Wednesday, September 6

Intellectuals and their Discontents

Intellectuals are people who think that their own ideas matter more than other people.


Our post Hypnotize took a look at Meles's latest ideological / academic / political / economic / historical justification for his eternal rule, African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings (PDF file) ... and found it to be rather silly indeed. We concluded that
This 'new paradigm' is unmistakably an opportunistic evolution of the already opportunistic 'revolutionary democracy' styled for different times, audiences and circumstances.
That remains true of course, but on second sight the roots of the 'New Paradigm' and Meles's new vocabulary of Orwellian excuses for dictatorship have more modern roots than revolutionary democracy did. The PM's new intellectual tour de force is just a new catechism for eternal Melesian rule that finds inspiration in Stiglitz and academia instead of Marx.

The very vocabulary the book uses, its ideas, its contempt for facts and history as well as its all over high quotient of silliness make it nothing more than a ball of confusion (well edited for grammar though) squeezed together from the intellectual crumbs of notables like Stiglitz to justify the personal tyranny of Meles.

The Meles opus is sponsored by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue's Africa Task Force out of Columbia University. The Ethiopia Targeted Country Visit 2001 Report details Ethiopia's development challenges, then goes on to wax sentimental about the regime with this dubious passage
Fortunately, since 1991, Ethiopia's economy has experienced a remarkable degree of macroeconomic stability and good growth on average. This is in-spite of its 1998-2000 conflict with Eritrea.

Since 1992, average annual inflation has been in the low single digits and GDP growth has averaged around six percent a year. Growth however has been highly variable, reflecting the dependence of the economy on a rain-fed agricultural sector subject to frequent drought.
Every point of the quote above has rather little to do with recognizable fact or massages the absence of fact by being written with great care to dance around every obvious fault. Take the GDP growth figure of 6% for the Meles Inc. era that is put forward. The article Ethiopia: Scaling Up from Finance & Development, the quarterly magazine of the International Monetary Fund, very generously estimated that the actual per capita growth rate of the economy over the period in question was only 1.1%.

That growth of 1.1% is all the more tragic as it was 'achieved' in the face of population growth, ever increasing amounts of land under till, unprecedented use of fertilizer (surpassed only by the amount used in print), forgiveness of billions in debt, untold more billions in aid as well as direct budget support of billions.

Meles Inc. has more recently claimed about a growth rate of 7% as we discussed in the post The 7% Solution (scroll down to the end of that post for a chronicle of the regime's economic lies and those of its foreign enablers). The 7% number was just as invented as the 6% number and was more specifically one condition for yet more billions in aid under the Millenial Development Goals.

As we discussed in Short Term Memory, Cheerleaders and Sachs & Violence, there is a long tradition of intellectuals 'adopting' African tyrants stretching back to those 'romatic' revolutionaries Nkrumah and Nyerere and their destruction of the Ghanaian and Tanzanian economies and societies. All the tyrant must do is manage to speak the right progressive language while flattering their ferenji intellectual sponsors - even as boots stomp the faces of and impoverish the 'people' everyone pretends to be so concerned with.

The folks at Columbia fit squarely in that tradition of excusing oppressive governments with some variety of the old 'making the trains run on time' justifications for evils past. Take this sentence from the Initiative statement quoted in full above that describes a non-existent "remarkable degree of macroeconomic stability and good growth on average" in Ethiopia.

Even when the trains are demonstrably not running on time the intellectual sponsors of dictatorship make the timetables up as they go along. Every reason that has made Botswana or even Kenya more prosperous than Ethiopia not to mention their own countries rich is absolutely absent in Ethiopia today.

Minimal levels of transparency, accountability and even governing decency are absent so with an anemic (over generously reported) 1.1% per capita growth rate sustained only by billions in cash infusions from aid and remittances - Ethiopians actually get poorer every year. The folks at Columbia know this very well and while they are not bad folks themselves, per se, they support what is bad for the sake of intellectual satisfaction.

To be fair to the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, they do link on their 2004 Ethiopia Dialogue Press Coverage page to a number of critical articles. Many criticisms are about the many admiring contacts Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz has had with Meles.

However, none of the criticism has been taken into account. Indeed, the new book by Meles is highlighted on the site even though it does nothing but copy some of the Professor's noteworthy (but we believe wrong) ideas into justifications for Meles Inc. rule. It is hard to see how in the absence of a Prime Minister's authorship there is anything notable about it.

The economic reports of the government are reported as though they had independent credence even though no one at Columbia can rationally believe them. It must be easy to pretend when all important ideas are at stake and there is a cooperative dictator willing to make those ideas important in the lives of tens of millions in exchange for a bit of enabling ... all the while convincing oneself that it is all for the 'good of the people' in the end.

