Misc

THE BATTLE OF IDEAS

George Monboit’s new book The Age of Consent gets a sympathetic review from Johann Hari in the Independent.

I am looking forward to reading the book and as a taster Monboit himself provides a summary of his ideas on his own website.

Some might be surprised that Hari is broadly positive about Monboit’s book but that is because both these commentators are often misunderstood. Hari was a supporter of armed revolution in Iraq and is an advocate of the US exporting of democracy but he has also spent a good deal of time demanding that his friends in the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement start coming up with some positive suggestions for change and transform themselves into a global justice movement and Hari is a man of the left.

Monboit’s melodramatic style in the Guardian and his opposition to the US makes it easy to mistakenly lump him in with the Trotskyists and other ultra-left elements but remember that while he opposed a US-led war to liberate Iraq he was not against the idea of an international military intervention per se. That might make him a little opportunist or possibly naive but unlike many on the radical left he is a thinker. And he has responded directly to Hari’s appeal for a constructive approach from the critics of globalisation. Indeed he uses the term global justice movement that Hari has pushed frequently.

I find a lot to disagree with in Monboit’s writings but I am keen to read his book because he approaches the fundamental question about globalisation: Our task is not to overthrow globalisation, but to capture it, and to use it as a vehicle for humanity’s first global democratic revolution. That makes Monboit a radical minority amongst the ‘no-global’ crowd and as you might have gathered I like radical minorities on the left.

Hari though does make some keen observations and criticisms in his review:

Firstly, Monbiot does not provide a mechanism for spreading democracy into nations living under totalitarianism. This is a big hole in his theory. His vision is one which is explicitly designed to hem in the USA; but it is an America committed to spreading the values of its own revolution which is the best hope for many peoples on earth to rid themselves of their dictators. A global democracy where most of the world is excluded by their own autocratic rulers is scarcely worth having. His notion that underground elections might be held in countries like Saudi Arabia and North Korea is plainly impractical, and his idea that the exiled community might vote on behalf of their oppressed countrymen is a poor alternative for actually seeking to spread democracy.

Secondly, his notion that class and (ultimately) global identities are superseding nationalism is, I am sure, mistaken. A “species awareness”, a sense that, as humans, we are all in it together will inevitably have to overlap with, rather than replace, national identities. Monbiot’s contention otherwise is one of the few places where the utopian charge against him will stick. Thirdly, the only point at which Monbiot strikes a false note is when he vaguely predicts that capitalism will ultimately be “destroyed”. This smacks of him trying to retain his radical constituency rather than an offer a plausible prescription, especially given the fact that it follows his passionate and persuasive defence of the ability of regulated market-based trade to increase wealth in poor countries.

But these criticisms merely mark the fact that this is a weighty book which must be engaged with. At last, the global justice movement has found a vision as expansive and planet-wide as that of the American neoconservatives. Let the battle of ideas commence.

Indeed, let it commence. But will it?

This summer there are a whole series of left-wing ‘schools’ and ‘universities’ in London where the orthodoxies of early 20th century Marxism and Leninism, the dead propaganda of the cold war, will be parroted by the weary ideologues of the ultra-left. But I have yet to find any event for the divergent views of the heretical left, for people like Hari and Monboit and from differing perspectives John Lloyd and Nick Cohen to come face to face and discuss these much more pertinent issues.

Would it really be too difficult to organise? It certainly needs to be done and not just because it would be an entertaining debate. With the dreadful state of orthodox left thinking I am convinced that it is out of the clash of ideas between heretic thinkers that the seeds of a new radical left agenda can emerge – we need some sparks to fly.

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