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Book Review It takes a village

INDRA DONFRANCESCO applauds a persuasive argument that community-based economies offer a realistic strategy to reclaim political agency

Breaking Together
Jem Bendell, Good Works, £16.99

WHILE mainstream green narratives seem to be stuck on “time is running out,” they skip over details like “time for whom to do what, or else what.” In that light, a new book from a sociology professor is a welcome contribution to our political imagination — blazing a new trail in “post-doom” politics and activism. 

The first half of Breaking Together offers powerful arguments, if you need them, that our civilisation has passed its peak. 

Summarising the scholarship on food, energy, ecology, and debt, Jem Bendell shows that these systems are already undergoing a process of collapse. Many of us might wish that this crisis can be fixed by the “people in charge.” But Bendell invites us to drop such fanciful ideas. 

He draws on his experience as a “young global leader” and subsequent disaffection with the Davos crowd, to warn his readers that elites are not coming to the rescue. Instead, they risk making matters worse with their “elite panic.”

Crucially for those of us deeply concerned about the environment, he points to the flaws in the hype around nuclear fission, carbon capture, and even “net zero,” as evidence of elites spreading fake hope while inflating their own lifeboats with money issued to their own kind. 

All through this, he sticks to the relevant scholarship and warns against “conspiracy porn” for its ability to distract and disrupt alternatives to how global corporations dominate our society and politics. 

Although accusing elites can be important, it is hardly ground-breaking. Bendell’s real intellectual contribution is a message to his environmentalist colleagues that politics, markets, technological fantasies, and even our cultural assumptions about Progress, have failed us. 

In their place, he proposes a fresh discourse around freedom, which advocates for a localist, community-oriented, approach in order to reclaim political agency and reduce harm where there are still such possibilities. 

Reclaiming the idea of freedom for people is a significant effort of this book. That’s because although our consumer culture has been marketed to us as the highest expression of political freedom, it only provides manufactured choices within a compulsory and exploitative context. Whether choosing Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi — neither is “free” from avoiding likely carcinogenic chemicals. 

Similarly, we have not been free to opt-out of debt, out of corporate lobbying, or out of a society shaped by advertising and the expansionist demands of a monetary system that is designed to funnel wealth to the top. Other freedoms, like access to wholesome food, enjoyable community spaces even creative self-employment, are beyond the reach of many. 

Those freedoms can only come by building new political and economic structures — which must mainly be local if they concern physical things like non-toxic food, transport, and human things like health and education. Bendell gives some examples of community building activists and also writes briefly about his recent efforts in agroforestry. 

Bendell’s conclusions provide an unusual source of hope. 

It is the very breaking down of modern societies that could loosen the grip of corporations on our lives, so we turn to each other to satisfy our needs and desires. Could this be the future? 

Bendell makes a case plausible enough for us to take this scenario seriously. That would be one where national government is hollowed out, and significant power devolves or even defaults to more local governments. 

This message seems timely. It is an invitation to keep going in building the future from below. Because whatever lies in store for us, the book is a useful reminder that building community is the most radical of all types of activism, because politics is community life writ large.  
  

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