An interview with George Monbiot. September 2000.
George Monbiot has been named by the Evening Standard as one of the 25 most influential people in Britain and by the Independent on Sunday as one of the 40 international prophets of the 21st century. He is the author of the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man’s Land. He writes a column for the Guardian and is Honorary Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Keele, and Visiting Professor at the Department of East London. From 1993 to 1995, he was a Visiting Fellow at Green College, Oxford and from 1999 to 2000 he was Visiting Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol. In 1995, Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement.
His latest book, Captive State, pulls the covers off the powerful bedfellows of government and big business to show how the rest of us end up the losers. He sat down with Amazon.co.uk’s Society, Politics & Philosophy editor Fiona Buckland to discuss leaks, lobbyists, and why Labour is so attractive to corporations
Amazon.co.uk: Why did you write Captive State?
George Monbiot: There was a gap to be filled. Although we were getting hints about corporate infiltration of government and public life in general, no-one had systematically tried to pull it all together and tell the whole story. It’s been the most stressful three years imaginable. It’s been me, three researchers and an administrator gathering a vast amount of research. For three years I had to read 600 pages a day just to get on top of the subject. First of all to understand a lot of very complicated areas of life, then to make sense of them and then to start investigating them. Then, of course, to turn them into something that was easily digestible to anyone. My aim in writing the book is so everyone can understand it. I think what I’ve managed to show is a systematic assault on the public values which Britain once prided itself on. It really amounts to institutionalised corruption running right the way through government.
Amazon.co.uk: There are extraordinary instances related in the book when you can’t get hold of information you need and soon after anonymous brown paper parcels containing classified documents arrive on your doorstep. In the absence of a Freedom of Information Act, how did you find so much material not in the public domain and how did your search affect the shape of the book?
Monbiot: The research was exhaustive and exhausting. It began with reading all the relevant trade press for the last five years, just about every government document published over the past three or five years depending on what part we were looking at and then starting to put together a few pieces of the jigsaw. So something comes up in a trade journal that suggests that a lobby group is scoring certain successes with government. You then look at the government documents that are in the public domain and you begin to see where those successes are taking place and how policy is being influenced. Then you know where to start investigating and it’s a matter of going to the places that have been affected by this, gaining as many contacts as possible, and then leaked documents. And once you’ve got plenty of contacts, people start sending you stuff, and that’s really the key, because–as you said–it’s documents which aren’t in the public domain that end up being the most important. It’s very difficult to write a book like this in the absence of freedom of information laws. I know that I can never present a complete picture of what’s going on. I know there are loads of holes in my account, but it’s about as close as you can get.
Amazon.co.uk: You say it’s like stargazing on a cloudy night, which I thought a very apt metaphor. We’re sitting here in Brighton in the middle of the Labour party conference. Your book reveals a fairly smooth handover from the Conservatives’ dealings with big business to Labour’s. How would you explain this?
Monbiot: I think it’s fair to say that the Tories’ links with big business are organic. They’ve grown up together. Whereas the traditional Labour approach to big business has been one of opposition as they were founded in the trade unions’ movement. The problem that the Labour party was faced with was the problem that nearly all centre-left parties have had to face over the past few years. Corporations have become so powerful and have infiltrated government to such an extent, both on the national and international level, that when you take on the corporations you take on all the powers that be. Corporations have got their people seconded into the civil service, civil servants are seconded into corporations, government ministers under the last government were able to wield such power that they transformed government departments into very corporate friendly ones.
If, on the other hand, you present yourself as a very corporate friendly party, you not only acquire power simply by appeasing those who have it already–incidentally as you do so, you make them more powerful so they require more appeasement, but you also present corporations with a very attractive package indeed, because if you were the anti- corporate opposition and you cease to be anti-corporate, you hand over to them a consistent pro-corporate parliament, you hand them the absence of an anti-corporate opposition, and a discouraged electorate. So you actually become a more attractive prospect, from their point of view, than the Conservatives were.
Amazon.co.uk: And perhaps corporations can use the PR to say, hey, if these guys are working with us now, we can’t be all bad.
Monbiot: I think you’re right and by effectively helping to engineer a consensus, the corporations create the impression that their power is acceptable in public life, that it’s not inordinate. That consensus is very convenient for them and very dangerous for the rest of us.
