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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Even Northern Ireland Has Global Responsibilities
Anthony McIntyre • Fortnight, December 2003

George Monbiot is one of the most powerful intellectual voices that new millennium radicalism lays claim to. He has been named by the Evening Standard as one of the twenty-five most influential people in Britain and by the Independent on Sunday as one of the forty international prophets of the twenty-first century. Amongst the beliefs held by him is that the intervention of the present pope against liberation theologians in South America was absolutely disastrous for the poor. And he is not unduly pessimistic about the resurgence of jingoism in the US, post 9/11, believing it to be ‘a temporary thing - the product of the messianic complex of empire where the imperial power casts itself as both the world's saviour and the world's victim.’ Nor does he entertain the notion that nationalism has a healthy future in today’s world. An outspoken democrat he contends that democracy is necessarily a compound of dissent and consent. And he feels that while tens of millions of people are involved in the Global Justice Movement ‘we have been very good in formulating our opposition but we have been very slow to describe what we do want. So we have been involved in only one half of the democratic struggle.’ Whether the dissident’s prerogative or dilemma we are free to speculate.

That a man committed to the idea of creating a global parliament would want to visit a place which appears congenitally incapable of maintaining its own inconsequential local parliament, suggests that Monbiot, a Guardian columnist, is perhaps an incurable optimist. While his attention is normally focused on a bear pit world ravished by the cancer of poverty and artificial scarcity, this flea pit is consumed with its own little pimple, demanding that everybody should, time after time, come and listen to its whine, oversee a quack-prescribed cure, and then head off with the sound of the wailers ringing in the ears, pseudo-mourning yet another lamentable failure. But George Monbiot knew a thing or two about the human condition long before he arrived in Belfast to promote his latest book The Age Of Consent. When the political class realised it wasn't about its consent or its obsessions it failed to turn up at his talks. Those that did were at least spared having to hear the 'us men' moan about the trivia that captivates them.

Guardian readers and those who browse through Socialist Workers Party stalls will be familiar with the name George Monbiot. While propelled to considerable public prominence in 2000 as a result of his book, The Captive State, which drew attention to the dangers of corporate power in Britain, Monbiot was scarcely a figure of anonymity. For long he had been rolling his sleeves up and plunging his arms into the swamp of exposing injustice. His campaigning has taken him to Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia amongst other places. His travels have seen him beaten and shot at by police.

So what made him come here? His studies at Oxford in Zoology perhaps prompted him to think that he could attain what no one else has - an understanding of the monkeys that populate our political superstructure. He, however, was neither so cynical nor ambitious, pointing out that Ireland is currently developing a social forum which is part of a wider global movement. 'Social forums are developing in just about every country of the world.' I put it to him that even those who designate themselves the most radical amongst the body politic preferred to go to the World Economic Forum in New York rather than the World Social Forum in Rio; they have wined and dined with Blair and Bush during this year's Hillsborough war summit while their followers stood locked outside facing aggressive armed police. Given that these people legitimise Bush and pointedly refuse to call him a war monger on television, what chance is there of developing anything here that would have the fortitude to stand up to the egregious power of American capital?

Yes, that’s right. A forward-looking party at the moment would be engaging with the Global Justice Movement. And similar parties around the world. We desperately need to see an alliance of parties like Sinn Fein with the PT in Brazil, the oppositional movements in South Africa and Mexico. With the very big people’s movements we are now seeing in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

But how do people actually go about joining the Global Justice Movement in a city like Belfast where what passes for a radical idea is closing down hospitals and introducing PFI?

There are already groups working at it so do not reinvent the wheel. In the prosperous countries we believe in this ridiculous notion called consumer democracy. We think that if we as individuals decide not to buy a certain brand of biscuits we can affect political change. You can only effect political change by getting together with other people. In December we hope to set up a website - - listing all the organisations in each country throughout the world that people can join. While our movement should contest elections the real thrust of politics is extra-parliamentary.

He described the Global Justice Movement as something lacking in coherent structure. Lacking in coherence is something that would seem to be ready made for us. Eager, I asked him to continue.

It is a movement of movements. It pulls together Marxists, anarchists, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Greens, Buddhists, conservatives. It is a series of incidental coalitions, taking place sequentially sometimes simultaneously, whom come together to contest particular problems but informed by an analysis of the problem that says power has by and large been taken out of our hands. If it is anything it is a movement of the disenfranchised of the world. There are formal structures within it that do not describe the entire movement but provide a means of coordination of which the most prominent is the World Social Forum.

In one significant respect Monbiot differs from many in the wider movement for which he is such a forceful advocate. He believes that globalisation opens up space in which strategic advances can be made towards redressing the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and resources that characterises the world economic system today. He refers to what he terms 'political judo' where the weaker party must learn to exploit the strength of its opponent 'for our own purposes.' When pressed to explain:

The Internet was developed by the Pentagon but it is has become the most useful tool of the campaigners for peace who are trying to stop the Pentagon developing its programmes. In Iraq, the US by insisting on massively enhanced powers has created massively enhanced resistance, which may, as Afghanistan destroyed the Soviet empire, end up destroying the American Empire.

