How to be radical? An interview with Todd Gitlin and George Monbiot

About the authors
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).
George Monbiot is a journalist, academic and political and environmental activist. Monbiot writes a weekly column for the Guardian.
openDemocracy: Todd, what is your view of The Age of Consent?

Todd Gitlin: There are three reasons I like this book. First, I heartily approve its refusal of gesture politics, of the kind of activism which just stands on the sidelines and condemns everything.

Second, I am encouraged by the way George takes government seriously. This is not fashionable with the global justice movement, with its strong anarchist streak.

Third, George is looking for plausible sources of power that are not conventional ones, such as the idea of a world parliament. I’m not persuaded, but I do respond seriously to your injunction, George, to come up with something better if I don’t like your suggestions.

Some related texts about global governance and radical protest on openDemocracy:

We are not supposed to believe in the possibility of utopian yet achievable change after the fall of communism. But George has taken seriously the exercise of imagining a source of power which can actually tilt the world towards greater justice.

I found the book extremely stimulating. I frequently argued with you as I read. But I appreciated the imperative to do so. I’m not usually stimulated to think on this scale, and I hope your book has the same effect on others.

openDemocracy: George, what is your view of Todd’s book Letters to a Young Activist?

George Monbiot: It is resonant with wisdom. It performs a critically important function for today’s activists. We in the global justice movement tend to be woefully ahistorical. We have very little grasp of our antecedents, of what has already been tried.

We have a tremendous romanticism about the 1960s and the New Left. There’s an assumption that it was an easy ride, that the 1960s permitted people political liberties which aren’t available today, in which activists only had to push gently at the open door and it would swing wide open to allow in the new politics.

One of the extremely useful functions of Todd’s book is to show us that it wasn’t like that at all. Politics were as tough then as today, in some respects tougher. You were up against extremely powerful reactionary forces which in some cases were better organised and came out in larger numbers than did the progressives.

We see ourselves very much as the inheritors of the legacy of the 1960s, but we haven’t understood that legacy, and we’ve failed therefore to learn the lessons that you learned, Todd.

It’s been revelatory to me to be able to make comparisons between, for instance, moronic movements like the Symbionese Liberation Front and elements of the Black Bloc today. Both mistake an aggressive assertion of identity for political action, and by doing so devastate the constructive efforts made by many other people. I urge all those who are active in politics today to read the book.

openDemocracy: Todd writes that as the Vietnam war became unpopular in the United States towards the end of the 1960s, so – paradoxically – the anti-war movement also became unpopular. Is there a parallel today, George? The larger public may be increasingly disenchanted with the consequences of globalisation as headed by George Bush but at the same time it may turn against the protest movement.

George Monbiot: Yes, there are plenty of signs that the messengers are being blamed. I’m constantly struck by the fact that people whom I try to reach often deeply resent me for even trying to reach them.

Todd Gitlin: Isn’t the problem different? Today’s global justice movement may be the biggest, most diverse and energetic in history. But it is also too easy to get attached to it because its aims are so broad and general. Is one of your aims, George, to make it in some senses harder – perhaps necessarily less popular – by suggesting a specific strategic thrust?

George Monbiot: Yes, we have found it almost too easy to unite in opposition. This means that as a movement we aren’t as solidly rooted as we need to be. We’re tremendously vibrant, exciting and diverse. This is our great strength and our great weakness.

The problem comes when we start to try to develop a political programme. All movements that are successful must develop a political programme and go through the painful process of deciding not just what they are against, but what they’re for. This requires real intellectual rigour and political intelligence. Without this we cannot reshape the world; we can only react.

So I am trying to concentrate minds, and I realise this will be divisive. But it’s something we have to go through. You can make an analogy with the British Labour Party in the 1980s. It was a diverse but doomed amalgam of radicals and reformists. It had somehow to find a coherent political programme which could carry with it a critical mass of the party, even as it alienated many of its members, in order to convince voters that it should govern.

