The debt chain around the Third World's neck

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The debt chain around the Third World's neck

Your Money or Your Life!: The Tyranny of Global Finance
By Eric Toussaint
Translated from French by Raghu Krishnan (with Vicki Briault Manus)
Published by Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, India
(e-mail: vak@bom3.vsnl.net.in), also soon by Verso.
1999. 302 pp.

Review by Eva Cheng

Incisive and informative analysis of the key institutions and contradictions of contemporary capitalism which caters for the concerns of left activists has been far from adequate. Eric Toussaint's Your Money or Your Life! helps to fill the gap.

Toussaint, president of the Belgium-based Committee for the Cancellation of the Third World Debt, focuses on the burning problem of Third World debt, which crushes the lives of billions of people around the world. An activist-oriented worldwide campaign on this issue is holding a mass protest in Cologne, Germany, on June 19 calling for the complete abolition of these debts.

Though not officially published by the campaign, Your Money or Your Life! is clearly designed to educate its activists and those of related campaigns, and mobilise more to their ranks. The book is scheduled to be published in another six languages — French, Dutch, Spanish, German, Turkish and Greek — during 1999.

The first four chapters examine how ruling classes around the world have been waging a neo-liberal offensive since capitalism entered a phase of slow growth and strained profits in the early 1970s. This involves further impoverishing the majority, in increasingly barbaric ways.

As part of this process, capital movement was freed up to strengthen the capitalists' ability to extract profits beyond their home turfs, helped by widespread privatisation and the dismantling of "social safety nets".

Various debt crises are reviewed in the following chapters, including four in Latin America which seem to be linked to four long periods of slow growth of capitalism. Interesting examples of Latin American countries collectively repudiating their debt to the imperialist centres are also examined.

The role of the World Bank and the IMF as tools of domination is laid bare, particularly in reproducing the subjugation of the Third World through debt.

The main problems of the concluding section on alternatives lie in the vagueness of the goals, the lack of a logical link between the campaigns and their ability to take humanity to those goals, and the illusions sown that these "global campaigns" command greater influence and power than they really have.

Toussaint puts forward as the most pressing needs of the Third World: basic health and medical care, access to safe drinking water and literacy, employment for all, land to the tiller and women's liberation. These are all worthwhile goals, but the critical question is: How do we get there?

In addressing this question, Toussaint asks whether it would be "risky" to rely on the World Bank, IMF, the G7 (the top imperialist countries), the financial markets, multinational companies and the like, adding that it would be "wiser to look towards those 'from below'" and to parliaments and governments to demand policies that reject neo-liberalism.

Beyond these generalities, Toussaint adds only: "This raises the question of political power" — that's it, with no explanation, though he does quote someone saying the expropriation of capital would be hard to avoid.

These points are true, but casually and indirectly raising them amidst a lot of generalities greatly weakens whatever political message they were meant to carry — presumably, the ultimate need of the working people to take power.

Beyond this, Toussaint says that those interested in seeing immediate improvements must debate the intermediate measures that could ease the plight of the heavily indebted poor countries, proposing the cancellation of all external debts of Third World countries.

He also suggests ways to fund urgent social needs worldwide: expropriating the foreign assets of dictators, nationalising the domestic assets of dictatorial regimes, fining seriously "fraudulent capitalists" (targeting especially their overseas assets), heavily taxing the profits from speculation, a wealth tax and a tax on cross-border financial transactions, as well as various "complementary" measures.

All campaigns to these ends contribute to weakening the legitimacy of capitalism, through consciousness-raising and the provision of a platform for political action. Yet many participants hold illusions that the narrow purpose of their campaigns can contribute to improving a social system to which there are no alternatives. A prime task of a practising Marxist like Toussaint is to present the socialist alternative and argue for it. It is possible to present the essential elements, free of jargon and dogmatism.

Some campaign activists may not be convinced, at least not immediately, but hiding such a perspective rules out the chance of winning them. It amounts to accommodating to the liberal consciousness that prevails among many, however dedicated and well-intentioned, activists.

Without raising consciousness in a socialist direction, those campaigns and their activists can't go far politically. To suggest that by linking campaigns in different countries (presumably by e-mail and occasional international meetings, where democratic representation is often not possible) a "convergence of struggles" can take shape is a bit far-fetched.

Other than this section on strategy, Your Money is informative and well sourced, with the partial exception of the chapter on the Asian crisis, which is too superficial. The assertion that the economies of South Korea and Taiwan have "without a doubt" come out of dependency is highly debatable.