In the 1970s, a bloc of Third World states forced the United Nations to take seriously the unequal distribution of global wealth. Could their example inspire a new generation?
A report by Adom Getachew for The Boston Review.
Editors’ Note: This essay appears in Evil Empire and is adapted from Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination.
In 1972 the socialist left swept to power in Jamaica. Calling for the strengthening of workers’ rights, the nationalization of industries, and the expansion of the island’s welfare state, the People’s National Party (PNP), led by the charismatic Michael Manley, sought nothing less than to overturn the old order under which Jamaicans had long labored—first as enslaved, then indentured, then colonized, and only recently as politically free of Great Britain. Jamaica is a small island, but the ambition of the project was global in scale.
Two years before his election as prime minister, Manley took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to situate his democratic socialism within a novel account of international relations. While the largely North Atlantic readers of the magazine might have identified the fissures of the Cold War as the dominant conflict of their time, Manley argued otherwise. The “real battleground,” he declared, was located “in that largely tropical territory which was first the object of colonial exploitation, second, the focus of non-Caucasian nationalism and more latterly known as the underdeveloped and the developing world as it sought euphemisms for its condition.” Manley displaced the Cold War’s East–West divide, instead drawing on a longstanding anti-colonial critique to look at the world along its North–South axis. When viewed from the “tropics,” the world was not bifurcated by ideology, but by a global economy whose origins lay in the project of European imperial expansion.
The sovereignty of former colonies was undermined by their economic dependence on former colonial powers, a condition Kwame Nkrumah called neocolonialism.
Imperialism, for Manley, was a form of not just political but economic domination through which territories such as Jamaica were “geared to produce not what was needed for themselves or for exchange for mutual advantage, but rather . . . compelled to be the producers of what others needed.” Between the 1940s and ’60s, the first generation of anti-colonial nationalists, including Norman Manley, Michael’s father, had largely liberated their countries from the political chains of empire by securing independence. Anti-colonial nationalists aspired to use their newfound sovereignty to transform the political and economic legacies of imperialism. As a member of the second generation of postwar nationalists, Manley viewed his election as an opportunity to realize this aspiration for postcolonial transformation. Given “the condition of a newly independent society encumbered with the economic, social and psychological consequences of three hundred years of colonialism,” Manley hoped his political program would secure “individual and collective self-reliance” as well as political and economic equality. His platform of democratic socialism for Jamaica inaugurated an ambitious project of land redistribution, state control of key industries, stronger rights for organized labor, worker ownership of industries, and the expansion of health care and education.
However, this vision of postcolonial transformation was limited by the very forms of dependence and inequality that it sought to overcome. Because postcolonial states remained primary good exporters with national economies dependent on products such as bauxite, cocoa, coffee, cotton, sisal, and tea, their domestic economic policies were subject to the vagaries of the international market. This contradiction between the achievement of political sovereignty and the persistence of economic dependence, famously captured in Kwame Nkrumah’s term neocolonialism, was heightened as Manley inaugurated his socialist project. Already beginning in the late 1960s, prices for primary products in international markets experienced a precipitous decline. Coupled with OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo, which heavily burdened new postcolonial states dependent on oil imports, the decline in commodity prices resulted in steep foreign exchange shortages and exacerbated postcolonial states’ reliance on debt.
The end of this story is a familiar one. By the 1980s, unable to service their debt, postcolonial states entered structural adjustment agreements with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). While Mexico’s 1982 default is often viewed as the beginning of this process, Manley’s Jamaica was the first victim of the Third World debt crisis and began structural adjustment in 1977. Then in his second term, Manley acceded to the terms of the IMF’s stabilization program, which required a 30 percent devaluation of Jamaica’s currency; major cuts in public expenditures, especially in the wages of public sector workers; and the privatization of state assets. Long before Greece’s SYRIZA, there was Manley and his PNP.
Although the 1970s ended with postcolonial capitulation to the new age of neoliberal globalization, the decade had begun on a very different note: with a radical call from the Global South for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). Announced in the UN General Assembly with the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (1974) and the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States (1974), the NIEO was conceived as the international corollary to the domestic projects of socialism Manley and other anti-colonial nationalists were pursuing. How did such an ambitious effort—to create an egalitarian global economy—emerge?
Despite the opposition of the United States and its allies, Third World states used their majority in the UN to force the organization to address the unequal trade relations between the Global North and South.
A decade prior to passage of the Declaration on the Establishment of the NEIO and the Charter on Economic Rights and Duties of States, the Afro-Asian bloc of states in the United Nations had come to recognize a possible source of strength in their majority in the General Assembly. They mobilized to create the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Unlike the World Bank and IMF, which were created prior to the postwar surge of decolonization and empowered states of the Global North, UNCTAD was organized as a forum to address trade and development in the Global South. Despite the opposition of the United States and its allies, Third World states used their majority to place the Argentine economist and dependency theorist Raúl Prebisch at the helm of this new agency. It was in UNCTAD, and then on the floor of the UN General Assembly, that the policy prescriptions of the NIEO were first articulated and backed by a group of Third World states that had organized themselves under the name G-77. In its ambition to transform international economic relations, the NIEO addressed critical issues that included the ownership of resources in land, space, and the seas; the growing power of transnational corporations; and the transportation of goods in an increasingly globalized commodity chain. At its core, however, the NIEO was concerned with the unequal relations of trade between the Global North and South. Proponents of the NIEO saw in this inequality a distorted and damaging international division of labor, one that, according to Manley, consistently relegated postcolonial states to “the low end of the ‘value added’ scale.” Until something changed, they would be condemned to serve as “planter and reaper,” economically subservient to the Global North with its manufacturing economies, high incomes, and domestic consumer markets.
