The currency of conversion

The World Bank, which for years advocated the rolling back of the State, has now come out in favour of a strong State as an indispensable component of development. Jeremy Seabrook explains why the World Bank has rediscovered the value of strong government.

NEWS that the world Bank has once more changed its tune overnight, recommending strong government instead of the rolling back of the state which it has advocated over the past 20 years, comes as no surprise.

For the World Bank, like all the other global institutions dedicated to dictatorship of the rich, has constantly shifted its ground. It has colonised and absorbed all criticisms of its workings. It has endlessly expressed contrition for its support of such aberrations as the Polonoreste project in Brazil, the ugly transmigration programme of Indonesia. Its officials have intoned the mantras of its opponents, as though it believed in sustainability, poverty eradication, environmental protection, advantaging women, good governance, civil society, the primacy of human rights, as fashion and the contemporary sensibility dictated. Everything changed and nothing changed. The Bank is adept at the high art of window dressing, without altering its fundamental purpose. This has retained an enviable constancy - the protection of wealth and privilege in the world.

Its abrupt contortions have been greeted as revelation. The Western press has sycophantically accepted its versions of truth, as though this institution were the cornerstone of stability and integrity in the world; unbound by the shifting and amoral necessities of an ideological theory of free markets, in which the main players (the G-7) are accorded the exemptions required in order to sustain - not the planet - but their superintendence of it.

In this, the Bank has done no more than follow the twistings and turnings of Western governments which, in the last 20 years, have also been characterised by abrupt discontinuities in policy, and sudden discoveries that black is white, and right is wrong; a volatility presented to the world as though it reflected the considered judgements of high principle and unwavering devoltion to truth.

'We do not appease dictators'

If we want to understand why the World Bank has rediscovered the value of strong government, we need only to look at the utterances of its main shareholders over the past two decades.

This takes us back to the days when the West did not disdain to support dictators in Africa, South and Central America and Asia. The parade of dictators through the late 1970s and 1980s included such elegant upholders of Western values as Zia ul Haq in Pakistan, the generals in Argentina ('We do not appease dictators' said Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the Falklands War, a flagrant untruth that went uncommented in the higher interests of whipping up patriotic fervour against the Argies), Bokassa, Mobuto and the military rulers of Nigeria, Suharto in Indonesia, the Shah of Iran, the military dictatorships in Brazil, Stroessner in Paraquay, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines, Ershad in Bangladesh.

Such regimes were essential, ostensibly to hold the line against Communism; but in fact they waged wars against their own people, the wretched poor, whose demands for a better life threatened Western extractive interests in their multiple forms all over the world.

The age of Western-supported dictators and another purpose than resistance to the march of Communism. In all these countries, early 'market reforms' were taking place. Prototypes of subsequent structural adjustments imposed by Western financial institutions were being imposed. Vast sums of money (what was later to figure as the debt crisis) were paid out to recycled petro-dollars to regimes whose regard for their people embodied a disdain and loathing that would not have been unfamiliar to the most hardened colonial regimes. (And indeed, they were all operating colonial economic policies. The trouble was, they had no one to colonise but their own people, and no territory to annexe but their own environment.) Violence, repression, abuse of human rights, disappearances, torture, suppression of regimes and these times. Sometimes the necessary rigours were regretted by the West; but the invocation of Communism was sufficient justification for the most cruel repressions.

Repression - a response to resistance

The Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims in Copenhagen at this time found a majority of the damaged human beings it treated had come from such regimes. The stories they told were the same: political repression was a response to resistance against economic policies. Most had sought to stand up for the poor against the plunder by wealth and power - peasants, indigenous peoples, trades unionists, slumdwellers; in short, the disfranchised of the embryo market economies which could not possibly have established themselves without instruments of repression furnished by those who extended their enthusiastic support to what they sometimes called 'strong-arm' tactics.

Once the rudiments of the market economy were in place, and there was no turning back, armed forces could be replaced with economic forces, which would, majestically, and without any appearance of human agency, do the rest. This coincided with the feted 'return to democracy', in the 1980s; even though this is still incomplete. The countries released from tyranny were now safely under the tutelage of the West. This is when the World Bank and the IMF were employed to help with 'structural adjustment' programmes, liberalisation and privatisations that would impose the Western developmental model on peoples freshly emerging into the sunlight of democratic revolutions.

Unfortunately, the debts incurred by the dictators were not forgiven. What had changed was that economic instruments of rectification could now be imposed where formerly military repression had been required to gain the acquiescence of the people. This occurred with the discovery of an 'interdependent world', the beginnings of globalisation; but above all, the fatal weakening of the Soviet Union and its collapse.

Once the Communist threat had been removed, the remaining dictatorships melted away (apart from those haunted by the ghosts of Communists in their own countries: Indonesia, where survivors of the 1960s remember that the rivers of Java ran red with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people).

Now was the era of minimal government. What had been prepared in the Western heartlands in the Reagan-Thatcher era - getting the government off the backs of the people, releasing enterprise, liberalising, diverting public goods into the hands of private interests - was now ripe for export to a whole world. Globalisation would know no constraints. The State, of which the tyrannical Soviet variety obsessed the minimalists of Western governments and financial institutions, would be dissolved; the universal reign of free markets had begun.

The absence of any threat gave the World Bank, the IMF and Western governments new leeway to absorb any criticism that faced them. Projects of the Bank were ruining the environment? Oh, we must protect the environment. Development is not sustainable? Oh, we must dedicate ourselves to sustainability. Human rights are threatened? Oh no project must be implemented without the highest regard for human rights. Women are not favoured by this model? Our projects must all give a high profile to their gender-components.

And the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Which is all in the order of things.

Intensification of authoritarianism

Now it can be seen that this version of free markets has ravaged the resources of the earth. It has led to critical shortages of the elements that sustain life. It has depleted global stocks of fish and forests. Illegal free markets now threaten legitimate ones in their scope and size - notably the trade in drugs, arms, endangered species, not to mention the traffic in women for the global sex industry, and forms of labour that are the equivalent of contemporary slavery.

What we need now then is firm government, powerful institutions to check the freedoms we have fought so hard for. The only question is, how firm? The framework of authoritarian government which has nourished the Asian tigers is the cited precedent. But as people become poorer, as they are evicted from subsistence farms, from forest, riverine and coastal dwelling places, as greater concentrations are herded in city slums to perform the junk labour of the transnationals, they will certainly become more restive.

Is it difficult to foresee an intensification of authoritarianism, even another round of dictatorships, to protect the same interests? You hear it everywhere, in the capitals of the South, among the newly formed high-consuming middle classes. A strong man is what India needs. Discipline is what we lack in Brazil. The people of Bangladesh are too ill-educated for democracy. Salvador, Ethiopia, Haiti, all the basket-cases of the world need more powerful medicine than democracy.

Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the epic circularity of capitalism. The writing on the wall, which the World Bank reads with extraordinary precision, prefigures the more sinister graffiti scrawled in the blood to come.

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist based in London. (TWR 84 - August 1997)