Andy Blunden May 2003

Globalisation and its Managers


Globalisation and its discontents. Joseph Stiglitz, Penguin, 2002;
New leaf or fig leaf. Brendan Martin, 2000 www.brettonwoodsproject.org;
The Best Democracy Money can Buy, Greg Palast. Robinson 2003;
Globalisation Unmasked. James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Madhyam Books 2001;
What is Globalisation? Ulrich Beck, Polity 2000.


What do we make of Joseph Stiglitz’s book, Globalisation and its discontents? Stiglitz is “one of them”. A former Chief Economist at the World Bank and Chairman of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, he gives a damning indictment of the policies of the World Bank’s sister organisation, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) over the past 20 years and the misery it has sown for the benefit of a tiny clique in the “Western financial community”. But while these condemnations are all the more damning coming from one so complicit in the activities he condemns, we are not dealing with someone who has “seen the light” or “changed sides” in any meaningful sense. The criticisms are confined to how the IMF has proceeded towards the goal of integrating developing countries into a global capitalist economy dominated by the United States. There is no criticism of the system itself.

Ranging across a number of countries and a number of crises, Stiglitz shows in detail that the IMF caused economic crises to engulf countries that would otherwise have escaped or at least weathered them, then, used public money, derived from the taxes of working people in these same countries, combined with their own capacity to influence other lenders, to force governments to implement policies which made the crisis worse, last longer, cause enormous suffering to its people and ultimately to spread to other poor countries, while binding the government to secrecy which served to undermine trust and democratic processes within the country and frequently triggered social turmoil and rioting, all for the purpose of ensuring that irresponsible and wealthy bankers who had made bad loans to speculators within the country, got their money back, saddling the government with crippling debts, and forced them to open markets to Western goods, bankrupting nascent industries, while the US was raising barriers against their products being sold in the US.

Millions and millions of people have known about this practice for a long time. Stiglitz has only discovered it recently, despite having been, before joining the World Bank, a leading academic in the world of economics.

From its founding in 1944/45, the IMF was indeed an instrument for maintaining the stability of the world’s financial system under the Bretton Woods arrangements, aimed at stabilising the world economy under US hegemony, isolating the Soviet Union and stemming the tide of revolution. It began to take on a wider role after the convertibility crisis of 1968, and it was only after 1973, that the IMF took on the role of systematically crunching the economies of countries which were trying to extricate themselves from their role as sources of cheap labour and raw materials for the rich nations of North America, Europe and Japan.

The depth and scope of the suffering inflicted on people across the world by the IMF is difficult to contemplate. Indeed, reading the detailed descriptions Stiglitz gives of some of these exercises is not easy. Sometimes one wants to scream. Here is a sample from towards the end of the book, where Stiglitz is moving towards summarising his investigation:

“The IMF is pursuing not just the objectives set out in its original mandate, of enhancing global stability and ensuring that there is funds for countries facing a threat of recession to pursue expansionary policies. It is also pursuing the interests of the financial community. This means the IMF has objectives that are often in conflict with each other.

“The tension is all the greater because this conflict can’t be brought out into the open: if the new role of the IMF were publicly acknowledged, support for that institution might weaken, and those who have succeeded in changing the mandate almost surely knew this. Thus the new mandate had to be clothed in ways that seemed at least superficially consistent with the old. Simplistic free market ideology provided the curtain behind which the real business of the “new” mandate could be transacted.

“The change in mandate and objectives, while it may have been quiet, was hardly subtle: from serving global economic interests to serving the interests of global finance. Capital market liberalisation may not have contributed to global economic stability, but it did open up vast new markets for Wall Street.

