Thursday, October 1, 2015

One Bank to Rule Them All: The Bank for International Settlements

Please note that this article is being published as a three-part series on

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is an organization that is shrouded in mystery, mainly due to the fact that the majority of people don’t even know of its existence.

According to the BIS itself, the main purpose of the Bank is to "to promote the cooperation of central banks and to provide additional facilities for international financial operations” and "act as trustee or agent in regard to international financial settlements entrusted to it under agreements of the parties concern.”[1] This means that the BIS is to have the central banks work with one another to facilitate international operations and to oversee any international financial settlements.

The Bank has a Board of Directors, which “may have up to 21 members, including six ex officio directors, comprising the central bank Governors of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each ex officio member may appoint another member of the same nationality. Nine Governors of other member central banks may be elected to the Board.”[2] BIS also has a management wing in the form of a General and Deputy General Manager, both of whom are responsible to the board and supported by Executive, Finance, and Compliance and Operational Risk Committees.[3]

However, its purpose has changed and evolved over the decades, however, it has always been a club for central bankers, yet in many ways it can aid some countries more than others.
The origins of the BIS lie in the United States, specifically New York City. The individuals involved were international bankers who, despite past differences, “worked together to establish a world financial order that would incorporate the federal principle of the American central banking system.”[4] Specifically among them were people such as “Owen D. Young, J. Pierpont Morgan, Thomas W. Lamont, S. Parker Gilbert, Gates W. McGarrah, and Jackson Reynolds, who, in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, sought to extend the principle of central bank cooperation to the international sphere.”[5]

Before delving any further into the creation of the Bank, it is necessary to examine some of the more notable of these individuals to better understand why they would be involved in the creation of an international bank.

Owen D. Young was already in good with the US government as he, “with the cooperation of the American government and the support of GE, organized and became chairman of the board of the Radio Corporation of America” and “in subsequent years he engineered a series of agreements with foreign companies that divided the world into radio zones and facilitated worldwide wireless communication”[6] Young had a strong belief that global radio service and broadcasting were important for the advancement of civilization. In 1922, Young became chairman of General Electric, and along with GE President Gerard Swope, “urged closer business-government cooperation and corporate self-regulation under government supervision.”[7]

During the 1920s, Young became involved in international diplomacy as the foreign affairs spokesman for the Democratic Party. At the behest of then-Secretary of State, Charles Evan Hughes, Young and Charles Dawes, a banker, were recommended to the Allied Reparations Commission in order to deal with the breakdown in Germany’s reparations payments following the First World War.

The Commission resulted in the Dawes Plan which allowed for “Germany’s annual reparation payments would be reduced, increasing over time as its economy improved; the full amount to be paid, however, was left undetermined. Economic policy making in Berlin would be reorganized under foreign supervision and a new currency, the Reichsmark, adopted.”[8] Young viewed improving the world financial structure as important to “the very survival of capitalism” and furthermore he “sought rather the ‘economic integration’ of the world which would prepare the way for ‘political integration’ and lasting peace.”[9]

John Piermont Morgan, Jr. was already ensconced in the world of international banking, having inherited the JP Morgan Company from his father. During World War One, the House of Morgan worked hand-in-hand with the British and French governments, engaging in a number of tasks such as floating loans for the two countries, handling foreign exchange operations, and advising officials of each respective country.[10]

Both these individuals were heavily involved in politics and banking therefore had a personal interest in the creation of a global bank. It should be noted, this fits into the US government’s own policies as they wanted to “[keep] aloof from the political entanglements in Europe while safeguarding vital American interests by means of unofficial observers or participants.”[11] The Federal Reserve also was interested in the creation of the BIS as it would “[promote] both the ascendancy of New York City in world banking and the reconstruction of a stable and prosperous Europe able to absorb American exports.”[12]

This idea of an international bank didn’t occur in a vacuum. The creation of the bank “was inextricably tied to the problem of German reparations in the context of Germany's overall debt burden during the 1920s.”[13] A slowdown in international lending to Germany began in 1928 as markets became extremely worried about the internal politics of the Weimar Republic. Due to the breakup of a center coalition government and the Social Democrats needing support from right-wing parties, the political situation began to fall apart with “government stability [being] threatened whenever budget debates exposed the basic social divide of unemployment insurance and increased industrial taxation on the one hand versus spending austerity and tax cuts on the other.”[14] The budget problems came on the heels of the Reparations Committee having determined that Germany’s total reparations came to $33 billion, which was twice the size of the country’s total economy in 1925. As long as foreign capital kept coming into Germany, things were fine, however as was aforementioned, that situation changed in 1928.

Between February 1929 and January 1930, negotiations were made to reschedule Germany’s reparations payments. “These negotiations were initiated by central bankers and private actors, who were the first to link problems in the capital market with the need to reorganize Germany's financial obligations.”[15] Thus, it should be no surprise that many of the main individuals involved in the creation of the BIS were central bankers or engaged in international affairs/finance to some extent.

The idea for an international bank had already been explored to some extent by people such as John Mayard Keynes[16], however the idea truly took off during the Young Conference in 1929 when the Allies were attempting to deal with Germany’s reparations debts for World War One. Belgian delegate Emile Franqui bought up the possibility of having a settlement organization to administer the reparations agreement and the very next day, Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank and chief German representative at the conference, presented a proposal to establish such an organization to as a direct financier of global economic development and trade. The bank would act as a lender to the German central bank in case the Germany currency weakened and the government found itself unable to make the reparations payment. In addition, it would give steps for how to proceed in the case of German default as if “Germany did not resume payments within two years, the BIS would propose revisions collectively for the creditor governments (which would only go into effect with their approval)” and “the bank was responsible for surveillance and informing the creditor countries about economic and financial conditions in Germany.”[17]

While the US State Department was concerned with having a settlement as State Department “economic adviser Arthur N. Young observed, ‘a final reparations settlement’ would ‘promote both political and economic stability in Europe, and thus tend to be of advantage to the United States,” the US government as a whole didn’t want any type of linkage between reparations and war debts due to the fact that because each of the Allied nations was demanding reparations from Germany large enough to cover the debts it owed to the US, having such a linkage would mean that “Germany's refusal or inability to pay that amount would put Washington in the position of having to agree to a debt reduction or bear the opprobrium and suffer the consequences of opening the door to financial chaos.”[18] However, several other countries had their own interests as well in the creation of the BIS.

