Socialist Globalization against Capitalist Neocolonialism: The Economic Ideas behind the New International Economic Order

This is one entry in a roundtable on the NIEO, featuring posts by scholars who contributed to Humanity’s recent special issue on the topic. Be sure to read other posts by Kevin O’Sullivan and Patrick Sharma.

My article focuses on the economic ideas behind the NIEO, specifically the ideas of the staff working for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Their ideas are rather surprising. They wrote about the need for markets, liberalization of trade, structural adjustment, export-oriented production, and increased financial flows. In our discussions at the conference organized by New York University’s Remarque Institute, participants kept assuming that policy advocating markets, free trade, and so on were inherently capitalist. My contribution to this discussion has been to argue that UNCTAD staff considered these policies socialist.

Neoliberal activists, like Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman, like to present economists as either for the state or for the market. In my book Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism, I demonstrate that economists in the socialist East and the capitalist West were not divided into a pro-state East and pro-market West. The state-versus-market dichotomy obscures the many varieties of socialism advocated or mobilized by mainstream neoclassical economists. UNCTAD staff advocated conventional socialist ideas held by neoclassical economists at the time, such as the need for socialism to have truly competitive markets and free trade.

In the UNCTAD archives in Geneva and New York City, I found so many other interesting things. For example, I gained a deeper understand about how UNCTAD and the Bretton Woods institutions functioned fundamentally differently, which I write about here. The World Bank and IMF work multilaterally, but they can by statute only work with individual countries, reflecting W. W. Rostow’s view of individual countries moving autonomously along the slow modernization path. In contrast, UNCTAD thought in relational terms, seeking to build channels between countries worldwide. One of UNCTAD’s most important programs was its Economic Cooperation among Developing Countries (ECDC), which supported south-south cooperation at the regional, subregional, and interregional levels. These attempts to build global ties, as opposed to bilateral neocolonial ties, required a great deal of effort. In the archives, I had been surprised by the United States often acting as the sole opponent against UNCTAD’s call for markets and free trade. Then I realized that the United States sought bilateral, ad hoc, neocolonial relationships, while UNCTAD forged globalization to create a fundamentally new international economic order.


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