Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> review of George Monbiot - The Age of Consent
geert lovink on Tue, 30 Sep 2003 07:24:55 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> review of George Monbiot - The Age of Consent

Do we know what 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

By Geert Lovink

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. 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

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 the 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. 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. 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

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

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 a lot to gain from The Age of Consent, for
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


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

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net