issue 225 - November 1991
World Development Report 1991
by World Bank
(Oxford University Press)
The World Bank has issued another in its series of annual reports designed to perpetuate illusions about the institution’s objectives and priorities.
Subtitled The Challenge of Development this is actually not about development at all. It is about growth and the liberalization of international trade and capital. Chapter Two, for example, is headed ‘Paths to Development’ – yet the only path considered throughout this volume is a 'market-friendly' one.
Like its 1990 predecessor on Poverty (in which the issue of poverty received no serious treatment), this is highly biased in the way it selects and analyses case studies and statistics. Of course no report can be truly objective: every author has a bias, including the author of this NI review.
But the World Bank tries to cloak its bias and promote its on-high air of authority by using language that is full of deception. Take labour issues. The report cannot acknowledge that cutting wages is both an integral element and an intended consequence of Bank-promoted adjustment programs. Instead they employ such euphemisms as ‘the downward flexibility of real wages’.
They attribute high unemployment in Chile in the early 1980s to ‘labor market rigidities, such as minimum wages and lack of wage flexibility’. No mention is made of the devastating job losses in those small and medium-sized firms which disappeared as a result of trade liberalization measures advocated by the Bank itself.
Structural adjustment is the World Bank’s current religion and any evidence that it is not the true faith must be either omitted or twisted. So the Bank simply cannot deal with the fact that economies like South Korea and Taiwan have enjoyed high growth rates despite being both state-interventionist and protectionist (the ultimate sins in adjustment terms). Hence the report goes to great lengths to rewrite history and make them seem more like free traders – yet the Bush Administration, for example, accepts that South Korea and Taiwan are among the most protectionist countries in the world.
Massaging its own figures in every way imaginable, the Bank still cannot make the case that adjustment programs have succeeded even in purely economic terms. Its own studies provide no conclusive evidence that the prevailing policies of the past decade have stimulated growth or sapped inflation.
Yet, despite the terrible social and environmental costs of adjustment, the report calls for more of the same. In other words more exporting, more austerity, more massive cuts in health and education budgets, more liberalization and privatization so as to open Southern economies to the international market.
There are no discussions here of alternative ‘paths to development’, certainly not those based on grassroots involvement and the principles of greater self-reliance, equity and sustainability. Populist experiments of the past are discounted without any reference to the role the Bank itself played in undermining them.
This report, scraped free of the perfunctory development rhetoric aimed at politicians and the international media, is the clearest statement yet of the World Bank’s agenda for the 1990s. The central message is found in the image on its cover: the world as a puzzle that must be pieced together by the global architects. Development, takes a back seat to the restructuring of Southern economies so as to expand international trade and investment on Northern corporate terms.
It is this very agenda which poses the greatest threat to the workers, producers and natural environments of the South – and thus provides us with the greatest ‘challenge of development’ in the years ahead.
Boyz N the Hood
directed by John Singleton
Hangin’ with the Homeboys
directed by Joseph B Vasquez
On the New York subway a young black man is approached by three strangers – one black, two Latin – who, for no apparent reason, pick a fight with him. The other (mainly white) passengers draw back in horror, expecting bloodshed, until one of the men stands aside and announces: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed a performance by… Ghetto Theatre!’
For one nasty moment the viewer is in the position of the innocent commuter. By starting Hangin’ with the Homeboys with this trick at the audience’s expense, writer/director Joseph B Vasquez tilts not only at cultural preconceptions about black and Latin youth but also at preconceptions about the films that deal with them. It’s all too easy to equate the ‘new black wave’ of US cinema with a school of ‘mean streets’ reportage typified by this year’s New Jack City. With its cynical mythologizing of the hip gangster image, its facile anti-drugs message tacked on as a mere pretext, New Jack City glibly reworked the tricks of the early 1970s blaxploitation cycle (Shaft, Superfly). The in-theatre fights that greeted the film’s US release seemed to be fuelled directly by its glamorization of violence.
Violence erupted in US screenings of John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, too, and as a result there is a question mark over the future commercial release of all black films. Yet here there is no glamorization: Boyz – subtitled ‘Increase the peace’ – is anti-violence to the hilt. Singleton explores the background to the gang wars and drive-by shootings of South Central LA, demonstrating in unashamedly melodramatic fashion how violence erodes the community it breeds in. He makes good use of Ice Cube, a rapper with a particularly bloody-minded hard-man image, casting him as a disgruntled, quite unglamorous suburban boy who falls prey to his own frustration. Ice Cube dominates the film as its most rounded character, while other characters are almost Gary Cooperish in their social correctness. Boyz is too heavy-handed with its rhetoric but its mix of soap and the soapbox is riveting.
The Vasquez film is much lighter stuff – closer to the menacing banter of some Scorsese films. A boys’ film in every way, it concerns four young men, two black, two Puerto Rican, all high on hope and hormones, out for a lark one New York night. It’s intensely enjoyable, thanks to four strong leads, including Doug E Doug as racism-sensitive Willy, and Nestor Serrano as would-be cool cat Vinny. Homeboys doesn’t press its point about black-Latin unity – that comes across in the acting. But it proves there is a lot more to the new cinema of the streets than guns and poses.
