Walden Bello’s Brief Autobiography July 09, 2008
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Our new visiting professor Walden Bello wrote an inspirational piece for the Antipode-not because he was a communist, though admittedly it creates some sympathy wedded to an anxious conscience(i.e. are we all destined to be erstwhile communists?):
From Antipode, Vol. 40, Iss. 3
Why am I engaged?
I am often asked this question. It’s the sort of question that stops you in your tracks and gets you back to the fundamentals.
Some of my writing as an undergraduate was on economic and social issues but I was more into literature and philosophy, which I loved. I was a late bloomer as an activist. I was pretty much a nose-to-the-grindstone student in college in the Philippines in the mid 1960s. It was only when I went to the States for graduate work in the 1970s that I became an activist owing to the impact of the Vietnam War. I dug into sociology and did my comprehensives even as I got more and more engaged in anti-war protests at Princeton.
My first arrest was a milestone personally. You know, I was in the US as a foreign student, and they had pretty strong rules then against foreign students becoming engaged in political activities. Definitely, if you were arrested for protesting and convicted, you were sent home. During the American foray into Laos in 1971, there was a blockade of the Institute for Defense Analysis on campus. I went to show support for those engaged in civil disobedience, but when I saw how the police were manhandling the protesters, I spontaneously joined them and was arrested and later convicted for trespassing and resisting arrest. I fully expected to be deported but wasn’t. But I had crossed a psychological line.
I went to do my dissertation on political organizing in the shantytowns in Chile during the Allende government in 1972. I spent about three months in several urban slums ringing the urban capital, Santiago, when I realized that it was no longer the revolution that was on the ascendant but the counterrevolution. I was intrigued by the dynamics of the counterrevolution at that same time that I felt that what I would gather from studying it would be useful to the left, which I certainly felt myself part of. So I shifted my thesis topic from shantytown organizing to the rise of the counterrevolution and started interviewing elite and middle class folks that were rabid anti-Allendistas. I of course passed myself off as a Princeton researcher, but many of those I talked to could not conceive of a brown-skinned person being in Chile except as a Cuban agent of Fidel Castro, and I narrowly escaped being beaten twice.
I felt though that while one was engaged politically, as an intellectual one had to respect social reality and not distort it for short-term partisan purposes. If the counterrevolution was winning, it was all the more important to understand why the middle classes in particular were being swept up in it. The thesis ended up as a comparative analysis of the rise of counterrevolutionary movements in Chile, Italy in the early 1920s, and Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I wrote it up while I was engaged in solidarity work for Chile in the US.
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The declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1972 found me in Chile. When I got back to the US, I immediately plunged into exile politics. Since Washington was the key supporter of Marcos, the US became a very strategic area to organize in. So even as I was finishing my thesis, I was shuttling between Princeton and Washington, DC, helping set up what would become a determined lobby seeking a congressional cutoff of military and economic aid to Marcos. A study I co-wrote with Severina Rivera, “The logistics of repression: US aid to the military dictatorship in the Philippines”, which came out in 1977, laid out the different channels of US support for the Marcos regime.
While in Washington, I noticed that the greater part of economic aid to Marcos was not going through bilateral channels but through the World Bank. However, World Bank operations in the Philippines were very non-transparent. When you tried to figure out what this giant institution was up to, all you got were sanitized press releases. So to find out what the Bank was doing, we had to break into the Bank to steal documents. This we did over a period of three years, hitting the Bank on those days when nobody was around, like Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. We posed as tired Bank staff coming back from missions, with ties askew, and as we fumbled for our “IDs”, the guards would just say, don’t worry, and wave us through. In the end, we got 3000 pages worth of confidential documents on every Bank project in the country as well as political risk analysis showing the Bank was getting nervous about the opposition to Marcos. The book Development Debacle: the World Bank in the Philippines came out in 1982. It became an underground bestseller in the Philippines and people tell me that it was one of the books that mobilized the middle class against Marcos. One lesson I learned from this episode was that to really do good research, you sometimes have to break the law. Had we been caught, my colleagues and I could have gotten 25 years for theft. In fact, the story of how we really got secret Bank documents had to wait until way after the statute of limitations for criminal offenses had passed.
While in the US, I joined the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and spent the next few years going to where I was assigned and doing what the party thought was necessary. I became a full-time activist upon completing my PhD thesis in 1975 and would not return to academia for the next 19 years. For many young Filipinos, to effectively fight the dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s meant joining the CPP, which was then the most effective resistance organization. It was inspiring, and even as it was disciplined, it was flexible and innovative. It listened to my analysis of things, while at the same time imparting organizational skills to me. Under party guidance, I helped to organize the work in Washington, create the nationwide anti-martial law coalition, set up an international solidarity network, and became a specialist in civil disobedience, taking over consulates and embassies of the Marcos government. The most memorable of these actions was in 1978, when I led a team that occupied the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco for five hours. We were evicted by a SWAT team, arrested, and eventually spent time in jail, from which we got out only after engaging in a one-week-long hunger strike.
