Around the web: Moving left

Phil Hamilton looks at George Monbiot's website

After the collapse of ‘peace and justice’ mark I, we have a convenient initiative being pushed by Salma Yaqoob and George Monbiot. Despite the Socialist Workers Party’s protestations that it was not involved in an unprincipled lash-up with the CPB and Birmingham central mosque, it comes as no surprise to learn that comrades Callinicos and Hoveman have had some input into the Yaqoob-Monbiot draft (behind the backs of the Socialist Alliance membership of course). So just who is Monbiot, and why is he being feted by the SWP?

Monbiot’s website will not win any awards for innovative design. Little more than an online cache of journalism, the page is divided up into four. The main field links recent articles from his weekly column in The Guardian, complemented by the side bar’s archive index. The header offers a few links with an assortment of photos - including one of our crusading journalist. Finally a little orange box offers introductory information.

Plunging into the first of five links, the reader is provided with a very pinched account of Monbiot’s background in ‘Who I am’. This piece understandably plays up his activist credentials with potted accounts of his investigative travelogues, his brush with malaria and injuries sustained during involvement with road protest actions. Keen to establish his ‘serious credentials’, George also mentions his five visiting professorships and his receipt of ‘worthy’ prizes. Significantly he neglects to mention his own background in the landed aristocracy.

‘Introduction’ (sub-titled ‘In defence of trouble’) is a quick guide to Monbiot’s political philosophy. A blend of christian morality and utilitarian ethics, Monbiot’s core belief is grounded in his “empathetic principle”: treat others as you would treat yourself. From this grows a commitment to “universal human rights” (informed by the liberal philosopher, Isaiah Berlin). The second and third aspects cover “social justice” and “environmentalism”. Again both positions are based on moral precepts (the freedom from starvation is more important than freedom from taxes; the right to clean water is more important than the right to dump pollutants). Monbiot goes on to emphasise the necessity for regulation (by whom?), warn of the “imbalances in the mainstream media”, and argues that sometimes violence is necessary for progressive social change. Finally he carves out the political role of ‘the writer’, theorised as one way of pursuing the “calling of a professional troublemaker”. For Monbiot it is the writer’s task to keep the prevailing political system open via criticism, fresh perspectives and a commitment to democracy. If you feel it necessary, you can email your opinions on all this to him.

In the next item, Monbiot dispenses some career advice for aspiring young radicals. This piece is quite novel and interesting. He advises budding journalists not to become too tied to the mainstream media outlets - you should get the relevant skills and get out. Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, Monbiot writes: “Whenever you are faced with a choice between liberty and security, choose liberty. Otherwise you will end up with neither.” He goes on to offer budgeting tips, how to market your work and recommends the diligent building up of a reputation. The piece is peppered with vivid depictions of those who have chosen wealth and power, but in so doing have denied life.

The archives section is divided into 31 subject headings, with dozens of articles on nearly every subject under the sun (sadly, though, there is not so much as a whiff of the latest ‘peace and justice’ initiative, even after the weekly update). The ‘Interviews and debates’ shed further light on Monbiot’s politics. For example, the May 2002 interview with the Ephemera journal shows his early thinking around his current ‘world parliament’ hobbyhorse, while other interviews discuss problems of land, governance and international aid. There are also a few debate transcripts on direct action, business and agriculture too.

Those daunted by having to sift through the vast archives will be relieved by the inclusion of a search engine (no mention of ‘peace and justice’ here either). Next along the header is ‘Books’, where we are treated to reviewer blurb and brief synopses of his four titles. A few extracts might have been used here and there to whet our appetites - but at least viewers are encouraged to buy their copies from independent bookshops. ‘Mailing lists’ give the option to join Monbiot’s announcement and discussion lists. Finally, the ‘Talks’ section lists upcoming dates for lectures and debates.

While this website will never set the world alight, it serves well as an entrée to all things Monbiot. The hosted archives cover a period of eight years, enabling us to trace his gradual move leftwards, and should therefore be indispensable viewing for all socialists. After all, who is to say that his journey is now complete?