with George Monbiot, by Caspar Henderson of openDemocracy.
George Monbiot, the leading environmental activist and writer,
has been involved in many global campaigns of resistance to corporate
and state power. But what positive social and political vision animates
his work? Where does it contrast with that of globalisations
advocates like Maria Cattaui, Peter Sutherland, and George Soros?
And how does he see the future of the internationalist movement
in the light of the war on terrorism?
Caspar Henderson openDemocracy
has opened a debate on globalisation. It has held two openInterviews,
first with Maria Cattaui, who heads the International Chamber of
Commerce, and then a discussion between Peter Sutherland, who founded
the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and is now Chairman of BP and
heads Goldman Sachs International, and the British politician and
scholar, Shirley Williams. They share a vision of globalisation
which sees institutions like the WTO as part of a global, rules-based
system. One that helps rich and poor alike through economic growth.
What do you understand by globalisation?
George Monbiot Globalisation is a problematic term
which has come to mean whatever people want it to mean. This vagueness
creates a special problem for what is called the anti-globalisation
movement, which is often perceived as something it isnt. It
is portrayed, quite wrongly, as being in favour of autarchy and
separation, rather than the sort of internationalism which has always
been a feature of progressive politics.
I was struck when reading both Peter Sutherlands and Maria
Cattauis interviews by the extent to which they remain trapped
within current models and definitions of how the world is
rather than how it could be. They appear to expect miracles from
institutions which have an extremely limited mandate.
Take the WTO, for example. In 1944, the original intention of the
Bretton Woods conference was to create an International Trade Organisation.
Its purposes would have been to assist free trade, but also to help
poor countries towards economic prosperity, through technology transfer,
defending labour standards and improving their trade balance. In
the event, all these functions except one free trade
were effectively ruled out by US business objections. As a result,
we ended up with a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),
which was meant to be an interim solution, pending a much wider
At the time, it was widely recognised that simply implementing free
trade measures without also acting to generate prosperity in the
poor world was not going to deliver economic justice. This fundamental
problem has yet to be resolved. GATT turned into the World Trade
Organisation, and the ITOs original objectives have been forgotten.
The WTO is a flawed mechanism for delivering prosperity to the poorest
countries flawed because it discharges only one of the important
functions envisaged at the beginning.
The stages of development
CH But arent parts of your analysis shared by Cattaui
and Sutherland? For example, Sutherland talks about a driving need
for advanced countries to achieve a minimum target of 0.7 per cent
GDP in development aid as a starting-point. The UK chancellor, Gordon
Brown, is calling for a big increase in aid transfers from the rich
industrial countries. Isnt this a broadly similar recognition
to yours, that we need to move towards a more progressive, rules-based
GM I am certainly in favour of increasing the aid budget,
if only in order to plug part of the massive gap left by the failure
of the Bretton Woods institutions. The original vision for an ITO
was to regulate the international economy so that poor countries
could survive and prosper, rather than relying on handouts from
the first world. The fact that now, fifty seven years later, we
are still talking about having to increase aid for the poor world,
demonstrates the terrible failure of the reliance on free trade
to create wealth. Regulatory failure always leads to public expenditure.
Against this, Sutherland would say that poor governance (including
the colonial inheritance) in areas like Africa has contributed to
their current problems; while open systems and effective regulation
in areas like south-east Asia have helped to deliver substantial
prosperity. These are both negative and positive reasons for participating
in an open system of international trade.
Well, it would be extraordinary to put the Asian economic
miracle down to free trade alone. The countries which prospered
most, up until the 1997-98 crash, had followed a three-step process
to development. The first was massive land reform and distribution.
Japan, Taiwan and Korea experienced the effective dismantling of
feudal landed power by war, and instituted a systematic program
of land reform, leading to a great redistribution of wealth. Second,
this was accompanied by protectionist help for local and national
businesses. Third, only after those two factors precipitated very
strong internal growth were their economies exposed to the free
market which Peter proposes.