“I should be clear: the IMF never officially changed its mandate, nor did it ever formally set out to put the interests of the financial community over the stability of the global economy or the welfare of the poor countries they were supposed to be helping. We cannot talk meaningfully about the motivation and intentions of any institution, only of those who constitute and govern it. Even then, we often cannot ascertain true motivations — there may be a gap between what they say are their intentions and their true motivations. As social scientists, we can, however, attempt to describe the behaviour of an institution in terms of what it appears to be doing. Looking at the IMF as if it were pursuing the interests of the financial community provides a way of making sense of what might otherwise seem to be contradictory and intellectually incoherent behaviours.

“Moreover, the IMF’s behaviour should come as no surprise: it approached the problems from the perspectives and ideology of the financial community, and these naturally were closely (though not perfectly) aligned with its interests. As we have noted before, many of its key personnel came from the financial community, and many of its key personnel, having served these interests well, left to well-paying jobs in the financial community. Stan Fischer, the deputy managing director who played such a role in the episodes described in this book, went directly from the IMF to become a vice chairman at Citigroup, the vast financial firm that includes Citibank. A chairman of Citigroup (chairman of the Executive Committee) was Robert Rubin, who, as secretary of Treasury, had had a central role in IMF policies. One could only ask, Was Fischer being richly rewarded for having faithfully executed what he was told to do?

“But one does not need to look for venality. The IMF (or at least many of its senior officials and staff members) believed that capital market liberalisation would lead to faster growth for the developing countries, believed it so strongly that it did not need to look at any evidence and gave little credence to any evidence that suggested otherwise. The IMF never wanted to harm the poor and believed that the policies it advocated would eventually benefit them; it believed in trickle-down economics and, again, did not want to look too closely at evidence that might suggest otherwise. It believed that the discipline of the capital markets would help poor countries grow, and therefore it believed that keeping in good stead with the capital markets was of first-order importance.

“Looking at the IMF, its emphasis on getting foreign creditors repaid rather than helping domestic businesses remain open becomes more understandable. The IMF may not have become the bill collector of the G-7, but it clearly worked hard (though not always successfully) to make sure that the G-7 lenders got repaid. There was an alternative to its massive interventions, as we saw in chapter 4, an alternative that would have been betters for the developing nations, and in the longer run, better for global stability. The IMF could have facilitated the workout process; it could have tried to engineer a standstill (the temporary interruption of payments) that would have given the countries — and the time to recoup, to restart their stalled economies. It could have tried to create an accelerated bankruptcy process. But bankruptcy and standstills were not (and are still not) welcome options, for they meant that the creditors would not be repaid. Many of the loans were uncollateralised, so in the event of bankruptcy, little might be recovered.

“The IMF worried that a default, by breaking the sanctity of contracts, would undermine capitalism. In this, they were wrong in several respects. Bankruptcy is an unwritten part of every credit contract; the law provides for what will happen if the debtor cannot pay the creditor. Because bankruptcy is an implicit part of the credit contract, bankruptcy does not violate the “sanctity” of the credit contract. But there is another, equally important, unwritten contract, that between citizens and their society and government, what is sometimes called “the social contract”. This contract requires the provision of basic social and economic protections, including reasonable opportunities for employment. While misguidingly working to preserve what it saw as the sanctity of the credit contract, the IMF was willing to tear apart the even more important social contract. In the end, it was the IMF policies which undermined the market as well as the long-run stability of the economy and society.

“It is understandable then why the IMF and the strategies it foists on countries around the world are greeted with such hostility. The billions of dollars which it provides are used to maintain exchange rates at unsustainable levels for a short period, during which the foreigners and the rich are able to get their money out of the country at more favourable terms (through the open capital markets that the IMF has pushed on the countries). For each ruble, for each rupiah, for each cruzeiro, those in the country get more dollars as long as the exchange rates are sustained. The billions too are often used to pay back foreign creditors, even when the debt was private. What had been private liabilities were in effect in many instances nationalised.

