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Age of Consent by George Monbiot

Age of Consent (edition 2003)

by George Monbiot

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316535,147 (3.63)2
Title:Age of Consent
Authors:George Monbiot
Info:Flamingo (2003), Hardcover, 288 pages
Collections:Reviewed, Already Read, Your library
Tags:Political Theory

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The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order by George Monbiot



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This is one of those books with much to commend it, but for which my review is going to read negatively: perhaps this is almost inevitable when a book attempts to set a new political order for the world. George Monbiot accepts, in his conclusion, that this is not the definitive word upon the subject and that if it contributes to the movement, then its job has been done.

This is definitely an admirable contribution and explains, rationally and without emotive terminology, the issues which make the failure of our current economic system inevitable: perhaps not today, may be not even tomorrow, but some day soon. Monbiot makes the case for greater equality between the rich and poor nations, not just because this is fair, but because it is ultimately in the interests of both parties. He provides a lucid explanation as to why we start from the position in which we currently find ourselves - and this, in itself, is a sufficient reason to urge the reading of this tome. The explanation of post WW II economic settlements is masterly, being short enough to retain the attention of someone whose eyes begin to glaze at the first mention of fiscal policy (ME!) and thorough enough to make it intelligible.

I warned you, at the beginning, that this would read as a negative review but, so far, I have been remarkably positive: where I find myself unconvinced, is when George Monbiot champions the creation of a World Government. I have two issues with his argument; firstly, I find his explanation as to how one might be created to be dubious. He suggests that the many disaffected groups, who already meet up to protest the current system, become an unelected first draft. The pressure exerted by this 'parliament', will force the government's of the world powers to take note, causing a knock on effect of more groups becoming part of, and thus strengthening, the World Government. We have seen with recent anti-austerity demonstrations that the establishment has learned how to deal with opposition: they call upon their friends of the fourth estate to ignore rallies of staggering proportion and the mass of the people do not even know that they have happened. I have, more than once, had the conversation in which I am treated as a gullible fool for believing propaganda as "we'd surely have seen it on the TV news, if it had happened."

My second point of contention with this argument is upon the very idea of a World Government. When have we seen the addition of a higher level of governance improve the lot of the man (or woman) at the bottom of the pile? I believe that the better option is to disseminate power back down to a local level. This is even more important when we are talking the means of production. Monbiot argues for an increase in worldwide trade, albeit slanted in favour of the poorer countries, but we cannot ignore the issues of climate change and need to obliterate the ridiculous system that sees products of a similar nature passing each other mid-ocean on their way to its point of sale.

I am reluctant to end on such a negative note so, I will re-emphasise that, as a thought provoking book, this is well worth the read and that Mr Monbiot makes many good points which need to be assimilated into the future of governance. ( )
  the.ken.petersen | May 18, 2015 |
Even Northern Ireland has global responsibilities
The Fortnight Interview
December 2003
Anthony McIntyre talks to George Monbiot

George Monbiot is one of the most powerful intellectual voices that new millennium radicalism lays claim to. He has been named by the Evening Standard as one of the twenty-five most influential people in Britain and by the Independent on Sunday as one of the forty international prophets of the twenty-first century.

Amongst the beliefs held by him is that the intervention of the present pope against liberation theologians in South America was absolutely disastrous for the poor. And he is not unduly pessimistic about the resurgence of jingoism in the US, post 9/11, believing it to be ‘a temporary thing - the product of the messianic complex of empire where the imperial power casts itself as both the world's saviour and the world's victim.’ Nor does he entertain the notion that nationalism has a healthy future in today’s world. An outspoken democrat he contends that democracy is necessarily a compound of dissent and consent. And he feels that while tens of millions of people are involved in the Global Justice Movement ‘we have been very good in formulating our opposition but we have been very slow to describe what we do want. So we have been involved in only one half of the democratic struggle.’ Whether the dissident’s prerogative or dilemma we are free to speculate.