The problem today is that we are requiring poor countries to cut
out stages one and two and go straight to stage three. But unless
you first build up the wealth of local communities and business,
people simply cannot compete with multinational capital. When the
latter moves in, they have no basis for competition. So in Russia
for example, with the blessing of the International Monetary Fund
(IMF), virtually all effective business and financial regulation
was removed and the economy fell into the hands of either foreign
capital or indigenous Mafiosi.
future is Keynesian
CH Doesnt Maria Cattaui agree on this point? She says:
"All over south-east Asia countries are stronger than they
were in the 1960s despite the 97-98 financial crisis,
but we forget that the policies were not laissez-faire policies.
They were strongly government inspired. More recently they have
become less government oriented. Why? Because we know that the kind
of subsidies they used eventually didnt work and they made
industries uncompetitive. We know now that Korea has moved on, but
the developed world did exactly the same thing. One must always
understand the purpose of a subsidy." In other words, there
are stages in economic development. Isnt this a shared acceptance
that this a multi-step process and that countries need to come into
this globalised economy on their own terms?
I find it extraordinary that Maria accepts that this is how
those once poor nations achieved fabulous wealth, but then rules
this out as a prescription for the many countries which remain poor
But perhaps more importantly, both she and Peter are putting the
burden of change onto the host governments whose economies are failing.
While theres no question that many such governments have managed
their economies poorly, to say that all the failings of poor countries
are down to poor governance at the domestic level is a grotesque
insult to the people of those countries.
First, many of the countries we chastise for incompetent economic
management are effectively run by the IMF. Economic management has
little to do with the government itself it has been reduced
to having to implement IMF policies. If those policies have failed,
its hard to see why we should lay responsibility for this
at the door of the impoverished national governments.
Second, there is really nowhere for many poor countries to go. To
develop they need basic infrastructure. But they are trapped in
a cycle of under-investment. Because they dont have good roads,
schools and hospitals, their economic position continues to deteriorate,
which then makes it in turn impossible to generate the money to
build those things. Their only option is to increase public spending.
Yet theyre not allowed to increase public spending because
the IMF and World Bank prevent them from doing so. Their whole economy
is effectively re-oriented, by those two institutions, towards the
extraction of resources and wealth in order to pay grotesque levels
of debt for which the lenders should be blamed and which were often
obtained in the first place by corruption. By all means criticise
corrupt governments in poor countries but shouldnt we also
blame the corruptors?
We have to re-examine not just the WTO as an institution but also
the World Bank and IMF. They are the wrong set of institutions to
bring about positive, global economic change. There are two reasons
for this. First, they are entirely controlled by the creditor nations.
The countries in which they operate have no control over their operations.
That is extremely unfair; its a glaring democratic deficit.
Second, their role is in effect to police debt. They are the bailiffs
of world economy. They are not there to restore a balance of trade,
but to enforce the imbalance of trade.
What we need instead is something like the international clearing
union that John Maynard Keynes proposed during the Second World
War, which puts an equal onus on creditors and debtors to clear
debt: a self-correcting global economic system, as opposed to a
system run by the creditor nations in their own interests.
CH How would that work?
GM Keynes idea was simple. He devised a self-correcting
world trade system, which irons out its own imbalances. The idea
was that international transactions be conducted not in national
currencies like the dollar, but in an international currency, which
he called the bancor.
That currency would be held by a central bank called the International
Clearing Union. It would impose the same rate of interest on creditors
as it imposed on debtors. So if a country was one hundred million
bancors in either credit or in debt, it would pay the same rate
of interest. The beauty of this arrangement is that it would give
creditor nations an incentive either to adjust the value of their
national currencies against the bancor, or to reinvest massively
by buying far more of the debtor countrys products. So debt
would be a transient phenomenon not the cumulative,
compounding problem it has become.
Keynes came to Bretton Woods with this proposal. He predicted that
the contrasting US proposal for an international stabilisation fund
(which gave rise to the IMF) and a World Bank would lead to massive
endemic debt, the continued impoverishment of the poor world, and
the growing power and wealth of the rich world, particularly the
United States. The US threatened that if Britain persisted in pushing
Keynes idea it would withhold its war loan. Britain backed
down, Keynes prediction came true. Today, we need to re-examine
Keynes proposal and look at re-shaping the global economic
architecture in a very radical way.