The French Prime Minister, Raymond Poincare, promised the French public that the reparations would cover the country’s debts to both the US and Britain as well as cover the war damages. France was also interested in reaching an agreement on German debts as they were developing trade interdependence with the Germans and stability was needed.[19]

The British wanted to use the BIS as a means to ensure that the Germans would pay on their debts as scheduled. The Bank of England itself supported the creation of the BIS “because of its potential role in stabilizing the position of the pound in the international monetary system. Britain's relatively small gold reserves made it difficult to defend the pound without international monetary cooperation and the willingness of smaller powers to hold foreign exchange as reserves instead of gold.”[20]

At the meeting in Baden, Germany in October 1929 to draw up the final plans for the BIS saw the heavy presence of US finance in the form of Melvin Traylor of the First National Bank of Chicago and Federick Reynolds of the First National Bank of New York. There, the two nominated Gates W. McGarrah, chairman of the board of the New York Reserve Bank for the officer of President. Later, his assistant, “Leon Fraser, a legal counselor at Gilbert's reparations office, the Young conference, and Baden,”[21] would become president of the Bank in 1935. When the Bank of England expressed anger and that the European public wouldn’t find American domination of the Bank acceptable, they were effectively told that if they wanted American participation in the BIS it would have to be on American terms. However, they did agree to appoint Pierre Quesnay of the Bank of France as the general manager of the BIS. The Bank was officially founded on May 17, 1930.

The role of the BIS quickly changed as with the onset of the Great Depression, it was unable to “play the role of lender of last resort, notwithstanding noteworthy attempts at organizing support credits for both the Austrian and German central banks in 1931” and due to the Depression, the issue of reparations was off the table due to Germany’s inability to pay. The problem was further compounded when countries such as Britain and the US began to devalue their currencies (i.e. print more money) and the BIS attempted numerous times to end the exchange rate instability by restoring the gold standard, “the BIS had little choice but to limit itself to undertaking banking transactions for the account of central banks and providing a forum for central bank governors to help them maintain contact.”[22] During the Second World War, all operations were suspended for the duration of the conflict, yet the situation became rather dicey for the Bank once the guns stopped firing.

Immediately after World War Two, the global economic landscape had massively changed and thus a new system was needed, In July 1944 over 700 delegates from the Allied nation met in Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, NH for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference which “agreed on the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (BRD), which became part of the World Bank,”[23] where the IMF would pay attention to exchange rates and lend reserve currencies to nations in debt. A new global currency exchange system was created in where all currencies were linked to the US dollar and in exchange the US agreed to fix the price of gold at $35/ounce. All of this meant that there would be no need for currency warfare or manipulation. This proved a threat to the BIS as if the IMF was to be the center of this new global financial order, what need would there be for the BIS? Wilhelm Keilhau, a member of the Norwegian delegation, even went so far as to propose a notion to eliminate the BIS. However, the Bank was to continue as several other European nations noted its importance to the financial matters of the European continent and soon the move to eliminate the Bank was rescinded.

Matters were stable until the 1960s and ‘70s as while the Bretton Woods system of “free currency convertibility at fixed exchange rates” coincided with a massive increase of international trade and economic growth, cracks began to show as the British currency was weak and, more importantly, the gold parity on the US dollar was straining due to “an insufficient supply of gold and from the weakening of the US balance of payments.”[24] However, the Bretton Woods system collapsed on August 1971; however the system of ‘managed floating’ was created in its place which allowed for flexibility of exchange rates within certain parameters. Later in the 1970s, the situation became all the more dire due to the creation of OPEC and the subsequent rise in oil prices and the Herstatt Bank failure.

The Herstatt Bank was central in processing foreign exchange orders (people exchange currencies, such as trading in dollars for yen) and when German regulators withdrew the bank’s license forcing the bank to close up shop on June 26, 1974. Meanwhile, “it was still morning in New York, where Herstatt's counterparties were expecting to receive dollars in exchange for Deutsche marks they had delivered”[25] and when Hersttat’s clearing bank Chase Manhattan refused to fulfill the orders by freezing the Herstatt account, it caused a chain of defaults. It was this problem that led to the creation, in conjunction with the G-10 countries and Switzerland, of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in which the goal was to set the global standard for bank regulation and to provide a forum for bank supervisory matters.

Yet, this newly created stability was short-lived as in the 1980s and ‘90s saw serious economic problems involving Latin America and Asia.

Oil prices quadrupled in November 1973, leading to stagflation, an increase in balance of payment imbalances, and major shocks in international banking. The Euro-currency markets were growing as they began to be utilized by OPEC countries more and more as the oil-producing nations invested in European money markets, greatly increasing the money European banks had and thus could lend. Thus, the European Coal and Steel Community began loaning money to developing nations at a faster and faster peace and while this was largely beneficial to the world economy at the start, “it also implied that the international banking system was faced with an increase in country risk,”[26] as many of the countries that were being loaned to were getting more and more into debt. This concerned then-BIS Economic Advisor Alexandre Lamfalussy who warned of a threat of a crisis and was specifically focused on credit, saying in a 1976 speech that from” ‘[looking at]... the continuous growth of credits, the spread of risks to a large number of countries, and the change in the nature of credits – I draw the conclusion that the problem of risks has become a very urgent one."[27]

While real interest rates (the difference between yearly interest rates on savings and inflation rates) were negative in the 1970s, meaning that borrowers lost a percentage of every dollar they loaned, allowed for an increase in credit, it quickly came to a halt in 1979 as the US Federal Reserve tightened US monetary policy which led to an increase in debts which many Latin American countries were unable to pay off.

