Saturday, June 27, 2009

Illusion or Opportunity: Civil Society and the Quest for Social Change

By Henry Veltmeyer, 136 pages, Fernwood Publishing, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-55266-230-4.

“The only way forward for the working classes and the popular movement is political power: to abandon the development project and engage the class struggle – to directly confront the holders of this power.”

Though Henry Veltmeyer confronts and questions the various capitalist and anti-capitalist policies available to poor people in the developing world, his above words from Illusion or Opportunity's conclusion reflect that economic and social analysis on the left hasn't changed in its core from decades ago, even with the extreme changes that capitalism has brought about all over the world.

This demanding book doesn't come to this conclusion easily, but shows in various ways how the new, post-Soviet capitalism is really is old capitalism. Globalization, begun in the 1970s by America with the goal of spreading influence, has left no capitalist stone unturned, as international corporations mine the world's natural and human ecologies, seeking only increased production and profits.

Simply out, then, Veltmeyer denounces American and Western capitalism, which has been an economic capitalism. “Development,” the precursor to globalization from the 1950s-70s, aimed to bring countries under American influence and away from the Soviet Union.

Globalization has been a more aggressive version of development, but the underlying aim remains to bring countries under American domination. Veltmeyer particularly strikes out at non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which help America implement its policies with a nicer face. “Aid,” he concludes, “more likely serves the interests of the donor country.”

Illusion and Opportunity also examines the cruder aspects of the neo-liberal world economy, such as rampant speculation, “asset denationalization,” “labor exploitation and unfair trade.” His statistics about the deep relative fall of wages for laborers and the rise in poverty rates in most developing countries is shocking. Once China is taken out of the equation, in 2001 we had 600 million more people living on less than $2 per day than in 1981. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the figures from 1981-2001 are 288 million people in these straits to 516 million.

These statistics reflect neo-liberalism's “destruction of their class organizations and in a generalized weakening of their capacity to negotiate collective agreements with capital.” Also, the nature of poverty has changed, with more urban poor now than before, when the poor were located in villages. Urban poor represent a greater challenge to social stability. For one thing, they have fewer family ties.

The statistics show that although in percentage terms world poverty and extreme poverty may not be worse, neo-liberalism has failed in its promise to grow populations out of dire poverty. The wealth that neo-liberalism has generated has gone almost entirely to the wealthy classes, as Veltmeyer's following words reflect:

“A one percent tax on the speculative unproductive transactions in the world's capital markets, would be more than enough to pay for basic and adequate health care, food, clean water, and safe sewers for every person on earth.”

Just as importantly, Veltmeyer shows how those countries such as Chile that didn't follow the neo-liberal agenda have had greater success. It didn't allow the same freedom of market capital “inflows” and “outflows,” which has led to increased stability and “an expansion of its social investment policy.”

Neo-liberals shout about freedom, by which they really mean their own freedom to move gigantic amounts of money around the globe in the blink of an eye. Veltmeyer reminds us of the winners and losers of this “freedom”:

“But how many of the world's poor – over 2.5 billion who cannot meet their basic needs – are free to choose, free to make decisions that might improve the quality of their lives, free from exploitation and oppression, free from the operations of capital freed from all constraints and 'interference'?”

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