Fair trade or socialism?

Ben Lewis reviews: George Monbiot, The age of consent Harper Collins, 2003, pp274, £15.99

This is the latest of a number of publications by the now famous Guardian columnist. George Monbiot's connection with and influence on the embryonic Respect coalition makes this book, which appears to signify a distinct shift to the left in the author's political thinking, worthy of study.

For communists seeking critical engagement with the proposed coalition, in order to exert as much pressure on its programme as possible, this book and its themes must be analysed.

In itself, the book is a good read, and Monbiot devotes much space to an examination of the impoverishment of the 'third world'; the role of the IMF and World Bank; and the globalised nature of nearly everything in today's society. He concludes, contrary to the opinion of localists, that the job of the movement is to "capture" globalisation, and harness its potential in order to provide for the good of humanity.

While for readers of the Weekly Worker this is an encouraging position, there is nevertheless much with which to take issue. It would be wrong to conclude that the ideas outlined in The age of consent have anything to do with Marxist analysis. The term 'class' is used fleetingly here and there in a way which strikes me as posing left, but there is no class analysis of society. The title of chapter four, "We the peoples", highlights this, echoing the vacuity of universal declarations of human rights and liberal platitudes.

Unsurprisingly, the word 'socialism' does not appear at all, and if one is still of the view that Monbiot is quite sympathetic to Marxism, one only need look at chapter two to be disabused of the notion. Marxism, it is claimed, is by its very nature distrustful of the "faceless" proletariat, requiring despotic leadership akin to "the guardian philosophers of Plato's dictatorships" (p 28).

So what are we dealing with? One of the main weaknesses of this book is that it is ideologically incoherent, with a variety of ideas cohabiting eclectically alongside each other. Monbiot's take on human nature is a classic example of this incoherence.

Apparently deep within our nature is a built-in mechanism that makes us greedy and violent, which means that no fundamental change to society - presumably not even the "metaphysical mutation" proposed by Monbiot himself - could ever "alter any of the basic human instincts which make us the flawed and dangerous creatures we are".

Faced with the insuperability of such negative characteristics, one could be forgiven for supposing that his "global justice movement" would be irreparably disfigured by the very nature of its human adherents. Monbiot admits that he "keeps returning" to anarchism, despite how much he "rejects it intellectually" (p 30). Yet this still is not helpful in defining the politics of The age of consent.

As the title implies, Monbiot is aware of the current democratic deficit - not only nationally, but worldwide. However, what he seems to propose is a lottery-funded world parliament which is there to "review" the decisions of the international institutions of western imperialism like the IMF. If these are found to be unjust and unfair, then this parliament and its supporters should exert their "moral authority" on these institutions in the hope that one day the most "equitable exchange" between nations in terms of commerce can be achieved (p 86). This is nothing more than utopian rhetoric for two reasons.

Firstly, although Monbiot is correct to highlight a democratic deficit, he seems to portray imperialism's carving up of the globe as a policy which can be turned on and off, given certain "moral" pressure, whereas of course the imperialistic expansion of capital is a self-perpetuating necessity.

Secondly, he would vainly seek to reverse the tendency of capital towards monopolistic domination, arguing that his proposed Fair Trade Organisation would not allow any company "to dominate the market" (p 233). Monbiot is lost in a maze of numerous solutions and methods, but time and time again finds himself back at the starting point - how to overcome the atrocities and injustices of the market.

This is where communists need to intervene to locate the emancipatory path of working class socialism. Rather confusingly, after giving us page after page of plans and ideas, George finally admits his failure. As elaborate and detailed as his ideas are, he finds himself forced to admit: "None of the measures proposed in this book are sufficient, however, to address a far bigger question, that of the world-eating and mathematically impossible system we call capitalism" (p 238).

I am not one for clichés, but it does seem as if Monbiot cannot really see the wood for the trees. He begins by rejecting the positive supersession of capitalism that only Marxism can provide, arguing instead that one must aim to bring about "fair trade" within capitalism - only then to return to the initial question and admit that he has not quite solved it. This circular argumentation does make the book rather confusing to read, but it is nonetheless interesting for anyone wishing to know more about the IMF and the World Bank, which Monbiot has taken a lot of time to analyse.

Indeed, Monbiot's analysis is in some ways superior to the economism often spewed out by the left. He rightly highlights the need for a global democratic alternative to the current system, rather than simply demanding the removal of this or that leader of imperialism, which will get the working class nowhere (eg, "Get out, Blair, and take your fees with you" Socialist Worker December 13). In terms of political conclusions, however, this book amounts to little.

The programme seems to point to a cross-class umbrella, under which two million demonstrators will gather to forge an electoral breakthrough. This is why we must be both sceptical and hopeful in our approach to the Respect coalition. Monbiot is, and probably would even admit, that he is on the turn politically. Moreover, he is quick to assert that his answers are not panaceas for the "movement" but hopes that they will "contribute to the debate". That is why we must be there with our Marxist politics, emphasising that socialism is the victory of democracy for the working class - in the workplace and at an international level of influence.

Linked to this is the struggle to reforge a working class, internationalist party as the only route to the alternative world for which Monbiot is unquestionably convinced of the objective need. We must reject the abstentionist leftism of the 'purists' who take one look at his utopianism (or the company kept by George Galloway) and would have us abandon the field before the battle has even begun. Only time will tell how things develop, but Marxist politics must be there.

Ben Lewis