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I)M)A)G)E) Control The Legacy of oppositional criticism, of a negative position claiming moral superiority and distance from those ideologies in which fine art participates, can’t be sustained any more–Johanna Drucker. Ah…the subtlety of complicity that ensconces itself in the strand of contemporary art, a complicity that masquerades as insouciance, indifference, and ultimately symptomatic of hyper-digitalized suffusing the […]
Historically speaking, production is the act of transforming material objects into marketable commodities. Today, however, this activity has extended beyond the physical world. As Maurizio Lazzarato argues, contemporary relations of production are not so much about acting on material bodies as they are about acting on minds and subjectivities. The immaterial or virtual, in other words, closely accompanies the actual in modern industrial processes.
Power here operates less and less on material earth and more and more on perceptions, desires and attention. Modern technologies operate on minds, capturing the imaginations of viewers. The constitutive role of television, cinema and the internet, after all, is to capture belief and attention, in contrast to producing tactile things.
That the immaterial is becoming more central to production is not by accident. “Before products can be sold, or even made, attention and memory must be captured by the technologies that work on publics” (Read, p. 97).
This is especially true in the case of surplus production. Given the inherent dynamic of capitalism to increase production on a continually larger scale, thereby threatening a crisis of over-production, surplus stockpiles of goods must be absorbed in some way to keep the wheels of capitalism turning. Forestalling this crisis is none other than marketing and advertising, which are used to bolster consumer demand.
Eugene Holland, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus
Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Jason Read, “The Fetish is Always Actual, Revolution is Always Virtual” in Deleuze and Marx, ed. Dhruv Jain
In as much as one can draw any generalizations about the Dark Knight Trilogy, its political punch is found principally in its hidden meanings. The revived Batman film series operates at a double register; that is, two distinct, but interconnected, levels. On a first, tentative level we can say that the films sedate and distract us from reality through idealizations of friendship, family, romance, politics, economics or whatever. If Hollywood sells anything, after all, it is entertainment. But on the obscene underside, these fantastic films tell a different story. Here, the true referent is our current socio-political conjunctures.
It is no secret that Nolan’s last Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (hereafter TDKR), does not directly approach its true (political) focus. Rather, the film maintains its authentic topic at a distance. But why must TDKR obfuscate its true historical reference? Because any serious challenge to the existing order quickly engenders guarded attitudes. Nowhere is this more accurate than with respect to lost causes; namely, politically radical ones.
Here one thinks, for example, of totalitarianism. Far from being a meaningful theoretical concept, forcing us to acquire new insight about political alternatives, the notion of ‘totalitarianism’ actually prevents us from thinking. The motif of revolution is so monstrous that the slightest inclination of engaging in political projects that aim to undermine the normal state of affairs and transform reality is immediately denounced as ethically dangerous and illegitimate. In other words, it is dismissed as potentially ‘totalitarian’.
It is no small matter then that the form of TDKR makes it possible to neutralize this prohibition against thinking about grand solutions. What the movie does is nothing less than take into account the very idea of applying a radical political project directly to reality. Such a politics (whatever remains of it) dares to directly confront the entire field of state power. That the movie dreams about a grand, all-encompassing, leftist strategy of directly taking over the state apparatus at all is significant, even if it is not really meant seriously as a project that we might try to live.
It has now become fashionable to assert that those who still insist on fighting the entire domain of politics are stuck in the old paradigm. The new (postmodern) politics adopts a different, apparently more modest mode of engagement. Rather than directly confronting the state or bombarding it with impossible demands, the new politics creates spaces outside the scope and control of state power to tinker with its edges. Since the state has betrayed its responsibility for justice, extra-statal practices are required to change the social structure themselves.
The basic predicament of our capital-saturated society is whether to resist the state with out-and-out revolution or from effective localized subversion. Should movements directly engage the state in a highly centralized form of political organization or remain closer to the mode of functioning as nomadic groups? One does not have to be a profound observer to see that this conundrum is shared by the final Batman movie.
