The Columnist's Manifesto

Issue section: 
(276)

Review of 'The Age of Consent', George Monbiot, Flamingo £14.99

George Monbiot's new book is an interesting development from his bestselling Captive State, which attacked the 'corporate takeover' of Britain - the branding of every area of life by corporations and their infiltration of government. Now Monbiot, responding to debates within the movement, has put forward his own programme for political change. It is quite similar to Waldon Bello's ideas in that it advocates radical Keynesian measures to alter the distribution of world power.

Change, he now insists, must be at the global level and, in a really refreshing part of the book, he admits that he has changed his mind about many of the 'go local' solutions he once advocated. He rejects proposals for simple protectionist measures to reduce imports and argues that trade has redistributive potential. He also rejects arguments for establishing 'consumer democracy' by way of boycotts and 'mindful consumption' which he argues are 'a weak and diffuse means of changing the world' which 'looks more like the monastery than the barricade'.

As part of this rethinking Monbiot addresses what he considers to be the two main ideological alternatives within the global justice movement - Marxism and anarchism. Both are pretty summarily dismissed in a handful of pages. His treatment of Marxism is disgraceful, exhibiting little understanding, and he makes the scurrilous charge that Marxists are hostile to indigenous peoples because they are the modern day lumpenproletariat. Anarchism, which he says is the philosophy he has been most attracted to, fares little better - a world without states is a non-starter, he argues. So instead Monbiot seeks a global democratic revolution as 'the only realistic option we have' and most of the book elaborates four measures to bring about a new world order.

The first two are weak: the democratisation of the United Nations and the establishment of a global parliament. Even George Monbiot freely admits this parliament would only monitor the actions of the rich nation states and corporations. It would have no power to stop them, just the moral authority to condemn them.

The second two proposals address the question of world trade and this is where Monbiot introduces some force to his argument. He argues that the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO must be scrapped and replaced by an International Clearing Union and a new International Trade Organisation. The idea of a clearing union is a revised version of the scheme advocated by John Maynard Keynes at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 but which was blocked by the US which wanted the establishment of the IMF and the World Bank. Keynes's proposal went like this:

(1) Establish a global bank (or international clearing union) that has its own currency.

(2) Give every country an overdraft and a credit facility - the size in proportion to the value of its trade.

(3) Pressure poor countries that use up their overdraft (by charging interest, making them reduce the value of their currency and thus preventing the export of capital).

(4) Also pressure rich countries that build up credit (by charging them interest too, making them increase the value of their currency and forcing capital export).

In this way the exports of rich countries become less attractive, and capital cannot flee from deficit nations to credit nations because movement in that direction is blocked. Differences between economic and political power would no longer be continually reinforced.

This solution reflects two key ideas - firstly that the most important division of the world is that between the North and the South, and secondly that trade is the key relationship between these two units of the globe. Production and investment are not located as the source of the problem, when it is precisely capitalism's 'accumulation for accumulation's sake' that creates massive concentrations of investment (and the systematic tendency to crisis), and which is further reinforced by imperialism both past and present. Trade is a symptom of this problem, not its source.

This view of the world impacts on ideas about who will win change. George Monbiot argues that revolt in the South (encouraged by movement activists in the North) can force Southern governments to withdraw from and therefore destroy the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. But existing governments in the South are the very people implementing IMF and World Bank measures and turning their guns on those protesting against them. To act as agents of the kind of change Monbiot wants would mean these governments being transformed.

I agree with Monbiot on the necessity to act to build the movement, and The Age of Consent is a welcome contribution to an ongoing debate. But if we succeed in building a global movement so strong it can sweep aside the existing governments of the South and smash the postwar settlement to pieces, surely it is powerful enough to achieve more than the Keynesian reregulation of trade?