If this month's killing of 16 US troops in one Iraqi resistance operation is an indicator of what is to come, Monbiot’s logic is compelling.

A stylistic feature of his book is the strong moralising tone throughout as he urges people to take action on behalf of the poor of the world. But do such calls ever sustain mass movements of the type he seeks? He is fairly upbeat in his response. While professing no unshakeable confidence in any particular approach he feels that there are certain moral characteristics which almost all people share. One is a basic core belief that other people should be treated as they would like to be treated themselves. But to sustain this with large groups over a long period 'is very much contingent on people’s economic circumstances and the grander politics they are subject to.'

Puzzled by the challenges of motivation I pressed him on his call for a revolutionary-like experience similar to Christian joy. Having, over the years, failed to make it out of the living room in time to avoid being bombarded with Willie McCrea’s idea of Christianity and being of the firm belief that the last Christian was crucified, I felt there was a danger here that Monbiot was tapping into the same energy which fuels fundamentalism. After all, one of his reasons for rejecting Marxism was because its fundamentalism had ruined the chances of creating a new world order. He came back at me contending that emotion is essential to sustaining political campaigning. ‘We become involved in this because we are passionate about it not because we are convinced by it.’ Amongst other sinister things, this struck me as an open door to demagoguery and leadership-led movements which eventually come to parody the struggle that threw them up. What if the balance in the compound tips in favour of the emotion rather than the intellect and, in the absence of strong intellectual structures of transparency and dissent, a leadership basically screws the grassroots and starts to do its own thing and transfers the radical energy into a project which was not what the initial movement was designed for?

This has happened to just about every revolutionary movement that ever existed. This is exactly what happened to the Labour Party. There is a constant tension between success and the necessary conformity within the movement that effectively drives success and the diversity and dissent which is what this movement is all about and what it should be all about. The dangers of cooption by powerful charismatic people within the movement will always exist.

Despite his disdain for Marxism, a weakness readily admitted to by Monbiot is that he is ‘excessively devoted’ to a classical view of political economy; something which hardly puts clear blue sea between him and the 19th century German philosopher. While stressing that he is a Marxian rather than a Marxist - in that he accepts the description rather than the prescription offered by Marxism - he attributes the failure of Marxism not to Stalin but to Marx himself. I pointed out to him that in Belfast his visit had met with some opposition but that it came from the Marxist led mass movements of two and three who recoil at his refusal to endorse a dictator of the proletariat. They refuse to turn up to see him but would sit in pubs awaiting the second coming of Trotsky. However, in spite of that the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party is one of the few involved in all the ongoing radical campaigns.

Nobody organises better than the SWP, nobody mobilises better. They are amazing. They have the cadres, the party structures - almost brain washed participants who virtually devote their lives to what the party tells them to do. But they are almost impossible to work with unless you come in on their terms. There is a constant danger that they use the shared opportunities that they create purely as a recruiting ground for their own party. We have to try to work with them despite all the dangers in that.

Perhaps Michel Foucault had it right when he wrote, 'Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else.' Maybe Monbiot felt likewise. Having read his book I was of the mind that he was really about restructuring the capitalist order rather than mounting a real challenge to it? He was disarmingly frank:

That is a problem. What I am calling for in the first place is a restraint of capitalism. That by democratising the means of global governance we have the opportunity if the world’s people so wish to start developing the means to overthrow capitalism. At present we have assumed that there is a globalised public enthusiasm for overthrowing capitalism that does not appear to be there. We have to permit people to engage in a wider economic discussion. And that requires some form of global democracy. If not we are doing what the IMF and World Bank are doing and ending up with a dictatorship of the bureaucrat or in this case a dictatorship of the Global Justice Movement.

I left him wondering what it was I envied most, his intellect or his passion for justice. Meanwhile, the political class continues to howl as if the epicentre of the world is Belfast. There are some nuts even George Monbiot cannot crack.


George Monbiot’s The Age Of Consent is published by Harper-Collins. HB £15.99. ISBN 0-00-715042-3



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

8 December 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Electing to Disagree
Brendan O'Neill


The GFA Revisited

Gerry Ruddy


The Problem With the Kurds
Pedram Moallemian


Even Northern Ireland Has Global Responsibilties
Anthony McIntyre


Rafah Today: The Tent
Mohammed Omer


4 December 2003


Act of Conscience to Spark an Act of Congress
Matthew Kavanah


No Surprise, No Change

Eamon Sweeney


The Global Justice Movement's Take on Sustainable Development
Dr Peter Doran


Canvassing for the Socialists
Anthony McIntyre


Address to PUP Conference
Davy Carlin


The Current Situation
Gerry Ruddy




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