The advent of the Bush Administration has seen a peculiar mutation in the debates around the world financial institutions, as centre-left economists, born-again European speculators and ngos rush to defend, as admirably ‘multilateral’, instruments that have long served to forward the interests and primacy of us capital. That there are problems with the imf, World Bank and World Trade Organization is not denied; but greater transparency and accountability, more consultation, flexibility and sensitivity to the environment and other ‘public goods’ could help transform them into beneficial agencies for more redistributive economic growth.
In his new book, Deglobalization, Walden Bello steadfastly refuses such placebos. A leading activist in the movement against corporate globalization and co-founder of Focus on the Global South, Bello has devoted the past two decades to analysing the workings of contemporary capitalism, focusing on the role of the us and international institutions in imposing the will of the North on the developing world. Though the Left generally devoted little attention to capitalist financial institutions during the Cold War, Bello’s interest in them dates back to the mid-70s, when he began to investigate the role of World Bank loans in propping up the Marcos regime. Since then, his work has proceeded along a dual track, combining active opposition to us imperialism in his native Philippines with keen-eyed scrutiny of the activities of the World Bank and imf across the Third World. Here he at once synthesizes and builds on previous work, mounting a sustained critique of the system presided over by the us Treasury, imf, World Bank and wto, before proposing his own alternatives. Bello’s analyses and suggestions for action are refreshingly clear and direct, and he gives a valuable account of the re-subordination of the South over the last quarter-century. Deglobalization is to be recommended above all for the invigorating energy with which it sets out an oppositional agenda.
Bello opens with a sketch of the global conjuncture, in which he argues that the current world order faces ‘six intersecting crises of legitimacy.’ The multilateral system through which the us secured its dominant position after the Cold War has been seriously undermined by the Bush Administration’s frequent resort to unilateralism. In the wake of the Asian Crisis and Argentinean collapse, meanwhile, the wisdom of neoliberal policies has been called into question in an unprecedented range of sectors. Revelations of fraud at Enron and elsewhere have led to widespread criticism of the corporation, the driving force and main beneficiary of globalization. Beneath these short-term developments lie three more potential sources of instability, rooted in longer-term trends: the hollowing-out of liberal democracy; the us’s increasing use of military force to maintain its supremacy since the end of the Cold War; and the descent of the world economy into depression, unable to escape the crisis of profitability. Global capitalism, Bello argues, currently faces a number of problems and uncertainties, signalling an opportunity for progressive forces to set out an alternative vision for a democratic, equitable and sustainable world order.
Bello gives a brisk account of the changing fortunes of the post-colonial world—the ‘global South’—within the international economic order put in place at the Bretton Woods Conference. During the post-war boom, and with the great powers focused on the strategic imperatives of the Cold War, the newly independent states of the developing world were afforded an unprecedented degree of latitude to pursue state-centred development policies, supported by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The Argentine economist Raul Prebisch, unctad’s first director, proposed a series of measures to counter the subordination of South to North—commodity price floors, preferential tariffs for Third World goods, an increase in ‘foreign assistance’ that would be viewed as compensation rather than predatory loans—which saw a period of distinct industrial growth in many parts of the South, however skewed or ‘dependent’ such development may have been. As Bello points out, even at the supposed apogee of unctad’s influence, proposals for a Special un Development Fund met with stiff resistance. Instead, in 1960 the International Development Association was set up under the auspices of the World Bank, with the un left to hand out crumbs of technical assistance through the undp.
The mid-1970s saw a definitive shift in North–South relations, marking the start of a Northern offensive to claw back the few gains made by Southern elites in the preceding decades. The era of floating exchange rates inaugurated by us abandonment of the gold standard in 1973 led to increasing instabilities in the Third World, with many states spiralling into debt peonage. The Third World debt crisis of 1982 provided the us with an opportunity to pry open Southern markets and dismantle local state capitalisms for the benefit of its corporations. unctad was marginalized: the us beat down calls for debt cancellation and other stimulation programmes at unctad’s 1983 meeting in Belgrade, and by the early 90s had deprived it of any say in the workings of gatt—a loose set of trade agreements that came into being in 1947 after the us blocked plans for an International Trade Organization, intended as the ‘third pillar’ of the Bretton Woods system. Via the ‘structural adjustment programmes’ and loan conditions of the imf and World Bank, the us imposed the neoliberal policies of what became known as the Washington Consensus. Ironically, the ailing us economy was aided by excessive borrowing in the world bond market at the expense of the Third World—which, in turn, enabled the imf and World Bank to implement a new round of structural adjustment policies. By the late 80s, over 70 Third World countries were under imf and World Bank discipline.
Clinton and Rubin put the final touches to the current global economic architecture in 1995, with the creation of the wto. The impetus for its establishment stemmed from us recognition that its advantage over the Asian ‘tiger’ economies would best be preserved by ‘free trade’, and by a system with stronger enforcement mechanisms than those of gatt. Once in place, the wto effectively closed the neoliberal circle, with prospective members required to have favourable reports from the imf and World Bank prior to joining. It was soon able to press deeply disadvantageous trade agreements on economies already pried open by the policies of the World Bank and imf: trims brought an end to local-content policies; trips enshrined the intellectual property rights of Northern multinationals; and the Agreement on Agriculture opened Southern markets to heavily subsidized produce from the North. No such concessions were wrung from the developed world: as Bello observes, ‘the level of overall subsidization of agriculture in the oecd countries rose from $182 billion in 1995 when the wto was born, to $280 billion in 1997, to $362 billion in 1998’. The us has also found the wto an indispensable political tool, dangling offers of membership before Russian and now Chinese elites as an inducement to part ways with their respective popular classes.
Bello succinctly sets out the formal and informal mechanisms by which the South is excluded from the decision-making processes of the multilateral institutions. With 17.6 per cent of votes in the World Bank and 19 per cent in the imf, the us retains the power of veto over lending decisions; developed countries as a whole can block any decision requiring a majority. But votes are rarely taken in the imf, which tends to operate via a consensus that has in practice served almost solely to advance the interests of the us. Bello does not overlook the influence of the location and staffing of these bodies—both Washington-based, with overwhelmingly us-educated personnel—on their ideology and institutional culture. Though located on Swiss soil and portrayed by its advocates as a one-member-one-vote system like the un General Assembly, the wto is likewise dominated by an ideology of American manufacture, and operates by a similarly murky procedure: decisions are arrived at in ‘Green Room’ meetings of around twenty-five countries, the agenda and composition of which are decided largely by representatives of the us, eu, Japan and Canada.