New Internationalist

Sand in the wheels

Issue 400

Why activist intellectual Walden Bello thinks globalization has stalled.

Stig www.shtig.net
Stig www.shtig.net

Walden Bello is one of globalization’s sharpest critics. And he has a good track record of being ahead of events.

A post-graduate student in the US when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in his home country, the Philippines, Bello quickly became a key dissident, prominent in the international movement to restore democracy. When he discovered that World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans were propping up the corrupt Marcos dictatorship, Bello broke into the Bank’s Washington headquarters and ‘liberated’ some 3,000 pages of classified documents. This information would form the basis of a book which became an underground bestseller in the Philippines and an ideological peg of the popular movement that toppled Marcos.

A later book, Dragons in Distress, pointed out the flaws in the Asian economic ‘miracle’ – a full six years before the ‘tiger economies’ went into financial meltdown.

Now he is making the audacious claim that globalization has stalled and the moment is ripe for other visions to take its place. Coming from Bello this analysis has some weight. He has always been clear about the consequences of economic globalization – ‘driven by the logic of corporate profitability, the liberalization and deregulation of trade and finance would bring about crises, widen inequalities within and across countries, and increase global poverty’.

But in an article published last December by Foreign Policy in Focus, Bello claimed that ‘Globalization has reached its high water mark and is receding’.

The three institutional pillars upon which the edifice of globalization was erected in the 1990s – the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) – are beginning to crumble.

About the IMF, Bello writes: ‘Knowing how the Fund precipitated and worsened the Asian financial crisis, more and more of the advanced developing countries are refusing to borrow from it or are paying ahead of schedule, with some declaring their intention never to borrow again. These include Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil and Argentina. Since the Fund’s budget greatly depends on debt repayments from these big borrowers, this boycott is translating into what one expert describes as “a huge squeeze on the budget of the organization”.’

The World Bank is ‘suffering a crisis of legitimacy’, having presided over structural adjustment which left those nations following its policies more impoverished and unequal.

And the WTO is now critically wounded after the collapse of the Doha Round of negotiations in July 2006, where the move for greater trade liberalization fell apart over anger at the US refusal to cut its lavish agricultural subsidies.

Bello outlines several reasons why globalization has run aground: the continuing importance of national production and sales (relatively few corporations are truly transnational); the behaviour of the US, which practises protectionism while preaching free trade; and approaching environmental collapse as a consequence of economic growth at all costs.

In addition, says Bello, ‘there has been too much dissonance between the promise of globalization and free trade and the actual results of neoliberal policies, which have been more poverty, inequality and stagnation. One of the very few places where poverty diminished over the last 15 years is China. But interventionist state policies that managed market forces, not neoliberal prescriptions, were responsible for lifting 120 million Chinese out of poverty.’ And then there has been the popular resistance to globalization reflected in the thousands of struggles in communities worldwide.

While accepting that the beast might not be quite dead, Bello points out fierce resistance to the Free Trade Agreements and bilateral trade deals which have emerged in the footsteps of a diminished WTO. Then there is the current political shift to the Left in Latin America, marked by nationalizations of resources and by Venezuela’s plan for regional economic co-operation driven by what Hugo Chávez calls a ‘logic beyond capitalism’.

Bello warns of the dangers ahead. ‘Many in progressive circles still think that the task at hand is to “humanize” globalization. Globalization, however, is a spent force. Today’s multiplying economic and political conflicts resemble, if anything, the period following the end of what historians refer to as the first era of globalization, which extended from 1815 to the eruption of World War One in 1914. The urgent task is not to steer corporate-driven globalization in a “social democratic” direction but to manage its retreat so that it does not bring about the same chaos and runaway conflicts that marked its demise in that earlier era.’

So what would replace the structures of corporate globalization? Bello articulated a refreshingly plural vision of the anti-globalization movement in 2003 after receiving the Right Livelihood Award (popularly called the alternative Nobel prize): ‘Contrary to the claims of the ideologues of the establishment, the principles that would serve as the pillars of a new global order are present. The primordial principle is that instead of the economy driving society the market must be… “re-embedded” in society and governed by the overarching values of community, solidarity, justice and equity. At the international level, the global economy must be deglobalized or rid of the distorting, disfiguring logic of corporate profitability and truly internationalized, meaning that participation in the international economy must serve to strengthen and develop rather than disintegrate and destroy local and national economies.

‘The perspective and principles are there. The challenge is how each society can articulate these principles and programmes in unique ways that respond to their values, their rhythms, and their personality as societies. Call it post-modern, but central to our movement is the conviction that there is no one shoe that will fit all – in contrast to the belief common to both neoliberalism and bureaucratic socialism… It is no longer a question of an alternative but of alternatives.’ •

  1. Further reading Bello’s essay ‘Globalization in Retreat’ (Foreign Policy in Focus, 27 December 2006) is available at www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3826 He is one of the founders of Focus on the Global South which has extensive material on deglobalization. See

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