Monbiot: A compromised critic of power

by Jonathan Cook

I am aware that there is a danger I sound churlish about George Monbiot. Usually when I have referred to him in these posts, it has been to criticise him, even while I agree with most of what he writes and recognise that he is a rare figure indeed in the corporate media: someone writing critically about the power of the corporations.

But the reason for my preoccupation with Monbiot is neatly illustrated in his column in today’s Guardian. Monbiot identifies the biggest democratic deficit facing modern western states: the insidious role of corporations, usurping power in non-accountable and often invisible ways.

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Monbiot usefully sets out a number of ideas about how to end the dangerous nexus between the corporations and the political class. Not least he suggests that corporations no longer be allowed to fund political parties; instead they should derive their funding from their memberships (i.e. you and me), and thereby become accountable to us again.

In addition, lobbying by corporations of politicians should be transparent and recorded, and politicians banned from later sinecures with the businesses they once policed; think tanks should be forced to reveal their funding; companies competing for public tenders should be subject to freedom of information laws; the senior staff of corporations should be legally liable for their companies’ actions; global institutions like the World Bank and IMF should be democratised, and global trade subjected to new, fairer rules; and finally we need a world parliament directly elected by us that can hold global corporations to account.

All of these ideas could provide an excellent remedy to the current rule by the corporations. But Monbiot – as ever – has a blind spot, one that ensures his whole system of reform is never likely to happen. And maybe not surprisingly, Monbiot’s omission concerns the one area of significant power the corporations hold that would directly affect his employer, the organisation that pays his wages. That is: the power of media corporations (or more accurately the media divisions of corporations) like the Guardian.

One major reason – possibly the biggest reason – we cannot get our politicians to tackle corporate power is that the corporations themselves mediate our understanding of the world through their control of the media. They sell us an image of the world in which their ideology (an ideology that serves their interests) not only goes unquestioned but is unquestionable.

Before we can hope to secure the public support necessary to implement Monbiot’s changes, we need to reform the media so that we can start to understand that not only our finances but also our minds are being manipulated. That requires an entirely new model of media finance, along the lines proposed by Monbiot for reforming the funding of political parties. There are such models out there, such as these radical reforms included recently in an article by Joe Emersberger.

Most telling is that Monbiot does not even suggest that this area of corporate power needs fixing, let alone propose ways it might be done. That, ultimately, is because he is an employee of a corporation, one that sets implicit limits on what he can write about in relation to an area that is his stated expertise.

For this reason, Monbiot is fatally compromised as a critic of the corporations. Not because most of what he writes is not excellent, but because he has to omit from his concerns a central problem he claims to be addressing.

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