A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse  /  by David Graeber

What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it’s unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it’s likely to take an entirely different form. It’s not that revolutionary dreams aren’t out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.

At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be? For me, the person who has asked this most effectively is the great world historian Immanuel Wallerstein. He argues that for the last quarter millennium or so, revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.

Already by the time of the French Revolution, Wallerstein notes, there was a single world market, and increasingly a single world political system as well, dominated by the huge colonial empires. As a result, the storming of the Bastille in Paris could well end up having effects on Denmark, or even Egypt, just as profound as on France itself—in some cases, even more so. Hence he speaks of the “world revolution of 1789,” followed by the “world revolution of 1848,” which saw revolutions break out almost simultaneously in fifty countries, from Wallachia to Brazil. In no case did the revolutionaries succeed in taking power, but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution—notably, universal systems of primary education—were put in place pretty much everywhere. Similarly, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism. The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism.

Revolutions are thus planetary phenomena. But there is more. What they really do is transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about. In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency of debate. Before the French Revolution, the ideas that change is good, that government policy is the proper way to manage it, and that governments derive their authority from an entity called “the people” were considered the sorts of things one might hear from crackpots and demagogues, or at best a handful of freethinking intellectuals who spend their time debating in cafés. A generation later, even the stuffiest magistrates, priests, and headmasters had to at least pay lip service to these ideas. Before long, we had reached the situation we are in today: that it’s necessary to lay out the terms for anyone to even notice they are there. They’ve become common sense, the very grounds of political discussion.

Until 1968, most world revolutions really just introduced practical refinements: an expanded franchise, universal primary education, the welfare state. The world revolution of 1968, in contrast—whether it took the form it did in China, of a revolt by students and young cadres supporting Mao’s call for a Cultural Revolution; or in Berkeley and New York, where it marked an alliance of students, dropouts, and cultural rebels; or even in Paris, where it was an alliance of students and workers—was a rebellion against bureaucracy, conformity, or anything that fettered the human imagination, a project for the revolutionizing of not just political or economic life, but every aspect of human existence. As a result, in most cases, the rebels didn’t even try to take over the apparatus of state; they saw that apparatus as itself the problem.

It’s fashionable nowadays to view the social movements of the late sixties as an embarrassing failure. A case can be made for that view. It’s certainly true that in the political sphere, the immediate beneficiary of any widespread change in political common sense—a prioritizing of ideals of individual liberty, imagination, and desire; a hatred of bureaucracy; and suspicions about the role of government—was the political Right. Above all, the movements of the sixties allowed for the mass revival of free market doctrines that had largely been abandoned since the nineteenth century. It’s no coincidence that the same generation who, as teenagers, made the Cultural Revolution in China was the one who, as forty-year-olds, presided over the introduction of capitalism. Since the eighties, “freedom” has come to mean “the market,” and “the market” has come to be seen as identical with capitalism—even, ironically, in places like China, which had known sophisticated markets for thousands of years, but rarely anything that could be described as capitalism.

The ironies are endless. While the new free market ideology has framed itself above all as a rejection of bureaucracy, it has, in fact, been responsible for the first administrative system that has operated on a planetary scale, with its endless layering of public and private bureaucracies: the IMF, World Bank, WTO, trade organizations, financial institutions, transnational corporations, NGOs. This is precisely the system that has imposed free market orthodoxy, and opened the world to financial pillage, under the watchful aegis of American arms. It only made sense that the first attempt to recreate a global revolutionary movement, the Global Justice Movement that peaked between 1998 and 2003, was effectively a rebellion against the rule of that very planetary bureaucracy.

Future Stop
In retrospect, though, I think that later historians will conclude that the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper than we now imagine, and that the triumph of capitalist markets and their various planetary administrators and enforcers—which seemed so epochal and permanent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991—was, in fact, far shallower.

I’ll take an obvious example. One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years. It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.

