George Monbiot at the TED Summit: "We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths"
Exciting to see George Monbiot take some of his core arguments about new, community-based “politics of belonging” (our posts here) to the biggest possible world stage - which was last week’s official TED Summit in Edinburgh. His full video lecture is embedded above, but here’s an edited and selected version of his transcript which makes George’s positive case:
Over the past few years, there's been a fascinating convergence of findings in several different sciences, in psychology and anthropology and neuroscience and evolutionary biology, and they all tell us something pretty amazing: that human beings have got this massive capacity for altruism. Sure, we all have a bit of selfishness and greed inside us, but in most people, those are not our dominant values.
And we also turn out to be the supreme cooperators. We survived the African savannas, despite being weaker and slower than our predators and most of our prey, by an amazing ability to engage in mutual aid, and that urge to cooperate has been hardwired into our minds through natural selection. These are the central, crucial facts about humankind: our amazing altruism and cooperation.
Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but I think the most powerful of them is the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.
And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.
But it doesn't have to be like this. It really doesn't, because we have this incredible capacity for togetherness and belonging, and by invoking that capacity, we can recover those amazing components of our humanity: our altruism and cooperation.
Where there is atomization, we can build a thriving civic life with a rich participatory culture. Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we can build an economics that respects both people and planet. And we can create this economics around that great neglected sphere, the commons.
The commons is neither market nor state, capitalism nor communism, but it consists of three main elements: a particular resource; a particular community that manages that resource; and the rules and negotiations the community develops to manage it. Think of community broadband or community energy cooperatives or the shared land for growing fruit and vegetables that in Britain we call allotments.
A common can't be sold, it can't be given away, and its benefits are shared equally among the members of the community. Where we have been ignored and exploited, we can revive our politics. We can recover democracy from the people who have captured it. We can use new rules and methods of elections to ensure that financial power never trumps democratic power again.
Representative democracy should be tempered by participatory democracy so that we can refine our political choices, and that choice should be exercised as much as possible at the local level. If something can be decided locally, it shouldn't be determined nationally. And I call all this the politics of belonging.
Now, I think this has got the potential to appeal across quite a wide range of people, and the reason for this is that among the very few values that both left and right share are belonging and community. And we might mean slightly different things by them, but at least we start with some language in common.
…What we need to create is a community based on bridging networks, not bonding networks. Now a bonding network brings together people from a homogenous group, whereas a bridging network brings together people from different groups. And my belief is that if we create sufficiently rich and vibrant bridging communities, we can thwart the urge for people to burrow into the security of a homogenous bonding community defending themselves against the other.