Reflections on Transnational Activism

In a wide-ranging interview, Susan George reflects on TNI, the potential of scholarly activism and the global justice movement to challenge well-financed neoliberal cultural hegemony, and why she remains optimistic on most global justice issues except whether we have enough time to save the planet.

Kees Biekart: How did you become involved in poverty and wider development issues?

Susan George: Let me point out from the beginning that I am not a development expert. I have never spent six months in a village. But in a way I was always very interested in wealth and power, in understanding how those at the top, the heads of corporations, the elites, how they operate and have an impact on the poor. It’s too easy to study the poor: you just go there, impose yourself whether you’re wanted or not, whether you disrupt their lives or not. The rich are more difficult to study: they can stop you if they don’t want you to find out particular things. As a result, you can generally only find out a fraction of what needs to be known. I became interested in poverty issues because of the Vietnam War and the coup-d’etat in Chile, and I became involved in them after I was approached by the Institute of Policy Studies to work on a report for the World Food Conference in Rome in 1974. At that conference I discovered that none of the participants were talking about the big themes my Chilean friends were talking about in our report (see George and Sabelli, 1994). I also became aware that they completely underestimated the power of the agribusiness lobby.

You haveworked for over three decades with theTransnational Institute (TNI), more or less from its foundation. Why has TNI been so central to your work?

I got involved in TNI in the early1970s when I brought my American anti-Vietnam-War friends into contact with the Vietnamese community in Paris. The plan to set up TNI was developed in 1972 and they asked me to organize a dinner to get some key activists together. Then later I helped to organize TNI’s first conference, right after the coup in Chile. TNI is a very interesting collection of people: they are pioneers. The attractive feature is that itwas, and still is, a decentralized fellowship of scholar-activists. This is becoming more accepted now, but thirty years ago it was not. For me, scholar-activism has always been extremely important. I speak frequently to university audiences, but much more often to activist groups. In recent years I must have spoken to easily seventy local ATTAC groups about the WTO and to push the GATS-free zones at the level of municipalities, departments and regions.

Fifteen years ago TNI was a small and pioneering institution: few people were really interested in the World Bank, the IMF, GATT, and now…

Now we are ahead of the curve. Actually, that’s where we always were! It is better to be on the left, a progressive, because then you get there first, invariably! I wrote my first piece about global warming in 1989, which also shows how slowly things go. After all, a scholar activist wants things to go fast. Nowadays it is obvious that debt has to be cancelled, and it has become obvious that what the World Bank and the IMF have done and are doing is wrong. The IMF is in real trouble now and it could close down in the next three to four years. It may be closing down for the wrong reasons, but change indeed takes a terribly long time. It is almost universally accepted now that neoliberal policies create huge inequalities; for a long time that idea was not broadly accepted. We now know that part of the point may even have been to create huge inequalities.

You have recently said that you are much more optimistic now about global social changes as a result of scholar-activism than you were twenty or thirty years ago. What has changed that has made you so optimistic? I am asking this because many people are actually not very optimistic at this moment.

The whole idea of politics has changed. In the 1960s it was simply a matter of saying ‘US out of Vietnam‘, that was enough. The anti-war goal was very clear, as was the goal for the anti-Apartheid movement and various other struggles. Now the situation is quite different as we are dealing with things that are often technically complex. Many people in the street do not know what the WTO or the IMF are, whereas they did have an idea what Vietnam was about. You need a certain capacity to explain things that are rather complex. Since the fight ten years ago against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), things have changed. In France its acronym was AMI (friend) so how could you possibly be against it? At that time it was quite unique to get people together from so many different organizations that had no experience of working together: trade unions, solidarity groups, women’s groups, film directors, peasants, intellectuals, and so on. It was quite extraordinary what happened, and it happened very fast: we stopped the MAI, which was a huge political victory. It is one of the few times in my life where I can say I contributed directly to a political victory.

Your position in the mid-1990s was that when the World Bank closes down it will probably do so due to its own internal dynamics rather than as a result of external protest. Would you reconsider this position in light of the ‘other-globalization’ movement which is pushing for these changes?

True, there is a movement now, but at that level there is no machinery. If you don’t have democratic machinery you cannot force the World Bank to behave in a different way. They can promise whatever they like and just go back and do the same old thing. In Birmingham in 1998 the G7 agreed to undertake multilateral debt cancellation, quite straightforward. The IMF wilfully misinterpreted this agreement and managed in a very tortured way to interpret this to mean ‘we should have debt cancellation for countries that still have more conditions and still are going through a number of hoops that we are going to put in their paths’.