The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

Clearly, an antiwar movement in the sixties that is still tying the hands of U.S. military planners in 2012 can hardly be considered a failure. But it raises an intriguing question: What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power? The thought first occurred to me when participating in the IMF actions in Washington, D.C., in 2002. Coming on the heels of 9/11, we were relatively few and ineffective, the number of police overwhelming. There was no sense that we could succeed in shutting down the meetings. Most of us left feeling vaguely depressed. It was only a few days later, when I talked to someone who had friends attending the meetings, that I learned we had in fact shut them down: the police had introduced such stringent security measures, canceling half the events, that most of the actual meetings had been carried out online. In other words, the government had decided it was more important for protesters to walk away feeling like failures than for the IMF meetings to take place. If you think about it, they afforded protesters extraordinary importance.

Is it possible that this preemptive attitude toward social movements, the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle? What if those currently running the system, most of whom witnessed the unrest of the sixties firsthand as impressionable youngsters, are—consciously or unconsciously (and I suspect it’s more conscious than not)—obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense? It would explain a lot. In most of the world, the last thirty years has come to be known as the age of neoliberalism—one dominated by a revival of the long-since-abandoned nineteenth-century creed that held that free markets and human freedom in general were ultimately the same thing. Neoliberalism has always been wracked by a central paradox. It declares that economic imperatives are to take priority over all others. Politics itself is just a matter of creating the conditions for growing the economy by allowing the magic of the marketplace to do its work. All other hopes and dreams—of equality, of security—are to be sacrificed for the primary goal of economic productivity. But global economic performance over the last thirty years has been decidedly mediocre. With one or two spectacular exceptions (notably China, which significantly ignored most neoliberal prescriptions), growth rates have been far below what they were in the days of the old-fashioned, state-directed, welfare-state-oriented capitalism of the fifties, sixties, and even seventies. By its own standards, then, the project was already a colossal failure even before the 2008 collapse.

If, on the other hand, we stop taking world leaders at their word and instead think of neoliberalism as a political project, it suddenly looks spectacularly effective. The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment. How did they pull it off? The preemptive attitude toward social movements is clearly a part of it; under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in “security systems” of one sort or another: the fact that the United States, which lacks any major rival, spends more on its military and intelligence than it did during the Cold War, along with the almost dazzling accumulation of private security agencies, intelligence agencies, militarized police, guards, and mercenaries. Then there are the propaganda organs, including a massive media industry that did not even exist before the sixties, celebrating police. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor” of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. Economically, most of this disciplinary apparatus is pure deadweight. In fact, most of the economic innovations of the last thirty years make more sense politically than economically. Eliminating guaranteed life employment for precarious contracts doesn’t really create a more effective workforce, but it is extraordinarily effective in destroying unions and otherwise depoliticizing labor. The same can be said of endlessly increasing working hours. No one has much time for political activity if they’re working sixty-hour weeks.

It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. The combined result is a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other realms they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible.

Work It Out, Slow It Down
Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin. This is not to say there’s anything wrong with utopian visions. Or even blueprints. They just need to be kept in their place. The theorist Michael Albert has worked out a detailed plan for how a modern economy could run without money on a democratic, participatory basis. I think this is an important achievement—not because I think that exact model could ever be instituted, in exactly the form in which he describes it, but because it makes it impossible to say that such a thing is inconceivable. Still, such models can be only thought experiments. We cannot really conceive of the problems that will arise when we start trying to build a free society. What now seem likely to be the thorniest problems might not be problems at all; others that never even occurred to us might prove devilishly difficult. There are innumerable X-factors.