Amazon.co.uk: You state that this has happened because we have allowed this to happen. To what extent do you feel you’re preaching to the choir, in the sense that people will agree with you, but be resigned to the status quo, and unsure about their own power to change it?
Monbiot: This is the big question. It’s quite easy to see how we can become politically active and involved in extra parliamentary politics and lobbying of our MPs to a greater extent than corporations are lobbying them, but it’s rather harder at the moment to see how that political activity can translate into political change. It’s clear to me that this government is chasing a handful of target voters in marginal constituencies, and they are not that interested in the needs of the poor and the dispossessed, those who are the main victims of corporate Britain. On the other hand, if we can generate sufficient political pressure to make this into one of the big issues, and if, for example, one of the smaller political parties like the Liberal Democrats–as they seem to be doing–score points off the main political parties, then they’re going to start to get very worried indeed. The big challenge is to start to deal with this on the international as well as the national level with organizations such as the World Trade Organisation and the Trans-Atlantic Economic Partnership, which no-one has ever heard of, but which wield such enormous power.
Amazon.co.uk: Naomi Klein’s book No Logo captures the zeitgeist of opposition to corporate power, most visibly manifested in the Seattle conflict. Klein suggests that our power as consumers can bring pressure to bear on corporations by hitting them where it hurts–the bottom line. However, in Captive State, you say that our power as consumers is illusionary and diffuse as we may opt not to buy trainers, for instance, but if we have no choice but to buy our groceries at a local superstore, then this route of opposition is somewhat stymied. Can consumer power really affect change?
Monbiot: Consumer power has a role to play, but I feel it’s a fairly limited one, not least because in the consumer democracy some people have more votes than others, i.e. those with more money, and those who have more votes are the least inclined to use them to change the system that has rewarded them so well. So I think our real power lies not in our consumership, but in our citizenship, and in our direct challenges to political power. The power of the corporations is an artifact of our acquiescence. We have let this happen because we’ve been so complacent about living in a democracy that isn’t threatened by fascism, that isn’t threatened by Stalinism. We’ve been lulled into a sense of false security and we haven’t been sufficiently vigilant. We’re living in apparently cosy times. It’s only once you start to systematically investigate what’s going on that the picture isn’t so comfortable.
Amazon.co.uk: But governments have to fund public works and services and there isn’t enough public money to do so, hence, government would argue, the need for public private partnerships. As the recent petrol disputes have shown, there is a limit to the amount of taxation people will stomach. What advice would you give to a government faced with this dilemma?
Monbiot: I was recently speaking to an economist who claims that corporations are now receiving more in state handouts than they are providing in tax. They used to be one of the principle sources of tax all over the world. In the US before the Second World War they provided 30% of the federal tax take. They now provide 12%, whereas on the rest of us who are less mobile, who can’t shift our assets offshore into tax havens, these largely indirect taxes have risen. The tax burden has shifted away from the corporations onto you and I. And that’s happened worldwide. It’s not an argument to say we have to go easy on corporations so that they can deliver into the coffers, because they might not be contributing at all. There’s a race to the bottom as corporations play states off against each other to get lower and lower tax. Corporation tax in Britain in 1979 was 52%, now it’s 30%, which Gordon Brown boasts is the lowest of any major industrialized nation on earth. In other words he’s boasting that we’ve become a tax haven. And he says if we don’t become the bottom then somebody else will.
Amazon.co.uk: What role can the EU or United Nations play?
Monbiot: At the moment it’s all going the wrong way. There are maximum standards required of corporations, not minimum. The UN has alarmingly fallen right into the hands of big business by building something called the Global Compact with corporations, including some of the most controversial corporations on earth, which are effectively using that as a PR opportunity, whereas it’s very difficult to see what the UN is getting out of the relationship. There is simply no active global regulation of corporations. Whereas states are subject to international human rights laws, there’s no such hold over corporations. We’ve got to be brave enough to get together internationally and demand much higher standards than we’ve got so far. These would be better standards in the workplace, not subjecting workers to health and safety hazards, better environmental standards, better consumer protection standards, but also some radical standards like a global maximum wage, where you can pay yourself as the executive of a company no more than eight or ten times the wage of the lowest paid, including sub-contractors. That would certainly shift the economic balance a little bit! Other solutions would be a global corporation tax, so wherever they operate they pay the same level of tax and economic sanctions against. tax havens as there are to prevent protectionism. There are lots of measures that could take place if millions of us around the world demanded them. It