Cuba Classics 1: Greatest Hits
by Silvio Rodriguez
After David Byrne’s useful quartet of Brazilian compilations, he’s now launched a ‘Cuba Classics’ series that promises to provide something other than the standard salsa fare. The series kicks off neatly with a compilation by singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is, to all intents and purposes, a folk artist, who shows some affinities with Dylan or Neil Young, although he has more in common with the literary, instrumentally ornate French chanson or variété traditions. Rodriguez is associated with the Nueva Trova (‘new song’) movement, which mixed political seriousness with poetry and tradition. As a result of the US blockade of Cuba, Rodriguez’s external influences were selective – he never got to hear Dylan until 1969 but counts the Beatles (along with Byron, Hoffman and Poe!) as more significant influences.
There are elements of salsa here, but only incidentally, and when Rodriguez mixes Cuban dance rhythms with his ballad style, the join is effortless. Whether doused in an almost Las Vegas ritziness or gliding elegantly through the balmy lyricism of a song like ‘Como Esperando Abril’, Rodriguez’s fragile, high-pitched voice is always compelling. The songs are often poetically oblique, personal verging on sentimental, and only rarely explicit – ‘Playa Giron’, for example, refers to the Bay of Pigs but is couched in terms of a scholarly inquisition into the art of political songwriting.
Throughout, Rodriguez’s songs have a highly personal, pensive tone that engages the listener absolutely. The record’s subtitle is ‘Canciones Urgentes’, and even when Rodriguez is at his glossiest and most elusive, urgency is the watchword.
‘You and me, we sweat and strain, bodies all aching and wracked with pain… I get weary and sick of trying; I’m tired of living and scared of dying but Ol’ Man River he just keeps rolling along.’ The world is overflowing with popular music both inane and transcendent, but the twentieth century has produced few more resonant lines than those, just as it has produced few cultural heroes of the stature and integrity of Paul Robeson, who first recorded the words back in 1928.
This song about the suffering of black slaves in the cotton fields is itself outstanding. But when sung by Robeson’s rich, bass voice it becomes deeply moving, almost mythical.
What a voice this was. Miraculously deep, not merely in pitch but in texture, so that you are more inclined to describe it as ‘profound’. Recordings of it are inevitably wreathed in a crackle and hiss that offends ears attuned to the purity of the digital age but there is no disguising the beauty of what was once called ‘the best musical instrument wrought by Nature in our time’. Robeson’s natural medium was the black spiritual but he was catholic in his taste, infusing the slightest song with a depth probably unimagined even by its composer.
If he had done nothing else but sing, Paul Robeson would have been worth celebrating. But it is impossible to detach the person from the voice. Born in 1896 the son of a former plantation slave, he excelled at university and qualified as a lawyer before resigning on being told his colour would debar him from the heights of the profession. He turned to acting, getting his break in a Eugene O’Neill play in which he had at one point to hum a tune. He sang a spiritual instead – and his singing career mushroomed from there.
At this stage Robeson believed he would do the black cause more good by excelling in art than by campaigning. But by the end of the 1930s, a decade spent mainly in England, he had become increasingly committed and radical in his views. In part this was because he had discovered his African heritage, and he sought to put across a positive view of Africa in a series of movies, only to find his role consistently twisted. The worst case was Sanders of the River, which turned out in the final cut to be an embarrassing glorification of British colonialism.
By the end of the 1930s he had visited fascist Berlin, communist Moscow and Republican Spain at the height of the Civil War. He began to put his art and his now-considerable fame at the service of the causes he cared about – and from his return to the US in 1940 that meant primarily civil rights for his own black American people. But he was also an internationalist, concerned about colonized people all over the world. Given the time he lived in, that almost inevitably made him a communist, faithful to the example of the Soviet Union – even though he was never a card-carrying member.
By 1947 his politics were already getting him in trouble and denting his popularity. He announced that he was abandoning concerts for two years to ‘talk up and down the nation against race hatred and prejudice… It seems that I must raise my voice, but not by singing pretty songs’. The House Committee of Un-American Activities listed him as a person ‘invariably found supporting the Communist Party and its front organizations’. He was banned from appearing in some towns and riots broke out in others.
Seen before as an exemplary black American, the McCarthyite 1950s now cast him definitively in the role of ungrateful, unAmerican troublemaker. The US Government withdrew his passport in 1950, performing became almost impossible and, under constant FBI surveillance, he tumbled into a period of great isolation and depression.
He had something of a resurgence when his passport was restored in 1958 and he moved to England. But in Moscow in 1961 he had a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. The years until his death in 1975 were lived either in psychiatric clinics (he endured an astonishing 54 ECT shock treatments) or in seclusion, eventually in Harlem.
It was the saddest of ends to a life that had been so full of strength, clarity and principle. Some have attributed the collapse to his discovery of the true nature of Stalin’s regime but he never publicly dissociated himself from the Soviet Union. More likely his breakdown was caused by the decade of victimization, though he was also deeply disturbed by black campaigners’ failure to acknowledge his ground-breaking contribution to the civil-rights movement. Not all felt the same. When the conservative newspaper Herald Tribune had the gall to accuse Robeson of jumping on the civil-rights bandwagon on his final return to the US in 1964, a letter complained indignantly ‘Hell, man, he built that wagon’.
But when you listen to The Voice it is the prime of life you are hearing, the prime of a magnificent talent dedicated to the service of the oppressed the world over. Ol’ Man River can still be the song for which we remember Paul Robeson – but it should be in the version he used at political rallies, to which he added the line ‘I must keep fighting until I’m dying’.