Home > General Politics > Why is George Monbiot such a horse’s arse?

Why is George Monbiot such a horse’s arse?

Research has been keeping me busy recently; I’m researching the Gramscian concept of hegemony (and its subsequent evolutions) while at the same time trying to write a rather more limited critique of the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. In the meantime however, I stumbled across the following article by George Monbiot and I really have to ask; is this man deranged?

The thesis of his most recent offering is that Wales, blessed Cymru, is being held down by the bloody English. The English extracted all the natural resources and sold them on, they constructed a railway system to suit this exploitation, they drowned a small village to supply Liverpool with clean water – oh and the English are more grasping, less liberal and more socially stratified than Wales.

I recently defended John Pilger’s comments regarding Obama’s potential for being an Uncle Tom; whilst I disagreed with Pilger’s lazy characterization, I recognize that Obama will not be what many black people hope he will be. Now, here this sort of thing comes up again: Monbiot is indulging in yet more lazy characterization – not to mention drawing rather silly conclusions from his own laziness. There is no defence for this.

If we look at a railway map of the mainland United Kingdom, it’s fairly easy to see that all railways are ‘extractive'; they are purpose built to carry men and materials where men and materials needed to go. Ports and the nation’s capital fit pretty high up on that bill. It is not just Wales – it is the whole country: whether to ports in Liverpool, London or Southampton, or from outlying areas to centres of industry where people can find jobs, to be extractive is the whole point of a railway.

The railways are not a bloody insult to the Welsh. More importantly, living for two years in Wales doesn’t make you Welsh, Mr Monbiot, anymore than my living in England makes me English. I am Irish, though a citizen of the United Kingdom, and I’d support the Republic’s football team over that of England in a heartbeat – not through any misplaced sense of nationalism but simply because I won’t have to listen to the Irish media crowing about it. If you support the Welsh team, ask yourself why.

If it is a reason similar to mine, then that’s fair enough. Frankly I’d support Germany over England for the simple reason that German footballers don’t seem to be quite such drunken, arrogant primadonnas. If the reason is different, tending towards a love of surroundings, then I suggest to you that your anti-nationalism is not rationally predicated and is in danger of being subverted towards an equally nationalist counter-nationalism.

Whilst none of us can afford to turn a blind eye towards the wrongs of the English government in its provincial territories, nor should that be our only or even our main focus. Much of what was done to Wales was done in the name of private industry – and the function of the British government in that regard was simply the function of any capitalist state. The problem is capitalism, not the English.

It may or may not be the case that Wales feels less socially stratified, or less grasping or more liberal but this is not simply because they are Welsh! Scotland and Wales by virtue of their subsidiary positions could not develop the same weight of Shires-and-Dales middle class as sustains the Tory base in England to such a degree. Indeed, both enjoyed higher levels of unionisation – on a par with one of the industrial centres like Liverpool.

Labour’s strongholds (and the few places where Communists got elected to Parliament) weren’t simply built in Scotland and Wales because of the more liberal nature of the Scottish and Welsh national character – but they were built off the back of vicious class struggle, which compelled ever greater and more conscious acts of working class solidarity. And you, Mr Monbiot, mention none of this.

Your lazy characterization must stop.

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Categories: General Politics
  1. December 31, 2008 at 5:35 am

    Heh, you need some sleep!

    I recently defended Monbiot’s comments regarding Obama’s potential for being an Uncle Tom; whilst I disagreed with Monbiot’s lazy characterization,

    You were defending John Pilger, not George Monbiot.

  2. December 31, 2008 at 10:10 am

    Quite right Sunny. I do need more sleep. Though I wasn’t totally wrong – Monbiot did work his way into the discussion (I believe it was on Pickled Politics, amongst your comment people – one of them included him in an attack on Nader and Pilger).

  3. Gwilym Owen
    August 18, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I have rarely read such bitter, jealous and crass nonsense as this pathetic excuse for a critique. You are critial of Monbiot’s sypmathy and emotional reaction to living in Wales yet your ‘piece’ is littered with statements and observations which make it abundantly clear what your emotional response to Wales is.

    Clearly you have not travelled by rail in Wales as your refutation of the point demonstrates. Furthermore, Monbiot is commenting on Father Deiniol’s plan. I happen to know Father Deiniol and he is a fantastic man who has a deep understanding of the social and economic problems facing the common Welshman. To put it another way, he knows what he is talking about, you don’t – so why comment on a subject you are unfamiliar with?

    As you are not Welsh – what on earth gives you the right to decide what constitues Welshness? or what the Welsh are insulted by? Lord Beechings is a pub in Aberystwyth, so named, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, due to the depth of resentment at the closure of the rail lines.