But one day the IMF is going to be stopped. If the turning point was Gleneagles it is largely because Gordon Brown was convinced that this had to happen as a result of all the outside pressures and Gordon Brown convinced Tony Blair, who was hosting the event and therefore setting the agenda. Here you have a very clear effect of the Global Social Justice movement. I just received an honorary degree from Newcastle University, at the same time as Gordon Brown, and I had a short conversation with him. He asked me when I published my first book about debt, and I said ‘twenty years ago’. He replied: ‘So you see how long it takes us to get things on the political agenda’.

After publishing How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (1976), Feeding the Few (1981) and Food for Beginners (1983) you started working on debt. Why did you shift your research and campaigns to debt, which, among other books, led to A Fate Worse than Debt (1987)?

I had also published my doctoral thesis, a more scholarly version of How the Other Half Dies, and I was beginning to feel I had said everything that I could usefully say about hunger. We had established a North-South group of scholar activists and organized a meeting in Rome in 1984, ten years after the World Food Conference, and parallel to a big conference organized by the FAO. Henry Kissinger had said in 1974: ‘within a decade no child will go to bed hungry and no family will fear for its next day’s bread’. Of course, that had not happened. At our meeting everyone from the South was saying the same thing: the big new factor contributing to world hunger was national debt. These were people from Latin America as well as Africa and they believed debt was the new area we should focus on in our research and campaigns and they asked me specifically to take it on. So I started reading everything about debt, which took me over a year. I concluded that debt was contributing terribly to poverty and thereby to hunger. This was indirectly the result of Structural Adjustment Programmes, and the policies of the World Bank and the IMF, naturally in co-operation with the United States.

It took a long time to get debt on the political agenda. Therefore, in the early 1990s, we worked on The Debt Boomerang (1992) in order to fuel the campaign in the North on debt reduction. Unfortunately when the impact is on people in the South, people in the North are less interested. On humanitarian and justice grounds, you might get the attention of a small percentage of the population of the North. But if the impact is also touching them, you might hope to get more Northern attention. So we looked at migration, arms trade, drugs, corruption, jobs and wages, the environment, and many other indirect effects in the North as a result of the debt problem.

If you look back on your body of published work, what would you have done differently?

I would not have written anything differently. Well, I take that back: I once wrote something nice about Michael Camdessus at the beginning of his term at the IMF. But I don’t revise my books. Sometimes I do a new preface, but a revision always implies pulling a brick out here, and a brick out there, and then the whole thing can collapse. In fact, there are very few things I would have done differently. I think if you push with your head and heart as far as you can possibly push, then you might come up with something that is really useful to other people. I have discovered that there is often very little original being said by many authors. I would hope academics could be a lot freer in what they are writing and researching. The main problem in academia is that people have to please others because of promotion and tenure; they need to be on the safe side. I would give anyone with a sharp mind tenure and encourage them to take an idea as far as they can take it.

But that is no guarantee that you will stimulate scholar activism, or make academic output more political. Can you explain this?

In the social sciences I think ‘scientific objectivity’ or ‘neutrality’ is a vain hope and it is better to examine critically oneself and announce one’s bias because there is bound to be one. It begins with your choice of subject and who it is going to be useful to. You can do research that will benefit the powerful. People used to assume that I was working on what we used to call the Third World and superficially it may have looked that way, but not in my mind. But the Third World did happen to be the place where the power relations played out most obviously and caused the most damage to human beings, whether it was US food aid, agribusiness corporations or IMF structural adjustment policies. I suppose the main thing is that the scholar-activist or public scholar has a popular, progressive, political constituency and considers him/herself in the service of this constituency. I find most academics -fortunately with a lot of exceptions-are not really interested in the power relations of any given topic in the social and political and economic sciences. Mainstream economists are probably the worst! I’ve never done anything but study power, that’s what is both interesting and important to me.

You generally refer to the ‘holders of power’ and have not really taken up the language of ‘empire’ or ‘new imperialism’. Is this because you don’t find the concept of ‘empire’ to be useful as an analytical category?

Right, I don’t think the approach by Antonio Negri and others is very helpful, especially if they speak of this ‘multitude’ that is supposed to spring up all over the world and inherit the earth and do all these wonderful things. I think that is just rubbish to anyone who has ever organized a meeting! Politics does not happen that way. Politics happens because people work very hard. True, it takes numbers, so there is this element of a multitude, but numbers are not enough. You have to have ideas which have to be generated and propagated. The right has done this so much better than people on the left. They do everything better: money, mission, myth-creation, management. They have a very clear idea of what they want, which is to take over the concepts and thought processes throughout the world so that everyone is thinking inside their box. Just as fish have no idea they are swimming in water, people have no idea they are swimming in neoliberalism – that’s the victory of the right. Many things become believable and plausible (like Corporate Social Responsibility), because everyone is naturally a ‘good citizen’, and we will be kind and just to each other naturally, so there is no need for constraints or laws. Amazing!

