Episode 186: Nativism in Media (Part III) — IMF, NAFTA and Global Inequality By Design

Citations Needed | July 26, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
54 min readJul 26, 2023
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Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “The World Bank and its president have been doing an important, constructive job the past five years,” announced the Southern Illinoisan in 1973. “IMF assistance [has] put Jamaica well on the road to recovery,” reported the Winnipeg Sun in 1982. The Trans-Pacific Partnership “could be a legacy-making achievement” for Barack Obama, The New York Times suggested in 2015.

Adam: These are the dominant narratives surrounding so-called “development” initiatives, whether structural adjustment loans or “free trade” deals. Arrangements like these, we’re often told, have been and continue to be essential to the economic maturation and societal improvement of poor countries. Countries that shift from nationalization to privatized industry and land, so-called liberalize trade policies, and institute a host of other free-market reforms are destined for greater efficiency, reduced poverty, and that much-coveted Seat At The Table in the global economy.

Nima: And yet, all too often, this isn’t quite the effect that these initiatives have. What we don’t tend to hear about is how economic development arrangements engineered by wealthy countries — like the US, for example, through IMF loans, NAFTA, or the TPP — don’t promote, but rather reverse, the development of exploited countries. Media minimize not only these initiatives’ destructive effects on economies, labor, and social programs in service of US corporations, but also their relationship to the punitive US immigration system, and their extensive role in mass global displacement.

Adam: On today’s episode, part three of our three-part series on immigration narratives, we’ll examine the displacing effects of “development” and “free trade” deals, as well as their connection to the increasingly militarized immigration “deterrence” machine, asking why capital is allowed to move freely, but people aren’t.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Dylan Sullivan, adjunct fellow and PhD student in the School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, where he teaches in politics, sociology, and anthropology. His research focuses on global inequality, colonial history, and the economics of socialist planning.

[Begin clip]

Dylan Sullivan: The costs of production in the Global South are externalized. So what I mean by that is that laborers in the Global South are paid less than what they ought to be paid, what they would be paid if capitalism actually was a system of free markets, and labor could, you know, move around the world and move to high wage areas. Costs of labor in the south are externalized and compressed and forced to artificially low areas. If the ecological costs of production are often not accounted for in the South, or the North either, but in the South, this problem is much larger.

[End clip]

Adam: Yeah. So this is part three of our three part episode on nativist immigration narratives in US media. And we thought it was a topic that is virtually never talked about in the context of immigration, which is the idea that mass immigration is driven and fueled, in large part not entirely, but in large part by global inequities. And so you can’t really talk about immigration to the Global North from the Global South, generally speaking, without talking about how there are economic drivers of that poverty and that that poverty is not a law of nature, but is in many ways, man-made and man-created. And this is a spiritual sequel, and we’ll cover similar themes of two episodes, episodes 45, “The Not-So-Benevolent Billionaire (Part I) — Bill Gates and Western Media” and episode 146, “Bill Gates, Bono and the Limits of World Bank and IMF-Approved Celebrity ‘Activism,’” where we kind of discuss how this charity model, this billionaire Western billionaire led charity model is the Alpha and Omega of our concept of global justice and how that’s maybe not a good thing. Today, we’re going to discuss the ways in which the post-World War II and post-Cold War economic architecture has in many ways driven poverty and created the conditions that make migration both necessary and inevitable. We will not be discussing — there’s sort of a big elephant in the room with a lot of this, which we’ve touched on in the previous two episodes, the ways in which US backed wars, and coups and CIA meddlings have informed much of this poverty in the Global South because it’s something we’ve covered a lot on the show. But suffice to say that all that goes hand in hand with what we’re discussing today, which we think is actually far less explored, and in many ways, equally important in that kind of interference, which is using “economic policy” to push a pro-US pro-Global North agenda that does contribute to the transfer of wealth from the Global South to the Global North, again, which we believe is a policy choice, not some inevitable byproduct of meretricious capitalism.

Nima: Yeah, there’s this notion that there are some countries or some continents even, that are just inherently inferior or inherently poor, right? It’s why you hear disgusting phrases like “shithole countries,” describing places that just aren’t in the Global North that maybe people are migrating from or moving around because of economic and other political situations. And there’s a reason for that, right? So we’re going to get into that today. So to begin, let’s talk about what the IMF and the World Bank actually are. They are two of the most prevalent International Financial Institutions, known as IFIs for short. Both founded in 1944, the year before the end of World War II. Both were products of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference — now, that’s no relation to the United Nations which was established the year later. It was also known as the Bretton Woods global financial policy summit — and these two institutions were developed to “create the framework for post-war international economic cooperation and reconstruction.” While all 44 Allied nations participated, two were particularly influential. I’ll wait a second so you can guess which two they were. The conference’s agenda and resulting institutions were based on ideas from the United States and Great Britain — specifically, from Harry Dexter White, a Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and John Maynard Keynes, an advisor to the British Treasury. Four years later, in 1948, the US enacted the Marshall Plan, which gave aid to Western European countries in exchange for information about their internal economies and domestic policies. Subsequently, the World Bank shifted its focus to “development” — that is, lending money under extremely burdensome conditions to impoverished countries around the world. Often, these “development” initiatives were designed to contain and quash socialist and/or anticolonial governments.

Adam: These “development” initiatives were (and continued to be) dressed up in humanitarian rhetoric. After all, you can’t just lend people money because you want to make money or want to control them politically. You do it because you have a higher moral cost and in the early 1970s, World Bank President Robert McNamara, previously seen carpet bombing Indo-China, announced the institution’s new twin goal to “accelerate economic growth and to reduce poverty.” McNamara, who was the former Secretary of Defense under President Johnson, wanted to spearhead this supposedly humanitarian project of reducing poverty. The World Bank under McNamara received much glowing press coverage at the time from July 16, 1973. The Southern Illinoisian said, “World Bank works.” Quote, “The World Bank and President Robert McNamara have been doing an important constructive job in the past five years.” This from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from the same year, “To End Poverty.”

Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, has thrown a provocative challenge to the world. By the year 2000, he says, the world should put an end to ‘absolute poverty,’ a condition he defines as a poverty so extreme that it degrades the lives of individuals below the minimal norms of human decency.

U.S. Defense Secretary and later World Bank president Robert McNamara, circa 1967.

The Sacramento Bee from the same year, headline reads, “McNamara Reminds Rich Nations of Moral Duty To Aid World’s Poor.” But in reality, the World Bank had the opposite effect. In 1990, World Bank economist Martin Ravallion developed the first ever international poverty line or IPL, noticing that some of the world’s poorest countries’ respective poverty lines hovered around $1 a day. But this metric actually demonstrated that the World Bank had exacerbated global poverty. According to a former guest and friend of the show Jason Hickel:

Using this threshold, the World Bank announced in its 2000 annual report that ‘the absolute number of those living on $1 per day or less continues to increase. The worldwide total rose from 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.5 billion today [as of 2014] and, if recent trends persist, will reach 1.9 billion by 2015.’ This was alarming news, especially because it suggested that the free-market reforms imposed by the World Bank and the IMF on Global South countries during the 1980s and 1990s in the name of “development” were actually making things worse.