The BIS was worried about debt that matured in less than a year as by early 1982, such debt would amount to half of Mexico’s and Argentina’s debt respectively. On August 12, 1982, Mexico alerted the US that its financial reserves were exhausted. This prompted the BIS to work to get financial assistance to Mexico in the form of loans, as the Mexican government negotiated with the IMF. Specifically, the BIS “offered a US$ 925 million loan, backed by the G10 central banks and the Bank of Spain” and both the US Federal Reserve and Treasury “matched this with an equal amount, so that a total of US$ 1.85 billion was made available for an initial period of three months.”[28] While there were some last-minute problems, Mexico eventually accepted the loan and made a promise to pay it back, “[consisting] of a gold pledge by the Bank of Mexico and advance claims on future revenues of the Mexican state oil company Pemex.”[29] The first loan was paid out on August 30, 1982.

However, the loans were tied to the Mexican government enacting austerity measures.[30] This had serious effects as the cutback in public spending “set back many development programs, including poverty alleviation programs”[31] and the overall economic effects harmed “especially the lower and middle classes. For Mexican workers, real wages in 1986 were at virtually the same level they had been at in 1967; for many, a generation of economic progress had been wiped out by the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s.”[32]

In the late 1990s in Asia, a new crisis would emerge. There were extremely robust GDP rates in the Asian markets, ranging from “more than 5 percent in Thailand to 8 percent in Indonesia. This achievement continued a pattern existing since the early 1980s. Rapid growth was fueled by high rates.”[33] However, the growth began to slow down in 1996, which “[reflected] slower growth of demand in the region’s principal export markets, a slowdown in the global electronics industry, and competition from Mainland China.”[34] This slowdown led to an increase in deficit rates, especially with Thailand, whose deficits grew eight percent of GDP. In an attempt to prevent fluctuations in the Thai currency, the baht, the government tied the value of the baht to a basket of foreign currencies, heavily leaning on the US dollar. However, because the dollar was gaining strength, the strength of the baht also grew, making the export of goods more difficult.

Thailand, as well as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia devalued their currencies 25 to 33 percent in the middle of 1997 and when Taiwan began to devalue its currency, it led to a speculative currency attack on Hong Kong the in which people sold off their Hong Kong dollars, expecting them to fall in value. This caused the Hong Kong stock market to crash in October 1997 while at the same time the South Korean won was weakening in value. From there the crisis grew to global proportions and spread to a number of countries such as Russia and Jakarta.

Thailand as well as South Korea and Indonesia went so far as to request assistance from the IMF, which the IMF granted of course, but only in exchange for brutal austerity measures. Much of this led to violence and even deaths in Indonesia and protests in South Korea.[35]

What is most interesting about the crisis is how the leaders of some of the affected countries spoke about it. Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, said in a speech on September 26, 2008 that “in 1997-98 American hedge funds destroyed the economies of poor countries by manipulating their national currencies.” It should be noted that this isn’t a simply ‘blame America’ attitude as Dr. Mohamad is “recognized as an authority on the role of hedge funds in financial crises, given his experience managing the Asian currency crisis as it engulfed his nation.”[36] The Reserve Bank of Australia “produced two reports in 1999 on the potentially destructive role of highly leveraged institutions such as hedge funds.” The reports claimed that “hedge funds contributed to the instability of its exchange rate in 1998, and it describe how hedge funds can have a destabilizing impact on not only the currencies of emerging economies but also on currencies such as the Australian dollar which has the eighth largest global trading volume.”[37]

In a paper written in early 1999 after the crisis ended, William R. White, then-Economic Adviser and Head of the Monetary and Economic Department at the Bank for International Settlements, wrote that “Many Asian-Pacific authorities (including representatives from Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysia) feel strongly that hedge funds set out systematically to destabilize their currencies and their financial markets. However, other evidence is less compelling in support of this hypothesis and, even if accepted, would not necessarily lead to the conclusion that such funds should be regulated.”[38] So he is not only denying the evidence that not only have Dr. Mohamad produced, but also the Reserve Bank of Australia produced, but effectively saying that even if he did accept the information, so what?

However, years later, in a turn of the ironic, White had warned of the global crisis as he and his team had been paying attention to the growing US real estate bubble and they “criticized the increasingly impenetrable securitization business, vehemently pointed out the perils of risky loans and provided evidence of the lack of credibility of the rating agencies.”[39] He started warning people back in 2003, “[imploring] central bankers to rethink their strategies, noting that instability in the financial markets had triggered inflation, the ‘villain’ in the global economy.”[40] White retired from the BIS on June 30, 2008 with his advice having been ignored. This was due to the fact that the Federal Reserve was attempting to “artificially prop up those markets [of bad debt and worthless assets] and keep those assets trading at prices far in excess of their actual market value”[41] which led to them providing “$16 trillion to domestic and foreign banks in the form of secret loans and bought mortgage-backed securities that were in reality, completely and totally worthless”[42] as well as the fact that many of the people on the board of directors at the Federal Reserve also had connections to corporations that received bailout money.

Even still, after the financial crisis seemed to be over, the BIS was sounding the alarm about debt, in June 2010 the organization “delivered a stern message to central banks and governments that keeping interest rates low for too long, or failing to act quickly to cut budget deficits, could sow the seeds for the next crisis.”[43] Earlier that year, the organization was warning of a sovereign debt crisis and noted that “Drastic austerity measures will be needed to head off a compound interest spiral, if it is not already too late for some.”[44] It seems that from the austerity measures that have been enacted in Europe and the US, the call has been heeded. The question is this: how much devastation will this have and will it result in a ‘lost generation’ such as in 1980s Mexico?


