We know what we don’t want, but what do we want?

Review of George Monbiot, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, London: Flamingo, 2003 (published in the US by The New Press, early 2004).

No doubt the times they’re a-changing when internal strategic debates of the ‘anti globalisation movement’ make it into mainstream publishing. According to Amazon “Naomi Klein’s No Logo told us what was wrong. Now George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent shows us how to put it right.” Its publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins sells Monbiot’s manifesto as “authoritative and persuasive de facto figurehead for the contrarian movements in the UK.” Environmental activist Monbiot is columnist for the Guardian and author of a bestseller about UK’s privatisation disasters. Thanks to Rupert’s distribution network The Age of Consent made it into a newsagent at Sydney airport where I purchased a copy.

The change George Monbiot has in mind falls nothing short of a ‘metaphysical mutation,’ a concept he took from Michel Houllebecq. Or rather an epistemological mutation, a revolutionary process somewhat similar to Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift.’ Monbiot sees a ‘global civil society’ emerging out of protest movements against the WTO, WEF and the G8 and counter summits such as the World Social Forum. He calls for these movements to seize the moment   “and become the catalyst for the new mutation.” It has been often said: global problems need global solutions, beyond the interaction between nations. Unlike critics of global corporations such as David Korten, Monbiot is not a ‘localizer’ who believes that self-sufficient small enterprises are the solution. Empire with its global corporations can only be matched with global democracy. For many of these activists there is no way back to the nation state. It is time to collectively dream up new global entities and construct them bottom up, from below. Small is Beautiful may be worthy but ultimately disadvantages the poor. It’s a waste of time to demand ‘global governance’ and wait till the current political class voluntarily implements such models.

Monbiot makes a case for democracy as the “least worst system.” And as there is nothing better, we may as well work within its premises. What activists often push aside is the question ‘who guards the guards.’ Inside movements, but also within Internet culture, Democracy is being preached but not practiced. This was a problem of the Left in the past and ‘accountability’ is again an issue in relation to NGOs that get invited to participate in global summits. But whom do they represent? Conservative astroturf campaigns such as www.ngowatch.org raise this issue—but there is no answer. The only things activists do is come with a conspiracy theory who is behind NGO Watch. Despite its own weak democratic tradition, Monbiot calls for a “global democratic revolution” that will push aside “hopeless realism.” Monbiot believes in the power of momentary happening or slightly more abstract ‘the event,’ as it is called in philosophical circles. He writes: “What is realistic is what happens. The moment we make it happen. It becomes realistic. A global democratic revolution is the only option we have. It is the only strategy which could deliver us from the global dictatorship of vested interests.” After the Age of Dissent “it is time to invoke the Age of Consent.”

Most part of the manifesto is dedicated to three proposed global institutions: a world parliament, an International Clearing Union and a Fair Trade Organization. The idea of a world parliament stems from the complaint that NGOs lack transparency and accountability. Monbiot believes that the ultimate solution for this would be a global forum that is a directly representative one. His world parliament would not be legislative body, at least not from the start, but would hold global players into account. At the same time we should get rid of the Security Council, where only five countries hold veto right and rethink the one nation one vote system of the UN General Assembly, as the pacific Island of Vanuatu now holds the same rights as India or China.

Despite my initial reservation about his News Corp affiliation, I got to admire Monbiot’s spirit. This manifesto is an example of brave, strategic thinking, free of the usual New Age mumbo jumbo that often accompanies ‘positive’ literature. Organized positivism has apparently moved away from dotcom business circles to the translocal messengers of hope. Monbiot’s rhetorical fire is yet another example how wrong the Blairist idea doctor Charles Leadbeater was in his Up the Down Escalator: Why the Global Pessimists are Wrong. Movements such as ATTAC operate like distributed think tanks that have taken up the task to design alternatives in global finance and trade. Today’s movements sense an urgency to materialize their own slogan “Another World is Possible.” Many have taken up this task, moved on, away from the apocalyptic protest mode in order to transform the energy of the growing movements onto other levels.

We no longer live in the dark eighties, Mr. Leadbeater. There may be mass outbreaks of depression, but these SARS-like epidemics are quickly treated with Prozac and Viagra. If we were to live in the Age of Pessimism who then is England’s Arthur Schopenhauer? Which contemporary thinker can match Emile Cioran’s dark state of mind, who wrote, “negation is the mind’s first freedom.” The problem is: there isn’t any. Leadbeater’s compulsory upbeat sales talk, which presents itself as a quasi-moderate, balanced view on matters, in fact is the present authoritarian voice of the State. His hypocrisy is lying in the denial of force, violence and the very existence of power. It’s an easy job to dump on last century’s utopias—and accuse your opponents of totalitarianism. What Leadbeater in fact celebrates is the Death of Ideas. Let the experts such as Leadbeater do the thinking for you. Leadbeater favors ‘innovation’ over radical transformation and promotes the petty normalcy of his freelance consultancy life as the solution to the world’s problems. He actually doesn’t understand it all. Aren’t we having a nice life? What are all these critics such as Monbiot complaining about?