Nima: Now part of what we’re going to talk about today on Citations Needed began in earnest in the early 1980s with the advent of so-called structural adjustment programs or SAPs. Now, SAPs are loans provided by the World Bank and IMF to, “developing” countries on the conditions that the recipient governments, many of which had histories of nationalized industry open themselves up to privatization and relatedly, to liberalize their trade and investment policies and slash social spending, among other austerity measures. Now, according again to Jason Hickel, SAPs include two basic mechanisms for debt repayment. In his 2018 book, The Divide, Hickel explains it this way:

First, developing countries had to redirect all their existing cash flows and assets towards debt service. They had to cut spending on public services like healthcare and education and on subsidies for things like farming, food and infant industries; they also had to privatise public assets by selling off state companies like telecoms and railways. In other words, they had to reverse their developmentalist reforms. The savings gleaned from spending cuts and the proceeds of privatisation would then be funnelled back to Wall Street to repay debts. In other words, public assets and social spending retroactively became collateral in the repayment of foreign loans — an arrangement that was, of course, never agreed at the time the loans were signed.

Adam: And of course, these SAPs, the structural adjustment programs were typically met with uncritical media coverage and fanfare. They were seen as humanitarian projects meant to “develop” these poor countries. Here’s one article from September of 1982. In the Winnipeg Sun, “Jamaica turns tables on woeful economy.” “When the current Jamaica Labour Party government came to power less than two years ago, the country was in a severe decline with more than one Jamaican in four out of work, soaring inflation, falling production, and foreign debts in excess of 1 billion (U.S.). But in the short time since then, Prime Minister Edward Seaga said in an interview, “IMF assistance and a return to free enterprise philosophy have reversed the trend and put Jamaica well on the road to recovery.” As the Institute for Policy Studies noted in 1998, though,“SAPs share a common objective: to move countries away from self-directed models of national development that focus on the domestic market and toward outward-looking development models that stress the importance of complete integration into the dominant global structures of trade, finance, and production.” Even when the structural adjustment programs do fulfill certain promises, like for example, eliminating hyperinflation, they have devastating effects on local populations. To quote the Institute for Policy Studies again, “SAPs have bankrupted local industries, increased dependency on food imports, gutted social services, and fostered a widening gap between rich and poor.” Data also shows that structural adjustment programs have worsened health system access and increased neonatal mortality.

Nima: Yeah, so you can see how you know with the rise of this development system, from the 60s through the 70s on up to today, you also see a concurrent rise in migration and namely immigration from the Global South to rich countries like the United States. According to Pew Research, the share of US immigrants born in Mexico and Central and South America grew from 20% in 1970, to 31% in 1980, to 41% in 1990. Pew adds this, “By 2000, Mexico alone accounted for a third (34%) of recent immigrants, up from just 11% in 1970. And the total from Central and South America reached 48%.” There are of course, many reasons that this happened. One of which as Pew cites was the 1965 cessation of the national origins quota system that favored European immigrants, which we discussed on our previous episode, part two of this series, which was really focused on the US-manufactured immigrant distinction discourse, right? Migrants versus refugees, for instance. But more liberal immigration laws alone aren’t enough to motivate people to uproot their lives. There are other largely economic reasons for these shifting statistics, many of which can be traced to the cumulative effects of policies of the United States and these IFIs, the international financial institutions that we’ve been discussing.

Adam: Now, these changes in immigration patterns resulted in no small part from the 1984 North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, which removed “barriers to trade” between Canada, the US, and Mexico. This process began in the 1980s with the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade, otherwise known as GATT but accelerated with the enactment of NAFTA, which like so many IFI agreements, before it, continued the process of privatizing industry and land, especially in Mexico, the US corporations took full advantage of. The architects of NAFTA promised to raise the wages and standards of living for Mexican people closer to the United States and Canada, the AP reported in November of 1993, “NAFTA hopes pact brings better jobs.” The article would go on to say,

Antonio Gonzalez Rodriguez makes $12 a day cutting steel sheets that are welded into gas tanks at the Armebe Metalicos plant in Mexico City. He makes what his American counterpart makes in an hour. Low Mexican wages are at the center of debate over North American Free Trade Agreements, sent by President Clinton to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday. The House votes on the agreement Nov. 17. Critics complain that Mexico will steal thousands of American jobs but NAFTA supporters scoff at the suggestions most Mexicans work and live in extreme poverty, and say NAFTA will actually help raise Mexican wages. ‘I have heard about this treaty, some good things so maybe it will help bring more jobs or better paying jobs,” said Gonzalez grit-smeared from making gas tanks for buses, trucks and stoves.

But NAFTA’s effects were greatly detrimental to workers internationally, specifically workers in Mexico. Historian Erik Loomis spelled out some of the human stakes in a 2018 article for The New Republic, noting that US corn companies taking advantage of NAFTA drove Mexican corn farmers using pre-industrial methods out of work. This happened in other agricultural sectors as well as he explained:

In 1995, Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork from the U.S.; in 2010, 811,000 tons. Mexican hog farmers, undermined by NAFTA’s trade provisions, had to leave their farms to make a living. Many migrated north. Some of the very farmers displaced in Veracruz were recruited to work at a North Carolina Smithfield hog-processing plant. When they tried to unionize in 2007, Smithfield had the undocumented union members deported, willing to pay the fine for immigration violations rather than have a unionized plant.

The effects of NAFTA are still felt acutely. Public Citizen, a progressive think tank reported that by 2019, 25 years after the enactment of NAFTA, wages in Mexico had fallen below pre-NAFTA levels contrary to the promises of NAFTA supporters that were made at the time about Mexicans’ living standards increasing. The minimum wage, in fact, declined 16.7% by 2019 as employers took advantage of worker displacement and a lack of unions.

Nima: At the time of NAFTA’s passing, assumptions about improved standards of living led to similar assumptions about decreased migration. As scholar Magdaleno Manzanarez writes:

Among these new policies, communal lands, or ejidos, were targeted for reform. Two years before the three North American countries signed the trade agreement, Mexico adopted new constitutional provisions to privatize communal lands. The underlying assumption was that agricultural land in private hands would increase production, create new economic opportunities for campesinos, and improve the overall socioeconomic conditions of this neglected sector of Mexican society. Therefore, supporters of NAFTA on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border expected a decrease in Mexican migration to the United States, among other benefits.

But NAFTA had the opposite effect. According to David Bacon, the author of books like The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, the number of Mexican migrants in the US went from 4.5 to 12.5 million in just 20 years. These new immigrants were farmers who’d been as Bacon writes, “driven off the land after being undercut by cheap U.S.-subsidized corn flooding the Mexican market, or workers suddenly jobless after waves of privatization.” Now in concert with its creation of such perilous conditions, forcing people to leave their homes and uproot their lives, the United States beefed up security along the border with Mexico, launching a series of cruel immigration “deterrence” operations. One of these projects was 1993 is Operation Blockade. During this operation, hundreds of Border Patrol agents were deployed along a 20-mile stretch of the border between El Paso and Juarez in an effort to reroute migratory paths along terrain that was especially hard to traverse and inconspicuous to Texas residents. The first National Border Patrol Strategy document, released in 1994, stated: “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement.”

U.S. Border Patrol officials conduct the cruel Operation Blockade, also known as “Operation Hold the Line,” in El Paso, Texas, 1993.

And if this formula looks similar to domestic populations, it’s because it is. You create austerity, you create poverty, you reduce or remove social welfare and in parallel, you increase criminalization by saying that, look at all these bad people trying to break the law.

This type of strategy would become known as Prevention Through Deterrence. It was developed thanks in no small part to an accumulation of media narratives in the early 1990s about people crossing the border, especially via Rio Grande. for example, the McAllen, Texas publication, The Monitor reported this on April 1st, 1991, “Salvadorans arrested.”

Eleven broke and hungry Salvadorans had been arrested by Reynosa authorities attempting to cross the Rio Grande into the U.S. The aliens are being held in the Matamoros immigration center awaiting word on whether they will be sent back to El Salvador or whether their request for asylum in Mexico will be granted.

