Sunday, 10 March 2013

"Liberal" myths about Globalisation (Critique of John Green's 1st Crash Course video on Globalisation)

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Transcript and slides (with larger text for references)...

* Hi, today I will be critiquing the first video on globalisation by John Green in his Crash Course on World History.
* I consider John’s video to be analytically in line with mainstream so-called “liberal” commentary on globalisation, found in the news media and in academic scholarship. I therefore feel that critiquing it will show up some of the distortions and biases that we are regularly fed.
*So let’s starts
*To begin, John does not provide a clear definition of globalisation. This is slightly problematic but John does at certain points in the video explain that globalisation includes increased global economic interdependence over the last 30 years, so we’ll use this as his definition.
*With this in mind he states the following: *(1  3:15) ”Global Trade is now anarchic and unregulated, at least by international institutions and national governments. Much of this has to do with academic economists, mostly in the US and Europe who have argued with great success that governmental regulation diminishes prosperity by limiting growth. “
There are many problems with this statement.
Firstly, John’s use of the words anarchic and trade are somewhat misleading when describing today’s international movement of goods.
For one thing, about a third of so-called trade is simply the centrally planned cross-border movement of goods and components within corporations and conglomerates. Another third is thought to be covered by centrally planned outsourcing.  
We also still have significant government interference in international transactions. One example is so-called anti-dumping legislation, which is used by many of today’s richest countries, such as the United States, to protect domestic companies from foreign competition.
With these points in mind, it is difficult to use the word’s “anarchic” or even “trade” to describe today’s movement of goods. 
A second problem with John’s statement is that it is very misleading to say that economists have argued with great success that government trade regulation diminishes growth.
Pro-trade liberalisation economists have certainly not one the argument within the economics field. The most prominent studies arguing that trade protectionism reduces growth have been completely discredited by leading economists such as Harvard’s Dani Rodrik. One former Harvard economist, Paul Bairoch, has stated that the theory that trade liberalisation increases growth is one of the biggest myths in economic history. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has pointed out that nearly all of today’s richest countries, such as the United States, developed under protectionist economic regimes. The leading theorist on economic growth, nobel prize winner Robert Solow points out that the where growth has occurred alongside trade liberalisation, the causal direction is unknown.  These are just some of eminent economists which reject the view that trade protectionism limits growth.   
It is also unclear that pro-trade-liberalisation economists have influenced policy-makers. Where trade liberalisation has occurred, it seems that there are two more significant influences. Firstly, in poorer weaker nations, particularly in Africa over the last 30 years and Latin America from around 1980 until around 2000, liberalisation was largely the result of bullying by rich countries and the IMF. John actually acknowledges this.
Meanwhile, where trade liberalisation has occurred voluntarily, it seems that this has reflected rational calculations of interests amongst influential economic groups within nations, rather than some widespread religious commitment to free trade. This can be seen by how selectively free-market doctrine is applied. Let us look at the United States as an example. Tariffs have reduced drastically from 50% in the 1950s, but US companies are still strongly supported against foreign competition. This farm subsidies, oil subsidies, anti-dumping legislation, government-supported research and development, government-procurement, and many other processes. But protectionism is by no means unique to the US. Hence the latest World Trade Organisation negotiations have been unable to produce even a limited deal on liberalisation since beginning in 2001 because almost all parties refuse to drop their own protectionist measures.  Meanwhile the WTO talks themselves even have protectionist intellectual property rules built into them.  
With these points in mind, we can see that John’s statements range from unhelpful to misleading when it comes to understanding global economic developments in the last 30 years.
Now, let us move onto another key point in John’s video.  
·         (1  5:52) “While die-hard Marxists deny this – global capitalism has been good for a lot of people”
·         *He puts forward two arguments in favour of this statement... (Clip of John mentioning economic growth and poverty reduction)
There are major problems with these statements
Before considering John’s arguments in favour of global capitalism, it should first be acknowledged that he somewhat misrepresents Marxism, by implying Marxists don’t see positives in capitalism. In fact, central to Marxism is the idea of history as progress, with societies going through economic stages from feudalism, to capitalism to communism. In this context, Marx and Engels praised capitalism and saw it as progressive for non-industrial countries to go through a period of industrial capitalism. It is therefore somewhat misleading for John to imply that die-hard Marxists would deny that capitalism has been good for a lot of people. There may be many non-Marxists who disagree that capitalism has been a good thing, but this is a separate discussion.
Now, let us look at the arguments that John puts forward in favour of capitalism, which happen to be very similar to those put forward by Marx and Engels.  He points to (1) increased economic growth and (2) material poverty reduction, which are usually intertwined. 
 The first problem here is that John uses unclear terminology to describe the current global economic system. What we have around the world is not capitalism but varying types of state capitalism. We mentioned some of the state-capitalist elements of the United States above and state capitalism is also prevalent in East Asia, the region of most economic growth and poverty reduction in the last 30 years. As just one example, whilst China has made some pro-capitalist reforms in the last 30 years, Chinese state-owned enterprises are still responsible for between a third and a half of economic output.
 Furthermore, whilst John does state that he does not want to confuse correlation with causation, this is empty after he has just said that it is clear that global capitalism has been good for a lot of people – the clear implication being that capitalist reforms have led to growth and poverty reduction throughout the world. However, this is an extremely contentious claim.
Firstly, if John is still referring to the last 30 years, it is misleading to imply that it has been a period of economic success. East Asia is the only region in the world where economic growth and poverty reduction have not slowed or reversed in the last thirty years. Total world economic growth has actually been lower than it was during the preceding 30 years. For example, one measure of the economic problems in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union is that life expectancy actually dropped in the 1990s and only reached the level of the late 1980s again in 2009. Another example is that Sub-Saharan Africa has suffered a near complete economic disaster in the last 30 years after moving towards arguably the most purely capitalist economic regime in the world under IMF supervision. This is following a comparatively promising period up until the mid-1970s under more state-led policies. Latin America is only now recovering in the last decade after pro-corporate reforms in the 80s and 90s, which the region is now moving away from. In the United States, since the 1980s real wages have stagnated or declined for most workers.  Economic growth has also slowed in many European countries. All of this is overlooked in John’s celebration of the last 30 years.
Furthermore, in East Asia, where there has been growth alongside pro-market reforms, it is unclear what the causal direction is. That is, respected economists have argued that East Asia’s integration into the global economy has happened in response to productivity growth rather than the other way around. This is the opposite causal direction John suggests.