Bruce Wayne believes that insisting on demands from those in power is futile. They simply cannot be fulfilled. This belief of Bruce Wayne is nowhere more apparent than in his exchanges with Alfred. Alfred dares to raise the thorny issue that Batman should hang up his cape and assist those in power through other, more civic, means: “The city needs Bruce Wayne. Your resources, your knowledge. It doesn’t need your body.” During another scene Alfred pointedly asks, “Aren’t the police supposed to be investigating that?” To which Bruce Wayne replies, “They don’t have the tools to analyze it.” Few can disagree with Alfred’s response that “They would if you gave it to them.”
Bruce Wayne rightly calls into question this flat solution, noting that “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon.” This is, after all, the same symptomatic point that emerges apropos of every new social gesture: true revolutionary potential is exploited and then betrayed by the very system it originally contradicts. Consequently, Bruce Wayne keeps the cape and continues to act in the shadows, effectively pulling the strings of political life from the periphery.
It is no small coincidence that Bruce Wayne also lives a philanthropic life beyond the cave, highlighting as it does the same commitment to transforming society outside the ambit of state power. And not wholly unlike the work of charity by George Soros or Bill Gates, the immense donations to public welfare – in this case to orphanage homes – reestablishes a balance to the capitalist system, thereby postponing its crisis, which in this context involves unemployed youth uniting in the sewers and forming a revolution.
Here it is worth pointing to the fact that the film’s villain, Bane, also recognizes the ethical call engendered by the experience of injustice and wrongs. At the same time, the political procedure is clearly different. Rather than remain in the backwaters of society (read sewers) with the downtrodden, Bane and his brawlers openly struggle for hegemony.
Surprisingly, the film’s main antagonist proves to be a very philosophical rebel (not completely unlike the other villains of the trilogy). He explains his actions in terms of the failings of the ruling order. Bane does not rebel because he is infected by godless immorality, but because the rulers of Gotham City have shirked their responsibilities in protecting those with no proper place in society. For this reason, the politically organized underworld is truly a product of misrule, ethically impelled to turn against its oppressors and create something radically new. In the language of Bane, it is “necessary evil.”
That there is more going on in the film than simple run-of-the-mill violence is obvious enough. What makes the character of Bane so convincing is not the explosion of physical strength as such, but the concrete twist he gives it. The politics of revolutionary justice embodied in Bane is that of radical egalitarian violence. Rather than fighting on the side of the hierarchical social order, Bane’s excess of power is on the side of the part of no-part, defined here as the unaccounted for of society.
It is important not to overlook the fact here that Bane’s bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will is what qualified him for the villain role in TDKR. For Nolan, “With Bane, physicality is the thing.” According to the original story, the childhood and early adult life of Bane was spent in a penitentiary environment where, it would seem, he possessed nothing. Indeed, the aged-out orphans of Gotham City similarly had nothing to their name.
This is significant, given that those who have nothing have only their discipline. Here, true freedom can only be regained through extreme corporeal discipline and the spirit of sacrifice, in which one is ready to risk everything. (As the critical reader will perhaps suspect, this sounds close to something like ‘fanatical fundamentalists’ who have only their discipline, their capacity to act together).
What takes place in TDKR is the event of momentarily canceling status quo realities and redistributing social control. Here, the all-too-easy liberal-democratic gesture is rendered inefficient at breaking out of Western modernity and its political deadlocks. Here, one is forced to actively think about grand solutions and lost causes.
The basic lesson is that Bane’s political commitments were clearly right steps in the wrong direction. Taking control of Gotham City was an appropriate gesture, the best thing he ever did, the only tragedy being that he was almost right. The authentic Event momentarily unleashed unprecedented forces of social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible. The misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror therefore confront us with the need – not to reject in toto, but – to reinvent true political options.
