SAR, Vol 14 No 2, March 1999
THE CRASH OF NEO-LIBERALISM
Well, not quite perhaps.
And yet that's the way the influential New Left Review banner-headlined a recent issue, one featuring an extended analysis of the unease occasioned within global power circles by the faltering of the Asian miracle (see Robert Wade and Frank Veneroso, "The Gathering World Slump and the Battle over Capital Controls," NLR , #231).
More generally, Wade and Veneroso suggest a backlash that may, in fact, "be the harbinger of the second stage of Karl Polanyi's `double movement,' " thus recalling Polanyi's identification of "a recurrent pattern in the evolution of capitalism, in which a period of free market policies gave rise to such instability and inequality as to trigger a social and political response, resulting in tighter social and political controls over markets - especially over finance."
"From this perspective," Wade and Veneroso continue, "we have been in the first stage for the past twenty years - the stage of market supremacy over governments and society. The Asia crisis and its spreading contagion may be leading to the second stage, the reordering of power away from markets and towards governments."
Interestingly, amongst those harbingers of "backlash" evoked by Wade and Veneroso in their article is none other than South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, discovered stating at the twelfth heads of state meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement late last year that "the `free market' path of development ... has failed to live up to the expectations of the people of the South."
Even more significant, perhaps, was the recently concluded meeting of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Here not the left but the capitalist right, including many heads of state and multinational corporations, gathered to discuss the question: "Is global capitalism delivering the goods?"
Considerable hand-wringing occurred, much of it questioning the bona fides of a completely unreconstructed neo-liberal global (dis)order. "What we need," the forum's president, Karl Schwab, argued, "is globalization with a human face." And even US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin felt forced to admit that "there is no question but that unfettered markets do not and cannot by their nature deal with all needs." (Another American, AFL/CIO President John Sweeney, went further: "Our task is not to make societies safe for globalization, but to make the global system safe for decent societies. Globalization in the extreme, corporate dominated, deregulated form we have witnessed is not the scapegoat of the current crisis - it is the cause of it"!)
At Davos a dissenting South African voice was also heard, this time that of Nelson Mandela himself. As he asked in his farewell speech: "Is globalization only to benefit the powerful and the speculators? Does it offer nothing to men, women and children who are ravaged by poverty?"
Good questions. But we might pose an additional one: just how deep can all this rhetoric, at Davos and beyond, be expected to cut in terms of the possible regulation, even overthrow, of capitalism in favour of more humane outcomes? Certainly, the criticisms of global capitalism from Mbeki and Mandela haven't gone far when measured against the concrete policies these leaders continue to sponsor in South Africa itself. Nor has the United States, still such a key global player, stepped forward with any substantial qualification of the "Washington Consensus" - as reflected in its own policies or in those of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO - to put flesh on the bones of Robert Rubin's expressed concerns, let alone those of John Sweeney.
In fact, the most that can be said for such developments may be not that they reflect any definitive "crash of neo-liberalism" but that they have at least pried open for critical scrutiny some of the apparently sacrosanct premises of neo-liberal globalization. It is not now quite so heretical as it was, until recently, to suggest that there may be - must be - an alternative after all.
What can this mean? Recall that one of the chief criticisms of Polanyi's work is that he gave far too little sense of the class struggles and political contestations that can work, concretely, to produce the "double movement" he felt would arise to check the horrors of purely market determinations.
Fortunately this isn't a weakness of the two articles that lead off our present issue. Thus Patrick Bond, in a scintillating survey of developments in the southern African region, suggests the extent to which popular forces are indeed beginning to rally against the Washington Consensus and its regional counterpart, the local state elites' tired nostrum that "There is No Alternative" (TINA). And Hein Marais, in a bracingly contentious open letter to the South African left, reminds it (and us) that the people of South Africa may be well ahead of the politicians in projecting the possibility of launching a genuine alternative.
Encouraging words, something that has been in short supply in recent issues of SAR. And yet these articles also indicate just how much more work remains to be done in order to challenge effectively the playing out of the Washington Consensus in the region. Meanwhile, other contributions to the current issue help reinforce a sense of the costs of neo-liberal hegemony should it sustain its hold over southern Africa.
Marcus Power identifies in his survey of recent developments in the sphere of Mozambique's media many negative reflections, political and cultural, of the policies that country has been forced to pursue. And John Saul's extended review-essay on the monumental study of Canadian policy towards South Africa written by our long-time collaborator, Linda Freeman, underscores the message of her concluding chapter. For Freeman finds Canada - whatever the strengths and weaknesses of its earlier stance vis-à-vis apartheid - now pushing a narrowly market-driven approach to its links to the "New South Africa" that can only make more difficult that damaged country's attempts to find its way forward.
Of course, this latter outcome need come as no surprise. The Canada of the FTA and NAFTA, of Mulroney and Martin, of Rae and Harris, has also swallowed neo-liberalism whole: here at home as well as for overseas consumption. Can there be any doubt that the struggle to find the political means to make Polanyi's "double movement" happen is as urgent for us as it is for our southern African comrades?
Southern Africa Report
Contents - Vol 14 No 2
"Washington Consensus or Nonsensus "
Editorial: The Crash of Neo-Liberalism - 1
The Washington Consensus: Winning or Waning? - 3
by Patrick Bond
Fiddling while Neo-liberalism Burns?: A Letter to the South African Left - 10
by Hein Marais
Broadcast News: Portugal Makes a Come-back - 14
by Marcus Power
Redefining Relevance: The New South African Theatre - 18
by Lena Slachmuijlder
Canada's Anti-Apartheid Record: A Class Act - 21
review by John S Saul
Angola: Hell on Earth - 28
review by David Sogge
Whose Dance? - 31
review by Carolyn Bassett
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