Monday, March 02, 2009

March 4, 2009

So, what do we do now?

For decades we were told not to mind the stink behind the altar, where pale clerics of the market faith congregated and preached the good word.

Year after year, behind the burnished marble slab, beneath the old wood cross beams of consumption, black coat and black tie delivered the liturgy of bling and the brass cross, and the sanctity of the system was upheld.

Year after year leaders chased away the phantoms of looming crises with ritual new liberalism and the prescribed brand of amen: our economic fundamentals are strong, our fundamentals are strong. Open the gates of the economy, open your heart. Peace be with you; everything is okay.

Year after year we believed, happy in our blinkered place in the constellation of dependencies.

Then came 2008, the year the valves that had been holding back the stench finally broke down, when venom too long contained rushed through the veins.

By 2009, the empire of belief had fallen apart and its pallid high priests were issuing regular missals that years ago would have been denounced by the bishops of Washington as satanic edicts.

Nationalization -- not as a question of 'if' but of 'when' and 'where' and how much control, how much ownership, and how long the long-term intent. Re-regulation. Conservation instead of blind extraction. The cosseting of strategic domestic industries. Massive state spending to generate jobs. A green economy.

From his prison cell in 1977 the Filipino martyr Ninoy Aquino issued a national call of comparable subversion and pragmatism, but who remembers? "I believe," wrote Aquino, "that basic and strategic industries must be nationalized because it is too dangerous to leave the determination of national needs and priorities in the hands of a few. My primary concern is national interest and the general welfare, not nationalization."

How interesting the turn of events.

In 1988 in her book Unequal Alliance, Robin Broad observed the stagnation of world trade and the glut of international markets. Transnational capital was "no longer moving to the Third World," Broad wrote; it had "already turned toward new arenas for short-term rewards at home -- consumer credit, corporate mergers, and the get-rich-quick gimmicks of financial speculation."

"As the world economy has become more integrated," Broad remarked, "effective sovereignty across the developing world has waned" while vulnerabilities have multiplied exponentially.

Yet everyone continued to be sold the idea of export-fueled growth, hinged on the magical power of the global bazaar where economic integration was the goal and the idea of "self-reliance" was considered an anachronism.

India bought and paid dearly.

Between 1997 and 2007, the journalist and Magsaysay awardee P. Sainath tells us, India recorded the "largest wave of suicides in history", which today "stands at a staggering 182,936" -- all of them ruined farmers. "In the next five years after 2001," by the "time India was well down the WTO garden path in agriculture...." wrote Sainath, "one farmer [was taking] his or her life every 30 minutes on average." The horrific figure is probably underestimated, said Sainath, because the countless women farmers who took their own lives are recorded as mere suicide deaths because, though they do the bulk of work in agriculture, they are mere "farmers' wives." According to Sainath, "Those who killed themselves were overwhelmingly cash crop farmers – growers of cotton, coffee, sugarcane, groundnut, pepper, vanilla" while the "largest number of farm suicides [took place] in the state of Maharashtra, home to the Mumbai Stock Exchange and ... to 21 of India’s 51 dollar billionaires." The same Mumbai of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

All too many bought the theology of the holy market and all too readily traded away the rights of their citizens, the fields that once fed their children and the ecosystems that once sustained their very cultures.

In October 1979, a World Bank report counseled the Philippines "to take advantage of the fact that its wages had 'declined significantly relative to those in competing ... countries' such as Hong Kong and South Korea." And of course the Philippine government took advantage, not recognizing that beneath the basement is a cellar, and underneath that is another basement. An ad in the October 16, 1981 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review talked about such architecture: "Sri Lanka challenges you to match the advantages of its Free Trade Zone, against those being offered elsewhere.... Sri Lanka has the lowest labor rates in Asia."

In the midst of a global economic conflagration, autarky cannot be a solution. But neither can it be protracted national suicide based on the notion that we can only follow others because we have always had so little, and based on the childish hope that other countries will act in our interest.

Almost 47 years ago the revered senator Lorenzo Tañada reminded us of the wealth that we had always possessed but which we all too often ignored in our mad pursuit of alien promises.

"We have accepted without too much thought the oft-repeated characterization of the Philippines as a capital-poor country," said Tañada on March 10, 1962, "and that therefore we must vigorously attract foreign capital if we are to develop our country."

We paid him no attention and over the years we kept exporting what we already had. Our capital. The fruits of our soil. Our minerals. Our best and our brightest. Our dignity.

And the hemorrhage continues still. #


1. Chip Ward, "The Department of Homegrown Security,", 26 February 2009.
2. Binyamin Appelbaum, "What is 'nationalization'? Depends who you ask," Washington Post, 25 February 2009. See also Krishna Guha and Edward Luce, "Greenspan backs bank nationalisation," Financial Times, 18 February 2009.
3. Paul Krugman, "Can this planet be saved?" New York Times, 1 August 2008.
4. Ninoy Aquino, Testament from a Prison Cell. (Philippine Journal, Inc.: 1988)
5. Robin Broad, Unequal Alliance, 1979-1986: The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Philippines. (Ateneo de Manila University Press, QC: 1988)
6. Ibid.
7. Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, Development Redefined: How the Market Met its Match (Paradigm Publishers, 2009)
7. The Essential Tañada, ed. by Renato Constantino (Karrel, Inc., QC: 1989)

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