Sunday, January 21, 2018

An archetypal intellectual


Mark Fraser

Since his death a few weeks ago, tributes have been pouring in for UWI academic Norman Girvan, mostly from other UWI academics. All have said what a humble and compassionate man he was, sometimes even giving anecdotes which demonstrate this; and all have said what a great intellectual he was, almost never providing data to demonstrate this: obviously because Prof Girvan’s intellectual stature, like herbalists’ medical qualifications, needs no proof.

Even so, it seems that even Prof Girvan’s most fervent fans do not understand what a really incredible intellectual he must have been. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that all Prof Girvan’s policy ideas were rooted in socialism – an economic and political system that has never worked in any country where it has been tried. Yet so unbelievable a brain had Norman Girvan that he was able to argue in favour of socialist ideas right up to his death.

Prof Girvan’s fantastic mind was first displayed in the 1960s when he wrote about the Jamaican bauxite industry, arguing that multinational companies (MNCs) were bad for small countries unless taxed highly or nationalised by the State, so his thesis was presumably never read by Lee Kuan Yew, who wooed MNCs to come to Singapore back then.

On this basis, Prof Girvan became a key adviser to Jamaica’s Prime Minister Michael Manley in the 1970s when the People’s National Party introduced socialist policies there. In Volume 1 of his biography My Life and Leadership, former Jamaica Labour Party leader Edward Seaga writes: “The economic package did not work and the economy continued to melt down...The socialist system...operates on a delusory democracy rationalised as ‘power to the people’, which is really power to those who want to hold self-perpetuating power.” 

What Seaga fails to mention, however, is that he used to be a white businessman. Even worse, a 2009 paper by economist Josh Lerner shows that, between 1965 and 2009, Singapore grew six times faster than Jamaica because of investment by MNCs, better education and low corruption, in contrast with Jamaica’s inflation, socialism, and complicated tax laws: but you can hardly consider the research of someone called “Josh” more reliable than the opinion of a man called “Norman”.

This is why Prof Girvan’s superhuman commitment to his beliefs was so admired by his admirers. Even up to 2011, he supported the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América as “an alternative model of integration to one based on free trade and other neoliberal principles”. ALBA was the brainchild of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and it is a measure of Prof Girvan’s stupendous intellect that he found ideas from an economy based on oil rents and an economy without an electricity grid superior to any ideas from any capitalist economies. 

Economics journalist Michael Reid in his book Forgotten Continent writes that: “...the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ indeed provided the urban poor with services they previously lacked. But it did so in a clientilistic fashion, in return for political loyalty. The ‘missions’ represented a parallel state, accountable to nobody but Chávez.”

Reid, however, was the Americas editor for The Economist and, to besides, everyone knows that the only book you need to read on this topic is Open Veins of Latin America. The fact that most professional historians and economists dismiss this book only proves that it is required reading for persons who knew that Prof Girvan knew more about everything than any other economist except George Beckford.

This is why Prof Girvan’s breathtaking insights surpassed those of economists like Daron Acemoglu and James A  Robinson, authors of Why Nations Fail, who amassed evidence showing that prosperity rests on economic and political institutions extant in democracies. “Inclusive political institutions tend to support inclusive economic institutions...creates a more open system and allows independent media to flourish,” they write, asserting that essential features are secure private property; an unbiased system of law; and public services that provide a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract. Prof Girvan, however, was a loyal supporter of Castro and Chavez, which proves that Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s arguments are completely wrong. 

Moreover, in Prof Girvan’s 2011 paper on ALBA, which was published in the International Journal of Cuban Studies, that respected bastion of independent thinking once you’re not a capitalist crony, he continued to use dependency theory to support protectionism and State ownership of firms, fantastically flying in the face of reams of scholarship which show that dependency theory is baseless, State capitalism inefficient, and protectionism economically debilitating. 

But Prof Girvan could do that because, as the board of the Cropper Foundation said in a news release, he was one of the “world’s foremost intellectuals”. Admittedly, according to the Foundation’s website, Prof Girvan is still a board member (as is co-founder, the wonderful Angela Cropper who died far too soon two years ago) –  which proves that he was so brilliant that his brain worked even when dead.