Saturday, 7 March 2015

BRICS and Mortar: Building a Movement Fit for the Developing World

The primary concern of this article is how Libertarian theory could ever possibly be applied successfully to what is often referred to as the 'Developing World'. But before I begin, I will make a few remarks. Firstly I fully appreciate the scope and diversity of the 'Developing World', therefore accepting the inadequacies of catch-all terms like the 'Global South', 'Third World' and 'Developing World'. A lifetime could be spent addressing such a massive section of the humanity, and still not be adequately detailed. Not to mention that such broad-brush approaches to the social sciences are completely outside of the contemporary academic tradition. Secondly I will mention that I am by no means an established expert on the issues on which this article addresses, merely a passionate and humble observer. Lastly I will say that far from trying to solve the myriad of issues that most of the countries in the Developing World face, by prescribing some sort of uniquely 'Libertarian solution' this article will aim to be a collection of pertinent inferences and observations about Libertarian discourse and ideas, and how they might relate to countries outside of the 'Western World'. By paying more attention to what's happening outside the remits of our own countries, we can only strengthen our movement, enrich our intellectual discourse and build the foundations of a truly global project.

Fundamentally I believe that Libertarian discourse tends to understate the issues that facing the Developing World. Yet there are good reasons for this, even in the Western World, the Libertarian cause is still a minority issue, albeit a growing one. It seems almost inappropriate for a nascent political movement in the Developed Word to devote time and energy to other countries. As well as being a small group, almost none of the main architects of Libertarian ideas have come from the Developing World and thus have tended to deal with issues immediately concerning the First World. However, I am fully aware that many free-market writers and academics have alluded to (sometimes in depth) to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Yet, these casual references do not come close to the massive amount of literature surrounding the Developing World emanating from mainstream academia or even Marxist literature.


The reasons why we should address the issues faced by the Developing World are self-evident and compelling. Ultimately in terms of how the early 21st century will be looked at by historians and analysts, we are losing the debate. In his book 'How Asia Works', Joe Studwell provides a compelling case that the Asian 'Tiger Economies' owe their success not to free-market liberalism, but to centralised; state-led economic projects, whereby strong and determined governments turn their nations into exporting superpowers. Despite Libertarians having a voice on many issues in the Western World, globally speaking we are going through a period of 'Big-Statism'. The so-called BRICS are all large countries that command massive quantities of internal resources: land, population, mineral wealth and energy. Despite the fact that the future of the BRICS is far from certain, it remains true that their pre-eminence among the developing countries is perceived as having little to do with free-market ideas. On the contrary, it would appear that these select nations owe their position to their lack of reliance on 'free-trade' and ability to develop their domestic economies. Furthermore, not only do we see the rise of big nations, but smaller nations are increasingly clumping together: ASEAN, The African Union, Mercosur, ALBA etc. show that any dreams of the world turning into a patchwork quilt of small independent entities is just that...a dream. Hayek would be horrified. Importantly 'Big-Statism' is a trend that extends beyond the territorial definitions of a nation. The role of the state in the BRICS countries is significant. The nature of the government in China needs no elaboration, yet even in Brazil and Russia almost all of the largest companies are at least in part, state-owned. Additionally, even in supposedly Capitalist India, large swathes of the country are governed at a regional level by Marxist local authorities.

Clearly, as well as nations strengthening their internal institutions, tightening their grip on the lives of their economies, we also live in an era of international tension. In his seminal work on geopolitics, Paul Kennedy wrote as early 1989:

‘There are smaller yet still more significant arms races- not to mention wars- in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and across Asia, from Iran to Korea. The consequence has been an explosion in Third World military expenditures, even by the poorest regimes, and large-scale increases in arms sales and transfers in those countries.’ Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of The Great Powers

This quote seems as appropriate now (perhaps more so) than it did when it was written. Consequently, geopolitically speaking, the Developing World has never been more militarised. Therefore, the challenge this poses to the Libertarian movement is that such a context of tension isn't conducive to dissolving national boundaries and deregulating economies. This is a massive topic that I can only really allude to here, but I think the stark realities (however unfortunate) of global geopolitics are something that deserve to be considered.

How valid the claim is that the Developing World is growing prosperous thanks to protectionist policies is debatable. The BRICS economies are complex and experts are far from agreement on whether or not they will pass the precipice into the Developed World anytime soon. The same can be said of 'Big-Statism', what specific policies really would ensure the best road to development is beyond the scope of this article (or its author). Yet if history is to be any guide,  It would suggest that strong and centralised governments can be moderately successful, but rarely build the foundations for a truly robust and prosperous society.


The second main difficulty the Libertarian movement faces when concerning the Developing World is linguistic. The world 'Capitalism' is universally controversial, particularly when people begin to attribute characteristics or a certain 'nature' to it. Either rightly or wrongly, for most of the world’s population outside of the West, Capitalism is synonymous with violence and oppression. And perhaps rightly so, a brief look at the history of most of Latin America, Africa or Asia reveals countless atrocities unleashed in the name of 'Capitalism' and 'Westernisation'. Importantly, often the policies that Developing World leaders implement are far removed from the Libertarian conception of Capitalism and truly free markets. Furthermore, as is the case in Pinochet's Chile or Zia Ul Haq's Pakistan, the most supposedly 'Capitalistic ' rulers tend to be awfully bloodthirsty. Therefore, it is evident that the word Capitalism is ambiguous when concerning the Developing World. I would argue that the Libertarian movement has been guilty of throwing its support behind morally bankrupt regimes only because they have labelled themselves as Capitalists. I believe that by taking more notice of the Developing World might help free-market activists avoid errors such as these.

Yet I believe that there is no reason that this should be the case. Essentially the political history of the Developing World is a scrap yard, littered with the rustic relics of failed collectivist experiments. Weather in Nasser's Egypt, Suharto's Indonesia and (on the extreme end of the scale) Mao's China; a significant proportion of the world’s nations have suffered horrendously at the hands of irresponsible and violent strongmen, spurred on by deluded Leninist fantasies. Clearly, Collectivism has left as much a mark on the developing world as what is called 'Capitalism' has ever done. This important ideological quandary brings me on to another, perhaps more salient issue.

This is the popular assertion that somehow so-called 'western' ideas are fundamentally unsuitable for the Developing World. On a certain level, this is true, but it is mostly false. If the ideas of freedom and prosperity continue to be referred to as uniquely 'Western values' then indeed they will probably be seen (quite rightly) as fitting into a long history of European and American imposition on Non-Western societies. However; on another level this binary separation of 'Western' and 'Eastern' ideas about social organisation is inadequate.  For example, I believe that when the claim is made that a more individualistic approach to politics is fundamentally unsuited to Chinese society (for example) it is wrong. Even Joe Studwell, who spends most of his book praising authoritarian regimes, admits;

‘On its present trajectory, China is set to be a middle-income per capita, but profoundly institutionally retarded state. At an economic level, this gives leading nations nothing to fear.' Joe Studwell, How Asia Works

Fundamentally, the idea that Liberal modes of social organisation have no place in the Developing World, is an accident of history- often professed by the apologists for anti-democratic ideologues. People from the Asia, Africa or Latin America are not by nature servile, fanatical or immutable.  The global diversity of religions and histories is important to consider, but it shouldn't stop us from engaging confidently with people from around the world.