Making the powerful respond
CH As you have described it, Keynes came up against the reality
of US power in the early 1940s. The US is the worlds biggest
economy with twenty-five per cent of world GDP, huge military programmes
and enormous financial power. How would you overcome US interests
where Keynes failed?
GM Well, parts of the world are now in a much stronger position
than the British were in 1944. The EU is a very powerful trading
bloc. And if it combined with some major developing economies they
would have considerable clout. It would not be easy. Confronting
power never is. But that is the perennial challenge faced by anyone
involved in progressive politics.
CH Here, you express a certain hope in the potential of the
EU. But elsewhere, you accuse the EU of being in the pockets of
Europes big corporations. For example, you have been very
critical of the European Round Table of Industrialists. So why should
the EU do what the US doesnt want it to do?
GM The EU will only do what the US doesnt want it to
do if its own population demands this. Our governments are only
as good as our willingness to criticise and embarrass them. No political
system guarantees democracy. A system is only as good as the capacity
of its critics to confront it.
A new voice in world trade
CH At Doha the WTO succeeded in coming to an agreement. It
is hugely complex, but many observers feel that it is significant
for at least one reason: that some of the developing countries have
achieved some gains with respect to both the European Union and
the United States.
On intellectual property rights, the US appears to have given important
ground, not least because of its current problems with anthrax.
The EU appears to have made concessions on agriculture; its
possible that some of its subsidies will eventually be dismantled.
Since the dumping of very cheap food by the EU in developing countries
damages indigenous farming economies, this would be an enormous
In the realpolitik of world power, countries like India are beginning
to assert themselves, the Chinese have become members of the WTO,
and the Russians will be in. We see developing countries, or at
least their governments, that are keen on the WTO as part of the
solution. This may shift the balance of power, making it more even
between the developed and developing countries or at least
a real negotiation. Isnt this progress with respect to the
GM Theres no question that some of the developing countries,
India in particular, have developed a more effective negotiating
power at the WTO than they had before, and they have proved themselves
to be savvy and effective negotiators. Theyve done well to
fight off a crude attempt by the "quad" (the US, Canada,
Japan and the EU) to impose a first world agenda on the world trade
But its far too early to predict what the outcome of this
new round is going to be. Most of the promises made in the last,
Uruguay, round havent been kept. We have yet to see what the
real outcome with agriculture will be. Perhaps even more importantly,
the first world countries may continue to load the agenda with new
issues investment, services and government procurement, for
example which make it much harder for developing countries
to get their needs addressed.
What weve seen in Doha is the positive power of the poor world
making itself felt, possibly for the first time in over fifty years.
And thats definitely welcome. But, as I stated at the outset,
we must remember that the WTO is dealing with only one aspect of
the global economy, and is institutionally incapable of resolving
the imbalance of trade.
What sort of globalisation?
CH In the face of such criticism, people want to know how
to we get from here to there. Take George Soros, for example. He
shares some of your analysis. The challenge facing the poorest countries,
he argued in a Project Syndicate Glasgow Herald article published
shortly before Doha, "is not really the WTO but the lack of
similar powerful and effective institutions devoted to other social
goals". And he says he means education, health, and the building
of "human capital". "Enforcement of rules" at
the WTO, he goes on, is "not appropriate for achieving social
goals because many countries lack the resources to meet international
standards. Rather than imposing requirements it would be better
to provide resources to enable poor countries to comply on a voluntary
basis instead of introducing a rule prohibiting child labour. We
ought to provide for universal primary education". Also, a
key point, "the order of precedence should change between the
WTO and the national laws, national laws should take precedence".
Second, he argues that "the WTO may have overreached itself
when it comes to intellectual property" a view shared
even by Jagdish Bhagwati, the doyen of free trade economists. And
third, Soros believes that the agreement on trade-related investment
should be re-negotiated to allow support for home-grown small and
If there is indeed a shared perspective here between Soros and yourself,
how would one take forward these proposals? What sort of globalisation,
accepting your caveats about the word, are we looking for? How far
should government cede sovereignty to international organisations?