And here’s another excerpt from the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, published on July 21st of the same year 1991. The headline reads, “Illegal migrants still pouring in.” The article would say this quote, “‘Some of these people we’ll catch several times in an evening,’ said Juan Solis, a Border Patrol supervisor. ‘I sympathize with these people. They’re coming here for economic reasons. But I’m just trying to do my job.’” The article would continue to say this, “The border is the best place to catch people, Mr. Solis said. The farther they get from Mexico, the harder they are to spot. It goes on, “Ramon Perez, 22, crossed the Rio Grande on a crude raft and spent four days with no food and little water, trying to find his way on foot around a Border Patrol checkpoint.” He says this, “‘I couldn’t walk anymore,’ he said, as he sat in a holding cell at the checkpoint on Interstate 35. ‘I was very dizzy.’ But if Mexicans really want to get past the Border Patrol and escape into the United States, Mr. Solis said they can do it.” And Solis is quoted one more time saying this, “99% of the aliens who keep on trying will eventually make it. It’s just a game.”

Adam: The next year in 1984, which also saw the beginning of NAFTA, also saw the launch of Operation Gatekeeper, which was designed to further militarize the border and use the element of starvation to deter “illegal immigrants.” According to a 2019 Washington Post op-ed by Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, he wrote that Gatekeeper was

a massive undertaking, involving the construction of walls and fences along parts of the border that were easier to cross and dramatically increasing the Border Patrol’s personnel and the technology it uses for border surveillance, trends that continue to this day…

Rios added:

Poor conditions exacerbated by NAFTA caused the number of migrants to increase, and the increased border militarization stemming from Operation Gatekeeper pushed migrants to take more dangerous and treacherous routes through the deserts and mountains. Conservative estimates are that more than 8,300 people have died trying to cross the border since Operation Gatekeeper began — a rate of nearly one each day for the past 25 years.

So that’s one death per day. Over the last 25 years, this Operation Gatekeeper, this deterrence strategy, basically making people more subject to dying of thirst and starvation and excruciating heat, to “deter” people from coming to the border is still US policy. So let’s fast forward to the 2010s. The global neoliberalization campaign took an especially stark form with the pushing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership which climaxed in 2015 and 2016. The Trans-Pacific Partnership or the TPP was never ratified and the Trump administration withdrew in 2017. It would have expanded many of NAFTA’s policies, including privatization of public services and copyright and patent protections, which as we discussed in our news brief with Max Alvarez about the Obama documentary, the TPP was opposed by literally every single labor and environmentalist group and health group on Earth. I mean, it was almost universally opposed by every progressive organization, even very kind of mainline normie liberal ones. They would have allowed corporations to sue governments in order to override their laws. Specifically, when it came to things like patent and environmental and labor protections. The TPP would have ramped up devastation similar to that of NAFTA, and almost certainly would have fueled more immigration from Asia because of it. But the media were largely silent on these dangers. Indeed, media outlets had conflicts of interest. The highly secretive TPP negotiations were being led by corporations like Disney and Comcast, both of which own major US media channels, ABC and NBC respectively. Disney’s also a major investor in Vice Media and Comcast is a major investor, in addition to owning NBC, is a major investor in Vox Media. And Vox Media spent millions lobbying for the TPP and in fact boosted a TV appearance by Obama on a Comcast network to shamelessly plug the TPP as fun and cool and anti-Trump I wrote about this at the time in June of 2016. For an article for FAIR.org about this entitled “Comcast-Funded Website Plugs Comcast-Owned TV Show Promoting Comcast-Backed Trade Pact,” one of my all time favorite headlines, in which I detailed how so the Jimmy Fallon show had Obama on to do the thing where he slow jammed the news. And this was at the height of the TPP negotiations. Now keep in mind that the TPP at the time was opposed by every major Democratic candidate, including Hillary Clinton. Nominally, although no one really believed it. I think even the New York Times editorial board kind of rolled their eyes and sort of didn’t really believe that she would ultimately oppose it. But, you know, people like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders were leading the charge against it. Groups like Public Citizen, again, every environmental group, name it, opposed it. But what this Vox article did is it, of course, ignored all that and tried to make it look like the TPP — basically an infomercial for the TPP, it’s quite shameless — that it was somehow a Trump thing, that being opposed to the TPP was solely a Trump thing. Vox would write, “It’s no secret that Donald Trump wants to do away with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and implement his own trade rules abroad (many of which, economists say, will lead the United States into a recession and put Americans out of work). The TPP is a “disaster,” he said Tuesday night, “almost as bad as NAFTA….” On Thursday night, President Barack Obama had a response, in the form of a smooth slow jam, in an appearance on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. So we’re gonna listen to that clip right here.

[Begin clip]

Barack Obama: There will be no third term. I can’t stay forever. Besides, daddy’s got a Hawaiian vacation booked in about 223 days. But who’s counting? That being said, the American people face an important decision this fall. The entire world is watching and they look to us for stability and leadership. Now, I know some of the presidential candidates have been critical of my foreign policy. I don’t want to name any names.

Background singer: He’s talking about Donald Trump.

Barack Obama: But I believe it is of the utmost importance to work alongside other world leaders. That’s why I signed the Iran nuclear deal. That’s why we reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba. And that’s why I negotiated the new trade deal called the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Jimmy Fallon: Now, hold on there, Prez Dispenser.

[Audience laughs]

Are you saying you’re down with TPP?

Barack Obama: Yeah, you know me.

[Audience laughs]

Look, Jimmy, the TPP allows American businesses to sell their products both at home and abroad. The more we sell abroad, the more higher paying jobs we provide here at home. It’s that simple.

Jimmy Fallon: So what you’re saying is this trade deal will help put everyday Americans back to work, work, work, work, work, work. Put us back to work, work, work, work, work. Put us back to–

Barack Obama: Work, work, work, work, work.

[End clip]

Adam: So both the Vox article in the Jimmy Fallon bit gives the impression this is a anti-Trump thing, right?

Jimmy Fallon and Barack Obama during the infamous TPP slow jam, June, 2016.

Nima: Exactly. If you support diplomatic moves like the Iran deal, opening up relations with Cuba, this is hand in hand with that. And if you oppose this, then clearly you are anti-diplomacy, right? Anti-increased employment for Americans. It is positioned and framed in such a way that to support the TPP is to support the Obama agenda. And at the time, of course, in 2016, this was hugely influential to a lot of centrists, certainly to more liberals and progressives who were seeing the rise of Trump as a real threat to what they perceived as a different kind of diplomatic order that Obama had built during the previous eight years.

Adam: Yeah, and this is painful to watch, because again, it was so reactionary, it really did undermine local government control. I mean, there were situations where they actually had to revise it because anti-tobacco laws could be subject to lawsuits from health activists. If a country passed a law banning tobacco sales, if it undermined the profits of tobacco companies, those governments could be sued for lost wages. This was true of environmental regulations, it was true of labor regulations, it was a horrible deal. Again, this is why it was opposed by basically the entire progressive block, which again, you wouldn’t know this reading. And again, Comcast spent tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for the TPP. And they’re using two of their properties here to promote it in this really kind of sinister, poppy, dopey Jimmy Fallon way. And ultimately, it was defeated because of that opposition, because it had no real support because people had seen what NAFTA had done. People have seen what NAFTA had done to both the US and Mexico. And all it did is churn the milk until some cream rose to the top and went to three counties in Connecticut and in Virginia. And that’s not what you know that’s just not as politically popular. You can only really do the scam every now and then in the coverage of the TPP was largely uncritical. It was way more critical than it was for NAFTA because I think that it was harder to kind of pull it off, I think a third time or fourth time, whatever trade deal pact we’re on now. But these types of “trade deals,” they sound so benign, they sound esoteric, they sound technical. And they really obscure. And the lack of critical coverage obscures the real human stakes because it is oftentimes so far off. It is so abstract. It is hard to see. Again, it does things like bring down inflation. So in the short term, it seems like it’s “developing” a country. But in many ways they do real harm to local economies, local workers, and of course, those harmful effects result in people needing to move to places with better economic opportunities. And, you’ll see this a lot: people say, well, if America is so bad, right, you guys like to blame America. It’s so bad, and why does everyone want to come here? And it’s like, well, if I’m a feudal lord, and I have 99% of the wealth on my feudal holdings, right, if I have this large acreage of property, and I have all these holdings, and all my serfs want to come work inside my manor for wages, because it’s better than working the fields. Does that mean the manor is some benevolent thing? You know, it’s sort of Fortress America.