The most obvious is technology. This is the reason it’s so absurd to imagine activists in Renaissance Italy coming up with a model for a stock exchange and factories—what happened was based on all sorts of technologies that they couldn’t have anticipated, but which in part only emerged because society began to move in the direction that it did. This might explain, for instance, why so many of the more compelling visions of an anarchist society have been produced by science fiction writers (Ursula K. Le Guin, Starhawk, Kim Stanley Robinson). In fiction, you are at least admitting the technological aspect is guesswork. Myself, I am less interested in deciding what sort of economic system we should have in a free society than in creating the means by which people can make such decisions for themselves. What might a revolution in common sense actually look like? I don’t know, but I can think of any number of pieces of conventional wisdom that surely need challenging if we are to create any sort of viable free society. I’ve already explored one—the nature of money and debt—in some detail in a recent book. I even suggested a debt jubilee, a general cancellation, in part just to bring home that money is really just a human product, a set of promises, that by its nature can always be renegotiated.

Labor, similarly, should be renegotiated. Submitting oneself to labor discipline—supervision, control, even the self-control of the ambitious self-employed—does not make one a better person. In most really important ways, it probably makes one worse. To undergo it is a misfortune that at best is sometimes necessary. Yet it’s only when we reject the idea that such labor is virtuous in itself that we can start to ask what is virtuous about labor. To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others. A renegotiated definition of productivity should make it easier to reimagine the very nature of what work is, since, among other things, it will mean that technological development will be redirected less toward creating ever more consumer products and ever more disciplined labor, and more toward eliminating those forms of labor entirely.

What would remain is the kind of work only human beings will ever be able to do: those forms of caring and helping labor that are at the very center of the crisis that brought about Occupy Wall Street to begin with. What would happen if we stopped acting as if the primordial form of work is laboring at a production line, or wheat field, or iron foundry, or even in an office cubicle, and instead started from a mother, a teacher, or a caregiver? We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.

At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.

Even those running the system are reluctantly beginning to conclude that some kind of mass debt cancellation—some kind of jubilee—is inevitable. The real political struggle is going to be over the form that it takes. Well, isn’t the obvious thing to address both problems simultaneously? Why not a planetary debt cancellation, as broad as practically possible, followed by a mass reduction in working hours: a four-hour day, perhaps, or a guaranteed five-month vacation? This might not only save the planet but also (since it’s not like everyone would just be sitting around in their newfound hours of freedom) begin to change our basic conceptions of what value-creating labor might actually be. Occupy was surely right not to make demands, but if I were to have to formulate one, that would be it. After all, this would be an attack on the dominant ideology at its very strongest points. The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system. That’s why they cling to them even as they are effectively destroying everything else. It’s also why debt cancellation would make the perfect revolutionary demand.

All this might still seem very distant. At the moment, the planet might seem poised more for a series of unprecedented catastrophes than for the kind of broad moral and political transformation that would open the way to such a world. But if we are going to have any chance of heading off those catastrophes, we’re going to have to change our accustomed ways of thinking. And as the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.

David Graeber is a contributing editor of the Baffler and the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. His new book is The Democracy Project.

Time Ain’t Money: Stop Punching the Industrial Age Clock, Start Embracing the Now
by Douglas Rushkoff  /  April 10, 2013

“To put it most simply, the money we use has a built-in clock—an embedded relationship to time that informs how we obtain capital, how we pay it back, how we invest, how we sell, and how we communicate. That clock has run out. It has wound down, and been replaced with something else. I call it “presentism”, or a focus on the now over the past or even the future. If we understand this shift—the only truly significant change wrought by the digital—we can thrive in the new landscape. If we can’t—if we end up paralyzed in what I’ve come to call “present shock,” then we may as well go down with the rest of the Industrial Age.”


Cancelling Poor Countries’ Debts: An Interview with Nick Dearden
Think Africa Press talks to the Director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign
by William Clowes  /  Feb 10 2012

The Jubilee Debt Campaign is the successor to Jubilee 2000 which sought to mark the new millennium with debt cancellation. Jubilee 2000’s defining moment was the mobilisation of 70,000 debt campaigners in Birmingham in May 1998 at the G8 meeting. The campaign was deemed highly influential in moving debt relief for developing countries onto the international agenda and keeping it there. In recent years, the Jubilee Debt Campaign has run a number of effective and high profile campaigns, including Cut the Strings in opposition to the conditions attached to debt relief, and End Britain’s Dodgy Deals against debts owed to the UK from deals with dictators. Most recently, the Jubilee Debt Campaign received attention for their central role in the passing of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act which severely restricts “vulture funds” in the UK (vulture funds seek to profit by buying debts of heavily indebted countries at decreased prices, before trying to recover the full amount, often by suing through in courts).

