Geert Lovink on Tue, 22 Jul 1997 13:50:06 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview with susan george

Demystifying the Virtual Power Structures
An Interview with Susan George
By Geert Lovink

At Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X, Kassel
July 16, 1997

[Susan George is the vice-director of the Transnational Institute in
Amsterdam and was from 1990-1995 on the board of Greenpeace International.
She is a well known critic of the Worldbank and the IMF and has publiced
several books on the debt crisis.]

Geert Lovink:  I was surprised about the opening statement of your 100
days lecture. You stated that economy and ecology are at war. Here in
Germany, many from both the corporate world and the ecological movement
think in terms of collaboration and harmony. Influenced by New Age,
they think that the two might go together in the end. You called
yourself an 'alarmist'.

Susan George:  For the first time in history, we do not have much time
ahead of us. If New Age people think that everything can be made into
sweetness and light, they have not examined power relationships very
I fear that if people can be persuaded that these two
paradigms can be made to match without deep changes, it will distract
them from the kind of politics that we have got to do. You are
speaking from a very German point of view. Germany is at the very
forefront of ecological awareness. Where I live, in France, people are
way behind in such things as recycling. For the first time, France has
got now green MPs and a green minister. Allthough the United States
might have a high degree of awareness in some areas, politically
speaking this has not been translated into reality. The kind of radical
politics that I was trying to talk about has not yet reached any kind of
level where major changes are going to come about. Many of these changes
are taking place at the international level. And that's where it is going
to be most difficult to act. Many of the destroyers of the planet are
acting with inpunity, because they are acting at the international
level. They are not transparent and are answerable to no one.

GL: You have been on the board of Greenpeace for many years. Are you
optimistic about the growth and strength of the ecological movement?

SG: I left the board at the end of 1995. The new administration tends
to engage a lot less in confrontations. Personally, I think that is a
Confrontation and exposure are still very much needed. There are areas
where one can cooperate with businesses. Yesterday I mentioned the
insurance industry which is getting knocked out. They incurred $ 50
billion of losses within the last ten years. Why? Because of global
warming and the increasing frequency of storms. Even if George Bush and
Bill Clinton were not convinced of global warming, the insurance companies
are. And they are listening to Greenpeace and teaming up.
The case of the Greenpeace refrigerator has been overblown
badly. It was clear that the manufacturers were not interested in
listening, or doing any research about new technologies that would not
destroy the ozon layer. What Greenpeace did, with a couple of
scientists from East Germany is simply to show that it can be done. The
same holds true for a car engine, that would use much less petrol. But who
wants that in the oil industry? That is what I mean with confrontation:
embarrassing the decision-makers by showing the consumer that it can be
These products are also coming to developing societies like China and
India, highly populous countries, where a substantial middle class is now
in a position to buy refrigerators. If all of China is going to have
refrigerators with CFCs, we might as well put on our hands and
sunglasses and hope for the best. Not all manufacturers have switched,
even in France. You live in a paradise here.

GL: In your lecture you did not mention the debt crisis. Could you give
us an update? How do look at the recent developments, having done more
than ten years of research into it?

SG: I only mentioned the debt crisis in relation with the ecological
crisis in the South and the East and the capacity of the Worldbank and
the IMF to impose neo-liberalism. As soon as a country has no other
source of fresh cash, it has to go to these international institutions.
Then they are in a position to say, we lend you money, but on the
following conditions. That is how they have been able to forcebly
integrate into the global economy close on a hunderd countries. I
published my first book on the topic in 1987, having worked on it for
two years. There comes a time when you have to leave a subject alone.
In the last year, I have prepared a report on Mediterranean debt for
the Italian government. Most activists are concentrating on Africa. As
well they should. But what I discovered in the cases of the Maghreb
countries, Egypt, Jordan, etc is that the scale of the problem is much
greater. The impossibility of this debt ever being payed back is
exactly the same as for black Africa. The boomerang arguments (the
impacts it has on the North) hold true and Europe has allready started
to pay heavily for the debt crisis in the Southern Mediterranean rim.

GL: Within circles of cyberculture, money has been looked at from the
angle of virtualization. Most of capital is now virtual, no longer
related to the realm of the production of material commodities. It is seen
as a closed, 'other' computer network, next to the Internet, and where the 
money is circulating  constantly, all over the world.

SG: The existence of those financial electronic network is not a secret,
but it is difficult to get access and knowledge about it. Without
electronics, economic globalization could not have happened. In the
foreign exchange market you got $ 1.2 trillion circulating every day.
Less than 5% of that represents actual cash transactions. Most of it is
just making money out of money. When I looked at the quite boring
annual report of the Bank for International Settlements, a serious
institution, the central bank of the central banks, in Basel, you
detect a note of utter panic. What they are saying is that the
financial markets are inventing new instruments, much faster then we
can get a grip on them. The IMF stepped in when we had the crisis in
Mexico, in Russia and now in the Phillipines. My question is: when we
have the big crash, as we are going to have. quite soon, where is the
IMF that is going to move in? There is nothing big enough to counter an
accident like that. When it is going to come, this crash is going to
create tremendous suffering, as it did in Mexico in january 1995.
Workers lost their job, malnutrition rate immediately went up, the
suicide rate and the crime rate are way up. The effects of electronic
markets actually fall down on society.

GL: In his article in the 'Atlantic Monthly', George Soros has also
warned for this to happen. He is supporting a lot of the NGOs,
worldwide. How do you look at the growing importance of the NGO-sector?

SG: I am not aware of growing power of NGOs. I am not well informed
about the activities of his foundation, but I would love to meet him. I
think he has got the right attitude towards the stockmarket because he
does not follow the herd. He also proved that central banks are totally
powerless when confronted a determented army of speculators. I want to
say here that these people are perfectly identifiable. One should not
treat this market as something mysterious, like giving the law on high,
like God speaking to Moses and then we all have to follow it. This is
30-50 major banks, about the same number of brokerage firms, and a few,
mostly US pension funds, which are in on this. 250 major guys doing all
this. There is no reason, in my view, why, if governments got their act
together, and were a little bit less cowardly, then there is no reason why
these transactions could not be taxed. The moeny should not go to the UN.
But there is no reason that one could not constitute international funds
which could be democratically managed. One could palliate the debt crisis
and write off debts with that sort of a fund.

GL: This campaign here in Hybrid Workspace is dealing with bandwidth.
We are trying to map who is owning the cables. What are your experiences
in visualizing those abstract structures?

SG: To be honest, yes, I was able to name the major players in the debt
crisis. I began to do work on those emerging markets. I could not carry
it out because it was too expensive. I was able to interview people in
South Africa because I was there for a conference. The same thing for
the Phillipines. That is another reason why Soros is important, because
he is demystifying a lot of what the markets are doing. Being one of the
players himself, he certainly is not down on his knees, worshipping them.
That is one of the dangers. Capital is like a religion. The antropologist
Fabricio Sabelli sees institutions like the IMF depending on believe
systems, with the Worldbank as the mediaval church with its heaven and
hell. The same thing is true for the market.
There is a good deal of popularizing to be done, in this case, to
demystify the Internet. And do remember that half of the world has never
made a telephone call.

(edited by Patrice Riemens)

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