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International Socialism, Summer 2001


Susan George

What now?


From International Socialism 2:91, Summer 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The worldwide social movement fighting against corporate globalisation and for a more just, more democratic and more ecologically sustainable world has travelled a long way in the past three years. We have won significant victories: we killed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (Mai), although they are trying to raise it from the dead. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are all in crisis, and the new Bush presidency may make it worse. Consumers everywhere are revolting against genetically modified organisms. Dozens, hundreds of battles are taking place in dozens, hundreds of places across the globe. Because of our actions, because of the protests and popular refusal to accept neo-liberal globalisation, more and more people recognise that this is not the ‘end of history’. Porto Alegre means we can plan for a different future in a realistic and hopeful way. As we say in ATTAC, ‘Another world is possible.’

These are no small achievements and we should rejoice in them. But we should also recognise that the road from here will be long and hard. Yes, the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO have been hit hard, but they are still very much standing and they have not given up their power. World wealth distribution is still obscenely skewed and more people are thrust into poverty every day. The debt burden in the South continues to grow and destroy countless lives. The planet is still undergoing relentless, perhaps fatal, environmental assault.

Furthermore, the real forces behind globalisation have barely been touched. I mean, of course, the industrial and financial transnational corporations for which the World Bank, IMF, the WTO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), etc. are merely fronts and servants. These mega-corporations and the financial markets are the ultimate incarnation of world capitalism; they are the real danger and their leaders are meeting in Davos as we speak. So long as we have not placed them under democratic, binding, legal control we cannot say we have won.

For these reasons I want to talk about the steps we need to take together if we are to move forward towards our goal. I would broadly define that goal as ‘democratic, equitable and ecological globalisation’. Some of the necessary steps are intellectual or ideological. Others have more to do with organising, tactics and strategy. I think we need to trace a new path and the first step is to replace the dominant ideology which has convinced so many people that there is no alternative to neo-liberal globalisation. Let’s start by restoring the truth of language and the credibility of scholarship. I believe this is vital if we are to convince everyone, including governments, that the present world is not inevitable, that globalisation is not a force of nature like gravity or the result of divine law, that the market cannot be the judge of all things.

The French writer André Breton said, ‘Intellectuals are the guardians of our vocabulary.’ But guarding the language isn’t a task for intellectuals alone – the whole movement represented in Porto Alegre has to learn to use words that are understood by everyone yet expose the lies embedded in the everyday usage forged by our opponents. Here are a few examples of the way language has been colonised by neo-liberal ideology.

We say ‘globalisation’ as though all nations and all peoples could be included in a march to some future ‘promised land’, whereas we know this is a myth. ‘Globalisation’ is really ‘corporate-driven economic integration’ or just plain ‘21st century capitalism’. It feeds on the planet, makes the rich richer, increases inequalities, denies democracy and excludes hundreds of millions of people.

We say ‘privatisation’ when we should say ‘alienation’, or ‘giveaways’ of valuable enterprises and the results of decades of work by thousands of people which are handed over to Northern and Southern elites. We say ‘structural adjustment’ when we mean wrenching economic austerity and brutal assaults against the poor. We say ‘deregulation’ when we know that new rules are being made every day by opaque, unaccountable international institutions. This is ‘re-regulation’.

We even refer to George Bush as the ‘democratically elected president of the US’ when it’s perfectly clear that the US has undergone a quasi coup d’état. If the same election irregularities had occurred in a Third World country, the US would probably have sent troops or imposed sanctions.

It’s also profoundly irritating and just plain wrong that the press has labelled us the ‘anti-globalisation movement’. Let’s make clear that we are ‘pro-globalisation’. We are in favour of sharing friendship, culture, cuisine, travel, solidarity, wealth and resources worldwide. We are above all ‘pro-democracy’ and ‘pro-planet’, which our adversaries most clearly are not.