Nima: Or that the manor isn’t the cause of them not being able to continue to subsist by working in those fields.

Adam: Right. So it’s like, just because you’ve cornered the market and extracted 90% of the wealth and people need to have, you know, some better portion of that wealth, you know, go from 10 crumbs to 12 crumbs, that doesn’t necessarily make the feudal lords sitting in the manor somehow benevolent or caring.

Nima: To discuss how these global banking systems create not only dependency but also devastation and destruction across the world, driving migration and the movement of people, we’re now going to be joined by Dylan Sullivan, adjunct fellow and PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where he teaches in politics, sociology, and anthropology. His research focuses on global inequality, colonial history, and the economics of socialist planning. Dylan is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


We are joined now by Dylan Sullivan. Dylan, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Dylan Sullivan: Thank you, Nima. It’s great to be here.

Adam: Yeah, thanks for joining us. I want to sort of begin with our first question, which is, to what extent the relationship between the post-war post-World War II and to some extent post-Cold War economic global order gave rise to inequality between the so-called Global North and Global South. Talking about how these systems emerged, what their kind of broader logic was, and how both intentionally and maybe even unintentionally, they created this divergence that is empirically very, very, very profound, and one that is caused much of the so-called “immigration issue.”

Dylan Sullivan

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah. So the main thing to understand about the global economic system and why it produces such huge levels of inequality is that the structure of the global economy, the global economy is structured in such a way that it essentially siphons resources out of what we might call the Global South or the periphery of the world system and funnels these resources, all this wealth and labor and these natural resources and raw materials, into what we might call the core economies of the Global North. And there’s a few ways that this kind of unequal regime of global exploitation works. And there’s been a lot of scholarship on this in recent decades in sociology and economics and political economy. And really, one of the main ways that this occurs is through what economists call “unequal exchange.” So “unqual exchange” was a term which was first used or at least first brought to prominence by Arghiri Emmanuel who was an economist working mostly in the 1970s. And he used this term unequal exchange to refer to a situation where some regions of the global economy export more labor and more resources than they import due to imbalances in the global pricing system. To sort of put that a bit more simply, trade appears to be balanced in monetary terms, that is, in dollar terms, the South are paid for the resources and labor that they export. But in real terms, in terms of the actual labor and resources involved, the South’s exports are worth more than what they’re importing. And there’s a few ways that this occurs. So essentially, what we get is this kind of, Emmanuel called it a invisible transfer of wealth to the South because the monetary value of trade appears to be balanced. We don’t see on a country’s national accounts or on their balance of payments books, we don’t see the transfer of resources going on, but it’s quite real. And the reason this happens is because, well, there’s really two reasons. So first of all, what we need to understand is that the global economy has a kind of monopoly structure. We tend to think of capitalism as a system of free trade. But in fact, if we want to talk about capitalism as it actually exists, if by capitalism we mean the system that we live in rather than some imaginary fairy tale world cooked up in Microeconomics 101. If that’s what we mean by capitalism, then we have to understand it as a system of monopoly. The rich countries of the Global North have a monopoly in most of the dominant industries in the world economy — high technology, aerospace engineering, chemical industries, and bioengineering pharmaceuticals. And this monopoly is enforced through a number of mechanisms. One of the most important ones in the 21st century is intellectual property rights, which mean that Global South countries simply aren’t allowed under World Trade Organization trade rules to move into industries that have been monopolized by wealthy corporations in the Global North. And this monopoly power allows corporations in the Global North to charge a markup for their own exports, while forcing down the price of imports from the global south. So you can think of for instance, Apple outsources the production of smartphones, of iPhones and iPads to Foxconn, which is a Taiwanese company that employs laborers in China in sweatshops in China. And now, because of Apple’s dominant position in the world market, Apple is able to force down the price of the goods that it purchases from Foxconn. And this means that China essentially finds itself exporting large quantities of embodied labor and resources that it isn’t really properly remunerated for. So in addition to this issue of monopoly, another reason that unequal exchange occurs is that the costs of production in the Global South are externalized. So what I mean by that, that is that laborers in the Global South are paid less than what they ought to be paid, what they would be paid if capitalism actually was a system of free markets, and labor could, you know, move around the world and move to high wage areas. Costs of labor in the South are externalized, and they’re compressed and forced to artificially low areas, and the ecological costs of production are often not accounted for in the South or the North either but in the South, this problem is much larger. So for instance, if a company producing, say, palm oil for a large Western multinational goes and levels an entire rainforest, the immense cost of this natural resource isn’t taken into account in the final price of the product. So what that means is that really the price of the Global South’s exports is below their real value. As a result of this, you have this flow of value from the periphery to the core continuously. I actually had the privilege of working with a research team back in 2020 where we analyzed global trade and price data around the world. I was working with Jason Hickel, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and also Huzaifa Zoomkawala, who is a brilliant data analyst in Karachi, Pakistan. And we looked at all this global trade and price data, and we came to the conclusion that every year, the South loses about $2.2 trillion over the past few decades through this unequal exchange through this mechanism of unequal exchange. And in fact, if you look at it since 1960, it’s about $62 trillion. So huge, huge sums of money or huge sums of wealth being transferred from the poorer countries to the richer countries.

Adam: One mechanism you write a lot about and one thing we’ve talked about on the show before with your co-author, Jason, is structural adjustment programs, which we’ve discussed, but I want to kind of refresh our audience for those because I think this is another kind of one of the things that sounds kind of economisty and boring and dry, but it’s quite politically potent, and we would argue, somewhat sinister when you really kind of learn what it is and how bad it was, especially a few decades ago. It’s still bad now, but I think we would agree it’s kind of less bad now. But it’s still very much a potent force, you wrote that quote, “Between 1981 and 2004, a 123 countries comprising 82% of the global population are forced to implement structural adjustment programs.” That’s a lot of people, 82% of the population of the world. So I wanted to talk about SAPs and other related debt systems and how they kind of helped fuel global equality (?). And also explain what you mean by this word “force.” You wrote that in your quote, and you’ve actually used it here a couple times already. I think a lot of people listening, you know, people who read The Economist and are savvy or you know, someone with a global emoji on Twitter, who was an assistant professor of moving numbers around in a paper from the University of whatever, if they’re listening, they would say, they’re not forced, right? There’s this idea of they choose agency. Without getting too much into the nitty gritty about how those systems can and have been manipulated by the Global North.

Nima: These are agreements that countries and economies make with each other, right.

Adam: So first off, can you explain SAPs? Second part, can you kind of tell us what you mean by “forced” and kind of clear that up for people who may be confused and may believe in this kind of agency discourse?

