No doubt the times theyâ€™re a-changing when internal strategic debates of the â€˜anti globalisation movementâ€™ make it into mainstream publishing. According to amazon.com â€œNaomi Klein's No Logo told us what was wrong. Now George Monbiotâ€™s The Age of Consent shows us how to put it right.â€ Its publisher, Rupert Murdochâ€™s HarperCollins sells Monbiotâ€™s manifesto as â€œauthoritative and persuasive de facto figurehead for the contrarian movements in the UK.â€ Environmental activist Monbiot is columnist for the Guardian and author of a bestseller about UKâ€™s privatisation disasters. The change George Monbiot has in mind falls nothing short of a â€œmetaphysical mutation,â€ a concept he took from the French writer Michel Houllebecq. Or rather an epistemological mutation, a revolutionary process somewhat similar to Thomas Kuhnâ€™s â€˜paradigm shift.â€™ Monbiot sees a â€˜global civil societyâ€™ 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 â€œand become the catalyst for the new mutation.â€ 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 â€˜localizerâ€™ 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 â€˜dream upâ€™ new global entities and construct them bottom up, from below. Small is Beautiful may be worthy but ultimately disadvantages the poor, so Monbiot. Itâ€™s a waste of time to demand â€˜global governanceâ€™ and wait till the current political class voluntarily implements such models.
George Monbiot makes a case for democracy as the â€œleast worst system.â€ This may sound harmless and obvious, but itâ€™s not. As there is nothing better, so Monbiot, we may as well work within the premises of the democratic paradigm. What activists often push aside is the question of â€˜who guards the guards.â€™ Inside movements, and also within critical Internet culture, Democracy is passively preached but not actively practiced. This was a problem of the Left in the past and â€˜accountabilityâ€™ 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 up with a conspiracy theory who is behind NGO Watch. Despite their own â€˜softâ€™ and silent democratic practice, Monbiot calls for a â€œglobal democratic revolutionâ€ that will push aside â€œhopeless realism.â€ Monbiot believes in the power of momentary happening or slightly more abstract â€˜the event,â€™ as it is called in philosophical circles. He writes: â€œWhat 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.â€ After the Age of Dissent â€œit is time to invoke the Age of Consent.â€
Most part of Monbiotâ€™s 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.
Monbiotâ€™s manifesto is an example of strategic thinking, free of the usual New Age mumbo jumbo that often accompanies â€˜positiveâ€™ literature. Organized positivism has apparently moved away from dotcom business circles to the translocal messengers of hope. Monbiotâ€™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.
We no longer live in the dark eighties, as Charles Leadbeater suggests. 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 Englandâ€™s Arthur Schopenhauer? Which contemporary thinker can match Emile Cioranâ€™s dark state of mind, who wrote, â€œnegation is the mind's first freedom.â€ The problem is: there isnâ€™t any. Todayâ€™s cultures of complaint, as Robert Hughes described them, are harmless, boring and most of all: conservative. 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. Itâ€™s an easy job to dump on last centuryâ€™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 â€˜innovationâ€™ over radical transformation and promotes the petty normalcy of his freelance consultancy life as the solution to the worldâ€™s problems. He actually doesnâ€™t understand it all. Arenâ€™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 Monbiotâ€™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 insiderâ€™s perspective of the â€˜global justice movement.â€™ 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.
Monbiotâ€™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 â€˜what is to be doneâ€™ 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 Hardtâ€™s Empire is the belief in power of the â€˜multitudesâ€™ to constitute the world. Everything may have been commodified and integrated into the Spectacle-except the collective imagination. We can find traces of peopleâ€™s sovereignty everywhere. The same can be said of inspirational tactical media groups that develop experimental software, interfaces and networks. â€˜Germinationâ€™ (such as discussed within the Oekonux circle) may take a long time. Seeds may be hiding in the soil for ages. Not that I agree with much of what George Monbiot is proposing, but thatâ€™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 (see Adelaide and Brisbane). Within this wave ideas are traded as the â€œcurrency of our information age.â€ 911, the economic recession, climate changes and the aggressive, unilateral policies of the Bush administration only accelerate this process. â€˜Stickyâ€™ ideas have gone beyond the jâ€™accuse level and mobilize media users into a growing multiplicity of â€˜smart mobsâ€™ (Howard Rheingold). â€œOur opinions count for nothing until we act upon them,â€ 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 â€˜coverâ€™ their influence. Popular weblogs only make the gap between small size and global media conglomerates more visible.
