New Internationalist

Reclaiming globalization

Issue 358

Our task is not to overthrow globalization but to capture it. That’s the only way we can bring democracy to the structures of global governance, says George Monbiot.

All democratic movements encounter at some point in their development a fundamental conflict. They become torn between the need to remain inclusive enough not to alienate sections of their membership and the recognition that to be politically effective they must concentrate on a single set of policies and pursue them with ruthless determination.

The movement to which most of the readers of this magazine would consider themselves to belong, the movement which remains so beautifully diverse that we cannot even agree on its name, appears destined soon to bump up against this intractable reality. This movement (let us call it for the purposes of this article the ‘global justice movement’) in which Marxists, anarchists, statists, liberals, libertarians, Greens, conservatives, revolutionaries, reactionaries, animists, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims have found a home, has buried its differences to fight its common enemies. Those differences will re-emerge when it seeks to coalesce around a common set of solutions.

We have so far avoided this conflict by permitting ourselves to believe that we can pursue simultaneously hundreds of global proposals without dispersing our power. Almost everyone, among them writers whom I greatly admire, appears to agree that we can confront the consolidated power of our opponents with a jumble of contradictory ideas. We can pursue, Susan George believes, ‘thousands of alternatives’ or, as the Zapatistas and now author Paul Kingsnorth would have it, ‘one no, and many yeses’. But, and I am genuinely sorry to say this, we deceive ourselves if we believe that we can change the world by this means.

Of course we should seek to change our domestic political circumstances and draw support from other communities in doing so. But, as the entire movement implicitly acknowledges, thinking globally and acting locally is not enough.

If we propose solutions which can be effected only at the local or the national level we remove ourselves from any meaningful role in solving precisely those problems which most concern us. Issues such as climate change, international debt, nuclear proliferation, war, peace and the balance of trade between nations can be addressed only globally or internationally. Without global measures and global institutions it is impossible to see how we might distribute wealth from rich nations to poor ones, tax the mobile rich and their even-more-mobile money, control the shipment of toxic waste, sustain the ban on landmines, prevent the use of nuclear weapons, broker peace between nations or prevent powerful states from forcing weaker ones to trade on their terms. If we were to work only at the local level we would leave these, the most critical of issues, for other people to tackle.

Global governance will take place whether we participate in it or not. Indeed, it must take place if the issues which concern us are not to be resolved by the brute force of the powerful. That the international institutions have been designed or captured by a dictatorship of vested interests is not an argument against the existence of international institutions, but an argument for overthrowing them and replacing them with our own. It is an argument for a global political system which holds power to account.

By rebuilding global politics, we establish the political space in which our local alternatives can flourish. If, by contrast, we leave the governance of the necessary global institutions to others, then those institutions will pick off both our local and our national solutions one by one. There is little point in devising an alternative national economic policy – as Brazil’s president, Lula, once advocated – if the International Monetary Fund and the financial speculators have not first been overthrown. There is little point in fighting to protect a coral reef from local pollution if nothing has been done to prevent climate change from destroying the conditions it requires for its survival.

Few members of this movement would dispute these basic political realities. The conflict begins when we seek to decide what democratic global governance would look like. To claim that, at the global level, we can pursue ‘thousands of alternatives’ and remain an effective political movement is to succumb both to wishful thinking and to the familiar political solipsism: placing the importance of a movement ahead of the importance of the issues it contests. We have many reasons to fear the search for common solutions and the furious disputes and recriminations which are bound to accompany it. But we have one overwhelming reason to fear our failure to pursue them: unless we do so we will never present a mortal threat to the existing world order. To destroy it we need first to agree upon the structures with which we wish to replace it.

I have sought to lay out some of the characteristics of what I believe would be a just and democratic world order. I have not tried to be original. Where effective solutions have already been devised I have adopted them – though in most cases I have felt the need to revise and develop the argument. But where the existing proposals appear to me to be inadequate I have had to contrive new approaches.

