The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order
Flamingo (2003), London
Reviewed by Celine Tan
School of Law, University of Warwick
I keenly awaited my copy of George Monbiot’s latest book in the post and was very eager to sink my teeth into what promised to be 274 pages of realistic solutions to utopian ideas for solving the unremitting global problems of environmental degradation and human suffering.
Monbiot is an excellent journalist and top-notch researcher: his regular weekly columns in The Guardian are not only well-argued opinion pieces, they are factual commentaries on a wide-range of issues from world trade rules to corporate misfeasance to weapons of mass destruction, always with keen attention to detail and almost archival references to the historical context of the subject matter.
Monbiot is also of that breed of tireless journalist-campaigners whose prose is the personal of the political, for whom writing is not merely a meal ticket or summaries of lived experiences, but a force for social and political change and an apparent catharsis in the personal quest for global reform.
Unfortunately, The Age of Consent encapsulates more of the latter characteristic than the former. A ‘manifesto’ it certainly is, but where the book falters is where it ends up sounding like Monbiot’s personal political treatise than an informed map of solutions to the complex problems thrown up by the globalization of ‘everything … except our consent’ (Monbiot, 2003, p 1).
To be fair, Monbiot is unapologetic about this aspect of his book. From his initial caveat: ‘I present in this manifesto a series of repulsive proposals which will horrify all right-thinking people’ on page one, to his admission of wrong turns in his thinking on the nature and source of global problems, impacting on misguided proposals for reform (p 2) in the Prologue, to his lengthy recollection of the evolution of his theoretical struggles from Marxist-anarchist to social democrat in Chapter Two (pp 25 – 49), Monbiot is unashamedly personal in his political project.
Peppered with first-person narrative throughout, The Age of Consent is less about an academic consolidation of years of empirical and archival research, than about the charting of a personal journey of an activist-journalist and the conclusions reached on the sum of these experiences.
This is not to say that the book is irrelevant as a contribution to the academic debate on the nature and causes of, to borrow a Stiglitzism, ‘globalization and its discontents’. Though Monbiot does not attempt, at the outset, to outline a water-tight framework for redressing the ills of the world, he does passionately proffer alternatives to a world governance structure riddled with power asymmetries, greed, corruption and ignorance, suggestions which will enrich the way we see and understand the problems of globalization. He debunks certain myths perpetuated by both sides of the globalization divide in order to clear the path towards properly diagnosing the maladies of globalization and facilitate more appropriate prescriptions for change.
Through Monbiot’s prism of solutions, we can view the problems, and whether we agree with his recommendations or not, they set a frame of reference to which we can assess the struggle for social justice and global development -whether it be our own reflexive search for answers to life’s questions or our collective platform for social and political reform.
2. ‘A Global Democratic Revolution’
At the heart of Monbiot’s manifesto is his unwavering conviction in the power of representative democracy, as enshrined in an elected legislative assembly based on proportional representation and subject to strict rules of accountability and transparency in decision-making. Second is the belief in the ‘moral authority’ that underpins this consolidation of ‘peoples’ power’ which not only ‘constrain[s] the behaviour of all but the most tyrannical states’ (p 95) but also provides the legitimacy for future action. Thirdly, Monbiot is adamant that this democratic ideal must operate at all levels, especially at the global level, and that the only means of redressing the ills of globalization is to participate politically at the global level:
‘Global governance will take place whether we participate in it or not … That the international institutions have been designed and captured by the dictatorship of vested interests is not an argument against the existence of international institutions but a reason for overthrowing them and replacing them with our own. It is an argument for a global political system which holds power to account … By first rebuilding the global politics, we establish the political space in which our local alternatives can flourish.’ (p 12 - 13).