The Age of Consent is not all that utopian or idealistic, even though many dismissed Monbiot’s proposals in such a way. His blueprint for a new world may as well be dismissed as too detailed, too pragmatic. Monbiot writes from an insider’s perspective of the ‘global justice movement.’ It is this explicit position that makes his proposals so appealing and potentially powerful. Finally there is someone who overcomes the quasi-neutrality that has made current affairs journalism so cold, cynical and deliberately out of the touch with the realm of ideas.

Monbiot’s manifesto should be read as an example of an emerging genre. The Age of Consent reminds one of non-academic socialist and anarchist pamphlets from before the first World War, when the question ‘what is to be done’ had an urgency—and the answers an impact on the course of events. You sense there is something at stake. What Monbiot shares with Negri and Hardt’s Empire is the belief in power of the ‘multitudes’ to constitute the world. Everything may have been commodified and integrated into the Spectacle—except the collective imagination. We can find traces of people’s sovereignty everywhere. The same can be said of inspirational tactical media groups that develop experimental software, interfaces and networks. ‘Germination’ may take a long time.1 Seeds may be on the soil for ages. Not that I agree with much of what George Monbiot is proposing, but that’s exactly the point. Certain texts open up spaces and imaginative possibilities—and that exactly the dangerous aspect of ideas and what makes those in power so suspicious about ideas that break the innovation barrier and aim at an overall metamorphosis of society.

After decades of rampant anti-intellectualism we find ourselves in a Golden Age of Ideas and Monbiot is very much part of this trend. Festivals of Ideas are popular as never before.2 Within this wave ideas are traded as the “currency of our information age.” 911, the economic recession, climate changes and the aggressive, unilateral policies of the Bush administration only accelerate this process. ‘Sticky’ ideas have gone beyond the j’accuse level and mobilize media users into a growing multiplicity of ‘smart mobs’ (Howard Rheingold). “Our opinions count for nothing until we act upon them,” Monbiot writes. But this is becoming less and less of a problem. People are willing to act and the anti-war movement of early 2003 has illustrated this unmistakably. Yet, movements increasingly operate outside of the ritualized political realm. There is no way old broadcast media can ‘cover’ their influence. In the network age ideas are carefully designed ‘memes’ that travel far out without losing their core meaning. No matter how hard ignorant newsrooms editors are trying, ideas cannot be turned in lies. Until recently they could be just be ignored and condemned as marginal, academic or irrelevant, but the present demand can no longer be denied. Ideas easily withstand misinterpretations caused sloppy research of journalists and evil-minded reviews of grumpy commentators. The main reason for this is that we live in the post-deconstruction age. It is no longer entertaining to take apart every single sentence or concept in order to place them in the history of ideas. Every ‘new’ idea can easily be disassembled into a range of old ideas. Media literacy has risen to such an extend that attractive ideas will reach its audience anyway. This mechanism is also showing an impact on the work of spin-doctors. The 2003 Iraqi War episode can be read in two ways, as a successful campaign to manipulate world opinion and as the end of spin. Already months before the war, millions refused to buy into the media hype and public anger only grew after the events. This is the problem of the Chomsky-style media=propaganda legacy that the ‘other globalisation’ movement still embraces. The issue is not the ‘truth’ that groups such as PR-Watch, GNN, Media Channel or Adbusters are revealing. The problem is that only few still ‘believe’ in the media. The enlightment work has already been done, and it is only cynicism and fear that fuels populism, not the fabricated ‘truth.’ Media spin itself has a due date.

It is not freedom of speech that matters so much. If you can say anything you like, outside of a lively social context, there is no threat, no matter what you have to say. It is the freedom of ideas that is truly subversive. Reading the reviews it is interesting to see how both old-school Marxists and free marketers dismiss Monbiot’s arguments without seriously engaging with his proposals. To portrayal capitalists from Mars and the Movement from Venus, as The Economist did, is a easy rhetorical trick that runs away from the very real global crisis in economic, ecological and political affairs. The recent breakdown of free trade talks in Cancun show that the WTO is at the brink of collapse—and that NGOs are playing a key role in this process. On the other hand, to accuse Monbiot as a Keynesian whose only wish it is to safe capitalism is another move that no longer makes sense and is obviously contrary to the message of the book. As Monbiot clearly writes: “The existing institutions cannot reform themselves. Their power relies upon the injustice of the arrangements which gave rise to them, and to tackle that injustice would be to accept their own dissolution.”

George Monbiot dares to think big and that’s what both old school Marxists and ruling neo-liberals don’t like about The Age of Consent. “Our task,” Monbiot writes, “is not to overthrow globalisation, but to capture it, and to use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution.” What’s on the agenda is nothing less than democracy at a global level. Both the traditional left and the neo-conservatives do not like to talk about “global governance,” as it is called in international relations. Whereas the left has over-identified itself to the nation state, neo-conservatives believe that it is the global business class’ sole right to define the terms of operation on a transnational level. Monbiot rightly points at the strategic opportunity for the ‘movement of movements’ to draw up models for a global democracy. No one will do that for us—unless you believe in the paranoid conspiracy theories of a World Government that is already in full control.