“In the Asian financial crisis, this was great for the American and European creditors, who were glad to get back the money they had lent to Thai or Korean banks and businesses or at least more of it than they otherwise would have. But it was not so great for the workers and other taxpayers of Thailand and Korea, whose tax money is used to repay the IMF loans, whether or not they got much benefit from the money. But adding insult to injury, after the billions are spent to maintain the exchange rate at an unsustainable level and to bail out the foreign creditors, after their governments have knuckled under to the pressure of the IMF to cut back on expenditure, so that the countries face a recession in which millions of workers lose their jobs, there seems to be no money around when it comes to finding the far more modest sums to pay subsidies for food or fuel for the poor. No winder that there is such anger against the IMF.” [p. 206-210]

Stiglitz’s explanation for these phenomena is the “mind-set” of those in charge of the IMF:

“The problem is not with globalisation, but with how it has been managed. Part of the problem lies with the international economic institutions, with the IMF, the World Bank, and WTO, which help set the rules of the game. They have done so in ways that, all too often, have served the interests of the more advanced industrialised countries — and particular interests within those countries — rather than those of the developing world. But it is not just that they have served those interests: too often, they have approached globalisation from particular narrow mind-sets, shaped by a particular vision of the economy and society. ...

“While the institutions seem to pursue commercial and financial interests above all else, they do not see matters that way. They genuinely believe the agenda that they are pursuing is in the general interest.” [p. 214-216]

In his critique of Stiglitz, New leaf or fig leaf?, written before the publication of the book, Brendan Martin points out that the policies which receive the sharpest criticism from Stiglitz have already been abandoned in any case. So the seeming attack is equally understandable as garnering support for a new consensus. Brendan Martin identifies the essential strategy that Stiglitz is advocating for the Bretton Woods institutions to be that they should work much harder to gain the consent and cooperation of the “client” governments for the process of their integration into the world economy dominated as it is by the “Western financial community”.

“Countries that think reforms have been imposed on them do not really feel invested in and committed to such reforms. Yet their participation is essential if real societal change is to happen”. [p. 242]

Crashing countries’ economies, and single-mindedly pursuing the narrow interests of wealthy American bankers, operating with secrecy, duplicity and arrogance does not win friends. Stiglitz sees that the havoc wrought by the IMF interventions must sooner or later force a large portion of the world into finding a way of opting out of the whole system. And this, he believes, has to be avoided at all costs.

Can we really believe his analysis of the behaviour of the IMF officials as “well intentioned”, suffering only from the bureaucratic structure of the organisation and its too close ties to the US Treasury and banks, that it is a question of ideology and “mind set” rather than a simple question of vested (class) interests?

Stiglitz is no longer part of the Bretton Woods system, he is back in academia, and he proffers a concrete program of reform: changes in representation, better advice, changes in the menu of policies, more transparency. And his heresy has a good chance of becoming the new orthodoxy.

Is a reformed IMF/World Bank/WTO which would be worthy of support, really possible? Is reforming the IMF a valid project? Or is it rather the case that the IMF & Co. are nothing but instruments of US imperialism, and calls to reform them obscure the real nature of the problem?

On the other side, we have Globalisation Unmasked. I didn’t get a lot out of this book. I imagine there are plenty of young people who don’t know what imperialism is and don’t know it’s history, so there is a need for such material. But I don’t know if this would be the best vehicle for explaining this. It was good to get some of the facts, financial data and so on, but these are doubtless available in many books.

Altogether, it was a bit like going to a Rod Quantock comedy show or a good singing of The Internationale, preferably in Spanish. It makes the Left feel better, but it doesn’t actually address the issues or change anyone’s mind, if they didn’t already know that they were right all along.

In 175 pages, there was the mention of a strike in Belgium, a general strike in France and a street demonstration in London, within lists of “Third World” movements, plus an observation that foreign employees of NGOs would be better to go back to their country of origin and fight their own employers; but otherwise, the only politics discussed was in the “Third World” — the “victims” of imperialism. The implication is that the workers of Europe and the US (and Australia) are going to be rescued by a movement of landless peasants in Columbia, or wherever, or not at all.

