Criticising Monbiot isn’t ‘demonisation’. It’s a first step on the path to reclaiming our minds

10 October 2020 — Jonathan Cook The other day I wrote a piece criticising Guardian columnist George Monbiot for his failure to speak out loudly in support of Julian Assange during last month’s hearings in which the United States has been seeking to extradite the Wikileaks founder so that he can be locked away for the rest of his life on bogus “espionage charges”.
It is not the first time I have made Monbiot the subject of an extensive critique. And each time I have done so, it has divided my readers with a sizeable camp denouncing me for turning my fire on someone who is a political ally of the left, and who has done sterling work on the environment and corporate power – issues that I consider vitally important too. Each time, there are protestations that this is yet further evidence that the left is eating itself, leaving it divided and weakened rather than bulked up to take on the political enemy. This complaint strikes me as fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of political activity and the role of critical thinking. I want to briefly explain the two major flaws in this line of argument, as an illustration more generally of why we should not be frightened of debate and reasoned argument on the left, and why we should avoid putting anyone on a pedestal.

Consumed by defeatism

The first problem with the “don’t attack Monbiot because he’s generally on our side” argument is that it reflects a kind of defeatism among sections of the left. It says, not only is Monbiot the best columnist we can ever hope to read in the corporate media (which may be true), but also that the Monbiot we have right now cannot be improved upon.
There is a reason that the journalists I single out for criticism are the Guardian’s two avowedly leftwing columnists, Monbiot and Owen Jones. Precisely because the left is almost entirely unrepresented in the establishment media, we lack the ability to put pressure on individual journalists. We have no leverage over them at all. Who else are we going to shame into supporting Assange at this moment critical to the surivival of press freedom if not Monbiot and Jones. Will the left haranguing Andew Neil make him speak up for Assange? Can we influence Andrew Marr? Or Laura Kuenssberg? Or Robert Peston? We already know the answer. They are transparently courtiers of the British state. If the the British state decides Assange must be permanently disappeared into a super-max jail in the US to silence him, they will continue to meekly turn a blind eye.

But Monbiot and Jones can be shamed, they can be pressured, they can be embarrassed. There is therefore an obligation on the left to turn the heat up on them as much as we can. One reader, exemplifying a wider sentiment, suggested my latest critical article on Monbiot was the modern-day equivalent of putting him in the public stocks. The inappropriateness of that metaphor should be glaring: are Monbiot’s sensitivities about being criticised really more important to us than the fate of a journalist who is about to be locked away and denied meaningful human contact for the rest of his life because he exposed war crimes? What perverse priorities do we have that we can even consider that an equivalence?

Cognitive dissonance

It is wrong for us to be so entirely despairing. It assumes Monbiot cannot be moved at all, that criticising him must be a gratuitous exercise because it is futile. Experience, however, suggests that he is capable of shifting, even if in only very limited ways. Yes, his record on foreign policy matters has been invariably to ally himself with the interests of western imperialism; yes, he polices left discourse to bully and silence prominent critics of western imperialism, such as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, by labelling them as “genocide belittlers”; yes, he continues to indulge the oppression of those who try to blow the whistle on western imperialism, as I explained in my last piece. There is a theme here, as you may already have detected. In foreign policy matters, Monbiot’s faith in the western intelligence agencies – and the corporate media that echo their priorities – seems almost unshakeable. It may well be that Monbiot’s reticence to speak up for Assange is related. After all, Assange has done more than anyone in living memory to open our eyes to the systematic nature of the crimes perpetrated overseas in the pursuit of western imperialism. If anyone has exposed the flaws in Monbiot’s leftwing credentials – his surprising obedience to state power when it exercised out of sight, in far-off lands – it is Assange. Nonetheless, Monbiot is susceptible to pressure on Assange. This isn’t something happening in a town in Syria he had never heard of until he read about it in his own newspaper, the Guardian. It is taking place at the Old Bailey, with a British judge presiding over an undisguised show trial. And at stake is the future of investigative journalism and our continuing ability to learn what our governments are really up to behind closed doors, issues that we can assume are very close to Monbiot’s heart.
Monbiot is torn about Assange, between his loyalty to the corporate worldview he has tethered himself to in working for the Guardian and his opposition to those very same corporations that are destroying the planet he cares about so deeply. He is a walking case study in cognitive dissonance. And that is our small opening.

