This week and last, a number of my students asked me about how and why I became interested in development issues, in general, and Latin America, in particular. These enquires forced me to think back to those heady days of the 1960s when we all thought that the world could be changed for the better. It also got me to thinking about the ways in which both popular conceptions and academic thinking about social injustice and the operation of the world economy has changed over the last forty years—despite the fact that the reality may not have changed all that much. In the 1960s, we were convinced that the root of the social injustice in the world lay in the operation of American imperialism--in its seemingly relentless drive to extract profit from its investments abroad and its endless interference in the political affairs of other countries—military coups in Latin America and the Vietnam war, to mention the most obvious examples.
In many respects, while there have admittedly been important changes in the world economy over the last forty years, there are some alarming continuities. Injustice on a global scale is still with us. Two Human Development Reports (1999 and 2005) published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) provide data on trends in the ratio of the income share held by the top 20% of households across the global compared to the bottom 20%. Those data demonstrate there is a widening global gap between richest and poorest that has accelerated since the 1960s. No less an authority that the IMF has acknowledged that there has been an increase in inequality within most nations. While the latter showed some improvement and poverty declined with the rise of commodity prices in many Global South countries recently, the current economic crisis will no doubt produce rises in both poverty and inequality (See my blog entry on the SDGs).
Discussions of these developments invariably refer to the nefarious consequences of “economic globalization,” with interminable debates over exactly what aspects of the economic globalization process (trade, investment, and financialization) are contributing to these outcomes. Little is said about the powerful interests that are behind these processes and the fact that these interests have received inordinate benefits. Despite the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) as major players on the world stage, hegemony still rests with the United States. Powerful economic interests based there (particularly the banks) have consistently had the ear of governments, and drove the economic restructuring that arose with the debt crisis and structural adjustment programs that followed. The policies of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization have all been shaped by developed countries, under the leadership of the United States. And, the U.S. has continued to invade poor countries, arguably driven, in large part, by the desire to control important resources, particularly oil. The term “economic globalization” obfuscates these important issues, directing concern toward “impartial” market forces, and away from the source of the problem: American imperialism.