And thus we welcome the fact that “true ideas are eternal, they always return every time they are proclaimed dead.” God forbid that we might take them seriously…
Eugene Holland, “Beyond Critique” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus
Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes
____, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?
____, “Mao Tse-Tung, The Marxist Lord of Misrule” in Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao
Hollywood is the ultimate ideological machine of the Oedipal narrative: the typical Hollywood product is a film that tells the story of a family drama in the context of larger social forces. As is always the case in such films, the “big plot” is framed into the coordinates of a “secondary plot” with a troubled family at its center. This, then, is how one should read Hollywood films: all the catastrophes and conflicts that make up the story’s plot are here a mere pretext to express what the film is really about; a family or a couple in need of reconciliation.
The production of the couple in Hollywood is most strikingly apparent, argues Žižek in In Defense of Lost Causes, through all key Steven Spielberg films. ET is the story of a boy who was abandoned by his father but is provided with a new father (“the good scientist who, in the film’s last shot, is already seen embracing the mother”) through the mediator of ET. Empire of the Sun similarly focuses on a deserted boy, though in China, who is helped by an ersatz father to survive. Even Jurassic Park tells the story of threatened children becoming reconciled with a paternal figure. In the middle of the film,
Neill and the two children, pursued by the monsters, take refuge from the murderous carnivorous dinosaurs in a gigantic tree, where, dead tired, they fall asleep; on the tree, Neill loses the dinosaur bone that was stuck in his belt, and it is as if this accidental loss has a magical effect—before they fall asleep, Neill is reconciled with the children, displaying warm affection and tenderness towards them. Significantly, the dinosaurs which approach the tree the next morning and awaken the sleeping party, turn out to be of the benevolent herbivorous kind.
Žižek rightly notes that Schindler’s List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park. Here the Nazis are the dinosaur monsters, the ghetto Jews the threatened children, and Schindler the parental figure. The story the film tells is the transformation of Schindler into a caring and responsible father who was previously (at the film’s beginning) a “cynical, profiteering, and opportunistic” business man. The War of the Worlds too is written in terms of a family narrative; in this case, the bloodthirsty aliens provide the backdrop to what the film is “really about” at its most elementary level: “the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.”
The same interpretive key fits Hollywood films that stage great historical events as the pretext to a family drama. The greatest cinema hit of all times, James Cameron’s Titanic, is not really “a film about the catastrophe of a ship hitting an iceberg” as much as a narrative about the brief formation of a couple. However here the love story serves the purpose of telling another tale, “that of a spoiled high-society girl in an identity crisis.” Leonardo Di Caprio is a kind of “vanishing mediator,” like ET, whose function is to restore purpose and meaning to the life of Kate Winslet; once his job is done, he can then disappear into the freezing North Atlantic.
If the standard Hollywood product relies on the basic formula of producing a couple under the façade of larger spectacular events, then where does one look for the real Hollywood Left? Surprisingly, Žižek finds an exception to the family motif and an instantiation of revolutionary politics through Hollywood productions in Zack Snyder’s 300. The racist parallel here with the free West against the despotic East is evident: the story is of a small, poor, and “terrorist” country (Greece) invaded by a much larger and more technologically advanced state (Persia). As Žižek puts it, “are the Persian elephants, giants and large fire arrows not the ancient version of high-tech weaponry?” He goes on to say,
When the last surviving group of Spartans and their king, Leonidas, are killed by the thousands of arrows, are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today’s US soldiers who at the push of a button launch rockets from the warships miles away in the Persian Gulf?
What remains for the Greek Spartans to defend themselves with against the Persian occupation is their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, not wholly unlike Iraq and Afghanistan defending against the invasion of the overwhelming military supremacy of the US. Such ruthless self-discipline is not jogging and body-building, characteristic of the New Age myth of realizing the self’s inner potential, but a form of corporeal discipline and collective training when the only possession one has left his her body. To quote Alain Badiou,
We need a popular discipline. I would even say…that “those who have nothing have only their discipline.” The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power—all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.
