The world is going to waste, neoliberalism is dead, and in the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy, the Guardian commentator George Monbiot is lecturing in front of a 6ft green crucifix.
The occasion: the arrival of a new book Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, and an attendant book tour that takes us to this evening.
Monbiot is here to talk about the book, but – and despite the setting – he is not here to preach. The first thing that becomes apparent about the book is that the subtitle was probably an editorial afterthought. This is not a manifesto in any way recognisable to the average reader. Instead, Monbiot turns to political trends of the last century to stitch together a psychoanalytical view of the situation we find ourselves in as a population of 7.6 bn in a world pushed to the brink.
His theory of politics as narrative is impressive and wide ranging and pays homage to the cultural mythology and universal psychology of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 bestseller Sapiens also seems to have had a place in Monbiot’s research.
Not that this is a criticism. Like all the best commentators, I wouldn't hesitate to say that this is really what Monbiot does best. He is interested in the space connecting disciplines together, and whenever he can take the chance, it is his synoptic overviews that see him work at his best.
In Out of the Wreckage Monbiot argues that we, as a species, are limited by an imagination that sees politics in terms of a 'restoration story'. First, Keynesian economics, and then from the late 1970s, neoliberalism, both followed a repetitive arc portraying new economic models as heroic forces vanquishing, in the first instance: greedy landowners; and in the second: the overbearing state.
What happens now, however, when both models have failed?
Monbiot’s solution is disappointingly vague. 'Community' and 'Belonging' are the two buzzwords for his new 'restoration story'. These were the backbone of the success of the last few years, first with the people power of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and secondly with the explosion of Corbynmania in the UK.
Monbiot unpicks these in his book, as well as giving a few more clues to our own narrative, but he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. This is the beginning of a discussion, he enthuses, one that requires all of us to join in; and then he closed the questions for the night and invited the audience to join in a circle of chairs and start that discussion now.