Think Africa Press spoke to the Director of Jubilee Debt Campaign Nick Dearden about the nature of Third World debt, the role of aid, and the group’s campaigns to expose illegitimate debts in Africa.

TAP: When did Africa’s debts, built up since decolonisation, reach levels intolerable to the Jubilee movement?
ND: By the 1990s it was pretty apparent to most campaigners in Africa and the global south in general that there was no point in aid coming into their countries because ten times the amount was leaving their countries every year.

TAP: In interest?
ND: Largely in interest, which was ramped up in the early 1980s. Of course some were paying the capital as well, but by the mid-1990s many countries had repaid the initial amount they had borrowed many times over due to interest rates. So the debts had been repaid in a sense but the debt stock just kept on growing. You see the same hole they couldn’t get out of in Southern Europe and Ireland today. They are unable to grow because they can’t invest any money in their economies, in health or education, due to the amount of money that is leaving the country in interest payments. This means countries contract and get poorer, meaning they are less able to pay this debt that is getting larger.

TAP: Jubilee Debt Campaign doesn’t campaign against all debt, but what you term illegitimate debt. Can you define what you mean by “illegitimate”?
ND: We base our definition of “illegitimate” on definitions of odious debt. This means that it was lent to dictatorial regimes by creditors that could have known the money wouldn’t be spent on purposes beneficial to the people in that country. Illegitimate debt is firstly odious – for example, that which is lent to a dictatorial regime to buy weapons or something non-beneficial. Secondly, it could have interest rates attached which are exorbitant. Thirdly, the loan could have unjust conditions applied to it – for example, a lot of money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is lent on the condition that the country will implement certain economic policies, such as privatisation or trade liberalisation. Fourthly, it could simply be illegal if the loan agreement violated local law or wasn’t signed off by the correct people – as was the case with Ecuador, who found that much of their debt was illegally contracted. Fifthly, it could be corrupt if there were kickbacks to agree the loan contract. Debts need to be opened up to the people of the country so they can decide whether they believe those debts were legitimate or not.

TAP: Is there a case for illegitimacy even when the loan seems entirely above reproach but it is simply “unpayable”?
ND: Yes. We would say “unpayable” is a level of repayments that prevented a country realising the human rights of its people. Developing countries don’t have an obligation to international law to immediately ensure everyone is enjoying perfect health and education, but they do have an obligation to progressively improve the health and education of their people. If they can’t do that because of the level of debt repayment, we would regard that as a violation of human rights.

TAP: How many countries find themselves in these circumstances?
ND: Certainly all low income countries and a lot of middle income countries. We did research about five years ago which found that, in order to meet human rights obligations, around one hundred countries would need some level of debt cancellation.

TAP: Are current debt relief initiatives under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative and the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) helpful and sufficient?
ND: The HIPC initiative was established in 1996 and improved in 1998, and then the MDRI was signed in 2005 at the G8. About 40 very low-income countries are eligible for them. 32 have completed now and that has led to about $120 billion of debt being cancelled. On the one hand, it’s definitely a step forward for those countries. Of those countries, about half show no signs of debt running up again and they have been able to increase spending on health, education and social welfare. There are statistics showing that Tanzania has doubled the number of teachers and therefore the number of children in school. Other countries have increased the number of nurses attending births which will have an impact on maternal mortality and childbirth mortality. But there are serious problems. One is that only 40 countries are eligible and we have nearly got to the end of those countries. Many more countries need debt cancellation. Secondly, to get your debt cancelled, you need to make an agreement with the IMF which normally means new borrowing and implementing a load of undemocratic conditions. Thirdly, it doesn’t look at the responsibility of the creditors for the debts that were created. By failing to look at the responsibility of the creditors we have ensured that there are a lot of illegitimate debts still out there. In the most horrendous cases, these are debts incurred by dictators to oppress their people that are being repaid to this day by the very same people. Indonesians are still repaying the UK for arms sold to General Suharto that were used against civilians. Now, with cancellation, the UK will never have to admit responsibility.

