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A bit of the old world order dies

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Paul Mason | 17:29 UK time, Friday, 25 September 2009

Here inside the Pittsburgh G20 Summit it feels like being there at the birth of a postmodernist medieval empire.

The leaders are cosseted somewhere; occasionally a politician pops out to answer questions he wants to answer; to journalists he wants to brief. The press sits here like a kind of giant global version of China's Xinhua news agency - "what is the great leader doing today?"

As I'm writing a woman from Eurovision has announced urgently, "Roll now! Camera spray of Russian delegation!" - causing 27 broadcasting technicians to hit the record button on a feed of pictures entirely controlled by the organisers, of a totally insignificant event.

We are protected by some of the most lethal force ever assembled. We saw the first use, as far as I can tell in any democratic country, of a sonic blaster. This can cause fatal aneurisms and damage your hearing.

In the Youtube footage of it firing a large number of people close to it are not rioters but cyclists and pedestrians.

Add to that the complete overlap of anti-terror and crowd-control policing, so that the whole city is silent except for sirens and the barking of police dogs, and you get a near complete dystopia.

What's being achieved here is significant - not for any specific policy but for the fact that the G20 will be turned into a permanent and "premier" body for managing the world economy.

The IMF will be reformed to allow greater representation for China - although there will be no specifics here because the Europeans who will lose their seats are wrangling about it.

The G20 will have a board and permanent apparatus. Given that the anti-globalisation left hates the IMF/World Bank, and the pro-market right has seen itself turfed out of IMF decision making as well, there will probably not be many mourners for the old system, where the G7 or G8 countries claimed decision making power and the IMF/WB were seen as extensions of US foreign policy.

However, we should probably consider what we are losing as tactical management of the world economy moves to an ad-hoc body like the G20.

Whatever the faults of the system put in place at Bretton Woods in 1944 it had two positive attributes. First it was created by democracies that had just defeated fascism and were now faced with a strengthened Stalinist bloc. Second, as the product of a Treaty, it had the power to sanction.

The IMF could and did instruct countries, famously including Britain, to get their public finances in order, and it could bail them out (Of course no-one is suggesting the IMF cannot do this in future, in fact it will be more flexible in its ability to do this because of reforms achieved so far.)

The G20, by contrast, has to work through consensus instead of sanction. And around the table, with a theoretically equal voice, are a giant Communist dictatorship (China); an undemocratic monarchy (Saudi Arabia) and a country whose banking system was bust eight years ago (Argentina) and an energy giant prone to holding small neighbours hostage over gas supplies (Russia).

Now the solidification of the G20 is only one moment in the long reform and reconstruction of the post-War economic order. But it's symbolic. Bit by bit the world is moving from an order based on treaty and formal sanction to one based on consensus, horse-trading and the diffusion of power.

If you think the move from G8 to G20 is irrelevant consider this: last year, when Russia clashed with Georgia, there was talk of the west suspending Russia's membership of the G8 in reprisal. If the world economic order is, in future, to be guaranteed by consensus - what are the chances of 19 governments getting together to suspend or expel a miscreant? Zero - unless globalisation begins to fall apart and countries opt for overt protectionism.

We're finding - in economics as well as diplomacy - that multilateralism is a grubby business: you scrap your missile defence shield, I place sanctions on your enemy; you give me extra votes at the IMF, I give you a binding carbon emissions target at Copenhagen. This is what's really being done this week, at the UN General Assembly and in Pittsburgh.

The G20 has indeed achieved something in the ten months since it moved from being a finance ministers' meeting to a leaders' summit. Co-ordinated fiscal and monetary stimulus prevented a Third Depression; and however minimal the attempts to co-ordinate financial regulation, isolate tax havens etc are real.

But it faces questions about its democratic legitimacy - with implications close to home as well as globally.

I've just asked Alistair Darling, for example, whether any country at the G20 is arguing -as the British Conservatives do - for a fiscal tightening in 2010, and whether the commitment to expansion made here would be binding on a future government.

He ridiculed the Tories, painting them as seriously at odds with the rest of the world, ignoring the rest of the question. I tried to ask him again: does Britain's commitment bind the Tories? Obviously it cannot - but herein lays the problem. Mr Darling's aide cut me off before I could repeat this awkward question.

