Susan George

"Democratic Rights Are in the Process of Eroding"

As vice-president of ATTAC France, Susan George is one of the leading figures in the worldwide anti-globalization movement. In this interview she talks about the tactics of alternative politics and asserts that the current world order is not inevitable

photo: Transnational Institute Amsterdam
Susan George says that competition and commerce will become a threat to society if turned into core values of human existence

​​The emergence of a movement promoting global justice has been observed with some astonishment. How would you characterize this movement?

Susan George: I am pleased that more and more observers, opinion-makers and politicians are saying that it is a movement for global social justice. Up until now they have dismissed us as "opponents of globalization". So this is a step forward. I think that in the past five years a great many people have realized two things:

First, that the current world order is not inevitable. The neo-liberal ideologists are the ones who have tried to persuade us that there is absolutely no alternative to the prevailing order.

Second, many people have begun to understand that this world order has grave implications for the great majority of the world's population. People have a basic sense of justice, which is violated again and again. Young people are spontaneously internationalist; they realize that we cannot improve things on a national level until we tackle them on the global level. Of course, the neo-liberals have had twenty years now in which to fix up the world as they see fit, and they were quite successful at it. But for any thesis, the antithesis is bound to emerge at some point.

In the past decades there has been plenty of leftist activism on questions of identity: the women's and gay rights movements for example, along with movements based on ethnicity. There have also been several one-issue movements, the ecology movement for one. But the interesting thing about the movement we're talking about is the new universalism, which attempts to integrate all of these issues. Where does this come from? What's behind this remarkable transformation?

George: One of the answers might be simply that these old movements were successful. The position of women, of gays, or of lesbians is much different today than it was twenty years ago. I was raised during times that young women today can hardly even imagine. Many people understand now that if we do not try to cooperate with basically progressive powers, everyone loses. People who didn't even know each other five years ago routinely work together today. For one thing, because they were forced to acknowledge that questions of identity and everyday life are very strongly influenced by globalization. If you lose your job because a transnational corporation decides to relocate its production to Vietnam, then this has a direct impact on your identity. In addition, we must bear in mind that the questions we are asking, for example about the control of global financial markets, are fundamentally democratic questions. More and more people are worried that the democratic rights that they have fought to obtain are in the process of eroding, that the future course is being set on a level on which democratic processes no longer have any effect. So the point is: We have to fight to exert an influence on these levels as well, because otherwise we will lose what we have fought so hard to attain in the past.

Some people, Manuel Castells for example, describe contemporary society as a network society on a global level. Isn't that a paradox, that the movement we're talking about is also defined by the principles of fast-acting networks and nodes, that it functions without clear hierarchies, therefore virtually duplicating the spirit of the times...?

George: You are much more theoretical than I am; I am a very empirical person. I can only describe how these networks function. The people are participants in a global movement, but they are still interested on the individual level primarily in their own special concerns. Small-scale farmers, union workers, women, teachers, doctors and nurses, environmentalists, people interested in democratic issues - all of these groups come together and meet in order to work together on a specific cause, for example the anti-WTO campaign. But these contacts are not merely transitory, they continue to deepen. Of course you're right: we have all had enough of hierarchies. We do need them to a certain extent to make decisions, and we need structures, but the leadership of this movement is more of a moral leadership, or a leadership that is based on intellectual production rather than a leadership in the traditional party sense, where you work your way up the hard way. Things are done totally differently in this movement, and people are quite happy about that.

You have already told us about the many positive effects of this organizational structure, but aren't there also some negative ones? The old structures certainly had negative effects, as we all know, but they did guarantee that the leadership felt a certain degree of responsibility toward the rank and file. But the kind of moral leadership you are talking about is only responsible to itself...

