“Whose Crisis, Whose Future?”

Claudio Schuftan | 16 March 2011

Susan George, (2010), “Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World”, Polity Press, Cambridge. The book is published as well in French and Spanish, see details below.

Here is a book that attempts to explain how high finances direct the economy and how they bring about the enormously unequal world we live in. As I read, I had the feeling I was invited to a party, a party for well-meaning adults with a clear sense of social responsibility.

The title “Whose Crisis, Whose Future?” promises a blueprint of what ails the planet in 2011, and this it fully delivers. You thought you had read all about it? You could not be more wrong.

Susan George wrote the book because she was angry, perplexed and scared of the immense political challenges the current situation will cause in the years to come. She thus embarks on explaining how and why we have landed ourselves in the current mess — and how we can get out of it.

In a sad undertone, we are reminded that the planet would actually be in much better health without us humans — or at least some of us: welcome to an exploration of the role of ‘the class of Davos’ in this mess. Why, you would ask. Well, because we simply do not sufficiently study the roots of uneven power relations and the interests the Davos Class wields. The author posits that we have really failed to organize ourselves as well as our adversaries have; part of it is that we simply underestimate our potential collective capacities to right the wrong.

In an organized response, our first line of defense ought to be to refuse to obey, i.e. without popular action nothing will change. Lasting solutions are needed for human emancipation so as to reduce the flagrant injustices of the past and the present. Regrettably, the governing elite will not use the current triple crisis (financial, food/water and climate) to make structural changes; it will only be popular protest — still to be organized — that will have a chance to bring that about.

Susan George purports that we are in a prison; each wall has an oppressive, ominous role in our imprisonment. The first wall: profits of the financial industry in the USA have systematically topped the profits of the manufacturing industry, we are told. Capitalists figured out that they could obtain much more profit and power making money from money without having to go through the boring process of producing and marketing goods.

On the other hand, banks are no longer banks; they are financial services corporations protected by fraud: the rating agencies like Standards and Poors and Moody’s giving AAA ratings to corporations that were barely solvent. Will you be surprised to read that 150 million US$ were contributed to political campaigns in the US by this financial regulatory industry? In 2007, about 3 000 lobbyists were employed by this industry. Amusingly, Susan George then chronicles the ins and outs of the final rescue operations of mega institutions in the US.

Poverty and inequality form the second wall of the prison. Enjoy reading about the role of the world’s 44 billionaire philanthropists, and then deplore with the author how the world has become rich in knowledge about the poor and how much intellectual attention is given to them. (The number of studies just piles up every year.) Let’s face it — we know a lot about poverty and inequity, but our centres of excellence do not study the rich! So we do not really know what they are up to. Food for thought here?

The food and the water crises are another of the oppressive prison walls as they are linked and mutually reinforcing. The author proceeds to debunk the myth that a greater demand for food is due to the greater affluence of middle classes in emerging markets in China and India. She brings to our attention that the concept of food security does not tell us anything about who really controls the food chain.

She, instead, introduces the reader to the concept of food sovereignty which calls for local food production, with local seeds, sustainable agricultural techniques, biodiversity, soil and water conservation, credit to small farmers, reduced dependency on fossil fuels and local processing. In a facetious vein she states that the problem with all these mechanisms is that they do not allow international capital to make money; they are only good for feeding people.

For capitalism, we read, water is an ideal product: it is a tradable commodity. Shortages are the condition to set a price for anything. Water is indispensable to life (nobody has ever attempted a thirst strike!).

Public-Private for Profit Partnerships in the water sector have simply meant enormous benefits for corporations, risks/losses for the public sector and higher expenses for the people served (and exclusion for those who cannot pay).

Will we have war? Not a surprising question the author explores after what we have read so far. In the last couple of decades, neo-liberalism has fostered selfishness and flagrant inequalities. Yes, but water in particular is the source Susan George, with others, foresees as the cause of future violent conflicts.

The second half of the book focuses on what is called ‘Our Solutions’, with as a starter, the caveat: there is still a lot more to be lost.

  • As a matter of public morale, the guilty have to be made accountable. For that, again, popular forces have to organize themselves and coalesce into international alliances; hence the need to strengthen both representative and (mostly) participatory (direct) democracy. We simply have to muster greater confidence in ourselves.
  • We follow very closely what happens to people below the poverty line; what we now need to do is focus more on income ceilings. For this we have to mobilize whole societies no less diligently than what was done in the post World War II period in Europe. Since the changes needed are of several orders of magnitude, this is the good news. The bad news is that facing the “Davos Class” will mean confronting the whole economic and financial system.
  • The new green deal: what we are told we need is a new type of environmental Keynesianism, a massive boost to investments in a green conversion of the economy. Markets are selfish and focus on the ‘eternal present’ without contemplating future implications. They cannot see the potential for coming out of the three related current crises by directing massive investments into green projects (instead of bailing out financial institutions of ill repute with all the Keynesian benefits this can bring).
  • The author goes on to delineate complementary solutions in ten more areas that would be too long to go into in this review, but they include actions that will truly surprise you, in the areas of putting banks under citizen control, proactively allowing politicians to feel how we feel, stopping the rescue of failing mega enterprises, canceling the debt of the South, making it rich by being clean and green, taxing international financial transactions, forcefully acting against tax havens and deceiving accounting practices of transnational corporations, stopping the flows of the global supermarket, acting on the creation of Eurobonds, and introducing a True Progress Indicator (TPI) to replace the GNP.

Susan George concludes that the world is more often in crisis than not. This again shows that the term ‘crisis’ is not really applicable. Our societies are under maximum tension in the financial, economic, social and ecological sense and we do not really have shock absorbers to diffuse this tension. Chaos theory tells us that each added bit of injustice, at some critical unforeseen moment, can and will lead to social explosions. Social elasticity is to be interpreted as a conscious effort to aim at more egalitarian and inclusive societies with more and better public services, more social protection, and more democratic participation of workers and consumers.

Susan George leaves us with a postscript to reflect upon: ‘My hope is not only based on faith; faith can comfort you, but can also be based on an illusion, on something irrational and impossible. I prefer the world of reason, of common sense and the possibility to recognize that I can write something or reach you, the reader, with an idea; that I can act and inspire others so they act by themselves.’

Why should you want to read this book? Timing is everything in comedy and in scholarship. One cannot imagine better timing for this book’s publication. Its tone is incisive, even militant, and the book proceeds at a brisk pace with many original insights.

Susan George, (2010), “Sus Crisis, Nuestras Soluciones”, Icaria Editorial, Intermon Oxfam, Barcelona
Susan George, (2010), “Leur Crisis Nos Solutions”, Editions Albin Michel SA, Paris,