Monday, October 27, 2008

how do you feel about human rights?

Here in Canada the discourse of human rights is ever-present. My own University has a senior management appointment that has the specific task of ensuring that people's human rights are respected. People up and down the country expect that their human rights will be observed. Yet Canada's record on human rights is not what it appears. The 'war on terror' has produced several significant cases of Canadian complicity in quite profound human rights abuses. To my mind, however, none is more damning than that of Omar Khadr.

Born in Ottawa, Omar Khadr was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. forces on 27 July 2002, having been moved to Afghanistan by his family in 1996. He was accused of killing a U.S. soldier, and, following his capture, was transferred to Guantananamo Bay in Cuba. He has been there ever since.

Omar Khadr must define one's attitude to human rights. This is the case for 2 reasons. First, because Khadr was only 15 years old when he was captured by U.S. forces (having been shot 3 times): Khadr was taken to Afghanistan by his family when he was 11, and thus had no say in the matter. Second, Khadr comes from a family that quite openly proclaims their support for anti-Western Islamist fundamentalism, and thus falls within a category that many people would find deeply disagreeable.

The key question in Omar Khadr's case is whether a minor can be held responsible for their supposed actions. The U.S. government thinks so; it argues that as Khadr turned 16 in Bagram base in Afghanistan, after his capture, he can be treated as an adult. As a consequence, he has been treated to the standard techniques used by the U.S. military in dealing with 'terrorists'. The digital footage of Khadr's interrogation is pretty harrowing. He comes across as a frightened boy that is clearly out of his depth with the circumstances that he is facing. From this footage, there can be little doubt that by any stretch of the imagination Khadr has been fairly systematically physically abused at Guantananamo. Moreover, there can also be little doubt that Canadians that visited Khadr in Guantananamo saw the evidence of abuse and did nothing about it.

Omar Khadr is the last citizen of a Northern country to be held at Guantananamo. He is still there because the Canadian government's position on Omar Khadr is that he has to go through the 'legal' processes put in place by the U.S. government. The fact that it has been 3 years since he was charged and that his 'trial' (under a format that has been globally condemned) has still not begun however makes one wonder how meaningful are these processes. Moreover, if found guilty, he faces life in prison. Khadr is now 22.

Imagine: a kid is indoctrinated by his family. He is shot. He is abused while in custody. He spends almost a third of his short life in a legal limbo and faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. I don't know Omar Khadr, and I don't know for a fact what he has or has not done. However: what he has or has not done is irrelevant. Omar Khadr's fundamental human rights have been systematically abused from the time he was a small boy.

Anyone who claims to believe in human rights and who does not support the immediate return of Omar Khadr to Canada is a hypocrite.

Monday, October 20, 2008

dead economists for new times

It really is quite remarkable who the financial and political elite have turned to in order to understand the ongoing crisis. Two economists stand out: John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx.

As my good friend Ardeshir Sepehri of the University of Manitoba pointed out, in order to understand the times, one would do very well to read Chapter 12 of Keynes' General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, written in 1936. Indeed, as Keynes wrote in 1933, in the absence of state intervention to save capitalism from its tendency towards crisis, one could expect

'the progressive breakdown of the existing structure of contract and instruments of indebtedness, accompanied by the utter discredit of orthodox leadership in finance and government, with what ultimate outcome we cannot predict'.

The U.S. government, and in particular Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, along with the U.K. Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, have rediscovered the virtues of Keynesianism after being strongly involved in the deregulation that got the world into this mess in the first place.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been doing slightly different reading, stating that 'we need to found a new capitalism, based on values that put finance at the service of companies and citizens'. He reached this conclusion apparently reading Das Kapital volume 1, which some people spotted him reading last week.

Marx understood the mysteries of finance, writing

'To the possessor of money capital, the process of production appears merely as an unavoidable intermediate link, as a necessary evil for the sake of moneymaking. All nations with a capitalist mode of production are therefore seized periodically by a feverish attempt to make money without the intervention of the process of production'.

We have been so seized! I suspect that these two political economists will be read a bit more carefully in the next few months than they have been in the last few decades. At stake: the need to end the de-politicization of money, which has been underway for 60 years, and which has allowed, in an ever increasing way, for government and finance to become increasingly separated. Although this de-politicization took place in the name of Keynes, he would never have subscribed to it; and, of course, Marx would only have seen it as the logical outcome of an increasingly irrational economic system.

Friday, October 17, 2008

is neoliberalism finished?

Readers of this weblog will know that the global financial crisis of the past 3 weeks has, in my view, fundamentally changed the landscape of global capitalism. A world that was effectively born on 4 November 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. President (I was in San Francisco at the time) has ended, and a period of untrammelled global neoliberalism will have to change if global finance capital is to survive.

How much has the world changed? Consider this. In the United Kingdom, where, of course, London is the second most important financial center in the world, the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of Britain's most important financial institutions, will soon be 57 per cent owned by the British state. It is also expected that the British state will own up to 40 per cent of the newly merged (and so far unnamed) Lloyds-TSB-Halifx Bank of Scotland combination, which is also one of the largest and most important British financial institutions. The British state already owns Northern Rock and Bradford and Bingley, specialist mortgage lenders that overreached their market niche and paid the price. In other words: the British state, which was one global center of the de-regulating neoliberal project, now is steering some of the most important components of British finance capital. Consider also another paragon of neoliberalism (indeed, as a consequence of the Wassenaar Accord, possibly the earlist adopter of neoliberalism in the North: the Netherlands' state owns the Dutch rump of ABN-AMRO and Fortis Nederland, two of the three biggest banks in the Netherlands. Again: the Dutch state is steering the most important components of Dutch finance capital. Examples of this degree of state intervention in finance capital abound in the North: in Germany, in Belgium, in Denmark, in Ireland, in Italy, in Iceland and, in all places, in Switzerland. The most significant intervention, of course, is the one that I have saved for last: the U.S. state owns 79.9 per cent of AIG, which at one time was the largest insurance company in the U.S., and as a consequence of the policy moves made by the U.S. Treasury on Monday will soon own significant shares in nine major U.S. financial institutions, including Bank of America (with which one-half of all U.S. households does some kind of banking), Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs (former firm of the U.S. Treasury Secretary), J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch. This is a consequence of their agreement to take part in both the Treasury’s ‘voluntary’ capital purchase programme--which was nothing of the sort, which U.S. finance given no choice by the state--and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s guarantee programme of senior bank debt and assorted deposit liabilities.