Note that the Initiative describes itself as being "In Partnership With the InterAfrica Group " which according to the Horn of Africa NGO Network for Development is focused on these areas: Economic Reform, Governance and Democratic Development and Humanitarianism and Peace-building. Sounds great right? Well, the InterAfrica Group is also described as a coven of pet intellectuals in the service of Meles (the current Meles Inc. Ambassador to the US was part of InterAfrica) who dare not disagree with the official line.

In addition to the pleasure of hearing how important one's ideas are and having national leaders put them into practice there is a self imposed echo chamber that all intellectuals submit themselves to for those pleasures. This intellectual and practical complicity with tyranny is fed by the need to think well of one's own actions as a simple and well meaning thinker who finally gets a chance to 'really matter' on the world stage.

Then there is the simple professional prerequisite of all those dealing with dictators to get along with the local thugs lest their ideas and careers get locked out of the action in favor of a competing group of intellectuals, NGO managers, reporters or bureaucratic policy makers for that matter. As we have said to the point of exhaustion at times, Meles Inc. is doing everything wrong if the aim is national freedom and development.

Since the aim is really eternal rule and enrichment for Meles Inc. then everything is working just right. Intellectuals go along for the ride because they honestly do believe that their own ideas are more important than people and because they figure folks like Ethiopians aren't capable of doing better than Meles anyway.

Professor Stiglitz and all of the good folks at the Initiative are certainly intelligent, but there is no necessary relationship between intelligence and being right or even intelligence and common sense. Columbia's sponsorship, at this late date, of a bloody dictatorship is hard to defend from any point of view. It is essentially providing a forum for Meles to revamp a carefully crafted image of intellectualism, wisdom and altruism that was damaged by the regime's actual brutality.

If dictators like Meles are OK in some circles for their academic pretensions then why shouldn't Columbia sponsor the next book by Kim Jong Il about the failure of the neo-liberal paradigm and why hereditary juche is the answer for humanity's ills? For that matter why shouldn't essays and opinions from the Burmese dictators and Hezbollah be given such respect in University circles?

Intelligence has no sort of natural association we may imagine with morality or even basic humanism .... but the truth can leak out at times. One of our least favorite intellectuals once dropped this bit of eternal wisdom when in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx said that
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.
What Marx was talking about was good old capitalism which is what Ethiopians have always needed more of instead of their current corrupt, brutal, crony-capitalist, private property and investment hostile government. Indeed, by ignoring the capacity of capitalism to create actual wealth rather than reams of policy papers the regime and its enablers have impoverished Ethiopians and held them hostage to unconditional Western aid. All the while with the regime being cheered on by Western intellectuals.

Arts and Letters Daily
is one of the best sites on the internet and recently linked to this critique of 'Making Globalization Work' thusly, "Joseph Stiglitz is eloquent on market failures. But for him, state failure, dictatorship, and corruption are easily let off the hook..." The critic goes on to say of Stiglitz' critique of globalisation that
His prescriptions are not new: more generous foreign assistance and debt relief; a full commitment to fair trade; a carbon tax and stronger institutions of global governance: more and bigger (and tougher) supranational agencies.

It hardly squares with his concern for the millions who feel powerless at local level and unable to influence events. But consistency, or the lack of it, is not the worst problem here. The biggest difficulty is in its lack of a clear, robust definition of what 'globalisation' is.

To have a critique of globalisation is about as meaningful as a ship's captain bemoaning the sea. Globalisation - the cross border flows of plant, capital, labour, products, services and ideas - has been under way for centuries. This process has never been linear. And it is certainly not new.

While there is much that rings true in Stiglitz's descriptions of IMF and official donor aid, he overlooks the fact that most countries seeking it are on the point of bankruptcy. Little confidence will be created by simply lending more without strings.

Equally, can it be argued that poverty in Africa can be laid at the door of 'globalisation'? How convenient for the dictator of Zimbabwe, now on the brink of hyperinflation.

Stiglitz is eloquent on market failure. But government failure, dictatorship and corruption are easily let off the hook.
This piece from the Old Addis Fortune, What Professor Stiglitz Refused to See (2004 PDF File gracefully linked to on the same Columbia web site) is just as revealing
Despite his much talked about economic erudition, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, who delivered a speech here last week, has failed to grasp some of the defining aspects of the Ethiopian government's behaviour policy.

Stiglitz pays little attention to the fact that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's Administration is far from being business friendly in that it is putting many businesspeople behind bars for indefinite periods while allegedly forcing others into involuntary exile. Meles has an apparent aversion to wealthy people [at least those not part of Meles Inc.] whom he often blamed of rent seeking, a concept borrowed from Stiglitz & Co.