Labour found a programme. I happen to think it was the wrong one. But the party was right to recognise that it had to go through that fire in order to be politically effective and one day to win an election. We have to do something similar.

‘Democratic’ politics and radical dilemmas

openDemocracy: In her review of Todd’s book, Naomi Klein accuses him of patronising the young, and condemns him for supping with the enemy, looking for lesser evils, looking for friends among those with power and shooting for achievable reforms. Todd responded, asking what’s the alternative? Support greater evils? Make more enemies? Shoot for unattainable reforms?

Todd Gitlin: This is a classic dispute, of course. I don’t for the life of me understand how anybody could contemplate the results of the 2000 election in the US and say that electoral politics doesn’t matter any more, and that Ralph Nader was right when he said there is no difference between the two parties.

I am a realist as well as an idealist, and I think that it is incumbent upon those of us in opposition to try to work within what are always arduous circumstances to stretch the limits of the possible.

I think, George, that in your book you are well aware at times of the danger of romanticising social movements, but at other times you are excessively enamoured of their self-organising capacities. It’s an old anarchist dream that people can take care of their own lives. But there are so many other forces operating to confine and usurp peoples’ energies. We may repeat the awful revolutionary history of the 20th century because of the vulnerability of social movements to demagoguery.

George Monbiot: I agree that the way forward cannot be an anarchist way. There is no possibility of bringing about anything, except even greater freedom for the rich and powerful, through the forms of anarchism which are still being discussed within the global justice movement. We have to have a clear notion of the kind of governance that we want to achieve.

But I don’t agree that we should dismiss Ralph Nader and what he was trying to achieve. It’s a pretty grim world view which says there can only ever be two parties in politics, and even if the better of the two is completely compromised we should still work within it rather than seeking to challenge it from the outside.

How does one build an alternative politics within an existing national system if it’s not by building up third parties, getting them to contest elections, and slowly gaining ground?

Todd Gitlin: All I will say is that there are particular features of the American constitutional system that renders a third party futile – at best. It is a presidential rather than a parliamentary system and it does not allow for proportional representation.

In other countries – most of Europe in fact – third parties can thrive. You can open channels for careers. You can actually affect legislation. This matters (and it would be true of a global parliament if there is one, too).

To win power anywhere you have to convince people that you can do something for them. You must appeal to their enlightened self-interest, as well as to ideals that transcend self-interest. I think the American system prevents the latter at the presidential level, and that’s why the Nader campaign was worse than futile – it was bad theatre that turned the country over to the Christian right and the most depraved corporate interests, and aborted the possibility of constructive reform for at least four years, more if we’re unlucky .

George Monbiot: You’ve touched on a great conundrum. The US system excludes progressive politics, and that’s one of the great problems which all of us who are progressive have to try and deal with.

Todd Gitlin: Yes, but I do think that had Al Gore been elected we would be launched into a more progressive response after 9/11. My view is that the Democratic Party is not completely compromised, but half-compromised, and that this is a crucial difference.

openDemocracy: What about Brazil? Naomi Klein seems to dismiss the Lula administration as hopelessly compromised before it began by his agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Surely, George, Lula is part of a third party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, or PT)?

George Monbiot: The Workers’ Party is actually a first party. Political parties are extremely weak in Brazil, with the exception of the PT. Brazilian presidents have always had very little linkage to their party, and Lula is the great exception. The PT party machine is far better organised than others. It is only through its sustained organisation that the PT has remained such a powerful political force in Brazil in the face of all the opposition from the media and the establishment.

openDemocracy: Do you also write off the PT as a progressive force in global politics on the grounds that it has compromised with external forces like the IMF to achieve power?

George Monbiot: No, I don’t, and I think Todd’s right when he talks about going as far as possible within the extreme constraints imposed by others, particularly by the financial speculators whose demands are even more stringent than those of the IMF. It’s very hard to see what else the PT could do, and this to my mind is a powerful argument for democratic globalisation. If Lula cannot escape the straightjacket imposed by global forces no-one can. We need, in other words, to bust the straightjacket.