George: But we all have our various memberships. I am vice-president of ATTAC, was elected for a three-year term and will either be re-elected in October or not. I feel very responsible to the 30,000 ATTAC members who do so much for this organization. And they can vote me out of office if I do not conduct myself correctly. The same thing goes for the organization of small farmers or the somewhat more traditional trade unions. Responsibility toward the movement as a whole works in a different way. When we get together for a collective meeting, the representatives of each group are either accepted by the others or not. It works in a quite uncomplicated manner. It's usually the right wing that poses the question you have asked. They say: Okay, NGOs are a good idea, but who elected you? I reply: But we don't want to be in power! We don't want to take office! We are committed to our people, that's all, and we don't want anything other than to really get on the nerves of people like you and not to leave you alone to do as you please. Show me one transnational corporation that's democratic. Who elected the people who are traveling to Davos? Then they tell me, the shareholders elected them. Even pressure groups like GREENPEACE are more democratic; they have no mass membership, because they are dependent on their donors. If they do something stupid, the money dries up. Their sponsors vote with their wallets.

The movement is often called "anti-Globalization", and you call it a movement for global justice. ATTAC calls for global reform of the world economy, a global re-regulatory regime, global Keynesianism; on the other hand, many find their motivation in the defense of diverse local ways of life against the homogenizing tendencies of the world market. Isn't this a major contradiction?

George: No, I can't see any contradiction there at all. We are great adherents of the idea of subsidiarity. Decisions should be made as closely as possible to those who are affected by them. In some cases this means locally, in some cases nationally, and in others regionally, for example on the level of the EU, and other decisions must be made globally. Re-regulation is certainly necessary, but it requires the participation of people on all levels. The only problem with it is a practical one, since none of us can be present and active simultaneously on all of these levels.

But the movement is full of contradictions. There are loads of people who are classical Keynesians, who 30 years ago were totally mainstream, and then there are others who want to completely abolish "capitalism" - these disparate groups are even to be found under the umbrella of ATTAC. Others want to do away with the WTO, while still others seek to strengthen global institutions in order to have control over the tools of negotiation.

George: As regards these issues as well, I take a very pragmatic approach. You see, I would be delighted if we could find a substitute for capitalism. But I don't think we will be able to, especially not along the lines of what the communists called the "grand moment" of the revolution. Let us simply take a few single steps in the right direction. Every success we are able to achieve opens up a space. I don't think that any of the issues you have touched on will force us apart in the foreseeable future. In my personal opinion, we have nation states and we have national welfare states, and we can only exercise any influence on global processes through these national governments. In Europe, for example, we must force our governments to work in an orderly way within the context of the EU, within the international institutions, and we have to make sure they understand that they will have a problem winning elections if they do not take the interests of the great majority into consideration. We can take individual multis to task, but here as well there are no viable legal means for doing so and no foundation for a universal judicial system on which to base our actions. And if you ask me if we do not want to have any multis at all anymore, then I would say: Maybe not. But above all I would say: We are so far away from even posing this question that there is simply no sense in starting a fruitless battle over it. In the 60's and 70's, people spent an unbelievable amount of time discussing issues that were not even on the table. I prefer to occupy myself with real problems and real solutions.

You call for the institution of the Tobin Tax. It can function, if it functions at all, only when it is introduced in all countries, something that might happen in twenty years, but not tomorrow.

George: If we introduced the Tobin Tax in Europe alone, this would already affect 50 percent of all financial transactions. The USA will be the last country to institute any changes, we are well aware of that.

Many economists say that the Tobin Tax would be pointless at the national or merely regional level, because the result would be a competitive disadvantage.

George: We always hear the same thing when any country lowers its taxes, that then everyone will shift their money and production there. That does happen, but not on such a massive scale. I can't picture all of the young bankers in London picking up and moving en masse to the Cayman Islands. Of course, it is technically possible to reroute transactions, and we will not be one hundred percent successful right from the start. But I'm not all that concerned about this problem. I am more concerned about decision-making processes: for example, who determines who is to benefit from the tax revenues? The corrupt elites in underdeveloped countries, or civil society, the IMF or the World Bank? That worries me more. Please understand that in the past few years we have radically changed the debating position on the Tobin Tax. The issue is now on the table, while a few years ago people were calling us crackpots and idiots. This is not yet a triumph, but an important step on the way.

