The ‘How to Win the Class War’ satirist tells Claire Provost about the ‘shadowy plot’ to claw back working-class gains
In a discreet villa in Switzerland, carefully chosen experts have been assembled by a shadowy group of wealthy and powerful commissioners and tasked with answering a single big question: how, amid the global financial crisis, can a renaissance of western capitalism be best ensured?
This is the Machiavellian scene that opens the latest book from Susan George, the prolific Franco-American political scientist and global justice activist. While perhaps best known for her work on world hunger, poverty and debt, George has turned to Europe and the US in How to Win the Class War, a satire of the 1%, or the “Davos class”, as she puts it, in reference to the elite annual gatherings of the World Economic Forum.
Tongue-in-cheek and at times bizarre, the book is likely to strike a chord with those involved in movements such as Occupy and others increasingly suspicious of political parties and elite institutions. “I don’t think preachy books work,” says George, who was in London this month. “I think sometimes people are more moved by [satire] and black humour … God knows there’s plenty to satirise out there.”
George, 79, has spent decades studying and critiquing mainstream economic policy and is a key figure in alter-globalisation circles. Born in Ohio during the Great Depression, she moved to France in the 1950s and never left, joining activist movements against France’s colonial war in Algeria and America’s war in Vietnam. Today, she is honorary president of Attac-France, a group founded to push for taxes on foreign exchange transactions but which now works on a range of issues, and heads the board of the Transnational Institute network of “scholar-activists”.
Satire is an ancient political tool and George has turned to it before; her latest book is a sequel to The Lugano Report, published in 1999 and sold as a secret report drafted by researchers hired to advise on whether global capitalism could survive the next millennium.
International in scope, The Lugano Report concluded that the four horsemen of the apocalypse (conquest, war, famine and pestilence) should be set loose to help rid the planet of its many “useless” people. Brutal enough to earn comparisons with the 18th-century satirical essay A Modest Proposal – in which Jonathan Swift suggested that the impoverished Irish should sell their children as food to rich people – The Lugano Report flew off the shelves in France and has since been published in more than a dozen languages.
While she has spent much of her life thinking globally and writing about challenges facing developing countries, George says European governments’ commitments to push through austerity policies despite their social costs has given her a new focus. “We are very preoccupied with our own situation and that’s where the militant strength is going now, it’s not going into fighting hunger or debt,” she says.
George is quick to argue, however, that there are important links to be drawn between European austerity policies and the structural adjustment programmes that poor countries adopted in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Ordinary people in the [global] south from the late 1970s until today have had to pay for the crimes and the greed and the odious debts of the dictators of their own governments, of their own upper classes, and they know very well what this means for the population: it means deep cuts in housing, education, culture, health,” she says.
“Now it’s our turn. Now it’s called austerity. Call it what you like, but it’s the same policy – it’s socialise losses, privatise profits … [and] this has been pushed to a point where, although we began richer than the countries of the south … we are really creating now a situation where there are desperately poor people in Europe, in Britain, in normally wealthy countries.”
The question for George is whether the austerity programmes pushed by European governments despite their social costs are mistakes, or deliberate policies. She is convinced of the latter and argues there is a class in Europe that has never accepted the gains working people have made since the second world war and has decided that this is the perfect moment to try to claw them back.
In her latest book, George’s imagined working group of experts give their benefactors the good news first: that they (the 1%) are winning and are “even more firmly in control of economic, political and even social developments than was the case before the crisis struck”. The bad news is that the situation remains precarious.
Her tips for the rich include exploiting divisions among peoples’ movements and exercising restraint in public displays of wealth. Above all, the working group argues that “to persuade is to win”, and for the relentless repetition of lines such as: “the private sector will always outperform the public”; “a truly free society cannot exist without a free market”; “inequality is not a so-called problem but is intrinsic to society and could be genetic”.
If George can seem obsessed with secret cabals hatching grand plans for world domination, she’s quick to say she does not believe in conspiracies – only interests and well-thought-out strategies to further them. She also has retorts ready for anyone who suggests she’s pessimistic about the future. “I think that when things get to such a point, everyone is disgusted with how the politicians are behaving, that we can innovate and bring new ideas and policies to the fore.”
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