TAP: Serious people oppose debt relief. Dambisa Moyo would admit that Africa’s obligations are appalling but would argue cancellation is useless when met with an infusion of fresh aid and that the examples of former Presidents Mobutu (of DRC), Muluzi (of Malawi) and Chiluba (of Zambia) suggest that “free” money entrenches inefficiency and bad government. William Easterly might say that there are very few clean breaks with a corrupt past and that debt forgiveness delays proper economic reform via growth policies. For example, the DRC have had almost all their debt cancelled and how is President Kabila better than former President Mobutu? How do you answer these objections?
ND: I go along with them to a certain extent – sometimes a country will need aid when something terrible has happened, but generally aid is not the answer. In some ways, countries in the developing world need to stand on their own two feet and regain the initiative for their own economic decisions. We can’t hope for democracy in most African countries when they are completely under the thumb of western countries through the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. In the debt crisis in Europe today we see that the lessons of the debt crisis in the Third World were never learnt. We still have a debt system that puts all responsibility of repayment on the debtor and none on the creditor. Where I would disagree with Moyo and Easterly is that I don’t think everything would be absolutely fine if we had a world of perfect free trade.

TAP: The Free Africa Foundation and the South African Free Market Foundation suggest an alternative to you. They say rather than developing countries protecting their economies, raising tariffs and maintaining subsidies – as you would advocate – the rich world should make the game fair at its end. At the moment, they say, the IMF demands that poor countries implement conditions that rich governments never would, but the rich world should practice what it preaches and give poor countries unprotected access to their markets equipped with their comparative advantages. What do you say to this?
ND: Firstly, it will never happen. Secondly, it wouldn’t make a better world. The idea that you shouldn’t be allowed to protect industries and agriculture that are necessary for your development as a country is no good. Of course, I object along with the free traders to the idea that we are pushing subsidised goods onto poor countries who have had their own trade barriers ripped down. The hypocrisy is unbelievable. But I don’t think simply ripping down our own trade barriers would improve things. Take Haiti. Haiti had all its trade barriers ripped down, but at one point in the 1980s Haiti exported agricultural products to the rest of the world. After it had its trade barriers reduced by the IMF, its rice industry was absolutely wiped out. Of course, competing with subsidised products didn’t help but, even if it was competing with the world’s unsubsidised rice, it still wouldn’t be a good thing that their rice industry was wiped out. Haiti is now dependent on imported food and is therefore dependent on international commodity prices. Malawi in the early 2000s experienced something similar. In fact, once upon a time Africa as a whole was pretty good at exporting food. Now, it isn’t and the solution to that isn’t a price war to the bottom. Unless African countries control their own food and then develop their own industries, they are always going to be dependent on producing very low end goods. No country in the world has developed like that.

TAP: You recently did a report on Zimbabwe’s debt. Tell me a bit about that and your interaction with African grassroots activists.
ND: The Jubilee movement is international and certainly isn’t run from London. Most groups were started in African countries but also in some Asian and Latin American countries. We have recently made a decision that we won’t campaign on countries where there isn’t a movement already on the ground. Zimbabwe though has a really good movement on the ground called ZIMCODD which campaigns on many economic justice issues including debt. We are very conscious that Zimbabwe is coming up for a series of elections this year and that once the elements of Robert Mugabe’s government regarded as problematic by the west are removed then they probably will become eligible for debt cancellation. We want to ensure that their debt cancellation would be used to empower Zimbabweans and to further democracy. We don’t think that simply pushing Zimbabwe down the debt cancellation path of countries like Zambia, Tanzania and so on would do that. That would push Zimbabwe into the hands of the IMF with all the policy conditionality that accompanies it. Also, all their debts, however illegitimately they may have been run up, will never be uncovered. Some will be paid back; some will be so-called ‘forgiven’. Ordinary Zimbabweans will get no education about how their economy works. We are working with ZIMCODD to call for a debt audit, which would open up that information to Zimbabweans.

