Socialist Worker

George Monbiot: 'I am calling for a global democratic revolution'

Liking to be known as a 'professional troublemaker', George Monbiot is a journalist, author and activist. He spoke to Socialist Worker about his new book, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, which has just been published.

Issue No. 1856

What's wrong with the current system?

'What is fundamentally wrong is that a few unelected men rule the world. They rule the world in the interests of a political and economic elite rather than in the interests of the world's people. The war with Iraq was prosecuted with a view to enhancing the power of the hawks in Washington.

'The current system is a job creation scheme for hawks. It permitted them to show that they are prepared to use their military power. This ensures that other nations are less willing to challenge the US.

'The system also permitted them to accelerate their international coup against the multilateral order in favour of direct rule from Washington. It enables them to establish regional control and, in particular, control of the oil supply. Many people assume this means the US wants the oil for itself. But what it really wants to do is to be able to determine who gets oil and on what terms.

'It wants to ensure that it can turn off the taps to China. China is the most direct threat to the US's global economic hegemony. But China is entirely dependent on external sources of oil and this is its great weakness. Over the past two years the US has effectively completed its control over almost all the principal oil-producing regions and oil-transport corridors on earth. Iraq is one of the last pieces of the jigsaw.'

Some sections of the press predicted the global justice movement will fade away. What do you think of this?

'What the media sees is what the media reports. There is this extraordinary solipsism within the press that translates as, 'The known world is that which we know.'

'The media sees there is less press coverage of the global justice movement. It therefore concludes that the global justice movement is disappearing. In reality, what we have seen over the past two years is an extraordinary growth, not only in the numbers involved, but also in the vigour of the debate. The great majority of those in the movement are in the poor world and are almost entirely invisible to the media.

'But I think it is now true to say that every country in the poor world in which the IMF has operated has been the scene of what have been called 'IMF riots'. They are a crucial element of this massive and growing protest movement. There is no question that much of the movement against war with Iraq emerged from the global justice movement and was strengthened by it. In turn it has fed back into the global justice movement and increased its standing.'

You make a case for the need for positive political engagement and a political programme. What has led you to this conclusion?

'There is no future in a movement that does not have a programme. Until we set the agenda we have no possibility of creating positive change. We can't move on and we can't make this a better world until we know precisely what we want and how we are going to achieve it.

'Once we have established a programme we can set out to execute it. This is the key transformation we need to go through and one that is now recognised by many people within this movement around the world.'

Some of our critics say a radical change of society in the ways you and others suggest is utopian. What do you say to these people?

'It is utopian if you cannot suggest the means by which change will happen. But I suggest very powerful means of forcing the rich world to listen to the demands of the poor world, such as the threat to pull down the entire global financial system by collectively reneging on the debt.

'But I would also say that the current system is patently unsustainable. Demand outstrips resources. We see it with one commodity after another, with water, fisheries and forests.

'That's the first way in which global capitalism is unsustainable. The second way is that many nations, as Argentina has discovered, cannot continue with the existing model. Governments may seek to contain the social discontent but something has to break.'

How do you see society being transformed?

'I am calling for a global democratic revolution – humanity's first ever global democratic revolution. This would involve taking the principle of democracy and applying it at a global level.

'I've suggested four principal transformations. The first one would be a directly elected world parliament run by, and for, the people of the world. Secondly I propose the transformation of the United Nations system which would involve scrapping the Security Council. Its powers should then be vested in a democratised UN General Assembly.

'The new assembly would have a system of weighted voting so that the countries which scored highest on a global democracy index would have more votes. Countries with larger populations would also have more votes than smaller countries.

'This would avoid the two principal problems in the UN General Assembly. The first is that many of the governments there have no claim to represent their people and the second is that it is riddled with rotten boroughs. Then I would scrap the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and replace them with something resembling the International Clearing Union which John Maynard Keynes proposed in the 1940s.

'I would introduce a series of fair trade rules which ensure that corporations cannot trade between nations unless they can demonstrate they are treating their workers and the environment fairly.

'In other words, the fair trade principles that are currently applied to the voluntary fair trade movement become mandatory. At the same time nations will be able to pursue the means of development that were once pursued by rich nations during their key development phases.

'One is 'infant industry protection'. This permits small, new industries to be protected from competitors overseas during their key take-off phases. A second is permitting industries in poor countries to get hold of other countries' intellectual property rights they need to take off. Put together, the principal planks of the programme amount to a transformation of economic and political relations between nation-states and the people of their nation-states.'

How do you propose to bring about this change?

'Debt is the principal lever that the poor world possesses in order to try and turn the economic and political tide against the rich world. It's often said that if you owe the bank one hundred dollars then you are in trouble but if you owe the bank a million dollars the bank is in trouble. So what happens when you owe the bank 2.5 trillion dollars?

'The poor nations are in an extremely powerful position to put a gun to the heads of the rich nations by saying, 'If you do not give us what we want then we will collectively default on our debt.' So the poor nations attach what are called 'conditionalities' to the repayment of their debt.

'The fair trade principles I suggest would mean business carrying the full costs they incur, not dumping them onto the environment and onto other people. This means countries that are sources of raw materials instantly become the most favoured locations for manufacturing.

'Transport costs rise considerably if the full costs of transport and its impact on the environment are incorporated. So poor countries who have been exporters of raw materials become exporters of finished products which fetch a much higher price. What you then see is a transfer of specialist manufacturing to the poor world with an increase in the wealth of the workers there.'

Your book is critical of Colin Hines's approach to localisation but you once supported the idea. What has changed your mind?

'I used to believe, like Colin Hines, that for environmental and trade justice we should argue that everything that could be traded locally should be traded locally.

'This approach is known as localisation. I now see that this position is not only illogical but is also grotesquely unjust. The only things the poor nations can sell to the rich nations are raw materials. But this is precisely what the poor nations wish to escape from because you can't make money that way.

'It also ensures that workers are trapped with low wages and without rights. They would have very little bargaining power as, in the raw materials industries, their labour is unskilled. By contrast, workers working in specialist manufacturing are much harder to replace and more expensive to train. Therefore they have greater bargaining power.

'They also require education which provides them with opportunities to discover what their rights are and how to press for those rights. There is a grotesque injustice in a system which locks the poor world into producing raw materials for the rich world which is what, I believe, my scheme would challenge.'

Do you believe there is an urgent need for change?

'There is no question that there is an urgent need for change. We have a situation in which hundreds of millions of the world's people are starving or do not have the means to support a reasonable standard of life. The ecosystem is coming under severe strain. The wealth and power of the rich and powerful is growing by the day, ensuring that the political system becomes more closed.

'Things have to change urgently. But, at the same time, what I am calling for is long term change. So while we have to protest – and never for a moment would I argue that protest is not an essential part of achieving change – at the same time we have to set our sights on a better way. We need to create a system which works for the world's people rather than against them.

The Age of Consent is on special offer from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £13.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

George Monbiot is speaking at Marxism 2003 on his book The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order Saturday 5 July at 3.45pm.

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