The timescales of change

openDemocracy: Todd, you have outlined some of the reasons you value The Age of Consent. Where do you disagree?

Todd Gitlin: My question concerns one of its central proposals, a world parliament. This would be a new entity, elected on a one-person, one-vote basis on a global scale. The idea is to jump-start a process so that the moral authority and spirit of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) becomes institutionalised, and acquires a legitimacy which the United Nations cannot have because so many of its member states are undemocratic. As a uniquely elected world body it will have biggest possible claim to legitimacy. This, ultimately, will give it real power. Furthermore, George, you propose it can be done pretty much on the cheap, that it can be done simply by doing it.

This is as radical in its way as the founding of a more or less democratic republic in the American Revolution. It’s an extremely bold notion. Can a critical mass of organisers be brought together for a period of, perhaps, decades? I don’t know. It’s certainly worth a hard look. I’m enough of a believer in the power of organisation.

George is as sceptical of populism as I am. But successful revolutionaries of whatever kind are those who start to hum the right song at the right time, and then discover that lots of other people are singing along. Is this the right song at the right time? Can you make a case, George, that enough people are ready for this move?

George Monbiot: I cannot put my hand on my heart and say, yes, this revolution is imminent. As you suggested it will be a very long process if the process is going to take place at all.

But I do have a strong impression from around the world that two things are happening. First, large numbers of people are waking up to the idea that things just cannot carry on the way they are, both for environmental reasons such as climate change, and for economic and financial reasons such as debt and the increasingly predatory attentions of the IMF and the World Bank. This gives us a good starting-point for action. If people say, well, your alternatives can’t possibly work, we can turn round and say, well, your existing system can’t possibly work.

Second, there is a great hunger for new ideas, a way forward, a new political programme. Wherever I’ve spoken so far – even in Britain, which is one of the most backward countries as far as the global justice movement is concerned – there has been a far more enthusiastic reception than I’d anticipated. Lots of people come up afterwards and say, right, where do we start? How do we start to put some of these ideas into practice?

And in some ways I’ve actually been slowing people down, saying, hold on! We don’t know whether these are the best ideas or not. They’ve got to be tested. We’ve got to be rigorous about this. Still, I’m heartened by a tremendous enthusiasm I hadn’t realised was there before.

‘National’ politics and global aspirations

openDemocracy: Letters to a Young Activist points to the fact that you can’t be an activist on your own. For activists to be effective they need to exchange ideas and debate an organised way forward, without this becoming something which internalises all their energy – one of the fatal flaws of so many left-wing and radical organisations.

The Age of Consent addresses this. It argues that the starting-point for effective action is to work out a larger strategic objective. Then the political arguments that follow, including how organisation itself should take place, can be judged and debated in terms of that strategic goal.

The goal for George is global government of a democratic kind. As part of arguing this you attack ‘inter-national’ responses to globalisation. Nations and national identity are dismissed as artificial constructs. ‘Inter-national’ solutions to globalisation such as the UN, made up of nation-states, are seen as purely part of the problem. Any interest they represent is negative.

But the community in which we exercise democracy and seek to be represented, however inadequately, however angry we may be with political and national structures, is surely a national one. For this reason a “Monbiot strategy” in which we as individuals are asked to engage with the whole world – seems unreal. Even if a world parliament existed, could it deliver in terms of the felt interests and the felt experience that people have, especially with respect to globalisation?

Surely questions of nation and national parties are fundamental to everyone’s sense of their interests, and one cannot just make a move around them, like a knight on a chessboard?

George Monbiot: I appreciate the point, and I think it’s an important one. But the problem I am confronting is that global politics has been captured by internationalism. The United Nations is a very good example of that. It’s not a gathering of the people of the world; it’s a gathering of the nation-states. There is a clear conflict between the interests of nation-states and the interests of the world’s people. We see, for example, the nation-states agreeing to say nothing about their excessive spending on arms, for the simple reason that they nearly all indulge in it.

