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Thursday, August 25th, 2005


Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization


Dream World

A review by Joshua Brook

In a prescient essay for the Atlantic Monthly in 1992, Rutgers political scientist Benjamin Barber predicted that "[j]ust beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures -- both bleak, neither democratic." Barber's colorful catchphrase for this dichotomy was "Jihad vs. McWorld" (which later served as title of his 1995 book). The recent terror bombings in London, timed as they most likely were to coincide with the G8 summit in Scotland, are a grim confirmation of Barber's prophesy. Although, the world's attention has, since September 11, understandably been more focused on Jihad, Michael Goldman's Imperial Nature -- a new study of, cum jeremiad against, the World Bank -- offers a trenchant and thorough, if somewhat unbalanced, critique of one of the prime engines of McWorld.

Goldman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and an affiliate of its Institute for Global Studies, largely shares the militantly negative view of the World Bank espoused by the demonstrators who regularly protest the Bank and its sister institutions. Unlike many of his comrades, however, Goldman has devoted significant time and effort to researching the institution he so despises. His considered views, therefore, deserve to be taken seriously.

Imperial Nature's greatest strength is its analysis of the World Bank as an institution -- its hierarchies, branches, staff organization, and official ideology. Goldman traces the history of the Bank from its founding just after the Second World War, when it was a largely quiescent institution, to its present day incarnation as an economic colossus -- a transformation that Goldman attributes to Robert McNamara, who after leaving the Pentagon, led the Bank from 1968 to 1981. Goldman provides detailed descriptions of how the Bank organizes and controls the flow of information within the Bank and between the Bank and the public. In Goldman's view, the Bank stifles honest, empirical evaluations of its programs in favor of "manufactur[ed] consent" supporting its pre-determined ideological agenda. He cites the case of Herman Daly, a prominent environmental economist who was hired by the Bank in the mid-1980s, but whose refusal to toe the Bank's "party line" led the Bank to censor his research and limit his public appearances.

Goldman is also keenly interested in anti-World Bank activism and the dialectic between the activists and the institution against which they are protesting. Imperial Nature traces the rise of "transnational advocacy networking" that links anti-Bank activists in the developed and developing world. Goldman shows how the World Bank has responded to the protests by incorporating (pun intended) environmental and labor concerns into its project planning. But he is skeptical that these reforms are anything other than insubstantial, largely cosmetic glosses designed to hoodwink the public -- because, despite these reforms, the bank is still convinced that "environmental improvement comes only through capitalist modernization."

Goldman's research and analysis provide strong empirical support for the anti-World Bank protest movement. But Imperial Nature is ultimately marred by the author's utopian politics. Like his Marxist forebears who saw no difference between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover (both were supporters of capitalism), Goldman seems unwilling to recognize any grey area in the field of development economics. Even worse than Goldman's utopianism is his tendency to deploy impenetrable academic jargon in support of it. He writes, for example, that the World Bank is "deeply embedded in multi-tentacled structures of power, culture, and capital." In another passage, Goldman seeks to "demonstrate not only how the world of sustainable development is constituted in situ ... but also the regimes of power, truths, and rights on which these new institutional practices are based." Quotations of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and French post-structuralist Michel Foucault abound.

Ultimately, Goldman resists the notion that economic development can be measured "by such simple data as increases in yields or gross domestic product." Rather, he views economic development as "a complex set of practices woven into the fabric of everyday life." He concludes that understanding institutions such as the World Bank is the first step to "democratizing and socializing these powerful capitalist structures ... [and that] [a]nother world is indeed possible."

In Imperial Nature Michael Goldman provides a valuable resource for activists, students, and scholars, alike. Only time will tell if Goldman's aspiration for a more humane form of economic development is prophetic or chimeric. Ultimately, however, Goldman may prove to resemble nothing more than his hero, Karl Marx -- a brilliant social scientist but a lousy prophet.

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