TAP: Some of Zimbabwe’s debts are quite extraordinary. For example, the new-born nation inherited £700 million of the debt that Ian Smith, former Prime Minster of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), had run up buying arms to kill Zimbabweans. Zimbabweans paying off Smith’s debt or the people of the DRC paying off Mobutu’s debt is clearly wrong. But when people like former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sold Mugabe fighter planes in the 80s it was less obvious, although many were beginning to realise, that he was a monster. So how do we assess the nature of the debt without being unrealistically retrospective about the whole matter?
ND: The HIPC initiative doesn’t make any distinction between debts. What we need to do is open the debts up to see the different economic and political reasons why these loans were given. ZIMCODD and the Jubilee movement across the world have never said that none of this debt should be paid back, but rather they say “let’s see the details”. The cases we highlight in the report are loans where stuff was sold to the regime or loans were given to Mugabe in the 80s and 90s where we think there is a good case for calling them illegitimate. For example, the World Bank came up with a ridiculous scheme in the 80s to grow trees for fuel in an area where people already had fuel. Why on earth didn’t the World Bank send a few people from their offices in Washington and find out what people wanted on the ground in Zimbabwe? There are also examples of the Blair government selling Mugabe police vehicles which still have a debt attached at a point well beyond when the government could be termed legitimate. Other loans to Zimbabwe following droughts in the 80s and 90s imposed all sorts of inappropriate conditions on the country. We must ask whether the condition negatively impacted Zimbabwe and whether the Zimbabwean people had any say over them. Just because we say retrospectively that we don’t like somebody doesn’t mean all the loans we gave them are illegitimate, but it does mean that we should look at them because it throws a light on how lending works and the power relationships involved in lending.

TAP: Let’s move onto South Sudan. What is your view on whether this infant country should inherit any of the $35 billion debt that has been defaulted on by the Khartoum dictatorship?
ND: Basically what’s happened is that North Sudan came to an agreement whereby it would keep all the debt providing it was allowed to enter the HIPC initiative in two years. However, if it doesn’t, the debt will again come up for negotiation. Nothing’s been signed yet as a final agreement. It might well be that Sudan isn’t allowed to do that, or indeed that the latest developments over the closure of oil fields means the whole negotiating process breaks down. Hence it’s a bit of an unusual one. If South Sudan does inherit any debt, we will relaunch the campaign for immediate and unconditional cancellation. The people of South Sudan should not inherit any debt from the Khartoum-based dictators. Another aspect of this that concerns us is if the UK cancels Sudan’s debt it will count towards the aid target. We have a big problem with this given that most of Sudan’s debt to the UK is “made up money” – that is to say, it is mostly the result of high interest rates. The £678 million debt owed to the UK comes from loans to dictator Gaafar Nimeiry during the Cold War. Rather than undergoing the HIPC process, a future Sudanese government should implement a debt audit process, to find out where the debt comes from, how legitimate it is, and learn lessons to guide future responsible borrowing. A debt audit would increase economic democracy within the country.

