Imperialism, globalisation and the rule of the few

This was my intended contribution to the Prague Counter Summit on Friday 22nd. Unfortunately as I was speaking last and so very short of time I had to edit this heavily as I went along and I fear it lost some coherency in the process. My talk was given at the Vltavska in the forum 'Issues of economic globalisation'.



I'm not that keen on the term anti-globalisation as a way of describing why we are here in Prague or the whole basis of this new anti-capitalist movement. It's a semantic point but I do feel in accepting that label we are doing ourselves a great disservice.

I think the real forces of globalisation are not gathering on Tuesday at the IMF/WB summit, rather they are gathering here today and on Tuesday will be blockading that summit. We are a global movement, we fight for the rights of people and not capital and to any sane person this should be far more fundamental. The very governments that are most pushing the idea of 'global free trade' are the same ones that are construct massive fences along their borders and employ tens of thousands of hired thugs to prevent the free movement of people.

On the borders this is costing people their lives - in the US they drown in the rivers or die of thirst in the desert, in Fortress Europe they have drowned when their ships are rammed at sea, suffocated in the back of trucks at border crossings, beaten to death by racist attackers, gagged to death by policemen while deporting people or committing suicide in despair. In fact over 2063 people have died in and around the European Union since 1993 as a result of the anti-refugee policies of governments across Europe

The influence of the ideologies of racism and imperialism are what keep the mass of the ordinary people of Europe quiet about this ongoing massacre. What I want to argue here is that these ideologies remain at the heart of the so called globalisation agenda. An agenda not decided by the worlds people (or even decided with their needs in mind) but rather decided by a tiny number in the governments and board rooms of a handful of big countries, most notably the United States.

The so called global bodies of the WTO, IMF and World Bank and in reality the mechanisms by which the big powers operate. And to this list we also have to add the United Nations which all too frequently provides the military arm of this policy under one pretext or another. The simple fact of the mechanism of all these bodies is that they function in a way which gives the big powers and in particular the US a veto over decisions. Sometimes this is formally stated as in the UN's Security council, at other times as with the IMF it is built into the voting mechanism or an inevitable consequence of this structure.

I don't know how many of your read the bosses' magazine, The Economist. It's a weekly propagandist of neo liberalism and any of you that do read it will like me have been highly amused by the tantrum it threw after the successful blockade of the opening day of the WTO summit in Seattle. In particular it ran a front cover of a starving child under a heading claiming she was the 'real victim' of the Seattle protests. Inside NGO's were accused of just about every evil under the sun but chiefly of being less representative then the WTO something I'll return to later.

It also ran a major article on the new neoliberal order before Seattle called 'The New Geopolitics'. According to this article the imperialist age was over, they described it as follows

"The imperial age was a time when countries A, B and C took over the governments of countries X, Y and Z. The aim now is to make it possible for the peoples of X, Y and Z to govern themselves, freeing them from the local toughs who deny them that right."

Many on the left, have critically adapted this description of the new neoliberal order. Central to this is the idea that the rapid movement of money made possible by the 'information age' and the growth of multinationals means that the age of imperialism - when powerful nation states dominated the world - has been replaced by a more abstract and invisible but equally powerful rule by capital which is not tied to any state.

At first sight such a description seems compelling, it is 'common sense' that international trade has increased and that treaties like the European Union are breaking down the old nation state. But does globalisation provide us with an accurate description of how the world works?

In fact the Economist admits that "...before the first world war some rich countries were doing almost as much trade with the outside world as a proportion of GDP as they are doing now (and Japan was doing far more)". Assuming 'rich' to be a polite word for 'imperialist' here, what has changed is in fact the sheer volume of world trade (and wealth) along with the fact that smaller countries are now far more involved.

But this is not the end of the nation state. In fact since 1914 the number of states had rocketed from 62 to 74 by 1946 and today it stands at 193. The other surprise is that in the wealthy nations state spending as a percentage of GDP (a measure of the relative wealth of a country) has actually increased since 1980. The central idea of globalisation - capital becoming increasingly independent of any particular nation state therefore has to be questioned.

Again the Economist is unusually honest here in asking what is "the central reason why a state remains". It answers "the State is still the chief wielder of organised armed force".

Recent wars clearly divide into two types. Some involve geographic neighbours fighting each other, commonly over border demarcations like India and Pakistan. Others involve interventions by countries that may be 1000's of km's away, most commonly on the basis of 'humanitarian intervention' as with the UN interventions in Iraq and Somalia or the NATO intervention in Kosovo. But when we look at these second type of interventions we find that, far from the distant countries being a random collection or selected according to size, every single one of these interventions has been led by one country, the USA.

Beyond this the second and third most important forces in the intervention will also be drawn from a very small pool of countries including Britain, France and Italy. Clearly, on the military side at least, such interventions are not random but are dominated by a small number of what the more old fashioned amongst us would term imperialist powers.

The US is the dominant power and, with its NATO junior partners, has proved able to dictate to any and every other nation on the planet. Indeed NATO has no realistic rivals. The closest you might come is an imaginary alliance of China and Russia. This would face a power with not only a larger and far better equipped military force but which also has over ten times the economic muscle (NATO's GDP in 1997 was 16,255 billion dollars, Russia's was 447, China's 902).

However the spread of democratic ideas, and knowledge about other countries, has meant that 'old style' imperialism has lost its popularity. That is why imperialism today is far more likely to hide behind 'humanitarianism' and a whole range of supposedly international bodies. When we look at these 'international' bodies, however, we find that they are constructed in such a way that only the major powers have a real say in decision making.

