Three Monkeys Online

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A beginner’s guide to globalisation. Paul Kingsnorth in interview.

One point you consistently make is that there are shared objectives and principles between a myriad of groups worldwide, that makes up this new movement. It’s a movement, you suggest, without leaders. That may be the expressed aim, but isn’t it true that the most succesful groups are ones where there are leaders, who in turn have become iconic – subcommandante Marcos and Evo Morales, for example.

The desire for a 'movement without leaders' came partly from a fear that any new global radical movement might end up going the way of the last one – communism – and end in a cult of personality and worse. It's probably not sustainable in the long-term though. Movements like leaders, and they need them – certainly mass movements that want to effect big changes, anyway. That's been the lesson of history. The challenge is to create representative movements able to rein in their leaders: a challenge as old as the hills, I think.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Live 8 concerts, and the planned protests in Edinburgh for the G8 summit. Are we on the verge of something radically important, or – as cynics would suggest – a minor structural adjustment that allows things to go on relatively unchanged.

I'm concerned that a lot of the Live8 stuff doesn't challenge structural inequalities. It relies on the powerful to effect change, and this is never going to happen in a meaningful way. Begging Bush and Blair to end poverty won't cut it – if the agenda was truly world-changing, neither of them would have signed up. Seattle, Prague, Genoa and the other big radical actions of the past, for all their flaws, challenged power at its root. This one aims to work with it. Already we have seen a big debt reduction programme agreed and hailed as a triumph. Look at the small print and you see it's conditional on more privatisation and the breakup of public services in poor countries – one of the things that created the global justice movement in the first place. Any mass action or movement that doesn't base itself on a serious analysis of power relations and a serious challenge to them is not going to effect lasting change. And I don't think this one does.

This may tie in with the above, but to what extent do you think that activists have to play the system to succeed? For example, you honestly point out that your own book is published by part of the Viacom corporation, a multi-million dollar corporation.

We are 'the system': all of us. We make it when we shop, travel, eat, drink, vote. It's not something out there, it's something we create. Anyone who wants to change something has to be part of it at the same time as they challenge it. You can try and escape it if you like, but that won't change anything. Neither will trying to be 'pure' – we're all compromised somehow. The best thing is to be honest about it, and try and create a system based less on exploitation, so that the very act of going to the shops no longer creates pain on the other side of the planet.

In Italy at the moment there’s heated debate over GDP, as it falls behind European averages. You interestingly point out that the very concept of how we measure ‘development’ is misguided – can you explain this further, and what alternatives are there?

We talk endlessly about the need for 'growth and 'development' and the need to be 'internationally competitive'. We rework entire economies and cultures in order to do so, and yet the yardstick we use to measure this 'progress' is very crude. GDP is essentially a measure of everything made or sold in a society in a given time period – anything we've made money from. It doesn't distinguish between good and bad. Chop down a tropical forest, make toilet roll from it and then sell it and the figures will be added to the GDP and used to calculate your 'growth'. As will an increase in the sale of rape alarms or money spent cleaning up pollution. The New Economics Foundation is among the organisations which has developed an alternative – an 'index of sustainable economic welfare', which attempts to distinguish good and bad. There are many more.

Marketing gurus in advertising and record companies have traditionally latched on to trends in popular culture, sanitised them, and sold them on. The latest ad for the Lancia Ypsilon features a swelling movement of protesters, all united against ugliness. It’s a terrible ad, but does it point to an assimilation of the protest movement into a packaged culture? To put it another way, are the politics of protest now being sold to us as a hip life-style – one that can be commodified?

Absolutely, and that's always happened. Capitalism is successful and durable because it can suck anything in – even resistance to capitalism can be packaged and sold back to us. Radical chic isn't new – look at those Che Guevara t-shirts – and certainly the new anti-capitalism can now be a lifestyle choice if you want it to be. It's infuriating but it shouldn't be surprising. Capitalism can provide us with anything we want at the same time as it takes away much that we need. Materially it's very enticing; that's why it's lasted.

You give a list of organisations at the end of the book, for people to follow up and get involved. Facing the various issues presented by the book, where should one start? Is there one central issue that you feel is the most important to address, and pragmatically the most likely to succumb to democratic protest.

It's a really tough question! I'm not sure there's an easy answer. Climate change is probably the most serious issue we face today – if we can't tackle this, nothing else matters. If you had to work on one big thing, I'd probably say this. On the other hand I'd also emphasise that maybe more important than focussing on big 'global issues' is looking at what you can do at local level, in your own community. Every movement I have come across has sprung from a strong local base, and a desire to do something meaningful near home. If we all got involved in local issues and try to make change start there, the effect would be enormous, and possibly more lasting.

One no, Many Yeses by Paul Kingsnorth is published in the UK by The Free Press

Paul Kingsnorth’s Website

Nothing New – Globalization, Economics, and the 19th Century

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