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Faith and Credit: The World Bank's Secular Empire
by Susan George, Fabrizio Sabelli
Paperback - 282 pages (September 1994)
Westview Press; ISBN: 0813326079

[pp. 6-8] There are no societies without religion, even, or especially, those which believe themselves to be entirely secular. In our century, in our society, the concept of development has acquired religious and doctrinal status. The [World] Bank is commonly accepted as the Vatican, the Mecca or the Kremlin of this twentieth-century religion. A doctrine need not be true to move mountains or to provoke manifold material and human disasters. Religious doctrines (in which we would include secular ones like Leninism) have, through the ages, done and continue to do precisely that, whereas, logically speaking, not all of them can be true insofar as they all define Truth as singular and uniquely their own.

Religion cannot, by definition, be validated or invalidated, declared true or false - only believed or rejected. Facts are irrelevant to belief: they belong to another sphere of reality. True believers, the genuinely pure of heart, exist in every faith, but the majority generally just goes along lukewarmly out of cultural habit or material advantage. When, however, the faith achieves political hegemony as well, like the medieval Church (or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollahs), it is in a position to make people offers they can't refuse, or to make their lives extremely uncomfortable if they do.

The religion of development cannot be validated or invalidated either. It doesn't matter whether it works or not, nor how many ordinary people's lives are damaged or destroyed, nor how much nature may be abused because of it.

Development theory and practice cannot be validated because they are not scientific. They have not established reliable and recognized criteria for determining whether development has in fact occurred, except for internal economic indicators like the rate of return of an individual project or the growth of Gross National Product - themselves artificial constructions and articles of faith. This being so, there is no established way to identify, correct or avoid error either. When Susan George wrote the Afterword to A Fate Worse than Debt, she put it this way:

"Scientists are trained to avoid error by testing their hypotheses systematically. Normally, development theorists and practitioners should also be trained to test their hypotheses by observing what they do to people, since human welfare is presumably the goal of development. 'People' here does not mean well-off, well-fed elites but poor and hungry majorities whose fundamental needs are presently not being met. If decades of application of the reigning development paradigm have failed to alleviate their suffering and oppression or, worse still, have intensified them.., the paradigm ought to be ripe for revolution."

She then asked, naively, "In short, how many people have to die before the ruling paradigm is beaten back and we are rid of it once and for all?" thereby largely missing the point. The point is that priesthoods are not elected and they need not answer to the faithful; they are specially invested with the truth and with sacramental functions from which, by definition, the common herd is excluded. The faith they serve is itself a greater good in whose name present suffering is mysteriously transformed into future salvation. Or to borrow an old favourite from secular religion, eggs must and will be broken. One's children, or theirs, or theirs, will eventually sit down to enjoy the omelette.

This, for us, is the final and most compelling reason not to concentrate on pointing out yet again how multifarious are the World Bank's ill-conceived projects, how unresponsive its leaders, how impervious to criticism its doctrine. Such things may be entirely or partially true, but are at bottom expressions of a world-view. It is the foundations of that world-view we shall try to dig for.

The Bank resembles the Church and this will be a guiding analogy in these pages. Both believe themselves invested with a mission, both (the Church historically, the Bank at present) have set themselves against the state. Both celebrate the poor rhetorically while refraining from actually improving their capacity to change their earthly lot.

The Church, more than the Bank, is like God himself "a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing" in the words of the splendid hymn. The Bank has lost many of its fortress aspects - particularly compared to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - and is more open to exchanges with outsiders. The overall vision that guides its practice cannot, however, seem to transcend the narrowest of economic orthodoxies serving a smaller and smaller fraction of transnational elite interests worldwide. The Bank's declared new, or at least renewed, "poverty focus" shows that it is groping for a mission but in practice it has no grand design beyond the casting of all economies in the neo-classical mould and the refashioning of all men and women as Homo economicus.

[pp. 245-251] "The Thing"

In the late 1980s the Italian Communist Party was undergoing a full-blown identity crisis. Italian Communists had no idea what to call whatever future Party might emerge from the ruins of the post-Gorbachev world. In all the documents, in all the discussions of the time, this as-yet undefined Party was referred to as la Cosa -- the Thing -- an institution in search of a new personality. Since The Godfather, Cosa Nostra -- Our Thing -- has entered all our vocabularies, whatever our language. Calling the Mafia Cosa Nostra is one way of not having to say what it really is.

At Bretton Woods, the founding fathers didn't know what to call the Bank either -- it got its name more or less by default and "Bank" it has remained. Throughout these pages we have tried to determine what the Bank is and at the end of the enterprise we, too, are tempted to call it the Thing because, although we think we have made progress, to some degree it remains fascinating and mysterious. One of the chief attributes of power is not having to say what it is, not having to reveal its true identity, not having to give up its secrets to even the most diligent search.

Thus the question "Why is the Thing so powerful?" is crucial. One thing about the Thing is certain: it is not powerful because it is a bank; that is, in ordinary language, a purely economic entity. Nor is it powerful because it has some of the characteristics one would expect of an international public service organization. It is a political and cultural enterprise, even a modern version of what the pioneer sociologist Marcel Mauss called the "total social phenomenon" (le fait social total). The obvious, financial and economic side of the Bank is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The multiple roles it plays and the many functions of power it assumes, like the difficulty of defining it, make the Bank a total social phenomenon, a Thing. This is why throughout the book we have spoken of beliefs, faith, doctrine, prophecy, and fundamentalism; of ancestors, initiation, esprit de corps, intellectual leadership and rule. This is also why, in addition to the facts and the documentary evidence, to the economic and political analysis we have tried to provide, we have made a few unorthodox sorties we called "Interludes" into the world of the imagination. If the Bank were just a bank we would have had no reason to call on fiction. We hope the reader will have found in each chapter and interlude partial answers to the question "Why is the Thing so powerful?" This is the thread we have tried to follow, the one that should bind the book together.

Borrowing from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, we can say that the Bank is powerful because of its capacity constantly to exchange economic capital for symbolic capital and vice versa. Its economic activities generate money -- well over a billion dollars a year in profits -- but also immense prestige. Its prestige in turn generates more financial and economic power. The Bank has dug passageways and built bridges that allow it continually to shuttle between material and non-material wealth, to transform one kind of capital investment into another and to reap all the rewards of both.

The Bank is thus in a position to assume functions which are at once economic and symbolic: integration, guidance and, most important, maintenance of a programme of truth. The Bank is the visible hand of the programme of unrestrained, free market capitalism. The Bank's first function is to be an instrument of integration through the market. This market is (or should be) co-extensive with the world; like that of the Church, its vocation is universal. All nations and all people must become ever more tightly bound to it. In this setting, the doctrine of export-orientation finds its natural home. All countries must trade as much as they can and rely for their subsistence first on the world market, last on their own resources.

Until quite recently, even in wealthy countries, communities provided for most of their wants from their domestic, local economies. What they could not find close at hand, they sought at the regional or national level. Only rarely, usually for luxury items, would they have recourse to the world market. This historical pattern has been turned on its head: we are now exhorted to satisfy our needs first from the international, global market, then the national or regional one and so on, down the ladder to the domestic economy, lowliest of all. The Bank's second function is to act as a guide. Those who believe that its own doctrine is that of laisser-faire are mistaken. The Bank is, in fact, far more interventionist than the interventionist governments whose policies it seeks to transform. If the Bank were to leave people and societies alone, anything could happen -- they might operate not on the basis of the marketplace but on principles of reciprocity, redistribution or solidarity. In modern societies, the state has attempted, with greater or lesser success, to organize redistribution and solidarity. Thus the state, like the traditional society based on reciprocity, is under threat from the Bank.

Here we face a contradiction. The marketplace cannot be the natural habitat of humankind. If it were, the Bank's interventions would be unnecessary. Everywhere the market would already be the sole guiding principle of society and, if it were, in the Bank's own view, there would be no underdevelopment, no South, no need for modernization or for structural adjustment -- and no need for the Bank.

Why do we think we need the Bank? For the same reasons we think we need the Church. Frail, imperfect humanity needs constraints, guardrails, continual instruction in, and interpretation of, the doctrine. Those who have not yet reached the full expression of market capitalism and consequent development, those who fall by the wayside, must be goaded along the path to salvation.

To change society one must also change individual men and women. Man must be ontologically reconstructed and redeemed as homo economicus. What is redemption if not the passage from one state to another, from darkness to light? The virtues of the New Economic Man, whose dwelling place is the market, are the will and the capacity to accumulate, to follow self-interest and to maximize profit in all things. His wants are unlimited; to satisfy them, he must learn to struggle against his fellows. Scarcity is a fact of life. There is not enough to satisfy the unlimited desires of all nor to provide a place in the sun for everyone. If unemployment in their country is twenty per cent or more, the New Men and Women will pit themselves against each other to find work at any price, at all costs.

The Bank's third function is to be the standard-bearer of a programme of truth. If the world market is the Bank's fundamental organizing principle, price is its instrument. One of the Bank's major articles of faith is "getting the prices right", which it translates in French as la verite des prix, the truth of prices. A price has a metaphysical quality because it is supposed to be the invisible point at the intersection between hundreds, thousands, millions of individual transactions. Price, if governments do not meddle by providing subsidies and otherwise distort the natural balance of things, will regulate human activity and necessarily bring order out of apparent chaos.

Those who deny a programme of truth defy the law, in the case of the Bank the laws of economics, structural adjustment and the market. With the International Monetary Fund, the Bank is the keeper of laws which, like the Ten Commandments, are immutable. Once revealed, they must be followed.

Defiant countries that refuse them outright are blacklisted, literally excommunicated from the international community. Governments which receive the law halfheartedly must be exhorted to better performance. The Bank will reward or punish them by the granting or withholding of loans and credits. Thus it helps return them to the straight and narrow path or, in its own words, puts them back on-track.

If the New Man finds his life in the market, what of his death? All great truths must in one way or another speak of last things; the Bank's is no exception. The Bank's nominal mission is to promote development. Development in its biological sense means an organism's attainment of its inherent potential, inexorably followed by decay and death. In the Bank's vocabulary, however, this biological meaning is replaced by a concept of never-ending growth. The Bank's priesthood specifically denies limits to growth and promises an ersatz eternity in the here-and-now. If such endless growth is supposed to lead to an American or European middle-class standard of living for over five billion people today and who knows how many tomorrow, we already know this to be an ecological and biospheric impossibility, even assuming tremendous and rapid changes in technology. The Bank refuses to confront this last of all last things -- not merely individual or societal death but the possibility of species extinction, including that of the human species. Incantations like "sustainable development" stave off the moment when the finite must at last be faced.

The Church's traditional imagery of heaven and of hell is graphic and explicit. Although it cannot prove that anyone has ever gone there, it still issues the visas to the promised land. The Bank paints no pictures with saints, angels and demons but it does put up signposts pointing towards paradise, exhorting the faithful to imitate the blessed -- the now-developed rich market-economy countries or at least those who are well on their way, like the Asian tigers.

The very vagueness of the concept of development and the great number of candidates who hope to attain it legitimize the Bank's functions, justify its existence and explain its power. As long as the fragile planet's heavenward journey lasts, as long as the poor are with us, as long as salvation is sought where it cannot be found, the World Bank will find for itself a role and a mission.

Faith and Credit: The World Bank's Secular Empire
by Susan George, Fabrizio Sabelli
Paperback - 282 pages (September 1994)
Westview Press; ISBN: 0813326079