That a man committed to the idea of creating a global parliament would want to visit a place which appears congenitally incapable of maintaining its own inconsequential local parliament, suggests that Monbiot, a Guardian columnist, is perhaps an incurable optimist. But George Monbiot knew a thing or two about the human condition long before he arrived in Belfast to promote his latest book The Age Of Consent. When the political class realised it wasn't about its consent or its obsessions, it failed to turn up at his talks. Those that did were at least spared having to hear the 'us men' moan about the trivia that captivates them.

Guardian readers and those who browse through Socialist Workers Party stalls will be familiar with the name George Monbiot. While propelled to considerable public prominence in 2000 as a result of his book, The Captive State, which drew attention to the dangers of corporate power in Britain, Monbiot was scarcely a figure of anonymity. For long he had been rolling his sleeves up and plunging his arms into the swamp of exposing injustice. His campaigning has taken him to Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia amongst other places. His travels have seen him beaten and shot at by police.


So what made him come here?

His studies at Oxford in Zoology perhaps prompted him to think that he could attain what no one else has - an understanding of the monkeys that populate our political superstructure. He, however, was neither so cynical nor ambitious, pointing out that Ireland is currently developing a social forum which is part of a wider global movement. 'Social forums are developing in just about every country of the world.' I put it to him that even those who designate themselves the most radical amongst the body politic preferred to go to the World Economic Forum in New York than the World Social Forum in Rio; they have wined and dined with Blair and Bush during this year's Hillsborough war summit, while their followers stood locked outside facing aggressive armed police. Given that these people legitimise Bush and pointedly refuse to call him a war monger on television, what chance is there of developing anything here that would have the fortitude to stand up to the egregious power of American capital?

"Yes, that’s right. A forward-looking party at the moment would be engaging with the Global Justice Movement. And similar parties around the world. We desperately need to see an alliance of parties like Sinn Fein with the PT in Brazil, the oppositional movements in South Africa and Mexico, with the very big people’s movements we are now seeing in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh."

But how do people actually go about joining the Global Justice Movement in a city like Belfast where what passes for a radical idea is closing down hospitals and introducing PFI?

“There are already groups working at it so do not reinvent the wheel. In the prosperous countries we believe in this ridiculous notion called consumer democracy. We think that if we as individuals decide not to buy a certain brand of biscuits we can affect political change. You can only effect political change by getting together with other people. In December we hope to set up a website - Globalrising.org - listing all the organisations in each country throughout the world that people can join. While our movement should contest elections the real thrust of politics is extra-parliamentary.”

He described the Global Justice Movement as something lacking in coherent structure. Lacking in coherence is something that would seem to be ready made for us.

“It is a movement of movements. It pulls together Marxists, anarchists, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Greens, Buddhists, conservatives. It is a series of incidental coalitions, taking place sequentially sometimes simultaneously, who come together to contest particular problems but informed by an analysis of the problem that says power has by and large been taken out of our hands. If it is anything, it is a movement of the disenfranchised of the world. There are formal structures within it that do not describe the entire movement but provide a means of co-ordination of which the most prominent is the World Social Forum.”

In one significant respect, Monbiot differs from many in the wider movement for which he is such a forceful advocate. He believes that globalisation opens up space in which strategic advances can be made towards redressing the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and resources that characterises the world economic system today. He refers to what he terms 'political judo' where the weaker party must learn to exploit the strength of its opponent 'for our own purposes.'

“The Internet was developed by the Pentagon but it is has become the most useful tool of the campaigners for peace who are trying to stop the Pentagon developing its programmes. In Iraq, the US by insisting on massively enhanced powers has created massively enhanced resistance, which may, as Afghanistan destroyed the Soviet empire, end up destroying the American Empire”.

If last month's killing of 16 US troops in one Iraqi resistance operation is an indicator of what is to come, Monbiot’s logic is compelling.