Given that the whole issue of “globalisation” came into public consciousness in the West as a result of Seattle, i.e., a movement by US citizens, not as a cheer squad for Third World revolutions, but on their own behalf, and not against the state, but against corporations, it is not really good enough to say: “Nothing has changed (except “quantitatively”), this is the same old imperialism that we all had demos against in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s all a lot of globaloney!”

Of course, the book does not primarily present itself as a book about “how to fight imperialism” but rather to “unmask” the deceptive rhetoric of “globalisation” as a lot of baloney. But the political prescriptions that it concludes with, confirm that the writers actually haven’t noticed anything new since the ‘70s, and their program at the end is for Third World movements to take governmental power and lead a revolution from above within the borders of their own country. The value of this, of course, is to say to citizens of such countries that their governments do have a choice, they do not have to be pliant tools of imperialism. OK, but it’s so unconvincing, that altogether, the result is likely to be negative.

What is “imperialism"? (a question which Globalisation Unmasks doesn’t attempt to answer, by the way) The word was coined by Lenin to refer to a new stage of development of capitalism which he held to begin from around the turn of the 20th century. Lenin enumerated five features characteristic of imperialism.

“(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopoly capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed."
[Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, LCW Volume 22, p. 266-7.]

During the earlier period of capitalist development, known as colonialism, the capitalist powers had simply taken over other countries and installed their own colonial ‘governments’ to administer them and extract whatever raw materials they could. By the turn of the last century, there were no more territories available for conquest that had not already been “taken”, so unfettered expansion gave way to inter-imperialist wars for access and control of these resources.

The United States of America, a latecomer to colonialism, hard as it is to believe nowadays, was widely seen as the pre-eminent opponent of colonialism until after World War Two. Ho Chi Minh, for example, was relying on the USA to secure their independence from France after the war was over. Excluded from its share of the action by the old colonial powers, the US needed to find a way of exploiting the colonies which were being kept as the exclusive property of the colonial powers.

It was the US which first introduced a new approach when it overthrew the government of Cuba in 1906, but instead of installing a colonial administration, it left power in the hands of a “friendly” government “elected” in 1909, and relied on its economic power to subjugate and exploit the country. The term “Neo-colonialism” was coined for this policy and seems to have been first used by the Cubans in about 1960.

Neocolonialism is of course not an epoch which has supplanted imperialism, rather it is a stage of imperialism, in which direct colonial rule from London or Paris, was replaced by local government, economically subjugated by Washington or Tokyo.

Throughout this period, from the colonisation of Latin America by Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, world trade has been marked by certain kinds of movement of people, commodities, whether raw materials or manufactured goods, and capital. During the colonial period, for example, there was a massive movement of people outwards from the home countries to the colonies, necessary for the subjugation of the people and the administration of the colonial industries, etc. Primary produce, on the whole, flowed back the other way, feeding the industries of the colonial power. Capital and manufactured products of course also flowed out to the colonies, but generally only to the extent that was necessary to maintain colonial rule.

The period of inter-imperialist wars during which finance capital supplanted industrial capital, and capital rather than people were exported to the colonies, turned out to be a transition phase in the development of imperialism. Neocolonialism proved to be the true form of imperialism. After World War Two, the Bretton Woods Conference set up the international institutions that oversaw the completion of this transition which left the USA as the single dominant imperialist power. In the meantime, the former colonies had been transformed into “neocolonies” economically dominated by finance capital rather than colonial governments, and the former colonial powers had declined, with the export of capital, transforming themselves from industrial powers into second rate financial powers. The flow of people also went into reverse, with the European and American powers importing cheap labour as they exported capital.

So it came about that the nations which fought so hard to gain their national independence in the 1940s and 50s arrived only at a new, more powerful form of dependence. To a considerable degree however, a neocolonial power can only dominate a country to the extent that they dominate the world capital markets.