In fact, says Žižek, this is true freedom—freedom gained “through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything.” Unlike the freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between different products at a shopping mall, true freedom is the apparent absurdity of sustaining extreme military discipline. As Žižek concludes, re-invoking the political juncture expressed in Snyder’s 300,
one makes a truly free choice when one’s choice puts at stake one’s very existence—one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?”
Almost no one denies, in our own age, that the cult of Capital is the all-encompassing, ubiquitous horizon through which various subjectivities are constituted and certain individuals are given clear advantage over others; a totalizing system which has become increasingly difficult to resist and harder to escape. What ingredients of political thought, then, are adept to critically interrogate the comfortable normality of the capitalist social machine and provide an actual process of transformation so that the way things are might be otherwise, an account that has real worldly-historical purchase?
Convincing as this account may first appear—the vision of households, subjects, and industry coming together and operating in harmony under capitalist hegemony—there is more going on here then simply raising the thorny issue of how we break away from the static scene of Capital. On closer inspection this monolithic image is problematic insofar as it represents social existence (economy, polity, culture, subjectivity…) as part of the same complex (e.g., capitalist hegemony). Although theorists delineate capitalist hegemony as a unified, singular, and totalizing entity in the hope to see it destabilized or replaced, they nonetheless generate a representation of the social world that is endowed with performative force. As J.K. Gibson-Graham argue in The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), “The project of understanding the beast has itself produced a beast.”
But the economic classification of an increasingly capitalist world system is a product of (dominant) discourse only. It does not reflect actuality. Capitalism, rather, is at loose ends with itself. An alternative social depiction to capitalist hegemony thus “might represent economic practice as comprising a rich diversity of capitalist and noncapitalist activities and argue that the noncapitalist ones had until now been relatively ‘invisible’ because the concepts and discourses that could make them ‘visible’ have themselves been marginalized and suppressed.” We might begin with, for instance, the proliferation of the self-employed who appropriate their own surplus labor or the uncounted work of unpaid domestic laborers who invisibly reproduce society.
It is illegitimate and inaccurate to speak of capitalism in terms of a unifying entity (in the same way it would be to speak of the US as a Christian nation, or a heterosexual one) because such social descriptors erase and obscure differences. While feminists have long departed from “holistic expressions for social structure”, conceptions of capitalism as hegemonic, ubiquitous, systematic and so on are still prevalent and resilient.
It follows from this virtually unquestioned view of capitalism as the dominant form of economy that noncapitalist and anti-capitalist sites come to inhabit the social margins in the realm of experiment (as recently illustrated over at Necessary Agitation). As J.K. Gibson-Graham contend: “it is the way capitalism has been ‘thought’ that has made it so difficult for people to imagine its supersession.” (There is little doubt that the archive of my blog unflatteringly reflects the same point). As the authors go on to argue, what needs to be fostered instead is a theory of “economic difference;” conditions under which the economy might be “less subject to definitional closure,” whose identity is not fixed or singular.
The alternative of “theorizing economic difference, of supplanting the discourse of capitalist hegemony with a plurality and heterogeneity of economic forms” is akin to what Manuel DeLanda attempts in ‘Deleuze, Materialism and Politics’. Following Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis of double articulation (the selection of materials out of a wide set of possibilities—first articulation—and the arrangement of these loosely ordered materials into a more stable form—second articulation) with which to conceptualize the process through which material form and identity are generated, DeLanda extends this micro-macro distinction to strata operating at infinitely different scales (rather than only two levels of scale: ‘the molecular’ and ‘the molar’).
According to DeLanda, “double articulation is, in its simplest version, the process of joining parts to yield a whole with properties of its own. Since most component parts are smaller than the whole they compose, the part-to-whole relation is a relation between small and large scales.” It would be a mistake, however, to treat the macro and micro as absolute scales. There are never only two scales operating in material or social processes: every entity that is perceived as an autonomous whole is itself populated by component parts, and those parts in turn have their own parts…. “A more adequate approach,” argues DeLanda, “would be to treat them as relative to a particular scale.”
