At the end of the party conference season, Matthew Flinders reflects on a ‘depressing display of the death of politics’, arguing that the parties failed to promote new ideas and offer fresh choices. He finds parallels in George Monbiot’s recent work on responding to ecological decline, and wonders whether ‘re-wilding’ politics could save the democratic ecosystem.
Feral: ‘In a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication’
My wife and I like to play a game. She insists I am not allowed to read ‘work’ books about politics during weekends or holidays; I respond by searching out the best political writing that happens not to have an obviously political title. The benefit of this little game of domestic power politics is that I am frequently forced to read books that would of otherwise have ever made it to the top of my ‘must read’ pile. One such example is George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding which I devoured last week and like all good books it left my mind buzzing not just in relation to the specific focus and arguments of the book but also in relation to its broader relevance.
When stripped down to its basic components Feral is a treatise about re-engaging with nature and rediscovering our landscape by restoring and rewilding our ecosystem. This process might range from changing farming and fishing methods away from a hegemonic monoculture through to reintroducing certain animals such as wild boar, lynx, and wolves to certain parts of Western Europe. Unlike the bleak pessimism of a great deal of environmental writing Monbiot charts away out of ecological decline by allowing nature to return to a wilder less predictable form. This new positive environmentalism offers a way to re-conceptualize the world around us — to redefine the art of living — in relation to the physical landscape. But it also offered much more. The problem was that for at least a week I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly this ‘more’ element was or why it mattered. And then the party political conference season opened in the United Kingdom and everything became clear.
In essence, George Monbiot’s book is not about boar and bears but about the art of living in the twenty-first century. It is about how we live our lives, how we define what matters and whether, deep down, we are satisfied by a world based around ever-increasing consumption. The simple fact would seem to suggest that we are not satisfied. The World Health Organization rates clinical depression as one of the main health challenges for the twenty-first century, while in the United Kingdom the most common cause of death amongst young men is suicide. To rewild or turn feral is not therefore just about reconnecting with the landscape but it is also about reconnecting with yourself.
‘We still possess the fear, the courage, the aggression, which evolved to see us through our quests and crises, and we still feel the need to exercise them. But our sublimated lives oblige us to invent challenges to replace the horrors of which we have been deprived,’ Monbiot argues. ‘We find ourselves hedged by the consequences of our nature, living meekly for fear of provoking or damaging others.’ Such arguments resonate with Sigmund Freud’s arguments in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that ‘civilization’ (Western modern civilization) was a trade-off in which one cherished value (individual freedom) is exchanged for another (a degree of security). The tension between a deep need for instinctual freedom — wildness, adventure, risk, those qualities that make life worth living — and the conformity demanded by society was the root, according to Freud, of widespread social discontent. Émile Durkheim‘s classic 1897 work on social anomie and suicide came to not dissimilar conclusions about the evolution of modern life. And yet the contemporary relevance of this seam of scholarship only became clear when watching the party conferences. Has there ever been a more depressing display of the death of politics in the sense of a failure to promote fresh ideas, to inspire belief or hope, to offer new choices or dare to stand out from the pack? Is it any wonder that recent surveys suggest that only twelve per cent of 18-25 year olds are currently planning to vote in the 2015 General Election? To them politics simply doesn’t matter, and if the party political conferences are anything to go by its easy to see why they think this.
My argument is not, of course, that politics does not matter — it matters far more than most disaffected democrats seem to realize — but at the same time it would be naive to deny the existence of a serious disconnection between the governors and the governed. Might an argument about rewilding not therefore apply to the political realm? Could there be an as yet unmet need for a slightly wilder political life — a desire for a fiercer, less predictable and more variated political ecosystem? Just as both the land and sea suffers from a hegemonic monoculture — captured perfectly in the term ‘sheep wrecked’ — so politics seems trapped within a similarly narrow hegemonic ideological framework where the parties offer variants of the same pro-market model. Can anyone show me the creative rebels or the big ideas or the politicians who are simply willing to tell the public that there are no simple solutions to complex problems?
The danger of using the metaphor of ‘re-wilding’ or encouraging the evolution of feral politics without some accepted boundaries is that it risks unleashing a range of social forces that once freed cannot so easily be controlled or channeled. Put slightly differently, there are many parts of the word where politics seems far wilder but I doubt whether those countries or regions offer great inspiration for those seeking a more contented or meaningful life. If they did why would hundreds of thousands of refugees risk their lives attempting to seek out a new life in Western Europe, North America, or Australasia? Could it be that the notion of feral politics risks throwing away centuries of social progress and that democratic politics is by its nature slow, incremental… domesticated (i.e. Max Weber‘s ‘slow boring of hard wood’)?
I’m not convinced. Political choices are rarely black or white and my sense is that the public have an appetite for ‘big ideas’ that dare to question the robotic and instrumental nature of modern life. George Monbiot’s book provides a glimpse of what some of these ideas might be.
Note: This post was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog. It represents the views of the author, not those of the British Politics and Policy blog or the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Professor Matthew Flinders is Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Defending Politics (2012) and can be found on Twitter @PoliticalSpike.