The Age of Consent - George Monbiot

Monbiot, best known to the reading public for his campaigns against global warming, was aiming well beyond “green issues” with this 2003 projected manifesto for the future of the planet. His objective with the book was nothing if not audacious. Plenty of tomes have taken square and sound aim at the neo-liberal tyranny of the first world over the third, and corporations over communities, but few in recent years have attempted not just a dramatic casting aside of “hopeless realism”, but a whole-scale blueprint for the democratisation of the modern world.

The book’s central thesis is simple, “everything has been globalised but our consent”. What Monbiot describes as a “mutation” in society has taken place with globalisation, a species-wide drawing together which cannot be reversed. But the mutation is only half-developed, and growing in all the wrong places. While ancient barriers are eroded for corporations and capital, the old walls of the nation state stand as strong as ever for the majority, in the worst of ways. Meanwhile the world’s richest governments preach free trade while imposing obscenely artificial restrictions on the development of their poorer counterparts via the malicious machinations of the IMF, WTO, World Bank and the UN Security Council. It is time, Monbiot argues, for globalisation to apply to democratic structures, not just economic ones. Time therefore for the mutation to continue, for the benefit of all, not just the few.

Many authors, Chomsky in particular, have documented at length the hypocritical chimeras of “free” trade and market, that almost every major industrialised nation rose via systemised protectionism, while most under-developed nations were held back by the empires of the former. Where Monbiot is novel here is his specific remedy. He proposes that the major mechanisms of world interaction, so grotesquely skewed at present, are levelled. In short this means a World Parliament proportionate to population size (with 600 members representing ten million people each), and a Fair Trade Organisation and International Clearing Union tilting the trade balance in favour of developing nations (clearing away once and for all the iniquities of the Bretton Woods system). In a movement awash with amorphous good intentions, such concrete proposals are both surprising and challenging.

Monbiot argues with a refreshing clarity, slicing away jargon to get to the guts of the issues. And the model he describes is certainly persuasive, unarguable at times. Its biggest flaw, the gnat in the ointment and the great bane of all radicals from Watt Tyler to Hugo Chavez, is the means of its implementation. The mutation he describes here is not a mere reform, and while perfectly reasonable to most, it is so radically against the current interests of our current governments that it has no choice whatsoever of being implemented from G8 leaders. Just look at the piecemeal reforms of Gleneagles, which wouldn’t even qualify as half-measures ( tenth-measures perhaps.)

Monbiot advocates starting the skeleton structures of the future frameworks unilaterally, claiming shadows of them already exist in such forms as the World Social Forum. He argues their existence would act as a powerful political beacon to the rest of the world, and where moral authority stands legislative authority can one day ensue. Monbiot is undoubtedly on his weakest ground with the hazy optimism here. Mao may have been a monster, but his dictum that political power grows from the power of a gun hovers like Banquo’s ghost over the text. George is clearly right in his diagnosis. How such a medicine could be administered –or rather how such a regime could be enforced - is a dramatically different matter.

Such is the obvious weakness of The Age of Consent, but its strength is equally apparent. The sheer simplicity, directness and starkness of the book has provided a much needed force for impetus and direction in the notoriously ill-focussed and diffuse global justice movement, as well as a short sharp corrective to the stasis, confusion and apathy among the same campaigners.

As Monbiot states:- “The political classes from which most governing parties are drawn have no interest in this revolution. The shift in other words depends not on an amorphous them, but on a specific you. Well? What are you waiting for?”

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2007]