Sometimes the media are maddening in ignoring the obvious. This is certainly the case with Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who stands accused of imposing his sexual will on a New York City hotel maid. The maid, Nafissatou Diallo, is an immigrant from Guinea in central Africa. She has been in the US for eight years and has worked as a maid at the luxury Time Square Sofitel Hotel for three. She is the single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, and though she has residency and the prized Green Card that allows her to work in the US, she lacks official citizenship. Her position is assumedly precarious; she needs the work and cannot afford a scandal which would endanger her US residency status. In short, she has a lot more to lose than to gain from her charges against one of the men who run the global economy.
The jury has yet to be convened but speculation is rife, particularly in France where DSK had been considered to have the best chance to defeat the highly unpopular Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s presidential elections. In a political culture where these kinds of ‘indiscretions’ are greeted with a wink and a nod, DSK is being given the generous benefit of the doubt. All kinds of rumours about a honey trap or other conspiracies to victimize DSK are making the rounds. According to polls, nearly 60 per cent of France thinks DSK was set up in some way. The famous French philosophe and champion of human rights Bernard Henri Levy demands to know how this unfortunate woman could end up alone in a hotel room with his good friend DSK. Are there not safeguards? Are there not teams of cleaners? In the US, where there is a certain amount of glee over bringing down the rich and the powerful, DSK is cut no such slack. After all, not only is he French but also a socialist.
But what is missing is the link between the accusations against DSK and what he does at work every day. Sure, there is the worry from official circles that the IMF’s credibility could be damaged by the charges. What is missing is that the IMF’s credibility should be damaged by the charges. If they are true (and this is fair game, as there has been much speculation about if they are not true) what does it say about the way in which the IMF operates in the world? Both the accusations and IMF practice show an imposition by the will of the powerful against unwilling and relatively defenceless people. This is the bread and butter of what the IMF does. Both the IMF and DSK are motivated by a sense of entitlement over what is good for someone else, no matter what they say or how they resist. The suite where the alleged attack took place rents for a cool $3,000 a day, whereas most of the IMF’s crimes – cutbacks, privatizations, devaluations – are more backstreet affairs taking effect in the poorest parts of countries like Guinea and its African neighbours. But it is these kinds of actions that make life for many unliveable, and result in a woman like Nafissatou Diallo immigrating to the US to take jobs that local people disdain.
Some 15 years ago the IMF imposed a policy framework on Diallo’s Guinea which contained the usual recipe for closer economic integration via corporate-led globalization concentrated on the mining industry – infrastructure such as a railroad and deepwater port to encourage the export of aluminium and iron ore. Foreign exchange earnings would help pay off the debt contracted by the political élite but would be of little benefit to the majority of Guineans. The agreement also forced Guinea to privatize its central pharmacy, thus forcing up prices for basic medicine. For most emigrants it is economic factors that push them off on the difficult journey from home to low paid jobs serving the rich in places like Time Square hotels. Does this describe Nafissatou Diallo’s journey? Only she can tell us and she is in no position to do so.
Today, it is Europe’s staggering economies that are feeling the weight of IMF prescription. The Greeks, the Portuguese, the Irish and the Spanish are all finding their economic entitlements and livelihoods squeezed on the altar of economic stabilization. It’s the same old deal: those who created and benefited from the economic crisis are not those who are expected to pay for it. By and large, Europeans are not taking this lying down; street resistance of various forms is becoming the order of the day. It was here that DSK’s ‘socialist’ credentials proved so valuable to the IMF. If a man ‘of the Left’ saw the necessity of tough choices, how could they be denied by trade unionists, pensioners and young activists? But the mainstream Left, as represented by men like DSK or the Britain’s New Labour, have lost any sense of how to run the global economy differently and have just become a more human face for the needs of corporate globalization. Radical prescription – capital controls, a revamped tax system to capture corporate and billionaire wealth, an end to speculative bubbles, the stout defence of people’s rights, an eco-centred economy at a time of environmental collapse, maybe even the single world currency favoured by John Maynard Keynes – are off the table.
In the meantime, workers like the Nafissatou Diallos of this world are forced into ever more vulnerable and precarious employment in the service industry. A 2006 report by the Oakland-based Data Centre documented that a third of household workers in the US ‘experience verbal or physical abuse or have been made to feel uncomfortable by their employers. One third of workers who face abuse identify race and immigration status as factors for their employers’ actions.’ While statistics for hotel maids are difficult to come by it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to extrapolate.
The debate that is going on now is who will be the new broom at the top of the IMF’s 19th Street headquarters in Washington DC. The post has typically been given to a European and the current French Finance Minister Christine Legarde has just launched her bid for the post. With their economies staggering, Europeans are desperate to resist pressure from the Global South to appoint a Brazilian or an Asian to global finance’s top job. At least with Legarde in place hotel maids should be a bit safer. But no matter who heads up the IMF, the imposition of the economic agenda of the powerful on the powerless will continue. For as DSK’s behaviour indicates, ‘having their way with us’ is the name of the game at the International Monetary Fund.