How far should they retain it, and what other mechanisms are necessary
for proper democratic involvement?
GM Right, youve just asked me about eight questions
there, each of them requiring several days to answer! Many of Soros
points are well taken, but in discussing regulation, we need to
go beyond the regulation of government behaviour with regard to
trade. We need also to talk about the regulation of corporations.
A great mistake of the Western powers, whether the European Union
or people like Maria and Peter, has been to discuss environmental
issues as if only governments should be held to account. On the
issues of the environment, human rights, labour standards, consumer
protection, health and safety in the workplace, we must be able
to hold multinational corporations to account. They are effectively
unregulated at the global level. They are not subject to the human
rights standards we expect of governments. When they dispose of
operations which present environmental or health liabilities, they
dont have to pick up the tab.
If we are to move towards re-balancing global trade, we need effective
regulation of corporations. That requires a sort of mirror WTO,
whose purpose is to say what companies can and cant do. This
can only work at the global level. If you try to set a high rate
of corporation tax in one country, for example, the big companies
will just clear off to Thailand. A global level of corporation tax
would prevent this. The same applies to environmental, health and
safety, and consumer protection rules.
Incidentally, as well as a global rate of corporation tax, Id
also like to see a global maximum wage, where no-one in a multinational
corporation can earn more than eight or ten times the salary of
the lowest paid member of their work-force or sub-contractors. That
would be a powerful incentive to raise the pay of those at the bottom.
This answers only a tiny part of the great range of questions. Like
George Soros I want to see practical measures but I want a different
world order, rather than just the present one working a little better.
CH Is the difference so clear cut? Maria Cattaui agrees that
corporations are not effectively regulated in many markets. But
she points to the way that international opinion that can be brought
to bear on corporations. Shell in Nigeria and Nike in Indonesia
might be cited here. And Peter Sutherland argues that the power
of corporations is greatly overestimated; he thinks it is actually
GM Well, lets look at Britain. Since the early 1990s
we have seen the private finance initiative (PFI), a mechanism both
Conservative and New Labour governments have used to contract out
the building of hospitals and schools to the private sector in return
for long-term rent payments, thus placing an enormous financial
burden on citizens for the next generation and more. In the words
of one of its architects, this is "the Heineken of privatisation,
reaching parts of the government machine not reached by previous
privatisations". It involves a far more ambitious corporate
project than has ever been launched in Britain before. Its
leading to the demolition of universal social provision, and the
capture of the public sector by corporate service providers. This
represents an empowerment of multinational capital which corporations
could have only dreamt of ten or twenty years ago. And what we are
seeing in Britain is taking place worldwide. To suggest that corporate
power is weakening is simply laughable.
A new model of global governance
CH But at least Peter Sutherland has worked for the sharing
of sovereignty and redistribution within the EU. When he says this
will take a long time on a global level, isnt he right to
argue that you have to be realistic about the context in which you
operate? The ideal of a universal global corporation tax is very
far off being achieved.
GM Well, lets just examine this term "realistic".
Is it realistic to expect poor nations to pay off debts which sometimes
exceed the size of their GDP? Is it realistic that the World Bank
and IMF can improve the economies of poor countries, rather than
continue to wreck them? Is it realistic that free trade measures
alone will continue to deliver economic justice? Is it realistic
that corporations can regulate themselves? Is it realistic that
without proper global governance the voices of the poor will be
consistently and effectively heard? If we are looking at realistic
measures we have to transform completely the political and economic
models of global governance.
If the term "realistic" is taken to mean achievable, then
these changes are indeed achievable with sufficient political will.
But if we just look at how we can survive within the current economic
model, we are going to achieve nothing at all. You have to start
with whats desirable.
And this, I think, means a complete transformation in global governance.
