Book Review from the December 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Lugano Report. On Preserving Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century by Susan George. Pluto Press.
A warning of the frustration to come is given on the cover: an endorsement by John Pilger. He claims that the book is a kind of Catch-22 of capitalism'. It is nothing of the sort. The brilliance of Catch-22 is that it points clearly to the absurdities of capitalism and its wars. The dryness of The Lugano Report points only to the bankruptcy of the ideas of the Left. Although the contradictions of capitalism are painted well, the effect is spoilt by the proposal of absurd solutions. Like Pilger, George offers a useful analysis of the state of things. Like Pilger. she stops short of logical conclusions. The frustration will be familiar to any reader of the New Internationalist.
The book's title refers to the conceit that a Working Party has been commissioned to prepare a report on the future of the global capitalist system. The commissioning parties have assumed that the system is an unlikely candidate for long-term survival, and so the Working Party is charged with “providing guidance in order to maintain, develop and deepen the scope of the liberal, free-market economy”.
The report is based on solid enough premises, but the drift of the conclusions takes the book into the lunacy of conspiracy theory. The report opens by stating that the capitalist system cannot support present or future population levels, nor can it, nor should it. There are more losers than winners in capitalism, and the numbers of losers is increasing. The discontent of the losers will threaten the stability that capitalism needs to flourish. Therefore, the losers must be eliminated. That's her basic story. and the report goes on to describe various ingenious ways of how this mass murder might be achieved. This is the most entertaining section of the book: the report's authors call on the four horsemen of the apocalypse to conquer and to spread famines, wars and pestilence. What George doesn't realise is that there is no need for horsemen or conspiracies. Wars and famines are just the logical outcome of a system that cares not a jot for human needs. You don't need a conspiracy theory to explain what is perfectly legal anyway. Wars are fought in our own interests. Exploitation is not only legal, it is good for us. Governments act in secret for “security reasons”. Famines and pestilence are unfortunate acts of god.
But this is not to take away from the power of some of the pictures she paints. I couldn't help thinking of the grisly news pictures of Blair in Kosovo when the report suggests that “saving 50 people, preferably on camera, can be a convenient curtain behind which 50,000 may be eliminated”. She also echoes Oscar Wilde's explanation of why we do not yet have socialism (“it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought”) when she says:”Post-colonial pity for the downtrodden and mercy for the afflicted . . . have all but supplanted politics of every stripe . . . [and] yet no one can oppose humanitarian aid without appearing utterly heartless”.
After the conclusion of The Lugano Report, which we are to see as too horrific to really contemplate, Susan George offers her own alternatives. It is a classic New Internationalist line that she takes when she furiously denounces the notion that “there is no alternative”, before showing us clearly, in the alternatives she offers, that she implicitly accepts the very ideas she thinks she is attacking. She starts off on the right track: “the goals of economic activity are profit and accumulation” and “all other values must be sacrificed to them'. She goes on to claim that “this economic philosophy is championed especially by the very large transnational corporations”, but that small-and medium-sized businesses “do not generally function according to the same impersonal and remorseless rules”. Small business good, big business bad. Great news for the owners and wage-slaves of small-and medium-sized businesses: apparently they do not have to follow the rules of capitalism!
It is perfectly clear what is to be done, she says: “find out who is responsible, and how we can make them stop”. If only we could get rid of all the evil people in charge of multinationals! The limit of Susan George's vision is of small companies serving their communities and being run nicely. What she fails to understand is that all this would mean is that we would end up being exploited by hippies and yuppies instead of by the current class of capitalists.
Her view of the state is equally laughable: “Unless we can make sure that the state retains its prerogatives, I can't see who will stand between the person on the ground and transnational tyranny”. The idea that the state. the executive committee of the ruling class, would want to do any such thing is in direct conflict with the analysis presented in the rest of the book.
Susan George places her hope for the future in “fair trade” coffee and tea, in unions working to bring wages and working conditions up to “decent levels”, and in a government that will tax the evil multinationals and steal from the financial markets to fund health and education for all. This, she says. is the “only way to pay for everything that needs doing”. In other words, what we need is a different, kinder ruling class.
The book is worth reading for the same reason that the New Internationalist is worth reading. They understand capitalism and its horrors pretty well, but not well enough to understand that it must be abolished.