TAP: You evidently oppose the conditions that the IMF and World Bank attach to both loans and debt relief. Is it realistic to expect loans to be given without any stipulations at all? Would political conditions concerning democracy and rule of law be more suitable than economic conditions?
ND: We support things like the lender following due process and ensuring the money doesn’t end up in a Swiss bank account. “Conditions” are things that are unrelated to the loan itself, but that you have to do to get the loan. They are the wider political and economic reforms that you have to make in order to get the loan. The IMF and World Bank have shifted their rhetoric. They now say, “We don’t do these nasty economic conditions any more. Now we have political conditions to do with democracy and good governance.” Actually, we find they are still talking about the same things, whether it is independence for the central bank or privatising state companies. The conditions are still unrelated to the loan and follow the same free market model we tend to impose on countries. There is an area where I do think conditionality can work. If we’re seriously interested in democracy and accountability, then when we cancel debt somewhere why not say to the government that how this money is spent should be made accountable to civil society? A lot of people would oppose debt cancellation for Pakistan because the Pakistani government will spend it on nuclear weapons. But there is a very strong civil society base in Pakistan. So we should say to the Pakistani government that a “condition” of us giving you this is that this money be spent in a totally accountable way. Then you’re actually deepening democracy in a country rather than removing decision-making from the people by having the money accountable to the IMF and the rich world.

TAP: You wrote, in opposition to a free trade speech by David Cameron in South Africa, that “African prosperity…means protecting industries, developing alternative and complementary means of trading, control of food production and banking, progressive tax structures, controlled use of savings, and strong regulation to ensure trade and investment really benefits people”. This is pretty much the antithesis of the cut, privatise, liberalise model of the IMF. Which countries are following this model?
ND: There are some extremely interesting economic models in the world of which I’m sure David Cameron is extremely wary. Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and to some extent Argentina and Brazil, are trying to regain their economic sovereignty by pursuing an economic policy that benefits the development of their country. There are older examples from East Asia of countries like South Korea which developed in a very different way to the model being pushed on countries today.

TAP: Are there any African countries doing this at the moment?
ND: Not really. Or, at least, let’s see what happens in North Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, not much although there are some signs of the revolutionary spirit in North Africa reaching down into, for example, Nigeria. There have been small demonstrations in Angola, which is nevertheless pretty significant for that country. I think there is the start of a move for accountability and against corruption. It will take a lot longer because Africa has come from a different level. For not just one but five hundred years, Africa has experienced the most extreme forms of exploitation. There are lots of groups working on this kind of stuff but it may take longer for their voices reach the levels of the political classes.

TAP: The debt audit is an idea pushed hard by Jubilee Debt Campaign. What do you want to get out of these audits and how would you normalise the process?
ND: We want the government of the debtor country to be part of the process, but in a very open way so as to open it up to the public. It has happened once in an official way in Ecuador. It was pretty good in terms of the government involving civil society and led to quite a good result in terms of Ecuador getting a write down on their debt, although civil society were very unhappy that the illegitimacy of some of those debts were not pursued further. At the beginning, a group of people normally get together to call for an audit. Then, deciding the government is never going to agree, they try to get as much information as they can to hold their own audit, a citizens’ audit. Then they use the information they get from that to mobilise support for their cause. Nepal has said that as soon as its constitution is agreed, it will hold an official audit. Bolivia for a long time has had a commitment and some other Latin American countries like Paraguay have also got a commitment to hold an audit. What we see now is a complete rejuvenation of the debt audit campaign because of what is happening in Europe. There are now debt audit campaigns in Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and France, and I think there may be a call for an audit in the UK. It is very unlikely we’ll be able to convince our governments to hold an audit. Although the Norwegian government has agreed to an audit as a creditor, it is going to audit the debts owed to it by countries around the world. Norway has led the way already by cancelling some of its debts on the basis of illegitimacy. I think we are increasingly going to see ordinary people forming into movements to see what their debts are.

TAP: So are ZIMCODD, the groups calling for an audit in Zimbabwe, ahead of the game in Africa?
ND: In some senses, but ZIMCODD are keenly aware that debt relief in some form will be coming to Zimbabwe in the next few years. It makes sense to really push for it now. They want to avoid the two options on the table at the moment. They don’t want to either follow the conventional HIPC initiative route with all the conditions attached or to pay off illegitimate debts with their minerals. Also, up until this point, many opposition politicians have been strongly in favour of an audit, although some senior figures seem to be having their minds changed. So you really need to push to make the opposition honour their commitment.