March 20, 2010 by cgsstlouischapter
by George Monbiot [London: Harper Perennial, 2003]
(Book review by Ronald J. Glossop–January 15, 2010)
George Monbiot admits that as of 2003 he and the Global Justice Movement to which he belongs and to whom this book is addressed have misdiagnosed the cause of the current global sickness and consequently have offered the wrong prescriptions (p. 2). The problem which needs to be confronted, he says, is not economic globalization but the lack of democratic political globalization.
His thesis is spelled out in the first two paragraphs. “Everything has been globalized except our consent. Democracy alone has been confined to the nation state.” “This book is an attempt to describe a world run on . . . the principle of democracy. It is an attempt to replace our Age of Coercion with an Age of Consent.” He later restates the point. “As everything has been globalized except democracy, the rulers of the world can go about their business without reference to ourselves. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many-perhaps most-of the decisions they make conflict with the interests of the majority, and reflect only those of the dominant minority” (pp.83-84).
This book aims to redirect the thinking and actions of the mostly young people who protest against the power of multinational corporations and the World Bank and the IMF and the rich and powerful generally. They mistakenly think the problem is globalization. Consequently they tend to overlook the possibility of political globalization, of democracy at the global level, which is the only thing that can defeat the existing unjust economic globalization. Monbiot wants to correct this lack. To do that he needs to make the case for democracy as “the least worst political system,” which he aims to do in chapter 2. He provides an incisive critique of Marxism
(pp. 26-30) and anarchism (pp. 30-40). Monbiot recognizes that democracies can experience some difficulties such as the tyranny of the majority but concludes that a democratic political system is a “self-refining experiment in collective action” (p. 46). At the national level the
superiority of a democratic system is generally recognized. What still needs to be recognized is the superiority of democracy at the global level.
In chapter 3 Monbiot critiques the ideas that the way to undercut the present power of transnational corporations is to localize activities or to practice voluntary simplicity. Such approaches are available only to the fairly well off and are not going to help the poor of the world because they do nothing to check the power of the powerful. Monbiot rejects the approach of “realists” like George Soros who confine their proposals to what the authorities who control the world “are ready to consider.” If we so restrict our thinking, “we may as well give up and leave the authorities to run the world unmolested” (p. 63). It is characteristic of every revolution that it was “described as ‘unrealistic’ just a few years before it happened” (p. 65).
The challenge is how to create a world parliament. The first step is to realize that the U.N. as presently constituted isn’t democratic and can’t be made democratic. The same is true of the Inter-Parliamentary Union composed of members of national parliaments. A parliament of representatives from NGOs also wouldn’t work because someone would need to decide which NGOs get to participate and which ones don’t. Monbiot concludes that a world parliament must consist of directly elected representatives from 600 districts of 10 million people each and with no
regard to national boundaries. The meetings of the World Social Forum provide a model. An election commission to draw district boundaries could be established. Monbiot outlines how obstacles such as funding and resistance from national governments, especially nondemocratic ones, could be overcome. He notes that “building a world parliament is not the same as building a world government” (p. 93) because the world parliament he proposes would, at least at first, have only moral power. But history shows that popular groups exercising only moral power have exerted much influence. Monbiot discusses at length various difficulties that a world
parliament would likely encounter and gives his proposals for how to deal with them.
In the fifth and sixth chapters Monbiot argues that we can move from nationalism and inter-nationalism to globalism “only when nation-states cease to exist” (p. 139), a point which world federalists would not accept. The huge and growing gap between rich and poor in the world is due to the trading system set up by national goverments and subsequently by the inter-national institutions created by them. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have coerced the poorer countries into adopting policies such as reducing public expenditures on education that are harmful to themselves. In order to repay their debts these poor countries are forced to sell raw materials at artificially low prices. In 1944 Keynes proposed
an international Clearing Union which would have stabilized currencies and equalized trading between rich and poor countries, but the U.S.’s Harry Dexter White rejected the idea.
Given the existing international system, the one option available to the poor nations is to just refuse to pay their debts unless the international institutions are changed. The huge inequalities in the world can be corrected only by trade rules which help the poor countries rather than a free-trade system based on the notion that the trade rules must be the same for all, rich or poor. History shows how the developed countries all practiced protectionism for their infant industries, but that possibility is being denied to the presently developing countries because of the demand for “free trade.” International regulation is needed, but by a Fair Trade Organization
whose policies would enable poor countries to advance economically while protecting workers’ rights and the environment.
In the final chapter Monbiot urges members of the movement for social justice to join in collective nonviolent revolutionary action. Work together, he pleads, to build a world parliament, a Free Trade Organization, and an International Clearing Union. It is obvious that “governments will not act on our behalf until we force them to do so” (p. 261).
This book is a well-documented, well-reasoned plea for revolutionary action to change the existing global system by which the rich and powerful not only maintain but can even increase the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in the world. Monbiot adroitly analyzes what is happening and why, and he astutely notes the places where changes need to begin. But it remains to be seen whether the people are able to make a difference if and when they take the actions he recommends.
Ronald J. Glossop is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Peace Studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and author of Philosophy: An Introduction to Its Problems & Vocabulary (1974), World Federation? (1993) and Confronting War (4th ed., 2001).