In praise of Susan George

13 November 2008
In the media

In a recent editorial comment, The Economist issued a solemn call to all believers in global capitalism not to despair, not to panick, and to do nothing that could endanger the capitalist system (October 18-24, 2008). The magazine invoked the words and spirit of its founder, the Scottish businessman, James Wilson, who, about 165 years ago, gave the paper the philosophy of "economic liberty".

In a recent editorial comment, The Economist issued a solemn call to all believers in global capitalism not to despair, not to panick, and to do nothing that could endanger the capitalist system (October 18-24, 2008). The magazine invoked the words and spirit of its founder, the Scottish businessman, James Wilson, who, about 165 years ago, gave the paper the philosophy of "economic liberty".

Raising concern over the surge of state intervention in response to the current global financial crisis, the editors of The Economist voiced a fervent hope: "If the worst is avoided, the healthy popular hostility to a strong state that normally pervades democracies should reassert itself". Then the editors' recitation of faith: "Capitalism is at bay; but those who believe in it must fight for it. For all its flaws, it is the best economic system man has invented yet". Embattled Western governments were however warned not to resort to "populism".

As I read this editorial I was reminded of Susan George, and then Karl Marx. Let me first dispose of the latter. Karl Marx lived about the same time as James Wilson, and in England. Somewhere in The Eighteenth Brummaire of Louis Bonaparte, perhaps Marx's most brilliant political commentary, he said: "the Tories of England long imagined they were enthusiastic about the Monarchy, the Church and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they were only enthusiastic about the groundrent". Watch out: The current "global financial crisis" will bring out many "confessions" from both the commanding posts and satellites of the global capitalist system.

It was about a year ago, in a piece titled Notes on the movement of history (The Guardian, October 25, 2007), that I first reported on Susan George's The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century. I am today focusing on the author of this terrifying book which, like The Economist, is concerned with how to preserve capitalism. Born in 1934, Susan George is an American who later took up residence in France. She is a political scientist, an activist public intellectual, a powerful speaker, well-known globally, and prolific. Her areas of concentration include Third World poverty underdevelopment and debt. Susan George is a "fierce critic of the present policies of the IMF, World Bank and what she calls their 'maldevelopment model'. She similarly criticises the neoliberal policies of the Washington Consensus on Third World development". She had served, and perhaps still serves, on several international bodies (including those of the United Nations) and has received several awards. Her published books include: How the other half dies (1976); A fate worse than debt (1988); and The debt boomerang (1992).

The book, The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century, which Susan George put out in 1999, is in form, a fiction. But it is a product of long and painstaking research which she undertook and decided to attribute to fictional intellectuals, the "Working Party". The latter was commissioned by equally fictional world leaders, the "Commissioning Parties". Why did she adopt this fictional form of presentation? She explained: "I was convinced that another book of analysis and criticism was pointless. I have spent the last 25 years of my life describing hunger, famine, debt and structural adjustment and what they are doing to people, and virtually nothing has changed. So, I thought, why not make things really clear by taking the logic of the global system to its conclusion? I wanted to put the case clinically to show the horrific consequences of continuing down the economic road we are on".

At the end of the book, Susan reveals herself as the author. Why did she not maintain the anonymity? She again explained: "When I first showed the book to a publisher in France they wanted to publish it anonymously but I thought that was too dangerous. Maybe I am flattering myself, but I think if you published this without a confession of authorship at the end and people believed it was real and were convinced that organised genocide was on the cards... Well, I didn't want to take on that big responsibility". The French publisher rejected the book, and Susan George took it to Britain where it was published by the Pluto Press. It is in the 'Afterword' and 'Annex' that Susan George reveals herself and simultaneously demolishes the frightening conclusions of the "Working Party" by simply showing that their premises, including their reading of history, are false.

I shall present a number of "findings" and "recommendations" made by the Working Party, and then return to the author. One: "The intent of our Report is not to shock or blaspheme: the fact remains that in earthly affairs, the market is the closest we are likely to come to the wisdom of the Almighty. Yes the market created suffering for some; its decisions may appear harsh and cruel, but let us not forget the theological parallel to the market according to which "God, the supremely good, would never allow that there be evil in His works unless He were so powerful and so good that even from evil He could do good" (Saint Augustine, quoted in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, question 2, article 3).

Two: "Capitalism, to use its scientific name, is not the natural state of mankind. Rather, it is a product of cumulative human ingenuity, a social construct and, as such, perhaps the most brilliant collective invention in all history". Three: "The means so far devised for overseeing, safeguarding and perpetuating the free market and the globalised economy are grossly inadequate. A brief inventory of existing global institutions shows that most of them are worthless for escaping the dangers on the horizon. They may be worse than useless in so far as they convey a false sense of security. We live today in a tragically under-managed world".

Four: "Despite an uncommon success or two like the World Trade Organisation and a few advances towards binding policies in the global arena, the international regulatory sphere is full of gaping holes. If it is to be self-sustaining, a globalised economy needs rules. Those rules can best be made by the major actors in that economy", that is, the Transnational Companies. Five: "The bedrock of free-market theory and practice is not altruism or self-sacrifice but immediate self-interest and profit... Market players care only about themselves, today, not about transmitting their individual or collective inheritance".

Six: "It should come as no surprise that unregulated (or "self-regulated") markets are quite capable of creating tensions (mass unemployment, social upheaval, environmental degradation, financial crash) that undermine the market system itself, Global shock-absorbers are not being installed on our standard model. Given an inherently fragile system lacking legitimate enforceable rules, we can only warn against global accident sometime in the early twenty-first century - if not before". How prophetic.

Seven: "we believe that to be genuinely free, market requires constraints. Today, the amount of care and protection expended upon the system's maintenance is inversely proportional to the degree of benefit derived from it. In other words, the worst threats stem from the largest players. Eight: "The twenty-first century must choose between discipline and control or tumult and chaos. The only way to ensure the greatest welfare for the greatest number, while still preserving capitalism is to make that number smaller". This radical reduction in the world population must come from the Third World and will be achieved with four weapons: Conquest, war, famine and pestilence which Susan George called the "Four Horsemen".

Nine: "We ask the Commissioning Parties to appreciate that our message is not merely that 'the ends justify the means'', though this may well be so. It is, rather, that Western culture and the liberal market system must, in the twenty-first century, choose between the ends and the End". Ten: "We do not foresee the renaissance of some neo-Soviet empire; we seriously doubt that any alternative world political-economic system can reasonably compete with the global market economy on theoretical or on practical grounds in the decades to come. A resurgent, credible Marxism or to her alternative system is not on the cards". So, the fate of the world is directly tied to the fate of capitalism: If the latter collapses, so will the former!

We may now return to Susan George. She was asked: "Why do you think the market model has such a hold on people?" Susan George replied: "Backers of the global economic model are very clever at paying both hacks and legitimate scholars to spread their propaganda. If a decision were taken that there had to be two billion fewer human beings in 2020 you would soon see all sorts of people developing a new kind of ethics and a new kind of law, and you would have them paid for. You would have a recasting of Malthus and it would be for everyone's own good, of course".

Is Susan George a pessimist? Not exactly, she said: "If you are fatalistic, you say that capitalism just rolls on like a juggernaut, crushing greater parts of humanity and the environment. But the system is fragile, with lots of cracks. We just have to get out there with our pick axes and work along the fault lines." I salute Susan George. Copyright © Guardian Newspapers Limited