There’s one other factor, which I think is critical to this. Economic globalisation has created a universal class interest as people all over the world are being threatened by the same institutions and by the same forces. It has created the discontent on which all new politics must feed.

At the same time, it has pulled down the barriers which stood between us. This is forcing together a new global demos – a global political identity. The further growth and development of the global justice movement is almost inevitable, and we need to start struggling to develop the best possible political programme and then to implement it.

So while I advocate bypassing the nation-state, I am also documenting its economic and political erosion. We see what appear to be inexorable forces removing political and economic control from the level of the nation-state. This explains why it is that in almost every country on earth the principle governing party and the principal opposition party are almost identical in terms of their politics. The real decisions are no longer being made at the level of the nation-state.

And because we have no control over global politics we end up with no real control over local politics. Brazil is a good example. Before the last election Lula made it very clear that he wanted to pursue an alternative economic strategy for Brazil, and he was prevented from doing so by the IMF and the financial speculators. This is why I’m saying that until we can globalise democracy and democratise globalisation, we can no longer have a meaningful national democracy.

The long-term undermining and erosion of the nation-state is well underway. Nations are not nearly as powerful as they used to be. The decline could be seen as part of a pattern, which began when the family gave way to the pack, and the pack gave way to the clan, and the clan to the tribe, and the tribe to the barony, and the barony to the nation-state.

We are seeing the nation-state giving way to a planetary unit of political organisation. I don’t think there’s great deal we can do about that, but there’s a great deal we can do to ensure that this unit of political organisation becomes a far more democratic one than it is at present.

Todd Gitlin: I don’t agree about the erosion of the nation-state when put like that. Whatever we want to say about the growing power of global agencies like the IMF and World Bank or global corporations with respect to decisive questions, everywhere there is one nation-state that doesn’t mean to go gently into erosion, and that is of course the United States of America. This is a point Tom Nairn has made rather starkly on openDemocracy.net.

My book is focused on the power of the American state, not least because the government of the United States governs so much that the case could be made that everybody around the world ought to have a vote in determining some of its policies. Instead, not even the citizens of the United States were able to choose their own president in 2000.

So every day I’m mindful as I watch the Bush crowd extend their sway into policies of every imaginable variety, and over almost every square foot of earth, that the control of the American state is a matter of urgency. Much of my thinking about political strategy is focused on a prior or more proximate goal than yours, George. I am concerned about how to reverse the process by which a fundamentalist right and a corporate elite were able to seize power in the United States. They did so as a result of decades of very tough-minded work. Did they organise! While liberals and the left were perfecting their differences with each other and focussing locally, or departing from politics altogether, or in other ways evaded the material burdens of politics, the right did the work, on the ground.

The consequence is the world suffers massively, as tremendously important questions about climate change, global governance, military action, debt and other economic policies have been removed from the table by this reactionary minority.

What politics does globalisation offer?

openDemocracy: Nationalism is not only active in America. Both India and China, which have great potential as well as great difficulties, are good examples. Are we not seeing the rise of at least two new nationalistic powers that will seek to renegotiate with the current hegemon, the United States, seeking a different balance of power?

The tendency for people in geographic proximity with shared systems of trading, culture and language to form blocks which will compete with other blocks and not merge into one big whole, is not going to go away, and trumps any ‘universal class interest’.

Todd Gitlin: I’m not competent to address the question whether other nation-states will form new centres of economic power. But I do think George is absolutely right about the dangers of nationalism. Indian democracy has elected a dangerous, chauvinist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which fuses religious fundamentalism and nationalism together in a way that’s toxic and potentially murderous. All such nationalisms, actual and potential, will remain clear if not present dangers. Popular movements of different kinds are needed to guard against them.

