National Sections of the L5I:

Walden Bello

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Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, is the scourge of the IMF, World Bank and WTO. He has not only documented their record in deepening poverty and inequality, but refuses to have any truck with the idea that they can be reformed.

He openly advocates abolishing the World Bank and the IMF, “an institution that has made a big business out of ending poverty”. He argues against NGOs being drawn into the process of reforming the IMF, World Bank and WTO. He wants to “deglobalise” the world economy, ending economic regulation and direction at a world level and proposes a series of regional institutions and pacts that would allow for national and cultural diversity to be respected.

Bello has charted the crisis of legitimacy that befell globalisation after its high watermark with the formation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995. This was the year when the advocates of neo-liberalism achieved unquestioned acceptance of free trade and corporate power as the solution to the problems of the Third World.

But then came the Asian financial crisis of 1997 when the US$100 bn of largely speculative capital that had poured into the south-east Asian region over the previous four years was sucked out again within the space of a few weeks creating millions of unemployed and busting the myth of the “Asian tigers” as the paradigm of development for the whole global south.

Already, in the 1990s, the IMF had come under increasing attack because of the dire consequences of its structural adjustment programmes. These were imposed on over 70 countries in the 1980s and 1990s. As Walden Bello reports:

“After over 15 years, there were hardly any cases of successful adjustment programs. What structural adjustment had done, instead, was to institutionalize stagnation in Africa and Latin America alongside rises in the levels of absolute poverty and income inequality....The number of people globally living in poverty, that is, on less than a dollar a day, increased from 1.1 billion in 1985 to 1.2 billion in 1998, and is expected to reach 1.3 billion [in 2000].”

The World Trade Organisation’s first few years of operation massively advanced corporate power and it was not long before many woke up to its full implications. In Bello’s words:

“In joining the WTO, developing countries realized that they were not, in fact, joining a democratic organization but one where decisions were made, not in formal plenaries but in non-transparent backroom sessions, and where majority voting was dispensed with in favor of a process called consensus- which was really a process in which a few big trading powers imposed their consensus on the majority of the member countries.”

Although the WTO, World Bank and IMF fell into increasing discredit after 1999 Bello recognises that these institutions were too important to big business to be allowed to disappear. So they mounted a counterattack to restore their legitimacy.

The Davos elite decided that the best way to rescue the reputations of the three sisters, according to Bello, was through dialogue, consultation, and the formation of partnerships between TNCs, governments, the United Nations, and civil society organisations.

The first tactic used against the NGOs was to set them against each other by distinguishing “reasonable” NGO’s, who were interested in dialogue, from the “unreasonable”, who were not. To the former, a working partnership for reform was offered.

Bello says the model for this ruse was the NGO Committee on the World Bank and other joint World Bank-NGO bodies set up by Wolfensohn and his lieutenants in the mid-1990s. While the NGOs that joined these bodies may have done so with the best of intentions, Wolfensohn was able to split the NGO community in Washington, DC and harness the energies of a number of them to project the image of a Bank that was serious about reforming itself and reorienting its approach to eliminating poverty.

By 2001, NGOs were being deluged with requests to join this corporation’s NGO advisory committee or that company’s NGO consultative group. In February, 2001, even the IMF held its first NGO consultation in Singapore.

Bello condemns the NGOs for falling into this trap and calls instead for the abolition of all these “partnership” bodies,

“...what developing countries and international civil society should aim at is not to reform the TNC-driven WTO and Bretton Woods institutions, but, through a combination of passive and active measures, to either a) decommission them; b) neuter them (e.g., converting the IMF into a pure research institution monitoring exchange rates of global capital flows); or c) radically reduce their powers and turn them into just another set of actors coexisting with and being checked by other international organisations, agreements, and regional groupings.”

Bello rejects the idea of replacing one centralised global system of rules and institutions with another, calling this a techno-optimist variant of Marxism that, he says, infuses both the social democratic and Leninist visions of the world, and produces what the Indian author Arundathi Roy calls, “the predilection for gigantism”.

But, in rejecting “Marxism”, Bello does not hesitate to embrace the Republican right in the USA as allies. He concedes that:

“The motivation of the incoming Republicans in criticising the IMF and World Bank lies in their belief in free market solutions to development and growth. This may not coincide with that of progressives, who see the IMF and World Bank as a tool of US hegemony. But the two sides can unite behind one agenda at this point: the radical downsizing, if not dismantling, of the Bretton Woods twins.”

Bello is wrong on both counts. For him, the abolition of the international economic bodies which are under the domination of US imperialism is a way of allowing the semi-colonial regimes to exercise greater autonomy and to use the United Nations bodies such as UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) to aid their development.

But this would still leave the handful of powerful imperialist states with a monopoly over the sources of capital and technological development. While Bello is often implicitly critical of the craven nature of the “Third World elites”, he is still prepared to leave political power in their hands under his strategy of “deglobalisation” even if they are to come under greater popular scrutiny.

Moreover, he has no intention of suggesting anything more than a redirection of trade and investment flows. He does not countenance the expropriation of big companies and banks, not even the nationalisation of foreign MNCs.

At best, this could only be a recipe for 1950s and 1960s-style import-substitution industrialisation. This discredited strategy was only “successful” in big countries which could mobilise sufficient domestic investment funds through repression of the standard of living of the mass of workers and peasant farmers. Even then the projects were often corrupt and inefficient.

At worst, such a deglobalisation project would lead to further impoverishment as small countries were forced to fall back upon limited and inadequate domestic resources.

Against deglobalisation, it is necessary to posit a global economic strategy that seeks to maintain a high level of global integration, especially with the most developed nations. The key is not to loosen the ties that link the Third World to the economies of the advanced countries but to build an international movement that wrests ownership and control of industry, commerce and finance in the G8, as elsewhere, from the current class of exploiters.

Then, democratic planning could deliver the Third World from its impoverishment. How centralised or decentralised such international planning mechanisms need to be is open to debate and largely depends upon the nature of the human and material resources under discussion.

Some decisions, for example, energy production and transmission which necessarily have an international environmental impact, are best taken at national and international levels. Others, such as allocation of resources to recreation, culture or housing are clearly best taken at local levels.

Marxism does not favour “gigantism” as a principle; this is a horrible distortion by Stalinism, whose fanatical centralisation and hypertrophy was a function not of economic rationalism but of the need of an all-powerful and repressive bureaucracy to keep control of all aspects of economic and social life.

In the end, Bello is no more anti-capitalist than Susan George. True, he pays lip service to a more explicit programme of redistribution than George. Part of “deglobalisation” involves, “carrying out the long-postponed measures of income and land redistribution to create a vibrant internal market that would be the anchor of the economy, ... it is about not leaving strategic economic decisions to the market but making them subject to democratic choice”.

But this is unconvincing. Bello fails to give any explanation of which forces using what methods, would carry through such redistribution. There is no recognition that it will be violently resisted by the Third World bourgeoisie, most of whom (unlike the 1950s) have completely tied their personal and political fortunes to neo-liberalism and globalisation.

It is because he has no vision of global transformation of the rule of capital especially in its heartlands and prefers Third World disengagement and reorientation, that he can so blithely countenance alliances with a deeply reactionary wing of American business and its political representatives.

Any strategy for international revolution and international planning must involve taking over ownership and control of big business and finance in the USA. This task, in turn, demands that the working class establishes its complete independence of all wings of the US bourgeoisie. It must cease to provide mass forces in support of the political agenda of that element of US big business that wants to be free of international obligations, while leaving US business unfettered.