To cut through the ideological undergrowth we must also expose the shoddy, self serving so called ‘scholarship’ with which the international institutions try to justify their failed policies. The World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and the rest of the institutional servant class employ tame, well paid intellectuals to convince the media and the world that globalisation is improving life for the poor, that free trade benefits everyone and a rising tide is lifting all boats, that structural adjustment leads to growth, prosperity and redistribution of wealth, that the market is the best allocator of financial, material and human resources, and other, similar fairy tales. This unmasking of ideology passing for scholarship may be primarily a task for researchers, but it’s everyone’s job to help defeat these official institutional lies.

The final step in clearing a path is to rid ourselves of the illusions we may still have and help others get rid of them as well. People in the better-off North are more likely to hold certain illusions about power and wealth than those in the South, but decent people everywhere hate to recognise that reality can be as ugly as it is. Below are some of the illusions I often hear expressed in one form or another.

Surely Bill Gates and the other few hundred billionaires are rich enough. They already control assets equivalent to those owned by fully half the world’s population. Don’t they realise that being a billionaire on the Titanic isn’t a viable prospect? Won’t they decide to use their enormous wealth to improve the state of the world in fundamental ways? I’m afraid not. There are no upper limits to the accumulation of wealth and power, although the lower limits – destitution and death – are very clearly defined.

Another popular belief holds that southern hemisphere debt will be spontaneously cancelled if decision makers can be convinced beyond a doubt that it is causing unbearable hardship and destroying countless lives. Not so. Hundreds of studies have already proven irrefutably the ravages of debt, and we must regretfully admit that there is no level of human suffering which, in and of itself, will cause the creditors’ policies to change.

Many Northern citizens seem to think that everyone has accepted the social gains of the past 100 years or so. They may think it’s still possible for poorer countries to catch up eventually and build their own welfare states through growth and the process known as ‘development’. This belief is suicidal. National and international elites would happily and without hesitation transport us all back to the 19th century if they could get away with it. They constantly seek ways to employ fewer people, lower wages, cut benefits, hand over public services to the market, stop paying taxes, and so on. Since the end of the Cold War, ‘development’ is not on the radar screens of Western elites, and funding for North-South co-operation has dropped precipitously.

A further illusion is to assume that corporations and rich countries will at least change their behaviour when they see they are demolishing the life of the planet on which we all have to live. This is perhaps the most pernicious of all fallacies because it would seem so clearly in the interests of everyone, including elites, to preserve our ecological base. Personally, I don’t think they can stop even if they want to, even for their own children. Capitalism is like that famous bicycle that has to keep moving forward or topple over – and corporations are all competing to see who can pedal fastest, straight into the brick wall.

You see my point! Capital never willingly gives up anything to labour, the dominant classes never relinquish their privileges and power without a fight and are always avid to acquire more, the environment will not be protected merely because it would be rational to do so, and it would be folly to believe that the democratic gains of earlier struggles have been won once and for all. While it’s true that we need to think long and hard about who our allies are now – or could be in future – because the nature of social classes has obviously changed in the past 150 years, still the old notions of rapport de forces and class struggle have lost none of their relevance.

To sum up, we will have won half the battle if we can effectively re-establish the truth of language and the legitimacy of our own scholarship; if we can successfully combat the illusions that millions of well meaning people still harbour. Then the road will lie open before us.

To move forward, we should simultaneously pursue other strategies. Clearly, we must continue to protest. As the first World Social Forum meets in Porto Alegre, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of activists will be protesting at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. This is an excellent symbol but it still seems to me that a year after Seattle we should decide on the following rule: ‘Wherever “They” are, some of “Us” will be also.’

Some of us, but not all of us. Why not? Because, first, we must not let the adversary set our calendar. This is one of the many reasons Porto Alegre is so important – it’s our own event. Furthermore, not everyone can afford to travel far away, or be away from jobs and family in order to attend protests. It’s impossible to build a genuine social movement purely on the basis of a left wing jetset or a youth culture. We must get the press to stop comparing everything to Seattle in terms of numbers because numbers are not the point or not the only point.

Sometimes, infrequently, we should be out in force and fill the streets but not at every one of the opponent’s gatherings. You can be in opposition while staying where you are, and if we’re creative we can also occupy the media’s attention.

