For more than three decades ground-breaking scholar and activist Susan George has written expansively on the effects of neo-liberal economics on the poor. Product & Bella interviewed her.
Your latest book is Whose Crisis? Whose Future? You’ve argued that the title should have been called Whose Crises? Can you explain what you see as the key components of this multiple failure?
My own title was actually Their Crisis, Our Solutions but my publisher disagreed. I wanted to make it clear that there is a small slice of humanity causing the crises. I speak about four of these crises – particularly the financial crisis, the crises of increasing poverty and inequality, the crises of access to food and water, and finally climate & biodiversity is all through the book. In the penultimate chapter I talk about the conflict aspect of the climate crisis. Then there’s a long chapter at the end about solutions which is not complete. It never can be.
But there is a sort of recognised set of solutions. I try and summarise them and put them in context. So it is ‘their crises, our solutions’. It’s really about the whole neo liberal system that has created this climate in which the market is supposed to make all the decisions. When you give the market enormous power, what you are doing is making sure that the people who have get more and the people who don’t have get less and you create huge inequalities.
Also when people are so close to the edge you remove their basic access to the sources of life. I’m thinking of extreme hunger, drought and so on. People are angry, you can see that in North Africa and now in Wisconsin.
Yes, Wisconsin is now the setting for one of the most vibrant and radical responses to the new right agenda. What is it’s significance?
People are rebelling because I think Governor Walker has pushed them too far. He is destroying the public sector and wants to destroy ANY countervailing power – that’s what the unions provide. They provide some counter to the undivided reign of the corporations. There was an extremely destructive Supreme Court ruling called the Citizens United through which they were going to give the right to corporations to spend as much as they liked on elections. By this mechanism they could buy virtually any seat in the Senate or the House. They are going to spend in the presidential elections in particular so that they get their own people in. So people have occupied the capitol in protest, the Democratic senators have gone en masse to Illinois to make sure they are not quorate so they can’t vote. People are out in the streets in their thousands – and Madison is not a big city, it’s a university town. This is completely unheard of, incredibly encouraging.
At a national level I am terribly disappointed in Obama who hasn’t done the things he said he would do. The unions had a bill which came to the legislature called the Employee Free Choice Act – it came up again and Obama wouldn’t support it because he wanted to put everything into t health care. This was what you might consider basic human rights – a bill to allow a workplace vote allowing people to unionise. Obama killed it, so it’s very easy for employers to prevent people joining unions. That’s part of the Wisconsin picture. People are very disappointed and angry.
You’ve been writing about food being at the heart of both crisis and opportunity for decades. It’s been argued that this is now taking on a new significance. Can you say something about the role this is playing in the new Middle East and North African liberation movements?
For years the mantra was to tell all the food deficit countries “don’t worry neglect your small farmers, food is going to be cheap so if you have a deficit that’s ok because you can just buy food on the international market cheap”. These governments believed it and huge numbers of small farmers have been destroyed. Very few have tried to develop production with methods that are more appropriate for the climate, the soils, the locality but have somehow managed to survive for centuries.
Libya at one point was producing these grains – God knows how much it costs per bushel. If you flew over you could see huge green circles in the desert, like a sort of hallucinatory experience. Eventually abandoned it. But they didn’t do anything about enhancing local agriculture to improve yield because they believed this propaganda about buying food on the international markets and they had oil and gas they could exchange. So now they’re in trouble because they don’t have the farmers. You can make a worker out of a peasant but you can’t make a peasant out of a worker. So you have all these unemployed youths dislocated from the land, they don’t have local supply of the basics and they are slaves to the market. So when food prices go up in the market they pass this on to the consumer and the situation is very fragile and volatile. This is what happened in 2008. It’s predictable. People are still arguing about how much speculation has to do with it. To compound this we are now seeing the patterns of the seasons changing due to climate change. We are likely going to see a lot more extreme events, not just flash floods as we’ve seen recently in Australia.
And so we have this financial crisis and sitting above this we have the climate crisis…?