So welcome to the world according to the G20. It's hard to know how the leaders will measure success but one yardstick would be if there comes a time when they do not have to be aggressively protected by a ring of steel, Kevlar and violent sound.


  • Comment number 1. was created by democracies that had just defeated fascism ..

    err the russians broke the back of the german army?

    any structures that delivered the greatest crash in human history has very little merit? So whatever replaces it can hardly be worse?

    what is this almost religious obsession with democracy? what family is based on democracy as its model?

    given half of our 'democracy' is not elected but appointed or hereditary and the 'national' oath is about preserving the privileges of one family and the 'national' anthem a monarchy role gaming sing song should democracy start at home rather than pretend to export it?

    politics follows the power and power follows the money. we are broke and they are not. we have no money therefore no power therefore no political rights to deny others with money a voice.

    what we are seeing is the political adjustment to the financial situation of a year ago.

  • Comment number 2.

    Now what does this remind me of - What is it? What is it? Ah yes, its the World Trade Orgnaisation!

    THE BIGGGEST DANGER to the world, and the way we are heading is towards a corporate run world, where corporations are so big and powerful, they dominate states. If you look at the global financial mega corporations and especially the big 4 accountancy firms, you can see how far we are already progressed down that road.

    'Rules' continue to be made that increase that corporate power, and the 'anti protectionism' brainwash is a major means to ensure acceptance of those rules (though it often seems like we in the UK are the only ones that completely swallow that one).

    They are international trade rules, on trade in services, which increased the power of transnational corporations while limiting states' rights to regulate them.

    And rather than deliver the supposed 'benefits' to some narrow concept of 'consumer' that has no life beyond consuming, they lead to increased monompoly. Not only does this cut right across 'consumer choice' and consumer benefit, but also delivers that mega power to corporations that allow them to dominate governments that people have elected. End of democracy.

    Just wait for November when we will be told how a Doha deal will save the global economy. Backed up by a G20 with a parallel agenda, it is likely to go through this time. It did not go through when it was the answer to global terrorism after 9/11 or to climate change (I kid you not).

    Trading powerhouses India and China are in on the act now. Ready,steady, go.

    The G20 is being set up just as ongoing Trade Rounds morphed into the ongoing WTO institution, in 1995. The agenda was cranked up intensely, so the WTO became, as intended, a finely honed tool of transnational capital. The G20 will be the political institution alongside the economic, the WTO. With not a fag paper between them. And countries will be in the double sided corporate run club, or out of it.

    Has the G20 really saved the world, Paul? Try a rethink on that one. Especially now the shady woman who has been so close to the steering wheel through all this damage, Shrek, is now to be running the G20.

    Without a huge jump in public awareness of the big picture (and whose job is that, Paul?) corporate world - here we come.

    We need to reclaim our democracy, our places, our culture and our resources, and we need a media that can see the wood and the trees.

    Can you manage that?

  • Comment number 3.


    An interviewee on Newsnight said that Gordon Brown had done what was necessary to save capitalism.

    That's a bit closer to the truth than 'saved the world'.

  • Comment number 4.

    The economic crisis has forced a rapid renovation of trans-national economic structures. I regret that China and Saudi Arabia are not democracies but it is a major step forwrd that they will be centrally involved in world economic strategy. Better than the US and Europeans just trying to organise the world through G8 - hardly a 'democratic' project. Climate change has forced the world's governmments to recognise coordinated global action is required or we face disaster. The danger of consolidating G20 into a formal structure is that if it fails - splits or flounders - markets will collapse. I doubt G20 enshrines the final hegemony of global capital - i suspect it represents something more like the expression of a nascent world ruling class creating a world government to control the competing capitals in the interests of 'capital in general' - much as the nation states emerged to supervise the competing capitals within a nation with measures like anti-monopoly legislation. I don't suppose the far right in the USA will like it very much though - i hope obama's body guards are on their toes.

  • Comment number 5.


    How grand they feel, our overblown PM and acolytes, tripping 'Britain' round the Globopoly board, with its 'Nuclear Capacity' symbol proudly displayed. And how little the game has to do with any real concern for the poor, duped and disenfranchised inhabitants of this nation.

  • Comment number 6.

    Given that this is Gordon Brown saving the world one is left wondering whether the world will be saved or is this just something else which will end up being trampled in the mud along with pensions, the 10p tax band, the UK economy and the New Labour project. Is there no end to soaring vanity?

    I think we need to batten down the hatches as the lunatics have finally taken over the asylum.

    Methinks it is time to to get that `foco' in the Chilterns organised.

  • Comment number 7.

    How can haveing any minority of countries govern economic policies ofthe rest, whether its a as large as 8,9,or 20, be ever democratic "Comrade"WillBrown ? Particuly considering that some of these goverments are outright autocracies, while the rest are sham, bourgiose parlimitarian "democracies". How does the propspect of a "nascent world ruling class creating a world government to control the competing capitals in the interests of 'capital in general'" at all atractive to you ? That someone could sanely desire institutionized oligarchy on a global scale would only make sense to me if you view a global capitalist state as a possible transition point to a World Socialist Republic. Which may have been your meeting I don't know. I am certainly not whishing Obama any more protection than is already provided by his legion of police goons and military monkies. He doesn't need the help.

  • Comment number 8.

    (Posted elsewhere by error.)

    What an unholy mess. Obama wants to be 'Super Obama' and the rest all want to be Obama! It is all so primitive. Individual maturity is in decline, right across the planet, while 'leaders' are focused on education - education in the narrow sense of preparation for production and consumption, i.e. MAMMON.

    And what is so special about Obama? Take away the height, the dual-purpose tint, the boom, the charisma, and what is left? A man who has been funded into leadership whence he PREACHES (oh he certainly has a dream today!) cooperation and deference; but a man who will not be telling what America has up THEIR sleeve any time soon. Nor will he be inviting inspections by other nations - the FIRST act of humility, collaboration and deference. Until we get leaders who yearn to give the gift of contentment and maturity to each individual, universal suffrage will always be manipulated by these driven, unscrupulous gottabes, who get voted in by pathetic, embryonic masses of dupes and acolytes. It is a cycle that will not be broken while 'G' stands for 'GULLIBLE'; no matter whether the suffix be '8', '20', or '8 times 20'.

    There is an irony that, back in 'history' (a constant theme of Obama's) the Native American seems to have had considerable wisdom and a sustainable lifestyle. Yet, in Obama's inauguration speech, they got no mention. Someone on this forum suggested that a Native American should be made President - a poignant thought - a telling symbol. Somehow I do not think it was any accident that Obama missed them off his list. The old spirits call all too loudly for him to do justice. But justice is much harder than school, trade and ever-expanding growth, so the spirits can go hang. And, anyway, what would a trained lawyer want with justice?

    G 20 is no door to sunlit uplands. It is just another game of sterile Globopoly for an elite few, who have no sleep-invading concept of the anguish of this planet, nor yet any acumen to address it - if they had.

  • Comment number 9.

    Correct.The assemblage reminds one of Medieval Nobility, sans King,where mutual backslapping and bonhomie was in evidence, concealing the dagger .What is for public consumption is not for private practice.The more powerful is trying to off-load their burden on the less powerful(though economically powerful).
    Is it not hilarious to find China on the Economic policy making body while it is the culprit in dumping the world with hazardous and under priced products, black mailing countries including US by touting its local market strength?
    It is the same China that keeps on committing Human Rights violations.Or take Israel which steadfastly refuses to freeze settlements in West Bank, causing untold miseries to Palestinians and yet it finds a pride of place in this august(?) summit; or take Pakistan which is safe haven for terrorists,Libya known violator of International Law,North Korea, the international Government terrorist; Sri Lanka ,perpetrator of Tamil genocide.All these entities are going to save the world.Obama wanted a world audience, he got it.Period.

  • Comment number 10.

    The new Middle Ages ?

    but who gets to be pope ?

  • Comment number 11.

    has Obama always been black? Hawaiian doesn't count.....

  • Comment number 12.

