Let the People Rule the World

The rich nations must surrender their power to a world parliament.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 17th July 2001

The leaders of the free world present a glowing example to the rest of the planet. Of the eight men meeting in Genoa this week, one seized the presidency of his country after losing the election. Another is pursuing a genocidal war in an annexed republic. A third is facing allegations of corruption. A fourth, the summit’s host, has been convicted of illegal party financing, bribery and false accounting, while his righthand man is on trial for consorting with the Mafia. Needless to say, the major theme of this week’s summit is “promoting democracy”.

But were the G8 nations governed by angels, they would still be incapable of promoting global democracy. These eight hungry men represent just 13% of the world’s population. They were all elected to pursue domestic imperatives: their global role is simply a by-product of their national mandate. The decisions they make are haphazard and ephemeral. Last year, for example, the G8 leaders announced that they were “determined … to achieve the goals of the Kyoto Protocol” limiting climate change and that they would “preserv[e] and strengthen the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.” One man is replaced and all is lost.

Similar problems delegitimise almost every global body. The World Bank and IMF, which apportion votes according to the money they receive, are governed by the countries in which they don’t operate. The five permanent members of the United Nations security council, charged with maintaining world peace, also happen to be the world’s five principal arms traders. The UN General Assembly represents governments rather than people: a poor nation of 900 million swings, in practice, less weight than a rich nation of 50 million. The G8 leaders know that the “global democracy” they are due to discuss is a sham, and they will do all they can to keep it that way.

There is, we are told by almost everyone, no alternative to the rule of finance and fear. Writing in the Guardian last week, Philippe Legrain, a former World Trade Organisation official, argued that “world elections to a world parliament” are not “realistic”. “Sixty million Britons would not accept 1,300m Chinese outvoting them.”

Mr Legrain has, unintentionally, presented the anti-globalisation movement with its central challenge. If those of us in the rich world who are protesting against the inordinate powers of the G8, the World Bank or the WTO are serious about overthrowing unaccountable power, then we must rise to his bait.

In 1937, George Orwell observed that “every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.” Bourgeois socialists, he charged, were prepared to demand the death of capitalism and the destruction of the British empire only because they knew that these things were unlikely to happen. “For, apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon keeping a tight hold on the Empire … in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.” The middle-class socialist, he insisted, “is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together”.

Since then, empires have waxed and waned, but that basic economic formula holds true: we in the rich world live in comparative comfort only because of the inordinate power our governments wield, and the inordinate wealth which flows from that power. We acquiesce in this system every time we buy salad from a supermaket (grown with water stolen from Kenyan nomads) or step into a plane to the climate talks in Bonn. Accepting the need for global democracy means accepting the loss of our own nations’ power to ensure that the world is run for our benefit. Are we ready for this, or is there lurking still some residual fear of the Yellow Peril, an age-old, long-imprinted urge towards paternalism?

Global democracy is meaningless unless ultimate power resides in a directly elected assembly. This means, of course, that a resident of Kensington would have no greater influence than a resident of Kinshasa. The Ethiopians would have the same number of representatives as the British (and rather more as their population increases). The people of China would, collectively, be 22 times as powerful as the people of the United Kingdom.

In a truly democratic world, the people’s assembly would, unlike the European parliament, be sovereign. All other global bodies would report to it and act on its instructions. The UN, WTO and other bodies, if they survived at all, would be reduced to the status of the parliament’s civil service. But, as the World Citizen Foundation has pointed out, to preserve local democracy its scope must be limited by subsidiarity. It could not interfere in strictly national decision-making, in other words, but would seek to do only what existing global bodies are attempting — and failing — to do today: resolving disputes, tackling global poverty, defending people from oppression and protecting the world’s resources.

But it’s not hard to see how a world parliament could bypass and undermine dictatorships. Just as proportional representation in European elections has encouraged us to start questioning our own, flawed system, genuine global democracy would highlight democratic deficits all over the world.

The danger, of course, is that the world parliament might make decisions we don’t like very much. We may discover that people living in the world’s most populous nations don’t want to tackle global warming or to control nuclear weapons. But danger is what democracy is all about.

And it’s hard, in truth, to imagine a people’s assembly making a worse fist of these issues than the G8 and the warmongers of the security council. China has curbed its carbon dioxide emissions while energy use in the US has soared. Indeed, the only fair and lasting means of reducing CO2 (namely “contraction and convergence”, which means working out how much pollution the planet can take, then allocating an equal pollution quota to everyone on earth) would surely be impossible to implement without a world parliament.

The very existence of a global assembly could help to resolve disputes: people often take up arms only because they have no other means of being heard. I suspect too that the World Bank and IMF, whose role is to police the debtors on behalf of the creditor nations, would disappear almost immediately. A democratic assembly would almost certainly replace them with something like Keynes’s “International Clearing Union”, which would force creditors as well as debtors to eliminate third world debt and improve the balance of trade.

But the democratisation which may or may not result in such changes cannot even be widely discussed until we, the new world order’s prosperous dissidents, are prepared to take our arguments to their logical conclusion, and let go of the power our nations possess and the disproportionate wealth which flows from it. I hope that we, unlike Orwell’s bourgeois socialists, are ready for this challenge. If not, we may as well as cancel our tickets to Genoa and stay at home eating strawberries and cream.