At the moment there is a massive democratic deficit at the global
level. Key decisions are taken, informally of course, but still
taken, by the G8. Eight men representing thirteen per cent of the
worlds population. The five permanent members of the worlds
security council, who happen also to be the worlds biggest
arms dealers, each have a veto on the decisions the security council
takes. The UN General Assembly which is meant to be the seat of
global governance is a wholly undemocratic body. We have just seen
an outcry here in the UK about the fact that Blair has decided that
the members of the House of Lords will be appointed rather than
elected. And yet we hear no similar outcry about the fact that all
our UN ambassadors are appointed rather than elected, and they tend
to be close to their security services and very distant from their
What we need to see is something along the lines of a world parliament,
with representatives directly elected on the basis of population,
so that governments are bypassed, and so that a resident of Kinshasa
has as much power on the global stage as a resident of Kensington
in London. Im not talking about taking power away from governments,
Im talking about democratising the powers which already exist
at the international level and which a handful of governments have
grabbed for themselves.
CH But how would this work? How are the Chinese people, for
example, going to persuade their government to allow them to participate
directly in a world parliament, bypassing the structures and organs
of the Communist Party of the Peoples Republic?
GM Well, this is part of the great challenge to global democracy
but at the moment were fudging the issues of both power and
representation. We allow a few governments to decide what should
happen on behalf of the rest of the world, and to appoint people
who govern internationally.
How do we bypass the Chinese government, or indeed our own government,
to set up structures of global governance at the international level
which dont rely on domestic governments? In principle it is
simple. We proceed without them, and gradually attempt to accumulate
moral authority by establishing structures whose representatives
can be directly elected. By accumulating moral authority you then
remove it from those who have grabbed power on the international
CH During the English Civil War and Revolution, in the seventeenth
century, Oliver Cromwell, who had overthrown the English monarchy,
was frustrated by the venal behaviour of the elected Parliament.
He replaced it with the Parliament of Saints, who were people directly
connected to Gods will good, ordinary people with wonderful
names like "Praisegod Barebones". The result was a disaster
and he then ended up as, in effect, a dictator.
My point is that there is a long history of well-meaning schemes.
In Europe its taken many hundreds of years for an educated
population to emerge with sophisticated political consciousness
and resources. And were still finding it very hard to achieve
democratic governance on a European level. To declare a world parliament
where all good and righteous people can meet together may be a laudable
goal, but arent there many intermediate steps needed first?
For example, dont the Chinese need to become more prosperous,
and be healthier and better educated and get democracy and a civil
society at home before they can effectively participate in international
GM The Parliament of Saints is in fact precisely what we
have in the form of the UN General Assembly. These are all the "good
and the great" appointed as UN ambassadors by their governments,
without any democratic credentials whatever. This is the disastrous
parliament which leads effectively to the dictatorship of the G8,
because of its evident democratic failings.
I think that some sort of representative body set up from the grass
roots could itself become a very powerful democratising force. A
truly democratic body at the world level which grows from below
and provides an alternative to show what real democracy might look
like, would have a huge impact. Wouldnt the people in China,
who were participating in that, then seek to overthrow their undemocratic
governments in favour of something better?
After 11 September
CH How do you take forward a movement for global democratisation
in the current very tense international circumstances?
GM What we have seen in Afghanistan points to the very urgent
need to review the way we make decisions. It is very serious if
half the world believes that it is shut out of the decision-making
process, not represented on the UN security council, has no voice
in international negotiations. If it feels and this applies
particularly to the Muslim world that the West has imposed
its will in an undemocratic and aggressive way, then we could have
sown in Afghanistan far more trouble than we have solved.
And what this suggests to me is that we desperately need to bring
the excluded populations into the key decision-making forums on
the global level. At the moment this sense of exclusion has unquestionably
helped to build a deep sense of antagonism towards the West.
CH But how can a movement for changing these conditions achieve
legitimacy without people fearing it?
GM Theres no question people are very fearful of change
at the moment; likewise, governments are very fearful of radicalism
and dissent. That doesnt mean we should stop challenging and
questioning. In fact we need to do so more than ever. It is just
when dissent becomes hardest that it becomes most necessary.
