I once admired George Monbiot. But his grim trajectory shows us where politics is heading
In an age of distortion, major columnists have powerful tools and a responsibility. His latest column on Russell Brand is an object lesson in how that can go wrong
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What‘s been the most significant threat to journalism – the lifeblood of a free society – over the past decade? Maybe we can turn to George Monbiot, the doyen of the British liberal-left, for an answer.
He has a weekly column at the Guardian newspaper in which he exposes the abuses of state and corporate power. This critically important topic is surely something he has addressed at length.
And indeed, he has. But strange to report, what I assumed to be the most dangerous development for journalism in my lifetime has not registered at all on his Guardian-supplied radar.
The United Nations’ most distinguished legal experts have separately determined that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has endured both prolonged “arbitrary detention” and life-threatening “psychological torture” for years at the hands of the British state.
Assange, who has exposed more crimes by Western states than any other journalist in history, has been silenced for the best part of a decade. Should he be extradited to the United States, as the British courts have so far approved, he faces spending the rest of his life in solitary confinement in a super-max jail.
What is his offence? According to the Trump and Biden administrations, any journalism that exposes their crimes must be redefined as “espionage”. Should Washington win this battle, any journalist making too much trouble for the US empire – and that could include Monbiot or me – can be snatched off the street anywhere in the world, renditioned to the US and locked out of sight for good.
But apparently none of that has been worth a Guardian column from Monbiot, even though Assange’s persecution has been taking place in slow-motion for years. Instead Monbiot dedicates his latest column to a far more important, far graver matter. He promoted the article on Twitter with the question: “What the hell has happened to Russell Brand?”
The answer is apparently that Brand, as well as the independent journalist Glenn Greenwald, have become “more dangerous than the actual fascists” of the far right. Greenwald, let’s remember, brought us Edward Snowden’s revelations, showing that the US national security state, aided by Big Tech, was secretly surveilling all of us in violation of American law.
Implicit in Monbiot’s critique is that Brand and Greenwald are also more of a threat to democracy than the national security state itself, the same one secretly spying on us and slowly killing Assange after he shone a light on their best-kept secrets.
Monbiot has form. For several years, he has been regularly smearing the other few icons of the progressive left, such as linguist Noam Chomsky and investigative journalist John Pilger. Now, it seems, it is comedian Russell Brand’s turn to come under Monbiot’s scalpel.
Once again, Assange will just have to wait for another day – if he doesn’t have a second and worse stroke than the first brought on by years of confinement and psychological torture.
As an aside, let us also note that the Guardian initially illustrated Monbiot’s column denouncing Brand’s “grim trajectory” with an image of the comedian standing alongside Stella Moris, Assange’s partner and the mother of his two children. They were together at a protest outside parliament against Assange’s continuing detention in Belmarsh high-security prison. As far as is known, Monbiot did not make the time, as Brand did, to protest Assange’s silencing.
I have criticised Monbiot plenty of times before in this space, not least for his previous attempts to smear the progressive left and his playground analysis of the West’s corporate war lobby and the endless foreign wars it has promoted. You can read those critiques here and here.
But I want to focus this time on the more general causes of a widening rift on the left – something Monbiot’s latest column inadvertently clarifies. The key tweet in a long thread by Monbiot publicising his column is here:
Even if his [Brand’s] take doesn’t always align with theirs [the far right’s], his choice of subjects generally does. Think of an issue, however ridiculous, that animates the US far right: you’re likely to find it on his channel. Think of a major issue of no interest to them: it’s unlikely to feature.
This is classic misdirection. But before we get to that, let us see how Monbiot expands on his theme:
A remarkably high proportion of [Brand’s] guests are the culture warriors the far right loves. So what’s going on? I think it’s simple. This is where the numbers are. If you want bigger audiences for your videos, the far right’s culture war tropes are the way to get them.
