"Lula: There's Nothing to Gain in Davos"

24 January 2003

Susan George is disappointed to see Brazilian president José Ignacio Lula da Silva going this week to the World Economic Forum in Davos in his first long-distance trip, ostensibly to "build bridges" but where his supporters - the protesters - will be kept at bay.

She has said that the globe, now ruled by transnational corporations, is "a plane without a pilot" headed for disaster, but she also sees a grand design in the circle around US president George W. Bush, a strategy which will bring the world back to the Neanderthal era. Thus the "very likely" war on Iraq, she says, is not just about oil.

As Associate Director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, a fellowship of scholars living throughout the world who seek to contribute to social justice, and vice-president of ATTAC-France [Association for Taxation of Financial Transaction to Aid Citizens], she spends much of her time attending conferences, when not writing and researching.

She does not speak first, nor does she try to speak last. Debates go on for hours until at one point, when she feels the moment is due, raises her hand and is usually given the floor at first try; she then looks timid, introduces herself as "Susan George, from ATTAC-France" and unleashes a cascade of data wrapped in unbeatable logic, with more than a touch of irony, but never containing an insult. It takes five, ten minutes.

Sometimes she speaks twice. Or asks a short question. No fury, no shouts, no emotional outbursts, but also no compromise when it comes to what she thinks is right (or wrong). That's why she is one of the symbols of the World Social Forum.

Lula, this year's WSF star, is also going to Davos. Is this significant?

Yes, I'm afraid so. If Davos were an official organization, he would doubtless have a good reason to go, but this gathering of the rulers of the universe is the creation of a couple of good organisers, sort of high-class con men - who learned how to make this a "networking" event ("I'm going because you're going", on a grand scale). I fear many people will be disappointed that virtually his first act as president is to travel a vast distance to join this group. The police won't let Lula's "real" network, "his" people, the protesters, get within 500 meters of the conference. I was there the first year there was a protest - about 100 of us cooped up in a tiny space by police vans that had mobile grills on the front of them. The grills went up about 2 meters and you were just fenced in. Never been so cold in my life - at least Lula will be warm!

Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer, urged president Lula to become Tony Blair, not Hugo Chavez. What would you tell him?

Of course that's what Vargas Llosa would say. What do you expect? Tony Blair is about as much a socialist as my Labrador (dog). I don't think he should be Chavez either - he should be Lula. He's got 20 years of PT (Workers Party) organising behind him, he's got a real base, huge international respect, he's not the traditional Latin American populist leader. He shouldn't be anyone but himself and he should tell Vargas Llosa to go home and write a novel.

So far Lula has everybody's support - the US, Cuba, the EU, the IMF, World Bank, etc. His economic goal is to achieve growth through expanding internal markets through a social pact in the world's most unequal nation. What do you think of this kind of strategy?

If there is still something you could call a "national bourgeoisie" in Brazil, and I don't know the country well enough to say, then yes, it can work. If he can generalise the kinds of programmes like paying families to keep their kids in school, the budgeting system of Porto Alegre, the environmental successes of Curitiba, and gives power to the majority then he'll be okay. The question for me is whether the wealthy will play the game or send their capital somewhere else, like the Argentineans did. I hope not.

Several countries and politicians from Europe are trying to set up dialogue mechanisms involving civil society, international financing agencies, business, the United Nations. Corporations don't attend. Does this process serve any meaningful purpose?

Some corporations do attend, because they're trying to figure out how the modern world works. I am sometimes asked to try to explain the "movement" to them, I'll talk to them, I'm talking to some in Austria next week. The Global transnational corporate strategy, however, is clearly what they call "CSR" standing for "corporate social responsibility" and which I say stands for "corporate self-regulation". They initiated this in Rio in 1992 and have been very successfully promoting it - in fact it has been enshrined by the UN in the so-called ''global compact" and at the Jo'burg Sustainable Development conference where the corporations came out as official "partners" in Development. The day they say that international taxation of their profits [even at a very low level] would be a good idea, I'll find them more sincere. All this said, sometimes these "dialogue" meetings are worthwhile - the result of one I attended has been to get the World Bank to talk about agricultural subsidies with Via Campesina which groups about 70 small farmers' organisations all over the world. It may come to nothing, but if it doesn't, then we shall have more ammunition against the Bank, and if it does, the small producers would have an extremely powerful ally.

Who do NGOs represent? The global - and mainly Northern intellectual young middle class? Are the real dispossessed - those who can't afford to come here or don't even know about the WSF - represented in Porto Alegre? How will those people be included?

Of course there are intellectuals in the movement and a good thing too. Of course there are northerners, thank God, because that's where most of the power is and some people in the North do care about what happens to the rest (80%) of humanity. But I think Porto Alegre is spreading its roots deeper and deeper. I'm tremendously impressed by most of it and there are other grass-roots organisations Involved. Sometimes very poor people can organise themselves, but not always. And in any case it takes time. Five years ago, this movement didn't even exist. In historical terms, that is nothing. I think we are on the right road - or at least I refuse to be pessimistic. We are fighting for a better deal for the dispossessed you're asking about, and it's usually the case that when you are not worrying all the time about mere survival that you can become more involved, more political. Let's try to ensure that survival and make spaces so that politics can happen.

Will 'the movement' replace political parties and unions? How is the issue of power dealt with? Does Lula's victory and political programme represent the ideals of the WSF?

No, the movement definitely shouldn't replace parties and unions which have their specific and indispensable roles to play. We should ally with some unions [or they with us] and this is happening more and more. We should try to influence parties and governments. But we should not seek political power per se because that is the place of compromise - this isn't an insult, it's just a fact of life. The movement should stay outside and keep goading, keep pushing for improvements. God knows we're only at the beginning. But yes, Lula's victory certainly does represent a step forward and embodies the ideals of the WSF.

Is this imminent war on Iraq just about oil, or, like Augustus's Rome, does the US need to be in a permanent state of war to avoid decline at the peak of its supremacy?

This would require a long long answer but basically no, it's not "just" about oil or probably even mostly about oil. The people around Bush really do have a new "grand strategy", for the first time in more than fifty years, which breaks completely with the "deterrence-containment" model and even breaks with the 350 year-old Westphalian system. That's one reason the (very likely) attack on Iraq has got to be fought with all our strength - it simply re-introduces the Neanderthal system: the one with the biggest club wins and there are none of these stupid 17th to 19th century rules. Most of the victims are civilians. You don't need to approve of anything about Saddam (and I don't) to take this position of absolute opposition to this impending war. The Bush people have also manipulated September 11th masterfully, reducing civil liberties and to some extent cowing the population - not everyone, but the majority. War, if it doesn't cost too much or last too long or kill too many of "our boys", can be a very good internal political move. Iraq occupies a strategic geo-political position. All these things play a role. As for Britain, Tony Blair will measure the political costs. If the British peace movement can make it too costly for him to remain Bush's poodle, then he'll stop. Otherwise he'll continue.