Throughout the lion’s share of my life I viewed politics as an incomprehensible web of distant and irrelevant nonsense. I frequently dismissed political news and issues as boring and entirely immaterial to my life of computer games, 18th century poetry, bass guitar and serial monogamy. Over breakfast I would completely disregard Mum’s claims that politics ‘affects everything’. Three years ago that all changed.
In August of 2011 the UK experienced a series of riots which exploded across the nation burning for 5 days then fizzling out almost as abruptly as they started. Mobs of young people were looting shops, engaging in seemingly wanton vandalism and arson, fighting the police and causing chaos on a level which saw an estimated £200 million of damage to local properties alongside the deaths of five people – an unreckonable tragedy. When the conflagration died down social networks, comment boards, newspapers and TV channels were abuzz with discussion as to what caused the riots. Were they the result of a gradual and long-term erosion of core family values? A deep seated frustration of a disenchanted working class that finally reached boiling point? Or simply a case of opportunistic thugs seizing the chance to unleash their inner apes? Nobody could agree. On Facebook I came to blows with a good friend who argued that the eruption was spontaneous and inexplicable and simply required a stern reaction from the state to set things right again. To me however it seemed that no fire spreads so rapidly unless there’s a huge amount of kindling lying around to feed it. What the nature of the kindling was and how long it had been building up (apparently unnoticed by the majority of the commentators and mainstream analysts I was reading) were urgent questions to my mind.
Seeking answers I took to the high cyber-seas and scoured the internet for analyses and interpretations of the events. Rigorous searching turned up a wealth of theories and arguments and I came to the realisation that no kind of succinct synopsis was going to be found. What I did discover was a slew of discussion focusing on the political climate in the UK and in what ways it may or may not have contributed to the riots. This line of debate immediately drew me in and while the cause of the riots seemed to be a vast and incomprehensible concoction of circumstances (which would require a relentlessly insatiable appetite for information in order to pick apart) I nevertheless felt more informed and educated after having at least tried. The desire to stay informed stuck with me, but I soon faced a problem. If the politics of my own country struck me as vast, murky and Gordian, what hope did I ever have of comprehending politics at the global level?
It was around this time I came upon a link to an article by George Monbiot. Writing regular columns for the Guardian newspaper in the UK, Monbiot has also authored a number of books covering global warming, corporate power in the UK and environmental devastation in both Africa and Indonesia – topics he researched and investigated first-hand. Since I first started reading his columns back in 2011 he has been my first port of call whenever political events leave me feeling perplexed or bemused. An exhaustive analyst, an intrepid investigator and a relentlessly rigorous researcher, Monbiot is a bastion of integrity and transparency when it comes to investigative journalism and has been a staunch companion on my quest to political enlightenment.
I just finished my second reading of his 2003 book The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and feel like for the first time in my life I can finally say I have some inkling as to why the world is the way it is and why the emergence of change, despite the unquestionable and ever-looming necessity for it, is still so slug-slow.
At the heart of the book is an impulse to bring about democracy on a global level. Citing the tendency of countries to frequently hijack the ability of the world’s citizens to unify and work towards the resolution of global issues, Monbiot wants us to recognise the inherent injustice in the very structure of the UN (in which the USA is able to block any proposal via veto thus ensuring no policy is approved which doesn’t benefit the US economy) and the IMF (whose heavy-handed financial advice has consistently resulted in the pillaging of developing economies by developed ones). He seeks to craft proposals which when applied will move us from our current situation into one of fair representation, equal distribution and globally-aware political engagement for all the world’s people. He wants to usher in a ‘metaphysical mutation’ which will see our transformation into a race of people who place our existence as a member of the human race above our identification with whatever nation state we happen to have been born into.
After the riots of 2011 I found myself focusing on what could make so many people – mostly young males – hit the streets and cause so much mindless destruction which, in the long run, only harmed the communities they lived in and the people they lived with. Why crap on your own community? After reading The Age of Consent I now see that the same thing is happening every day but on a global scale. Taking the world and its people as a single neighbourhood (an inevitable eventuality thanks to the internet and our ever-accelerating technology-driven trajectory towards connectivity and transparency) we in the developed world are propped up by the same kind of vandalism and looting which ravaged UK cities in 2011. The only difference is that the perpetrators are the globally established and internationally sanctioned institutions of the IMF, WTO and UN. With powers heavily weighted in favour of the permanent members, these institutions coax, manipulate and bully their way through international interactions in order to ensure the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. It was a tough, bitter pill to swallow but Monbiot’s research, examples and lucid arguments have left me convinced of the truth that although we are told these institutions are working to ease poverty, world hunger and wealth inequality, their ability to do so is entirely subverted by the way in which they are structured and organised. In other words, if we were to design a system which would perfectly reinforce and perpetuate the global status quo, we could do no better than the holy trinity of the IMF, WTO and UN. As in 2011, damage is wrought and goods are plundered, only in this case there is no higher power to reign in the chaos.
Some books cleave your life in two causing the time before reading them to seem like a dark age in which you blundered through life smashing rocks together in an attempt to figure out what the hell was going on. You next find yourself better informed and more aware of things in a way which leaves you wondering how the hell you ever got by without that knowledge and insight which now seems so clear and obvious. The Age of Consent is one of those books.
The axe-edge which cleaved my life in two landed when I got to page 158 and read this:
‘That the colonized world, whose wealth has been plundered for 500 years, should be deemed to owe the rich world money, and that this presumed debt should be so onerous that every year $382 billion, which might have been used to feed the hungry, to house the poor, to provide healthcare, education, clean water, transport and pensions for people who have access to none of these amenities, is transferred from the poor world to the banks and financial institutions of the rich world in the form of debt repayments is an obscenity which degrades all those of us who benefit from it.’
It takes a few readings but it’s easily one of the most powerful sentences I’ve ever read and once I’d read it through a couple of times and fully digested it I was left amazed. I’ve never read such a neat yet disturbing summary of the way our world works and furthermore it shed new, horrifying light on my own roots as an English national born into wealth, comfort and luxury. What I’d previously considered a humble beginning (being born into a modest working class family in England) I now recognise as the most statistically unlikely yet immensely fortuitous blessing I’ve ever been lucky enough to receive. A few facts courtesy of Monbiot reinforced this:
Half the world’s population live on less than $2 per day and one fifth live on less than $1.
There are 840,000,000 people who lack the money to buy food despite a global surplus.
One third of people living in poor countries have insufficient access to water
The average citizen of the USA consumes 88 times more energy than a citizen of Bangladesh.
The poor world owes the rich $2.5 trillion.
It’s easy to feel outraged at the world’s injustices, to sit back and shake a fist from the comfort of our homes, but it achieves nothing. Now, if you feel galvanized and are aware of these global problems – problems which need to be addressed and inequalities that need to be avenged – I urge you to read The Age of Consent so you will realise that change can happen, there are viable solutions and a fair future is both possible and necessary if we are to have any hope of considering ourselves a civilized species. Having already done most of the heavy lifting when it comes to research, planning, thinking and analysing, Monbiot is waiting to talk you through his conclusions and suggestions for the future. His voice is calm and poised yet there is a robust undercurrent of revolutionary truth, knowledge and passion reinforcing it. Ever hopeful yet stoically realistic, Monbiot wants you to meet his arguments and propositions with an open-mind and a critical scepticism. He finishes his introduction with a simple invitation:
‘I ask just one thing of you – that you do not reject these proposals until you have better ones with which to replace them […] If you believe that slogans are a substitute for policies, or that if we all just love each other more there’ll be a transformation of consciousness and no one will ever oppress other people again, then I am wasting your time, and so are you.’