I don’t believe for a moment that his transition is ideological. I think it’s cynical. He has, as I see it, become a culture war entrepreneur, channelling issues and guests guaranteed to attract large audiences.
For starters, let’s not assume leftwingers are “cynical” for wishing to grow their audiences. That should be the left’s ambition if it is serious about meaningful social and political change.
Certainly, Brand, like Greenwald and the popular podcaster Joe Rogan, also castigated by Monbiot, have a business model that has doubtless increased their wealth. But doubtless too, they could have enriched themselves in other, possibly easier, ways.
Brand, for example, could have simply continued developing a Hollywood career. Greenwald could have put his principles aside and stayed at the Intercept, which paid him a small fortune even as it censored Biden-critical articles in violation of its agreement with him.
Monbiot has a business model too. That has involved sticking with the Guardian newspaper at all costs, even as it has been repeatedly exposed peddling establishment-serving misinformation.
For example, it published a provable falsehood that a Trump aide, Paul Manafort, visited Assange while the Wikileaks founder was arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorean embassy. It was one of many examples of the Guardian seeking to discredit Assange with the left so that the left would be less likely to protest his persecution.
The Guardian is deeply mired in establishment attempts to demonise Assange, as I have repeatedly explained (such as here). That collusion has not prodded Monbiot into resigning from the paper. Should we characterise that failure as “cynical” – his critique of Brand and Greenwald. Or is it really ideological? More on that in a moment.
The game is up
So let us get to the nub of Monbiot’s criticism: that Brand and Greenwald are engaging with political issues and figures that interest the far right. Charitably, Monbiot admits that “Russell himself is not on the far right. But he is warming his hands at the far right’s flaming torch.”
This blurred framing is intentionally misleading. As Monbiot implicitly concedes, the political issues and figures Brand and Greenwald focus on are the most popular found on social media. And because social media is the preferred medium of a younger demographic, those issues and figures are also presumably the ones that most grab the attention of younger generations.
So in short, Monbiot is attacking Brand and Greenwald for engaging with the political subjects that are most visible to, and most discussed by, younger audiences.
Is that not a good thing? Brand and Greenwald are taking the left’s fight to where most young people are, not leaving that space to the far right to exploit unchallenged.
The reality is that the far right, first under Donald Trump and now through hybrid mainstream and social media stars like Tucker Carlson, have appropriated the concerns of the progressive left – unaccountable corporate power, dysfunctional politics, media collusion with the establishment, the war industries – and harnessed them to their own cause.
Yes, they have done so for entirely cynical reasons. They understand that young people sense the political and media systems are rigged. They understand that declining living standards are hitting the young hardest. They understand that the planet’s eco-systems are collapsing. They understand that turbo-charged capitalism offers no solutions and are determined to deflect attention from its real crises.
What Monbiot terms the far right – some of it, beyond Trump and Carlson, is simply the disillusioned libertarian right – address these issues, even if they do so out of a mixture of bad faith and incompetence.
The Trumps and Carlsons want the discredited status quo to remain largely the same, but they also know the game is up. So they cosplay dissent to buy time – they steal ideas traditionally associated with the progressive left so they can pose as opposition to the technocratic establishment, which itself is cynically posturing as the rational, sensible centre.
These are the true “culture wars” Monbiot claims to be concerned about: a divided establishment at war with itself. On one side, the “entrepreneurial” establishment hopes to recruit support by playing up xenophobic, racist tropes among the alienated, naive and disillusioned. And on the other, the “technocratic” establishment hopes to recruit support by playing up the threats of “fake news” and “Putin assets” to older voters who smugly assume they will continue reaping the benefits of Western colonialism.
This phoney culture war masks two establishment visions of how best to continue a different war, a class one. It is MSNBC vs Fox News. It is designed precisely to exclude the progressive left, to keep it invisible.
Brand and Greenwald demand the right to stand outside this artificial structuring of our politics. They are trying to steal back the political concerns that were appropriated – cynically – by the right.