1: Roger Auboin, The Bank for International Settlements, 1930-1955, Princeton University,

2: Bank for International Settlements, Board of Directors,

3: Bank for International Settlements, Management of the BIS,

4: Frank Costigliola, “The Other Side of Isolationism: The Establishment of the First World Bank, 1929-1930,” The Journal of American History 59:3 (1972), pg 602

5: Ibid, pg 603

6: Steven Schoenherr Home Page, Owen D. Young,

7: Ibid

8: US State Department, The Dawes Plan, the Young Plan, German Reparations, and Inter-allied War Debts,

9: Costigliola, pg 605

10: Martin Horn, “A Private Bank At War: J.P. Morgan & Co. and France, 1914-1918,” Business History Review 74:1 (2000), pg 86

11: Costigliola, pg 603

12: Ibid

13: Beth A. Simmons, “Why Innovate? Founding the Bank for International Settlements,” World Politics 45:3 (1993), pg 370

14: Simmons, pg 375

15: Simmons, pg 377

16: J. Keith Horsefield, International Monetary Fund 1945-1965 Twenty Years of International Monetary Cooperation, vol. 1 Chronicle (Washington D.C.: International Monetary Fund, 1986)

17: Simmons, pg 383

18: Costigliola, pg 610

19: Simmons, pgs 384-385

20: Simmons, pg 389

21: Costigliola, pg 616

22: Bank for International Settlements, BIS Archive Guide,

23: Adam Lebor, Tower of Basel (New York: Public Affairs, 2013) pg 87

24: Bank for International Settlements, BIS Archive Guide,

25: Gregana Koleva, “Icon of Systemic Risk Haunts Industry Decades After Demise,” American Banker, (June 23, 2011)

26: Piet Clement, Ivo Maes, “The BIS and the Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980s,” National Bank of Belgium, Working Paper 247, December 2013, pg 3

27: Ibid, pg 4

28: Ibid, pg 17

29: Ibid

30: Paul Lewis, “Mexico to Receive $1.85 Billion In Loans,” New York Times, August 31, 1982 (

31: Bhuvan Bhatnagar, Aubrey C. Williams, eds. Participatory Development and the World Bank: Potential Directions for Change, (October 31, 1992), pg 103

32: Robert M. Buffington, Don M. Coerver, Suzanne B. Pasztor,  Mexico Today: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary History and Culture (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), pg 137

33: Barry Eichengreen, Understanding Asia’s Financial Crisis, Saint John’s University, (November 2, 1998)

34: Ibid

35: PBS, Timeline of the Crash,

36: Stephen J. Brown, “The Role of Hedge Funds in Financial Crisis,” The EconoMonitor, October 20, 2008 (

37: Hedge Funds, Hedge Funds Studies,

38: Bank For International Settlements,  Mr. White discusses the Asian crisis and the Bank for International Settlements,

39: Beat Balzi, Michaela Schiessl, “The Man Nobody Wanted To Hear: Global Banking Economist Warned Of Coming Crisis,” Der Spiegel, July 8, 2009 (

40: Ibid

41: John Wallace, “The Financial Crisis and the Federal Reserve,” News Blaze, September 27, 2008 (

42: Bernie Sanders, The Fed Audit, (July 21, 2011)

43: Brian Blackstone, “International Finance: BIS Warns Countries About Risks of Debt,” Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2010

44: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Sovereign Debt Crisis At ‘Boiling Point,’ Warns Bank for International Settlements,” The Telegraph, April 8, 2010 (

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

False Gods: The Truth About BRICS

This is a transcript of a recent email interview I did with independent journalist James Corbett, where we discuss BRICS, the view that many have of the organization as a resistance force and the truth behind that, and end with on how we can fight back against the powers that be in our own way.

1. What are BRICS and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AAIB) really about? Many people argue that it is these countries challenging the dominate US-based system. How is that true or not true in some respects?

Who is contending that the AIIB or the BRICS' New Development Bank is in any way competitive with the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF/World Bank)? Certainly not anyone involved with any of these institutions. 

In March, IMF chief Christine Lagarde pledged IMF cooperation with the AIIB.

In June, World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim issued a statement congratulating the AIIB on its formation and calling it an "important new partner" for the Washington-led development bank.

In July, NDB [New Development Bank] President K.V. Kamath returned the favor, conceding that the NDB and the IMF/World Bank are complementary institutions, not rivals.

Also in July, the AIIB and the World Bank signed an actual cooperation agreement, promising to identify projects for joint financing later this fall.

No, these institutions do not view themselves as competitive. It is only various media pundits who have speculated that these new banks are in fact some sort of challenge to the so-called "Washington consensus." What none of these experts has bothered to report (for obvious reasons) is the remarkable fact that the Vice President of the NDB is also an Executive Board member of the IMF, who then went on to pledge cooperation and joint action between the NDB and IMF. Also missing from this narrative is the fact that the NDB's chief, Kundapur Vaman Kamath, is a former staffer of the supposed NDB "rival" Asia Development Bank. Or there's Jin Liqun, widely tipped to be the head of the AIIB, who also happens to be a former Vice President of the Asia Development Bank and alternative Executive Director of the World Bank.

In fact, the only sign that these Beijing-backed development banks pose any challenge to the existing order whatsoever is that the NDB has already confirmed that their first loan will be denominated in yuan, not dollars, and the AIIB is considering a basket of currencies, including the yuan.

But even this is not as much of a challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions as it appears on first glance. Although Beijing is obviously seeking to bolster the yuan as an international settlement currency, this is not being done in an effort to make the yuan itself a world reserve currency in the same way that the dollar is today. Instead, this is being done in service of a policy goal outlined by People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan in 2009 that is seeking to establish the "Special Drawing Rights" currency basket as the new world reserve currency.

China's goal is to have the yuan included in the SDR basket along with the dollar, yen, euro and pound. But the SDR itself is issued and administered by the IMF so once again we see that Beijing is not seeking to undermine these US-led hegemonic institutions at all, merely to increase their status and clout within these institutions

2. Are there any cracks in BRICS, as in problems and disputes between member nations?

It would almost be better to ask if there are any points of accord between the BRICS nations other than occasional alignment of bilateral trade or security goals.