Setting all this aside, many oppose the idea that economic growth and material poverty reduction necessarily justify social systems, as John implies. For example, due to its oppressive nature, many reject the view that Stalinism was justified despite its record-breaking economic growth and widespread material poverty reduction. This is even setting aside the mass murders. Similarly, many reject that slavery was justified by economic growth. Furthermore, slave owners argued that slaves often lived healthier, longer, more secure lives than wage labourers. How often this was true is debated to this day, but even if it was true 100% of the time, many would still argue that this would not justify slavery.  If John is one of these people, in order to be consistent he needs to put forwards another argument for the current global order than economic growth and material poverty reduction. 

To conclude, as with many mainstream so-called liberal commentators, John puts forwards a misleading image of world order, and spurious arguments in favour of this order.
We will see more of this in part 2, when we will be looking at Johns’ second video on globalisation.
Thanks for listening.
See you soon.

I have written the references in larger text in these slides. Click to expand the slides...

UK aid and and modern imperialism in Africa

[Original video here]

Transcript (with selected links) and slides with references...

(Note that this video originated as an article for the Huffington Post called 'UK Aid, Imperialism and Child Mortality' [here].)

·         Hi
·         In this video, I will be looking at aspects of UK aid to Africa that seem carefully designed to help control and exploit the region, whilst acting as a subsidy from UK taxpayers to corporations, with the impacts upon the poor being largely irrelevant. That is, I will be looking at evidence that aid is being used as a tool of modern imperialism.
·         So let’s start.
·         Firstly, UK aid to Africa is used to promote discredited pro-foreign investor, anti-poor, anti-growth programs designed by the World Bank and IMF. This is done in two ways. Firstly, much UK aid still goes directly through the World Bank and IMF. Secondly, direct government-to- government aid remains conditional upon Bank-IMF programs being followed. Under the programs the world’s poorest countries are barred from using the same strategies that today’s rich countries used to develop including trade and capital controls.
·         This aid conditionality has previously been condemned by UK poverty activists.  For example, in 2005 Make Poverty History wrote to Tony Blair that the conditions attached to aid are undemocratic and ‘often work to entrench rather than overcome poverty.’ In 2006, Christian Aid stated that by providing aid through the World Bank the UK government was ‘paying for poverty’. Such criticism forced the government to claim that it would change direction. However, several analysts including the UK Aid Network have pointed out that little real change has materialised.
·         Moving on, the UK government is also using aid to promote increased corporate control of African food systems with a range of harmful impacts upon the poor. For example, the Department for International Development’s Food Retail Industry Challenge Fund is aimed at promoting export commodity production by African smallholders for sale to UK supermarkets, instead of food production for local needs. In this way, countries such as Kenya export large amounts of food crops whilst many in the country starve.
·         The Department for International Development also funds the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, which makes grants of between US$250,000 and US$1.5 million for investments in Africa, primarily to large scale agribusiness companies. The support for their land deals comes at a time when Oxfam reports that large firms are increasingly taking over productive land and water at the expense of African peasants.
·         It seems the UK government is also attempting to use aid to control poverty groups in Africa. For example, observers in Rwanda report that Western aid provided to local NGOs, often first going through Western charities, works to divert them from political advocacy and promoting social reform. Instead, anti-poverty groups are funded to focus only on technical project work - such as digging wells - while ignoring underlying socio-economic problems. The thinking of the UK government seems clear: national economic policies in poor countries are supposed to be designed by donor governments in collaboration with compliant local elites. The poor should stay out of the way and concentrate on coping strategies.