    It seems to me that your irritation is with Wales, or the fact that someone could be a supporter of Wales. I will say one thing – this is an attitude that is quite common in England. Perhaps this means that living in England has rubbed off on you? Or perhaps you are more the Irish-trying-to-integrate variety of identity-confused chap. either way I will leave you with this…

    “..as no nation labours more under the vice of jealousy than the Irish, so none is more free from it than the Welsh..”

    – Giraldus (1183 AD)

    I guess some things never change eh!

  4. August 18, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I have no emotional response to ‘Wales’, anymore than I have an emotional response to a teaspoon. ‘Wales’ is not an entity, it is a concept – and the concept is flawed, just as the concept of ‘England’ or ‘Ireland’ or ‘Scotland’ is flawed.

    I was not commenting on Archimandrite Deiniol’s plan. Why would I? It’s got little enough to do with the purpose of Monbiot’s piece, which sits among his other pieces on Englishness and such topics, and published in a largely English newspaper.

    As for being bitter or jealous and commenting on what it is to be Welsh while not myself being Welsh, I can expose your hypocrisy no better than you have yourself, by that lovely line from Giraldus, commenting on the Irish national character.

  5. Gwilym Owen
    August 18, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    I think you missunderstand. Monbiot’s article is about the railway network. It is prefaced by a few introductory paragraphs about how he feels about Wales – a subjective opinion.

    You do refute the notion that Wales has a unique problem, which is the main element of the article and is based on Father Deiniol’s recognition of the problem, and his proposed solution. So yes, you do comment on father Deiniol’s position and you do this from a position of apparent personal ignorance.

    I accept though, that most of your twittering is directed at Monbiot’s personal feelings about Wales which, given that it is a personal and subjective opinion, is a rather crass thing to do.

    ‘‘Wales’ is not an entity, it is a concept – and the concept is flawed’ – this is just babble.

    My point is – you don’t get to decide what Wales is, nor what constitues an accurate characterisation of Wales. As to not having an emotional response to Wales – maybe you don’t but your comments suggest you do:

    ‘The thesis of his most recent offering is that Wales, blessed Cymru, is being held down by the bloody English.’

    I dont think the use of ‘Blessed Cymru’ in an overtly sarcastic way apprears in Monbiot’s article – it is your invention and it highlights a prejudice. In fact the whole tone and direction of your comments do. Including Scotland and Ireland in your comments is merely camouflage.

    As to the last point – no, you probably should try to do better if you want to point out my hypocracy. Giraldus’s opinion is his, not mine (hillarious though it is). I also make no comment on Ireland, I am just using it to point out your rather obvious distaste for Wales as well as what appears to be your own identity-crisis.

  6. August 18, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Are you actually stupid? You were the one who quoted Giraldus, as though it gave an insight into the Irish “vice of jealousy” and connected it to me. You brought it up. You also attacked me for daring to comment on what it means to be Welsh while not actually being Welsh. Well, you aren’t Irish, and your pithy quote (with your own subsequent words about how the Irish character hasn’t changed) comments on the Irish character. That’s extremely hypocritical. If you can’t follow the most basic logic to see that, then there’s really no point in me engaging with your misinterpretation of my article.

  7. Gwilym Owen
    August 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    No, that is correct – I am not Irish and as to where I am on the ‘stupid scale’ – I guess that is a relative measure. I like that you can notice the ‘attack’ I have made on you and the linkage to your Irishness, particlularly as it is merely intended as a less subtle mirror to your own approach. You spot the hypocricy yet you actually manage to fail to see the comparisson – Giraldus was no Irishman either and his comments are equally as crap as your ‘knowledge’ of the Welsh character or – for that matter, Welsh railways.

    However, It seems that you did miss the point and require that I regain some moral high ground. I appolgise for my inclusion of a comment made by an ancient historian and my subsequent and apparent agreement with that historian’s opinion.

    I notice that you took the easy route of taking offence at my baiting, rather than address any of the actual critisms of your article. Interesting.

  8. August 18, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Look, you obviously have never read this blog before. I’m not taking the easy route out – there’s not one of your criticisms I cannot answer. I was simply gauging whether or not I should bother bearing in mind the level of personal attacks which you brought to bear, before then denying what you have now admitted: that at least one of your attacks was directly hypocritical.

    Incidentally, I know precisely who Giraldus was, for all that you seem to think I disapprove of the Welsh: I had to study him when I read Latin. RS Thomas, on the other hand, I read for pleasure.

    First of all, to begin by closing off this argument about the railways. I am not passing comment on the state of the railways in Wales. If the other regions are anything to go by, I’m sure they are awful. Monbiot essentially makes the point that they were designed to be ‘extractive’, i.e. to feed from the different areas in Wales to the great industrial centres of England. Of course they were.