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, thanks for that. That’s a good question. So to very briefly describe what SAPs were and what they are, to some extent, they’re still ongoing today, these were agreements that Global South countries entered into with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. So the IMF and World Bank, just for some background, I’m sure that listeners of Citations Needed are aware of this, but the IMF and World Bank, of course, are largely controlled by the rich countries of the Global North. So the IMF and World Bank are controlled by their shareholders, right? To shareholders’ democracy, so to speak, and all their shareholders are the rich governments of the United States and Western Europe. And in fact, the US has a veto power in both institutions. Both institutions are based in Washington DC to a really significant point, right? The geographical location of these institutions tells you a lot about how they function and how the power dynamics behind them plays out. And these structural adjustment programs that Global South countries implemented during the 1980s and 1990s, they were policy packages. So they were these large neoliberal policy packages were Global South countries, in exchange for accessing the financial resources controlled by the IMF and World Bank had to implement these neoliberal policies, really brutal, hardline neoliberal policies — removing minimum wages, removing subsidies for food and fuel and housing and basic essentials, although not cutting, say, funds going towards the military or the police. Often, in fact, funds for the police and military had to increase because you had to sort of quell riots and unrest that started to roll across the Global South.

Adam: Yeah, when people began to privatize your water and food, yeah, that’ll happen.

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, exactly. So if you want to cut back on subsidies for food and water, then you actually have to increase payments to the police and the military. So these hardline neoliberal policies were implemented predominantly during the 1980s and 1990s. In the 21st century, the international financial institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, had to pull back a little bit because there were just huge protests across Latin America and Africa and Eastern Europe, which were called structural adjustment riots often in the press. And in fact, the situation got so bad that there was actually a rebellion within the bureaucracy of these organizations. So economists started to resign and very publicly talk about, you know, feeling like they had blood all over their hands for the kind of policies that had been implemented in the name of the IMF and World Bank. So they had to pull back because of the kind of discontent that was being caused, although that point shouldn’t be overstated. There’s still a lot of these sort of neoliberal structural adjustment type programs going on. So to your question of why I would say that these programs were forced on the Global South. So this kind of discourse around the structural adjustment programs being voluntarily entered into, in my view, that’s simply untenable for a couple of reasons. And I think actually, we have to take a step back and look at how the global debt system works here. During the colonial period, that is, prior to the Second World War, the rich countries of the Global North, of course, had directly colonized the lands of the Global South. And they were able to use this power to extract huge quantities of resources from their colonies, right? So in India, there’s been some really interesting research on India by the economist Utsa Patnaik who looks at the way that the political economy of British rule in India worked. And she points out that the British government in India was actually using Indian tax revenues to purchase Indian goods and then export them to Britain. So in other words, India was exporting its goods a large quantity of its goods basically for free. And she estimates that this might have all up over the 200 years of British rule cost India about 45 trillion US dollars. So at the end of the colonial period, and that’s just India, I mean, you can do the analysis for other countries, Indonesia, I mean, it’s very similar. The Dutch in Indonesia, it’s very similar. And even in fact, in many parts of the world that weren’t formally colonized, there were sort of informal colonial relationships that had a similar outcome. So Eastern Europe, for instance, was not formally colonized, although Germany made an attempt at it in World War II, that Eastern Europe for the most part was not formally colonized, but it was in the control of a conservative landed elite that entered into a sort of economic alliance with manufacturers in England and the Netherlands and Northwest Europe. And these elites enserfed the local population and forced them to produce cheap grain and timber products that could be exported to England and the Netherlands. And in fact, this accounts, during the 16th and 17th and 18th century, this accounts for a lot of the economic growth that the Northwest Europe experienced, was this sort of informal, colonial relationship with Eastern Europe. But the point that I wanted to make here is that at the end of the colonial period, you have this situation where the former colonial powers are sitting on this huge global surplus, they’re at the end of 400 years of extraction and exploitation. And they find themselves in control of this enormous quantity of investable wealth, right, that has been produced by the labor and resources of the peoples of the periphery of the world system. What they can do with this wealth, is that they can kind of use it to facilitate new forms of exploitation and extraction, even in the post-colonial period. So all countries need to be able to access the global financial system. Governments everywhere need to be able to access global finance in order to fund, particularly in the Global South, in order to fund development, and in order to build hospitals and schools. I mean, even the United States, even the rich countries of the Global North, right, they borrow from abroad — this is a necessary part of having a functioning economy. I’m not suggesting that Global South countries can’t, that they don’t have domestic resources that they can call upon. They do, and I think that they should try to find ways to become less dependent on Northern finance. But at the end of the day, access to global financial systems is necessary for the functioning of governments and for national economies. Now, in the post-colonial period, because these Global North countries, these core economies, these powerful states, imperialist states control this huge financial surplus, they are able to dictate who can and cannot access global finance. Now, during the structural adjustment period, starting in about 1980, the IMF and World Bank, say to Global South countries, you can’t access the global financial system, you can’t access new loans, you can’t roll over your existing debt, unless you implement these hardline brutal neoliberal policies. So I would see that as a case of coercion, you know, to use the control over the global surplus to blackmail Global South countries into pursuing the kind of policies that benefit the Global North, by opening up Global South economies to exploitation, that there is a clear, clear form of coercion.

Protesters in Quito, Ecuador oppose President Guillermo Lasso’s IMF-designed economic and environmental policies in 2022. (Reuters / Johanna Alarcon)

Adam: And to some extent they had, you know, before we sort of realized that this was all kind of bogus, I mean, maybe they’re receiving some genuine ideological buy-in, this idea of kind of infinite growth, mutually beneficial growth, this kind of Thomas Friedman narrative of a sort of perpetually upward hockey stick graph, right. So generously, you could maybe make the argument that at the time, there was this genuine belief that we could have that, the rising tide would lift all boats kind of thing, right?

Dylan Sullivan: Well, I think that one of the points that we need to confront here is that this wasn’t even good, bourgeois economics, right?

Nima: Even on its merits.

Dylan Sullivan: The United States or Australia where I live, our governments never would have pursued these kinds of policies, this would have never been —

Nima: Right.

Dylan Sullivan: So you look at what does the United States do when it faces a economic crisis, right? So in 2008, the US government responds by running huge budget deficits to keep the domestic economy afloat, responds by bailing out the financial sector and spending huge amounts of money, strong, strong intervention in the economy. Now, what the US was telling the Global South to do during the 1980s and 1990s was the opposite of that. You had countries that were facing economic collapse, and the IMF and World Bank were telling them, what you need to do is run budget surpluses and spend less money and so it was bad bourgeois economics.

Nima: Well, yeah. I mean, I actually want to stay on this point for a second, the idea of the consequences of these policies and of you know, forcing these policies upon other countries, the kind of hostage situation that you’re talking about, Dylan. And I will actually quote you back to you, you and your excellent co-authors, Jason Hickel and Huzaifa Zoomkawala. The three of you wrote for Al Jazeera a couple of years ago in 2021 this: “During the 1980s and 1990s, IMF structural adjustment programmes cut public sector wages and employment, while rolling back labour rights and other protective regulations, all of which cheapened labour and resources. Today, poor countries are structurally dependent on foreign investment and have no choice but to compete with one another to offer cheap labour and resources in order to please the barons of international finance. This ensures a steady flow of disposable gadgets and fast fashion to affluent Northern consumers, but at extraordinary cost to human lives and ecosystems in the South.” So, I’d love for you to comment on some of those consequences. But also, as we’ve been discussing, on this episode, and actually, this is, you know, part three of kind of a larger three-part series on how these systems really interact with human migration, and how immigration policies and the kind of national security threat narrative, this kind of influx of refugees or migrants across the globe creates this external invading threat to the wealthy countries of the world. And you get this kind of fortress system, more surveillance, more militarism. I’d love for you, Dylan, to connect the dots for us here between these programs that keep Global South countries indebted to this system that does not benefit them. And how that then in turn, it’s not just kind of this grandiose economic system that can just be discussed academically, although yes, but also the implications on real people that these programs have and then how that leads to people having to make the toughest of decisions, to then seek safety or seek employment or seek security somewhere else and then being met with even more coercion, even more aggression, even more violence. Can you like kind of connect those things for us?

