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Imagine...

Published in the Financial Times, August 23 2003.

Book review: The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, by George Monbiot. Flamingo 2003 : £15.99 : 274pp.

Instead of the Age of Coercion, we should have the Age of Consent. Here is a manifesto which aims to demonstrate that the peoples of the world are the victims of coercion, and that they could, if only they tried, learn to live by consent. This book has rightly attracted attention, and raised issues that have long been neglected or deliberately buried.

Of course any prevailing culture can be seen as coercive. With the collapse, or at least discrediting of communism, the dominant ideology is market capitalism in various forms, and the top country, with military expenditures almost bigger than those of the rest of the world put together, is the United States. This ideology has evolved and mutated - like any other meme - since the beginning of the industrial revolution some 250 years ago. It has proved amazingly attractive as well as corrosive of other ideologies. Not surprisingly the industrial countries have set up a world order which corresponds to their interests, political, economic, and social. It coincides with a growing impact on the world's resources, both physical and human, which has caused some geologists to label our current epoch the Anthropocene.

The author's analysis of our problems may seem radical, but in some ways it does not go far enough. The problems are not just about lack of democracy, inequity, and wrong headed institutions, but about fundamental attitudes towards the natural world and the human place in it, including our measurement of wealth and well being. Thinking differently may be necessary, but it could lead to new forms of coercion which might be no more attractive than those we are familiar with. Monbiot engagingly admits that his ideas could be seen as repulsive.

Briefly he wants a new world order which is responsive to "the will of the world's people". Specifically he wants a world parliament elected from constituencies of ten million people each; a "democratized United Nations General Assembly" to assume the powers of the Security Council; an International Clearing Union to discharge trade deficits and prevent the accumulation of debt; and a Fair Trade Organization "which restrains the rich while emancipating the poor". Quite a prescription!

It is always easy to know what is wrong. It is much more difficult to determine what is right, and then how to get from where we are to where we might like to be. At the root of the problem is accountability as well as democracy (whatever either may mean in practical terms). National sovereignty is much less than it ever was, and global problems reach far beyond the powers of any government or governments to manage. But however they are chosen, governments have their role and will fight tenaciously to retain it.

Monbiot is right is saying that the opening phrase of the United Nations Charter "We the peoples…" should really read "We the governments…" To create a directly elected world parliament, ignoring national boundaries, with woolly terms of reference and heavy preponderance of the densely populated areas of the world, is surely beyond any realistic horizon. But it is worth watching what happens in the European Parliament, itself the product of a long period of coming together of the member states of the European Union. If ever there were a world parliament, it would have to follow a still longer period in which ideas about sovereignty, accountability and the rest greatly changed.

The same goes for abolishing the Security Council and transferring its executive powers to the General Assembly. The fifteen member Security Council is not ideally constituted, but it is hard to change and generally works. In this the power of veto is essential. It means that unlike all other international bodies, the Council when united carries enormous weight and can take effective even military action. The membership is highly sensitive to pressure from outside as well shown by its refusal to bend to US bullying on Iraq. The United States, with Britain behind it, may already rue the day when they decided to go ahead without its approval. They will need the United Nations more than ever if they are to extricate themselves from the present mess.

I doubt if the General Assembly could ever become an executive body. If it were to be "democratized", it would immediately tangle with any world parliament. There have been suggestions, which Monbiot seems to dismiss, of a three chamber world government consisting of a House of Peoples, a House of Nations and a House of Counsellors with an accompanying administrative and judicial apparatus. The field is open for bright ideas.

Monbiot is on stronger ground when he takes up the more practical and immediate issues of debt and trade. The current rules and practice of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank undoubtedly favour the industrial countries at the expense of the rest, and may unintentionally contribute to the widening gap between rich and poor. Here he takes us back to the proposals put forward by Maynard Keynes in 1943 when he suggested the creation of an International Clearing Union for financial flows between states.

According to this, countries in surplus would be as penalized as countries in debt. These ideas have since been developed by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist formerly of the World Bank. They have been met with unrelenting hostility by the United States and other creditor countries, and reform of the Fund and the Bank is still far away. The debtor countries have so far been intimidated. But there is much they could do. A concerted repudiation of sovereign debt would probably work wonders. England has the distinction of having been the first country to have done so under King Edward I.

As for trade, few are happy with the World Trade Organization. The system is skewed, and has been so from the start. The ideologues of free trade are constantly at war with reality. In their early days the present industrial countries depended heavily on protection, and in many respects they still do. How then can they seek to deny it to others? Giving aid to the poor in no way compensates for barriers against their exports. The value of agricultural subsidies in rich countries is nearly six times that of overseas aid. Cows receive more aid than people. More generally perverse subsidies bedevil all our economies. No wonder that trade meetings have excited such protests. Fair trade is a better and more honest proposition than free trade.

This book is a polemic as well as a manifesto. It is an omelet of curate's eggs, some very good, some less good, all strong tasting and well presented. It should make people think; and as the author well says, if we do not like his ideas, then think of better ones. He believes that leaving things as they are is not a serious option. He makes his case.

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