The exhaustion of the postwar boom at the end of the 1960s marked the beginning of a new epoch which subsequently became disclosed itself as “globalisation”. The main features of the new stage could be discerned only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Up till 1991, the USSR protected a portion of the globe from the dominance of finance capital. The US still relied on direct military intervention to secure the imposition of compliant governments, governments which could be subordinated to the requirements of capital, overthrowing popular and democratic governments in countless countries by the use of naked force, invariably installing vicious dictatorships in place of the popular regimes they overthrew. Increasingly, since 1991, the USA has been able to rely much more on economic power, in particular its ability to manipulate the Bretton Woods organisations, the IMF, World Bank and GATT/WTO. “Globalisation” is thus the completion of neocolonialism. Military intervention, as in Iraq, has been necessary only to deal with “rogue” governments on the outskirts of the Empire, so to speak.

Is globalisation imperialism? Yes, of course it is. But it is not just as code word for imperialism, any more than “neocolonialism” was a code word for imperialism or “imperialism” was a code word for colonialism. The past 30 years has been marked by specific features in global economic and geo-political relations, and these new relations have been given the name of “globalisation”.

What are the specific features of this new period? Firstly, however much one may deride the “independence” of the Bretton Woods institutions (the US Treasury has the only veto in the IMF, for example), they are transnational public institutions, and the US is obliged to impose its will via these transnational institutions and others, like the UN. Secondly, the imperialist homelands are no longer just the exporters of capital and manufactured goods, and importers of raw materials, other countries also export capital and manufactured goods into the imperialist homelands. The US is now the world’s biggest debtor nation! Thirdly, the movement of people has attained a qualitatively higher level and there is now a fully transnational labour force in movement around the globe. Fourthly, the labour process itself has been further transformed by commodification which attained a qualitatively high level than ever before, threatening the break down of the social fabric in not only the subjugated nations, but in the most advanced capitalist countries as well. Fear and uncertainty now pervades life in the industrialised countries. Finally, the volume and speed of global financial transactions has reached a level which casts all other economic transactions into the shade.

To reject all discussion of these new features as “globaloney” is just stupid. One feature of globalisation which Petras and Veltmeyer do talk about though, is the fact that the word conveys the implication that globalisation is simply a condition of the world, rather than being a policy, promoted and practiced by certain agents. “Globalisation” is, according to Petras and Veltmeyer and correctly, contingent, in the same sense that colonialism, imperialism and neocolonialism is contingent, that is, globalisation is the practice of certain agents, not something which simply happens. But at the same time, the agents in question (i.e., the big capitalists) must adopt this policy, and not the forms of imperialism which were current in earlier times, just as 100 years ago, colonialism ceased to be an option, or rather colonialism could only be continued under quite different conditions and therefore using quite different methods. That is, like “imperialism”, “globalisation” denotes both a stage in the development of capitalism, and the policies and practices of the ruling classes within that stage of development.

For an opinion about what is new with globalisation, we can turn to Ulrich Beck, in What is Globalisation?:

Sceptics will ask what is new about this, and answer, nothing really important. But they are wrong: historically, empirically and theoretically. What is new is not only the everyday life and interaction across national frontiers, in dense networks with a high degrees of mutual dependence and obligation. New, too, is the self-perception of this transnationality (in the mass media, consumption or tourism); new are the awareness of global ecological dangers and the corresponding arenas of action; new is the inescapable perception of transnational Others in one’s own life, with all the contradictory certainties resulting from it; new is the level at which ‘global cultural industries’ circulate; new are the rise of European structure of states, and the number and power of transnational actors, institutions and agreements; and new, finally, is the degree of economic concentration, which is nevertheless slowed down by cross-frontier competition in the world market.

“Globalisation, then, also means no world state — or, to be more precise, world society without a world state and without world government. A globally disorganised capitalism is continually spreading out. For there is no hegemonic power and no international regime, either economic or political.” [p. 12-13]

and Beck gives eight reasons why globalisation is irreversible:

“1. The geographical and ever greater density of international trade, as well as the global networking of finance markets and the growing power of transnational corporations.