I recently did a short analysis on Friedrich Hayek and his idea of economic freedom, which has nothing to do with genuine existential freedom. It is the freedom to use your money as you wish-including private yachts. The rich have no responsibility to pay for, say, the education of poor children. For the past 300 years, at least in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, we’ve been trying to separate this notion of freedom in the Hayekian sense from freedom of religion, of speech, personal freedoms, including the right to one’s private life and to own property. Neoliberals have managed to conflate economic freedom, market freedom, with other kinds, which derive from the enlightenment.

They have been quite successful in creating coherent programmes based on market freedom. When practised abroad, it is called the ‘Washington consensus’ and at home it is ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Reaganism’. But it is the same thing. It aims at destroying trade unions; everyone must be free to fight for a job but not have compensation, not have welfare. If they could destroy the public health system, they would.Youwould be free to pay for private health insurance, but that is your choice. If you fall ill and don’t have insurance, too bad, you had a choice. I looked into the right-wing secular and religious foundations which have spent billions of dollars to attain cultural hegemony. This is the subject of a forthcoming book; I call them the right-wing Gramscians, because they understood Gramsci’s concepts of cultural hegemony andwhat he called the ‘long march through the institutions’, and they have been truly successful.

A feature of the right-wing success seems to be that they have applied ideas of left-wing thinkers better than the proper left.

Perhaps not consciously but they certainly got the point. They have constantly worked through the key idea legitimizers: they did not create chairs or recruit in any old university, but went straight to the top: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and the key law schools. They went after the lawyers, they established major think tanks, they backed journalists, publishers, and they paid handsomely for it. If you work it all out, between 1982 and 2002 they spent over a billion dollars on supporting all these institutions to develop and disseminate right-wing ideas further and to train new talented people. You can do a lot with that amount of money. If only we had a tenth of that we could have done so much more, simply because our ideas are better.

People are listening to us now, partly because they are getting hurt by neoliberalism, and partly also because the others are so patently lying. It is now becoming clear that their policies lead to huge inequalities. How much more evidence do you need? Again, if only we had had half the infrastructure, we could have done our work much better.

If the right-wingers are so smart and well-prepared, why do they keep thinking in the neoliberal mode which, in fact, is so destructive to the environment and humankind?

I only have a partial answer which I provide in my book, The Lugano Report (1999) – a ‘false-true report’ I made up from the beginning to the end. In this book, an invented group of experts gather to answer a question posed by some mysterious commissioners, probably people who go to the World Economic Forum (in Davos). They are asked a single question: ‘What must we do to make capitalism invulnerable in the twenty-first century?’. These experts are in a beautiful, peaceful villa in Lugano and write their report. So I had to put myself in the skin of these experts who start from premises with which I agree! The environment is going to hell, we have too many people with huge ecological footprints who will eventually destroy the planet, we have too many poor people who cannot participate in the capitalist economy in any meaningful way, and so on. From these premises, the experts arrive at the terrible, inhumane, but for them logical conclusion, that nature has to take its course and that you have to get rid of an enormous number of human beings. This will be done through ecological crises, famines, diseases, etc., etc. I see this scenario becoming more and more true every year!

The Lugano Report was published in 1999. It was sort of my contribution to the millennium. I was getting sick of all this millennium nonsense because it would never make a difference to the lives of the poor. The Millennium Development Goals, for example, are clearly regressive because they simply say to reduce poverty and other problems by half. Even that is not going to happen, but it was another way to put things off to a certain date. Anyway, I got the idea to fabricate a report because I could not go as far as I wanted without making a fictitious scenario. I pushed the logic and asked, ‘why is there no political will?’. I don’t think there is a conspiracy to get rid of poor people and I don’t believe in conspiracies generally. It’s not conspiracies but interests and unbridled greed. Of course, no one today would take the Hitlerian road and say that these poor people are a bloody drain on the system, so let’s just forget about them and isolate them and put them in camps. But the end result turns out to be almost the same.

What was the reaction to The Lugano Report?

There were basically three types of reactions. A first category of readers said this is terrific, it is Swiftian (and I think too that Lugano is the best thing I’ve ever done). A second category thought I did not have the right to produce something so distressing and alarming. I reply that that is exactly what I wanted to do. The third group simply hated the book, though they weren’t honest enough to criticize it on the basis that the premises were wrong, or that the logic drawn from those premises was faulty. They basically attacked the method, saying that you don’t have the right to approach the problem through ‘fiction’.