For this reason it is problematic to employ terms like ‘society as a whole’ in our theorizing, for the largest entities are every bit as singular and unique as the smallest. “In general, what needs to be excluded from a materialist social ontology are vague, reified terms like ‘society’ (or ‘the market’, ‘the state’, etc.) Only hacceities (individual singularities) operating at different spatio-temporal scales should be legitimate entities in this ontology.”
The need to keep scale distinctions in mind is particularly evident when considering political economy, as noted by J.K. Gibson-Graham above. DeLanda is similarly uneasy with all-encompassing terms like ‘capitalist society’ or the ‘capitalist system’, but takes his cues from Fernand Braudel’s The Perspective of the World who, in 1986, said that “We should not be too quick to assume that capitalism embraces the whole of western society, that it accounts for every stitch in the social fabric.” Rather than simply interested in the ontological clarification of stratum functioning at different levels of scale, DeLanda sees a political implication here: “Politically it is impossible to effect any real social change if the targets of one’s interventions are non-existent entities.” If the target of protestors is some vague generality, such as ‘the global capitalist system,’ the likelihood at being effective in their interventions is low, even if the movement is well-theorized.
DeLanda’s concern over the lack of real targets in social justice movements echoes Levi Bryant’s response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, who similarly argues here that OWSers have lost sight of the concrete. Both seem to come to the same conclusion: challenging the capitalist social system without engaging at the infrastructural dimension will end up “leaving the basic structure of the system in tact.”
The recent announcement that Žižek’s book on Hegel is coming in April has, appropriately, generated, at one of the same time, excitement and hesitation over the prospect that we might finally get a systematic, focused work on Hegel by the Slovenian philosopher, but one that might nonetheless be strewn with the well-known Žižekian rabbit-trails of cultural anecdotes. (Some of the feelers are out: here and here and here). My own estimation is that the book might, while approaching a tome in page-count, read similarly to his recent piece in The Speculative Turn, to which I rearticulate in what immediately follows.
In the piece entitled ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’, Žižek perturbs the ridiculous caricature of Hegel as the ‘absolute idealist’, which has been thoroughly scrutinized after the break with traditional metaphysics, presenting instead a new figure of Hegel that is congenial to materialism. The main feature of Žižek’s alternative use of dialectical reason is the “weird certainty” that “things will always ‘go wrong’”, that “the only ‘truth’ is the very endless process of ‘generation and corruption’” (p. 211). As Žižek continues on the same page, that each position “will generate an excess which will augur its self-destruction” implies “a consistent all-encompassing meaningful story” is only ever told after the fact. Or, to use a slightly different formulation, as Žižek likes to say, necessity itself is contingent.
In the course of the dialectical development the open-contingent process of real suffering and antagonisms generate new forms of life. On this view it is inaccurate to “impute to Hegel the standard teleological notion of a hidden Reason which pulls the strings of the historical process”, what is typically referred to as absolute Knowledge (ibid.). History never follows a plan established in advance. The historical process is itself undecided. What we have rather are a multitude of unexpected moments that threaten the stability and cohesion of established social and cultural norms that were hitherto guaranteed. Such momentous turns thus shatter all established forms and enforce new orders.
Once again, a new state of a situation “is a little better outlined” only in retrospect, once the sound and fury halts and the course of history is recollected by those who look at it backwards. Revolutionary breaks from the past are exactly that, impossible unforeseen ruptures, but, once what took place is conceived retrospectively, to the lay mind it is a linear, miraculous progression. The conditions for humankind in ape, for instance, are easily discerned retroactively but astonishing if we begin from the necessity of human life. This is why the “Strong Anthropic Principle” in cosmology accounts is false:
we start from human life, which could have evolved only within a set of very precise preconditions, and then, moving backwards, we cannot but be astonished at how our universe was furnished with precisely the right set of characteristics for the emergence of life—just a slightly different chemical composition, density, etc., would have made life impossible… (p. 216)
For all that, it would be misguided to imply that Spirit is a positive force “which gradually breaks and shines through the inert natural stuff”, as though it were some kind of Agent underlying and directing the historical process itself (p. 219). Spirit, for Žižek’s Hegel, is nothing but the incessant movement of upheavals and twists. It cannot therefore be said of Hegel that dialectics has a perfunctory mechanical character, indifferently swallowing historical antagonisms and “delivering them packed in the same triadic form” (p. 222). This critique of Hegel is complicated by Žižek who for pages fights with this quite orthodox angle, contending on the contrary that the only assurance for Hegel is that “every social reconciliation is doomed to fail” (ibid.)