Fealty to the Guardian

It has worked before. Monbiot has changed subtly in his attitudes to the corporate media. More than a decade ago, when I and others like Media Lens started challenging him, Monbiot would identify the problem with the media chiefly in terms of billionaire owners. He excluded his own paper, the Guardian, and the BBC from similar criticism, stating they were not subject to the pressures of ownership.
Gradually that has changed. He has entirely abandoned his support for the BBC, now firmly lumping it in with the billionaire press, as he did in a column this week. And even on the Guardian he seems to be quietly shifting.
Not long ago he vigorously defended the Guardian against all-comers. It was, he argued, an ideal media platform. It was supposedly immune to corporate pressures through the Scott Trust, though Monbiot overlooked the fact that the trust had been quietly turned into a limited company and anyway operated within the very corporate structure of the Guardian Media Group, and he was equally evasive about the paper’s dependence on corporate advertising. He also claimed that the Guardian’s pluralism embraced every shade of serious centrist and leftwing opinion – which, of course, happily for him came to an abrupt halt at the exact left positions he advocated. But Monbiot has grown noticeably quieter of late about the idealism of the Guardian. He now seems to sense, after the paper’s central role in the character assassination of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that he has been defending the indefensible. In his earlier, misguided fealty to the Guardian, he even joined in with the abuse of Corbyn for a time. It looks like the scales may very belatedly have fallen from his eyes.
Realistically, no one expects him to start trashing his employer. But it is progress of a sort to have him finally stop lauding the Guardian. Silence on the paper is preferable to his misleading too many of us into identifying with it as a champion of the left. If he can be pushed into adopting a more pragmatic view of the Guardian, he can certainly be cajoled into sticking up for a journalist who is being tortured in a London prison, as the United Nations expert on torture Nils Melzer (someone Monbiot appears to know very little about) has repeatedly warned is happening to Assange.

Smears and sabotage

This is reason enough to keep shaming Monbiot over his silence. But it is obviously not my sole purpose in repeatedly singling out Monbiot. In many of my previous critiques, there was little or no immediate hope of getting him to shift ground. I have focused on Monbiot, and on Owen Jones and their employer the Guardian, for an important additional reason. My goal has not usually been personal. It has not been to “demonise” or “attack” them, as some readers have phrased it. True, there have been occasions when they have both deserved the severest rebukes. Monbiot has maligned and smeared leading leftists, like Chomsky and Pilger, and done so by giving aid and succour to the west’s war industries, which have become so adept at concealing themselves under the liberal cloak of “humanitarian intervention”. A paradox that Monbiot’s defenders seem only too willing to ignore is that those same war industries are the biggest polluters on the planet. Similarly, in his fervent desire to stay within the “mainstream”, Jones actively helped sabotage Corbyn, and not just by indulging the argument that there were a very small number of antisemites in the Labour party (as there are everywhere in society). He also actively promoted a smear: that the party under Corbyn had an especial problem with antisemitism, even though there was zero evidence for that claim outside the feverish imaginations of British newspaper editors and the Conservative party-supporting leadership of the Board of Deputies. Again paradoxically, Jones’ defenders must ignore the fact that their political idol helped destroy the seemingly only shot the left had at winning power through the conventional party political system and moving our society away from suicidal neoliberalism. In this respect, both deserve personal criticism for behaviour that betrayed the cause of the left.

