Monbiot Rejoinder 1

Dear Michael,

Many thanks for these questions and criticisms, and for the incomparable forum that Znet provides. I’m grateful to have the chance to discuss these ideas with you.

Let me start with the most difficult area first, the International Clearing Union. I don’t think it’s fair to expect the Union to deal with issues such as pricing and the internalisation of costs. These are the purposes, in the system I propose, of the Fair Trade Organisation. The FTO establishes and enforces the RULES governing trade between nations. The ICU seeks to establish a BALANCE of trade between nations. .

But it is worth pointing out that, in a fair system, the FTO would be set up before the ICU. The idea would be that the poorer nations – with their comparative advantages in labour, raw materials and (for agricultural trade) sunlight and land prices – would be permitted to use these advantages to sustain a trade surplus against the richer nations, until such time as a global economic levelling had taken place. In other words, we use the global trading system, which, as you point out, was set up to concentrate wealth, to distribute wealth. Throughout The Age of Consent, I have sought to mobilise existing resources, and to distort or invert them in order to achieve the outcomes we desire. The global trading system is one example.

It is only once this distribution has taken place that the ICU kicks in, preventing any one nation from establishing permanent advantage over any other, and preventing the institutionalisation of debt.

Perhaps I do myself an injustice by questioning whether this is, as you claim, a “profoundly anti-capitalist” solution. Again, I am seeking to recruit the system we contest – in this case capitalism, albeit in a modified form – to change the way the world works. The reason I take this route is that we have to start from where we are, rather than from where we would like to be, and we have to use the opportunities the world offers right now, rather than those we would like it to offer. The idea is that by twisting the system, we can create the preconditions for a different one. But that different one cannot be born until those preconditions exist.

But you are right to suggest that those who run the world today would fight this system, though not necessarily to the death. Their problem is the fact that these measures are global. The measures rely, of course, upon unprecedented solidarity among the poor nations (of which more in a moment), but if for the moment we can assume that this solidarity exists, then the new system becomes very hard to contest. One of the lessons of the invasion of Iraq is that even the superpower is extremely reluctant to enter battle on more than one front. Before the war began, Bush and Rumsfeld had made it clear that they wanted to attack up to 40 or 50 “rogue states”. They quickly discovered that one was quite enough. The global dictatorship can attack individual states, and knock out any number of isolated and weak communities. It cannot wage war on scores of states at once. Solidarity is, has always been, and always will be the only political option the developing world has. The most positive development we’ve seen in years was the formation of the G21 at Cancun.

This is one of the reasons why I think, apparently perversely, that such gains “would be easier to win posed for the whole world, than posed for particular specific economies”.  You are right to suggest that “gains made internationally can be undone by persistent domestic relations”, but I would argue that the realities of globalisation are such that the domestic relations take place, by and large, in the context of international relations, not vice versa. This is the case even in the United States, which is now wholly dependent on capital from the Far East. If China chose to turn off the taps, the US economy would go belly up. Suddenly, we see the emergence of real power in parts of the developing world.

But who is China? “Who”, as you so rightly ask, “are the poor nations?” In the context of the international relations I have mentioned so far, they are the states, and a corrupt, unrepresentative bunch of thugs and thieves they, for the most part, are. As you say, the governing elites of the poor world gain as much from the poverty of their people as the governing elites of the rich world do. But we are learning that this needn’t be so. The recent Bolivian revolution was an example of a grassroots political uprising which could happen in most of the nations of the developing world. It very nearly happened even in China, godammit, in 1989, and the revolutionary potential in that country remains enormous.

What I would argue, in other words, is that an agenda which relies upon seizing political power in order to force economic change is far more likely to succeed than an agenda which relies upon seizing economic power in order to force political change. As a movement, we possess vast political resources, but paltry economic resources. Politics is where our strength lies.
But not all the relations I am discussing in my proposals are international; some are global. In other words (and we should begin to use these terms with care), not all relations take place between nation states; some take place between peoples, regardless of the states they happen to inhabit, and on this question we are of one mind. I agree with you entirely, and have proposed as much in the book, that the world parliament should have no direct connection with nation states; that it should arise from evenly-sized global constituencies unconstrained by national borders.

I am attracted to your proposal for delegated voting, but not persuaded by it. The problem we have at the global level, and indeed at any level above that of the local community, is the diffusion of accountability. If constituencies are to be so small that every citizen has repeated direct contact with her representative (the representative ideal) and yet the political unit is large, then we are faced with one of two undesirable outcomes: either a gross horizontal diffusion of accountability, caused by the vast number of elected representatives, or a gross vertical diffusion of accountability, caused by the upwards delegation of powers from committee to committee to committee.

In the first case, we elect so many global representatives that the parliament becomes incapable of making decisions, and every representative can deny responsibility for the results. In the second case, the system succumbs to the problem of photocopy democracy: every time responsibility passes up the political chain, the public mandate becomes greyer and harder to read, until it is indecipherable. Already, even with fewer links in the chain, we see this happening at the international level: people elect their members of parliament, who grant a mandate to the government, which appoints an ambassador, who represents the “national interest” at the United Nations. By then the “national interest” has become the interest of those who give the ambassador his instructions: the demands of the electorate are not transmitted.

It seems to me that the only possible answer to this problem is to create a less-than-ideal model of representative democracy, and to temper it with participatory democracy. In other words, to propose the direct election of a comparatively small number of global representatives (600?, 1000?) by large constituencies, but to subject those representatives to far more rigorous and intrusive forms of accountability than any we now see in large representative democracies: regular consultas and referendums and votes of confidence.

This is, of course, a far from perfect system, but again, I would argue, less imperfect than any of the alternatives. There is no simple solution to the problem of scale, but unless we engage with it, we permit this problem to be solved by our opponents.



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