Capital’s Big Bank

Image by Markus Krisetya.

I remember once hearing Michael Parenti say about conspiracy theories that if one thinks there are groups of mostly rich white men gathering in a room and deciding how they are going to tighten their control on the world, they would be partially right. Why? Because there are groups of mostly rich white men who gather in boardrooms and fancy restaurants to decide what they are going to do next to profit even further. The complementary element of this is that these individuals don’t control those boardrooms as much as those boardrooms control their action, at least figuratively. If one accepts this, then there might be fewer boardrooms more powerful than that of the World Bank. Even if one doesn’t accept it, that statement rings true.

This is the essence of the recently updated history of the World Bank by Eric Toussaint. Titled The World Bank: A Critical History, the book was originally published in 1986, a few years before activists worldwide began organizing the Fifty Years is Enough campaign that would result in a series of anti-capitalist protests and actions worldwide. Perhaps the most well-known of these protests was the first international mobilization against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999. The WTO was itself a conspiracy between powerful governments and the biggest capitalists in the world; a conspiracy to keep the Global South enslaved to a Global North dominated in virtually every sphere by the United States.

First and foremost, this book is a historical explanation of the World Bank’s role in maintaining and expanding the dominance of the US-centered system of global capitalism since the end of World War Two. It exposes the lies and deceptions behind the Bank’s original conception regarding its intent and delineates the actual implementation of bank policies and practices that were always designed by Washington and its co-conspirators to maintain the domination of the Global South’s economies and governments. Using country studies, bank policy statements, United Nations surveys and other sources, Toussaint breaks down the truths about how the World Bank works, who it serves and what its intentions are. During his discussion, it becomes clear that many of the same leaders and officers employed by the World Bank and its affiliates (the International Monetary Fund, for example) were and are members of US capitalism’s elite corps of managers and warmakers. Foremost among those names are Robert McNamara, a former Ford Motor company executive who was a major architect of the US war on the Vietnamese while serving under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s, and Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon whose involvement in the US war on Iraq under George W. Bush is well-documented and as worthy of war crimes charges as McNamara’s work around Vietnam.

The economic policies described in this history prove over and over again that developing independent and local economies of what were once called third-world nations has never truly been the purpose of this bank. Indeed, in certain cases where local governments rejected the demands of the World Bank to build export-based economies, the governments and the countries they governed were penalized until they buckled to the bank’s demands. In example after example, Toussaint’s text makes it clear that any development sponsored by the World Bank would be the development that benefited Wall Street and punished independent governments and independence itself. This later phenomenon is most stark in those countries that were either granted independence by their former colonizer or won it after a war. Any loans granted to the former colonial regimes were forced on to the new government of independence. In certain scenarios, this meant that the colonial government intentionally over-borrowed from the Bank knowing full well the individuals in that government could abscond with the millions and leave the new national liberation government with the bill. In turn, the new governments most often ended up having to pay off the loans to get new money to address their people’s needs. Debt servitude writ large.

There is a lot to digest in this book. This edition is current up to the COVID-19 pandemic. It ends with a call to end the World Bank, the IMF, and other such institutions that were designed solely to maintain the imbalance of power that US capitalism requires. It’s a call supported by those in and out of power who understand that the pursuit of uncontrolled profit and power by that system is ever more rapidly and certainly leading us to an ugly, unnecessary and tragic denouement. It’s a call that echoed worldwide during the protests mentioned at the beginning of this review. Of course, that was before Washington chose endless war after 9-11 instead of addressing the gross inequalities that partially informed those attacks.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com