December Debate – Part 1

Online debate with Guardian readers

4th December 2003

IlDonnaiolo – 01:15pm Dec 1, 2003 BST (1.) | Reply
Hello George,
Nice to have this chance to chat with you.
As someone who was present at the first ESF in 2002 in Florence, I’m quite interested in the progress of both the ESF and WSF toward becoming less amorphous, more proactive movements. How do you think we can best achieve that without falling back into the same coordinator-class problems that have plagued the Left in the past, where movements become domesticated or splintered by those who wish to control them? I note, for example, that the coordinating committee of farmers’ organisations from across India recently decided not to associate themselves with the upcoming World Social Forum, founding instead their own more traditional Marxist-Leninist forum (Mumbai-Resistance 2004). Do you see this as an isolated incident or a rather dangerous sign for the future of the Social Forum movement?
My second question relates to alternative economics: have you studied Michael Albert’s proposal for participatory economics (parecon), and if so, what do you think of it?

I think the social forum movement is one of the most exciting things to have happened for a long time. But it does have a couple of problems for which nobody can really be blamed. The first is the age-old paradox of transition. For a political movement to remain large, it has to remain diverse. For a political movement to be an effective agent of change, it has to pursue a programme. The process of choosing a programme involves a battle against diversity. The great danger and paradox of this transition is that, by battling diversity in order to produce a set of workable proposals, you lose the popular support on which the proposals are supposed to be founded. This isn’t a problem only for the WSF, but for any movement seeking to threaten power. It is a problem for the entire global justice movement.

The second is the question of representation. The social forums bring together people from all over the world, but it is not a representative assembly. At the European Social Forum in Paris last month, 51,000 people, most of them under 30, came to the meetings. This was a marvellous and exciting thing – to see so many young people, whom we are constantly told have lost interest in politics, engaging with some of world’s most complex problems. But we were, by and large, drawn from a particular community: those who have the time, the money and the passports which permit us to attend. We represent ourselves. We do not represent the world. It seems to me that, alongside the social forums, we need to be building a means by which the voices of those who cannot attend can also be heard. This is why I have suggested the creation of a directly-elected world parliament.

robinpclarke – 10:05am Dec 2, 2003 BST (2.) | Reply
Hello George, IlDonnaiolo, and All,
It’s sad to see the naive and inexperienced leading the naive and inexperienced, and for all his great talents I think George has some measure of both. Understanding of social/political questions is surely the most difficult of all intellectual undertakings, yet it is pursued by what seem to me to be dilettante semi-experts.
Back in 1978 (was that in the Stone Age?) I decided that the Ecology Party (now Green Party) wasn’t going to be the future of politics. Twenty-five years on there has not yet been a green government anywhere.
Likewise I am very confident that not a great deal of usefulness will come from the ESF / WSF movements, other than polluting profits from all that travelling. These “forums” cannot even decide whether they are ideologically neutral *forums* or instead political movements in which an ideology is crystalling.
I see only two futures. The more likely is that an authoritarian group with a half-baked agenda comes to increasingly dominate the “forums”. The less likely is that they drift around aimlessly and unproductively until people get bored as happened with oh-so-many protest movements such as Reclaim the Streets.
The lesson of history is that great social revolutions do not originate in grand conferences; rather they originate in people who spend many years working, thinking, hesitating, alone.

I cannot deny being both naïve and inexperienced. Confronted with the vast complexity of the issues with which we have to engage, and the vast obstacles to effective engagement, who isn’t? Part of the problem we face is that in a world which has, by and large, lost its grand ideologies, and in which national democracy, in the face of globalisation, has become almost impossible, the experience of prior political engagement doesn’t count for very much. We have to re-write the rules, and no one seems quite sure how to do it. Of course we can and must learn from the failures and successes of earlier movements, but we must also establish a new interpretation of political effectiveness, in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves.

I agree with you about the dangers inherent in the forum process. Both are realistic possible outcomes, which we must struggle to avoid. I also agree when you say that great social revolutions in the past have originated in people who have worked and thought alone. I believe that this is precisely where so many of them had gone wrong. Had Marx, for example, actually had some contact with the industrial proletariat, and more importantly, the lumpenproletariat, he would surely never have invested so much blind faith in the former and so much hatred and revulsion towards the latter. We might have seen a revolution built upon the realities of the world, not upon his fantastical vision of a society crudely divided into four classes (bourgeoisie, proletariat, lumpenproletariat and reactionaries) soon destined to be reduced to two.

richard73 – 10:31am Dec 2, 2003 BST (3.) | Reply
George, in a recent Guardian column you surprised me by stating that “Saddam Hussein appears to have done everything possible to find a diplomatic alternative to the impending war”.
How do you square this with the view of the weapons inspectors in January that “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance – not even today – of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace”?

