Writer and campaigner George Monbiot talks to Socialist Worker
The future is radical
MANY PEOPLE hoped in 1997 that the election of a Labour government would lead to real change from the Tory years. "Things can only get better" was the campaign theme. What is your view of Labour's record four years on?
WHILE THERE has been some moderate (and often contradictory) progress on a few issues, such as union recognition, the minimum wage and the climate change levy, in many ways things have got comprehensively worse.
The private finance initiative is being applied almost universally. Council housing is being sold off. Ever more business people are being moved into quangos. Corporate taxes are being reduced, and the burden of taxation subtly shifted towards citizens and consumers.
It looks as if the roads programme is about to begin all over again, while the railways, for all Mr Prescott's huffing and puffing, are being left to rot. Despite repeated government claims, we are now losing 4,000 hospital beds a year.
There's been an explosion in consumer credit and a reduction in savings, which leaves lower income people dangerously exposed and, coupled with an over-valued stock market, confronts us all with the danger of recession. It's not a record I'd be proud of.
YOU HAVE written a book, Captive State, on the theme of the corporate takeover of Britain-what do you mean by that, and how has that process developed under New Labour?
CORPORATE POWER has been an element of British political life for centuries, but in the past few years it has been greatly enhanced. There are several reasons for this. Globally, government power has given way to the power of multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, which, in the absence of effective democratic oversight, tend to be taken over by corporate lobbyists. Within Britain, after Labour switched sides, big business has benefited from a pliant parliament and a discouraged electorate. There is now no mainstream anti-corporate opposition.
Labour has long been the big prize for business. The Tories have always been in the bag. If you capture the opposition as well, then there's no one left to fight you. The result is that almost all state provision is now being subtly privatised by means of the Private Finance Initiative. Planning and development control have been taken over by the construction industry. The supermarkets are being allowed to destroy both small shops and farms.
The government is doing all it can to speed the introduction of GM crops. Both schools and universities are being taken over by corporate values...it goes on and on.
LABOUR WAS founded as a party which seemed to stand for at least some opposition to the domination of society by big business and the rich. What has happened to that?
LIKE MOST left of centre parties in the 1990s, Labour was faced with a stark choice. It could continue to oppose the massively increased forces of corporate Britain, with the result that it would face a hard and painful struggle to be elected, and the possibility, if it failed, of the final disappearance of the party. Or it could go with the flow, gaining power by appeasing the powerful. Of course, the more you appease the powerful, the more powerful they become, which means you have to appease them even more.
WHAT IMPACT do you think all this has had on democracy?
IT'S A disaster. All over the world we've seen the main parties clumping around an extreme neo-liberal position, leaving a political vacuum unfilled by parliaments or major opposition parties. This creates a wonderful world for multi-millionaires and a miserable one for the rest of us. We're left unrepresented in most areas of policy.
But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and that creates great opportunities for extra-parliamentary opposition movements. As more and more people wake up to the fraud that's been perpetrated on us, we could see the emergence of some vast and potentially very exciting progressive and radical popular movements.
We could also, of course, see the re-emergence of the far right, which always does well in circumstances like these. So there's a sense of urgency here. If we don't fill this vacuum, someone else will.
YOU HAVE been involved in many campaigns, debates and protests in recent years. How has that developed, and what lessons do you draw from it?
THOUGH I had some involvement with the anti-nuclear protests in the early 1980s, I first became completely immersed in campaigning when I was working in West Papua in 1987 and 1988. I had gone there as a journalist to find out what was happening both to the local people and to the hundreds of thousands of outsiders being transmigrated in.
What I saw shocked me out of my rather tenuous neutrality-it seemed to me that the only honest and reasonable response to the atrocities being perpetrated there was to join the struggle against them rather than just reporting on it. After that I worked in Brazil for a couple of years, then in East Africa, also becoming heavily involved in local people's campaigns, mostly concerning land and resource rights.
When I came back to Britain in 1993 the anti-roads protests had just started kicking off, and I saw in them land and resource struggles very similar to those I had witnessed abroad.
Engaging with these campaigns from a Third World perspective woke me up to a lot of what had been going wrong in Britain, and this led me to found, with some other activists, a campaign called The Land is Ours, whose purpose is to reclaim democratic control over land use.
This, I felt, is a key determinant of people's quality of life. If decision making over land use is in the wrong hands, the poor don't get houses, the unemployed don't get work and none of us get public spaces. This in turn encouraged me to look both at the ways in which corporate lobbyists come to control decision making and at privatisation. These interests led me to start investigating the corporate takeover of Britain.
HOW DO you see, or hope for, the future development of politics and these kinds of movements?
I THINK radical, progressive, grassroots movements could become the dominant force in British politics, if we succeed in uniting the very disparate factions and interests they represent.
This doesn't mean we have to discard our ideological differences, but it does mean that socialists, greens, anarchists and other oppositional forces will have to learn to respect each other's positions and abandon the rather isolationist stances that many have adopted in the recent past.
I think there's a widespread recognition of this need, and it seems to me that events such as Seattle, Prague, Nice and the forthcoming protests in Genoa represent the beginnings of a sustained mass mobilisation. The challenge is to make this happen on a daily basis, rather than just once every six months at a spectacular gathering.
We need far better coordination, both within towns and regions (bringing together activists involved in what have hitherto been single issue campaigns to ensure that we all support each other), and nationally and internationally, pulling together newly united regional groupings into a broad and diverse but coordinated front. No one should ever fight alone again.
WHAT DO you think people should do at the general election -and how is this linked to these wider struggles?
IT WILL be hard to do, as all the media will be focused on a handful of mostly peripheral issues, but we must use every possible opportunity to draw attention to the huge areas of public policy which are not being debated, and the large numbers of people who are not being represented. Some people argue that voting is a waste of time. They're right-if all you do is vote.
Direct action is a waste of time if all you do is direct action. Lobbying your MP is a waste of time if all you do is lobby your MP. We must use every tool in the democratic toolbox, every political opportunity that presents itself. Radical parties have an essential role to play even if they win no seats in parliament, for they help to broaden the political debate and even, in some cases, to frighten the horses. Looking back on the past ten years, I'm amazed at how ineffective we have all been. Looking forward to the next ten, I can't wait to see what we can do now that we are finally coming together.