George Monbiot: I don’t think there is a clash between what Todd says about America and what I’m saying about the undermining of national power elsewhere. For all the other nations on earth, the American government is part of the global context in which they must operate. Their own autonomy is restricted by the scope of US power in the political, economic and military spheres. So I would class the US as belonging to the same category as the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the financial speculators. It is one of those global forces – indeed, the first among those forces, which restricts the ability of other nation-states to act autonomously.

As for the idea of a universal class interest, yes, it’s a simplification, and yes, it will always be clouded by nationalism and by local interests of different kinds. But we do see people linking up internationally despite this. Take, for example people resisting Monsanto’s attempts to force genetically-modified (GM) crops into the food chain in Britain linking up with peasant farmers in south-west India who are trying to prevent Monsanto from buying up the local seed banks.

We see people with widely different interests campaigning against the agenda of the WTO. Take a small farmer like Jose Bové in Europe, whose interests seem very different to those of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Yet they have found common cause, though of course this does take us back to the earlier point that it’s much easier to unite in opposition than it is to unite in proposition.

Todd Gitlin: The mobilisation which Bush has been able to perform since 11 September 2001 has to be fought – at least by Americans – in the name of a wise, honourable and democratic patriotism. It won’t do, at least for progressive Americans, to say that Bush deserves the undisputed title to the American flag.

There are good parallels with other countries. For example, villages are currently being drowned by the Three Gorges Dam in China . It seems that the largest dam in the world was sold to the Chinese people as an example of “China stands up”. Now, if I were Chinese and opposed to that project on ecological and other grounds, I think I would need to fight the dam in the name of some other conception of Chinese patriotism – a wise and caring one – rather than in the name of some refusal of patriotism altogether on behalf of the planet.

George Monbiot: I don’t think that there is a contradiction between the need to act at the global level and the need to act at the national level. We have to act at the global level because there are certain things we can do only at the global level. You cannot deal with climate change, international debt, war, the global balance of trade or nuclear proliferation only at the national or the local level.

But we also have a situation in which we can exercise less choice over issues which are inherently national or local, simply because the real decision-making power has been extracted to the global level. There are then two powerful arguments for acting globally and for creating a global political consciousness rather than just a national one, and there is no real conflict between them.

But on the question on patriotism, yes, Todd’s right. It is a stronger force than I permitted to emerge in the book. I’m sure it’ll take a long time to die just as tribalism took a long time to die in many of the countries in which it is now dead. But it does seem to me that despite the recent resurgence and flowering of patriotism in one or two parts of the world, it is nonetheless slowly and inexorably on the way out.

openDemocracy: And do you want it to be on the way out?

George Monbiot: Yes. I see nationalism and particularly patriotism as being a destructive force. It sent eight million men to their deaths in the first world war when their class interests – in overthrowing the aristocrats who sent them to kill each other – were absolutely identical. I would prefer to live in a world without those forces, in a world in which our empathy is not clouded by questions of national identity, in which we can understand it is just as important for us that a citizen of Bangladesh or Peru has a good life as it is that a citizen at the end of our own street can have that.

Todd Gitlin: There is a fuzzy but real distinction that can and I believe should be made, between patriotism, which is attachment to a way of life, and nationalism, which is the insistence that your way of life deserves to rule over other ways of life. As Tom Nairn argues in his piece “Axis of Good” on openDemocracy.net, the churning revival of big-power nationalism is a clear and present danger.

In the United States, there’s a hollowing out of democratic procedure and an upsurge in unthinking, or anti-thinking, mob conduct, where an elite and a mass have embraced each other in a spirit that fuses bravado and paranoia. But against the spirit of nationalist harrumphing there are many varieties of patriotism that are possible – very much including a recognition that Bangladeshis and Peruvians are entitled to a certain identity and pride which doesn’t threaten our own.

Some versions of patriotism come close to the tribal, which we all want to surpass, and some don’t. Activists, global or local, cannot afford to disdain the whole panorama of emotional attachments that people bring with them. The only people available to change the world are the people now living in it, with all the beliefs they bring along – however retrograde those beliefs may appear to those of us who see ourselves as enlightened.