Monbiot is particularly critical of the ‘localizers’, members of the global justice movement (the loose civil society coalition formerly, and inaccurately, known as the ‘anti-globalization’ movement) who wish to ‘reverse’ the trend of economic and financial globalization by returning to domestic solutions to the necessities (and luxuries) of life (pp 52 – 55). Made popular by Colin Hines in his book Localization: A Global Manifesto (2000), the concept of ‘localization’ caught on quickly and was adopted by a rash of activists, from environmentalists to trade unionists, for the sheer fact that it advocated a return to sovereignty and simplicity. Sovereignty because it argued for the cessation of trade liberalisation in favour of protectionist barriers to protect local industry, health, safety and the environment (p 52). Simplicity because it advocated a return to the ‘good life’ where almost all goods and services were locally produced and consumed and political decision-making is decentralised (pp 54 – 55).
Monbiot argues, and correctly so, that such protectionism does little to help the vast majority of the world’s poor who live in countries where the global trade in primary commodities constitute the staple of the economy. While current terms of trade are disadvantageous to people in the developing world, Monbiot surmises that trade (and global trade at that) has an immensely transformative and emancipatory potential:
‘Trade is, at present, an ineffective means of transferring wealth between nations, but it has massive distributive potential; indeed, far more potential than an increased flow of aid, which reinforces paternalism of the rich and the dependency of the poor …’ (p 53).
The subject of unfair trade terms and unequal trade relations is one that Monbiot returns to in Chapters Five and Six, but for the time being, he is content with unmasking the discrepancies in one of the classic arguments in the debate on globalization. He cites, as an example, activists who demand ‘a cessation of most forms of international trade, on the grounds of economic justice’ and yet who decry the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq and Cuba on similar grounds (p 53).
The issue of international trade is a thorny subject within the global justice movement, one that has already led to a very public cat fight between prominent campaigners two years ago1. Monbiot sits very clearly on one side of fence, acknowledging that, while there are repercussions from too much reliance on global trade, trade is better than aid for most countries and should be encouraged. His primary concern is how to ensure this process is facilitated in a fairer and more equitable manner, as with the other processes of global governance.
From the outset, Monbiot sets out to reclaim the process of globalization, or, at the very least, our definition of globalization. His admission to reckless use of the term has contributed, like many before and after him, to the confusion that permeates the current movement for social justice, and compounded efforts to reform the system. ‘Globalization is not the problem,’ he asserts. ‘The problem is in fact the release from globalization which both economic agents and nation states have been able to negotiate. They have been able to operate so freely because the people of the world have no means of restraining them’ (p 23, emphasis Monbiot’s).
According to Monbiot, the problems associated with the removal of controls on capital; the free hand given to multinational corporations; the imposition of unfair and uncompetitive regulations on trade and investment on sovereign countries by other countries and international institutions; and the military submission of weaker states to a superpower, has more to do with a lack of globalization rather than because of it.
In order to redress this, he proposes a world order premised on what he understands to be the pillars of democracy (see above), where states, institutions, corporate entities and individuals are accountable to the peoples of the world. A system consisting of: ‘a democratically elected world parliament; a democratized United Nations General Assembly, which captures the powers now vested in the Security Council; an International Clearing Union, which automatically discharges trade deficits and prevents the accumulation of debt; [and] a Fair Trade Organization, which restrains the rich while emancipating the poor’ (p 4).
By capturing these global institutions and transforming them, Monbiot hopes to give voice to the ‘global citizen, whose class interests extend beyond the state’ but who is seldom represented by the state, which is the only agent for him or her in the international arena, and therefore left with no means to influencing global developments (p 23). ‘Our task,’ he states, ‘is surely not to overthrow globalization, but to capture it and to use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution’ (p 23).
3. Redressing the Democratic Deficit
In Chapter Two, Monbiot outlines his justification for adopting the democratic ideal as the foundation of a new world order. He calls it ‘the least-worst system’ in contrast with the two ideologies he feels are the antithesis of democracy: Marxism and anarchism (p 25). It is here that one begins to see the personal struggle that Monbiot alludes to in his Prologue, and it is also here that the contradictions – both in his theory as a writer and in his practice as a advocate of change - begin to surface. It is also where one begins to feel an unease about the overall tone of Monbiot’s treatise and detect an almost paternalistic authority about the way in which he sets out his proposals for a new world order.
