“Well? What are you waiting for?” (Review: The Age of Consent ~ Monbiot)

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The Age of Consent, George Monbiot, 2003, Harper Perennial

As I was wandering through the Political Geography section of the library in search of books on civil war, I spotted a familiar name on the shelf. George Monbiot is one of my favourite Guardian columnists. Out of all the regular big names, he’s probably the most radical across the board. So when I saw Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order on the shelf, I was instantly intrigued. There are few authors I would have been more interested in hearing present a political programme. The book didn’t disappoint. Foremost among its qualities, to me at least, is that it is a new world order Monbiot is talking about. I can recite criticisms of the global system in my sleep – but when asked what I would put in their place, I can do little more than offer a resigned shrug. Indeed, it’s the lack of an alternative that has led me to my cynical little defeatist cave.

Monbiot’s proposals are concrete, plausible, and radical. I can’t remember where it was that I read about an important characteristic of proposals for radical change – I suspect it was Chomsky. They must be plausible but impossible, to highlight just how restrained we are. In many ways, I think this could apply to the Age of Consent. If one had to design a world, his proposals would seem very reasonable and achievable. However, now that we have a world, it seems ludicrous to imagine such radical change. At the start of the book, Monbiot sets aside Marxist and anarchist “utopias”. I bristled a bit at his criticism of these, but he did touch on and express some of the issues which distance me from those ideologies. I feel his dismissal of Marxism was a tad facile, if, again, challenging. His point on the personalisation of the bourgeoisie creating the conditions for brutal political violence

“And Marx provided the perfect excuse for ruthless extermination. By personalising oppression as the bourgeoisie, he introduced the justification for numberless atrocities.” (p28)

 is a strong one, and one I have had to defend myself against a few times in the past month. On the other hand, I think he exaggerates the simplicity of Marx’s class theory, and ignores the many refinements and updates to it that have been made over the years to reflect an evolving society. Also in an uncharacteristically nasty piece of ‘quoting’, Monbiot implies Marx supported the extermination of classes that don’t fall into his theoretical models. See for yourselves, but I think it’s disingenuous. Either Marx said that

“Unfortunately for those living under communist regimes, society did not function as Marx suggested. The peasants, aristocrats, artisans and shopkeepers did not disappear of their own accord: they, like everyone else who did not fit conveniently into the industrial proletaria, had to be eliminated, as they interfered with the theoretical system Marx had imposed on society. Marx, who had described them as ‘reactionaries’ trying ‘to roll back the wheel of history’ might have approved of their extermination. The ‘social scum’ of the lumpenproletariat, which claim to include indigenous people, had to be disposed of just as hastily, in case they became, as Marx warned, ‘the bribed tool of reactionary intrigue’.”(p27)

 in which case, there must be a quote to that effect, or he never did, and there’s a strawman being created (hint; it’s the second one).

This is more a criticism of his treatment of Marx than of Marxism, as I either agree with his criticisms of the theory and political programme or at least think they’re reasonable.

As to the criticisms of anarchism, his point that unless all states were swept away at once, the powerful states would simply seize the assets of the stateless, who would not even have the minimal protection of the state. Furthermore, even if this were the case, removing the protection of the state would simply allow the powerful oppressors to oppress the weak with even more ease.

“For the majority of humankind to be free, we must restrain the freedom of those who would oppress us.” (p38)

                I find it hard to object to this point.

It’s telling, however, that my main criticisms lie in the first few pages of the book. They are more a criticism of what I feel is a tad intellectually dishonest.  Throughout the rest of the book, Monbiot is laying out his own ideas, or explaining the ideas of others in support of his proposals. A fascinating device he uses is comparing what was a concrete possibility at the genesis of the post-war international system, to what eventually took shape, and drawing parallels in between what he proposes and what was proposed back then.

I am going to be recommending this book repeatedly and strongly to friends, and that is for one reason above all others. The optimism that pervades this manifesto is invigorating. Monbiot rejects the pessimism of the ‘realists’ (like myself), who admit defeat before battle is even joined. He concedes change will be difficult and dangerous to achieve, and advocates it nonetheless. The final chapter in itself is a fantastic call to arms.

Now, to achieve global revolution…

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