A stylistic feature of his book is the strong moralising tone throughout as he urges people to take action on behalf of the poor of the world. But do such calls ever sustain mass movements of the type he seeks? He is fairly upbeat in his response. While professing no unshakeable confidence in any particular approach he feels that there are certain moral characteristics which almost all people share. One is a basic core belief that we people should be treated as they would like to be treated themselves. But to sustain this with large groups over a long period 'is very much contingent on people’s economic circumstances and the grander politics they are subject to.'

Puzzled by the challenges of motivation I pressed him on his call for a revolutionary-like experience similar to Christian joy. Having, over the years, failed to make it out of the living room in time to avoid being bombarded with Willie McCrea’s idea of Christianity and being of the firm belief that the last Christian was crucified, I felt there was a danger here that Monbiot was tapping into the same energy which fuels fundamentalism. After all, one of his reasons for rejecting Marxism was because its fundamentalism had ruined the chances of creating a new world order. He came back at me contending that emotion is essential to sustaining political campaigning. ‘We become involved in this because we are passionate about it not because we are convinced by it.’

Amongst other sinister things, this struck me as an open door to demagoguery and leadership-led movements which eventually come to parody the struggle that threw them up. What if the balance in the compound tips in favour of the emotion rather than the intellect and, in the absence of strong intellectual structures of transparency and dissent, a leadership basically screws the grassroots and starts to do its own thing and transfers the radical energy into a project which was not what the initial movement was designed for?

"This has happened to just about every revolutionary movement that ever existed. This is exactly what happened to the Labour Party. There is a constant tension between success and the necessary conformity within the movement that effectively drives success and the diversity and dissent which is what this movement is all about and what it should be all about. The dangers of co-option by powerful charismatic people within the movement will always exist."

Despite his disdain for Marxism, a weakness readily admitted to by Monbiot is that he is ‘excessively devoted’ to a classical view of political economy; something which hardly puts clear blue sea between him and the 19th century German philosopher. While stressing that he is a Marxian rather than a Marxist - in that he accepts the description rather than the prescription offered by Marxism - he attributes the failure of Marxism not to Stalin but to Marx himself. I pointed out to him that in Belfast his visit had met with some opposition but that it came from the Marxist led mass movements of two and three who recoil at his refusal to endorse a dictatorship of the proletariat. They refuse to turn up to see him but would sit in pubs awaiting the second coming of Trotsky. However, in spite of that the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party is one of the few involved in all the ongoing radical campaigns.

"Nobody organises better than the SWP; nobody mobilises better. They are amazing. They have the cadres, the party structures - almost brain washed participants who virtually devote their lives to what the party tells them to do. But they are almost impossible to work with unless you come in on their terms. There is a constant danger that they use the shared opportunities that they create purely as a recruiting ground for their own party. We have to try to work with them despite all the dangers in that."

Perhaps Michel Foucault had it right when he wrote, 'Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else.' Maybe Monbiot felt likewise. Having read his book, I was of the mind that he was really about restructuring the capitalist order rather than mounting a real challenge to it? He was disarmingly frank:

"That is a problem. What I am calling for in the first place is a restraint of capitalism. I’m saying that by democratising the means of global governance we have the opportunity if the world’s people so wish to start developing the means to overthrow capitalism. At present, we have assumed that there is a globalised public enthusiasm for overthrowing capitalism that does not appear to be there. We have to permit people to engage in a wider economic discussion. And that requires some form of global democracy. If not we are doing what the IMF and World Bank are doing and ending up with a dictatorship of the bureaucrat or in this case a dictatorship of the Global Justice Movement."

I left him wondering what it was I envied most, his intellect or his passion for justice. Meanwhile, the political class continues to howl as if the epicentre of the world is Belfast. There are some nuts even George Monbiot cannot crack.