    My point, however, which was reinforced originally by a map – the link to which seems to have moved – is that ALL railways are necessarily extractive. The rural areas of Scotland and Ireland are similar: e.g. although Derry is right on the Irish border, you can’t cross the border to the Republic without going via Belfast, which is essentially to the other side of the country. Surely there is no great leap to suggest that this is similar to Wales, where to travel from north to south or vice versa, you have to go via England, if you intend to go by rail?

    My argument, therefore is NOT that Wales has no problem. Nor, am I arguing that the people who caused the problem were not English: Dr Beeching very obviously was, and clearly had little appreciation for the extent to which cutting the railways would impact local communities. The Belfast City Corporation did the same thing in Northern Ireland as was done in Wales and elsewhere around the same time that the Beeching report was implemented.

    Instead, what I’m saying is that none of this can be tied to the Welsh national identity, or to the English national identity or to the relationship between the two. It is rather a function of the economic system of capitalism.

    Like Archimandrite Deiniol, I’m all in favour of rebuilding the railways. In fact, I’m probably keener on the idea than most people I know: the railways should never have been shut down in the first place, and central planning should exist to take advantage of the railroads when considering the expanding population of the United Kingdom and the transport problems (and concomitant road building and pollution) this could help alleviate.

    On the other hand, what I simply will not countenance is that any of this has anything to do with being Welsh. Or Irish, for that matter, but I focused on the Welsh aspect because Monbiot did. From supporting Wales at sport to how he’s never been shouted at (I’ve lived in England for three years, one in Oxfordshire, two in Kent and I’ve never been shouted at either; does that mean I should be an English nationalist?), Monbiot talks a lot of nationalist balls when in reality his argument is straightforward socialism:

    1. That railways seem to serve the ruling class.
    2. That better railways could help economic regeneration of poor areas.
    3. That environmental sustainability depends on having a large-scale network of public transport.

    Where Monbiot goes off the rails (excuse the pun) is to suggest, as he does, that an additional reason for a better designed Welsh railway is to make the nation of Wales more cohesive. Which I think is rubbish.

    It is only here that we get into difficulty (because so far I don’t think I’ve said anything that can be refuted): I dismiss nationalism as irrelevant. You seem to think it important, though you can correct me where I go awry. Focusing on how it was an Englishman which tore up the ‘Welsh’ railways ignores that there’s no difference between the shortsighted idiocy of an Englishman in government and a Welsh, Scots or Irishman in government, because government serves the capitalist order not the people.

    Additionally (though we depart now from what I said in the article to what I said in the comments-section), you described my idea of Wales, England or Ireland not as a physical entity but as a concept as babble. Which it isn’t. It is shorthand commentary for pointing out that the country ‘Wales’ is simply geography – a line chosen at random by succeeding wars and boundary changes. There is nothing culturally homogenous about Wales, any more than there is about Ireland and England. Each area of Wales shares things in common with each other area – but likewise do the areas of Wales share things in common with England, Ireland, Scotland or beyond.

    In this instance, the thing they share in common is a government basically uninterested in some of the poorest areas of the country. And that should unite us all far beyond this idea of ‘nations’.

    Finally, on the language I have used, such as the “bloody English” and “blessed Cymru”, I use in sarcastic fashion because I think the idea of being attached to a nation simply because you were born there and/or lived there is ridiculous. I admit to regularly feeling homesick for the landscape of my native country – but I don’t translate that into a quasi-religious, political opinion in the way people like Padraig Pearse did. I want to see what’s best for the working class of all England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and indeed the world – and this rubbish about nations just gets in the way.

  9. ArmchairSinic
    August 18, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    This is a great discussion! Dave, you sensibly comment that Wales is not culturally homogeneous. But isn’t this at odds with the point I think you make in your original post that, what Monbiot identifies as a national disposition towards liberalism, you see as a product of union culture and class struggle? Industrialization and unionization have relevance only in some areas of Wales. The liberal social culture in Wales (as opposed to a distinctively Welsh culture, I’m trying to pick my words carefully)also owes much to the idea of the gwerin, a concept that pre-dates industrialization, emphasizes community and co-operation, and has no idea of class. While of course Marxist theory has purchase in those areas of Wales which were industrialized, I’m not convinced by its application to Wales as a whole, areas of which maintain a strong rural identity. George Monbiot, incidentally, is based in Machynlleth, a town which fits the gwerin model better than the Marxist one. And I’m not suggesting that the philosophy behind the gwerin model is exclusively Welsh but rather advocating for more nuanced application of class theory – although I appreciate this is at odds with your political beliefs. To take this inconsistency to a provoking extreme – surely this shows that class, as much as nation, is just a concept, and not always an relevant or helpful one at that?

    By the way, isn’t your comparison to Derry’s railway links a bit false? I don’t pretend to be familiar with Northern Ireland’s infrastructure but from your map it seems that Derry is well linked by rail to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The journey from North Wales to the Welsh Assembly is difficult by train. There’s a problem of political representation attaching to the existing railway system in Wales, which doesn’t seem to be the case in Derry. You’re talking about the difficulty of moving between two politically discrete areas, which is different.

