Hilary Wainwright, Reclaim the State: Experiments in Popular Democracy and George Monbiot, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Review by Melanie Jarman

Both Wainwright and Monbiot are in search of a way out of the world's neo-liberal quagmire. Both are concerned with an expansion of democracy, yet their searching takes quite different directions. While Monbiot presents a blueprint for a different world order, Wainwright heads to Brazil, and through England, finding practical grassroots “experiments” that may give sustainable roots to a global movement for social justice.

Wainwright sets off with more than airline tickets and a bus timetable - as the pointer on her intellectual compass she has “the assumption of the creative potential and value of every human being”. This trust in our specie's ability to come up with interesting and creative ways of living together is shared by Monbiot. Both authors recognise that change which is genuinely from the bottom up is occasionally chaotic, yet is necessarily so.

Wainwright grounds her work in the theory that different understandings of people's capacity for knowledge, and of allowing the expression of this knowledge, are key to different economic, social and political arrangements. This theory explains how social democratic parties, for example, have ended up relying on the status quo. Failing to acknowledge that their supporters could in themselves be a mine of knowledge, they have looked to the practical and codifiable knowledge of those who manage already existing arrangements. They have presumed that the state under the control of the party, rather than as responsive to social movements, was the prime agency of social change.

Such an approach is in marked contrast to that of the dominant party in Porto Alegre, Brazil - the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Their declared aim is to “share power with the movements to which we owe success”. In practice the PT has broken new political ground by introducing the Participatory Budget process and working with a source of democratic power beyond the state - its citizens.

Back home in England, Wainwright uncovers further examples of communities engaging with the political process in a way hardly recognisable to institutions further up the political hierarchy. This holds rich lessons for a new form of government - characterised by power structures and decision-making processes that would fully employ the capacities of its citizens.

Monbiot meanwhile lays down interlocking proposals for what a new form of government might look like at a global level. These refreshing ideas include the creation of a Fair Trade Organisation, an International Clearing Union, and a Parliament of the world's peoples, elected across national boundaries. Such measures would propel us towards a “metaphysical mutation” - a move from an “age of coercion” to an “age of consent”. Monbiot believes that “by rebuilding the global politics we establish the political space in which our local alternatives can flourish”. This is of course true, but without the experimentation in the projects explored by Wainwright there will not be the political climate for Monbiot's proposals to be promoted with the passion they deserve. The two need each other. Democracy requires practice - in our everyday lives, as much as in a distant chamber of world government.

Monbiot is fairly prescriptive for his critics - he invites comment but on the basis that his proposals aren't ripped apart without something better being put in their place. This ignores the dynamic that not all people are equally empowered to speak, or to have the confidence in developing their own ideas. Monbiot needs to hang on to Wainwright's theory of knowledge, and remember his own stated belief that all can contribute towards creating a new world, unrefined though these contributions may initially be.

See more of: Review