In the network age ideas are carefully designed â€˜memesâ€™ 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 larger History of Ideas. Every â€˜newâ€™ idea can easily be disassembled into a range of old ideas-but that does not take away their glance. It is useful to know that the G.W. Bush administration runs on ideas that go back to Leo Strauss, but this knowledge alone will not result in an imaginative counter strategy.
Media literacy has risen to such an extend that attractive ideas will reach its audience anyway. This mechanism illustrates the limits of spin-doctors (and their critics) . 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 â€˜other globalisationâ€™ movement still embraces. The issue is not the â€˜truthâ€™ that groups such as PR-Watch, GNN, Media Channel or Adbusters are revealing. The problem is that only few still â€˜believeâ€™ in the media. The enlightment work has already been done, and it is only cynicism and fear that fuels populism, not the fabricated â€˜truth.â€™ 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 Monbiotâ€™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: â€œThe 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.â€
George Monbiot dares to think big and thatâ€™s what both old school Marxists and ruling neo-liberals donâ€™t like about The Age of Consent. â€œOur task,â€ Monbiot writes, â€œis not to overthrow globalisation, but to capture it, and to use it as a vehicle for humanity's first global democratic revolution.â€ Whatâ€™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 â€œglobal governance,â€ 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 classâ€™ sole right to define the terms of operation on a transnational level. Monbiot rightly points at the strategic opportunity for the â€˜movement of movementsâ€™ 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 control.
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 Monbiotâ€™s parliament, lacks legitimacy and power. Democracy may be â€œthe least-worst system,â€ if you compare to the nightmares of the twentieth century Marxism or the â€˜anti-powerâ€™ 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: â€œWhat we need in politics today is not more democracy but less.â€ Unlike what Monbiot suggests Zakaria is not stating this to defend global business elites. At least, thatâ€™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 â€˜warâ€™ 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 â€˜world opinion.â€™ Instead of pushing for more empty institutions, Zakaria argues that a worldwide increase in â€˜libertyâ€™ 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 â€œincapable of democracy.â€ In one way or another Western democracies also have to redefine their relationship towards the media spectacle. It is not enough to 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 â€˜crisisâ€™ of democracy is often linked to the media question. Another interesting confrontation would be between Monbiotâ€™s global institutional designs and Chantal Mouffeâ€™s agonistic model of democracy.
Like many â€˜other-globalistsâ€™ Monbiotâ€™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 fineâ€¦ 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 todayâ€™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 â€˜ideologyâ€™ 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 â€˜cultural turnâ€™ 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 â€˜spectacle.â€™ Societies are deeply networked. There are no democracies; only media democracies. Monbiotâ€™s viewpoint may be fine if youâ€™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 todayâ€™s leading thinkers.
In search for mythology, social movements need to create an â€˜eventâ€™ that later activities can refer to and which media can endlessly replicate. For the â€˜global justiceâ€™ movement this would be January 1st of 1994-the beginning of the Zapatista uprising (symbolized in the Ya basta! Slogan). It is apparently not enough to believe in polysequential events that, all the sudden, find the right alchemy and kickstart history. The multitudes are in need of a plot when it comes to storytelling. It is not satisfying enough that â€œwe are from everywhere.â€ Contrary to its own philosophy the movement that hit the media surface in Seattle, late 1999, has been secretly searching for a plausable source that could give the global uprising meaning and direction. Simultaneously there are indications that the â€˜movement of movementsâ€™ can thrive very well without Roots and Leadership. The need for a linear story, with a beginning and a necessary end, should be pushed aside as an all-too-human weakness-and this also counts for the Zapatista mythology.