Democracy, says Monbiot is preferable to other systems because:
‘… democracy is more consensual than any other political system, in that it is the only one which, in principle at least, consistently provides us with opportunities for dissent. It permits us to express our disapproval of policies and ideologies which offend us, to vote against them, and to overthrow them without bloodshed’ (p 43).
The problem with Monbiot’s conception of ‘democracy’ is that it is a final and homogenous solution that fails to take into account the multiple manifestations of the democratic ideal. While it is difficult to fault his definition of ‘democracy’ – ‘a form of government in which sovereign power belongs, in theory, to the people, in which those people have equal rights, and in which the will of majority is expressed and exercised through elections between competing candidates and parties’ (p 25) – it becomes clear that the institutional face of the political concept Monbiot refers to is one that is rooted in the European Enlightenment and the rule of Roman law.
Herein lies the major fault with Monbiot’s treatise: it is still a manifesto founded largely upon a western ideal, written for a liberal western audience who may or may not have subscribed to some, or all, of the prescriptions Monbiot has invalidated in his book, and proposing change that will be acceptable to those audiences because such change is not culturally repugnant.
Monbiot falls into unfortunate stereotyping and, instead of outlining a radical transformation of the concept of democracy itself, tries to rescue a battered interpretation of democracy. He equates democracy with western political systems and makes no attempt to separate the two. He refers to ‘mature democracies’ in which ‘arbitrary violence by the state against its own people is fairly limited’ (p 34), to ‘democratic countries’ in contrast to ‘Muslim theocracies’ in which the rights if ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals and other oppressed groups fare better (p 44). Such diametrical juxtapositioning helps no-one, least of all activists for oppressed minority groups in both political systems.
While maintaining forcefully the right to self-determination and diversity in representation, Monbiot does not appear to give much credence to the concept of diversity in political systems, unless such pluralism operates within the confines of his prescription of a democratic ideal. I take issue not so much with Monbiot’s reliance on democratic principles as the foundation of the new world order he proposes, but with his limited imagination on how such principles should be adopted in practice.
Monbiot’s plan for a world governing body is admirably ambitious: envisaging a bicameral global legislature consisting of an elected chamber of peoples’ representatives (‘the world parliament’) and an appointed General Assembly consisting of national governments, sitting as they would now in the United Nations General Assembly but without the veto of the Security Council nor of individual nation states, and with a voting structure weighted on population size of the country and what Monbiot conceives of the state’s ‘democratic legitimacy’. He proposes that governments be assessed using ‘measures’ of democratisation, for example criteria established by institutes such as the Centre for Business and Policy Studies in Sweden and the Democratic Audit in the UK, and votes allocated to states based on their ranking on a ‘global index of democracy’. Therefore, China, with its one billion inhabitants, ‘would possess far fewer votes than it would if its government was democratically elected’, giving what Monbiot hopes ‘a powerful incentive’ for governments around the world to democratize (p 133).
The main contention I have with this proposal – aside from the practicalities (or lack thereof) of administering a global parliament on one-person-one-vote system – is the weighting of state votes to political systems and the benchmarks Monbiot chooses to underpin the ‘democracy index’ that will administer this voting system. Measuring democracy will always be difficult, and more so when the definition of what constitutes a democracy is severely limited by our understanding of it. It is easy to single out one-party rule political systems, such as China’s, as a candidate for wrist-slapping under the ‘democracy index’ but a more complex consideration would be the case of the United States, with its cash-weighted presidential elections and corporate political patronage networks. It is unlikely that the ‘rigorous means’ devised by institutes Monbiot hold in high regard have devised systems to measure these complexities.