The idea that there is any such thing as a shared BRICS economic, military or foreign policy is part of the fundamental fraud of the "BRICS" idea itself. The truth is that the BRICS (formerly "BRIC") are not a coherent or organic grouping of like-minded states at all, but an arbitrary grouping of economies first identified by Goldman Sachs as emerging economies who were all expected to outperform the developed world in the coming decades. It was the BRIC countries that took this Goldman Sachs concept and attempted to make it into a real-world political reality, and the ploy becomes even more obvious when one realizes that the "S" (South Africa) was added not for any rational economic or political reason, but primarily to give the organization a footing in another continent. 

China and India were at war in 1962 and have suffered through decades of tense relations. Even as late as 2006 Indian parliamentarians were openly urging a harder line on ongoing border disputes between the two countries and border issues continue to this very day, with a tense military standoff in the disputed border region occurring last year, over a decade after the BRIC's inception.
China and Russia likewise share their traditional rivalries. Ever since the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, the two countries have been famously distrustful of each other. They have competing security and economic interests in places like Central Asia, where Putin is trying to construct his Eurasian Economic Union and Xi is attempting to solidify his New Silk Road. The fact that China, the world's largest energy importer, and Russia, the world's largest natural gas exporter, have only just now completed a pipeline agreement shows the degree to which their warming economic relations are a matter of political expediency, not mutual trust.

Brazil has enjoyed a close trading relationship with China in recent years, but even so Brazil has joined fellow BRICS member India in openly criticizing Beijing for its foot-dragging on yuan appreciation.

Brazil, India and South Africa have attempted to create closer relations in recent years through mechanisms like the IBSA Dialogue as part of the "South-South Policy," but the very fact that they are seeking to expand cooperation through alternative dialogues and fora show the ineffectiveness of the BRICS to address these issues within the BRICS framework.

The BRICS are an artificial creation of a US investment bank, and the glacial pace at which the organization moves and the constant internal jockeying for status and position (see deliberations over where to locate the NDB for example) show that it is little more than an afterthought in these countries' economic and foreign policies.

3. Are there any ways in which the interests of countries like Russia and China aligned with the interests of the US? What do you make of this cooperation on one front, while they disagree and fight on another front?

I think the problem with thinking of international relations this way is that it presupposes that the people in positions of political power and financial influence are interested in vague concepts of "national interest" rather than in the preservation and expansion of their own power and influence and that of their colleagues and associates.

As insiders like David Rothkopf and others have shown in recent years, there is a "Superclass" of several thousand individuals in positions of influence who have the ability to act trans-nationally, and who actively do so in the pursuit of their own international relation and economic policy goals. Seen from within this framework, a billionaire financier from one country with global assets to protect has demonstrably more in common with a billionaire financier from another country with global assets to protect than he does a poor manual laborer from his own country.

Consequently, global political and economic relations are more fruitfully seen as a mish-mash of sometimes rivalrous, sometimes complementary interests of various multinational banks and corporations and the various think tanks and international institutions they control. Although there may be greater points of accord and room for cooperation between elite oligarchs who share a language, history, culture or geographical location, it by no means rules out cooperation with others, even in countries that are nominally suffering through poor relations.

Thus, what does it even mean to ask whether the interests of "Russia" and "China" align with the interests of the "US"? Surely these nation-state entities do not have interests in and of themselves. The people in positions of power in those countries have interests, but we would be better served in narrowing the scope of the question by identifying them in particular. Do the interests of Gazprom and Rosneft align with the interests of BP or Royal Dutch Shell? Sometimes, in certain contexts, yes. In other contexts they would be rivals.

Similarly with JP Morgan and HSBC and the Bank of China, or the various central bankers at the Bank for International Settlements, or the members of the Trilateral Commission. Their deliberations have very little to do with amorphous national interests and everything to do with jockeying for personal position and control of the global economic and political chessboard.

4. Why do you think that people buy into this narrative that countries like Russia and China are a 'resistance' force?

We have been conditioned our entire lives to expect that anything that opposes a demonstrably evil entity must itself be good. Whether it be the Star Wars Rebel Alliance fighting the Galactic Empire or the heroic Allies fighting the villanous Axis or even the more nuanced case of a valiant Serpico fighting the corruption within his own NYPD, we are almost invariably given narratives with identifiable "good guys" fighting risible "bad guys."

But when it comes to the machinations of global geopolitics, this is completely the wrong lens through which to understand what is happening. Much more to the point would be the metaphor of rival gangs competing for territory. It is not the case that the Bloods are the "good guys" and the Crips the "bad guys" or vice versa; they are both criminal networks that use brutality and violence to enforce their control over given areas and to terrorize others.

Similarly, if we understand that rivalries between various international organizations (to the extent that they exist at all) are really only battles between gangsters for control over the global turf, we can more clearly understand that it is not a question of choosing sides in the struggle, but opposing the very ideologies of centralized, hierarchical control that make these institutions possible.

5. Talk about the history of China and the US, specifically with regards to how the build-up of the Chinese economy is due to, at least in part, the involvement of US companies.

The modern era of Sino-American relations famously began with Henry Kissinger's secret trip to China in 1971 that paved the way for Nixon's own trip and the renormalization of relations between the two countries. But even that narrative is grossly misleading. It neglects, for example, that Kissinger was a protege of David Rockefeller, whose family had been intimately involved in China since the early part of the 20th century and who "supported" Kissinger's China initiative, which later resulted in his Chase bank becoming the first US correspondent bank of the National Bank of China.

Regardless, Kissinger's efforts blended seamlessly into subsequent National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski's (also, not coincidentally, a Rockefeller protege and co-founder with David of the Trilateral Commission), and by the end of the decade the death of Mao and rise of Deng Xiaoping created the condition for the "Red Capitalism" that has led to the rise of modern China. This process was overseen by a small cadre of politically connected individuals (known in Chinese as the "Eight Immortals") whose families still continue to control vast portions of China's "national" wealth. 