But rather than assessing the endless ‘really real’ process of generation and corruption as ‘ontological shit’, as some incorrectly advocate Žižek doing (see here for a contemporary run-down), the overwhelming power of destruction is its own reward. In pure Hegelese, catastrophe is itself triumph. No effective reversal of negativity into positive greatness is necessary. The reconciliation of historical thought proper is the radically changed meaning of miserable reality itself: in a purely formal shift, which perceives and relates to negativity as the only greatness there is, one should, as Hegel insists, “recognize the Rose in the Cross of the present.” Or again, we do not have to change reality but our perspective, presenting defeat as victory.
If Žižek’s reworked understanding of the Hegelian dialectical process in The Speculative Turn is anything to go by, Less Than Nothing promises to be a robust engagement on the materialist side of diagnosing the false stability of our organized lives and advocating the emergence of the radically New, a prospect I am strongly looking forward to.
The stated purpose of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which may come as a surprise, is to raise living standards all around the world. The opening of the Agreement establishing the world trade regime lists the following goals:
raising standards of living, ensuring full employment and a large and steadily growing volume of real income and effective demand, and expanding the production of and trade in goods and services, while allowing for the optimal use of the world’s resources in accordance with the objective of sustainable development, seeking both to protect and preserve the environment and to enhance the means for doing so in a manner consistent with their respective needs and concerns at different levels of economic development.
It is clear that the framers of the WTO were committed to promoting equitable development, but let’s note right away that the means for achieving this aspiration, expanding market access and deepening integration of the global economy, has been confounded with the end of the WTO agenda. In other words, sustainable development is viewed today as synonymous with maximizing trade. This post presents an alternative bent of economic development, following Dani Rodrik’s ‘The Global Governance of Trade as if Development Really Mattered’ in this regard, one which displaces the enshrinement of trade liberalization and emphasizes instead country-specific institutional innovations, based on local knowledge and experimentation.
The debate of whether to prioritize poverty alleviation or economic development is largely a misguided one. As Rodrik emphasizes, higher growth rates correlate very closely with greater income equality and, at the same time, policies that increase the incomes of the poor tends to be good for growth. The choice between economic growth and income redistribution then is of little interest.
More important to consider, in Rodrik’s view, is whether economic growth strategies should have an explicit poverty focus. He says yes, for at least three reasons. First, that rewards of growth are not equally distributed is well-learned by economists. From this perspective, it may make more sense to choose among competing growth strategies one that ensures the welfare of the poor. Second, given the social costs of poverty, based on a strict economic computation, policies that have greater potential payoff for the poor may actually be the most effective growth strategy to raise average incomes. Third, interventions aimed at helping the poor will ensure the development of human capabilities, echoing Amartya Sen, for those who face the greatest hurdles to lead the kind of lives they value.
The view that wholesale privatization, liberalization, and openness is the best orientation for growth performance has been refashioned since the late 1990s by an augmented ‘enlightened’ approach that emphasizes the need for institutional reforms to supervise and regulate economic activity. It remains the case nonetheless that these institutions reflect strong Anglo-American biases, tending to emphasize the integration of the world economy and the harmonization of practices, codes, standards, etc. This “kitchen-sink approach to development” erroneously presents a unified economic growth recipe to be replicated across various economies, despite substantial differences therein, rather than recognizing the full range of potential institutional possibilities (2001: 16).