What if there are global parliamentary elections and no one goes out to vote? Monbiot goes out of the way to ask such questions. Voter turnout has been a problem, for instance for the European parliament, that, much like Monbiot’s parliament, lacks legitimacy and power. Democracy may be “the least-worst system,” if you compare to the nightmares of the twentieth century Marxism or the ‘anti-power’ model of Western anarchists. But that should not withhold a critic to look into the very real problems that representative democracy is facing. It would be useful if Monbiot would engage himself with the current democracy debate, as for instance voiced by the conservative Fareed Zakaria in his The Future of Freedom. For Zakaria more democracy is not always a good thing. He writes: “What we need in politics today is not more democracy but less.” Unlike what Monbiot suggests Zakaria is not stating this to defend global business elites. At least, that’s not the argument. There are plenty examples where elections brought dictators and fundamentalists into power. This problem cannot be overlooked. Global democracy should not be equalized with progress and justice. A world parliament could easily vote for a ‘war’ on homosexuality, call for a closure of the Internet etc. In fact, this is quite likely to happen. Libertarian pagans have most to fear for ‘world opinion.’
Instead of pushing for more empty institutions, Zakaria argues that a worldwide increase in ‘liberty’ that could strengthen an emerging global democratic culture. An extension and deepening of liberties, such as the freedom of press and the freedom of movement can counter policymaking that is dominated by short-term political and electoral considerations. This argument, in my view, is unrelated to the issue whether some people are “incapable of democracy.” In one way or another Western democracies also have to redefine their relationship towards the media spectacle. It is not enough argue for frequent online elections because that may only further increase the danger of populism. Nowhere Monbiot mentions such issues and one can only guess why. The ‘crisis’ of democracy is often linked to the media question. Another interesting confrontation would be between Monbiot’s global institutional designs and Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic model of democracy.

Like so many ‘other-globalists’ Monbiot’s understanding of media and technology issues is virtually zero. As a journalist Monbiot perhaps got a lot to say about media, but there is not a single trace of this to be found in The Age of Content. One can only ask: why? His personal website looks fine… It is remarkable that his blueprint does not contain a single reference to new media or network-related topics. Fair trade plus global democracy will do the job, so it seems. It is a curious reminiscent of old Marxism to think that today’s problems can be solved solely dealt with on the level of classic political economy, as if cultural differences, issues of race and gender, ethnic and religious wars can simply be ignored. Decades of Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, postmodernism, cultural studies and new media studies have so far failed to find their way into the Globalization Debate. The ‘ideology’ level, which includes the media realm, remains a secondary instance. Monbiot, and with him scores of other contemporary analysts, have either not yet made the ‘cultural turn’ or have mysteriously managed to surpass it. One could also blame those who have been seeking shelter in the postmodern (institutional) ghettos. It is time to understand that media is more than representation or ‘spectacle.’ Societies are deeply networked. There are no democracies; only media democracies. Monbiot’s viewpoint may be fine if you’re not an arts fan, but really becomes a problem if the entire trend towards immaterial labour , creative industries, the network society, the growing importance of knowledge as production factors—all controversial concepts—is being left out. In many respects it is still 1968 for many of today’s leading thinkers.

Having said that, there is lot to gain from The Age of Consent, for instance for those who are getting involved in the upcoming World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS). NGOs, new media activists and artists are still at the very beginning of formulating demands. The official talk goes barely beyond ‘universal access.’   Recent traumatic experiences with the ‘at-large membership’ participation within the “technical coordination body” ICANN, a private non-profit corporation, controlled by the US government, that is supposed to govern the global Internet domain name structure, have hardly been digested. The idea that “another Internet is possible,” one that is no longer exclusively ruled by the worthy white male engineering class, who protect their closed consensus culture, claiming to work for the common good, is still a long way off. On the other hand, no one wants to return to a model in which intergovernmental relations make all decisions. Proposals for alternative global governance of the new media sphere have yet to be made. It is even unclear who the stakeholders are and how national governments, telcos and ‘civil society’ (whoever that may be) might relate to each other. On the formal, political level WSIS may not have any outcome. As one amongst many summits WSIS will be crushed by the much larger multilateral crisis that affects all UN bodies. But that will not stop thousands fiercely debating the issues while searching for a ‘new network order’.

Reviews and related URLs of George Monbiot’s The Age of Consent:

Morag Fraser, Sydney Morning Herald

Peter Taaffe, The Socialist

Michael Meacher, The Guardian

Noel Rooney, nth position

Johann Hari, The Independent

Anonymous, The Economist

Radio interview by Doug Henwood with George Monbiot (July 10, 2003)

Transcript of ABC radio interview on global democracy (October 2001)

George Monbiot’s homepage

  1. See the debates on the Oekonux mailinglists about the ‘germanition’ of free software into a free society (www.oekonux.org) and the related chapter in my latest book My First Recession (V2_Publishers, 2003). []
  2. http://www.ideasatthepowerhouse.com.au (Brisbane), http://www.adelaidefestival.org.au/ideas/2003/index.asp(Adelaide). []