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An idealistic world, and how to get there

Rajni Kothari is one of the founding fathers of Indian political science. He has written extensively on international political and economic systems. During the 1970s and 1980s — alongside Princeton professor Richard Falk and other scholars — Kothari was part of the World Order Models Project, a critique of existing national systems. Kothari is also the father-in-law of Wilson School professor Karen McGuinness. On the heels of the recent protests against the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, D.C., he sat down with 'Prince' columnist Kushanava Choudhury.

'Prince': How did organizations like the IMF and the World Bank become so important? How has the world changed in the last two decades?


Kothari: What has happened really is a major transformation in the nature of capitalism . . . Since Gorbachev, the new thinking is that we should move away from a war-based competition for world hegemony to a relatively peace-based model, one in which the competition was of an economic sense . . . Since then, what has happened is that the trans-national corporations and largely authoritarian regimes in the Third World have begun to collaborate, the whole East Asia model. Elites in the Third World are aligning with trans-national corporations.

P: Is globalization problematic in itself?

K: No. There was always a global framework, but the nation-state was allowed to function. The unit of interaction was the state. We have always had a global framework of states. What one sees is an undermining of the state and of the gap between states and peoples. Third World elites are being co-opted into the system . . . You're getting a big divide between rich and poor as a result of this model of globalization.

P: So the change you suggest is not of the Marxist variety?

K: No, but it will have a Marxist overtone because it will be egalitarian. It won't be of the Leninist variety, in that the revolution that takes place will be a democratic revolution. The whole of the 20th century is a century of revolution, starting from the Soviet revolution onward. Most of them were highly violent and didn't succeed in bringing succor to the people. The revolution which started in countries like India is a revolution of democracy, of people wanting to handle power. A democratic revolution, of necessity, will be less violent, and will generate forces in which power is shared by the people. I do not see any other way out except living in control of trans-national corporations. It will come from the environment movement, the tribal movement, the women's movement — the movement for power from below. Trans-national corporations are taking governments further and further away from people.

P: What do you think of the role of places like Princeton University?


K: I don't know. I have great regard for the University. There was a time when I was invited to join — I almost did. I think well of the University. But it's highly elitist. It speaks of a great deal of idealism . . . [but] it's a lifestyle that is highly elitist. It is one of the more prosperous places in academia. How do you expect it to give up what it has already acquired? How do you expect Princeton University to join forces with the leaders of the poor? After all, Princeton is part of the First World — it is not part of the Third World. I had students at Columbia from the Third World. Even most of them wanted to return to positions in bureaucratic structures. I don't blame them. But, the point is when you want transformation of a fundamental kind, you don't expect it to come from elites. Major change can get supported by leading intellectuals whose voices matter. The intellectual is a catalyst. He is not himself a transformer.

P: What about the students?

K: I think students can play a much bigger role. Students, if they join hands with the masses, following what happened in France in 1968 — when students and the working class joined forces — and then if they relate to other students in the Third World, something is possible. It requires an across-the-board student upsurge, in which young people are willing to sacrifice a great deal, in a way I am afraid professors are not: some kind of a total commitment — I'm not talking about hippies or something — a commitment to total transformation including in their own lifestyles. If that takes place again, there is a possibility. After all, the world belongs to the young.

P: Do you think protests such as those in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have an impact?

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K: Of course. Finally, even in the citadels of the system, there are voices being raised against the corporatist model. The U.S. has seen that in its very midst, a major battle was waged, where they could not do anything. Let us not exaggerate the importance of the First World. It is also in trouble. The hegemony of the U.S. is no longer being fully accepted.

P: Do you think the Bretton Woods system is being threatened?

K: They are under more and more pressure. The World Bank now has to talk increasingly about the environment . . . You see, you are getting pressure from both sides. You're getting the globalization pressure and the decentralization pressure. My own belief is that the decentralization pressure, the one in which self-rule is argued, the one in which people put pressure on institutions is likely to prevail.

P: What will happen in 10 to 20 years in the international system?

K: For a while things will get worse because the powerful factions are on the offensive, but they are not going to succeed because in the meanwhile, these other pressures from below are coming up. I think 10 to 20 years down the line, the world . . . will be more democratic, more responsive to people's needs, more decentralized — one in which . . . people have control over institutions. That will happen.