In the 1960s it seemed as if the Third World was in flames, fueled by anti-imperialist struggles from Cuba to Vietnam, Bolivia to Algeria. For New Left intellectuals and activists, these wars were not only the Achilles’ heel of Western domination but also an answer to the alienation of modern life, a chance to forge a new humanism. To spark “two, three, many Vietnams” was a political tactic–and a Hegelian imperative. Taking up arms against the colonialists and their collaborators would make the subjugated aware of themselves as moral beings; revolutionary violence would lead not only to national but to human liberation. The historical mission of anticolonial movements, Frantz Fanon wrote at the dawn of that decade, must not be the substitution of “one barbarism” for “another barbarism,” “one crushing of man” with “another crushing of man.” Instead, it should free both the colonized and the colonizer, ushering in a society free of exploitation.
Four decades later, the Third World, according to the voluminous commentary since September 11, is still burning, yet the smoke carries whiffs not of emancipation but of degradation, not of redemption but of apocalypse. Today’s opinion-makers do not look at Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America as the Enlightenment’s proving ground. Instead, it is a shadowy world ruled by passions that call to be tamed. In the face of genocide, social rot, corruption and failed states, it is the West’s mission, moral obligation even, to finish the task initiated by the old imperialism, a task that national liberation movements were not up to completing. “Empire,” as Michael Ignatieff recently put it in his somewhat reluctant endorsement of war with Iraq, is now “the last hope for democracy and stability alike.”
This gloom has not weakened the Washington Consensus, which holds that open markets combined with constitutional rule will produce a peaceful, prosperous world. But it has changed its tenor. Once preached with evangelical optimism by the Clinton White House, the idea of free-market democracy is now pure fire and brimstone, baldly linked to martial power. As the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy pre-emptively puts it, in case anyone begins to think differently, there is only one “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.”
Doubt, however, is rising. In World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, Amy Chua adds her voice to the dissenters, chief among them economist Joseph Stiglitz, who are questioning the sanity, not to mention morality, of free-market fundamentalism. Like Stiglitz, who worked for the World Bank and the Clinton Administration, Chua has an insider’s authority. A Yale law professor who helped privatize Mexico’s telecommunications industry, she confesses that “back in the early nineties, I believed that the proceeds of privatization” would go to roads, hospitals, schools and the poor. But confronted with evidence suggesting otherwise, she now agrees with a Mexican newspaper report that the “booty of privatization has made multimillionaires of 13 families, while the rest of the population–some 80 million Mexicans–has been subjected to the same gradual impoverishment as though they had suffered through a war.”
Judging from the deprivation, corruption and violence that Chua and others have chronicled, that war has been as merciless and massive as any in human history. While globalization may have bolstered general economic indicators in many countries–wages up a few pennies a day, absolute poverty down–these advances are offset by the rise of basic food prices, the drowning of local industries in a flood of cheap imports, the whiplash caused by unregulated hot-money speculation and government cutbacks in education, welfare and healthcare. Chua vividly describes the anarchic, lawless quality of the first phase of privatization. Gangsters, oligarchs, dictators, international corporations and bureaucrats preside over a staggering upward transfer of wealth, one that arguably rivals the accumulation that took place during the heyday of industrialization and colonialism. Meanwhile, more than a billion people live on less than a dollar a day, and half the world’s population survives on less than two.