The age of consent
by Noel Rooney
[ politics | bookreviews ]
A homeopathic irony haunts this book. Of course, someone needed to write it; forming a coherent strategy for democratising the process of world trade is an urgent business. While the loose, flexible alliance of different interest communities around the world has worked well in terms of protest activity; formulating a viable alternative to globalisation dictates a more integral approach.
But this is where the irony kicks in. First, that the book should come from a culture which has helped to frame globalisation and has benefited a good deal from it; and second (and perhaps more ominously) that the proposed cure should be a species of the system which gave birth to the globalisation project in the first place. Western democracy, with all the vague implications of that term, colluded in the build-up of globalisation; but, according to Monbiot, it is western democracy which will get us out of the mess.
The irony will not be lost on the millions of activists in the poor world who may just have their own ideas about how to cope with, and defeat, globalisation. From here in Europe, we can look with equal condescension on the globalisers (our former colonists) and the protesters/victims (our former colonists) and tell them both where they are going wrong. Then we can propose that a central part of the system which gave rise to the problem is actually the cure for it.
Democracy was born in the city-state, the polis. The translation of democracy from city to nation state took a thousand years or so, and the marriage has never taken universal hold. Naturally, a few things were lost in the translation; the nation state's version - a regular plebiscite - lacks the direct involvement of the Athenian model (which itself was limited to a male property-owning elite).
Monbiot proposes yet another translation of the democratic process, into a global setting (he doesn't speculate on what will get lost in this translation). His rationale for this - "democracy is all we have left" - seems defeatist, as if he is suffering a latent, disappointed form of Fukuyama syndrome; to be fair, he also attempts to offer a more robust apology, but even here the competitive engagement of communities of interest may arouse suspicion among the less classically liberal readers.
One of the premises of this book is that globalisation is a major historical shift (as opposed to an ill-conceived and short-lived period of planetary piracy, for instance). So I assume that Monbiot accepts globalisation as a fact, or at least a fait accompli. This flies in the face of some powerful arguments from some considerable minds (Noam Chomsky and Susan George for instance) who suggest that there is no such thing, and that the term is merely a pleonastic marketing slogan for the same old story (is it even possible that Marx's demonisation/apotheosis of capital is just a venerable version of the same chimera?). Perhaps the only thing that is new is the relative speed at which exploitation now happens.
In fact, if the system Monbiot describes is globalisation, then perhaps globalisation has been with us for a very long time, centuries rather than decades. And western-style democracy has arisen within it. Thus it might be judged a constituent part, or at the very least a symptom of it, rather than an obvious cure.
Monbiot offers a system of trade which is a broadened-out version of what we already have, rather than a different approach from scratch. Optimally, we will all eventually huddle under the comfort of the bell-curve, in a system whose limited dynamics aims to keep most of us there.
There are other curious assumptions here: for instance, that when nation states collapse, they don't do so as part of the present process, but instead they somehow fall out of it. Monbiot points to the fact that such states don't immediately adopt anarchist alternatives as a critique of the efficacy of anarchism; isn't it more a demonstration that they haven't fallen out of the system at all, but are merely dysfunctional parts of it?
A couple of dark timetables lurk under Monbiot's schema. The first is constantly alluded to, but never explicitly analysed: global warming. I take this to be an umbrella metaphor for all forms of ecological disaster, and I assume Monbiot is pointing to a catastrophic collapse which is inevitable and impending. The second is also left, on the whole, in the shadows: the brute irony, and logical impossibility, of basing infinite growth on finite resources. Monbiot hints at this system leading to its own collapse. If these inferences are correct, then there is a timescale here which needs to be made explicit, since it is a timescale we are being urged to act within. Surely the looming deadline for the anti-globalists is the same for the corrupt capitalists?
We might also expect an analysis of relative effects. Will the debt economy's collapse under its own labile weight have direr consequences than the violent, repressive resistance to change which he envisages? How long do we have to weigh up these relative consequences before 'global warming' reaches its own crisis point?
Monbiot is courageous enough to lay out a manifesto for a world system designed with fairness and equity in mind. He knows as well as any reader that his attempt is the beginning of a long - and hopefully fruitful - debate, and his effort should be acknowledged by all of us with an interest in a fairer world. Better - and perhaps radically different - ideas will follow; I'm particularly interested in how this book is received in poor countries, and what alternatives they propose.
So I'm mildly troubled by his insistence that we shouldn't criticise his ideas unless we have something better to replace them with; surely this is the sad cri de coeur of a jaded paradigm (contemporary Darwinists have been known to use this argument) rather than the first faltering steps into a brave new world?
The age of consent deserves to be widely read; if it is, it will be widely criticised, and Monbiot shouldn't feel any need to pre-empt such a reaction. After all, he is avowedly opposed to intellectual property.