Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

The Debate on Ideologies and the Globalization Agenda

These days, economic development is the predominant news heralding Africa on the mainstream media. The good news is now preceding the gloomy one on Africa. And on Africa’s political leadership camp, the timely issue for discussion on the current economic development is the ideology discourse of globalization.

This ideological debate on the current globalization agenda is very intense on some self-appointed “progressive” leaders of African countries. The most vocal are members of the “Developmental State” camp. Representatives of this camp, in different regional and international forums, vehemently accuse and hold the “neoliberal ideology” of globalization responsible for their very many national development woes. These leaders, time and again, state that the realization of their recent economic development is due to their new found “policy freedom” on their national development endeavors.

Well, if ideology is a way of looking at the world that justifies or undermines an existing order, then contemporary globalization must be viewed from different points on the hierarchies of power and privilege. For those who hold power and possess wealth, globalization is an ideology of freedom for expanding not only the world’s bounty but also human potential. At the other end of the power hierarchy, globalization is experienced as an ideology of domination, widening the divisions among humankind.

To varying degrees, these perspectives embrace a common element: recognition of a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. For example, James Wolfenson, the former multiple term president of the World Bank, in an article published on February 2000 on the “Japan Times”, presents a vision shared by diverse observers who are rethinking the core ideas of globalization by saying “our challenge is to make globalization an instrument of opportunity and inclusion”. However, there is a tension between maintaining the dominant ideology and constructing counter ideologies of globalization. Each current of ideology sets a different agenda, a broad program, not a detailed blueprint, for future world order.

The ideas infused in globalizing processes thus inform the exercise of power. Thought and action – theory and practice – are bound together so as to constrain and facilitate the possibilities for a social transformation. That said; ideological analysis helps to decipher codes of domination, identify the fault lines of power, and disclose efforts to form representations of counter power. An ideological approach is useful insofar as it offers insight into the contested agendas for globalization.

As indicated, there is no monolithic doctrine of globalization. Uncertainties abound, there are ambiguities within ambiguities, and domination exists within domination. The consensual aspects, the ideological tonic, of hegemony are uneven, in flux, and in need of constant maintenance.

Within this range, a main axis is between the ideas framed at the center in North America and Europe and those at the margins. A heuristic that facilitates the examination of fluid blends, not a dichotomy, this distinction is only partly place-based and may be grasped in terms of the social relations of power. There are varied axes within the center and at the margins. While making allowance for these entanglements, it is clear that the views of globalization from the top substantially differ from the outlooks at the bottom. The late Claude Ake, one of Africa’s leading intellectuals, presented a perspective from below saying “marginalization is in reality the dynamics of globalization”. Indeed, the ideological thrust of globalization is begetting counterthrusts, albeit in embryonic forms. To explore these tendencies, it is important to examine the core ideas embedded in the dynamics of neoliberal globalization and the extent to which they are implicated in public discourses.

Contemporary globalization is about neoliberalism, defined as both heightened integration in the world economy and a standard policy framework. As the “Financial Times” in one of its 2001 editions put it “neoliberal globalization is merely the free market system on an international scale and the key is competition. Neoliberal globalization remains perhaps the most effective tool we have to make the world not just more prosperous, but also a freer and more peaceful place”.

Historically rooted in classical political economy, neoliberalism may be traced to Adam Smith and others in this tradition. In the twentieth century, the free-market theories pioneered by philosopher-economist Friedrich von Hayek and his colleagues, including Milton Friedman, at the University of Chicago provided the intellectual underpinnings for the radical agendas of the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the late US President Roland Reagan. These political leaders propagated neoliberal values, engineered the ideological shift from national Keynesianism to neoliberal globalization, and presented neoliberalism as the generator of material well-being and rising productivity as the solution to social ills. They emphasized opening the market, not protecting society.

Since the public sector does not compete for profits or market share, its scope, especially social spending, had to be reduced. To institute neoliberal ideas, there emerged the bedrock framework of deregulation, liberalization, and privatization. A set of organizing institutions bundles neoliberalism and globalization, seeking to universalize the core ideas. Among these diverse institutions are the media, the lecture circuit, schools, and universities, with business faculties being key to developing and disseminating neoliberal ideas. Academic MBA programs serve as vital mechanisms in the transnational spread of a distinctive combination of values and hence for the emergence of a common ideological framework among policymakers in several countries.

Indeed, many MBA-toting ministers and senior bureaucrats around the world have been trained in neoclassical economics at leading universities in the US. In the politics and business of international money lending and economic policy reform recommendations, the US as well as the World bank and the IMF openly advised and in some occasions boldly demanded the borrowing nations particularly developing countries to assign those US trained MBA-toting technocrats as finance and economy ministers.

Also important in promoting a single dominant way of thinking about the world are bilateral and multilateral agencies, especially the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF. The 1997 testimony of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to former President Jimmy Carter better explains the above experience. Mr. Brzezinski stated that “one must consider as part of the American system of the global web of specialized organizations, especially the ‘international’ financial institutions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank can be said to represent ‘global’ interests, and their constituency may be construed as the world. In reality, however, they are heavily American dominated and their origins are traceable to American initiative, particularly the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944”.

In a bold remark, Mr. Brzezinski adds that “global cooperation institutions’, i.e. the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF, have established abroad major features of ‘American supremacy”. Through policy mechanisms such as structural adjustment programs, international institutions have implemented the free-trade model and helped forge the ‘Washington Consensus,’ a framework for re-organizing economies and societies around neoliberal principles.

An initial incongruity in this ideology was the ascendance of state-led economies in Asia that did not adopt the path prescribed by neoliberal enthusiasts. Other anomalies, which appeared in rapid succession, were the debacle of ‘shock therapy’ market reforms in the former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe, spectacularly the 1997/98 Asian economic crisis in which IMF advice contributed to the descending spiral, and the 2001 Argentine collapse wherein the neoliberal formula clearly accelerated the downturn. The cumulative impact of these experiences meant a loss of confidence in the ‘Washington Consensus’.

There have been various attempts to refurbish this consensus, such as the 2002 United Nations Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico. Toward this end, a complex of research institutions and think tanks in Washington, DC sought to advance discourses about public policy. The mission of these groups was to bridge public education and policy formulation. Also, leading public intellectuals who offer policy advice are propellants for new currents of ideological discourse.

In talking ideological discourse, it is crucial to analyze exemplars of different sets of ideas and values about maintaining or undermining neoliberal globalization. Of course, no single exemplar completely typifies an approach, but there are some, to varying degrees, capture key features. The focus here is on four ideological currents: the centrist neoliberal school itself; leading criticism internal to this school, what may be called reformist neoliberal institutionalism; historical-materialist transformism; and development transformism. Although there are significant debates within each of these clusters, shared ideas are evident. It is fairly important to acknowledge the fact that it is indeed difficult to exhaust the range of possible ideologies and counter ideologies.

The major concern at this point is the ways in which these exemplar works frame agendas for globalization and alter globalization. The next question here is what are these exemplars? Let’s discuss this later: