Review: George Monbiot’s Utopia – Capitalism Unchallenged

PETER TAAFFE, general secretary of the Socialist Party, reviews The Age of Consent – A Manifesto for a New World Order. The book is written by George Monbiot, a prominent spokesperson of what he calls “the global justice movement”.

Many, particularly young people, in the massively expanded ‘anti-capitalist movement’ have looked towards Monbiot’s books and articles for analysis and information to be used in the struggle against the present cruel and despotic system which keeps the majority of humankind in deprivation and poverty.

He has now gone a step further and produced A Manifesto for a New World Order, which he claims is a programmatic alternative. Has he succeeded? Unfortunately not!

While full of useful and interesting examples of the inequality and crimes of capitalism, this book, in its proposals, does not go beyond the present ‘world order’, capitalism. Some of his proposals border on the surreal, such as the suggestion for a ‘World Parliament’ of 600 representatives, with each one representing ten million people!

British MPs usually hold a weekly ‘surgery’ (consultation) for their constituents. It is mind boggling to envisage a similar consultation by a ‘world MP’ with the people they represent! Yet this proposal is the central feature of Monbiot’s new world. He suggests, moreover, that the cost of a world parliament – put at $5 billion to organise elections – could be met, in part at least, by a ‘World Lottery’.

The main deficiency of Monbiot’s ‘manifesto’ is not just the schematic, utopian proposals like this, but the fact that, as is made clear throughout the book, he does not go beyond the framework of capitalism – of which he has an imperfect understanding. In the unlikely event that his programme was implemented, this would still not seriously challenge this system.

Searing critique

LIKE MONBIOT’S previous contributions, it is in parts a searing critique of world capitalism and its institutions, like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations, etc. He shows in detail the futility of imagining that serious ‘reforms’ of these institutions are possible, as others in the anti-capitalist movement have suggested.

The World Bank and IMF, for instance, “are run on the principle of one dollar one vote”. To amend a resolution from the rich countries like the US or Britain requires an 85% majority.

The World Trade Organisation appears more democratic: every member nation has one vote. But in reality, its principal decisions have already been made in the ‘green room’ negotiations, convened and controlled by the European Union, US, Canada and Japan.

This perpetuates a system where almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day; one fifth on less than $1. Despite a global surplus of food, 84 million people are officially classified as malnourished, as they lack the money required to buy food. 100 million children are denied primary education.

The polarisation of wealth means that the ten richest people on earth possessed “in 2002 a combined wealth of $266 billion. This is five times the annual flow of aid from the rich nations to the poor ones, and roughly sufficient to pay for all United Nations’ millennium health goals… between now and 2015.”

The plundering of the neo-colonial world is graphically illustrated: “Were the indigenous people of Latin America to charge compound interest [for the wealth sucked out over centuries]… Europe would owe them a volume of gold and silver which exceeded the weight of the planet.”

With the fresh lessons of what happened over the colonial war of conquest in Iraq, Monbiot correctly comments: “The problem with the [1945] post-war settlement [which set up the UN] is that those with the might decide what is right.” Since 1945 “the United States has launched over 200 armed operations… to further its own political or economic interests” in violation of “every principle the United Nations was established to defend.”

Simplistic criticisms

ALL OF this and many other devastating details indicting capitalism are effectively recounted. It is in Monbiot’s ‘alternative’ that the problems arise. He honestly admits that his previous political position, anarchism, is incapable of providing a solution and makes valuable points in criticising these ideas.

On the other hand, he dismisses the alternative represented by Karl Marx and by Marxism and socialism. Rejecting the idea that Stalinism, for instance, “corrupted Marx’s ideology” he argues that the “hazards of Marx’s political programme” are rooted in the Communist Manifesto which contains “all the oppressions which are later visited on the peoples of the Communist nations”.

The Communist Manifesto is “staggeringly simplistic” because Marx argued that the middle class – peasants, shop keepers – were destined to finally disappear. The author who sucks out of his thumb the proposal for a ‘world parliament’ criticises Marx for being “simplistic”.

There is nothing new in Monbiot’s criticisms. The Communist Manifesto was written 155 years ago, and in outlining the materialist conception of history, a general outline of the workings of capitalism and the need for socialism as an alternative, it anticipated the development of world history.