·         Before ending this video, I would like to mention Teresa Hayter’s 1971 book, ‘Aid as Imperialism’. In the book she expressed doubt that major donor governments could be convinced to fundamentally reform aid and stop using it as a tool of control. She believed that concerned citizens in donor countries had a choice between: (1) accepting aid in its current form, (2) opposing aid altogether, or (3) promoting socialism within donor countries so that aid could be provided in a genuine spirit of solidarity. 
·         Viewers are invited to discuss her assessment and their general views on aid, in the comments below.
·         Thanks for listening
·         See you soon

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Introduction to Socialism (part 2)

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Transcript, selected links and slides with quotations...

·         Hi.
·         Welcome to part two of this introduction to socialism
·         In part one we looked at socialist ideas in the 19th century. Today we will be looking at societies that were referred to as socialist in the 20th century.
·         So let’s start.

·         Firstly, we had Soviet Russia, later becoming part of the Soviet Union.
·         Here, the Bolshevik party, led by Lenin took power in a coup as the Russian government struggled to deal with widespread agitation by Russia’s lower classes. The Bolsheviks then instituted a one-party dictatorship and a largely state-planned economy.
·         It is worth noting here that there has always been a lot of confusion, both internally and externally, over whether the Soviet Union should actually be described as Socialist.
·         In fact, whilst Lenin re-named Russia the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and later named it as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or USSR), he also regularly explained that the country was in fact not ‘socialist’.[1]
·         Lenin, who was influenced by Karl Marx’s theories to an extent, thought Russia was not economically advanced enough for a genuine socialist revolution.[2] He believed Russia had to develop economically, or Germany had to lead a world revolution, before real socialism – meaning direct worker control and direct democracy - could be enacted in Russia.[3] In the meantime it was the role of the Bolsheviks to develop Russia economically and maintain political control.
·         This included suppressing Factory Committees and Soviets which were trying to build socialism from below.[4]
·         He regularly lashed out at his socialist opponents, including writing a pamphlet called ‘Left-wing communism – an infantile disorder’.   
·         For these reasons, many prominent socialists did not consider the Soviet Union to be socialist at all and instead referred to it as state-capitalist, with some considering the collapse of Bolshevik rule a victory for socialism.
·         However, by Lenin’s time, the word socialism had also become associated with state control of industries, so the Soviet Union was in some way ‘socialist’ if we apply this new meaning of the word.
·         The libertarian socialist, Bakunin, who as discussed in part 1, had criticised Marx’s ideas and predicted oppressive Marx-influenced dictatorships, would probably have derided the Soviet Union as ‘’state-socialist’ – which for Bakunin was a contradiction in terms.
·          On a related point, the Bolsheviks referred to themselves as the Communist Party.
·         Meanwhile Western governments including those in the US and UK also described the Soviet Union as a Communist society even though the Soviet Union matched no traditional definition of communism. This was possibly to give the word communism a bad name by associating it with Bolshevik rule.
·         Whatever the reasons, the result of the word Communism being so widely used with regards to the Soviet Union, was that Communism also took on a second popular definition: that is a one-party state, with a planned economy or heavy government involvement in the economy.
·         This has been re-enforced by other authoritarian states, such as China and North Korea, also referring to themselves and being referred to as ‘communist’.

