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The World Guide
Is it anomalous that a mere 4 per cent of the income of the 360 richest people -who together own more than the half the world's wealth- would be enough to solve the economic problems of the world's poor people. Three of the wealthiest people alone have assets equaling the GDP income of our 48 poorest nations

In 1776, economist Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations launched liberalism on the world as an economic and ideological model. Since then, it has had larger and smaller moments of success. Where Karl Marx saw 'a walking corpse', and other detractors a 'machine to generate injustices', supporters acclaimed 'the most successful ideology in the history of humanity' and above all a 'realistic', systematic, coherent vision. What is the view today?

Time for evaluation

Since the emergence of the global justice or anti-globalization movement in Seattle in December 1999 -a movement rooted in the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico and the 1997 global economic crisis- increasing numbers of voices have been raised against the neoliberal economic model, the genetically modified grandchild of Smith's liberalism. One of the accusations that began to fly was of 'single-mindedness' or exclusivity and by extension, totalitarianism. Another was 'illegitimacy', where the only legitimacy was that of having claimed itself the 'only way' and the narrow focus of its outlook. These critics demanded a 'more human face of

Whilst attempts were made to undermine the credibility of the Seattle movement by saying that the demonstrators were simply 'troublemakers', one key figure, Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, began to offer support for the protesters' arguments.
Professor Stiglitz had questioned the practices of the Bank and particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since his time at the Bank. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001, he used his acceptance speech to call for greater state controls and regulation, restating objections to the neoliberal agenda that fed economic globalization from the Washington Consensus
(US politicians, business and institutions).

The repeated economic crises affecting most of the nations of the South, especially in Asia and Latin America, were convincing evidence that the critics were right and that the neoliberal model had failed. Of course no single failing, nor even hundreds of these, necessarily imply the failure of the model; nor does the poor implementation of policies -indeed several of the criticisms voiced by Stiglitz pinpoint aspects in bureaucracy or application, and these do not negate the effectiveness of the model. However, the request for a 'more human face' is tantamount to demanding another model, although the nature of this replacement is not at all clear: neoliberalism, by definition, cannot have a human face.

Realism vs utopia

During the 20th century, defenders of liberalism considered it a 'realist' ideology, in opposition to the utopian visions of the socialists and Marxists in power behind the Iron Curtain and actively promoting political change all over the world. With the collapse of the socialist bloc in the early 1990s, the liberals proclaimed their age-old accusation that the utopian models give way to ones with their feet on the ground. In the last decade of the 20th century, neoliberalism -the Anglo-Saxon corporate version of liberalism- emerged for some as the only suitable model and, by implication the only one able to direct our political and economic destiny. It was not selling utopia, although supporters claimed there that the tools were there to manage the global economy in its current, transnationalized state.

It is worth pointing out here that neoliberalism did not need moral legitimacy. It was only claimed to be a 'suitable' tool and, where socialism promoted idealistic notions such as solidarity, happiness and equality, neoliberalism simply offered economic prosperity. It is essential to remember that in terms of a theoretical and 'scientific' model economic neoliberalism is not linked to any ethical or
philosophical conditions. For although in the early stages capitalism underwent various interpretations by European Christian thinkers who posed questions about the links between the economy and moral issues, the two finally went their separate ways, as did philosophy and science. In the end, as Adam Smith would note, the liberal doctrine established that 'it is not the benevolence of the butcher, brewer or baker which provides our food, but the consideration of his own interest. We do not invoke their humanitarian sentiments but their selfishness; nor do we speak of our needs, but of their advantages.'

Ethics versus economics

As neoliberalism is a 'driverless machine' and therefore amoral, its supporters claim there are no contradictions in the fact that, since its wide application in the world, the gap between poor and rich has currently widened to the extent that the wealth of the 10 richest people in the world is worth more than 1.5 times the income of all the least developed nations put together. Nor, for these advocates of neoliberalism, is it anomalous that a mere 4 per cent of the income of the 360 richest people -who together own more than the half the world's wealth- would be enough to solve the economic problems of the world's poor people. Three of the wealthiest people alone have assets equaling the GDP income of our 48 poorest nations.

However, for most religious, spiritual or 'humanitarian' institutions these discrepancies carry a moral contradiction that has led them to call for revision of the situation generated by this economic model. This is an ethical response that aims to return meaning to the world. Stiglitz´ reaction, and his Nobel prize, are a response to a fear: that of awakening in a world ruled by 'driverless

*Published in The World Guide





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