Wherever we are, in my view, we must declare ourselves unequivocally a non-violent movement, and isolate politically and physically the violent elements who believe that breaking windows, setting fires or attacking cops can in some obscure way threaten capitalism. Yes, I know that the cops often start the violence. Yes, I know that many people, especially young men, are desperate and enraged. But I still maintain that ‘capitalism’ is only too happy to watch us making stupid mistakes that can be blown up on television, and gain sympathy for our adversaries while isolating us from people who might otherwise be our allies. Again this is no way to build a broad movement. Remember, we will never bring older people, families with children, the handicapped and the less physically fit, minorities and others who can’t afford to be arrested, and many others to our side of the struggle and to our demonstrations if we can’t guarantee peaceful protest.

Peaceful, however, doesn’t mean ‘boring’. We need to think much harder about using artistic expression in theatre, dance, music, cinema and painting to make our message more vivid, more colourful and compelling. We must learn how to make our adversaries look ridiculous because they are ridiculous. Anyone who cherishes the enemy’s values is not just small minded and despicable but also foolish. Making fun of them requires imagination, humour, derision. Remember those heroes of the people who have thrown richly deserved cream pies at the likes of Michael Camdessus and Mike Moore. Just now the WTO is asking for private donations in cash in order to, I quote, ‘instruct have-not nations in the complex rules of international commerce’. What an admission of the non-democratic functioning of this organisation! Their own members don’t even know what they’ve signed on for. Should we take up a charity collection for the WTO? Should we transfer thousands of cheques for ten cents to its bank account? Let’s learn to use such weaknesses to our own advantage.

As we protest, we must also propose. This is a complex subject. All too often the citizen movement is portrayed as a bunch of anarchists who don’t agree on anything except that they don’t want rules. You all know the refrain: ‘If you don’t accept the rules of the WTO, you will take us back to the protectionist wars of the 1930s and maybe to war itself.’ ‘The WTO exists to protect the weak against the strong but you want the law of the jungle.’ ‘Trade is good for the poor – you are against trade – therefore you are against the poor’. Similar justifications exist for the IMF, the World Bank and the others. We have to make it clear that we want rules and we know that no system, including Porto Alegre, can function without them. The really important question is, who makes the rules and on whose behalf? We justifiably refuse the rules of unelected, opaque organisations, whether corporations, financial markets or international institutions.

We have already started working to put other rules in their place. Our proposals must have instantly recognised legitimacy, meaning they must be founded on the corpus of international law elaborated in the 20th century – human rights, environmental agreements, basic labour conventions and the like. This law must always precede and supersede more specialised legal systems like the dispute resolution mechanism of the WTO. Corporations and their executive officers should be made legally, personally responsible for the actions of the corporation anywhere in the world. Financial markets need to be controlled through taxation and, where warranted, through currency controls.

Just as our forebears fought for and won national taxation systems to alleviate inequalities and provide services nationally, so we have to fight for international taxation in a world where the real money – whether of corporations or of the richest individuals – can escape to tax havens or be hidden in dummy companies. In a world where official development aid is in free fall, where the real wealth flows from the poor South to the rich North, there is only one way to start reducing the indecent North-South gap. That is to tax international capital. The best targets for taxation are financial transactions, and corporate mergers and acquisitions. We are always told that such taxes are not technically feasible. This is a lie. The world as a whole has never been so rich and the technology exists if governments want to use it. The real problem is that they do not.

As we make our proposals, let’s refuse the attitude Ralph Nader has called ‘defeatist realism’. If you start from the premise that it’s impossible to get what you really want, then you won’t even try. During the fight against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the trade unions in the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee – the TUAC – argued that the MAI was going to pass anyway, so they should try at best to obtain a social clause. Aside from the fact that a social clause in the MAI would have been meaningless, this attitude reflected the demoralisation of the labour movement. We actually did defeat the MAI, unfortunately with no input at all from those unions, though some dissident unions were immensely important. Let’s always aim for the maximum. Sometimes ‘realism’ means demanding what may at first glance seem impossible.