George Monbiot’s The Age Of Consent is published by Harper-Collins. HB £15.99. ISBN 0-00-715042-3 ( )
  Susini | Jan 6, 2013 |
The Guardian columnist says that the "world justice movement" (comprising such people as the participants in the World Social Forums) should seek not to stop globalization but to transform it. He advocates a world parliament, replacement of the IMF and World Bank by an international clearing union, and replacement of the WTO by a fair trade organization.
  fpagan | Dec 9, 2006 |
Critical look at the world's prevailing power structures and the socio-economic injustices they perpetuate. Monbiot offers practical ideas for a more inclusive system to be founded informally but with moral authority. ( )
  stancarey | Oct 6, 2006 |

It's a mixed bag, written really for people who already count themselves as sympathisers with the anti-globalisation movement (and I suspect Monbiot would classify me as on the inside pissing out, rather than like him on the outside pissing in). There are four substantive chapters each with a different proposal. The first of these I completely agreed with, a rousing defence of democracy against communism and anarchism, though I myself do not move in circles where this is much debated.

The second is a proposal for a World Parliament of 600 single-member transnational constituencies of 10 million people. Hmm. I'd have liked to see some actual figures here, for what such a parliament would look like. By country, as of 2002, there would be 128 Chinese MPs, 105 Indian, 29 from the United States, 21 from Indonesia, 17 from Brazil, 14 from Pakistan, Russia and Bangladesh, 13 from Nigeria and Japan. Monbiot quite reasonably snarls at those who would object to thus empowering the poor, but there is also the matter of empowering dictatorships by giving them representation (and his idea of handicapping less democratic regimes in an upper chamber is ludicrously unrealistic even by the standards of his other proposals). It's not an evil idea, but the way he puts it forward indicates to me how unfamiliar he is with the range of democratic practices worldwide.

The third is an appeal to implement Keynes' rather than Dexter White's plans for the Bretton Woods institutions. I don't know enough about the history or economics of this to comment properly, but several aspects of Monbiot's presentation seemed to me dishonest. Lumping together the IMF, World Bank and currency speculators as if they were one evil mass signed up to the same agenda is simply not fair. My personal experience of the World Bank has been rather positive, of an organisation of able people who could be earning far more in the private sector but instead are trying to reduce poverty; he seems to be writing about some other institution entirely. Likewise, the only currency speculator Monbiot actually names is one whom I happen to know, George Soros, who indeed gets a duly positive write-up. That the IMF sometimes behaves with crass insensitivity is well known, but to say that it is also evil is a step further and I don't find the case convincing. My conclusion is that I must read Skidelsky's biography of Keynes, and decide for myself.

The fourth is about the international trade system. Here I found the presentation unsatisfactory because it has been overtaken by events. But it's unarguable to me at least that many poor countries need some trade barriers, and that rich countries tend to cheat on the arrangements. A crucial aspect that is omitted from Monbiot's calculation, but is more and more something I'm saying in private to my official contacts and increasingly also in public, is the question of the movement of people as well as goods, services and capital. "Fortress Europe" penalises the honest traveller and rewards the trafficker of human beings. So of the three policy-oriented chapters, this one came closest to my own views.

In the short concluding chapter, Monbiot wonders if he got it the wrong way round and should have started off with his thoughts on trade and then moved on to Bretton Woods and finished with the World Parliament. For me, it doesn't really matter. The book's big failing is its lack of engagement with what the "enemy" actually say about themselves. Its success is that at least it puts forward ideas. ( )
2 vote nwhyte | Sep 18, 2005 |
Showing 5 of 5
This book is, perhaps a little self-consciously, a Communist Manifesto for the global justice movement, a weighty political vision designed to supersede the movement's own often flimsy constructive agendas.

His central idea is simple and revolutionary. "Everything," he explains, "has been globalised except our consent. Democracy alone has been confined to the nation state.
added by mikeg2 | editThe Independent, Johann Hari (Jun 8, 2003)
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Respected Guardian columnist writes about global democracy.

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