Neoliberal Globalization: Critiques and Alternatives

Article excerpt

DEBATES CONCERNING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT and globalization reveal sharply different views of our world. Proponents of current forms of globalization (generally termed "neoliberal" or "corporate") tend to speak in very positive terms, making bold promises about the future. They argue that policies of freer trade and minimally regulated markets will result in high levels of economic growth throughout the world. This growth will in turn lead to broad improvement in living conditions. "A rising tide," these persons are fond of saying, "lifts all boats." Critics of current forms of globalization, including Pope John Paul II, see it differently. (1) They draw attention to links between past and present global economic policies and realities such as widespread hunger and poverty, the massive displacement of small farmers, sweatshop working conditions, the breakdown of community, the rise of ethnic and religious fundamentalisms, increased social conflict, and an array of severe ecological crises. The most forceful of these critics contend that current policies may be endangering the very survival of the human species. In this article I survey the views of some of these critics of neoliberal globalization, dividing them into three categories--mainstream, radical, and grassroots--and briefly explore alternatives suggested by each. I then situate Catholic social teaching (CST) within the globalization debate, highlighting some of its important contributions, and conclude with suggestions for enhancing the framework provided by CST. (2)

WHAT IS NEOLIBERAL GLOBALIZATION?

Neoliberal globalization is a term used to describe the worldwide spread of an economic model emphasizing "free markets" and "free trade." Decreased governmental regulation, privatization of government-owned enterprises, reduced government spending, and the lowering of barriers to international trade and investment play central roles in the neoliberal approach. The stated goal of these policies is to maximize economic efficiency and economic growth. While these policies have not been consistently applied (e.g., First World nations continue to provide massive subsidies to their own farmers and maintain high barriers to some Third World products), (3) neoliberal ideas have nonetheless dominated the rhetoric of global economic policy and much of its practice since the early 1980s. (4) Two of the main embodiments of neoliberal principles have been "structural adjustment" policies and "free trade" agreements.

Structural Adjustment Policies

Structural adjustment policies (SAPs) have been implemented throughout most of the Third World. These measures have been required of Third World nations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in response to these countries' accumulation of external debt. (5) The underlying causes of the buildup of debt have been multiple. Most causes are deeply rooted in patterns of injustice in the global economy, including the distortion of Third World economies by colonialism, rapidly declining terms of trade for most Third World products, inappropriate development policies fostered by First World "aid" agencies, and rapid increases in global interest rates due to macroeconomic and budgetary policy choices in the First World. (6) Also playing important roles were irresponsible lending by First World governments and banks, including massive lending to military dictatorships, and corruption and economic mismanagement by these same regimes. While both the lenders and the Third World elites profited in various ways from the loans, the burden of repayment has fallen largely upon the poor. As UNICEF states, "it is hardly too brutal an oversimplification to say that the rich got the loans and the poor got the debts." (7)

In the early 1980s the debt crisis became a vehicle for First World countries to demand the restructuring of Third World economies according to neoliberal principles. This restructuring was intended both to maximize the ability of these nations to repay loans and to make them more attractive to First World corporate investment. …