The power of political storytelling: A response to George Monbiot (part two)
March for Europe in central London - Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment   

Yesterday, I wrote about George Monbiot’s theory of political transformation. His argument is that the key to achieving radical change isn’t factual argument, but superior storytelling. Thus neoliberalism persists as our dominant ideology, not for the lack of evidence against it, but because its opponents have yet to advocate a sufficiently compelling counter-narrative.

Until now that is. Monbiot believes that he has the outline of just such a story. Here, from the Guardian, is his elevator pitch:

“Through restoring community, renewing civic life and claiming our place in the world, we build a society in which our extraordinary nature – our altruism, empathy and deep connection – is released. A kinder world stimulates and normalises our kinder values. I propose a name for this story: the Politics of Belonging.”

To get the full gist, you’ll need to read the whole thing, but what might immediately strike the casual reader is the story’s utopianism. Its author, however, makes an appeal to scientific plausibility:

“Over the past few years, there has been a convergence of findings in different sciences: psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Research in all these fields points to the same conclusion: that human beings are, in the words of an article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, ‘spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals’. This refers to our astonishing degree of altruism. We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.

“We are also, among mammals, the supreme cooperators…”

Actually, that would be the Naked Mole Rat, which (along with the Damaraland Mole Rat) is the only eusocial mammal. Zoological pedantry aside, one has to observe that, while uniquely compassionate, humans are also uniquely cruel. And though uniquely altruistic, we’re also uniquely avaricious. Indeed, in terms of morality and immorality, we’re peerless in every way. That’s because, in all but the least important sense, we’re not animals. If I were constructing a narrative of hope, that’s what I would begin with – we are not animals.

To be fair, Monbiot believes that we can and should put aside our competitive instincts and make the most of  our cooperative potential. Furthermore, he has every confidence that we can do this in a politically transformative way – because it’s already happening:

“…[it] might sound like an improbable hope – until you begin to explore some of the remarkable things that have been happening in the United States.

“The Big Organising model developed by the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee is potentially transformative. Rather than relying on big spending, big data and a big staff, it uses proliferating networks of volunteers, who train and supervise more volunteers, to carry out the tasks usually reserved for staff. While Hillary Clinton’s campaign was organising money, the Sanders campaign was organising people.”

Back in May of this year, Monbiot argued that “this method could be used to transform the prospects of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party”. He was “widely mocked” for doing so, but he was proved right by subsequent events.

However, in noting – and, in some cases, celebrating – the rise of grassroots political movements, he has, I believe, misunderstood their essence. What’s really going on isn’t some kind of shared spiritual awakening, but a potentially darker phenomenon.

The other week I wrote about the anthropological philosophy of René Girard – who knew a thing or two about human storytelling – and who concluded that “imitation is at the root of all human behaviour.” We are, he said, driven by “mimetic desire”.

Thus when people come together in pursuit of a common goal we should suspect that copying, not community, is the motivating force. Indeed, what the new political movements have in common – from the populist left through to the alt-right – is their profoundly mimetic nature. Their most powerful form of communication is the internet ‘meme’ (a word meaning ‘that which is imitated’).

From ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’ to ‘Pepe the Frog’, memes create a sense of belonging, but only for those who copy.