Yes, but more and more we can’t think of it as separate. Climate IS food and water. Climate IS biodiversity. All of these physical things are part of the mega crisis we can call the climate crisis. It’s a universal physical phenomenon.
You have articulated the need for concerted and collaborative action. Can you say something about this as a new form of protest organisation? Are we moving beyond single issue politics and seeing things in the round?
Definitely. One place that happened – and its the ONLY good thing that came out of it – was Copenhagen. Here the social movements and the ecological movements got together and saw that they were fighting exactly the same battle. I think what have not done yet is to bring in the PEACE MOVEMENTS. I would like to see very much the peace movements which are quite strong in some countries (particularly the UK). Now I thik that people who are doing local and global work are much more united. People who are doing mainly ecology or mainly social issues like trade unionists, there is an understanding that we are all on the same side. It would be suicide to pretend that we don’t have the same adversaries – because we have.
This seems to me also to have been shown in London in April 2009, I think the march was on when the G20 met. That was a fantastic march – everybody was there! Everybody but the pigeon protection league! All the NGOs were there – it shows there is amazing progress. Whatever your focus you should continue and be absorbed in but one day a year you should get up and go and do something completely different in an act of solidarity. We should all do that.
You’ve said that we should ‘study the rich not the poor’. But haven’t we become obsessed by the rich as part of celebrity culture? We seem to aspire to be them. How do we disentangle from this cultural obsession?
Celebrity culture is not at all what I mean by studying the rich. I mean casting a very cold eye – it’s not the celebs, the actors and actresses, it’s the people who we really DON’T know anything about that you have to watch out for. Like the whole Hedge Fund industry or the people who don’t want you to know about them. The main source I use is the Meryll Lynch World Wealth Report which tells you how many really wealthy people there are in the world and how much money they have.
There’s also a lot of hard slogging to see who doesn’t pay taxes and which corporations don’t contribute their fare share. So people may be obsessed with celebrity culture but i don’t think they’re the ones we should be studying!
How can we follow Juliet Schor’s idea of ‘de-growth’? How can we make a non aspirational society something to aspire to?!
I have problems with just the idea of ‘de-growth’. Schor’s audiences may know what she’s talking about but I think it’s much better not to use those terms. Most people think that means your going to be sitting around in the dark eating by candlelight.
That’s not what I’m after at all. I’m after more welfare, less throughput in the economy. Less material and energy going through the great pipeline of the economy, which we know how to do. And more resilience. We have very tight systems and we don’t have much ‘welfare’, we have an awful lot of waste – so yes less waste – degrowth – low carbon of course. But i think if we want mass approval of this kind of programme then we have to give it a much more positive context and de-growth to most people is really unattractive. We need low carbon, high resilience, low throughput, high quality of life…
A couple of years ago you called for the government to fully nationalise the banks and require them to fund or lend to green projects. Do you still advocate this?
Yes, absolutely. I call it “socialise” though. That means that it’s not bureaucrats running the banks, there are citizens on their boards. There are decisions made in common between the employees, users and citizens to make sure that the distribution is fair. The customer should be represented. There is no reason why only representatives of other corporationss should be on these boards.
You’ve talked a little about the difference between hope and optimism. Can you explain your thoughts?
If you have hope you can say: ‘maybe I can make a difference’. A system appears to be totally static. Then, suddenly there is a small element added to that system and it totally changes the picture. I think of that boy, Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the fruit and vegetable seller. The police come and take his stock. His whole family are dependent on him. He sets himself alight. This man’s sacrifice was that element that was put into the system and unpredictably seems to have changed something enormously. We still don’t know. I was reading last night about Wisconsin. I read the telegram that the Egyptians sent to Wisconsin saying: “You supported us know we are supporting you!” That’s real change.
Interview by Mike Small. This is the first of a series of shared initiatives with Product magazine.
Susan George will be speaking at the World Development Movement’s event “Visions of Global Justice” in Glasgow on March 19th