2. The ongoing revolution of information and communications technology.

3. The universal demands for human rights — the (lip service paid to the ) principle of democracy.

4. The stream of images from the global culture industries.

5. The emergence of a postnational, polycentric world politics, in which transnational actors (corporations, non-governmental organisations, United Nations) are growing in power and number alongside governments.

6. The question of poverty.

7. The issue of global environmental destruction.

8. Transcultural conflicts in one and the same place.” [p. 11]

This ambiguity in the meaning of “globalisation” is not without real content. Progressive opponents of globalisation call for “globalisation from below”; “imperialism from below” would hardly convey the same meaning. That a slogan such as “globalisation from below” makes sense tells us something about what is new in the current period.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt also emphasise the emergence of transnational institutions as characteristic features of this period. They talk of the loss of sovereignty experienced by nations as being countered by the growth of a new supranational sovereignty. In the preface to Empire they go so far as to claim:

“The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over.” [Empire, p xiii]

Empire has too wide a scope with to be dealt with here, but it seems to me that for all the subtlety and depth of this book, Negri and Hardt make a serious error in conflating the concepts of state and government. The various arms of government are in varying degrees subject to popular election and/or influence by the mass of the population and are, in general, arenas of struggle and not forms of organisation of one or another class. They are also tied to the territory within the boundaries of the United States. Although not absolutely immune to social pressure, the state ["armed bodies of men"] is more truly than any of the arms of government an instrument of class power, and more importantly has no more regard for the borders of the country than any other feature of globalised activity, it is truly a supranational player. The US ruling class is manifested as capital and its principal form of organisation are the corporations, also supranational players.

Thus when we look at conflict between, for example, US Congress and the WTO, then both are arenas of struggle for the US capitalist class; neither is an organisation of the US ruling class. For the workers and other people in the US who are not represented by the corporations, the WTO is a remote and hostile force while Congress is at least open to influence and pressure and is supposed to represent their interests. But the idea that, for example, the WTO, as a supranational organisation of capital, as opposed to a transmission belt for the interests of other sections of capital, which could enforce its will against the nuclear armed US capitalist class is presently hard to imagine.

Looking at the recent conflict between the UN Security Council and the US government, we saw that the UN was capable of expressing a majority of world opinion against the US, and was widely seen as the only legitimate world power, but that the US was able to act in defiance of the UN. Negri and Hardt comment (writing after the first Gulf War):

“On the one hand, however, this process of legitimation is effective only insofar as it transfers sovereign right to a real supranational center. It is not our intention here to criticise or lament the serious and at times tragic) inadequacies of this process; indeed we are interested in the United Nations and the project of international order not as an end in itself, but rather as a real historical lever that pushed forward the transition toward a properly global system. It is precisely the inadequacies of the process, then, that make it effective.” [p. 5, Empire]

Most authors (the authors of Globalisation Unmasked are not among them) believe that the labour process and social life generally, has brought into being a really global and transnational social and economic life. At the same time, there is a signal lack of supranational institutions capable of offering a countervailing power to capital or otherwise expressing the universal will at a global level.

This is really the essential task: to create a new global subjectivity capable of opposing the rule of capital on a world scale and formulating a new universal will.

The question remains, however, what stance can be taken towards the existing institutions of global governance, under conditions where the hegemonic global power, US capitalism and to a lesser extent its rival capitalist powers, exerts the preponderant influence within these institutions and to whatever extent it fails to exert a controlling influence is able to act independently of them.

The WTO, UN, IMF, etc., are public organisations — not corporations or at least formally, representatives of corporations — which gain their legitimacy from their status as transnational, public bodies.

It is now widely recognised that these transnational organisations act as catalysts and a focus for supranational opposition. The purpose of such activity is really the formation of a new, radical, global subjectivity.

