Interview with George Monbiot

George Monbiot is a Global Justice campaigner, who has written extensively on corporate power, economic justice, globalisation and the environment. He was interviewed by Ritchie & Sue Hunter.

What was your motivation for becoming a campaigner for Global Justice?
It came about because of the first big project I did overseas, in West Papua, Indonesia, looking at the effects of Indonesian occupation, and in particular the trans-migration project, where Indonesia was bringing in hundreds of thousands of migrants in order to occupy the country, driving out the indigenous people and securing it as culturally and politically part of Indonesia. I went there because I was particularly interested in it and to write a book on what was happening, but primarily as a journalist. I came back a campaigner because I was so struck, and so horrified by what was happening there. I realised that the notion of journalistic objectivity was completely redundant in a situation like that where you had to take sides. To sit on the fence and to say, well, Indonesia might be committing an act of genocide, but we’ve got to give it the benefit of the doubt, would have been an inappropriate response. I felt that I had a very strong moral duty to stand up and say this is wrong. Having seen what was wrong in one country, I then worked in several others on fairly similar issues, particularly in Brazil and East Africa. I saw that the BBC style of journalism in which I’d been trained was insufficient; it wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to change things not just report on them. Not just explain what was going wrong, but to do something about those things. I spent several years working in developing countries, seeing some really horrendous cases of injustice, torture and murder and genocide. After that there was no looking back.

You stated in “The Price of Dissent” that the control of development is the single most important determinant of our quality of life. Can you explain what you mean by this?
The question of who decides what development goes ahead and on what terms determines whether people have affordable houses, whether they have places to work, whether there are places of leisure like parks and playing fields, whether they live in a habitable place or they don’t. If you have a free-for-all in development planning, all that happens is that the land goes to the highest bidder and you end up with executive housing and superstores and no provision for the poor. Public assets like town squares and playing fields and public parks will be very rapidly destroyed. I’ve seen this happen myself, in places like Jakarta and Sao Paulo where there are no effective planning constraints. What that means is that there is almost no public space left at all and those cities are nightmares as a result, they’re horrible places to live. The advantage in places like that is that in some circumstances the poor can build their own homes if there are no planning controls, but there is also nothing to stop the rich from bulldozing those homes for some other purpose.
I was very struck between the first time and the second time that I worked in Jakarta. The first time was in 1985 and one of the few saving graces of the city was what were the railway slums, going all the way through the city next to the railway. I know this sounds strange to say that they were a saving grace, but they were wonderful places, in many ways, because they were so thriving and active with a genuine community life taking place. Everywhere else it was a police state; the government had complete control, but not in these slums. Because there were no planning controls the whole lot had been bulldozed by 1987. Everybody had been moved, either forcibly transmigrated to the outer islands in terrible circumstances, or pushed to places 50 miles outside Jakarta where they were just dumped on a greenfield site and told to rebuild, far from their places of work and all the other things that they needed.
What we need is a state that is strong enough to protect the poor from the rich and which doesn’t allow the rich full reign to develop what they want to develop. What that means in a country like ours is that the government has to put a strict cap on the kinds of development that are permissible in certain places. If it doesn’t say x amount of the housing must be affordable housing then none of the housing will be affordable housing, and if it doesn’t say we must protect playing fields then there won’t be any playing fields, they will all disappear.
The difference between a place that is good to live in and a place that is terrible to live in is the active community; this makes it a habitable place. Only if people fight for their physical surroundings will their physical surroundings be fit to live in. You can go to a place and instantly know if people have been active in protecting it, except for heritage like this (Oxford) which has a hot tourist value and is self protected because the market protects it for that reason.

A lot of this sort of thing is happening in places like Liverpool where there is a lack of community power. Communities can win all kinds of battles on paper, but are still overruled anyway. Which is one of the things you have touched on when you stated, tongue in cheek maybe, that the capital should be moved north, to Liverpool.
Yes, I said Newcastle at first, but Liverpool is the geographical centre of the UK. So, in a way, in symbolic terms, it makes sense to do this. But you’re right, it was said tongue in cheek. There is an element of seriousness in this as well though, because the Southeast has all the advantages. It has the natural advantage that its coastline is close to the continent, so that it’s got those trading advantages. It’s got the City of London with all its wealth, which is generated there. It’s got a more pleasant climate which attracts business and so its always going to have an employment advantage over the North until something is done to redress that.

Although it didn’t during the Industrial Revolution.
Well, precisely. But the key thing with the Industrial Revolution was that we had an economy that was very closely linked to natural resources and we had high transport costs. When you have a manufacturing economy which is built around coal, which is built around iron ore, and limestone and other key natural resources, then the nearest port to that economy is going to be the favoured port. But today, in totally different economic circumstances there is very little to favour a place like Liverpool if you just leave it all to the ‘Market’ alone. Whereas if you move the capital you will take a million jobs there. We don’t need these jobs down here; we’ve got a surplus. In a place like Oxford, for example, there are more jobs than available housing, and even though this is a provincial town people have to commute in. We could actually lose jobs to a place like Liverpool and we’d be better off for it. So it makes no sense for us to have everything down here, it really doesn’t. Given that the government carries about half a million jobs, and the services surrounding cover another half million, this is quite a substantial thing. So it’s not entirely tongue in cheek.