    To ramanan50, who wrote:
    "Or take Israel which steadfastly refuses to freeze settlements in West Bank, causing untold miseries to Palestinians and yet it finds a pride of place in this august(?) summit..."
    What an ignorant rant. Israel is not a member of the G20 and so is not even attending at Pittsburg, yet alone finding "a pride of place" at it.
    Why does the BBC's moderator allow this anti-Israel and so probably also anti-Semitic rubbish through?

    G20 States in attendance
    South Korea
    Saudi Arabia
    South Africa
    United Kingdom
    United States (Host)

  • Comment number 13.

    RedMaistre wrote:
    'How does the prospect of a "nascent world ruling class creating a world government to control the competing capitals in the interests of 'capital in general'" at all atractive to you ? That someone could sanely desire institutionized oligarchy on a global scale would only make sense to me if you view a global capitalist state as a possible transition point to a World Socialist Republic.'

    Yes RM, that's precisely why i welcome this development. I was always dubious about the prospect of 'socialism in one country' except in a stunted form in a relatively isolated island like Cuba. I believe the collapse of the Soviet Union finally proved this scepticism correct. The only hope for the world, IMHO, is united action by the working classes across national boundaries. So for me the prospect of a global capitalist state brings this nearer. At least it demonstrates global change is possible. The spectacle of European carworkers competing against other European carworkers to save 'their' factories under the illusion that they are part of some socialist struggle certainly doesn't fill me with hope. I don't worship Obama, but certainly believe he is likely to do less damage than George W. Bush, and for that reason very much hope he doesn't get shot.

  • Comment number 14.


    I am SO glad you posted that. I just assumed that, as matters-nuclear loomed large in the G20 agenda, Israel would be present. But I see they are 42nd, or so, in the GDP ratings, so do not warrant a chair on that score. This creates a rather odd spectacle, surely, as the massive American sub. to Israel (and the 'UN' blind eye to non-compliances) makes them the 51st state? However - that being so: there is little cause for both to be present!

    Whatever - it is all a charade. Blair has shown that religious fanatics can lead nuclear states and any fool can see that the 'consumer-planet' model is doomed; while trading money for profit is on a par with King Midas' little error.

    The world lacks wisdom and philosophical self-awareness. A pop-star orator, telling the 20 top producer/consumers, that the new world age begins with him, will lead nowhere. But how do we get past the gleam in his eye and the buzz in his head, to inform him of that other 'Midas Touch'?

  • Comment number 15.


    Bush looked and behaved like - well - a dense shrubby vegetable - with a touch of monkey. Only Americans, whose anthem should be 'The Emperor is Finely Dressed' could ever give such a spectacle of a man, a high approval rating. But Obama is a different barrel of monkeys. He has the same kit-of-deception that our own Tony had. Can it fool Obama himself? YES IT CAN. I hope we are all aware that TALL MEN do very well in the Life Stakes - with or without any qualification in maturity. I don't know if the 'boom bonus' has been measured, or indeed, the 'oratory quotient', but I am in no doubt that, to the human viscera of the cerebrally atrophied, he is analogous to an impressive SILVER BACK of the first order; an asset to any gorilla troop. That said: he might do just about ANYTHING to human well-being, if 'let out'.

    We just can't go on viscerally elevating leaders, if we are to bring into being a cerebrally-functional (civilised - democratic) global community of contented, quiescent people. However, if we are satisfied with the continued nihilistic mayhem of the 'Human Zoo', go on - pick a gorilla - every time.

  • Comment number 16.


    As a ploy spotter, I can report that Labour, faced with Brown's hopeless smile, have decided to attack smiling. It is almost Animal Farm!

    Peter Hain (whose 'smile' I try to avoid) attacked Dave's smile as a negative attribute. Well, they said they were going to be transparent, and that pathetic ploy is about as transparent as a think-tank full of un-toilet-trained political weasels can get. Oh the smell!

  • Comment number 17.

    Well thats good, you live up to your name :) But out of curiosity, comrade, do see this transition from what some might call a super-imperialist global regime to socialism ? You don't seem to believe in industrial strikes at potential weapons in the fights, or (if I may infer) you don't believe in the effectivness of mass protests at economic summits(neither do I frankly). So do you believe the achivement of socialism will be through internal reform to the capitalist system ? Personally, my Leninist orientation is very suspicious of that prospect.
    But it's nice in any case to talk to a fellow travellar and comrade.
    Vive la Revolution !