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, for sure. So, I mean, the impact of structural adjustment programs was simply devastating. In fact, it’s difficult to overstate the kind of toll in human lives and human wellbeing that we’re talking about here. I mean, it caused huge spikes in unemployment, throwing many, many people into unemployment, because they could no longer find employment in the state sector. And because the contractionary fiscal policy that the IMF and World Bank force countries to pursue led to major recessions in many Global South economies. So for instance, I mean, if you look at, say, Mexico, for instance, so Mexico, there’s a really good website where you can look at a lot of the data on the human welfare during this period in the 1980s and 1990s, the World Inequality Database, which is run by Thomas Piketty and some of the other French economists, and they have data on that website on the amount of income per adult in different countries. And I was looking at it the other day in Mexico, for instance, during structural adjustment programs, income per adult declined from 31,000 in 1981, to 23,000 in 1986. And it still hasn’t recovered. As of 2020, it’s 25,000. And in fact, similar trend is true for many countries. So take Ukraine, for instance, in 1989, at the end of the Soviet period, Ukraine had a per adult national income of around 24,500. But today, that’s only 15,000. So around half as a result of the kind of structural adjustment programs that were implemented after the fall of the Soviet Union. And now that’s national income, which is sort of a, you know, a kind of, you know, a standard macroeconomic thing. This is the kind of indicator that people in the IMF and World Bank like to use, right? If you look at something like wages, the situation was even worse. I mean, so in Mexico, for instance, wages in about 1980, a worker on an average wage in Mexico, had enough income to purchase about four times their basic needs so they could meet their subsistence requirements about four times over. In the space of about three years to 1983, that figure declined to just one subsistence basket, they could only just afford their basic needs. And in fact, that level of real wages in Mexico at the height of structural adjustment programs was lower than what wages in Mexico had been in the 18th century, right? We’re talking about huge, huge dislocation on a historically unprecedented scale and speed. In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the dislocation from structural adjustment programs was so severe that people’s physical height actually declined. The physical stature of the generation born in the 1980s in Sub-Saharan Africa was lower than what it had been in the previous decades. And in fact, in some countries, so Tanzania, for instance, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South Africa. The height of the population in the 1980s was lower than what it had been in the 19th century prior to the colonial period. So the effect of structural adjustment programs was so severe that we literally see it show up in the physical stature of the population — huge levels of dispossession and dislocation and human suffering and harm. One of the things that I think is important to note here is that this dislocation benefited the rich economies of the Global North. So by lowering wages, by making labor more precarious, by removing the sort of protections that workers had benefited from in the immediate post-colonial period, these neoliberal reforms acted to basically cheapen Southern labor and cheapen Southern resources, which then goes on to facilitate this system of unequal exchange that I was describing a moment ago, because everything becomes cheaper so the global north can gobble up more resources. So in fact, in 1980, so just before the structural adjustment period began, the average price level in the Global North was about 1.3 times higher than the average price level in the Global South. By 1998, the average price level in the North was three times higher than the average price level in the Global South.

Adam: So let’s talk about you and your co-authors’ critics. Some people listening to this may roll their eyes and say, okay, it’s just Citations Needed, blaming America, blaming the white man. Maybe they would even traffic in some squishy liberal discourse around removing agency or some piffle. I want to sort of talk about that, specifically Max Roser, who’s argued and he’s kind of a Bill Gates booster, kind of Bill Gates’s one man sort of PR guy, which is because a lot of this is there is a kind of a prevailing Gates narrative that everything’s going well. So sort of Nicholas Kristof, this year was the best year ever. An article he’s written every year for the last six years, although he, as we mentioned at the top of the show, he skipped it during COVID. But he just did it about six months ago, again.

Nima: Yeah, it’s back. We’re back, folks.

Adam: Yeah, everything’s gonna be back, we’re just gonna ignore that. And they would say, for example, Roser wrote a post in 2018, saying, “Global income inequality increased for two centuries but is now falling. Their argument now is that global inequality is actually going down.” What do you say to that? Now, obviously, things are not quite as you yourself and we say, are not as starkly cartoonishly evil as they were like, say in the 90s. Obviously, you have other competitors, you have China, you have “rising” India, Brazil, etc. So some of these North-South distinctions are maybe even a little fuzzier in terms of power dynamics, which of course upsets a lot of people in Brussels and Washington. But what do you say to people like Roser who say it’s actually that the neoliberal World Bank gates narrative has delivered on creating a more equal world?

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, so this is a common narrative. I mean, it’s been made by Max Roser and Our World in Data, but they’re hardly the only ones. Branko Milanovic, who’s a former World Bank economist, has been making a very similar argument. I think he says that we’re living in the age of convergence, that is, the convergence of income between the Global South and the Global North. The thing to grasp here is that when it comes to inequality, it kind of all depends on how you massage the numbers. The way that we measure inequality, there’s multiple different ways of measuring inequality, and these often lead to different conclusions. For instance, I mean, the the metrics that Max Roser uses, for instance, Max Roser uses the Gini Coefficient, say Our World in Data use the Gini coefficient, and a few other indicators, what we would call relative measures of inequality as opposed to absolute measures of inequality. So to sort of explain what I mean by that, it sort of might be worth actually looking at what some of the income data actually says. And I can talk us through the difference between this absolute and relative measures of inequality. And we can sort of chat about the political implications of which one we want to use. So in 1990, the emerging and developing economies as defined by the IMF, and this includes most of Latin America, all of Latin America, in fact, most of Asia with the exception of Japan and South Korea, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe as well. So these emerging and developing economies, what we might call or what I’ve been calling the periphery or the Global South, they had an income, a GDP per capita of 4,700 US dollars. Now I’m measuring this in purchasing power parity terms. So for your listeners, purchasing power parity essentially just means that this is adjusted for price differences across countries and across time. It’s all adjusted to the price level in the United States in 2017. So the periphery had about $4,700. The United States at that time had an average GDP of $40,400. Now a relative measure of inequality would be to take the ratio of US per capita GDP to the periphery’s per capita GDP.

Nima: So like a 10 to one?

Dylan Sullivan: Yes, exactly. And if we take this ratio, we get a figure that, yeah, it was about 8.5. So that is to say US income was about 8.5 times higher than the incomes in the periphery. But an absolute measure would be to look at simply the gap in income between the periphery and the US. So if we subtract the periphery’s income from the US income, we get a figure of about 35,700 US dollars. So that’s the difference between a relative and an absolute measure of inequality. Let’s fast forward to 2022. So in 2022, the periphery’s income had increased to $12,000 per capita. US income, on the other hand, had increased to $64,700 per capita. Now, because the periphery’s income has grown by more than the US’s in percentage terms, that means that our measure of relative inequality has declined. So the ratio of us to peripheral income is now 5.4 in 2022, down from 8.5. So that would suggest that there’s been a decline in inequality. And this is the kind of metric that’s been used by most mainstream economists.

Adam: Yeah, you mentioned this is one narrative. To be clear, this is the narrative. This is the narrative —

Nima: The dominant narrative.