To overcome the dependence that structured international trade, UNCTAD and the postcolonial statesmen who supported the NIEO looked for lessons in the welfare states of the twentieth century. These systems, constructed by the labor movements of industrialized societies, were by the 1970s at the peak of their success in diminishing domestic inequality. The assumption that an egalitarian global economy could be modeled on the welfare state thus depended on viewing the position of postcolonial states as structurally analogous to the working class and rural sector within the states of the Global North. This analogy, transposing from the domestic political economies of the Global North to the political economy of the whole planet, shaped the politics of the NIEO in two ways.
First, it framed Third World solidarity as an assertive class politics. As Manley noted, the postcolonial world “now proclaimed itself the Third World to mark its transition from an age of apology to one of assertiveness.” According to Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania and one of Manley’s collaborators, postcolonial states had constituted themselves as an international “trade union of the poor.” The G-77 in the UN General Assembly—as well as commodity associations modelled on OPEC that would negotiate the price of products such as bauxite and coffee—were manifestations of this trade unionism. Like the labor movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their demand for economic equality was predicated on the view that the postcolonial world had produced the wealth that the Global North enjoyed. In this recasting of economic relations between the Global North and South, the NIEO’s proponents reimagined the international arena as a site for a politics of redistribution that extended far beyond the discourses of aid and charity.
Second, the domestic analogy cast the postcolonial project as an effort to internationalize the postwar social compact between labor and capital. The NIEO was, to use Gunnar Myrdal’s term, a “welfare world” that would democratize global economic decision-making and redistribute the gains of global trade. In the absence of a world state armed with the coercive power of taxation, this international welfarism sought to deploy the United Nations to regulate market prices of primary commodities, provide compensatory financing when prices fell unexpectedly, remove protectionist barriers in the Global North, and provide “special and preferential treatment” for the products postcolonial states produced. UNCTAD justified this set of policy prescriptions by insisting that the international community had “a clear responsibility towards developing countries that have suffered a deterioration in their terms of trade in the same way as Governments recognize a similar responsibility towards their domestic primary producers.” This responsibility was not framed as a rectification or reparation for past injustices of the global economy. Instead, it was a claim that internationalizing the welfare state was necessary for overcoming the structural inequality of global trade—and thereby, for achieving a postimperial global economy. Just as the workers’ movements of the Global North had, in their struggles for unions and socialism, built democracy in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States, so too would the states of the Global South, in pursuing global economic equality, achieve a new world political order.
The welfare world of the NIEO marked the high point of anti-colonial politics in the United Nations and indicated a sharp break with the postwar status quo. If the right to self-determination had universalized legal equality for postcolonial states, the NIEO radicalized the meaning of sovereign equality. In the hands of postcolonial states, sovereign equality now entailed equal decision-making power within the United Nations. According to the Charter of Rights and Duties, the juridical equality of all states and their equal status as members of the international community granted them “the right to participate fully and effectively in the international decision-making process in the solution of world economic, financial and monetary problems.” This claim of equal legislative power grounded the more ambitious claim that sovereign equality had material implications: it required and entailed an equitable share of the world’s wealth. According to the Declaration on the Establishment of the NIEO, the welfare world aimed for “the broadest co-operation of all the States members of the international community, based on equity, whereby the prevailing disparities in the world may be banished and prosperity secured for all.”
Postcolonial states constituted themselves as an international “trade union of the poor,” with demands predicated on the view that the postcolonial world had produced the wealth that the Global North enjoyed.
Fearing that Third World states would launch commodity embargoes on the model of OPEC’s 1973 oil embargo, Western statesmen initially pursued a conciliatory policy of appeasement in public even as they criticized the NIEO privately. In this context, postcolonial states gained allies among social democrats in the Global North and secured small victories. For instance, with the addition of Part 4 to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, postcolonial states were able to secure lower tariffs in the Global North on some of their goods. Moreover, postcolonial states were freed from the requirement of reciprocity in trade agreements with the Global North. These special and preferential provisions recognized the unfair character of international trade and sought to strengthen the position of postcolonial states.
However, the political openings that made possible these concessions and enabled the Third World to demand the NIEO proved narrow. With commodity prices declining and debt skyrocketing, the bargaining power of postcolonial states eroded rapidly. By the end of the 1970s, the era of neoliberal globalization had dawned, displacing visions of a welfare world. Leading the opposition to the NIEO, the World Bank and IMF rejected its aspiration to democratic and universal international economic law. Instead, these financial institutions insulated the global economy from political contestation by recasting it as the domain of technocratic expertise. In doing so, they rejected the claim that the global economy could be subject to demands for redistribution. The colony went free, stood for a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward servitude—this time to the empire of debt.