Stiglitz uses East-Asian countries as success stories that have rejected the IMF/World Bank model of economic growth. He did not mention that these countries attained success within the framework of democratic governance, regular free and fair elections, and the existence of an independent and vibrant media, all of which are deficient here in Ethiopia.
The sorely missed, Old Addis Fortune goes on to say that Stiglitz failed to be critical of the government in any way
Instead, he took a very superficial approach to Ethiopia's economy by using the government's own claims and data to illustrate his points rather than making independent and dispassionate research himself.
This type of approach is clear in the Initiative's glowing opinions of the government's economic performance on the web site. The Old Addis Fortune article goes on to list the many 'pink elephants' of Ethiopia's ongoing economic ruin such as regular manipulation of the judicial system, the absence of private property, the corrupt magnitude of the party / government / crony owned 'private sector', the centralization of wealth and power into the hands of the ruling elite and that
Land is a political instrument in the hands of the ruling party in Ethiopia. It is regularly used to coerce the peasants into voting for the party. It is also a source of profit through the monopoly it exercises in the controversial fertilizer market.

Stiglitz did not come up in support of this policy. Neither did he offer any criticism or an alternative. He simply speaks about growth by looking into the potential of horticulture alone. I do not think his analysis of the Ethiopian economy includes agriculture in any serious way.

The ruling party is leading a parasitic existence over the peasantry because it depends on their political "support" and the source of profits in the lucrative fertilizer business. Stiglitz has never tried to deal with the problem of rent seeking in the context of the monopolistic behaviour of the ruling party in Ethiopia.
You may wonder what could have possibly put Professor Stiglitz on the receiving end of such commentary. Well, Professor Stiglitz was one of the Ethiopian dictator's biggest and most passionate fans and the author of Globalisation and its Discontents where this comment about Meles is so gushing with warmth that one momentarily considers Meles for sainthood
Meles combined these intellectual attributes with personal integrity: no one doubted his honesty and there were few accusations of corruption within his government

His political opponent came mostly from the long-dominant groups around the capital who had lost political power with his accession, and they raised questions about his commitment to democratic principles.
Transparency International considers Ethiopia's government to be one of the most corrupt on earth. The Stiglitz passage goes on to say that
Surely, this was precisely the kind of government to which the international community should have been giving assistance
Just like the economic figures used by the Initiative for Africa this last passage is a simple rehashing of the talking points from the government's own propaganda machine. The above quote is discussed in Budget support, conditionality and poverty (PDF File) which analyzes budget support as a function of 'trust' between the donor and recipient. In Ethiopia 'donor and recipient' are defined better defined as 'donor and regime' so Ethiopians are totally locked out of any political economic process which may bring transparency or accountability to their government.

So trust can mean many things that have little to do with the welfare of Ethiopians or even the interests of the taxpayers and citizens of donor nations. As we saw in the post, So Much Ill and So Little Good, William Easterly, the author of The White Man's Burden : Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good points out that aid does not work, indeed trillions have gone to waste in the past decades with little to show for them. The countries that move forward do so with sane policies, transparency and accountability.

Cheerleading dictators like Meles can only serve some deep intellectual craving to somehow 'matter' in the real world where simple actors from lowly peasants & kulaks to CEO's & and workers normally matter far more than intellectuals who feel destined to shape the future of mankind. Such cheerleading also provides justification for dictatorship and corruption that intellectuals would never tolerate anywhere near themselves.

Intellectuals also have their very own discontents and they can be found most easily amidst 70 million Ethiopian hostages to Meles Inc. The Initiative for Africa not only has sponsored the introduction to the book by Meles but it also gives him an undeserved level of civilized gravitas.

In fact, the dictator in question has only earned recognition for ruthlessness and an undying will to power for which he is gladly willing to pay out endless rivers of Ethiopian blood, sweat and tears. In the name of those suffering millions, billions in aid pour into the coffers of the party / government and the most selfish aristocracy in Ethiopian history.

Knowing exactly how to be just the particular kind of African that any given ferenji so desperately wants to see sitting across the office desk or dining table from them is a specialty of Meles. That 'talent' along with the aforementioned ruthlessness explains the rise of Meles in his party in decades past and his endless years in power through today.

Meanwhile the intellectual enablers abroad pretend all is well and that against all evidence billions more in dollars, euros and yen will somehow slip through corrupt government to help the 'people' everyone claims to care about instead of hurting them.

In the absence of sensible economic policies and some minimal level of decent governance the intellectual plan seems to consist of throwing so many billions of aid at corrupt and brutal governments that none could actually manage to steal all of it.

Real people are subjects of governance expressly designed to exchange political power and wealth for their future. Real people matter far more than ideas. Liberal democracy and capitalism, unlike any 'new paradigm, 'third way' or 'revolutionary democracy' are proven to work to make human life less poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

All the rest is valuable and fun to talk about for academics and intellectuals - just as long as their ideas are kept as far away from real people's lives as possible. Isn't it time for just a bit of what made your countries rich to be put into practice in Ethiopia?

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