Currently there is no agency capable of formulating what it is that these transnational institutions ought to do. An important feature of globalisation is that workers, farmers, small business, professional people and all the “excluded” groups within the imperialist countries themselves are also victims of globalisation. Consequently, this new condition opens the possibility of the working class within the imperialist countries becoming active players in genuine solidarity with people in the subjugated nations. In the end, this is the really crucial condition for the overthrow of capitalism.

The Best Democracy Money can Buy, picks up where Joseph Stiglitz left off. As Palast acknowledges, many will find reading this book extremely depressing; despite being a Communist since the age of 10 I found myself engulfed by a cloud of depression nearing the end of reading it. The depth and scope of the corruption within government and big business (the book deals just with the USA and Britain) is so profound and pervasive that the effect is suffocating.

Palast infiltrated Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys as a teenager in the 1970s working for the Electricians’ Union, and has continued a practice of deep-entry up to the present day gathering evidence on the workings of globalisation. In The Best Democracy Money can Buy, Palast details how the Bush family fixed the 2000 Presidential elections and the utter corruption of the US governing clique, merging seamlessly with the big energy, utility and financial corporations, the cynical and corrupt imposition of privatisation and deregulation in the US; the Exxon-Valdez planned disaster, vote-buying in Congress and manipulation of the World Bank and IMF. Palast could not get his work published in the US, despite legal freedom of the press, due “privatised censorship”, so he moved to Britain — the home of the D-notice and self-censorship — where Tony Blair’s New Labour turned out to be even more corrupt than the Bush family, distinguished only by the fact that Blair really believes in the American way.

The book is 375 pages of paragraph by paragraph of taped conversation and fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck documents presenting a totally bewildering and in the end depressing stream of corruption in high places.

Palast eventually returns to his homeland, “where nothing can be censored but where nothing printed is worth censoring” [p. 341], as he has come to appreciate, by contrast with Britain, some of the virtues of the American people [which protect them from the atrocities heaped by US business on the population of other countries], and these are worth repeating:

Palast concludes with a list of organisations providing information about corporate and government scams and groups offering opportunities for activism, and advises his readers who may be suffering from depression to get active and not come crying to him.

The one form of activism which Palast promotes above all else is whistle-blowing, exposť, and all manner of spreading the truth about the illegal and unethical behaviour of business and government leaders, especially those closest to you. San Diego provides, I think, a model of how sharing a knowledge of what’s going on can be translated into effective action.

It is never spelt out, but one gets the impression that, in Palast’s view, all the ills that have befallen the world since Reagan and Thatcher put the world on the road to privatisation, wage-cutting, union-busting, deregulation and globalisation, are the outcome of the great and powerful breaking the rules.

Chile was doing perfectly well with its nationalised industries, with ever-growing standards of living, improving as a result of Allende’s land reforms, until Pinochet (and IT&T/CIA) plunged the country into a Friedmanesque hell-hole; the only thing that kept Chileans alive for the next decade were the measures left-over from Allende’s days and Pinochet eventually became the first to re-introduce controls over capital transfers and re-nationalised industries, thus accounting for the small improvements that took place thereafter.

Palast retells several such stories which are testament to the undeniable fact that the Reagan/Thatcher measures cut living standards and shifted the entire benefits of greatly increased productivity to a tiny minority of the wealthiest families. One gets the impression (I could not put it more strongly) that broadly, he argues for a return to the Social-Democratic model c. 1945-1973, plus an active and vigilant people capable of exposing and stamping on corruption in government, and conversant with the methods of direct action.

Palast practices what he preaches. If investigative journalists were Gods, Palast would be Zeus. He is the Boston Philharmonic of whistle-blowers.

It seems to me that advocacy of whistle-blowing has to be part of a larger rethinking of political strategy however. There has to be an idea about how to “change the culture”.

Andy Blunden
June 2003