Pictures of bright-eyed African children and smiling women in saris bedeck the World Bank’s website. ‘Our dream is a world free of poverty’, it proclaims, pledging to commit the Bank’s ‘financial resources, highly trained staff and extensive knowledge base’ to empowering the poor, through such irreproachable strategies as the pursuit of ethnic and gender equality, environmental sustainability, accessible primary education and widespread community health care. Inclusive development, ‘pro-poor institutions’ and community initiatives are all invoked, differences respected, and inequality deplored. ‘We at the Bank have made it our mission to fight poverty with passion and professionalism, putting it at the centre of all the work we do’, explains the President, James Wolfensohn. ‘The 4.8 billion people who are our ultimate clients deserve nothing less.’ Indeed, the Bank’s insistence on such high-minded goals has sent shock waves through the more hidebound sections of the IMF and US Treasury.footnote1

A reading of the Bank’s flagship annual World Development Reports since 1990, however, throws a very different programme into relief. Behind these apparently progressive aims there stands a commitment to a project that Marx once described as ‘the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market’; its principal object is to deliver an exploitable global proletariat into the hands of capital. This does indeed involve drawing the poorest of the world’s population into the workforce, providing basic health and education, and focusing particularly on young women—lending the process its emancipatory tinge. But the larger part of this strategy, in which its central logic is betrayed, is to deny the poor any alternative, and to create a reserve army of labour that will enforce the disciplines of capitalist labour-markets across the greater part of humanity. An analysis of the programme that unfolds within the successive World Development Reports, then, must begin at the beginning: with primitive accumulation.

In chapters 26 and 32 of Capital Volume 1, Marx sketches out two related processes: ‘primitive accumulation’, on the one hand, and ‘capitalist accumulation’ on the other. The first—the ‘historical genesis’ of capital, its ‘point of departure’—is defined as the process of ‘divorcing the producer from the means of production’. The second—which involves, among other things, the concentration of capital and ‘the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime’—reflects a world in which ‘personally earned’ private property has already been supplanted by ‘capitalist private property, which rests on the exploitation of alien, but formally free labour’. It is, in other words, the process of proletarianization that brings the capitalist mode of production into being, by creating both capital and wage-labourers.footnote2

All kinds of obstacles inhibit the tendency of the capitalist mode of production to establish itself on a world scale, and the process of ‘primitive accumulation’ described here is still far from complete. The defining feature of global neoliberalism, however, is that it articulates, and seeks to implement, a strategy that will both hasten the process of primitive accumulation—or proletarianization—and enforce the laws of capitalist accumulation throughout the enlarged space of the market economy. It portends, therefore, an epoch-making revolution.footnote3 In this context, the World Bank’s outwardly progressive anti-poverty strategy, far from being a shift away from the neoliberal revolution, is a means to completing it.

What would a systematic programme for the establishment and consolidation of capitalism on a global scale look like? For a start, it would set about the conversion of the world’s poor into proletarians, stripped of alternative means of survival, and obliged to offer themselves to capitalists for work. It would then enlarge the scope for the private production of goods through the extension of markets, and the provision of an institutional matrix in which capitalist exchange could flourish. To secure the project’s long-term viability, it would seek to ensure the preservation of the environment within which capitalism operates, not least by limiting the tendency for the forces of capitalist competition themselves to destroy it. Over time, it would orchestrate the delivery of appropriate numbers of people with sufficient health and education to be exploitable as workers. It would provide the infrastructure necessary for capitalist production, but not actually produced by capitalists themselves. Alongside these macrostructural elements, it would create institutional frameworks to ensure that workers behaved in such a way as to strengthen rather than to undermine the capitalist regime; that capitalists were nurtured, but at the same time compelled to compete against each other; and that states acted to support and expand domestic and international capitalism. Once these were in position, the programme would seek to promote a general acceptance of the global regime by manipulating information in order to favour pro-market solutions to the problems of further development, while mounting an ideological offensive to persuade the world’s population that there was no alternative. With all this in place, it would claim that the globalized free-market system offered the only solution to the problem of world poverty.

Such a programme could well have been derived directly from the closing chapters of Capital Volume 1. As it happens, I have taken it from the sequence of eleven World Development Reports published by the World Bank since 1990. The first of these, Poverty, called for the creation of a global proletariat from which labour could be efficiently extracted, and sketched out a comprehensive framework within which proletarianization could be accelerated.footnote4 The second, Challenge of Development, advocated the vertical and horizontal expansion of markets, and set out a strategy for developing countries that assigned the state a vital supporting role.footnote5 The 1992 Report, Development and the Environment, concerned itself with the need to preserve the global ecostructure in which capitalist expansion occurs. Investing in Health, the following year, proposed market-friendly mechanisms that might deliver a proletariat fit for work. In 1994, Infrastructure for Development sought to extend the scope for profit-making in the provision of infrastructure, and to identify ways of meeting any remaining deficiencies.

Having addressed these macrostructural requirements, the Bank turned its attention to associated institutional frameworks. The 1995 Report, Workers in an Integrating World, looked at conditions that might facilitate the untrammelled exploitation of labour by capital across the globe. It ruled out minimum wage legislation in middle and low-income economies with large agricultural or informal sectors; proposed that health-and-safety legislation should be governed by market principles and set at a level where ‘costs are commensurate with the value that informed workers place on improved working conditions and reduced risk’; and it stipulated that trade sanctions were not to be used to enforce even the most basic workers’ rights. The Report then described the ideal form that labour organization should take: trade unions strive to involve workers in activity that improves efficiency and productivity; they should not act as ‘monopolists’ or oppose programmes for structural adjustment and reform. Effective unions, from the World Bank point of view, eliminate the need for large-scale state regulation and intervention, and help firms to extract more surplus value from workers; they do not distort labour markets, or protect jobs.footnote6