Adam: People have beaten over their head, right, by a thousand different news outlets today. So continue.

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, it’s huge in the Western press, and even in much of academia, in fact. But now, if we look at an absolute measure of inequality, so if we just look at the gap in income between the US and the periphery, we find that that has grown to $52,600. So the absolute gap has grown from about $35,700 to $52,600. So that’s an increase of around $17,000. I’m kind of rounding up here so the figures I’m giving might not quite work in the same way as they do when you have the precise numbers. But so that’s a huge increase. So we’re talking about an increase of about $17,000, in the gap between the United States and the periphery? So the question is, what gives a more accurate picture of inequality? Is it this absolute gap? Or is it this relative metric? Now, both metrics are fine on their own terms, right? They’re both measuring something real — none of it is incorrect, yeah? They’re both real measurements. But I would argue that in a situation where the United States already has so much more wealth than the rest of the world, so much higher income than the rest of the world, is already consuming, already has so much more than what the country needs. I’m not saying that everybody in the United States has more than they need. There’s huge problems with inequality. But the aggregate income is more than sufficient many times higher than what is needed to meet people’s needs. In a situation like that, it doesn’t make sense to me to say that inequality has declined, when there has been a $17,000 increase in the scale of the gap between the US and the Global South. And I should say that, I mean, I think it represents whether we choose to use absolute or relative measures, in a sense, it depends on one’s class perspective. If you are Bill Gates or if you’re a rich, middle-class consumer in the United States or Australia, it might make sense to use a relative metric because you might think, oh, my income should continue to grow at the same speed as people in the Global South. But if you’re somebody in the Global South, if you’re a poor, peasant farmer who’s exploited by large multinational corporations, from the perspective of somebody in that class position, what’s going to matter more I would argue is the absolute gap. Because it’s this, you know, you’re in a situation where the people exploiting you already have so much more income than they could ever need. It doesn’t make sense to say that they deserve, that they should get similar percentage increases in their income to what you as a poor Colombian peasant are getting.

Adam: Right, now and as you alluded to, of course, even using the average American as a proxy, rather than, let’s say, the top 1% of US or Europe also kind of, I think skews it a certain way, right, because the issue with what we mean by the “Global North,” I mean, really isn’t some guy living in South Chicago? I mean, that’s not really who I mean, again, I know there are certain advantages in being an American and being in the Global North inherently but you know, again, even within that system itself, there’s so much inequality that it seems to be skewing the average quite a bit.

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a good point. And in fact, if we’re gonna look at the average income of the top 1% in the United States, then inequality has increased even in relative terms. So the ratio of Global South income to the income of the top 1% has been declining in recent decades, right? So if we’re looking at the top 1%, then inequality has been rising, whether it’s relative or absolute.

Adam: And it matters a great deal as you also know with how you measure things like extreme poverty. I know that again, previously, your co-author Jason Hickel when he was on the show talked a lot about the way you cook the books is by putting, you know, a $1.25 versus $5.

Nima: Exactly like the kind of basic needs poverty line versus whatever other metrics that like the World Bank uses.

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah.

Nima: So everything you’ve been talking about here reinforces this idea that there are systems at work that keep entire communities, entire countries, indeed, entire economies in a state of perpetual precarity, if not worse. I mean, you add to that sanctions, you add, you know, imperial war, you add sometimes civil war, you add famine, you add environmental displacement and destruction all kinds of mixed together with these, you know, deliberately manufactured and maintained systems of austerity, right? So it makes sense, you know, as we’ve been talking about, it makes sense that people would move to places that seem more secure or potentially may offer a different kind of life, or at least the potential for that. And this leads to, again, the issue of migration as like a logical consequence of this gross and sustained inequality. Now, what I think is so fascinating about your work, and the work that you do with your co-researchers and co-authors is that you don’t only outline these issues about metrics and about whether it’s inequality or poverty, but you also offer ideas that there can be an alternative, right? There can be other systems that are more humane. So Dylan, as a final question here, can you tell us about how this can be different? What different policies, what different systems, what different concepts of even how we understand success for a society, right — maybe it’s not grow, grow all the time — how this can lead to a different kind of future for people on this planet? I know, it’s, you know, maybe kind of hokey to say, but like, you know, what are ways that we can rethink these systems so that they don’t just wind up of course, you know, funneling even more military equipment to governments across the world, phony loans to the Global South that can never actually be paid back by design. What are different systems that we can look toward?

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, so if I can start with the question about migration, I think you make an excellent point that when you have a system of wide global inequality, you’re always going to get this situation where people in the periphery find themselves trying to move to the core regions. And in fact, I think what we need to confront is that structural adjustment programs and neoliberal policies and these networks of global exploitation and extraction actually created a refugee crisis, right? You had hundreds of millions of people, dispossessed of their access to land, employment, affordable food, housing, and other essential goods, and they had to flee. And I think that we need to have the clarity to speak about this as and confront it as a refugee crisis. We have this bizarre distinction in the Global North and in the West between what’s called refugees and economic migrants. And what that distinction seems to mean in the, I suppose, the mainstream press is refugees are people who are legitimately fleeing, according to this narrative, refugees are people who are legitimately fleeing political persecution and violence, while economic migrants are just, you know, searching for better economic opportunities, and they’re not really deserving of help and protection. But, you know, I think we need to be clear that the violence of poverty and structural adjustment is just as real and devastating as the violence of bombs dropped from airplanes and missiles shot by fighter jets. If somebody is fleeing Putin’s war against Ukraine, right, which has killed perhaps tens of thousands of people, if somebody is fleeing that devastation, they’re considered a refugee in the West, quite rightly. But if somebody is fleeing the everyday violence of poverty and malnutrition, which kills literally millions of people every year, then they’re not considered a refugee. And this is predicated in a bizarre, liberal, classical liberal view, that political rights are more important than economic and social rights. Because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that everybody should, you know, has a right to access food and employment and the goods they need for survival, housing, and yet, if somebody flees the immense devastation and violence and destruction and death caused by their systematic denial to these resources, then we suddenly turn around and act like they’re not really in need of protection.

Nima: Well, that was just like a personal choice that they made and whatever.

Dylan Sullivan: So on to this question of alternatives. So there’s many things we can do. So the first thing to state is that we need an end to the political and military bases of imperialism. So we need to withdraw US and to some extent, Australian and Western European militaries from the Global South, withdraw all the military bases, stop engaging in imperial wars, including on Iraq, for instance, because it’s these systems of direct military control that provide the Global North with the capacity to force its way along to other states. In fact, there’s probably one of the most easy things that we can do to confront global inequality is simply to stop invading other countries. Beyond that, democratizing the institutions of global finance is an essential step. So I mentioned before that at the end of the colonial period, the countries of the Global North, of the core of the world system found themselves in control of the global financial infrastructure, the surplus of investable resources that we all need to be able to survive. Democratizing the way that that surplus is allocated and used, is essential. So that would allow Global South countries to access financial resources without having to cave to the pressure of Washington and the international financial institutions. Beyond that, though, we need to start thinking of how we can move towards a new economic, a post-capitalist economic system, a system of global socialism, global socialist planning that can meet the needs of everybody in the world. A few steps that can be taken in that direction, for instance, could be to establish a global universal basic income, which is sufficient for accessing food and housing.

Adam: Well, now you’re talking crazy. We’re running out of time, thanks a lot.