The Lugano Report deals with the holders of power, those who are not available to be interviewed and at whose thoughts and motives one can only guess. It is not a book that could have been written by an academic because it is basically a fantasy; nor by a novelist because he or she would probably lack the background. So is this ‘faction’?

Well, it is certainly not fiction, as everything in the text is factual and I give all the references; I would therefore call it ‘factual fiction’. The experts in my book come from all kinds of disciplines: a demographer, an economist, a sociologist, and so on. They are what Americans call ‘policy wonks’: people who are in the top research institutes when their party is out of power and become advisors to Presidents and Secretaries of State when it’s in power. They are cold-blooded and consider themselves neutral.

Will change really come (only) from influencing the agendas of the holders of power, or do you also see a prominent role for movements in the South? And if so, how?

I have to work where I am, so perhaps I put too much emphasis on the powerful in the North. For the moment most of the power is in the North, but things are changing fast. You’re not allowed to say this out loud, but I think China combines the worst features of communism and capitalism and I do not look forward to the day when China is the most powerful nation on earth. But of course the South is important, especially when people like the whole raft of new Latin American leaders take over one country after another, it is very exciting; and fortunately for them – although God knows not for the Afghans and the Iraqis-the United States is engaged elsewhere. Morales wouldn’t have existed in Bolivia without the strong indigenous movement. I think our Southern comrades were quite influential for example in getting debt on the agenda in a critical way so that they perhaps helped to empower the leadership to take a stand, and to stand up to the IMF.

What do you currently see as the driving movement against these rightwing forces: is it the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement, even if this is a quite amorphous movement?

The World Social Forum (WSF) movement in historical terms is a blink of the eye, so we can’t be too critical of the process yet. In the first phase, it always had to go back over the same ground of analysing and explaining to people what had gone wrong. This is luckily finished now: everyone knows now what has gone wrong and we are currently really in the area of proposals. So there is progress. There will be no meeting this year and instead there will an annual global day of action – something I very much favour. I hope we can perhaps show that we are here which we have not really done since [the global anti-war demonstration of] 15 February 2003. So let’s have an international day of action, where everyone can do his or her thing around one or several themes. Let everyone from the Arctic to Antarctica get together and do something.

But the movement has got some results already. The founding proposal of ATTAC was the Global Currency Transactions Tax.1 This is actually now on the agenda of the UN; 110 Heads of State and governments have approved it. Even though French President Jacques Chirac did not exactly do what we wanted, he did create an international tax on airplane tickets, taken up by a number of other countries. So the idea that international taxes are possible has become a legitimate idea. Other victories are that the IMF is under fire from Turkey to the Philippines and most of Latin America. Countries have paid off all their IMF debt and now need not follow its instructions. This was unthinkable ten years ago, and it is creating havoc at the IMF. The World Bank is in trouble too because its research is of poor quality. A major commission has called some of its research ‘not remotely reliable’: it publishes only findings to support its own pre-existing policies. What sort of university would say to the scholar ‘we want your results to be the following’. They would not be a university for very long, everybody would laugh at them. And people are starting to laugh at the Bank.

The same goes for the G8 Summits: the protests are beginning to pay off. These G8 leaders might have been elected in their own countries and might be legitimate there, but they are certainly not legitimate to run the world. Reporters are beginning to listen to the alternatives the demonstrators are proposing. So it really is not hopeless.

What do you consider to be the most important alternative ideas that have come out of the movement and why?

The first and most important is the movement itself, in the sense of ‘an idea whose time has come’. But I’m sure you mean rather its intellectual contribution or innovations. Let me try to give two answers. The first idea is democracy. This movement is not interested -as people were for decades-in theoretical political systems, they don’t want to discuss this or that variant of Marxism, Leninism or Trotskyism all night, thank God. They think decisions should be made by the people who will be affected and that systems will evolve out of those decisions. So it is not a set of ideas that are pre-determined and then applied, preferably everywhere. There is still a certain amount of theory kicking around, debates around taking power without taking State power for example, but the movement isn’t dominated by theory. Therefore it does not blindly support particular leaders the way some people used to do, for example Fidel, because they really are attached to democratic practice. Well, except the Black Block of course-they come in after thousands of people have been working for months and deciding in the most participatory possible way how an event like the G8 protests should go and the block basically says ‘We are the only ones with the Truth and the Truth is we have to smash things’. That’s one of many reasons I don’t consider that sort of Anarchists to be part of the movement.

And then the movement has helped to finally get the environment and climate change on the agenda – it hasn’t done enough, nobody has, but it has helped. You don’t need arguments on that score, I don’t intend to waste our time pointing out how important this is. Finally, the movement, or at least the part of it I work with most, is thinking and acting to try to get the international system under control. Not just the public part of it – the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO et alia however important that may be-but also the private part, the incredible power of financial markets and transnational corporations.

This is a Herculean task, the disproportion between us and such adversaries is positively staggering. It’s going to be a long-term fight and might take a world financial krach to actually get on the agenda, I hope not.

You may say there is cause for hope because of the Global Social Justice and Solidarity Movement pushing for change. Yet at the same time we agree that the world is in a more deteriorated state than a few decades ago in terms of inequality, environmental degradation, and many other things. Do you think the Tobin tax, or this currency transaction tax, is really going to worry the neoliberals?

Of course it will not worry them, and this taxation is not meant to ruin them either. The point is that we are confronting one of the biggest problems since the abolition of slavery which is: how are we going to establish democracy at a level where democracy has not existed before? We are trying to do this at the European level which is now highly undemocratic, so the reaction in France and the Netherlands to reject the EU Constitution was healthy. We have made a great many proposals for a more democratic Europe, although Angela Merkel [Chancellor of Germany] wants to prevent any popular involvement in drafting a new treaty. This is an important battle. The battle for international democracy is even more difficult; we are only at the beginning.

The big question is how to get power without necessarily acquiring state power. So apart from trying to democratize established institutions (WB, IMF,WTO, etc.), the big challenge is to get control over the international private realm: transnational corporations, financial markets, taxation and redistribution at a worldwide scale; but of course there is huge resistance here. We know how it could be done technically, but it is very difficult to put into practice. But then I say to myself: in 1902 there was huge resistance against a graduated income tax in the United States (and elsewhere), and a hundred years later everybody thinks income tax is perfectly normal. It may take that long to get results for the problems we are currently confronted with. If it were only politics, I would take the long view. Like the people who came together in the late eighteenth century and agreed that it was important to abolish slavery. It took decades to get rid of slavery, but it was eventually abolished. So if it is merely a matter of politics, then yes, I am rather hopeful. Where I am less hopeful is on the environment, even though lately it is on the agenda in a big way. The question is: can we save the planet? Human beings have never before in history been up against such a problem. Politics take time, but we have time, even though the victims of bad politics don’t. For the planet, we may not have any time left. That’s what I worry about most.


Susan George was born in the United States, but has lived in France since the mid-1950s. She has published over a dozen books on poverty, food, debt, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and social movements. She is Chair of the Board of theTransnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam, a decentralized fellowship of scholars living throughout the world whose work is intended to contribute to social justice and who are active in civil society in their own countries. Shewas aVice-President ofATTACFrance (Association for Taxation of Financial Transaction to Aid Citizens) from 2000 to 2006, and an International Board Member of Greenpeace. She has received Honorary Doctorates from Newcastle University and the Universidad Nacional de Educaci´on a Distancia of Madrid, and the first Outstanding Public Scholar Award from the International Studies Association in 2007. Her books include Another World is Possible if. . . (2004); The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century (1999); The Debt Boomerang (1992); A Fate Worse than Debt (1987); and How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger (1976).




1 For more information on this proposal see George’s analysis ‘Why the Currency Transaction Tax is a Win/Win Scenario’ (18 September 2006) Additional information on this tax proposal can also be found at Treaty On Global Currency Transactions Tax – Text and discussion Attac Finland


George, Susan (1976) How the Other Half Dies: The Real Reasons for World Hunger. London: Penguin.

George, Susan (1979) Feeding the Few: Corporate Control of Food. Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies. George, Susan (1987) A Fate Worse than Debt. London: Penguin.

George, Susan (1990) Ill Fares the Land. London: Penguin.

George, Susan (1992) The Debt Boomerang. London: Pluto Press.

George, Susan (1999) The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century. London: Pluto Press.

George, Susan (2004) Another World is Possible if. . . London: Verso.

George, Susan and Nigel Paige (1983) Food for Beginners. Danbury, CT: Writers and Readers Publishing.

George, Susan and Fabrizio Sabelli (1994) Faith and Credit: The World Bank’s Secular Empire. London: Penguin.

Kees Biekart is a Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at the Institute of Social Studies (PO Box 29776, 2502 LT The Hague, The Netherlands). His area of expertise is NGOs, social movements, civil society and foreign aid, in particular in relation to Latin America, where he has worked for many years.

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