Democratic revolution

01.06.03 Publication:

The past 20 years have seen the growth of a huge global middle class. So George Monbiot is wrong to say that poverty is increasing, and equally wrong in his dream of a world parliament to help those who are still poor.

Democratic revolution

Review: The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order, George Monbiot

Flamingo, 274pp, L15.99

George Monbiot is a man of opposites. He argues that we live in an “Age of Coercion” and he wants the opposite, an “Age of Consent”. His road map for getting there consists of what he calls “repulsive proposals”, by which he means the opposite: that his ideas are so attractive and so radical that people will not dare to ignore or reject them. He says that the world is a place of increasing poverty, in which the rich unelected few are imposing rules and vast debts on the masses of poor, plundering their economies and societies with the help of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. In fact, the truth is the opposite of what he says.

The world is an unkind and ungrateful place to revolutionaries, for the facts have an annoying habit of not behaving as they would like them to. Take inequality. It is an essential foundation of Monbiot´s solution that huge and growing inequality is the world´s big problem. Yet it is not. If you look at inequality as the gap between the very richest countries (Switzerland, the United States) and the very poorest (Chad, Mali) then it is indeed growing, and has been for more than a century. But that is like saying that the big problem in Britain is the gap between the Duke of Westminster and the most destitute individual. This is to ignore a larger fact: that there is a huge middle class. At a global level it is the same – a huge middle class is emerging.

Monbiot is keen on academic references, so he ought to look up the work of Xavier Sala-i-Martin at Columbia University in New York, or of Surjit Bhalla, a Delhi-based Indian economist who published a book last autumn called Imagine There´s No Country for the Institute for International Economics in Washington. Both these experts have mapped the course of individual incomes around the globe, with striking results: both studies show that average incomes have been growing strongly, moving the bulge of income distribution towards the centre. This is hardly surprising, given that the world´s two biggest countries, India and China, which make up one-third of the world´s population, have both achieved a considerable acceleration of economic growth during the past 20 years. So have a lot of others.

The result is that there has not only been a diminution of general inequality, but also a big reduction in poverty. Measured by the benchmark favoured by the World Bank and most other development experts, of people living on incomes of $2 a day or less, adjusted to cater for differences in purchasing power, the proportion of the world´s population living in poverty dropped from 56 per cent in 1980 to 23 per cent in 2000, Bhalla calculates. Thanks to population growth, that colossal drop still leaves a large absolute number of people in that category: more than 1.1 billion. But that is a lot fewer than in 1990 (1.7 billion) and 1980 (1.9 billion). Before 1980, the absolute numbers were rising.

The consequences for Monbiot´s argument are devastating. This huge gain in welfare for the world´s poor occurred at a time when market systems of capitalism were being adopted or liberalised by the countries concerned: such systems, which Monbiot derides without exception, have brought hope and better lives to billions of people. Such gains have depended not on the “market fundamentalism” that he claims is the ruling ideology of the “dictatorship of vested interests” that governs and plunders the globe, but rather on a selective programme of liberalisation of capital and opening up to trade. Such a programme explains why during the 1960s and 1970s South Korea grew more successfully than India and Tanzania, and it explains why China and India have prospered during the 1990s.

Ah, you may interject, but what happened in successful east Asia once the evil IMF and its market fundamentalists got involved during the 1990s, forcing countries to liberalise their capital markets and take on debt, driving them into a financial crisis that the IMF then made worse, in its usual dastardly way? The answer is, first, that the story is not quite the one Monbiot tells: some countries did open their capital accounts too quickly, without simultaneously strengthening their domestic financial institutions and regulation (as recommended by the IMF); but second, having come through the crisis, countries have learned from it, have strengthened their financial systems and adapted their capital controls. Now all except Indonesia (where a political revolution occurred) have recovered. The IMF´s demonic efforts to plunder their economies in the interests of the United States evidently failed. Or else perhaps, just possibly, its advice to countries caught in a crisis of debt and ballooning financial deficits – that it would be a good idea to restore financial order rather than make things worse-proved to be more or less correct. After all, these “structural adjustment” programmes are not difficult to understand. They depend on an old proverb: when you are in a hole, stop digging.

The economic and social progress of the past 20 years has also, however, produced a problem that is genuine, tragic and large but very different from the one asserted by Monbiot. It is that between one-fifth and a quarter of the world´s population have been left behind by this growth. They dwell principally in sub-Saharan Africa, some countries in south and central Asia, and some in Latin America. That billion or so people could be fairly described as a sort of global underclass. Huge efforts are needed from the rich and middle-income countries to try to help them escape from disease, war, chaos and extreme poverty.

Such efforts should include some of the measures recommended by Monbiot, notably full liberalisation of the farm and textiles trades, and trade in processed foods. Farm protection in Europe, America, Japan and South Korea is one of the great outrages of our time. It is good news that Monbiot (and, one hopes, the Guardian and the New Statesman) will be joining the campaign for free farm trade which the Economist was founded to fight in 1843.

The problem of the global underclass would not, however, be solved in the way Monbiot dreams if his main recommendation, the establishment of a world parliament, were to come to pass. Leave aside the rather large issue of whether a parliament with a worldwide electorate could possibly work, given, for example, the entrenched worries of the British electorate about the transfer of sovereignty merely to European political institutions. Ask yourself whether the new global middle class – hundreds of millions of now quite affluent Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Thais, Taiwanese, Brazilians, Malaysians, Poles and so on – would actually vote, as Monbiot hopes, to redistribute money and tilt the rules in favour of the underclass. You have only to check whether middle-class majorities have in general voted to shovel money to their domestic underclasses to find out. They won´t. They will vote to help themselves.

Handily, a recent opinion poll asked people all around the world their opinions on the burning global issues of our day. The Pew Centre (based in Maryland) drew most attention with its findings that hostility to the US has risen substantially. Those stirred to use this as vindication for their anti-capitalist views ought also to look at the survey´s questions to people in poor countries about globalisation and indeed capitalism. The survey showed that there is no backlash against globalisation, none of the growing movement for global justice that Monbiot would have us believe. Just the contrary: globalisation is popular, and it is wanted.

If sustained, this sentiment is a blow to Monbiot´s hope that a worldwide movement is developing, one that through solidarity, the joy of direct action and the power of mass involvement will bring about fundamental change. But neither reality nor consistency is a big concern for him. His inconsistency reaches a wonderful peak near the end of the book, when he complains that the American political class has been “infected with bizarre religious beliefs”, citing the view of some in the right-wing Christian Coalition that an event called “the Rapture” will occur once the Jews have taken all their biblical lands. Then, just five pages later, he finishes with his own hope that the world is approaching what he calls a “metaphysical mutation which transforms the way human beings perceive themselves and which nothing but another metaphysical mutation can halt”. Bizarre and rapturous indeed.