The complex dynamics of global protests do not follow the usual plots, otherwise the movement would already have died due to repression, weapons and drugs, infiltration, sectarian infighting or simply issue exhaustion. British environmental journalist Paul Kingsnorth hasnâ€™t necessarily cracked mythology-in-the-making. His One No, Many Yeses reads like an honest and representative overview of the movement without much critical distance or reflection. During 2002 Paul Kingsnorth travelled the globe, from Chiapas in Mexico to the riots in Genova (Italy), visiting Reverend Billy in New York and anti-corporate groups in California. Amongst the travellogues a number of stories stood out. The first is a visit to groups in Soweto that oppose the ANC privatization policies of electricity. Another is his visit to West-Papua where Kingsnorths widnesses the emergence of the independence movement. His description of the Landless Rural Workersâ€™ Movement (MST) while visiting Brazil for the World Social Forum also stands out.
Unlike Monbiot Kingsnorth does put strategy choices on the table. The absence of a theoretical apparatus is obvious but doesnâ€™t seem to matter. No Deleuze or Foucault quotes this time, let alone Negri or Agamben. Kingsnorth can do it without post-Fordist immaterial labour. Anglo-Saxon pragmatists can still lead happy lives without continental philosophy-and thatâ€™s fine. The same can be said of Kingsnorthâ€™s media understanding that does not surpass Chomskyâ€™s banal rule of media equals propaganda. Media are controlled by big corporations and Indymedia with its open publishing is the answer. This widespread, primitive understanding of (new) media is widespread and the absence of new media related topics can be found in the agendas of the Social Forums, from Porto Alegro to Florence. But the surprising low awareness of free software issues and open network architectures may as well be blamed on the â€˜social disabilityâ€™ of geeks, hackers and net.artists, whose relative isolation I will discuss below.
For Kingsnorth it is local events that make up the movements, not its phrases. In that sense the present movement is â€˜post-1989â€™ in its refusal of ideologies, and this is an element the theorists, in particular those from Italy and France, still have to come to gripps with. The â€˜protestivalsâ€™ have a carnavelesque militancy that has not yet been properly described-Spinoza, Nietzsche or Heidegger may not be adequate sources. Even though we read a strong sense of urgency through Kingsnorthâ€™s stories, there is no â€œstate of exceptionâ€ or even a permanent crisis. One No, Many Yeses rightly analyses the State of the Globe in its full potentiality. One might also read this as naÃ¯ve optimism of the youth but that easy judgment overlooks the wild social variety of participants in the protests, worldwide. This is not a wave. Rather is it a set of eruptions that started to interfere and thus. Transformed into something else.
Monbiotâ€™s The Age of Consent is useful possible point of reference, for instance for those involved in the debates around global civil society, Internet governance and the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS). NGOs, new media activists and artists are still at the very beginning of formulating demands. The official Digital Divide talk goes barely beyond empowerment and â€˜universal access.â€™ Recent traumatic experiences with the â€˜at-large membershipâ€™ participation within the â€œtechnical coordination bodyâ€ ICANN, a private non-profit corporation, ultimately in the hands of the US government, that is supposed to govern the global Internet domain name structure, have hardly been digested. The idea that â€œanother Internet is possible,â€ one that is no longer exclusively ruled by the worthy white male engineering class from the West, 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 and totalitarian countries such as China can dictate the global network architecture. 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 â€˜civil societyâ€™ (whoever that may be) might relate to each other. On the formal, political level WSIS will ultimately not have outcomes. As one amongst many global 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, in search for a â€˜new network order.â€™
George Monbiot, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, London: Flamingo, 2003 (published in the US by The New Press, New York, 2004). URL: www.monbiot.com
Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses, A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement, The Free Press/Simon & Schuster/Viacom, London, 2003. URL: http://www.paulkingsnorth.net/