National Sections of the L5I:

Susan George

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Born in the United States in 1934, Susan George has been a French citizen since 1994. She is associate director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, and president of the Observatoire de la Mondialisation in Paris. She is also one of the vice-presidents of ATTAC, France (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions to Aid Citizens).

She has long been a prominent critic of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the other global financial institutions. Her biggest achievement has been to “take debt off the financial pages and onto the political agenda”. In the 1970s and 1980s, she began to spotlight issues and causes that were later taken up by thousands of activists.

In a succession on books, she has highlighted the huge social catastrophe visited upon Third World countries, especially in Africa, by commercial bank lending and loans advanced by the IMF and World Bank. Describing the role of the IMF/World Bank, she writes, “The IMF is a funnel for channeling public money to private banks”.

Indeed, it is the determination of private banks to foist loans on Third World governments in order to make profits, which act against the development needs of the poor in those countries, which is the principal cause of debt. It is also a mechanism by which a handful of countries can control the economic structure and development of the vast majority of other countries and make them adopt trade and production patterns that serve the big transnational corporations (TNCs).

Moreover, debt causes resources to be taken away from poverty reduction, health and education programmes. George also shows the way in which Third World debt has blowback effects on the imperialist west in the form of drugs wars and underworld violence, wars and state breakdown in central and west Africa and the generation of waves of so-called economic refugees from countries whose economies have reached near-collapse after two decades of taking the IMF’s neoliberal medicine.

But what of her solutions? Susan George is not an anti-capitalist and does not claim to be. She does not advocate a non-market society in which socially planned economy dominates. Instead, she wants to reform and reforge the global institutions of finance to produce a socially just market economy – what her left-wing critics have called “capitalism with a human face”.

Because of that, she has to appeal in two directions. On the one hand, she wants to encourage cross-class alliances of individual “citizens” and NGOs to pressure for change from below: “The answer – the only answer – lies in the citizen’s movement, also known as social movements, or NGOs, or civil society, which has a difficult but not impossible task. This movement is international and it is broadly based. The different national coalitions that make up the citizens’ movement are workers and unions, small farmers and their organisations, consumers, environmentalists, students, women, the unemployed, indigenous people, religious believers.”

On the other hand, she still seeks dialogue with the rich and the powerful: she does not envisage a wholly different system. As a result, there is no Plan B for what happens if the billionaires reject a new solution for the Third World. Because she sees the road of reform as open, she sees protest as a sufficient means to reach this goal.

Democracy will take care of it if enough people protest, she thinks. That is why she emphasizes, time and again, the need for peaceful protest and the impermissibility of violence, even self-defensive violence. After Gothenburg and Genoa, she became very critical of the anarchists and others who engaged in street fighting, advising the “global justice movement” to separate itself from all those who will not accept non-violence as an absolute in their tactics.

However, if the corporations and the big banks are as powerful and as ruthless as George and the other anti-globalisation publicists say they are, how could a heterogeneous “people’s movement” be powerful enough for this task? No amount of rational finger wagging at the major corporations or the IMF to make them see sense will make them change course. They will quite literally drag the world into the abyss, themselves included.

In her latest book “Another World is possible IF...” Susan George devotes a whole section to attacking what she calls the trap of “the only solution is revolution.” Adopting a world-weary flippancy she insists: “The chances of an all-consuming one-off revolutionary transformation which could somehow destroy capitalism seem to me remarkably slim”.

As for the class struggle and the working class as the key agency of systemic change, she again waves it aside as all impossibly passé: “I don’t see anything one could call “the international working class” waiting in the wings – this notion strikes me more as wishful thinking than reality.”

Indeed, she believes that revolution is actually highly undesirable because of the suffering it would cause. “People are now also justifiably leery of revolution and other so-called “grand narratives” given the totalitarian systems they have engendered in the past, even when the participants began with the best of intentions.”

But what of the suffering that capitalism causes with its famines and imperialist wars in nearly every decade, its sweatshops and mass unemployment? Those who perished in revolutions are only a tiny fraction of this ongoing holocaust. In fact, her irritating faux naďve remarks, “call me unimaginative: I can barely visualise what such a gigantic one-off event might look or feel like” cover up a refusal to look at the key events of 20th century history.

In an almost classic Social Democratic manner, she treats revolution as if it were simply a matter of a choice between tools or weapons: revolution, quick but highly dangerous – reform, slow but sure. In reality, revolutions are precisely necessitated by the economic and social crises endemic to capitalism that she says she would prefer to avoid because of the suffering they cause. Then she wheels in the Gulag and Stalinism, “Unless and until one can be quite sure such horrors can be avoided – and I don’t see who or what might guarantee it – Socialism plus democracy (not the same thing as social democracy) is for me the answer, even though it may strike some adventurous risk-loving spirits as boring.”

Real horrors they were but they were the product of counter-revolution, not revolution. And fascism – another form of counterrevolution – was the punishment for failing to make a revolution, for using the tools of reformism in a profoundly revolutionary situation.

The triumph of Hitler, though in part the crime of Stalinism, was, in larger measure still, the crime of the social democracy. Stalinism’s crime was not only that it failed to unite the working class against the Nazis but also that it failed to break the hold of social democracy on the German workers and lead them to power. In a social crisis of the depth of 1929-33, preserving democracy as the lesser evil is not the way out. Rather, the system, which gave birth to fascism in order to use it against the working class, had to be utterly destroyed.

Since the same “error” was repeated in Spain in the 1930s and Chile in the 1970s, a cursory look at history might be expected from someone who so airily waves aside the “only solution is revolution” with the admission that she lacks the imagination to conceive of what one would look like.

Susan George’s actual political strategy is revealed clearly enough by the title of one of her chapters, “Europe wins the war within the West”. In effect, she has decided to put all her bets on transforming the European Union into a bastion of social democracy against hopelessly neoliberal America. Again, with total flippancy, she observes that the “gotcha squads” of the politically correct will be ready with “imprecations and brickbats”. Well what can one say but, GOTCHA!?

Gotcha for imagining that the Europe of the European multinationals can be socialised and democratised, its parties and governments and institutions reformed in time to “win the battle” with the USA. Gotcha for writing off the American workers and youth as incapable of halting and overthrowing their rulers.

She insists that, being a twelfth generation American, she cannot justly be accused of being anti-American. That is not the point. Her error is that she refuses to start her analysis with the existence and struggle of classes. She cannot accept that the working class is the principal agent for social transformation. Instead, she prefers to prettify the European capitalist class as somehow better (rather than weaker, at the moment) than their transatlantic rivals and, as a result, she ends up backing the European Union as the potential embodiment of the social democratic utopia. And so, if it comes to economic and then military warfare between these two behemoths? We can be pretty sure whose side Susan George will be on.

Debt, financial speculation, the terrible effects of neoliberal policies in the global north as well as the global south, cannot be divorced from the underlying reality of exploitation and oppression. As a result, the solution cannot lie in an isolated strategy to solve the debt crisis – or a utopian plan to tax financial speculation to aid world development. It must embrace a strategy that enables the working class to take ownership of the factories, the banks and financial institutions away from the MNCs and steers it to overthrow its compliant and corrupt rulers – whether they sit in the White House, Downing Street or the Elysée Palace.