George MonbiotIn “Captive State” you give a stark description of how small countries have been forced into agreements on trade, that not only damage the environment and human rights, but also mean the privatisation of services. Do you think this can be resisted, and if so how?
Well, it can be resisted. We have heard recently that Tanzania has cancelled its contract with Biwater, the British company, to privatise its water supplies and, in fact, worldwide now there is a move to resist privatisation. One thing we have to be aware of is that privatisation is not happening by accident, it’s not happening under its own steam. The British Government is paying these ultra right wing institutes, like the Adam Smith Institute, to go around the world and sell privatisation to developing countries, and it has attached a lot of its aid money to privatisation; if you don’t privatise you don’t get the money. The World Bank and the IMF are doing exactly the same thing. This is a profoundly immoral strategy. Its purpose is to provide contracts for rich world companies. Now Britain is incredibly well placed to do this because it has pioneered just about every kind of privatisation, that the world knows. From the straight-forward type of privatisation whether it’s BP or BT, or the railways, to more complicated types of privatisation like the Private Finance Initiatives, to all sorts of hybrids like Education Action Zones and City Academies; it has experimented with everything. We have been the ‘Crash Test Dummies’ in these privatisation experiments, during which it has been found out which ones work and which don’t, that is ‘work’ from the point of view of the companies, ‘work’ in terms of profit. When it’s found which ones are the most profitable they can be exported to other countries. Everywhere you go now, around the world, look at who’s profiting from these privatisation initiatives and it’s British companies. If you look at the water companies, people like this lot Biwater, Thames or Norththumbria and Trent, they are up to their eyes in it. It’s the same right across the service sector, merchant banks, the construction companies, the consultancy and accounting companies, they’re all profiting from privatisation around the world.

Do you think that Thomas L. Friedman, in his book “The World is Flat”, has a point, when he argues that global peace is being maintained by the multi-nationals through their trading networks and that governments are afraid to go to war because they may lose markets?
Adam Smith makes a very similar point. He says almost exactly what Friedman says. In fact, I think Friedman may have nicked this from Adam Smith. What we’ve seen in the past is that corporations have actually been the cause of war when they have tried to acquire territories from each other. If you look at the Chaco War, for example, between Bolivia and Paraguay, in the 1930s. This was a war sponsored by US oil companies. They both recruited a country, one Bolivia and one Paraguay and a hundred thousand people were killed in that war. This was simply a turf war between these two oil companies for control of the oil. So the idea that corporate networks defend us from war is nonsense.

Plus they sell arms to both sides; it’s the most profitable business of all.
In “Age of Consent” you argue that if the poorer countries got together they could challenge the dominance of the west in organisations such as the WTO and the IMF by setting conditions on how they pay back debt. But hasn’t this sort of collaboration been tried? I’m thinking of the OPEC, or countries in the UN against the invasion of Iraq.

OPEC has been an extremely successful organisation. It is almost redundant now the price of oil is kept high because of geological constraints, but if you use that as an example you see that countries that are politically weak, but have a form of economic power, can make good use of that power. Massive debt is a form of economic power.

But this debt is unreal anyway, it’s the west that owes them, you would agree with that. Doesn’t entering into negotiations about how you pay back debts undermine this position. Shouldn’t these countries just be saying: No we’re not going to pay anything back. Write it all off?
That’s a good point. Like you, I agree that the debt is completely illegitimate and I have made this point a few times; that for several reasons we owe them a huge amount of money. One, is in terms of the climate damage we have done to them, and for this we owe them an enormous debt. Two, is for the sheer amounts of materials we’ve stolen from the poor world by piracy and exploitation, at different times, and the amount of labour that’s been stolen through exported slavery or slavery on the spot, or bondage. So there’s a huge debt that the rich world owes the poor world, no question about that. But, we have to start from where we are. We have to start from the position of being able to affect the world now, rather than in some hypothetical space which we don’t yet possess. When you look around the world, and you see what possible weapons the poor countries have which they can use against the rich countries, the only one which is big enough to have the desired effect, is debt.

Campaigns and consumer pressure have led to success in forcing the big companies to change their plans. For instance this pressure stopped the development of the “Terminator Seed”, temporarily anyway…
…But that wasn’t consumer pressure, it was citizen pressure. This is a key point which I keep making, that we are far more powerful when we act politically as individuals than when we act purely economically. In the case of GM for example it was political campaigning that was involved in this as well, pulling up crops, doing direct action and all the rest of it which galvanized the public mood and led to a big public backlash to the plans of Monsanto and people like that. Simply saying “Well I’m not going to buy that if its got GM in it” isn’t going to do the trick. We have to be more than consumers, we have to be citizens.

