"Raging Against the Machine"
Edited by Chris Brazier
- Jeremy Agar
New Internationalist (NI), a monthly magazine published in the UK, has put together a selection of the articles it has carried since its founding in 1973. The book and the organisation carry the subheading of "30 years years of campaigning for global justice". So what is on offer is the essence of global politics over the last generation as seen by NI.
NI has fashioned a niche by presenting issues in an attractive way. The editors take care over stylistic matters, so that their monthly could appeal to a general reader. The topics tend to be those with a more popular range than is the norm with specialist publications and there is little of the academic or institutional. NI is something you might pick up in a newsagents where there are always a few well-known weeklies aimed at conservative readers, but few from a progressive bias. NI is more journalism than research - though many of its contributors have been academics.
Probably because it has sought to be both upmarket in style and leftie in its politics, NI has been something of a trendsetter. It has helped to mark out the fashions, so reading this anthology we are reviewing much of our recent history as seen from an influential point of view.
That viewpoint, as the title suggests, is academic anarchist. The machine against which NI rages is the one built from the "planners mechanistic models" (to take an example from one of the articles). To NI a planners mechanistic model is something akin to the place of capitalism in Marx or original sin in medieval Christianity. Its the devil from which you seek deliverance. This is by no means a fault. It indicates that NI is writing from a consistent and coherent perspective. Any good outfit should offer its members what they signed up for.
NI got off to a memorable start in the year of the Nestle boycott. If you dont remember, the giant corporation was pushing for mothers in Africa to switch from breastfeeding in favour of its product. As the women had to mix the powder with often dirty water, their babies sickened and often died. There was a boycott of Nestle, one of the first such global campaigns of the modern era. It worked. In 1981 the United Nations adopted a health code.
The Nestle boycott was perfect for the NI and its readers, inspired by an issue that linked several emerging justice themes, and NIs association with the project must have helped them take off. NI tends to favour topics from the Southern world which play on local suffering and corporate malfeasance. The editor wants also to remind us of articles it carried on East Timor by John Pilger and of reports on the embargo of Iraq.
NI no longer refers to a developing world. A major theme of the anthology is the groups replacement of its original banner "world development" by the present phrase, "global justice". The collection reprints a 1992 piece by Wolfgang Sachs which it claims to be a landmark in NIs ideological evolution. "The idea of development", Sachs had written, "stands today like a ruin in the intellectual landscape, its shadows obscuring our vision...[It is] the outdated monument to an immodest era" (p226).
To US President Harry Truman (1945-53) the South and underdevelopment were two terms for one problem that he would fix. Conversely the American model was projected on the world as being a universal ideal of success. The bulk of NIs reports have been on the consequences when these two worlds meet in often mutual bewilderment. Theres plenty of sharp reporting here.
Truman was President at the time of the founding of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, now the World Trade Organisation [WTO]) and of the first years of the United Nations. So "development" as an ideology, which NI calls the invention of the Truman era, is at least closely related to the world trade policies that Truman was launching at the same time. Whether or not theyre different names for the same process, its a safe bet that NI readers and Watchdog readers would share most basic assumptions about whats at stake.
Whether any and all "development" is necessarily a bad thing is less clear. In one article Jawaharlal Nehru is condemned for having committed his first independent Indian government (1947-64) to development, by which he meant the things were talking about when we speak of a higher standard of living. To the writer, Mahatma Gandhi, who rejected pretty much all Western models, would have been preferable. Some might see this more as an expression of NI aesthetics - and a view that was ascendant in Europe at the time it was expressed - than as an assessment of Indias choices in 1947. (Gandhi, the "father" of the Indian independence movement, himself wanted Nehru to be Prime Minister.)
NI offers lots of self-flagellation. Theres a section devoted to the "confessional" mode of the 80s, in which writers invite us to reflect on their troubles. That self-absorption, too, is so Western. One Aussie man in 1984 reflected on the inherent violence of his sex, congratulating himself on being "A New Man" and on disliking one day cricket internationals. Dont expect false modesty from the enlightened. But do expect repentance. Another chap apologises for the futility of his penis and all it was supposed to do.
Did the editor include the identity politics and the talk of post-modernism to remind us again how times change? It seems not. These contributions are included in a section entitled "Bringing it all back home". They are meant to illustrate the contributors prescience and how well it stands up.
Not everyone will agree that the two parts fit together. One major theme is the suffering of poor people in Mozambique or Brazil. The other theme is the angst of middle class intellectuals in London or California. NI internationalism veers between the hip extremes of global culture, bypassing the millions of Europeans and Americans who dont obsess about therapy and penises.
Reading this selection youd suppose they dont exist. Amid the standard critiques of American waste, one contributor regrets living among "rich world consumers with more money than sense". Is this more self-flagellation, or does NIs author not think of himself as being a rich consumer? "The poor could hardly be more different" from us, another writer maintains. Hes talking about the "developing world", but he could be talking about the next suburb. It wont bring it all back home.
Beyond being informed that rich world citizens would be well advised to "exorcise the work ethic" the millions of citizens with average amounts of money and work are ignored. In a time of rising structural unemployment, was it a good political idea to preach welfare dependency as a goal, or did the writer assume that no wage worker with children would read his words?
The world is not divided between rich and poor countries. As a starting assumption, a theory of internationalism must start with the proposal that the world is divided between rich and poor classes. If progressive ideals are to win out, it will be with the backing of working women - and men - in California as well as in Gujarat. Telling them they are part of the problem will not help.
to Watchdog 104 Index