We desperately need to provide alternatives to the ways that decisions
are taken on the global level. Desperately, because such a high
proportion of the worlds population feels completely excluded
and this contributes to the sense of grievance in which terrorism
can prosper. So, its in the Wests self-interest, as
well as in the interests of everyone on the earth, that we begin
to resolve these problems, so that the overthrow of the Taliban
in Afghanistan doesnt become the pretext for a new imperialism.
In addition we need to clear up our own act. Before 11 September
the internationalist movement (a term I prefer to the "anti-globalisation
movement") had problems of its own. It had proved to be less
capable than it should have been of preventing the sort of street
violence we saw at Genoa. Now theres no question that most
of the violence came from the police, but theres also no question
that some of the protesters engaged in the most stupid and mindless
acts of vandalism, which gave the police the excuse to attack peaceful
protesters, and gave the G8 leaders the excuse to dismiss the efforts
of all the three hundred thousand people who were there.
As a movement, we have been far too soft on those who claim to be
on our side, but are actually undermining our efforts. Weve
tolerated a discourse of diversity in which people say, "you
just do your thing, well do our thing; violent protest can
live quite happily alongside non-violent protest". Thats
complete nonsense. Violent protest destroys non-violent protest
it makes it impossible. It ensures that the world sees all
protestors as violent. We have to be much more disciplined than
we have been in the past. We even have to question whether we can
continue to organise large demonstrations of the kind that we saw
We must build on the many extremely positive developments which
accompanied the street protests in Genoa, and in Nice and Davos.
We need to learn from groups like the World Social Forum, which
has been holding vast meetings and bringing together people from
all over the world. The counter gathering to Davos which it held
at Porto Alegre in Brazil was a start. It is my belief that these
could, unconsciously, be laying the foundations of a world parliament.
We would bring in more and more people and start to turn it into
a genuine representative democratic process. And then we could develop
a sort of world parliament in exile.
Whether our government, or any other government, likes it or loathes
it is completely irrelevant. And its my belief that after
a while it will accumulate sufficient moral authority that bodies
such as the World Bank and the IMF and some of the UN agencies will
have to answer to it, to account for their actions. Then, as a world
parliament, it will start to accumulate very significant power on
the international level.
CH Something like the World Social Forum clearly has a lot
of dynamism. But isnt it a huge agglomeration of NGOs, trade
unionists and well-intentioned people who are not elected? Is the
term "world parliament" really applicable?
GM Thats my point: at the start it is not a representative
body, but you slowly turn it into one. You implement the movement
towards democracy within it, where people are first of all delegated
by their communities, then their populations and then you turn it
into an elective process. What begins as an unrepresentative body,
but a body which covers all the nations on earth, and is certainly
no less representative than the UN General Assembly at the moment,
can be built into a genuine representative forum.
CH How would you summarise the spirit of the movement?
GM One of the great opportunities we have now is to get away
from the sort of simplistic sloganeering which has dominated politics
in the past, not least the protestors. We have the potential
for a far better-informed electorate at the global level as well
as the national level, than there has ever been. With the use of
the Internet and other modern means of communication, there is the
potential to see the sort of informed debate that has been woefully
There is an opportunity to start applying complex analyses, and
to start requesting that governments act on the basis of those analyses.
One of the worlds great problems is that we are always seeking
simple solutions to complex issues. That has to stop. We have to
engage in complexity ourselves, so that governments are thereby
allowed to engage in complexity as well.
CH Any parliament must include representatives from all sides.
In his exchange with Shirley Williams, Peter Sutherland says that
he would like to see a globalisation summit with a wide spread of
countries and organisations present. Couldnt this also be
a step towards the kind of world parliament you want?
GM It could be, but I would rather see the solutions emerging
from below than imposed, once again, by the national governments
and global institutions whose prescriptions have failed in the past.
Who decides who comes to the summit? Who mandates them to speak
on our behalf? Havent we had enough of lofty, Olympian views
from "summits"? Shouldnt we be having "valleys"
and "foothills" instead?
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29th November 2001