This is one of the many inconsistencies that characterise The Age of Consent. While criticising the existing global institutions and powerful states for their paternalism in dictating the terms of engagement in international relations, Monbiot also unwittingly falls into this trap. I cannot seem to escape the feeling that he belies his own admonishment of ‘even the most radical European or North American campaigner’ who he accuses of secretly possessing ‘a residual fear of the Yellow Peril, of the people of other lands, who do not share our worldview, becoming too powerful’ (p 105).
Although fiercely critical of people who oppose the democratic ideal on such grounds, there is, paradoxically, an underlying feeling that Monbiot himself fears that the world, outside the realms of Europe and North America, cannot be fully trusted to be responsible with the electoral freedom that will be granted to them. He states:
‘Of course, we cannot guarantee that the people of India and China will always vote for democracy and for higher environmental and labour standards – the point of democracy is that you cannot guarantee anything’ (p 108).
Monbiot makes his point as to the perils of majority rule through this illustration – the combined votes of the populations of India and China will outweigh votes of the rest of the world – but does so on dangerous territory. No, the populations of both countries cannot be counted upon always to vote for social justice, political suffrage and economic equity, but neither can the populations of North America, Europe, Latin America, or Africa. In fact, as we have seen, and as Monbiot has noted in Chapter Two, the rise of the far right in Europe has been facilitated by representative democracy and the freedom of speech and information that accompany such systems.
Ash Amin, in his commentary in The Guardian on 14 July 2003, criticises the draft European constitution as subscribing principally to values of the old Europe – rule of law, Christian solidarity, liberal democracy and commonality based on reason – failing therefore to reflect the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity that constitute European societies today. Monbiot’s ideas for a new world constitution can be similarly criticised, with one critical exception: the European constitution forges a universal ideal by ignoring diversity of minorities, Monbiot’s new world order forges a minority ideal on universal diversity.
I am not arguing against Monbiot’ passionate advocacy for democracy and a more representative world governance framework, I just wish that his proposals were accompanied by more rigorous examinations of political systems outside the Euro-American model and a more critical and radical analysis of the democratic ideal he holds so dear. This will involve, as Amin notes, quoting Habermas and Derrida, ‘much more than the ‘reciprocal recognition of the Other in her/his Otherness’’2.
4. Levelling the Playing Field
Monbiot’s proposals for a reform of the global economic and financial order are no less ambitious than his plans for a world parliament but this is where his years of research and writing on such issues come to the fore and he is at his element. Read Chapters Five and Six if only for Monbiot’s engaging account of the madness of international trade and finance and his almost resounding dismantling of long-cherished myths about the nature and causes of international debt and global poverty. This is classic Monbiot.
He systematically works through the mechanics of the global trade and financial system, drawing the links, one by one, between natural resource extraction, capital flows, trade, trade relations, sovereign debt and political power. Monbiot’s parametres for discussion are clear and unequivocal – ‘two issues which must be understood’ before global impoverishment can be grasped:
‘The first is the conditions under which nations trade with each other: namely the rules governing their exchanges, and the valuation of their resources … The second is the balance of trade between nations …’ ( p 140).
Monbiot begins Chapter Five by detailing the international debt trap – ‘much of the poor world’s international debt is the result of uneven trade’ (p 140) – and the roles played by international financial institutions, chiefly the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, has played in sustaining this trap. The statistics he quotes are terrifying: the world’s impoverished nations owe a total of USD 2.5 trillion, mainly to commercial banks, the World Bank and the IMF; between 1980 and 1996, the sub-Saharan countries paid twice the sum of their debts in the form of interest but still owed three times more in 1996 than in 1980; every year, USD 382 billion is transferred from the developing world to banks and financial institutions in the first world in debt repayments – money that should have gone to healthcare, sanitation, water and food (pp 156 -158).