I left the party in the late 1980s, after 14 years as a member. Why? In the mid 1980s, it carried out several purges to clean the ranks of suspected military informers. The campaigns eventually took over 2000 lives. I was shocked and decided to investigate what happened. Interviews with scores of people who had participated in these purges either as victims or executioners revealed to me not only the appalling lack of a sound system of justice in the party but also the problem with an outlook that values people only for their class position and politics. Once you were labeled a counterrevolutionary, you were the enemy, subject to whatever punishment the “people” deemed fit for you.
The purges marked the degeneration of what was once a flexible and innovative party into a doctrinal, Stalinist machine. It was heart-rending, seeing this organization degenerate into the same leftist authoritarianism that had not only strangled revolutionary creativity but also begun wiping out its own people along with huge numbers of ordinary citizens in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia. The party never forgave me for publicly coming out with my study of the purges. In 2005, I was labeled a “counterrevolutionary” and put on a list of 14 people, some of whom had already been assassinated by the party-led New People’s Army.
In 1987, I joined Food First or the Institute for Food and Development Policy in San Francisco, which had been founded in 1975 by Frances Moore Lappe and Joe Collins. This was a time when the newly industrializing countries (NICs) were the flavor of the month, and developing countries were being told to follow the path of the East Asian “tiger economies”. It was, in my view, a model that needed to be demystified. In 1990, I and Stephanie Rosenfeld came out with Dragons in Distress: Asia’s Miracle Economies in Crisis, which was a comprehensive critique of the NIC model. When the Asian financial crisis took place in 1997, it was said that I had anticipated the crisis in Dragons by six years. Well, not quite. I detailed an unfolding crisis of economic structure along with crises in the environment and agriculture but I had not foreseen the crisis that would erupt in the financial sphere. The message of the book was that while the NICs had achieved a reduction in the number of people living in poverty and had brought about comprehensive industrialization, export-oriented industrialization was unsustainable and was not a model for other developing countries. The full implications of this message are finally being drawn out these days, when export-oriented development strategies are everywhere in crisis.
After leaving Food First in 1993, I joined the University of the Philippines as a professor of sociology. Nearly 20 years after I got my PhD, I was back in the academy. At the same time, Kamal Malhotra and I set up Focus on the Global South in Bangkok. Focus was meant to be an Asia-based research, advocacy, and action organization working on north–south issues in the age of globalization. We founded Focus in 1995, the same year the World Trade Organization was established, and almost immediately we positioned ourselves against this institution that was designed to be the lynchpin of the system of global governance and against the doctrine of neoliberalism that served as its intellectual scaffolding. We were right in the epicenter of the Asian financial crisis that broke out in 1997, and Focus quickly gained a reputation as a fierce critic of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and an advocate of capital controls. We were part of the global civil society offensive that contributed to the collapse of the WTO’s third ministerial in Seattle in 1999 and its fifth ministerial in Cancun in 2003.
Today, with the collapse of the WTO’s Doha Round of trade negotiations and the crisis of legitimacy of the IMF and the World Bank, Focus is reorienting its work to place the priority on coming up with alternatives to the current system of multilateral global governance and to neoliberal approaches to trade and development. Our approach is called “deglobalization”, to capture the necessity of dismantling the institutions of corporate-driven globalization in order to bring about a truly just international economy, participation in which leads to the strengthening, not the disintegration of those national economies that participate in it.
I understand if people emphasize the strength of capitalism and US power in their analysis. However, while not underestimating the US and global capital, neither must we overestimate them. Globalization is in retreat, and the US is overextended, bloodied in a war that it cannot win in Iraq. The triple crisis of overproduction, overextension, and legitimacy opens up the space for alternative ways of organizing production, politics, and our relationship to the environment. This is a very exciting conjuncture.
So back to the question that we began with: why am I engaged? I guess I am engaged because I think one should do something worthwhile with one’s life. There’s nothing heroic about it. It’s just that you have to do it, to be human. It’s something we owe our fellow human beings, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. We have a situation in the world in which this sort of exploitation and poverty that we have should have been banished long ago. Humans should be able to devise more equitable structures. And so one has to be part of that process. Because you either engage in the process and become true to yourself or you disengage from it and are just an onlooker. And that, I think, would signify not being true to oneself. So, the answer to the question why does one engage in the kind of work I do, is because that’s the only decent thing to do. There’s no great inspiration and no big heroism hidden in it. It’s not a sort of martyrdom and nothing glorious—it’s just pure decency. That’s at least what motivates me.