Book Review


Michael Goldman , Imperial Nature: The World Bank and Struggles for Social Justice in the Age of Globalization . New Haven , CT : Yale University Press , 2005 . xxiv + 360 pp . ISBN: 0-300-10408-1 ( cloth ).

Michael Goldman's important new book marks the confluence of two quite fundamental lines of thinking. The first dating back a decade and more is the discursive and institutional analysis of development and development projects (James Ferguson's book The Anti Politics Machine is of course foundational). The other is the critical analysis of neoliberalism as a hegemonic set of ideas and practices in and outside of something called development (obviously David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism has brought together much of this work and in turn thrown down a series of challenges and questions). Goldman—following in the wake of Robert Wade's pathbreaking work—takes the reader inside the World Bank and through his careful ethnographic analysis of Bank knowledge production, operations, project design and implementation and the massive ancillary industry embracing consultants, international NGOs and engineering firms, exposes the way in which the Bank has been “greened”—indeed in his view it has emerged as the central institution in the manufacture of new “environmental states” and “eco-subjects”.

At the heart of Imperial Nature is an account of the ways in which the Bank has created a set of discursive practices and projects that “have become naturalized, legitimate and durable” (p 5). In short, Goldman is in search of the Bank's hegemony. More specifically Goldman traces the irresistible rise of what he calls “green neoliberalism”—a couplet that contains two dimensions of development: as a planned post 1945 project of the global south and the contradictory and uneven developments within capitalism (p 11). The Bank is foundational to both projects not simply because it helps manufacture the dominant ideology of neoliberalism but also because it has been able to weld together a broad network of actors—from Ivy League Economics Departments to Cargill to the US Treasury to local civic groups—what he dubs a “transnational policy network” (TNP). In charting the lineaments of IBRD hegemony, Goldman takes issue with the earlier work of Robert Wade on the US Treasury–Wall Street–IMF/IBRD nexus (“he falls short in explaining the political economy of the Bank's work”, p 10) and the postmodern development militia (for whom the imposition of domination “sounds so simple”, p 23). For Goldman hegemony demands neither a sinister conspiracy theory nor brute power, but a grasp of the ways in which green rule operates through the framing of common sense centred on the everyday practice of professional, experts, scientists, firms, and activists involved in what one might call the knowledge production business (p 33). Hegemony, however, is, as someone once said, bloody hard work—and often typically incomplete. Which is to say Goldman as a self-identified Gramscian sees all negotiated compromises as cross cut by resistances and contradictions—and to the same extent the Bank (in wrestling with its own internal struggles—one thinks of the firing of Stiglitz by Summers) always faces something of an authority crisis. As he says, the Bank “remains extremely vulnerable” (p 45).

In Chapter II, Goldman takes on the large and complex question of explaining the rise of the Bank's global hegemony (p 49). In his account Robert McNamara looms; he was the figure who oversaw the emergence of the Bank as a powerful organization and the creation of a new sort of “power-knowledge Leviathan” (p 51). Much of this story has been told, of course, but Goldman focuses in on McNamara. This story remains incomplete nevertheless, and perhaps his role at the Bank needs to be judged against a fine-grained reading of his earlier history at Ford and the Defense Department (Hendrickson 1997). Goldman, however, is concerned to pose the question how did neoliberalism become so convincing so quickly (and implicitly why and how was the Bank captured as part of this process?). The first thing that needs to be said is that the very process by which neoliberal hegemony was established—and against which forms of resistance are to be assessed—remains a story for which at present we have no full genealogy. The cast of characters may be lined up—from the school of Austrian economics to the Reagan–Thatcher–Kohl troika—but this explains very little, or rather only poses more questions than it answers. Neoliberalism is a class reaction to the crisis of the 1970s (as both Milton Friedmann and Bob Brenner concur). The global multilaterals and the Wall Street Treasury impose the brutal forms of economic discipline—structural adjustment—to eradicate forever any residue of collectivism in the Third World. But beyond these descriptions we are left with paradoxes and questions. Why did the LSE and Chicago—the centres of Fabianism and a certain sort of (American) liberalism under the swing of Robert Hutchins—become the forcing houses of neoliberalism? It was the arrival of Ronald Coase at Chicago that marked a neoliberal turning point; Hayek after all was not associated with the Economics Department. How did the Chicago Boys come to take in post-Allende Chile and how did they live down the fact that their effects were (to use the language of the World Bank) “disastrous”? How did the World Bank—a bastion of postwar development economics and a certain sort of statism—become the voice of laissez faire? Harry Johnson (who held Chairs at the LSE and Chicago) is a spectral figure in the liberalization of the World Bank but how can we explain the capture of key sectors of the Bank (often by second-rate economists) against a backdrop of robust Keynesianism? How did the ideas of Peter Bauer, Harry Johnson and Deepak Lal (who in a 1983 IEA paper declared that development economics was dead) gain traction? The criticism of Keynes after all came as much from the likes of Dudley Seers and Albert Hirschmann as from the neoclassicals; it also dovetailed with the anti-statism leveled by many on the Left during the 1970s. The way in which government failures came to outweigh market failures in development thinking is, in other words, a complex picture of discursive contestation and political practice. It is sometimes noted that the 1991 World Development Report (shaped by Lawrence Summers) marked a neoliberal watershed in its refiguring of the role of the state but was not the foundational moment a decade earlier with the 1980 Berg report on Africa (named after Elliot Berg, a Michigan economist who, as far as I can see, nobody paid much attention to for 20 years)? Africa (not Latin America, nor the shock therapies imposed upon eastern Europe) proved to be the first testing ground of neoliberalism's assault on the over-extended public sector, on physical capital formation and on the proliferation of market distortions by government. The class forces around and through which embedded liberalism has been built necessarily shaped the manner and forms in which the counter-revolution can proceed (if at all). Let us recall too that Hayek believed The Road to Serfdom—and Hayek of course is key even if he does not make an appearance in Imperial Nature—had ruined his career and marginalized his entire project; by the mid to late 1970s many of neoliberalism's intellectual architects (Friedmann among them) claimed that nobody took their ideas seriously (it was the inflation of the 1970s said Friedmann that revealed the cracks within the Keynesian edifice). So the neoliberal “grand slam” seems to have been preceded by a long march of pretty mediocre hitting and pessimism. The question of resistance naturally turns in some way on how one sees the long march of neoliberalism through the institutions. David Harvey is right to emphasize the unevenness of actually existing neoliberalism but the process by which some measure of neoliberal consent was manufactured since say 1945 was, after all, contested all along the way along a number of fronts.

