.

But how to extrapolate this to the wider international community as a whole? It is well to argue that instead of a universalising political narrative we should be re-organising ourselves into these local political pockets and economies, but surely in an age of environmental crisis and climate breakdown (he refuses to use the term ‘climate change’ on the basis that it does not adequately envisage the magnitude of environmental decline), to create substantiate reformations do these local initiatives not need to be encouraged internationally? On an environmental level, this local model is particularly compelling considering the attempts of European universalising approaches at combatting environmental change, where ecological problems and solutions are not constantly pervasive across the globe. Indeed, handing back the ‘commons’ to the locals has proved effective in certain world regions; engaging local communities in land management strategies allow local knowledges to be translated to local approaches, something I feel Monbiot would be especially approving of. A paper I read last year by Nyong, et al. (2007) outlined how indigenous work in the African Sahel regarding soil management practices has succesfully mitigated the impact of harmful climate induced effects that affect farming yields.

An alternative political narrative is possible. As Monbiot concluded, the onset of Brexit and environmental decline are headed towards some form of disaster. But instead of despairing, we can work with this. Use it as an opportunity for radical change. For, as he asserted to us, the right-wing are waiting in the proverbial wings. Rather than despair, let us hope. Let us use crises as an opportunity for radical change and a new, hopeful, political narrative. The great challenge, it appears to me (and it is a mammoth task), is how to give this locally-based approach traction cross-continentally. Furthermore, how do we usurp the neoliberal narrative and so replace it with Monbiot’s community vision? For it seems that in order to generate this reversal of climatic breakdown that the speaker so desires, this new community-based phenomenon cannot be practiced solely in a few isolated nations. The political narrative he desires must be embodied across the globe, as neoliberalism has been. The question is, how?

Gibson-Graham, J.K. Cameron, J. Healy, S. (2013) Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming our Communities Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nyong, A. Adesina, F. Elasha, B.O. (2007) The value of Indigenous knowledge in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in the African Sahel. Mitigation and Adaptive Strategies for Global Change. 12, p.787–797

For more on George Monbiot: