The ethical, moral economy and designing structural inequality

In his short tenure at the helm of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has managed to reshape conversations about wealth, economy and poverty calling on the UN to lead a worldwide “ethical mobilization” in solidarity with the poor.  In a May 16, 2013 address to new Vatican ambassadors, Pope Francis described the current global economic order as “a new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules,” which is the real cause for poverty. In a steady stream of pronouncements and actions centering on wealth and the need to address inequality, the Pope has reintroduced the ethical and moral dimension in discussing massive global capital concentration and the rapid rise in poverty. More forcefully the pontiff released his Evangelii Gadium, or Joy of the Gospel, stating, “We have created new idol… The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

Unsurprisingly, attacks on Francis came from proponents of the neoliberal “theological” order and the “priesthood of the market,” who believe in the unseen hand running the market and trickle down poverty schemes disguised as free enterprise. However, they never admit when all is said and done, that it is their own long hands dipping daily into our collective pockets. Pope Francis went further to challenge the foundation of the current neoliberal economic order stating, “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.” “This opinion,” according to Francis is not “confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Indeed, this “priesthood” has advocated for a “free-market” economy and built temples across the world to facilitate the structural dispossession of the ‘have-nots’ for the benefits of the ‘haves’ so they can have more and to have all, leaving nothing for 99% of the world population.  The IMF, World Bank, WTO and Davos Economic Forum participants paint a rosy picture regarding their activities and projects around the globe. However, considering that some of these institutions have been around for over half a century, one must ask how is it that the levels of inequalities continue to increase at an alarming rate and the countries of the Southern Hemisphere are no better today than they were at the end of the direct colonial period? How effective is the work of the IMF and the World Bank in reducing inequality and, more critically, whose interest do they serve when they arrive with their ready made plans to usher-in economic reforms and austerity measures?

A quick and shortsighted response in defense of the IMF and World Bank may be that the cause of economic failures in the South rests with dictators and their mismanagement of the post-colonial economies, independence and high levels of corruption.  While I concede both arguments and would add more empirical evidence to it; however, if mismanagement and corruption in the economy is the measure to explain everything in the South then we need not look beyond Wall Street to demonstrate that the presence of these two factors while significant cannot explain the persistent and the continued heightened levels of inequality and dependency in the Southern Hemisphere.

In reality, the IMF and the World Bank are the parole officers for the global economic order vested with enormous powers to facilitate the maintenance of the flow of capital, raw materials, and brain power from the South to the North.  These powers are packaged under austerity measures to help Southern economies recover and become competitive in a global market that is highly controlled and regulated by the same set of corporations, banks and governments in the North that run these institutions.  Reducing social service expenditure, removing price support for food, energy and stable commodities, cutting healthcare and education funding, selling state owned enterprises to private investors (most foreign corporations in-bed with hand-picked local elites nurtured over generations), and last but for sure most odious, are legal and constitutional reforms that allow foreign ownership of assets, reducing or curtailing the voice and power of citizens, domestic labor force while mandating an increase in retirement age with reduction in salaries and benefits. The remedies are like chemotherapy for a dying cancer patient as the World Bank, the IMF and other “economic experts” propose to deal with one problem causing the patients healthy organs to fail over the treatment period, the same is the outcome for states given this “economic shock” therapy.  For sure some might point the chemotherapy as a register of success that gives hope for the short run, but it is the cumulative effects of harm done to the rest of the body that takes its toll, and it is similar with the IMF and World Bank remedies mandated by the global banking institutions to “recover” funds that never in reality left their coffers. This is a “civilized” shakedown and it is increasingly being experienced in parts of Europe.

Focusing on the relationship, mismanagement and corruption in the global South and the banking industry with its institutional parole officers, the IMF, World Bank and the WTO, every few years we are treated to the news about a dictator and his cronies stealing the wealth of their people. Most recently Egypt’s Mubarak, Zain Al-Abedeen of Tunisia, and Zaire’s Mobutu, have taken center stage, but the critical question remains, how did they manage to move this wealth from their local banks to Swiss, British, German and American Banks or some off-shore banks managed by subsidiaries of these outfits?

Granting full credit to human creativity, this reminds me of Humphrey Bogart’s on screen shock when informed of gambling taking place in his establishment in the movie classic Casablanca.  In reality the same banking institutions that provide the loans and “development” funds for the global South are engaged, through different offices or corporate subsidiaries, in facilitating elites’ funneling the barrowed money outside the country. By helping in this scheme, these “respectable Banks” in the North have a greater interest in maintaining a strangle hold on the finances of these states and more critically on the political decision making process and continued access to their labor and market, a modern sophisticated plantation.

The role of the IMF and World Bank, as global and depersonalized institutions, is to make the process as removed as possible from the actual responsible parties in this economic structural dispossession while giving a veneer of care and attentiveness to the development needs of the global South. In reality, the opposite is structurally intended and the empirical evidence demonstrates this in country after country.

The approach that began in the “Colonies” in the South has arrived at the Global North and the remedies are being put to the test in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the US post-2008 economic collapse.  One can see the removal of support from social welfare programs, education, increases in health costs, retirement and pension reductions, massive lay-offs and more to come in the future. However, what is funny and a joke on all of us is that the banking and corporate institutions that cheated and stole wealth from people, returned and dipped again into our pockets and were bailed by a most generous package.

For sure, a very apt illustration of the “free market economy” and the “priesthood” was using fear mongering and an impending economic “doomsday” collapse to steal once more. The joke is on all of us and in this case we are the free commodities and the banking and corporate giants buy and sell us whomever, however and whenever they choose.  Pope Francis’ call is the right one and we should join the effort toward building a moral and ethical economy putting the needs of the people ahead of narrow minded and exploitative practices that produce poverty at every turn. It is clear that something is fundamentally wrong at a global level and calls for us to rethink the basis of economic structures that makes inequalities a norm. The Pope in reminding the faithful “Thou shalt not kill” set a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life. Today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be un-newsworthy when an elderly, homeless person dies of exposure, but it is a top news story when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion,” was the Pope’s moral call and we should all respond as partners to bring about an economic change.