And it will be no easy task, for two reasons. One is that the pair are mostly denied a platform by the establishment media.
When Brand recently appeared on the Bill Maher show, he exposed the blinkered worldview of the centrist host and the other guest – an MSNBC journalist – in a gently mocking manner that appeals to viewers. Doubtless, it is one reason such invitations are increasingly rare for him.
Nowadays Greenwald can only find a platform on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News, where he is allowed to reach the mainstream right. But liberals who are so quick to shout him down for doing so never campaign to make sure his cutting critiques of the US domestic and foreign policy establishment are hosted on their own channels instead.
There is another reason why the task facing Brand and Greenwald is so difficult. Because those few figures supposedly on the left who have mainstream media platforms, such as Monbiot, have largely abandoned that task when it really matters.
Monbiot has never raised his voice beyond a hushed whisper about Assange’s entombment in Belmarsh prison, saying “soil loss” is more of a priority – as well as, it now seems, attacking Russell Brand.
Also, Monbiot blew with the wind on Jeremy Corbyn, the only political leader in living memory who showed any interest in challenging the establishment on issues it considers crucially important.
Those include the UK’s participation in endless overseas wars; its ploughing of taxpayers’ money into nuclear missiles the UK does not even control; British support for an Israel that demands the right to oppress the Palestinians in return for projecting western power into the oil-rich Middle East; and austerity as a pretext for redistributing yet more of the common wealth to a tiny elite.
Unlike Monbiot, Brand and Greenwald have decided it is pointless pandering to the smug centre that assumes a few reforms, via a Joe Biden or a Sir Keir Starmer, will stop the rot. But that means venturing on to the battlefield of the right and seizing the initiative from it.
Monbiot would better understand what Brand and Greenwald were doing if his thinking were not so captured by the technocratic centre. He has become yet another partisan in the internal wars of a divided establishment.
Here’s Monbiot flaunting his own cognitive capture by the establishment “left”:
I can’t help noticing that most of the people who say ‘left? right? It’s all meaningless, man’ are those who have made a major shift from left to right. Denying that left and right exist any longer seems to be a form of self-justification.
This from a “left” columnist who has repeatedly swallowed wholesale the line that western powers are waging a humanitarian fight – rather than one for their interests, for control over resources – in their endless Middle East wars and proxy wars.
This from a “left” columnist who betrayed the OPCW whistleblowers to prop up a key western imperial narrative after those whistleblowers revealed that the international chemical weapons body had caved to US pressure and doctored its report. The goal was to shift the blame for an alleged 2018 attack in Douma in Syria from the most likely culprits, Islamic jihadists, to Bashar al-Assad’s government to justify intensifying yet another regime change war by the West.
This from a “left” columnist who simple-mindedly peddles the western narrative that Ukraine is only fighting a war of liberation against Russian invasion, ignoring both that recent Ukrainian governments have been waging a domestic war against the country’s ethnic Russian population in the east and south, and that Nato has been aggressively expanding towards Russia’s borders for years, with Ukraine as the ultimate prize, to neutralise Moscow’s nuclear deterrent.
The truth is that younger audiences, those not reliant on the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail for their knowledge of the world, no longer buy these self-serving narratives, even if Monbiot is employed to do so.
Telling too that, after Monbiot dedicated several of his thread posts about his new column to suggesting that Brand and Greenwald had adopted their current positions only because they want to become “the new winners of the digital economy”, Monbiot goes on to accuse the most distinguished journalists of an earlier, pre-digital age – Robert Fisk, John Pilger and Seymour Hersh – of doing exactly the same thing.
Greenwald “was a brilliant investigative journalist. But, like some others (Pilger, Fisk, Hersh) who once did great work, he appears to have found that he can do less and gain more: telling a particular demographic what it wants to hear.”
Monbiot is referring above to Hersh, the legendary investigative journalist who has just revealed – on Substack, because no establishment outlet will publish it – the details of how the US blew up the Nord Stream pipelines.