Is it only mass action that will bring about permanent change?
I believe in mass action, but I’m not sure I believe in permanent change. I think it’s a contradiction in terms. Change is a process; it’s not an end point. What we need is always to keep fighting; however much we win we’ve got to keep fighting. The classic example is South Africa. People really relaxed in South Africa after 1994, they’d got what they wanted they’d won. What they didn’t realise was that having got rid of one kind of Apartheid, their government soon embraced another kind run by the IMF. They introduced, in 1996, a self-imposed structural adjustment programme which basically gave the IMF everything it wanted. Part of the reason they were able to do this was that people had taken their ‘eye off the ball’; they thought they’d won; and it’s when we think we’ve won that we lose. We must always, always keep fighting and never give up till the battle is over, and never assume that the battle is over. The moment we assume the battle is over we lose the battle. So I think you could mean two things by permanent change. It could mean change that keeps changing and changing, as permanent status.

Sounds like Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution.
Well, exactly, that’s right. Or it could mean something changing forever. I believe in the first concept and not in the second concept.

In ‘The Corporation’ Joel Baken argues that, by law, companies always have to put their shareholders first, even above ‘human moral decency’. Do you think that companies can be reformed?
The problem that I have with the film, it was a very good film by the way, was that it had a very mixed message about whether companies could be reformed or not. They had this very inspiring guy from the carpet company who was wonderful, he spoke beautifully, and he came across very sympathetically, but his message was: we can reform ourselves, we can sort this out. Actually, for me, that’s not how it’s to be done, they have to forcibly be reformed by regulation. If they are not regulated they won’t do it, in the long term. They will do a bit of window dressing in the short term, like Nike bringing out their report on its standards in its factories, but in the long term it has to be regulated. Self-regulation simply does not work, and there’s plenty of studies showing that this is the case.

But how can they be regulated when they are such big lobbyists and actually even control governments?
Well, we have to fight back, and we have to be more powerful than they are. In several cases we have proved that we can be. The GM food is a classic example, but all the anti-pollution measures that have come in over the last thirty years have been as a result of powerful campaigning by citizens despite the best efforts of corporate lobbies. So it becomes possible to win on just about anything, if you show that it becomes a big enough political issue, and what you face governments with is a choice between doing what the corporations want and doing what the citizens want. If the citizens say “We won’t trust you and therefore we won’t vote for you again if you don’t give us what we want”, then they’re going to side with the citizens, they have to, they have no choice.

Some people would say, “What about the series of marches culminating in the two million march against the Iraq war, which was blatantly ignored?”
The first thing to say is we don’t win all the battles and especially when you had George Bush breaking Blair’s balls. But the second thing to say is that actually we didn’t do nearly as good a job as we should have done. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, just going on marches is not enough, you have to do more than that, you have to take direct action, you have to be persistent. What we should’ve done was to occupy government ministries, to stand up whenever any government spokesman was speaking and drown them out, saying ‘No platform for Killers’ just like ‘No platform for Fascists’, that sort of idea. We should’ve been much more active and much more ‘in your face’ in the kind of actions we did. There were one or two people who did do that, there were people who broke into places like RAF Fairford and tried to damage the B52s and stuff, but that needed to be a much bigger campaign with many more people involved and then we could’ve stopped that war, but it wasn’t politically costly enough, we didn’t cost them anything. If they see a whole lot of people going on a march and going home afterwards thinking, “we’ve done our bit” they can say that the threat is then neutralised. But if they feel they can’t neutralise the threat because people aren’t giving up they’re going to be much more worried. What really counts in this sort of a campaign is direct action, which is why they’ve brought in all these new laws to criminalise it.

Which no doubt they’ll use at the G8 summit.
What do you see as the greatest dangers facing the ‘Global Justice Movement’?

The greatest danger is to assume that we are winning too early on in the game. At the moment we’ve got Blair making all the right noises in the run up to this G8 Summit. “I’m going to deal with climate change, with poverty. Leave it to me I’ll sort everything out. I’ll knock heads together.” We’ve just had the EU heads of government saying they will double aid, and it looks like we’re winning, and that’s the point where people relax and think “Oh well the battle’s over, we don’t have to carry on.” But actually when you look at what Blair is doing, it’s only going a tiny way towards what needs to be done. If we allow him to stop there and claim victory at this stage, actually what we are claiming is defeat. So the key thing is to keep fighting and keep fighting on this issue and however much we are given to ask for more.

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get involved in the Global Justice Movement?
The first bit of advice is don’t reinvent the wheel. There are already a lot of campaigns out there which desperately need volunteer support and help, and to create more groups would actually dilute the effort rather than strengthening it. So don’t let your enthusiasm run away with you, find out what people in your area are doing already and join with them in their efforts rather than competing by setting up something new. Now what I’ve done myself to try and promote that process is to publish a directory of organisations around the world who are involved in those aspects of global justice, such as trade, in global governance, in the IMF and all the rest of it. You can click on it, find anyone who is doing something under your particular subject. So, it’s basically a one-stop-shop to discover what’s happening already and what you can join up to. It’s called

By the way, congratulations on the match last night.*

For more of the writings of George Monbiot see:
Captive State – The corporate takeover of Britain, Macmillan, 2000
The Age of Consent – A Manifesto for a New World Order, Flamingo, 2003

*The interview took place the day after Liverpool’s win over AC Milan.

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