Almost forty years after the triumph of neoliberalism over the NIEO, it is difficult to imagine that another world was possible. In accepting this triumph as inevitable, we have forgotten that decolonization promised not only to free nations from foreign domination, but also to remake the world. From our perspective, the wave of independence movements that followed World War II is largely associated with the moral and legal delegitimization of alien rule, the transition from colony to nation, and the expansion of the international society to include previously excluded African, Asian, and Caribbean states. In this view, anti-colonial nationalists appropriated the principle of self-determination and the modular form of the nation-state, expanding and universalizing languages and institutions with a European provenance.
This is a compelling narrative because it describes the world that emerged from decolonization. In the three decades between 1945 and 1975, UN membership had grown from 51 states to 144. At the turn of the twentieth century, European states ruled 84 percent of Earth’s surface; by 1975 the remnants of alien rule, largely in southern Africa, appeared to be anachronistic and barbaric holdouts. However, this narrative obscures some of the most innovative aspects of the politics of decolonization by eliding its global ambitions. And it thereby misses the mechanisms by which empire reasserted itself, persisting into our time and reinforcing global white supremacy.
The insight that democratic self-governance depended on an international context conducive to its exercise emerged out of a sense that empire’s globalization could be made egalitarian but could not be reversed.
When African and West Indian nationalists met at the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945 to articulate a global vision of decolonization, national independence was high on their agenda. But it was only one part of an internationalist framework that looked forward to “inevitable world unity and federation.” From Ghana’s Nkrumah, who helped to organize the Pan-African Congress, to Jamaica’s Manley, anti-colonial nationalists pitched decolonization on this global scale to address the global character of imperialism. In their view, empire was a globalizing force that unequally and violently integrated disparate peoples and lands. With the gun and the lash, it had made a single world from many. It produced, according to W. E. B. Du Bois, a global color line through which Europe dominated the “darker . . . races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” This structure of racial hierarchy endured well after the achievement of juridical independence, finding a new form in Manley’s “real battleground,” which demarcated the postcolonial world and the Global North.
Seeking to undo international economic hierarchies and shore up the right to self-determination, the NIEO sought to realize the aspiration to “world unity and federation” by creating international frameworks that would support self-rule at home. This novel combination of nation-building and world-making—the idea that democratic self-governance depended on an international context conducive to its exercise—emerged out of the sense that empire’s globalization could be made egalitarian but could not be reversed. The world was already unified, under the terms of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. As Manley pointed out, the Caribbean itself was a global formation and could not be disaggregated from the international political and economic relations in which it was embedded. This extreme form of extraversion necessarily required moving beyond national insularity.
The ideal of a national independence disembedded from the world was not only a fantasy for decolonizing nations—it was also increasingly impossible for the Global North. Anticipating the contemporary dilemmas of neoliberal globalization, Manley argued that international entanglements of trade, capital flows, and financialization, as well as the emergence of transnational private actors, threatened to undermine the capacity of all states to steer and regulate their national economies. For Manley, the multinational corporation revealed the growing contradictions between the international economy and the bounded nation-state. In creating an international system of political management for the world economy, the NIEO would supplement the diminished role of the state. It would create a system for political and democratic regulation of the global economy, ultimately benefiting all states and peoples. Thus while anticolonial nationalists reimagined international institutions for the postcolonial condition, their vision extended beyond the Global South.
The democratic decision-making and global redistribution at the heart of the NIEO could yet again be a source for inspiration, especially in our present moment when the tension between nationalism and internationalism electrifies political debate. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the wave of authoritarian populism surging across the West all frame national insularity as the solution to an age of neoliberal globalization. By withdrawing from international institutions, erecting barriers to global trade, and closing borders to migrants, the new right in the Global North aspires to realize a vision of national independence that Manley and other anti-colonial nationalists already realized was impossible fifty years ago. But if the right’s model of national insularity is impossible, the neoliberal globalization that displaced anti-colonial world-making, and has been the order of the day since the 1980s, is equally untenable. Its vision of an economy insulated from political contestation and its rejection of distributive justice nationally and globally have magnified inequality and contributed to the rise of the new right. One vision would insulate nation-states from the world; the other, the world from its people. In this context, demanding a return to the liberal world order—as leading scholars in international relations and international law have recently done—is an inadequate response. It obscures the ways that the illiberal backlash of our moment emerged out of the inequalities and hypocrisies of that very same system.
From our vantage point, the welfare world of the NIEO might appear utopian and unrealistic. But to dismiss the world that decolonization aspired to make is to refuse to reckon with the dilemmas we inherited from the end of empire. It is to evade our responsibility to build a world after empire. Our world, like Manley’s, is characterized by a battleground of widening inequality and ongoing domination. We cannot simply recreate the 1970s vision of a welfare world, but we can take from its architects the insight that building an egalitarian and postimperial world is the only route to true democratic self-governance.