In sum, Monbiot argues, the rich countries in the north are kept buoyant by the indebtedness of the poor: ‘The poor world owns the rich world’s banks’ (p 175). This, of course, is not a new argument. Financial Times columnist John Plender’s book, The Crisis of Global Capitalism, similarly outlines the moral repugnancy of how the poor in the developing world is paying for the luxuries of the west3. Monbiot’s proposal for reform however is more radical than ever envisioned by Plender. He advocates the using of debt as a weapon for destruction of the inequities of the current system with indebted states working together to threaten a mass default as a form of pressuring the financiers of the north to, in turn, pressure their national governments to accede to demands of the impoverished nations in efforts to prevent a collapse of the financial system (pp 174 – 178).
This ‘weapon’ can be used to call for, among others, ‘the replacement of the IMF and the World Bank with an arrangement which automatically establishes a balance of trade’ (p 177) and to create a regulatory mechanism for which cycles of economic booms and busts would be prevented through a self-balancing international trading system.
Towards this end, Monbiot proposes the establishment of John Maynard Keynes’ original idea of an International Clearing Union (ICU) which will ensure that no country is perpetually in trade surplus or deficit by imposing financial penalties for default either way (pp 161 – 178). In this way, it is hoped that nations with balance-of-payments surpluses will be forced to cut back exports and raise the level of their currencies while nations in deficit are forced to operate in the opposite direction, and that this mutuality will overcome the existing race-to-the-bottom where countries, rich and poor, compete to generate trade surpluses on uneven ground, leading to impoverished nations overextending their resources to catch up (pp 171 - 172).
The balance of trade established by the ICU should be complemented by the establishment of fairer terms of trade between countries. This is detailed in Chapter Six where Monbiot runs through the iniquitous rules that currently govern trade relations between countries, which have led to much hardship, and impoverishment to communities in countries where the rules are stacked against them. Monbiot is a staunch defender of international trade, as mentioned above, arguing that redistribution of the world’s wealth must be facilitated through trade and not aid (p 186). This distribution must then be carried out under conditions which are neither exploitative to people nor the environment and rules are therefore needed to enforce such conditions (pp 188 – 189).
Here, Monbiot begins to clarify some of the confusion that has cloaked the debate on international trade and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the rules of which have drawn protesters out in their droves, though not necessarily, as Monbiot points out, with a full understanding of what they are protesting against.
It is in this section of his book that Monbiot does immense justice to the global justice movement as he spells out clearly and coherently the whys and whats wrongs with the current patterns of international trade. He criticises the WTO not as an organisation – which ‘is in principle the most democratic of all powerful international institutions – but as an example of how global institutions can be, and will be, manipulated by powerful interests (and not necessarily powerful states at that), a ‘ghastly warning’, he notes, to the ‘alternative institutions we seek to establish’ (pp 205 – 208).
Monbiot warns against fighting protectionism with more protectionism, furthering his attack on ‘localization’ which he sees as ‘a further imposition upon the lives of the powerless by the people of powerful nations’ (p 217). Erecting barriers to international trade harms the very livelihoods of people the ‘localizers’ wish to help by denying developing nations the right to earn foreign exchange and thus maximising their potential to generate wealth domestically and reduce their reliance on the rich nations (p 216). Monbiot, unlike quite a number of members of the global justice movement, upholds the right of poor countries to ‘develop’ and not merely escape the poverty trap. He supports affirmative action for developing countries in the form of ‘temporary protectionism’ to accelerate the growth of domestic economies by stimulating local industry (pp 219 -220).
National legislatures would, in the new scheme of things, have authority over domestic industries but social and environmental justice will be ensured through the creation of what Monbiot calls a ‘Fair Trade Organization’ (FTO). This organisation will function very much like the voluntary fair trade bodies operating today, through licensing and the enforcement of standards for investing corporations: ‘a company would not be able to permitted to trade between nations unless it could demonstrate that, at every stage of production, manufacture and distribution, its operations and those of its suppliers and subcontractors met the specified standards’ (pp 227 – 228) with punitive sanctions meted out to errant companies through a binding judicial process, such as through the expansion of the International Criminal Court’s mandate (pp 229 – 230).