Dylan Sullivan: [Laughs.] Systems of universal access to resources work really well, really, I mean, you know, we often have this narrative especially in the West that, you know, socialism has failed, capitalism has proved itself to be the only sort of system capable of delivering people’s needs. But in fact, the socialist experiences of the 20th century for all of their flaws, and there were huge flaws in terms of political repression and planning failures but for all of those flaws, there were huge successes as well. Cuba, for instance, which has a system of universal access to food so everybody in Cuba is entitled to a modest quantity of food through the state rationing system, virtually for free, sold at about a tenth of its market price, so by the state at about a tenth of its market price. And Cuba, despite being a sort of lower middle-income country has a lower death rate from protein energy malnutrition, that is, deaths just from lack of weight for height. Cuba has a lower death rate from malnutrition than the United States and Western Europe, much higher income countries with much higher levels of resource use. So learning from these kinds of systems, I think, is an important step forward. And looking at ways that we can scale these systems up to the global level is something that we need to think seriously about. The Cuban food provisioning system has worked so remarkably well in the context of a brutal blockade that we really need to think about ways that this system could be emulated and brought to the global level to ensure that everybody has access to food.

Farmers harvest vegetables in Havana, Cuba.

Adam: Well, buddy, listen, if there’s a floor, then how do you have a race to the bottom? Well, the whole point of the race to the bottom is that there’s no bottom so if you have a bottom, the whole fucking system breaks down, man, come on, there needs to be just as there is domestically, a fixed number of really, really poor starving people. Otherwise, how do we get the guys to sew the soccer balls in Bangladesh? You don’t. So that doesn’t work? You know, the second you create a huge global UBI, we’re all fucked. You know, we had a UBI in the United States for about 14 months, and the entire capital class took one big shit in their diapers.

Dylan Sullivan: Yeah, how will I get cheap child slaves to produce my coffee and my chocolate, you know? It just won’t work if they have access to food.

Adam: Doesn’t work. Yeah, they wouldn’t take the job.

Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. The idea of linking not only the research and the data to these alternative futures is, I think, so important. So just, you know, thank you so much for joining us today. We’ve been speaking with Dylan Sullivan, adjunct fellow and PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, where he teaches in politics, sociology, and anthropology. As you heard, his research focuses on global inequality, colonial history, and the economics of socialist planning as you laid out so incredibly, wonderfully for us. Thank you again, Dylan, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Dylan Sullivan: Thanks. It’s been excellent.


Adam: Yeah, I think just in general, the idea that there are hundreds of thousands of people who would take such an incredible risk to their lives and self in order to make a move, move from point A to point B and that the underlying conditions, because again, it’s not a huge leap for the liberal mind to say, well, what are what’s causing that, right? Kamala Harris talks about root causes — it’s sort of trendy to talk about root causes. But then when you hear what the root causes are, the root causes are always this kind of patronizing David Brooks kind of quasi-racism about cultural failings, right? Corruption, you always hear about corruption, they need to straighten out their own economies, they need healthier institutions. The idea that these international trade deals, right, it’s like the concept of, you know, part of the liberal rules based order is this idea of rule of law. There’s a transparency foundation rule of law where they give, which is going to be its own episode, at some point. It was started and created by the former IP lawyer for Microsoft, and it’s primarily focused on patent and copyright enforcement. So when people talk about rule of law, a lot of times what they mean is making sure that these international corporations, these Global North-created corporations can enforce copyright laws in the Global South. This is really what they’re talking about when they talk about things like rule of law and anti-corruption. It’s not entirely, but it’s a lot of it, right? And what this does, again, like, as we mentioned on the show, it’s a geopolitical equivalent of Black-on-Black crime, right? It’s like, we’re not going to worry about the actual root causes that cause these inequities, the racism, the historical, sort of, you know, colonial, neocolonial systems of extraction, of colonial exploitation, we’re just going to sort of put the burden on the poor countries for being poor because they need to, you know, get their house in order, which is really great, because it gets everybody off the hook. It doesn’t really upset anyone, and it doesn’t put any of the blame on these trade deals that are overwhelmingly and almost uniformly supported by corporations and neoliberal politicians of both parties.

Nima: Exactly. The shithole-ness of the countries is inherent and pathological. It comes from nowhere — it is just the natural order of things.

Adam: And the conservative is just mindlessly racist. But the liberal is a little more sophisticated with that kind of quasi-racism because then if you say it’s root causes, or it’s corruption, it sounds kind of race neutral, but really what you’re ultimately doing is you’re just blaming countries for being poor themselves. Now, that isn’t to say there isn’t corruption, right? There is, you know, things that certain countries could do on their own. But, you know, on an existential or basic level, these inequities that are that are reinforced by these trade policies, again, you see trade policies, people’s eyes glaze over, but it’s like, no, it’s really, really important because it creates human suffering, the stakes couldn’t be higher. And the fact that it sounds boring is what makes it so powerful. The fact that it seems obscure and esoteric —

Nima: Right, that’s what’s so sinister.

Adam: And they made a joke about that, like, on the Jimmy Fallon thing, it’s like, oh, it’s just this boring trade deal. And this is guys in suits, and they’re hanging out in some office somewhere. And it’s like, yeah, but those are humans that are being on the other end of that contract, the other end of that “trade deal” that are going to suffer, and they have suffered, and we have the data from NAFTA, you know, it’s been, it’s been almost 30 years, like we know, it increased poverty. It certainly didn’t decrease poverty. We know it caused a lot of social disruption, a lot of human movement, a disruption of more traditional economies and farming. This isn’t some mystery, and actually, in fact, when they were promoting TPP, many of its promoters say, oh, this is not going to be like NAFTA. So they sort of acknowledged that the last one didn’t work. This is going to have this and then we’re teaching people how to code and whatever kind of bullshit and so when you look at immigration coverage, these global inequities that are fueled by these so-called trade deals is never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever mentioned. You know, again, forget the lack of mentioning of coups and disrupting governments and supporting despotic autocratic regimes in Latin America and Asia from the 60s, 70s to today. Forget the sanctions on countries like Venezuela and Cuba that have really hurt their economies. Forget all that, like that’s not even mentioned.

Nima: You can just just look at the paperwork.

Adam: Yeah, it’s never mentioned. It’s just this thing from nowhere that just happened. They’re just poor, because they well, they’ve always been poor, and it’s like, but they really haven’t.

Nima: No and similarly, it’s like talking about people being in deep debt, say student debt or, you know, mortgages that are unable to be paid, but without looking at the promises made by the predatory lending practices that led directly to this debt and this, you know, idea of owing back, right? Well, you know, you signed the thing, so you just owe it back. But there are all of these predatory lending practices and that goes from whether it is student debt here in the United States or these “development” systems established by the IMF, the World Bank, USAID, all of these systems are about predatory lending. It’s just what the Global North has decided to extract from these countries, the conditions under which they keep them beholden to those systems, to those governments, to those institutions. You know, it’s no surprise, as we were talking about with Dylan that both the IMF and the World Bank are based in Washington, DC, right? Like, this all works together. And so, you know, we really wanted to outline how immigration and the global banking systems are deeply intertwined and how the media consistently fails to connect these things.

Adam: Nobody wants us to blame even in part, right? Because we’re this magnanimous beacon on the city on the hill. So when it seems more like we’re a feudal lord inviting people into our manor for crumbs, it’s not as romantic.

Nima: Right, and then locking the doors, mind you. Not so much inviting but rather, having that candle in the upper turret and keeping the drawbridge up. So uh, wow, that’s really going deep with that metaphor. Okay, that will do it for this three-part series on immigration narratives in the media. Thank you all for listening. Of course, you can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and if you are so inclined and we hope you are, consider becoming a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/citationsneededpodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener-funded. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I am Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten, and production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cardano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.

Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.