Not covered under the received wisdom of the enlightened standard view, three unorthodox growth strategies are of important note. First, import-substituting industrialization (ISI), which promotes home producers by protecting the domestic market against foreign imports, has been historically documented to boost productivity performance in economies where implemented. Second, governments that have taken active roles in implementing credit subsidies, tax incentives, educational policies, export inducements, duty-free access to inputs, and so on to establish competitive enterprises before undertaking trade liberalization enhanced the diversification and profitability of their home markets greater than states that have consistently pursued export-led growth. Third, a two-track strategy that combines certain highly protected domestic sectors with other zones operating under free-trade principles in the same, albeit segmented, economy has also been proven economically successful, particularly in China and Mauritius. All of this suggests that “there is no single model of a successful transition to a high-growth path” (ibid.: 21). The critical factor is instead a peculiar combination of unconventional local innovations and orthodox strategies.
According to neoclassical visionaries trade liberalization, that is, trade openness, promotes growth, ergo countries should slash import tariffs and remove trade barriers to achieve high growth and reduced poverty. This position is often supported by influential studies that suggest there is a strong correlation between liberal trade policies and economic growth. Upon closer look, however, trade liberalization tends to follow growth, not the other way around.
Rodrik is correct to recall that “practically all of today’s advanced countries embarked on their growth behind tariff barriers, and reduced protection only subsequently” (ibid.: 23). Although no country has developed by closing itself off to foreign trade and investment entirely, it is equally true that growth depends on policies that push the economy towards activities that generate growth in the long-haul, usually involving partial protection. As one would now expect, there is no single blueprint-style sequence of policies that assures successful development. Trade reform ought to instead emphasize the critical role of country-specific innovation and experimentation “with some elements from the orthodox recipe” (ibid.: 4).
Countries that pursue economic global integration through the WTO today are required to implement an endless list of institutional reforms to minimize the risks and maximize the gains from openness. The majority of these requisite conditions are perfectly sensible but, at the same time, these institutional priorities are outside the fiscal resources and administrative capabilities of many of the least-developed countries. Just three of the WTO’s institutional requirements, customs valuation, sanitary measures, and intellectual property rights (TRIPS), cost an estimated $150 million per country.
Moreover, Rodrik points out that rather than reflecting an awareness of development priorities, these economic principles largely serve the “mercantilist interests of a narrow set of powerful groups in the advanced industrial countries” (ibid.: 27). By minimizing government interference, these trade agreements provide free market access for larger trading partners to take advantage of unregulated economies. And, as already suggested, if select government intervention plays a crucial role in economic transformation then getting the state out of the way only crowds out more serious development-friendly strategies at home.
Trade, as the WTO’s preamble suggests, is a useful means for achieving sustainable development, higher standards of living, resource efficiency, and full employment. But in fact the international trade regime has been obsessed with trade as an end in itself and, as a result, has overlooked other developmental objectives around the world that reflect domestic-specific conditions. For this reason trade rules should allow for diverse institutional forms and varying preferences as an alternative to harmonized national practices.
Indeed it is possible under existing agreements, Rodrik explains, for countries to legitimately restrict trade or suspend WTO obligations if necessary. Such ‘opt-outs’, as Rodrik describes them, are justified under a broad range of circumstances, such as competitive threats, distributional concerns, conflicts with domestic norms, or developmental priorities. The abuse of opt-outs is a significant concern to be sure, but an investigative body to deliberate among competing interests in a transparent manner would, Rodrik argues, increase its chance of success.
If governments were to take advantage of this right to protect their own economies more consistently, concludes Rodrik, it is conceivable that the traditional agenda of the WTO as a multilateral institution would fundamentally shift away from a market access perspective, the chief beneficiaries of which are multinational corporations in the advanced industrial countries. In its place would appear a very different type of WTO, one who’s role would be to manage institutional diversity rather than harmonize practices across different national systems.
An earlier version of this post was published @ Indigenous Ink