Recipe for austerity

George Monbiot's The Age of Consent is a caveman's manifesto.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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George Monbiot is a repulsive troublemaker. How do we know? Because those are the words that Monbiot, Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner, proudly uses to describe himself.

The Age of Consent, Monbiot’s new book on democratising the world order, starts with what he calls ‘some repulsive proposals’ – including an elected world parliament, a democratised UN general assembly, an International Clearing Union, and a Fair Trade Organisation. Monbiot also frequently refers to himself as a ‘troublemaker’ in his campaigning work.

This immediately raises a problem in examining Monbiot’s work. He often means the opposite of what he says. So when he says his proposals are ‘repulsive’, he really means that those he regards as right-thinking people are likely to find them attractive. And when he talks about making trouble, he really means campaigning to bring order to what he sees as an out-of-control world.

To work out what Monbiot is really saying, it is best to examine The Age of Consent from the back forwards – because it is towards the end of the book that his underlying assumptions and goals are stated explicitly. Once these are understood, it becomes clear that Monbiot’s concern is not democracy – at least not in the orthodox sense of government by the people – but rather restraining economic growth. What Monbiot means by ‘democracy’ is using international institutions to curb the growth of consumption.

Monbiot makes it clear that his ultimate goal is ‘the curtailment of the world-eating and mathematically impossible system we call capitalism, and its replacement with a benign and viable means of economic exchange’. His starting point is the simplistic assumption that there is a finite amount of resources in the world. From this he draws the conclusion that it is necessary for humanity, and particularly the richer world, to restrict consumption.

It is in this sense that Monbiot is opposed to inequality. Unlike a classical socialist view, he does not believe that the mass of society should be able to enjoy all the benefits of economic development. On the contrary, his proposals are designed to create what he calls a ‘levelling’ effect, in which everyone’s consumption is curtailed. This is a kind of caveman equality, in which everyone suffers equal misery.

This objective is clear in his proposal to replace the World Trade Organisation with a Fair Trade Organisation – a proposal presented as a radical alternative to the idea of ‘localisation’ favoured by some in the ‘Global Justice Movement’, which holds that international trade should be kept to a minimum. But a closer look at Monbiot’s proposal shows it is even more conservative than localisation. Under his regime, ‘fair trade’ would not be voluntary but would be based on mandatory and universal standards set by the Fair Trade Organisation. In practice, such a system would make it even harder for poorer countries to compete with richer nations, as the wealthy can more easily conform to such standards.

To make matters worse Monbiot suggests that companies would be forced to pay for the ‘full price’ of the resources they use. ‘If natural resources were valued according to the cost of their loss to other people’, he writes, ‘the trade in salad vegetables from the Samburu’s land in Kenya would immediately become prohibitively expensive, as the water stolen from them is invaluable, and the damage inflicted upon the climate by the necessary airfreight is out of all proportion to any value delivered to consumers in Britain’.

Such a move would simply deprive Kenya of the valuable revenue it can get from exporting to the West. Monbiot’s argument is also based on strange assumptions such as his idea that water is ‘invaluable’. The possibility of developing a modern water grid so that everyone in Kenya can have access to plentiful water doesn’t even occur to him.

A similar problem underlies his proposal for an International Clearing Union (ICU). While the Fair Trade Organisation would impose rules on trade, the ICU would control the level of trade. So any country that ran a substantial trade deficit would have to pay punitive interest rates on any money it borrowed. As Monbiot recognises, such a system would lead to a significant reduction in international trade: ‘One of the implications of this is that nations will need to trade less in order to stay afloat.’ Such a system would do nothing for the world’s poorest countries, which are in desperate need of economic development. And countries that are trying to bolster their exports in order to develop, like China, would certainly suffer as a result.

Monbiot is not a true democrat. His proposals would mean restricting the development of the poorer part of the world through the use of global institutions. The fact that the richer countries would also suffer as a result of such proposals should be no consolation. He may refer to capturing globalisation and a ‘global democratic revolution’, but what he really favours is using global institutions to curb the economic development of sovereign nation states.

So it should come as no surprise that Monbiot’s proposal for an elected world assembly is also highly conditional. For a start, he says that its implementation would have to wait until his other proposals were in force. And he proposes that unelected bodies should have a huge influence over how world assembly is elected. He suggests that organisations like Democratic Audit in Britain and the Centre for Business and Policy Studies in Sweden should devise a weighted voting system for countries according to how democratic they are.

The Age of Consent is in fact a recipe for austerity. It is an authoritarian document posing as an exercise in global democracy. Monbiot’s proposals are truly repulsive.

Daniel Ben-Ami is the author of Cowardly Capitalism: The Myth of the Global Financial Casino, John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also a contributor to Cultural Difference, Media Memories: Anglo-American Images of Japan, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Buy George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent: A Manifesto For A New World from Amazon (UK)

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