On the other hand, its programme is bound to be outdated in many respects. But the general tendencies inherent in capitalism are brilliantly analysed by Marx and Friedrich Engels.

For instance, on the ‘liquidation’ of the intermediate classes and their dissolution into the ranks of the working class, it could be argued that Marx and Engels were too bald and ‘unilateral’ in the 19th century, even for the 1930s when a sizeable middle class, particularly the peasantry, existed in Europe.

But how is it possible to dispute this broad generalisation today, with sections of the middle class driven more and more into the ranks of the working class? George Monbiot himself provides figures to show the decline of the rural middle class, the peasants and farmers: “In the US, 3.28 million or 2.4% of the working population of the 135 million are employed in farming or related trades. In the European Union, the figure is 6.63 million, or 4.1% of the workforce of 162 million.”

The working class, as Marx anticipated, is now the overwhelming majority in Europe, Japan, the USA, and has a dominant social influence even in the neo-colonial world.

Monbiot makes the absurd claim that Marx, “By personalising oppression as ‘the bourgeoisie’ he introduced the justification for numberless atrocities.” Marx did not ‘personalise’, but described the role of the ‘bourgeoisie’ (capitalists) as a class, the ruling class, in capitalist society. The ideas of Stalinism and Maoism, contrary to what Monbiot claims, were a perversion of Marx’s ideas of democracy, specifically workers’ democracy.

For Marx this was indissolubly bound up with the idea of socialism. It was Marx, on the basis of the Paris Commune, who formulated the democratic demands which allowed the Marxists in Russia, the Bolsheviks, after they had taken power in 1917, to establish the most democratic state in history with power vested in workers’ and peasants’ councils.

Globalisation democratised?

MONBIOT, ON the other hand, cannot bring himself to describe the capitalists as ‘capitalists’, but as “institutional power”. He also admits: “None of the measures proposed in this book are sufficient… to address [the] question, that of the curtailment of the world-beating and mathematically impossible system we call capitalism, and its replacement with a benign and viable means of economic exchange.”

True, he calls for ‘revolution’, novelly described as “something snaps”. He suggests even that an “insurrection” may be necessary, and even a general strike is dragged in as part of his argument, but all of this is situated in the context of proposals which amount, at most, to a ‘political revolution’, within the framework of capitalism.

Monbiot delivers a searing indictment of the gap between rich and poor, between the rich countries and the poor, who are falling further and further behind, but does not propose a serious alternative. The only option before the movement, George Monbiot argues, is to ‘democratise globalisation’.

He spends some time criticising those who want to ‘reverse globalisation’, who advocate ‘localism’ (action on a national level), and counterposes to this a financial device, a world ‘Clearing Union’ which would alter the relationship between the rich countries and the poor countries by shifting resources from the former to the latter. The mechanism to achieve this is the ‘blackmailing’ of the rich world by the poor acting in concert to effect a fundamental change.

Monbiot quite wrongly claims that “the financial system is built on a fantasy”. On the contrary, finance capital is an organic extension of capitalism itself, and of imperialism in particular. It is a mechanism for extracting the maximum surplus, profits, from the labour of the working class from all corners of the globe.

It cannot be wished away without changing society, overthrowing capitalism. Monbiot, on the other hand, believes that the ‘poor world’ merely has to stand together to compel the ‘rich world’ to capitulate. He argues: “We can expect the governments of the rich world to threaten every kind of retribution, but they will be able to enact such punishment only if the poor world is divided.”

He seems to ignore the fact that the ‘poor world’ is already divided along class lines, as is the ‘rich world’. As much as the landlords and capitalists in the neo-colonial world will complain about the role of ‘imperialism’ in exploiting their societies, they are part of this process.

They fulfil the role of a transmission belt for the super-exploitation of the mass of the people in their countries. He himself even gives examples of how the representatives of the ‘poor world’ capitulate – for instance, on the votes in the UN on the Gulf war in 1991 – to the US under instructions from their own governments made up, in the main, of the privileged groups in these societies.