I have tried to devise what I hope is a coherent, self-reinforcing system, all of whose elements – political and economic – defend and enhance the others.

I have not tried to suggest anything resembling a final or definitive world order. On the contrary I hope that other people will refine, transform and if necessary overthrow my proposals in favour of better ones. I have sought to design a system which permits, indeed encourages, its own improvement – and which mobilizes the collective genius unleashed whenever freely thinking people discuss an issue without constraint. And these proposals are of course a means to an end. If they fail to deliver global justice they must be torn down and trampled like so many failed proposals before them. But I hope that if it does nothing else this manifesto will help to accelerate the necessary debates.

Very briefly I have suggested the following transformations:

  • A world parliament with two chambers. The first is directly elected by the world’s people. It possesses in its formative stages only moral authority, but its future evolution will depend on the will of its electors. The second consists of a democratized United Nations General Assembly whose members’ votes are weighted according to the size of their populations and their position on a global democracy index.
  • The scrapping of the UN Security Council and the transfer of its powers to the democratized General Assembly.
  • The closure of the IMF and the World Bank and their replacement with an International Clearing Union of the kind first proposed by John Maynard Keynes which automatically discharges trade deficits and prevents the accumulation of debt.
  • A global trade regime which permits poor nations but not rich ones to protect their infant industries, and subjects companies trading between nations to mandatory fair-trade laws.

Such proposals are pointless unless we have a means of implementing them against the resistance of the world’s most powerful governments and corporations. So I have also proposed some cruel and unusual methods of destroying their resistance. Foremost among these is the poor world’s recognition of the power of the weapon it has been handed by the rich world: its debt. Poor nations, though their governments have yet to recognize the implications, effectively own the rich world’s banks. I have proposed that the ‘conditionalities’ applied to the poor nations by the rich world’s financial institutions be reversed: the indebted nations begin to impose conditions on the rich world which must be met if they are not to launch a collective default. These conditions would include the democratization of the structures of global governance which currently shut them out. Of course this won’t happen until the citizens of those nations demand – with the energy and persistence with which they have campaigned against the World Bank and the IMF – that their governments pursue such a strategy.

But internationalism surely means interaction between nations. Globalization means interaction beyond nations

Implicit in all these demands is the recognition which has slowly begun to seep through our movement that globalization itself is not so much of a problem as an opportunity. There even appears to be a case for reclaiming the term itself. Like many others I have in the past lazily used ‘globalization’ as shorthand for the problems we contest and ‘internationalism’ as shorthand for the way in which we need to contest them. While globalization has come to mean capital’s escape from national controls, internationalism has come to mean unified action by citizens whose class interests transcend national borders.

But internationalism surely means interaction between nations. Globalization means interaction beyond nations, unmediated by the state. For example, the powers of the United Nations General Assembly are delegated by nation-states, so the only citizens’ concerns it considers are those the nation-states – however repressive, unaccountable or unrepresentative they may be – are prepared to discuss. The nation-state acts as a barrier between us and the body charged with resolving many of the problems affecting us. The UN’s problem is that global politics have been captured by nation-states; that globalization, in other words, has been forced to give way to internationalism.

The problem is not globalization but the release from globalization which both economic agents and nation-states have been able to negotiate. They have been able to operate so freely because the people of the world have no global means of restraining them. Our task is surely not to overthrow globalization, but to capture and use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution.

Ultimately, I don’t greatly care whether the movement as a whole adopts an agenda resembling the one I have proposed, or something quite different. What is important is that we adopt an agenda: not thousands of agendas, just one. As soon as we attempt to do so we will start to discover just how fragile our unity is. We may even start to fight each other with the determination with which we have previously fought our common enemies. But this is the fire through which we must walk if we are to transform our movement from an oppositional restraint upon the rulers of the world into an irresistible force for change.

George Monbiot expands these arguments in his new book, The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order (Flamingo, 2003).

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