The United Nations

The United Nations was the great hope for many as an alternative to war, or to a peace where rich countries could do as they please. Even today many well-meaning people all too often refer to the UN as if it was an alternative to US or NATO domination of the globe. The UN may claim to be a global body representing all countries, but in reality - for effective intervention - it may only act with the say so of a tiny number of powerful military powers. These are the five permanent members of the Security Council (USA, Britain, France, Russia and China), each with the ability to veto any intervention that goes against their interests.

In effect the UN is a cover behind which these countries can wage war when it suits them - as when the UN supposedly went into Iraq to protect Kuwaiti sovereignty in the 1991 Gulf war. But they can stop the UN acting in other cases, so for instance no UN body invaded the US to protect Nicaraguan sovereignty when the Reagan administration were mining its harbours in the 1980's.

Even where the smaller countries disapprove and partly block military action behind the UN banner, the NATO countries have proved adapt at ignoring calls for negotiated solutions and using UN resolutions as an excuse for war as in the ongoing bombing of Iraq. Often these excuses are astounding hypocritical. NATO could bomb Serbia supposedly to protect ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo from Serbian paramilitaries yet stands by while Turkey (a NATO member) massacres ethnic Kurds.

The Security Council mechanism by which the major powers control the UN and hence military intervention is quite well. However what is not so widely realised are the similar mechanisms that exist by which - without resorting to arms - the major imperialist powers, and the US in particular, can control the world economy. Once this is revealed the idea of globalisation becomes no more then a cheap card trick designed to disguise and take away our attention from the imperialist domination of the world.

Economic control - Debt, the World Bank and the IMF

For many countries Debt plays a central part for the western powers in dictating how their economies should be organised. The debt crisis of the late 1970's and early 1980's proved an ideal leverage for the western powers to force 'free trade' on the 'third world'. This occurred when third world countries faced with falling incomes and rising interest rates defaulted on their loans.

Before this many countries had followed a policy of 'import substituionism' which meant that they tried to manufacture goods like, for instance, cars that they had previously imported. Without suggesting this sort of policy offered a positive alternative role it did have one big disadvantage for the imperialist powers, it tended to deny them both markets and cheap raw materials.

What the imperialist powers wanted, and what they essentially have won, was a system where the third world provided cheap raw materials & labour and acted as a market to consume the products of companies with their bases in the imperialist countries. But for obvious reasons this would not be a popular policy for the people of those countries, except perhaps the few who could be promised a share of the profits generated if they would administer the system.

One dollar - one vote

In summary, both the World bank and IMF are designed in a way which favours the rich and therefore powerful western nations - they are based on the pro-business principle of "one dollar - one vote". What is more, their internal decision making structure gives the US a veto - enabling it to block any decisions that go against it's economic interests. In the case of the IMF the US holds 17% of the vote while 15% is required for a veto. In the case of the World Bank it has managed to insist that every single president is a US citizen. Thanks in particular to the debt crisis, the power of these institutions is so great that no country can defy their dictates without losing the ability to engage in foreign trade.

The reality of the IMF's 'Structural Adjustment Program'. is that in removing barriers to imports and removing whatever protection of workers 'rights' and pay exists they are implementing what the west wants out of the economies of the South. In the 1980's an official of the Inter-American Development Bank described these as "an unparalleled opportunity to achieve, in the debtor countries, the structural reforms favoured by the Reagan administration".

The payoff

It shouldn't be imagined, through, that this means the local ruling class likes these policies. In reality today most Latin American economies are controlled by locally born but US educated economics graduates. As Latin American intellectual Xavier Gorostiaga observed "Neo-liberalism has united the elite's of the South with those of the North and created the biggest convergence of financial, technological and military power in history".

According to the UN "the assets of the 200 richest people are more than the combined income of 41% of the world's people." In country after country this pattern is repeated on the local level, It has been estimated, for example, that the richest 40 people in Mexico have nearly 30 per cent of the money

The rule of the few

This brings me to the final point I want to touch on - the economist claims that the global institutions are more representative then the NGO's that oppose them.

But in every country we see a pattern where a tiny, tiny minority control the bulk of the wealth. This is true even in the ring leader of the imperialist thugs that rule this order, the US where as of 1995 (the latest figures available), Federal Reserve research found that the wealth of the top one percent of Americans is greater than that of the bottom 95 percent.

And in every country this top 1% which inevitably controls the media sends its kids to elite schools and forms the layer from which most politicians and decision makers are drawn. Every US president this century has been a millionaire if not a billionaire. Every 4 to 7 years we might get to choose locally between which gang of these characters rules us but it should be obvious that even at this local level acceptability is nonsense - indeed one of the funnier web sites connected with the US election makes this point precisely as 'Billionaires for Bush and Gore'.

And it is these elates by processes which are not transparent that decide their national policy with regards to the IMF and World Bank meetings. The problem is not simply that all these global bodies make 'bad decisions' in the interests of profit and not people. They are constructed in a way that ensures they can make no other decisions. The problem is also that in the global system that exists there is no way ordinary people can have a part in making these decisions short of - as we will do on Tuesday - blockading their meetings and stopping -at least for a while - any decision being made. The same post Seattle Economist boasted that the World Bank had effectively dealt with the NGO problem by giving jobs to 50 or so people from the larger NGO's - on Tuesday we have a change to show them we're not going to be bought with a change of faces at the top.

We understand that we are not going to bring down the world order headed by the World Bank on Tuesday or by blockading any of their meetings. Instead we send out a clear message that there is an alternative. This alternative is not merely a question of policies but also of a new world in which for the first time the ordinary people of the world will take direct control over how our societies are run, not simply by occasionally choosing between professional politicians but by self management in the workplaces and the communities.

More articles on Prague and international opposition to capitalist globalisation

More articles by Andrew

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