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Does the world need more information about the evils of capitalism?
If the answer is ‘yes,’ Susan George’s ‘How to Win the Class War: The Lugano Report II’ is important material, compiling the latest information about the excess and inequality of the current economic paradigm, in a satirical, (mostly) readable format. It names the names that need naming, points to the nuts-and-bolts of the problems and offers Chomsky-esque detail to issues many of us tend to see only in broad brushstrokes. It is a remarkably well-researched handbook for those who want to win the mealtime arguments with their conservative uncles, or the pub debate with their colleagues or neighbours who have bought into the ‘there is no alternative’ austerity mythology.
There’s obviously a strong case for this; namely, that most people still don’t seem to know the breadth and depth of the mess we’re in. In theory, more information should help to change that.
But does it? I’m not sure. No Logo, Manufacturing Consent, Empire and countless others of their ilk have been doing the rounds for some time now. The Communist Manifesto and Mutual Aid that much longer. How much more information do we need about what’s gone wrong?
Activist author Susan George’s new book follows fifteen years after her first Lugano Report was published. The initial premise was this: in the late-nineties, a shadowy group of corporate elites, known only to readers as ‘The Commissioners,’ commissioned a highly-secretive report. They asked the consultants (known as ‘The Working Group’) to answer the following question:
“How can capitalism continue not merely to function but to thrive and, indeed, become invulnerable in the 21st century?”
The answer was the first Lugano Report, published in 1999, which offered a plethora of incredibly depressing forecasts about the not-so-distant future of the planet, ranging from a vast increase in extreme weather events, to a global financial meltdown. George’s pseudo-report proved incredibly prophetic, dressed-up as a fictional response to the question above and sold well in activist circles as the global justice movement first began to take shape.
With the second report, ‘The Commissioners’ returned to the Working Group with a follow-up question:
“Are we living in a time of inevitable crisis, decline and eventual collapse of the Western world as we have known it, or is the rebirth of a strengthened capitalist system in the making? How can we encourage such a renaissance?”
The Working Group reaches similar – but more dire – conclusions this time around. It comes to these conclusions based on a gamut of new information, covering issues as varied as environmental degradation and social inequality, to financial collapse and violent conflict. And it makes a very strong case as to why global economic system is on course to kill us all, if those running it don’t make a few shifts in their current trajectory.
And while written in the voice of a group of consultants sympathetic to the capitalist cause, their recommendations manage to slip in a few calls for a range of social democratic reforms, aimed at mitigating against climate change’s most extreme costs, and preventing massive popular uprisings. A pragmatic socialism finds its way into the report’s recommendations, if only to save ‘The Commissioners’ from the fallout of their own hubris.
But to return to my initial question: ‘Does the world need more information about the evils of capitalism?’
I’m still not convinced. We’ve got an awful lot to choose from at this point and it’s hard to imagine this book reaching beyond already-committed activists.
As someone who has been relatively embroiled in fighting various segments of the dystopia George describes, some of the facts were new to me, but the essential message was the same: capitalism is killing us – we can change or we can die.
As I read the book, I tried to imagine myself picking it up at age 17 or 18, as I first got involved in activism, and began learning all the things that I hadn’t learned in school. How would it have affected me then? Of course, it’s impossible to know, retrospectively, but my feeling is that it would have bummed me right out and left me feeling utterly incapable of affecting change.
There’s an approach to campaigning, broadly-speaking, that suggests the best way to ‘win hearts and minds’ on an issue, is to scare the bejeezus out of those you hope to influence, assuming that ‘if they are scared, they will be scared to act.’ But this approach hasn’t proven that effective, and some studies suggest that all the doom-and-gloom associated with many environmental campaigns in recent years have largely served to instil a sense of powerlessness amongst the public.
There is, however, a dry humour that runs through the pages of The Lugano Report II, which occasionally lifts you from the dreary detail of sub-prime mortgage scandals, corporate tax havens and food speculation. George writes a fine bit of satire, like the following passage from a section on the unexpected ‘good news’ associated with the latest economic collapse:
“the [financial] crisis has brought about another amazing development: it embodies an overturning of conventional morality... the guilty are rewarded and the innocent punished. This is perhaps the most outstanding as well as the most unforeseen of the outcomes since the crisis began.”
But it’s not enough. And the book isn’t helped by its implicit insinuations that a slightly more democratic state will offer answers to the mess of problems created by capitalism, with an offhand mention of the Working Group’s ‘concern’ over the rise of social movements, late in the report.
I’m left wondering about another possible use for the book though, rather than as yet-more intellectual activist fodder to throw at the capitalist machine. Alternatively, in the straight-faced stylings of the Yes Men, could an unbranded version of The Lugano Report II find its way into the hands of the real-life ‘Commissioners,’ via a vaguely-open-minded ruling class traitor like Warren Buffett? While many of the report’s recommendations are as outlandish as the current approaches pursued by most governments, banks and fossil fuel companies today, the pragmatic emphasis on elements of a green, socialistic economy still offer a better alternative than I would imagine make up the usual reading materials of the one percent.
Could the report start to circulate, in exactly the way the intro to the book suggests the fictional Commissioners intend, being passed around, in secrecy, as though its story was a real one? (Of course, it essentially is!) If so, it may well have more value that I’ve so far suggested.
All of this said, I think it’s still worth keeping a copy around. George mixes the academic rigour of Chomsky, with the dry satire you might expect from a Vonnegut novel. I’m sure there are a range of moments when the information and anecdotes it offers might come in handy. But I suggest reading it alongside something that offers practical, living examples of people creating alternatives to the range of problems George describes so exhaustively. Dan Hancox’ ‘The Village Against the World,’ or CASA Collective’s ‘Teaching Rebellion’ might help to balance it out a bit and encourage people to get involved in creating the kinds of change the world so badly needs.
Liam Barrington-Bush is a UK-based activist, facilitator, and author of the new book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.