These "capitalist road" reforms created the conditions for massive foreign investment in the country, which began in the 1980s with the establishment of the Beijing Central Business District and the formation of Chinese subsidiaries of major Fortune 500 companies like HP. This influx of foreign capital increased in the 1990s when direct investment of US-based multinationals in China quadrupled (from $2.6 billion in 1994 to $10.5 billion in 2001).  

During this period, China became a cheap labor pool for American corporations looking to outsource manufacturing during an era of easing regulations and even direct incentives to move American jobs offshore. According to the US government's own reports, China's open door came with a price: "forced" technology transfers that allowed China to leapfrog many other developing nations to become a player on the international scene in advanced technologies. There have also been numerous military technology transfers from the US to China over the last two decades that have doubtless played a role in the rise of the PLA Navy and Air Force's capabilities.

In short, the rise of China as an economic and military power has been facilitated by a small group of oligarchical families working in close conjunction with businessmen, politicians and financiers representing oligarchical interests in the West, specifically in the US.

6. What would you say are our alternatives to trusting in this 'resistance' forces and how do we keep hope alive?

If what we are combating is, as I posit, essentially two (or more) gangs competing for turf, then it is self-evident that we gain nothing from supporting one gang over another other than the vague hope that the other gang will treat us more kindly.

The real solution to centralized, hierarchical international institutions created by and far the interests of the oligarchical elite are decentralized, non-hierarchical relations created by and for the grassroots. One aspect of this decentralized approach is the peer-to-peer economy, i.e. the notion that technology is enabling humanity for the first time to seek out and source answers to their problems instantaneously and internationally without recourse to unwieldy institutions like the World Bank, IMF, BRICS, AIIB, NDB, WTO, etc.

Through open-source collaboration people can construct more detailed (and accurate) reports of ongoing events than can ever come from slanted mainstream media journalists who are beholden to corporate interests. Through complementary currencies, LETS programs, crypto-currencies, barter exchanges, peer-to-peer lending and other means, both high-tech and low-tech, people can carry on economic transactions even when national (or regional) currencies fail. People are finding economic, social and other forms of support through grassroots community organizations that deliver the type of aid that national governments are incapable of providing. Collaborative learning and internet technologies have enabled a flowering of auto-didacticism that is rendering traditional government-sponsored and highly centralized and authoritarian forms of education all but obsolete.

In short, there is a revolution that is happening all around us, even as we speak. It does not require guns or bombs or pitchforks or protests, only participation. And it is threatening to turn the ideology of statism and its associated forms of centralization on its head, and international mafias like the IMF/World Bank and the BRICS along with it. The only question is whether we are discerning enough to perceive it, wise enough to understand it, and brave enough to see it through to its completion.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Questioning The Left

Below is a transcript of an email interview I did with writers Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker and Michael J. Thompson who co-authored the article “The Treason of Intellectual Radicalism and the Collapse of Leftist Politics” which appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of the academic journal Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture.

In the interview, we discuss the problems of current leftist theory, the collapse of the left, and if there is a way to rebuild leftist politics.

1. You write early in the article that "Today, leftist political theory in the academy has fallen under the spell of ideas so far removed from actual political issues[.]" Do you think that this is a failing that is solely in the academy? It seems that it is a widespread failure by the left as a whole, that they are more focused on the theoretical than anything that is truly concrete.

We agree that the problem is not solely with the academy. It is important to look at the academy because the kind of work that is done in the academy is, in part, often a reflection of what people think they can achieve on the ground. The main issue seems to be that moral revulsion has supplanted the critique of social mechanisms that produce the problems that outrage people. It is also important to stress that moral revulsion is not a substitute for, nor an equivalent of, political action and political strategy. The key, as we see it, is to understand that politics is about shaping not only the mentality of citizens and the norms of culture, but more crucially about organizing the legitimate power of the state to enforce laws that prevent social injustice and expand the horizon of social justice. This requires understanding the mechanisms of politics, of elections, of the law, of constitutional interpretation, and so on. The contemporary left has abandoned these concerns and has instead decided to view them as attributes of a system that needs to be rejected. This is simply absurd and, in our view, anti-political.

We also think that there is a problem with what theory has become. The only reason that a cleavage has developed between theory and practice is because the function of theory has been abandoned. It is important to recognize that what is now touted as theory is not actually theory. Theory plays a vital role in diagnosing and critiquing concrete political problems. People like Zizek and Badiou do not have theories. Their work is so convoluted and self-referential that there is no link to the concrete. It masquerades as theory. They are able to create their own fan clubs and say whatever they want because they purposefully construct so-called theories that allow them to evade critical evaluation. Esotericism has become a virtue unto itself. From this standpoint, the aversion to theory is understandable. So-called theory has become a world for the initiated. This is a distortion of theory. It is merely the flipside of a society that can dismiss evolution as “only a theory.”

2. You say that social movements are not focused on "unequal distributions of economic and political power which once served as the driving impulse for political, social and cultural transformation." What would you say to those who push back on this idea and argue that there is a deeper analysis than just class?

There is more to social power and domination than class, it is true.  But movements for transforming social and cultural forms of exclusion – for women, minority groups, gay rights, etc. – have all occurred within the confines of the liberal state. Class is the one category that has gotten worse over the past 40 years, not better.  Radicals need not only to be able to call into question the backward, provincial views of the racist, the homophobe and the anti-feminist, but also to tie this into a more general theory of what a free, just society ought to be able to achieve and to be able to understand that ending these kinds of exclusion lead us to some radical kind of emancipation, but simply leave us within the liberal-capitalist consensus.

Radicalism must be able to craft a more comprehensive vision of what a free, just society would look like.  But it must keep in view the fact that economic power, the power of elite interests, are behind many of the cleavages in race, for instance.  That propertied interests have had something invested in preventing blacks from moving to white neighborhoods; that they have been behind the decisions to de-industrialize urban American cities, which has had an enormous destructive effect on contemporary black communities, and so on. The killings of black men that have elicited so much outrage over the past year cannot only be attributed to racism. They occupied a specific class status. Likewise, one of the interesting things about recent writings that have recast sex work as an expression of feminist self-assertion, is that they entirely ignore the fact that it is working class women who are compelled to do this work. Racism, homophobia, and sexism are social realities, but we must recognize that the vulnerability to violence and exploitation of these people is exacerbated by their class status.

Identity is simply not a stable enough concept to ground a radical politics.  Corporate power can often back culturally liberal causes such as gay rights, or the symbolic issues of the Confederate Battle flag.  But what remains after these (liberal) changes in our society and culture is economic power: the power to shape our educational system, to organize social production and consumption, and to chart the values of the society more generally.

3. Expand upon the statement: "This new radicalism has made itself so irrelevant with respect to real politics that it ends up serving as a kind of cathartic space for the justifiable anxieties wrought by late capitalism further stabilizing its systemic and integrative power rather than disrupting it." What exactly do you mean by this? Also, couldn't some push back and argue that in many ways, this new radicalism is disruptive, as can be seen by the Black Bloc, activists fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline, and those who engage in direct action?

This was not meant as a critique of those who participate in direct action. Direct action becomes the only means for combating injustices when concrete political programs fade away. What is worrying is the way direct action has supplanted political strategy much in the same way that so-called theory has become fetishized in and of itself.  Our critique questions the political salience of these actions as a general political program.  Neo-anarchism has become a model for political activity on the left. It has claimed for itself the mantle of engaged politics. We think this is a grave error.

When demonstrations occur, they are more often than not spaces for moral rage, not for political programs.  Take the Civil Rights movement. Yes, there were symbolic acts of direct action, but these were integrated into a more general movement that included a political strategy to influence political elites, crafting ideas for legislation to be enacted, as well as a new cultural understanding of civic rights.  To isolate ourselves to direct action without a larger movement, without a more radical program for action, for what you want to implement in a positive way through institutions, is simply not radical politics. This is the “cathartic space” we refer to: it grants a moral self-righteousness to the individual who has genuine anger against society.  But we should not confuse this with the hard work of political action that has in view the transformation of society through the shaping of law, winning elections, and so on.

Look at modern conservatives as an example. During the 1960s, they were a political, cultural and intellectual minority. Their ideas for destroying public schools (Milton Friedman championed the school voucher idea, considered insane at the time), for constitutional interpretation, for economic liberalization and privatization, and so on were policy non-starters. Now they have reframed American political life. Look at the last two vice presidential Republican candidates. As patently imbecilic as Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan are, the fact that such people are able to run in national elections and advocate political policies evidences how fringe ideas gained some degree of public approval because there is no rational radical left to oppose them. Radicals have no ideas about how to combat these policy imperatives, and this is simply absurd. How can we talk about radical politics that has any efficacy if we oppose the state, taking law, political parties, and so on seriously as mechanisms for change? Not to do so is to suffer from a kind of infantile disorder. This makes Leftists surrender their place in politics to the right. The dangers are real.

4. Do you think that class politics have weakened in the post-industrial age due to the fact that there was an illusion that one could move above their current station as well as had more access to credit and high tier goods? [Compared to the industrial age where one knew that they would always be a worker on the factory floor.]

The transition from a productivist to a consumerist paradigm of economic life is a crucial explanatory variable for the docility of American political consciousness.  The basic inequality of our society is just as bad as it was during the gilded age, but the overall size of the economic pie has simply gotten larger. There is just more wealth to be concentrated in the hands of elites. Reconciling individuals to this system has been a long process of legitimating the economic system and the values that underpin it.  The weakening of labor class struggles is partly due to economic and sociological shifts.  The main thrust is still, we think, ideological: There is no reason why new forms of labor – service, professional, freelance, and so on – should not be protected from the kinds of extractive power that private control over capital requires.  The fact is, capitalism has changed some of its contours, but still remains fundamentally the same in the sense that it requires the exploitation of labor for expanded growth and accumulation.

The problem is that the political critique of capital needs to be kept in view.  We need to ask again what the purposes and ends of our economy ought to be, to establish a critical discourse on what is necessary and what is merely a means for the opening up of new spaces for profit.

5. Would you say that the problem with the language that many radicals use is that there is an obsession with using the correct terminology rather than actually engaging in meaningful work? That the language in and of itself is an end?

I've also thought that this has made it easier for opponents to infiltrate such groups.

What are your thoughts on that?

Words matter, no question about it.  But words without concrete concepts simply create confusion at best and mask imbecility at worst. Language does not create reality, but it can distort it.  What the left needs is a coherent connection between the basic values that define its ends and the concepts and ideas it seeks to put out in the world.  It needs to see that moral ideas and values require some translation into political reality and this is never going to be perfect or ideal.  What makes a rational radicalism salient, what keeps it alive, and what will allow it to breathe new life into the world is its orientation to political reality. The correct terminology is useful if it can explain reality.

If the focus is on language at the expense of establishing a link between language and reality, the issue is not so much that opponents will infiltrate radical movements. On the contrary, opponents will actually be able to draw people out of radical movements. An anti-statist left can be drawn to an anti-statist right, especially when right-wing opponents of the state seem to enjoy actual electoral successes.  Even more, it can prevent the formation of a larger, more integrated movement since the fetish of language simply splinters our politics. This is why an objective science of politics is needed by radicals, not language, moral rage, or anything else. An objective vantage point anchored in political principles of social emancipation is what a mature radicalism should seek to achieve.

6. You bring up the fact that "Liberalism has been highly successful at incorporating many of the social movements that have emerged throughout the twentieth century." However, do you think that liberalism is now failing since we are seeing the rollback of rights for women and minorities, the welfare state, jobs for working-class Americans, and the like?

It’s not evident that rights for women and minorities have been receding. It is, however, demonstrably true that political rights are simply not enough. You need to reshape economic life to grant them any full social meaning. Blacks have been excluded by income just as much as by overt racial exclusion from migrating out of decaying cities to more affluent areas with superior public goods such as education.  Civic and cultural rights are expanding, but at the expense of economic rights that give them any kind of real significance and meaning.  The civic equality for excluded groups satisfies the narrow demand for recognition, but it does nothing for the richer need for creating a social context for genuine human growth and forms of modern social solidarity. 

The emphasis on cultural liberalism as opposed to economic liberalism has also allowed the welfare state to be slowly chiseled away.  What is needed is a conception of economic justice that allows for the concrete development of individuals, that grants all equal access not only to “opportunity” but to the means for self-development and for human growth.  This is what liberalism cannot provide and what radicalism must insist upon.

7. Would you argue that liberalism has effectively defanged a number of previously radical movements and essentially acted as a co-optation of these movements on an ideological and strategic/tactical level?

Liberalism has historically been able to reconcile every major social movement into a more general legitimacy.  But it has done this not only because of its basic principles, but also because it is good for business. It is good for Wal-Mart to get women out of patriarchal structures of domestic life because it gives it a cheap labor force to exploit. The same can be said about ending homophobia in the workplace. Liberalism allows for the erasure of pre-liberal forms of inequality, but protects the class inequalities of bourgeois life.  It has had more success in allowing women, minority groups of all kinds inclusion into our political and cultural life.  But radicalism must push beyond liberalism: it must question the generic values and norms that pervade our reality not simply because they exist, but interrogate them on the basis of their ability to expand or to contract the realm of human development. 

None of this means that liberal values are irrelevant, quite the opposite.  Radicals need to be vigilant against pre-liberal norms and practices: against racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, and the like.  But it must insist that these categories be tied to a concept of the public good, that they are not simply interests of minority groups, but part of a general public good to live in a society of self-development, expression, difference and non-exploitation.  The main issue is that economic forms of domination and exploitation are more universal and more damaging in modern societies.  The destruction of the planet, the amount of human waste (both as refuse and as “wasted” forms of life), the cultural realities of alienation, the withering of artistic and cultural life – all of it is tied to the increased, wasteful commodification and consumerism of late-capitalism.  Radicalism needs a more unified theory of all of this, and it needs to see the stakes clearly.

8. Please expand upon the collapse of Marxism within a US/Western context and how that has created both a political and intellectual vacuum which the liberal left has come to fill. It seems that there has been a massive collapse not only due to the triumph of global capitalism and the corporate state, but also inner conflicts and, most importantly, the attack on the Marxist left by the state itself.

Of course the decline of Marxism is a complex, highly debated narrative.  There was good reason for members of the New Left in the 1960s to move away from categories of class since the overt racism of many unions and the labor movement made alliances with them odious.  But the reality is, the fall of the Soviet Union, the emergence of neoliberalism as a resurgent form of capitalism, and the new cultural mentalities cultivated by an empty, commodified culture have all come together to create a fertile ground for a post-marxist (postmodern, poststructuralist, and, simply post-rational) intellectual environment.  Mediating institutions like unions have been eroded; the suburbanization of several generations of people since the 1950s has atomized consciousness, and a unified culture industry has exerted strong pressures on the values and norms of the population.

Historically, Marxism was a challenge to the liberal state. When it went into decline, it ceased to be a threat. There is no longer need for the state to attack the Marxist left. Right-wing pundits might sound the alarm that President Obama is a socialist, but this is only a rhetorical tactic for trying to oust Democratic politicians from office. As for internal disputes, true believers of different sectarian castes mainly dominate them. Dogmatically invoking Marx or the Marxist theorists of past is not, on its own, sufficient to a revitalized radicalism. Their ideas are resources that can be built upon to confront our contemporary crises. Indeed, this is precisely what the best theorists did.

About all of this, the core values and ideas of Marx still have a lot to say and to explicate.  What we tried to call into question in our article was the lack of real political depth to the new radical intellectuals and their ideas about particularist forms of identity, puerile anti-statism, and abstract notions of freedom.  What is important is that we see that advanced capitalism has been able to destroy the very foundations and resources needed to advance a coherent, politically viable form of critique and movements for enlightened, rational, progressive political change.  Our polemic was aimed at those that do not realize that the conception of leftist politics they endorse are molded from the very stuff that ought to be critiqued. 

9. Do you think that there is any way to reverse this trend of the Left falling further and further into the abyss of political irrelevancy?

Yes, there is a way.  Rediscover what politics actually is.  It is not a path to utopia.  It should not be a means to only vent frustrations. These are the qualities of a dogmatic and fractured left. Concrete political engagement through social movements directed at concrete aims forges solidarity. Part of why Occupy Wall Street was initially so successful was because it seemed to create solidarity around the issue of economic inequality. It got people out onto the streets. Part of why it failed was because, in its rejection of demands, it did not show how protests could lead to meaningful change. This was not true of the civil rights movement or the labor movement. In the midst of the AIDs crisis, gay rights activists protested to demand government action. Feminist activists mobilized to try to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. These examples of movements were inspired by liberalism, but they attest to the fact that movements need an object. Recognizing that the state is an institution that can be used to serve the public good and is not some abstract apparatus gives the radical left a concrete object.

A rational radical politics would have the effect of exposing the irrelevance of anti-modern and irrational theories. It would marginalize self-righteous rebelliousness. A left that is concerned with realizing the public good has no use for self-indulgent flights from reality. It was in response to these dangerous and alarmingly prevalent distractions that we wrote our essay. A left that has nothing to say about the real world, material interests, mechanisms of exploitation, political policy, or the function of institutions in serving the public good will fall into the abyss of political irrelevance. But these are tendencies on the left that have come to prominence over the last forty years. It is not an accident that these tendencies occurred in tandem with the revitalization of capitalism. Yet, we believe that the current morass can and should serve as an impetus for making people articulate a rational radical politics, rather than encourage people to retreat into the kinds of theoretical incoherence, chic radicalism and cynicism, and romanticized rebelliousness that simply uphold the status quo.