Chapters III–V are the most original and compelling part of the book. Here Goldman takes the reader through the normalization process of environmental knowledge and practice at the Bank. He begins with the fact that the Bank is a massive producer of knowledge (and he charts the careful framing process involved for green science) and then provides an illuminating account of the environmental research and project cycle. The devil, as Goldman shows, is in the details. There are several aspects at work. First, the opportunities for data collection within projects are small (driven by all manner of pressures placed upon project managers). Second, the staff training for environmental assessment—and the monitoring of environmental performance—is cross cut by all manner of forces shaped by (1) the dominance of cost benefit analysis, (2) the project donor's liability, and (3) the enormous import for project development and management of any environmental assessment (p 121). Monitoring is virtually impossible in any case given the conditions of project operation. Goldman is especially good at charting the relations between the knowledge hierarchy and consent: the relations between knowledge production and career path, the overwhelming extent to which Bank knowledge only refers to Bank knowledge (“narcissism” p 131). One of the great surprises is that an institution that prides itself on scientific rigor, numbers and no-bullshit analysis of an empirical sort, fails to meet even the most basic academic standards. Nobody believes the national environmental assessments, 60% of the projects had no baseline surveys! And almost everything on Africa seems to be little more than “airy proclamations” (p 132). At the end of the day, says a Bank official, “we are selling a product” (p 133).

In Chapter IV Goldman turns his eye to dam projects in Laos. The central thread is the way the Bank orchestrates a small army of consultant engineers, state agencies and civic groups. This is much more than the operations of an epistemic community. Imperial Nature sows how engineering and other consultants have no time or money to document real impacts or make critical judgments. Local knowledges are completely subjugated; and the Bank's extraordinary internal state access in Laos makes national interest something of a bad joke. Of course Laos is something of an exceptional case (80% of government expenditures comes from foreign aid), but Goldman's account of consent production is compelling.

Most ambitiously, in Chapter V he turns to a Foucault-inspired analysis of what he takes to be the Bank's most far reaching impact: the creation of hybrid environmental states with their eco-subjects in tact. The Bank deploys armies of “hybrid actors”—traveling practitioners who represent a “nascent professional class in the neoliberal discourse of entrepreneurial responsibility” (p 200). They cross cut state, civic and private lines and are backed up with the armor of Bank training programs. This is exciting stuff but I am not sure he pulls it off. The very notion of environmental states—and their conduct of normalization—would require a full accounting of the analytics of governmentality and this we do not have. Likewise, the concept of eco-subject is complex and needs more empirical analysis than we have on offer. The new work emerging by Paige West (2005) and Tania Li (2006) covers similar ground cleared by Goldman but perhaps with more effect.

Finally, Goldmann turns to the privatization of water and provides a bravura analysis of the TNP in operation. What is at stake of course is new forms of governance representing congeries of state, private, civic and other agency. He shows brilliantly the implications of who is billed as “”or “civic” matters enormously, as does the process by which the network is cemented and operationalized. At the heart of this analysis is a very critical stance on “newly emerging civil society” (p 270) as a space of progress, ingenuity or resistance. Indeed in Goldman's hands it is little more than a terrain for the expansion of green neoliberalism. In fact it is this expansion which undercuts some of his conclusions on the fragility of the Bank and the powers residing in the so-called movement of movements. This is a story that requires a book in and of itself, and the reader is not terribly convinced of the “tidal waves” that could be sent through the international financial system (p 278). Nobody now talks the talk of unfettered globalization that prevailed in the 1990s; but does anyone talk the talk of Seattle either? Be this as it may, it is a testament to the power of Goldman's book that he has laid out a new and exciting agenda and, at Berkeley at least but I suspect elsewhere, armies of doctoral students are taking up the gauntlet that he has thrown into the ring.