Flies in a spider’s web

The highlighting of these failures, however, is not primarily aimed at trying to influence the thinking of Monbiot and Jones. On issues that are central to the neoliberal worldview the Guardian is ideologically embedded in, the pair have no more freedom of movement than two flies caught in a spider’s web. They are trapped by the logic of their employer’s worldview. Ultimately, even Monbiot’s environmentalism can and will be repurposed to aid the corporate world’s reluctant but inevitable move away from fossil fuels towards the exploitation of new polluting “green” industries – or at least, it will be if he stays in the Guardian’s orbit. No, my aim is not chiefly to influence Monbiot and Jones. It is to try to influence the thinking of those who stand outside the Guardian looking in, wondering why the paper they once identified with so completely – and the columnists they once put on pedestals – now leave them dissatisfied. It is to seize certain elucidatory moments – such as the media’s conformity in ignoring the momentous Assange extradition hearings – that can prise open eyes, when those who look to Monbiot and Jones as their sole representatives in the corporate media find them wanting – yet again. It is to encourage their supporters to ask questions of them and of themselves.
Does Monbiot’s excellence on rewilding, habitat protection and sustainability cancel out his repeated complicity in the latest Middle East venture by the military industrial complex? Does his support for social solidarity at home outweigh his reluctant warmongering abroad? Is his promotion of biodiversity in the UK more significant than his promotion of deceptions about Islamic jihadists in Syria? Is his concern for open government at home really compatible with his attacks on the credibility of whistleblowing chemical weapons experts overseas?
Similarly, are we resigned to the fact that Jones’ live, clamorous concerns about the traumatic effects of the Holocaust on British Jews must overshadow his muted, largely historical recognition of the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestinians by Israel, originally sponsored by Britain and for which amends have never been made? Does it matter that Jones publicly aligned himself with a fanatical pro-Israel lobby group, the Jewish Labour Movement, even as that group vowed to destroy Corbyn and pushed through a definition of antisemitism that made it all but impossible to support Palestinians – not only against Israel’s crimes but against the active collusion in those crimes by western states, including the UK? Should we ignore the fact that Jones smeared fellow leftists as antisemites, people like Chris Williamson, simply because they had antagonised the Israel lobby?
The real, internationalist left should have a problem with all of this. We should not so readily overlook the fact that the championing of good causes, largely at home, has been used as cover by our only two “representatives” in the media for promoting other extremely destructive policies that have global ramifications. In Monbiot’s case, he has too often turned cheerleader for the agenda of western intelligence agencies and the military-industrial complex, giving a seal of approval to their actions and appearing to do so on behalf of the left. His declarations have marked out the rest of the left as irrational, anti-western and fellow travellers with terrorism – effectively echoing the attacks on the left from the right. Similarly, Jones has prioritised the reactionary commitment to Israel of a section of the UK’s Jewish public – a commitment rooted in undeniable communal trauma – over most other measures of political value. The left cannot ignore the fact that Israel is a state explicitly established as a colonial enterprise to project western influence; a state that to this day practises explicit apartheid over Palestinians; a state that is deeply integrated into the west’s war industries and serves as a testing ground for their products; and a state that has helped the west to destabilise and radicalise the Middle East as part of its battle for control of oil, the fuel of the global economy. Nonetheless, Jones has made the chief yardstick for determining who is a legitimate political actor not avowed sympathy for Jews but avowed sympathy for Jewish support for Israel – a yardstick that has proved in practice almost impossible to disentangle from a demand for direct support of Israel. This is a test the anti-colonial, anti-war, anti-imperialist left will always fail, as Jones must understand.

Path to independence

There is a reason that Monbiot and Jones keep letting down the left. And that is because they are embedded inside a media institution, the Guardian, that has absolutely no commitment to anti-colonial, anti-war, anti-imperialist values. The pair are there to sharply delimit what the left is allowed to think, what it can imagine, what it may champion. It is Monbiot and Jones who hold the left back from aspiring to more, it is they who sow the seeds of division on the left, not their critics. Because the left cannot mature, cannot properly debate its values and goals, as long as it allows the frame for that debate to be set on the hostile terrain of the Guardian. Criticising Monbiot and Jones is not to “demonise” or “attack” them. It is to challenge the idea that, because there is much good in Monbiot and Jones, we must pretend that the bad is not there too and that the bad is not significant. It is to remember that we do not have to settle for the slightly compromised, rather than the deeply compromised, simply because that is all that the corporate media will ever offer us. The criticism is needed to embolden others to take their first step on the path of doubt towards independence. It is there to offer encouragement from someone who has already ventured some way down that path, to beckon them onwards, to overcome their fear and to reclaim their capacity to think critically. That the way ahead may look frightening and lonely, but it is possible and you will survive it. If you appreciate my articles, please consider hitting a donate button (left for Paypal, right for GoCardless):

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