That is part of a success story, the success story of ATTAC. In this network, ATTAC is the only organization working on a global level...

George: No, there are others: VIA CAMPESINA, the small farmers' organization, or ecological organizations such as GREENPEACE. But ATTAC is certainly the most conspicuous organization in this movement.

What is the secret of its success?

George: Someone in London once asked me this and I replied somewhat casually: "The bastards have gone too far." Too many people have begun to feel that way. There is a natural human reaction to this, because people are not bastards; 90 percent of people do not want others to starve, do not want others to be exploited, do not want to accept outrageous injustice. They react. In addition, ATTAC is successful as an organization because it acts outside of the traditional political establishment. Many people have simply had enough of the traditional party system.

And the fact that ATTAC has a single, specific demand with which it is identified - does that play a role?

George: Perhaps, but that was only the beginning. By now, of course, we have come much further.

But you are also at a turning point. September 11 changed the very basis of your work.

George: After September 11, the neo-liberals thought that the movement for social justice would be buried under the rubble of the WTC. But the movement continues to grow. Recently, in New York, twenty thousand people took to the streets to protest the Davos Summit. And a few days ago I spoke with Noam Chomsky, who has never sold as many books as during those days, and has never received so many invitations to hold lectures. Others are remarking on similar experiences. Naturally, developments in the USA since September 11 have also presented difficulties for our friends; just think of the prevailing atmosphere there these days, reminiscent of the McCarthy era. But that is now slowly changing again. Basically, September 11 had amazingly little impact. Nevertheless, for the first time since the late sixties, I, for one, have the feeling that there is really something new going on, that history is being made.

But, all the same, the date September 11, 2001 does represent an historical turning point...

George: Yes and no. In the beginning I really thought that September 11 would change things for the better, similarly to the way in which, after the Second World War, structures were radically transformed. The Bretton-Woods system, for example, would never have come about without the experiences of crisis and war. And today in turn, the global institutions have gotten old, they no longer function, they have been in part perverted and do the opposite of what they were actually designed to do. But apparently September 11 was not enough of a disaster, just like the current Argentinian catastrophe and the fall of Enron are apparently not serious enough to cause a fundamental rethinking. The elites of this world want to simply continue to do what they have been doing all along, and for as long as they can. The only thing that occurs to them is to drop bombs.

Your movement has made headlines due to its mass militancy, to the violent spectacles in Davos, in Prague, in Gothenburg, and in Genoa. What is your opinion of this PR strategy?

George: I don't share your analysis at all. The responsible members of the movement tried to prevent the occurrences you've cited. Of course, especially in the USA, the media pay absolutely no attention when 100,000 people carry out a peaceful demonstration. The major media are hungry for violence. It's sometimes really comical when CNN reports on a demonstration: "Paul, has there been any violence yet?" "No, we haven't seen any yet, Fred" "Do you think there will be any, Paul?" Hearing this kind of TV dialog, you would have to conclude that they are just praying for someone to throw the first stone. But I am absolutely clear on this point: We try to talk to militants, but it's difficult sometimes; some are quite obviously paid provocateurs. We have no need for this. I can understand why young men are often angry, but this kind of conduct does the movement a major disservice. We are a democratic movement and it is simply intolerable that a few hundred people who jump on the bandwagon at the last minute, not having carried out any organizational groundwork, practically take hundreds of thousands of others hostage. I won't stand for it. I tell these people: What you're doing is stupid. If you want to bring violence onto the streets, organize your own demonstrations, but don't destroy our work.

Interview: Robert Misik

Susan George, born 1934, is a social scientist and Associate Director of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She has university degrees in philosophy and political science. George was born in the USA, but has lived for the past several decades in Paris. As vice-president of ATTAC France, she is among the leading figures in the worldwide anti-globalization movement.

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

This interview was previously published in Frankfurter Hefte 5/2002

© 2002 Frankfurter Hefte

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