Meanwhile, establishment media like the Guardian, ignoring Hersh’s credible account, have expended precisely zero effort in investigating what happened but have instead peddled the entirely fanciful conspiracy theory that Russia blew up its own energy infrastructure. Liberal media, including the Guardian, now highlight the equally preposterous claim that a few guys in a yacht carried out a supremely complex act of international terrorism, and managed to conceal their tracks from the West’s all-seeing surveillance systems.
Demanding our pity and admiration for his own self-sacrifice, Monbiot concludes:
‘Labouring your whole life’ in journalism is less glamorous and certainly less lucrative. But it allows you to live with yourself, to retain your self-respect, to know you are trying to make things better, rather than flooding the zone with shit to grow your audience.
Except Monbiot is embedded in a vast conglomeration of corporate media outlets that seek to control the public discourse as tightly as the US seeks to control other countries’ access to the lubricant of the global economy, oil. The newspaper he uses as his platform to reach a large audience sacks journalists for writing critically about Israel. It worked overtime to destroy the only political leader ready to end corporate tyranny over Britain. It smears leading dissidents and trivialises their plight. Its main writers aggressively promote war. And its dependency on luxury advertising conspires in the destruction of the planet.
Monbiot is no hero, and his latest column is not daring, truth-telling journalism. Rather, it is just another phase in a liberal establishment pile-on, as journalists like Monbiot desperately try to retain their credibility in the face of challenges from independent journalists like Greenwald and Brand who are ready to tackle not just the right’s pieties but the liberal-left’s too.
A recent New Statesman article berated Brand for betraying the left because he supposedly promotes “every right-wing signalling trope”, by attacking “the ghoulish media; the dishonest and untrustworthy pharmaceutical industry; the West’s shameful treatment of Julian Assange and ‘American hero’ Edward Snowden.”
As Greenwald notes:
For as long as I can remember, those views - contempt for corporate media and Big Pharma, anger over mistreatment of ‘heroes’ Assange and Snowden - were deeply associated with the Western left.
It is indeed true that all those views - hatred of corporate media, distrust of globalized (multi-national) corporate giants, holding the US Security State in contempt and its adversaries as heroes - are now right-wing markers. Much has indeed changed. But Brand and I haven't.
Similarly, distrust of the motives of the US/NATO proxy war in Ukraine is also a far-right signifier. Here we have yet another inversion: the liberal-left reverses western security agencies, globalized corporations and their wars as benevolent. Only the ‘far right’ distrusts them.
Monbiot’s column is stuffed with similar misrepresentations to the New Statesman’s, as well as the gross over-simplifications of which he accuses Brand. Watch this video dismissed by Monbiot as “a rant against Bill Gates”. In fact, it’s a very funny digression on how the billionaire becoming the largest private owner of farmland in the United States might not be an entirely good thing, especially in a time of food crisis.
Another video that seeks to understand why Trump still has so much political weight, while criticising the substance of his policies, is mischaracterised in knee-jerk fashion as “appearing to support Trump”.
Monbiot’s criticism of Brand for his choice of targets is laughable. Why is the Guardian columnist so keen to defend the World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab; or former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; or the former US chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci; or a World Health Organization financially captive to the Big Pharma lobby; or, even more bafflingly, the Covid-profiteering pharmaceutical giant Pfizer?
The truth is Monbiot has become just another advocate for managerial, technocratic liberalism – a liberalism that has been entirely discredited since the financial collapse of 2008, and is now the target of contempt and ridicule from that same younger demographic and figures like Greenwald and Brand.
Monbiot is desperate to maintain his credibility. And he imagines he can keep it a little longer by widening the circle of people on the left he smears: from Chomsky and Pilger, Fisk and Hersh, to Brand and Greenwald. But the only person he is damaging is himself, narrowing his relevance down to a group of liberal cultists, those who still believe that the very same people who destroyed our world are the ones who will fix it.
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