The idea, therefore, that an unorganised, inchoate movement of the ‘poor’ can defeat the rich countries – this against the background, by the way, of the devastating war of colonial conquest of Iraq by the US and Britain – in a spontaneous or semi-spontaneous manner, is ‘pure fantasy’.

The same applies to George Monbiot’s proposals for the ‘nation states’ to be just ignored and swept away. His ideal of a ‘World Parliament’ envisages that the 600 representatives be elected in ‘constituencies’ which cut across nations and national boundaries.

How are national capitalists, for instance in Europe, expected to react as their national states are dismantled? Roll over and play dead? On the contrary, they will fight with all the means at their disposal to retain their power and will win against the spontaneous or semi-spontaneous movement, as history demonstrates.

Despite his attacks on ‘Marxism’, and particularly the genuine democratic Marxism in the form of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, the only successful workers’ revolution in history was led by them. This in turn presupposed the existence of a guiding organisation for the working class, that is, a party.

Undoubtedly, the productive forces – the organisation of labour, science, technology, the factories and workplaces – have enormously outgrown the nation state, and even individual continents now. The giant ‘transnationals’ (in reality, mostly nationally-based ‘multinationals’) are organised on a world scale. Monbiot wishes to control and ‘democratise’ these giant corporations: “In principle, a corporation is simply a means of exchanging goods and services for money, a vehicle which carries wealth to and from the bank.”

But the essence of the capitalist system is that it is production for profit, not social need. It can no more be ‘planned’ or ‘reformed’ out of existence than a tiger’s claws can be taken out ‘peacefully’.

The capitalists, as Monbiot implicitly admits, will fight against all attempts at an encroachment on their power and their profits. He argues that through his programme these “corporations are slowly turned into our slaves”. As a result: “We transform the ethics of global trade: only the nice guys survive.”

In other words, a ‘nice, tame’ capitalism is Monbiot’s goal. However, to achieve this, as he himself says in another context, is like trying to get the world to take a different orbit.

Worldwide alternative

THIS BOOK represents a retreat on the part of Monbiot and other literary leading lights in the anti-capitalist movement. They have come up against the accusation that they have ‘no alternative’ from capitalist ideologists, and the result is this ‘manifesto’ which does not go beyond the framework of capitalism, that could not even be described as consistently ‘anti-capitalist’.

The author ties himself into all kinds of contradictory positions because he is not prepared to pose squarely the real alternative to capitalism, socialism. He therefore proposes schemas which are unworkable. Even in the unlikely event that they came into being – the world parliament again – they would be completely outside of the control of the peoples of the world.

There is, however, an objective reason why he poses things in the way that he does, in seeking a world solution. It is because now, through capitalist globalisation, much more than Marx even envisaged, the world is bound together in one interdependent whole. Hence his ‘internationalism’, which is the coming together of all ‘fair-minded’ people for an unspecified ‘better world’.

But real internationalism is only possible through the working class which, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, has “no fatherland”. What Marx meant by that is that, for the first time in history, a class was organised which transcends national boundaries and fused together through the development of capitalism, on a world scale.

It is able to act as a world force. The nation state cannot be abolished under capitalism. A successful working-class movement could, however, sweep away national boundaries and liberate the productive forces to the economic benefit of the peoples of the world.

Taking power, first of all on a national scale, then uniting in a confederation, democratic and socialist, for instance in Europe, and then linking up with workers’ movements to establish a world socialist confederation, such a goal could be realised.

George Monbiot cannot pose things in this way because he has no understanding or faith in the ability of working-class people, through the creation of mass parties, to fight for socialism and establish a new world. Only then would it be possible to plan the resources of the planet.

It is not books like George Monbiot’s that open up the key for a better future for humankind, but those like Pete Dickenson’s Planning Green Growth and the recently published Socialist Party book Socialism in the 21st Century, written by Hannah Sell, which sketches out the merits and the possibility of socialist democratic planning and the need for socialism in Britain and worldwide.

Socialist Books – Buy Online

  • The Age of Consent, a Manifesto for a New World Order by George Monbiot, published by Flamingo. £16.99, hardback.
  • Socialism in the 21st Century by Hannah Sell £5.00, paperback.
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels £3.99
  • Planning Green Growth by Pete Dickenson. A socialist contribution to the debate on environmental sustainability £3.00

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