  10. August 18, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    No I don’t think those two things are at odds – because I’m not presuming that such a culture exists in all Wales, nor is such an assumption core to my argument. I was merely offering a counter-interpretation of Monbiot’s attribution of everything to ‘national character’.

    The proposition at the root of what I said is this: there is no unitary national character and anything that might be perceived as such is actually created by the actions of people exposed to concrete material situations and forces. Those actions can only be construed as having ‘national’ characteristics insofar as they are shared by and unique to that nation. Which Monbiot maintains they are, evidently, and I deny.

    Again, as for the relevance of historical institutions and concepts, these are just as socially constructed as the concepts of nationalism – or indeed class. No single institution or concept is universally perceived by many people in the same way – because, again, people are acting under different historical and material forces. Man makes history, as the saying goes, but he does not make it as he chooses.

    Indeed, even if it could be shown that the entirety of Wales has a socially liberal culture (compared with anywhere else), it would not necessarily follow that ‘national character’ has anything to do with it.

    What I would dispute is the relevance of class. Class is not simply something emotionally connected to fields and hills, or to how people act in a certain area and so on. It is an objective reality: there are different groups of people who have different relationships with the means of production. How far that has relevance to the actual actions and opinions of those people changes over time, of course, but the need for class analysis as a guide to the correct action never changes.

    As for my comparison, Derry has a railway link to Belfast. That is it. Howsoever you choose to regard the north of Ireland, it was a petty political statement by the Stormont government to cut Derry off from the rail network of the Republic – one even more explicitly political than that of Beeching with regard to dismembering Wales. The Republic may be a different entity, but from the point of view of the several hundred thousand people with no direct means of rail transport to centres of population like Galway or Sligo, which are closer to Derry than Belfast and where elements of their families still live, it is something still felt today.

  11. ArmchairSinic
    August 18, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Of course, you’re far from the only person to interpret the closure of the Derry-Dundalk line as ‘a petty political statement’. But I have to say I’m surprised at your turn of phrase given that your conviction that the Welsh railway system has been determined by the forces of capitalism and shouldn’t be a focus for resentment against the English.

    I’m interested in what you’re saying about class. Or, rather, how you’re interpreting my comment. I wasn’t reducing class to an emotional response to ‘fields and hills’ – I was saying that it wasn’t necessarily the only sociological model in Wales, and from that that it wasn’t always relevant (you and I clearly differ there). How do you reconcile your agreement with me that class is a socially constructed concept with your subsequent argument that it is an objective fact?

    It might be more profitable to compare nation to class, and nationalism to class consciousness. I see the first two as sociological groupings and the second two as both pertaining to processes of social identification – which I do believe to be subjective. And people often choose to define themselves in opposition to something external – something I feel nationalism and ideas of class struggle have in common.

  12. August 19, 2009 at 8:31 am

    It’s not really just an interpretation, where the railways are concerned. So shortsighted was the Stormont government, so utterly bigoted, that they also wanted to close the Belfast to Dublin line; or to reduce it to a single line. It was only when the government of the Republic offered to pay for the damn thing to remain that the northerners realised it was a matter of face, and kept it open.

    I’m not drawing on double standards either: the Stormont government was anti-Catholic. This is why the University of Ulster was sited at Coleraine, not Derry, why a whole range of developmental measures never moved West of the Bann – and that’s before we even talk about the powers of the Specials. None of which is a focus for resentment, for me: those days are gone and good riddance. Things are different now.

    As for what I’m saying about class, you misunderstand. Actually I was reducing nationalism to an emotional response to fields and hills, and saying that whatever one can say about class, it has the advantage of not being that. Similarly, though I should have been clearer, I wasn’t allowing that class itself is socially constructed – merely that its perception is – the difference between what Marx would have called the class of itself, and the class for itself in his Eighteenth Brumaire.

    On your last paragraph, yeah, you and George Orwell both. But ‘nation’ is not a sociological grouping. Neither is class, actually: sociologists have a range of different measures whereby to break up the idea of a unitary class. Are the workers manual labourers or white collar workers? Are they skilled or unskilled?

    Again, I wouldn’t deny that culture can vary according to the type of work – I’d simply say that being of the working class overrides these differences. But the differences contained within a nation are grossly different to the differences of attitude and practice and tradition within the working class. Not least of which is the most obvious point that within a nation, one group of people are exploiters, the other are exploited, which is obviously not the case within the working class.

  13. Sean McCullen
    September 25, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    You’re Irish and a “citizen” of the United Kingdom? It’s YOU who is the Uncle Tom.

  14. September 25, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    Why are being Irish and being a citizen of the UK mutually exclusive concepts?

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