All victories may be temporary and partial, but there are no ‘small’ victories. We had a famous case in the European Parliament where some left wing MPs refused to vote for a feasibility study of the Tobin Tax on international currency transactions on the pretext that the Tobin Tax would merely amend capitalism whereas they meant to overthrow capitalism entirely. Their few negative votes caused the resolution to fail.

I’m sorry to admit it, but I haven’t the slightest idea what ‘overthrowing capitalism’ means in the early 21st century. Maybe we will witness what the philosopher Paul Virilio has called the ‘global accident’ but it would surely be accompanied by enormous human suffering. If all the financial and stock markets suddenly collapsed, millions would be thrown out onto the pavement as large and small firms failed, bank closures would far outstrip the capacity of governments to prevent catastrophe, insecurity and crime would run rampant, and we would find ourselves living in the Hobbesian hell of the war of all against all. Call me a reformist if you like – I want to avoid such a future. I also want to avoid the programmed neo-liberal future. If my analysis is correct, that means both stopping the adversary’s programme and forcing through measures which can replace the present savage capitalist system with a cooperative one in which markets have their place but cannot dictate their law to the whole of society. In this perspective there are no small victories and any victory we can win becomes the platform for future gains.

We know very well what we’re fighting for. Unpayable debt, which has in any case been paid several times over, must be cancelled and restitution begun. The international financial institutions have to be placed under democratic control. If it is determined that they still have a role, then it must benefit the majority. We need an international trade regime, but not that of the WTO. Some goods have to be placed firmly beyond the realm of commerce and market relations. Among these would be basic provisions of food and water for everyone (but people who want to fill their swimming pools should have to pay serious money). Health, education and other social services are not merchandise but rights. Public transport and housing can be provided generously.

Once people have a basic level of material security they become infinitely more productive and enrich their own societies. It is quite feasible, materially speaking, to establish a universal welfare threshold for everyone on earth – not as charity but as a right, simply by virtue of the fact of being human. The world has never been so rich, and we have all the organisational and technological skills needed, plus the capacity to monitor distribution in order to prevent corruption and waste. In other words, there are no excuses for not changing the world.

Probably everyone in Porto Alegre agrees that our struggles must be based on strong national coalitions uniting farmers, workers, environmentalists, women, professionals, cultural workers and other intellectuals, the unemployed, the landless and the homeless, immigrants, human rights activists and many other forces. On that basis, we can link our struggles regionally and internationally. Both nationally and internationally, one needn’t agree on everything to work together towards common goals.

Let me end by saying I honestly and deeply believe all this can be done. There is no reason to be pessimistic – there has never been such an upsurge of militant energy and activism since the Vietnam War. I think we can win. But only on the condition that we accept a painful reality: almost everything takes a much longer time to accomplish than we could have ever imagined. Perhaps the best, or the worst, example is the debt issue, on which many of us began fighting 15 years ago and whose consequences have become worse with every passing year. So perhaps the hardest lesson of all we need to learn is to lose, but to lose without becoming discouraged.

True, our adversaries may be ahead of us. They got together earlier. They have the money, the power, most of the media and much of the organisation on their side. But we should never forget that we have the numbers, we have the ideas and that everything we cherish today, all the gains of the past from which we now benefit, were fought for by people who began by losing. They fought and lost, and fought and lost, and then one day they won. We should try to be worthy of them by showing the same patience and determination. We are trying to do something no one has ever done before in history – no wonder it’s hard! Meanwhile, remember that people on our side have more joy – they have more true comrades and more reasons to live. Let’s rejoice in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and make it a huge success. Together, all of you there and all of us throughout the world who, like me, can’t be there but share in the spirit, together we will make the words ‘Porto Alegre’ stand for human dignity, solidarity and democracy.


Susan George is associate director of the Transnational Institute and vice-president of ATTAC France. This article is the transcript of her contribution to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on 15 January 2001.

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