National Sections of the L5I:

George Monbiot

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In The Age of Consent – A Manifesto for a New World Order, the British journalist George Monbiot rails passionately against the manifest inequity of the present world order.

Moreover, he early on dismisses the anarchistic naivety that the anticapitalist movement can rid the world of its horrors without taking power:

“We must harness the power of globalisation, and, pursuing its inexorable development, overthrow its institutions and replace them with our own.”

But what Monbiot proposes is strictly limited to reforms. His four proposals are: a democratically elected world parliament, a democratised UN General assembly with the powers of the Security Council, an International Clearing Union to discharge trade deficits and prevent debt, and a Fair Trade Organisation to “restrain the rich” while emancipating the poor.

Upon examination of the “practical” detail, it becomes clear that it would be easier to overthrow capitalism in its entirety than to implement a single one of Monbiot’s demands.

First, the world parliament. Every even partially democratic form in history – from the Third Estate to the Paris Commune – has first emerged as a result of an oppressed class organising to struggle against its rulers. To achieve a global institution of representative democracy capable of reorganising society in the interests of the majority, our point of departure must be the struggle of the world’s poor, of the working class, unemployed and peasantry.

In the course of resistance, they must establish organs of their own power, overthrow the national capitalist states that hold them down, and by extending their social revolution, federate their new democratic institutions so as to co-ordinate global production and distribution in a sustainable, equitable and non-exploitative manner. This is no scheme designed by some great reformer, but the expression of real historical development.

Or at least, that was what we thought up until now. Monbiot, however, has designed a better way. Every adult on earth should have one vote for a parliament of, say, 600 representatives, (“each with a constituency of 10 million people”, he helpfully points out). Constituencies will straddle national borders. Members should have no connection with national governments, he tells us, but these nation-states will continue to exist. With breath-taking naivety he says that “If the United States told a member from Yemen that unless she changed her policies it would cut the aid it gives her country’s government, she could reply that the decisions she makes have nothing to do with the government.”

Given the existence of a global network of capitalist nation-states, and given that Monbiot clearly has no intention that they be overthrown, how does he propose we set up a world parliament? Easy. “Our first task would be to publish pamphlets and web pages explaining the idea”. The second task, perhaps more time-consuming and expensive, is “to organise a consultation of as many of the world’s people, through randomly (!) selected samples, as the budgets we raise permit (!!), to discover whether or not our proposal commands popular consent.” If not, “we should cease the process of development”. A more persuasive appeal for funds could scarcely be imagined.

Warming to his theme, Monbiot goes on to say that if most of the people polled approved, we would be in a stronger position to raise funds and to “set up an electoral commission, staffed by professionals, with a strictly neutral mandate.” Quite how the 600 millions of the world will express their consent for the selection (by whom?) of this ‘neutral’ team of learned constitutional and demographic experts is unclear.

“The plan then becomes more expensive, more complex and more hazardous”. How could we find the $5 billion that Monbiot estimates the global general election will cost? A small proportion he says could be raised from individuals and charities. “The only bodies which possess sufficient funds to provide the rest, however, are states, the international institutions and corporations, and we should, of course (!) be wary of accepting money from them”. Corporate funding is – he remarks with rare common sense – “ruled out altogether”, though he fondly imagines that perhaps some “liberal states” or a “sympathetic UN agency” might stump up a few million. But, realising that this is perhaps unlikely, Monbiot relies for the main wedge of cash on more sensible and dependable sources: “a global lottery, offering enormous prizes”.

The anticapitalist movement, which comprises workers’ trade unions, local grassroots initiatives, youth groups, peasants’ federations, NGOs relying on state and charitable donations, should divert its hard raised funds not into pursuing the struggle against the employers and their states, not into campaigning against injustices, not into forming parties and contesting elections on platforms of resistance to capital, not into organising our own legal and physical defence against persistent police attack, but into a hair brained consultation exercise for an impossible-to-organise global general election, to take place within and alongside the existing repressive state structures. And what could this parliament do? Exert “moral authority” on the rulers of the world.

The biggest demonstration in human history and the condemnation of the majority of other states did not stop the US and Britain attacking Iraq. Universal approbation did not stop Bush tearing up the Kyoto treaty on global warming. A spuriously convened world parliament, however, despite having no state force and no levers of economic power at its disposal, is expected to bring them to heel.

It is when dealing with his second proposal, for a reformed United Nations General Assembly which assumes the powers of the security council, that Monbiot suddenly strays out of his utopian dream world and considers the question of bringing real forces to bear against the existing UN Security Council. He proposes a democratic security system “controlled not by five self-appointed governments but by the entire General Assembly”, with each nation’s vote weighted according to its population and its “democratic legitimacy” (determined by whose criteria?). But he cannot avoid the fact that the USA would “react with even greater hostility to this proposal than it has done towards the criminal court”. So what is to be done?

His answer is startling: global economic war. He proposes that the rest of the world should dump the dollar and “wreck the US economy”, thereby undermining its power.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that this would rapidly lead to a global military confrontation for which Monbiot would have us make no preparation, there is the small matter of the present unwillingness of national capitalist governments to follow this perilous course. However, at this point the masses – until now reduced to the status of lottery ticket buyers or voters in 10 million strong constituencies – are expected to enter the scene ... constitutionally of course. The regimes will “find this courage only if their electorates [democracies only, please!] ... press home their duty to prevent [!] the possibility of another world war.”

The majority of the world’s population are workers in industry and services, peasants or unemployed people. If they can be mobilised in sufficient numbers and strength to convene a global election, let alone to force the majority of the world’s national governments into economic and probably therefore military confrontation with the USA, then they could claim for themselves a role beyond that of Monbiot’s ancillary stage army or pressure group. They could press forward their own interests and demands, organised in their own workers’ and poor peasants’ councils. They could expropriate the industrial and financial wealth of the ruling capitalists and establish a planned non-market economy.

But Monbiot says explicitly that the workers and peasants exploited under capitalism should not do any such thing. The global corporations should remain in private hands. They should be strictly regulated, but will then become “accountable”.

This is crude and dangerous nonsense, an apology for capitalism. These corporations are not just vehicles moving wealth around – they exploit millions of working people. The profits of the giant capitalist corporations are fundamentally secured not, as he imagines, by “the lending of money at interest”, which is just a description of the credit system and of loan capital. Private ownership of production creates the system of wage slavery, under which workers receive in average wages not the value of the commodities they produce but only the value of the commodities required to keep them alive and get them back to work the next day.

The remainder – surplus value – is retained by the capitalist, who has to compete with other private owners by driving down costs of production and increasing the intensity of labour. This is the source of all inequality in the world today, of the rapacious and unstable character of the present world order, of poverty, repression, competition, environmental destruction and the drive to war.

Monbiot’s reforms – even if they could be enacted – would leave key levers of domination in the hands of the capitalist class; the political power and institutions he aspires to create are mere levers to pressurise and moderate the actions of the US and European capitalists; the alternative social force he wants to harness is the capitalist governments and rulers of the Third World, rather than their popular masses; his “inexorable development of globalisation” results not in a society free from capitalism and exploitation, but one in which global corporations continue to exploit resources and people and private property rights remain intact.

In short, Monbiot proposes a programme for a more humane, more equitable and more sustainable capitalism. In class terms, it is a liberal bourgeois programme.

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