Saddam Hussein was caught between two great forces. The first was his need to sustain the mesmerisation of the Iraqi people, by means of brute force and the cult of personality, upon which his power, like that of all dictators, was ultimately founded. For this he needed to possess or pretend to possess deadly weapons. He needed to convince his people that he had them and was therefore a powerful, dangerous and impressive man. At the same time, he didn’t want to be blown away by the Americans, so he had to offer enough by way of negotiation to prevent this from happening if he possibly could. His contradictions – offering everything, withholding everything – arise from this conflict. This is why his negotiations with the US were secret: had he allowed his people to see that he was, in effect, surrendering, he would have lost his psychic and temporal hold over them.

robinpclarke – 11:46am Dec 2, 2003 BST (4.) | Reply
Dear George,
[Pre-ramble — Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent raises the problem of how the media give non-establishment views at best only cramped opportunities for presenting themselves, whereas in reality they require a lot more space for developing a whole different perspective from the orthodox. I hope our questions here will not put you in too much of a bind in that respect!]
1. Your article “Public Fraud Initiative” (18 June 2002) ended with the words: “This article contains nine serious and specific charges of [enormous] public fraud and false accounting, commissioned and directed by the Treasury…. If these charges are false I would appeal to the chancellor to repudiate them ….. If he fails to do so, readers should conclude that he has no defence to offer.”
I still have the subsequent five days’ Guardians, in which there was not the slightest mention of your challenge. I myself wrote about it to two of the supposedly most decent Labour MPs, Lynne Jones and Dr Tony Wright, but received no reply. Did anything else happen? What’s going on?!!
2. World parliament. Here you seem to be stupendously seriously off the rails. We have enough problems with the undemocraticness, criminality and big-biz domination in merely national parliaments. Larger units such as the EU and US merely make things vastly worse. Surely, what is firstly needed is a change of political systems, a major improvement of democracy, starting at the level of ultimate power, namely the national. When we have decent national governments rather than the existing criminalocracies (as I call them), then for them to work together globally will be not particularly difficult.
I have already explained to you the reasoning and form of a practical way forward – see , but you have failed to pursue the discussion.
3. Likewise you have failed to answer my critiques of your own project for a new political party/alliace to arise from the anti-war etc. If a project cannot engage with careful, reasonable critics such as myself it does not look likely to make much progress in the real world of hard knocks out there. I’ll briefly remind you of some of the points. -People are disillusioned not just with the Blair regime but with the whole political/parties system. -Your project (appears to be/)is just another of these parties in the failed paradigm of policies on everything and a group of hot personnel seeking power who may or may not carry out their grand collection of policies/principles. – The Common Ground document you produced looks too much like a standard political party waffle, vague worthy principles which need a vast amount of work to refine into meaningful (and controversial) practical decisions. An impossibly huge amount of work, which I for one would prefer to leave to a real-democratic government to work out, rather than waste my energy on founding a party which has zilch chance of forming a government anyway. -Even if your party did win a general election, it does not have the crucial requirement of a soundly-thought out solution to the failure of the political system. The Real Democracy Party have.
4. We often hear the claim that national governments lack power in the face of global capitalism. But doesn’t little Cuba get by regardless? I’d be interested to hear your views of in what ways and to what extent a genuinely-democratic government in the UK/France/etc could be disempowered by international business. How possible is “democracy in one country”?
Bye for now.

On the PFI question, I contacted the Treasury to inform them about the challenge I had laid down, then rang them on several occasions over the next two weeks to see if they would respond. They refused to do so, which suggests to me that they had no defence to offer.

On the world parliament question, you make the mistake of imagining that I have inmvented the problem of scale. Global governance exists already, brokered by the US, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and others. It is not easy to see how we will make it go away, especially if, as you suggest, we turn our backs on the problem. Indeed, it is not clear that we should want global governance itself (rather than its current form) to go away. Without it, how do you propose to deal with climate change, international debt, the balance of trade between nations, nuclear proliferation, war etc – ie all the issues we consider most important? What I am proposing is not to create world governance, but to democratise it. The alternative is to continue to aloow the world to be run by a group of self-appointed men from the rich world.

On question 3, this is not, repeat not, my project. My role has been confined to writing letters to people asking them to submit ideas which could form the basis of a debate about what a progressive manifesto would look like, and speaking at a public meeting. My engagement, in other words, has been a little overstated by the press (thanks Tom!). It’s not my party and I didn’t write that document. It seems clear to me that we do need a wide-ranging progressive coalition in Britain, but I’m not yet wholly convinced that this is the one. I have to say I am rather concerned by the way in which it appears to have become a vehicle for George Galloway. This was certainly not how I hoped it would work out. But I think it is still worth engaging with the other people involved and working out whether this is the right way forward, and if so how best to make it happen.

Ricem – 11:46am Dec 2, 2003 BST (5.) | Reply
George – first you decided that you didn’t mind global trade, then you decided that you couldn’t actually oppose capitalism. So now you would appear to be a reformist globaliser, just like me and thousands of others who have never been near an anti-globalisation demo.
Do you still have anything in common with the Trots, anarchists and SWPers who seem so prevalent in the anti-globalisation movement? Haven’t you cut yourself off from most of the marchers?
Don’t get me wrong, I welcome the fact that unlike most of the anti-globalisation mob, you’ve woken up to the fact that some ‘socialist’ utopian vision (or more likely a totalitarian nightmare)isn’t the answer.
But in developing an intelligent approach to globalisation, aren’t you implicitly recognising the fact that most of the demonstrators don’t have realistic anlayses, goals or aspirations?
Smashing up a McDonalds and reforming globalisation are two very different acts.

I think it’s important to recognise that this movement does not consist of Trotskysists and anarchists. They are small minorities within it, though generally more vocal and more visible than the other factions and, in the case of the Trotskyists, much better organised. It is a hugely diverse movement, which is its great strength and its great weakness. I have found in it both my foremost political allies and some of my staunchest political opponents. You say that “most of the demonstrators don’t have realistic anlayses, goals or aspirations