It is hoped that instead of the potentially ruinous impact of social and environmental clauses attached to trade agreements (favoured by some campaigners), the FTO will regulate corporations directly through a code of good conduct: ‘If we oblige corporations to set high standards, by punishing them for the destruction, oppression or dispossession caused by the trade in which they engage, then the market begins to work for the poor’ (p 227).
Monbiot’s prescription for reform appears to be water-tight – he has even considered the conflict between the establishment of fairer trade rules to level the playing field and the mechanics of the ICU that prevent trade surpluses by reversing the order in which these proposals are put into practice – but only when considered in isolation from his general framework for a new global constitution.
These chapters on trade and finance appear at odds with the earlier chapters on a global legislature as Monbiot reverts back to placing the state as the primary locus for change in the international arena. Much of the work, he implies, have to be carried out through national governments, especially in coordinated plans for threatening debt default and challenging unequal trade rules. He fails to mention that many of these governments are the very ones he criticised in earlier chapters for failing their own citizens.
Monbiot says very little about how these new reforms to the international economic and financial architecture will fit into proposals for the world parliament and General Assembly, save for mentioning that the world parliament will serve as a moderating force to the ICU and FTO, ensuring that ‘both the states and the gathering of states [that make up the organisations] are held to account by their citizens’ (p 247).
This leaves the reader with disquiet as to how the two systems will be able to function, both in parallel and in tandem. It also fails to address the fundamental questions of how social and economic justice be attained through the global framework of governance. The failure to resolve the point of connectivities between the two systems only highlights the problems facing those who struggle for justice and equity around the world – that there are disjunctions between civil and political freedoms and that of economic, social and cultural freedoms.
5. A Call to Action
At the end of the day, Monbiot does achieve what he sets out to do: that is to open the debate up for discussion. In his Prologue, Monbiot is careful to qualify his treatise:
‘In searching for the necessary conditions for an Age of Consent, I have not sought to be original. Where effective solutions have already been devised, I have adopted them, though in most cases I felt the need to revise and develop the argument … Nor do I presume to suggest anything resembling a final or definitive world order. On the contrary, I hope that other people will refine, transform , and if necessary, overthrow my proposals in favour of better ones’ (pp 2 – 3).
Monbiot may not have succeeded in his personal project to create a comprehensive manifesto for global change but he does lay the foundations for further work to come. Monbiot has proven that viable solutions can be found to even the most complex of global problems and that, most importantly, they can be articulated.
All of us struggle personally with our conscience, and, as most activist-journalists/ activist-academics are acutely aware, that conscience determines what we choose to articulate professionally. Monbiot has shown us that it is quite all right to conduct those internal battles with our conscience in public insofar as it does not undermine the collective platform for social and political reform.
1 The very public cat fight between some prominent campaigners in the international development scene stemmed from Oxfam’s 300-page trade dossier, Global Trade, in which Oxfam called for greater market access in the west for developing countries’ goods and services as a solution to impoverishment in the developing world. Many campaigners saw this as a green light to unfettered trade liberalisation at the expense of the environment and protection of local methods of production which will suffer as a result of the channeling of resources towards large-scale export production.
2 Amin, Ash (2003). ‘Welcome to the new-look Europe’. The Guardian. 14 July 2003.
3 Plender, John (2003). Going Off the Rails: Global Capital and the Crisis of Legitimacy. Chichester, Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.
This is a book review published on: 4 March 2005.
Citation: Tan, C, ‘The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order’ by George Mobiot, Book Review, 2004 (2) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD). <http://go.warwick.ac.uk/elj/lgd/2004_2/tan>