The world has changed; the state has acted to save capitalism, just as it did in the 1930s, and where this will lead is very difficult to know.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

some 3 weeks!

The past 3 weeks have been a period of intense scholarly activity for me; a period that has deeply reminded me why I do the work that I do. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that they have been the best 3 weeks, professionally speaking, since I returned to Canada after an effective absence of 25 years. Set against the backdrop of a deepening global financial crisis, and the effective collapse of neo-liberalism, I have been fortunate to be able to engage with a number of leading intellectuals in the field of international development, and this has left me remarkably refreshed.

Three weeks ago I attended the inaugural Development Studies Seminar at York University, organized by my old friend and colleague Sharada Srinivasan. My former colleague at the Institute of Social Studies, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, delivered an outstanding talk on transnational cultures and 'deep culture'. Now at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Pieterse is a major international figure in post-development thinking, and I must confess that, in this light, I was surprised by how few academics from York University attended his seminar.

Pieterse argued that throughout history relations between cultures has paid attention to difference, rather than the commonalities that he terms deep culture. However, increasingly global communities now articulate their differences in terms of a common global transnational culture, which allows a shared deep culture to come to the foreground, creating, in effect, a global multiculture that balances sedantary cultures, non-place bound culture, and increasingly mobile flexible acculturation. Pieterse reflected afterwards on the place of violent conflict in the processes he described, with violence seen as a means of locating oneself within a transnational culture. Pieterse's seminar was very, very good; and later in the evening we enjoyed our first meal together in a decade, reflecting upon life in the North American academic environment, changes in European society, and his reflections upon U.S. society, as well as, of course, his current thinking on international development issues.

One week later I had dinner with Diane Elson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and one of the world's outstanding feminist economists. The former Chief Economist for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem), I am privileged to be able to call Elson a friend (I hope!), for along with a sharp and critical intellect she has a remarkably inclusive and open approach to intellectual engagement (something that she shares with another great feminist economist, Nancy Folbre). We had no agenda, per se, but nonetheless had a lively discussion on the role of the International Monetary Fund in Africa, on the Gender Team within the United Nations Development Programme, and on (again!) the North American academic environment. Elson has been actively engaged recently in a major, and important, intervention in international development studies, the creation of a master's degree in gender and economics at Makere University in Uganda, and this we also discussed.

Five days later the Department of International Development Studies at Trent University hosted the first David Morrison Lecture in International Development, and Professor James C. Scott of Yale University, whom I have read for decades but whom I had never met, delivered an outstanding address on globalization and the relationship between the 'vernacular' and the 'official'. Scott described how the state seeks to standardize society by creating national systems of taxation, legal codes and land rights, language and names, and even weights and measures, and that this follows a logic of control, manipulation and management over populations. He then went on to argue that the 'Washington Consensus' represented an international effort led by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization to standardize the world’s economies even though it was itself a vernacular approach of 19th century North Atlantic world. Hence, globalization is a vernacular that is presented as a universal.

Following Scott's lecture there was a very good open discussion, and this discussion continued amongst colleagues in the Department into the second U.S. presidential debate, and indeed on into the next day. Along the way I learned a great deal about Southeast Asia, the United States, and Scott's own intellectual development.

Two days after the Scott lecture I attended the University of Manitoba's Global Political Economy Group conference on the world food crisis. The Keynote Speaker at the conference was Professor Utsa Patnaik of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, one of the world's most formidable political economists. I had not seen Professor Patnaik in more than 14 years, and she delivered an important address on the contemporary food crisis, arguing that it witnessed the articulation of 3 contemporary contradictions: of food versus feed, of food versus exports, and of food versus fuel. She demonstrated that the structural causes of the food crisis lie in the increasing indirect demand of Northern consumers for grain, in the form of the meat that they consume. She demonstrated the fallacy of free trade and comparative advantage, explaining how the drive to export, imposed as a consequence of the 'Washington Consensus', was predicated upon the compression of demand in the South, a compression that directly contributed to rising poverty and inequality. She also explored the geopolitical ramifications of the quest for agrofuels.

The excellence of this lecture paved the way for a great conference; I was particularly moved by Fred Tate of the National Farmers' Union, who explained how corporate agribusiness was driving farmers out of farming. The conference also allowed me to catch up with old friends from the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba, Canada's outstanding heterodox economics department: John Loxley, Robert Chernomas, Ardeshir Sepehri and Fletcher Baragar. Much of our time was spent discussing the financial crisis, as last weekend was the watershed of it, with the Canadian dollar collapsing on Friday along with global stock markets before UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown saved the day by beginning a process in which national governments around the world assumed partial ownership of a number of major banks, in order to recapitalize them and thus inject liquidity into the global financial system.

As I have also been teaching my full load at Trent University during this period, it has been a very tiring, but also quite exhilirating, time. I have learned a lot over the last 3 weeks, and am extremely fortunate to be in a position where I can continue to learn, from new acquaintances, old colleagues, students and friends.

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