  • Comment number 18.

    I meant above "how do you see the transition from super-imperialism to socilaism ?". Pardon my bad grammar and spelling.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi RM (and everybody):
    I started reading PM's blog because I've read his books 'Live Working or Die Fighting' and 'Meltdown' and both are, imho, absolutely excellent. I went so far as buying 6 copies of the first and giving it to all my mates last Xmas!!

    For what it's worth RM - I certainly believe in the value of industrial struggle (I was an active union rep for 15 years) - its just that it seems essential to recognise that if capital is organised trans-nationally then labour has to fight trans-nationally or we're lost.
    I protested at G20 in London (dressed as a polar bear carrying a placard saying 'world revolution now'). I feel these protests are important because they show the ruling classes there is opposition - in a sense they speak for all the oppressed - at least in some sense. I don't believe capitalism will be overthrown by incremental reforms - but I do believe things can be won by protest and struggle. For me an opposition has to be multi-centered, anti-capitalist, international. And hopeful. I appreciate many of the contributions above - specially barriesingleton on smiling and 'animal farm'. I thought David Milliband was specially embarrassing when he almost swooned with delight after Obama shook his hand at G20 - like he wouldn't wash his hand for weeks. I am just so sick of the cult of celebrity and hero worship.

  • Comment number 20.

    Thankfully, the Hero worship of Obama is wearing thin here in Yankeeland, but generally for the wrong reason; namely the almost shocking strength of the reaction in both the media and the grassroots of political activity. On a more positive note, at least the Americian public is turning sour on the war of Afgainistan.
    Sorry if I may have been insulting about the viability of protests; They are, as you said a valuable means of giving expression to the voice of the oppressed. I'm just impatiant by nature, and prehaps have an excessivly romantic attraction to revolutionary violence.

  • Comment number 21.

    Awroite Will!

    Yep, I've been reading this blog about the same time as you - a bit more civilised than Bristol Indymedia i reckon! Get the World Economy meetings going again and we can be even more civilised and talk face to face?

    I have also read 'Meltdown' recently and totally rated it, not quite the upbeat ending of 'Live Working Die Fighting' tho was it? :-)

    It feels very hard to know what to do at the moment, the inertia of cotton-woolled mock-comfort has been replaced by the inertia of the deer caught in the headlights. Capitalism is regenerating Dr Who style as we speak, and i think it's going to be a regression from an exuberant and slick Sylvester McCoy to a much more sinister Patrick Troughton type.....Meanwhile the anti-capitalist left still manages to lose the war of position and manoeuvre.And now sonic waves to makes us shat ourselves? How dammed undignified!

    I think Paul is right to highlight the threat of non-democracies, altho not for any benign view of Western Foreign Policy in the last 50 years - democracies DO go to war with other democracies, it's just they make it look like a civil affair.

    The good thing that western democracies have been forced to put up with is the need to be responsive to the electorate even at the most inconvenient of times, as was witnessed by the amazing scenes when the House of Reps kicked over the traces and voted down the TARP deal. If China is in the same position they would find it much easier to 'take a rain check' on public opinion and bully their way through.

    Protest is a part of democracy, again most inconveniently for the elite, who are just looking for a quiet life, and the space to get on with "solving the world's problems". It has nothing to do with liberalism, is certainly not a benefit of capitalism, but needs democracy to breathe. Modern Representative Democracy is not democratic (more like choosing a new ipod faschia every five years) but it does create a democratic atmosphere, where democratic accidents can and do happen.

    Democracy is the western safety valve, forcing elites to sway one way or another to make sure a minority does not become a majority. A protest movement is always split, the middle class wing with more to lose always end up running into the arms of the state as soon as it says it's sorry, and the working class protestors get to chew a brick (Argentina being a classic example).

    But, without a democratic voice, your only choice is The War of the Flea and i don't know how many modern anarchists could take the high-carb rice and insects diet. However, if the police carry on trying to force a reaction through hi-violence tactics, public vigilance gets less and less eternal, and the democratic air gets thinner and thinner, eventually we'll have no choice but to reach for the chopsticks.

    Whether this will be a good or a bad thing i have no idea.

  • Comment number 22.

    If we 'are coming out of the recession' why do we have to keep pouring illions of public money into 'the economy' which seems for us in the UK to mean; printing money; more bank bailouts?, subsidies to what are now foreign firms, begging them not to pack up and go to their cheap labour homeland, which, when the subsidies run out they will inevitably do; and Mandelson's 'infrastructure spending' which amounts to foreign companies getting contracts for which they bring in their own labour, so that both profits and workers earnings go overseas, rather than supporting the economy here. And you can add M's car scrapping scheme, whereby people get govt money (ours) that they can then buy foreign cars!

    So back to my original question - why do we need this continued govt spending (when we are so in debt AND it is totally ineffective), if we are 'coming out of a recession'?


    Answers to Job Centre, so they can be displayed on the jobs board, for a right larf.

  • Comment number 23.


    "I thought David Milliband was specially embarrassing when he almost swooned with delight after Obama shook his hand at G20 - like he wouldn't wash his hand for weeks." (Didn't he do something very similar to Gordon a while back? With the popping eyes and manic grin - on a stage?)

    By the time Miliband D reached climax, I was behind the sofa, peering through interlaced fingers. AND THEN BANANABOY capped a 'dominant' hand over the 'shake' - OMG! (So appalling I am using tweetspeak.) I shudder to think what ripples went through the force, as the Great God Obama was so insulted. Don't be surprised if Miliband D falls to dust, or fades a faint stain.

  • Comment number 24.

    Stayingcool: 'So back to my original question - why do we need this continued govt spending (when we are so in debt AND it is totally ineffective), if we are 'coming out of a recession'?

    It seems to me this is a very fair questions SC! I would say that the bank bail-outs were needed because otherwise the world's banking system would have collapsed with major and unpredictable consequeces. It seems right to say that the economic recovery is very fragile. There was a stark analysis in the Financial Times a couple of days ago suggesting that much of the governments' spending has gone into a new stock market bubble. If this proves to be true and the markets were to collapse again all bets are off. The governments would say that their spending has stood between the world and a re-run of the 1930's.

  • Comment number 25.

    Thank you for your coverage, which I have been following regularly recently. In addition to your rather insightful Keynesian and now perhaps Orwellian references, what about a bit of H G Wells?

    He suggested his epitaph might be: "I told you so. You damned fools." taken as a response to his witnessing of the realisation of the 'atom bomb'. He coined the 'atom bomb' phrase for the technological development he envisaged and contemplated with it's still resonating dread, of sadly increasing familiarity, way back in 1914. In 1934, Wells predicted that the world war he had described in The Shape of Things to Come (1933, which he adapted for the 1936 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come) would begin in 1940, a prediction which ultimately came true one year early.

    That's where I found his musings on the economical background and his hypothesised consequences of that Keynsian era of note, and on several pages he appeared to repeat that spooky pscyhic prophetic touch. 'The Shape of Things to Come' by H. G. Wells: "I told you so. You damned fools." indeed, it's available freely online and is worth a read if you have the inclination.

  • Comment number 26.

    #1 bookhimdano is spot on.

    Democracy may work well for some cultures and less well for others. The West are missionaries who want the world to exist in their image.

    It may not be imperialism but it is arrogant and potentially very damaging when countries are bribed or threatened in order to become westernized.

  • Comment number 27.

    #26 I can see your point kennethM. Though personally I am a convinced democrat I often feel the Western governments sometimes promote the idea of democracy because it allows them to destabilise countries. They have considerable levers to influence election results (funding, media). The fact that the same western countries are frequently absolutely silent about autocratic regimes such as Sauda Arabia that happen to be compliant with Western policy undermines the Western case. Nevertheless, it is hard for the rulers of any country to claim they are acting with the support of their populations unless they have been voted for.

  • Comment number 28.

    Come on Paul - dont be left out! What's your take on the "our cuts are better than yours" debate (or perhaps shouting match is a more accurate descriptor)


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