·         Moving on, another example of a country referred to as socialist is Sweden.
·         One of the main political parties in that country, which has been in power for the majority of the last century, is the Social Democratic Workers Party (also known as the SAP).  This party refers to its policies as either social democratic or democratic socialism – terms which were formerly used as synonyms for traditional libertarian socialism, anarchism or communism. However, the SAP uses the terms differently.
·         The SAP leadership thought of socialism as government action designed to achieve social well-being, rather than as a social system based upon abolishing private ownership of the means of production. 
·         Following this, while in power during much of the 1900s, the SAP kept multi-party, parliamentary democracy and private capitalism to some extent, with Sweden being home to some of the world’s best known corporations including Ikea and H&M.
·         However, the SAP also enacted welfare policies, state provision of services such as healthcare, and state companies providing transport and energy. 
·         Note that during the 20th century, mixed economies with similarities to Sweden became prevalent throughout the world.
·         It is also worth mentioning that since it became common for mixed economies to be referred to as socialist, many people have begun referring to ANY government intervention in the economy as ‘socialist’.
·         This includes welfare spending but also, when a corporation gets a subsidy, or a bank gets bailed out by the government, some refer to this as socialism – or in these particular examples, one term used is ‘socialism for the rich’.   
·         What is noteworthy here is that if we describe any government spending in the economy as socialism, then many thinkers who have considered themselves anti-socialist, such as the famous Austrian economist and philosopher Freidrich Hayek, have actually been to some extent socialists as they have favoured state welfare for the poor and other government programs to prevent unrestricted markets causing excessive social and environmental damage. 
·         Additionally, by this definition, several government leaders who considered themselves anti-socialist were also socialists. For example, Margaret Thatcher - who strongly criticised socialism - actually increased total public spending after taking power from the labour party, which had referred to itself as socialist.

·          Moving on, a final type of socialism I want to discuss is Revolutionary Spain during the 1930s.
·         A fascist coup occurred in Spain 1936, which sparked an anarchist-influenced revolution throughout much of the country, during which many urban and rural areas were taken over by anarchist collectives. Direct worker control of workplaces and broader direct democracy became widespread.  
·         The anarchists also formed militias to fight the fascist and state communist armies, which were both supported by foreign governments.
·         It is worth mentioning that one of the most popular 20th century British writers, George Orwell, fought with the anarchist militias and wrote a very interesting book on his experiences called ‘Homage to Catalonia’.
·         However, unfortunately for Orwell and his comrades, eventually, the anarchists were defeated by the foreign supported armies.  
·         Note that due to the direct worker control of workplaces and broader direct democracy, anarchist Spain came very close to the traditional libertarian socialist ideal favoured by figures such as Bakunin.

·         OK, so that brings us to the end of our discussion of the different uses of the word socialism.
·         As we have seen, the term is used extremely broadly.
·         In fact almost every modern society in recent history has matched someone’s definition of ‘socialism’.
·         However, we can identify two main types of socialism.
·         Firstly, traditional mainstream socialists favour direct worker control of workplaces as well as broader direct democracy in communities.
·         More recently, socialism has taken on a second meaning which is: state involvement in the economy – often for redistributive purposes, but not necessarily.
·         Thanks for listening. Comments and questions welcome. See you soon.

[1] (For example, during his third year in power, he said in a speech, “Capitalism has been smashed, but socialism has not yet been built; and it will take a long time to build.” These kinds of statemesnts were made right up until his death.
[2]We, too, lack enough civilisation to enable us to pass straight on to socialism”

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Introduction to Socialism (part 1)

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Transcript and references to quotes

Hi, my name is David and today I will be talking about the different meanings of the word socialism. I will also quickly look at the meanings of some related terms such as communism, anarchism and liberalism.
·         So let’s start
·         The word socialism originated in the early 19th century. Some believe the word was first used by the followers of the French utopian writers Comte de Saint Simon and Charles Fourier.
·         However, the origins could also lie in England, which was going through the industrial revolution. At this time, many commentators, such as William Thompson and John Francis Bray thought that local communities or worker cooperatives should jointly control factories and other work places as well as capital and land.
·         An important organisation to think about in the development of socialist ideas is the first international workers association.
·         This organisation was made up of workers, trade unionists and various revolutionaries or socialists of different kinds.( The police estimated its membership to be approximately 5 million at one point.)
·         The organisation was split into two main camps. On the one side there were the anarchists led by figures such as Bakunin.
·         On the other side were the communists led by Karl Marx.  
·         Despite being enemies in some ways, Bakunin and Marx had very similar views of a future society – which were also similar to the views early English socialists.
·         Firstly, they both opposed concentrated private economic power – meaning private ownership of the means of production such as factories and farming land.
·         Secondly, they both opposed state power.
·         Instead of private ownership and control of factories, they thought factories should be owned and managed collectively by workers and communities.  They extended this idea to farms, and other workplaces.
·         They also thought the state should be abolished and society should be run via a system of direct democracy – an idea of democracy which goes back to the Ancient Athenians who invented the word.
·         We also have examples of direct democracy today. For example, some Swiss districts have had direct democracy for centuries.
·         Also, in Portoe Allegre they have a famous system of participatory budgeting where thousands of people from the city meet to decide on local government spending. The system has helped improve water, health and education services so the experiment is being rolled out to many cities throughout the world including London and New York.
·         Returning to Bakunin and Marx, a social experiment which they praised was the Paris Commune of 1871. Here, the Parisians rose up against the government and instituted a direct democracy. They also turned several workplaces into worker cooperatives. However, eventually the commune was crushed by the French government.
·         Now, Marx and the communists referred to the future society they favoured as ‘communism’.  They sometimes used the word socialism interchangeably with communism, but often avoided the word socialism because this term was also associated with ideas of St Simon, Fourier and others who they were not supportive of.
·         Now, Marx and the communists also thought that there needed to be a temporary state government to manage the transition from capitalism to communism. This state government could either be achieved through the election of the communist party or it could be achieved through revolution. 
·         However, many revolutionaries such as Bakunin opposed the idea of a transitional state, arguing that it would either fail to finish revolution or that any such state would end up oppressing the people. These revolutionaries referred to themselves as either anarchists – anarchy meaning no ruler - or often just socialists. Meanwhile, they referred to Marx and the communists as ‘state socialists’.
·         Another term used to describe the anarchists was ‘libertarian socialists’.
·         It is worth noting that today the words anarchist and libertarian have taken on different meanings but this is how they were popularly used in the late 1800s.
·         Let us look at the word libertarian. Today, in the US, the Libertarian party, opposes state power to some extent but unlike libertarian socialists, does not fully oppose the state. Also, unlike libertarian socialists the libertarian party does not oppose concentration of economic power.
·         It is worth noting here that on this, the libertarian party is also very different to the father of classical liberalism, the enlightenment philosopher, John Locke. Like libertarian socialists, Locke opposed both private and state power. Locke proposed that private economic power should be checked by people’s ownership of property being limited to what they could manage with their own labour. He was a pre-industrialist so society consisted mainly of farmers.  He thought farmers should only own the small plot of land which they farmed themselves, without interference from rich landlords who didn’t do the work directly. 
·         He also thought that state power should be limited to keeping in place this kind of system and that the people should revolt if the state over-stepped this mark.
·         It is a definite possibility that if writing later, Locke would have also opposed concentrated ownership of modern means of production such as factories and like libertarian socialists, would have preferred communal ownership.
·         Moving on, other terms used to describe the future society favoured by both the traditional anarchists and the communists included democratic socialism and social democracy – although again, these terms have different meanings today.
·         Recently, other terms have been used such as ‘radical democracy’. Others just use the word ‘democracy’.
·         Now, many socialist groups during the 19th century engaged in parliamentary politics. This included the Communist Party which wanted to be elected to government, with the aim of putting in place communism. However, the Communist manifesto also outlined other short-term policies such as universal education, progressive taxation and state control of key industries. 
·         Other socialist parties such as the German Social Democratic Party had similar programs and in this way, the terms ‘socialism’, ‘social democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’ came to also be associated with state redistribution and provision of public services as well as state control of industries.
·         OK, so that brings us to the end of part 1 of this video. So far we’ve seen that the word socialism has several meanings. It could mean a pre-planned utopia, a direct-democracy with communal ownership of the means of production, or a state-managed economy with redistributive policies. 
 ·         During the 20th century the word took on even more meanings and that will be the subject of part 2 of this video. 

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