It’s time for a new era at the I.M.F.
On Sunday morning, I opened my New York Times to find two stories which created a jolting juxtaposition considered together.
First item: A copious report of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Saturday arrest for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid at New York’s Sofitel Hotel. A man celebrated for his progressive approach to economics and his consideration of the rights of the world’s poor and vulnerable stood accused of attempting to rape a woman — an African immigrant maid — in the luxurious rooms of a $3,000 a night suite in one of most expensive neighborhoods on Earth. (These are just allegations at the moment, but DSK’s history and nickname as the ‘Great Seducer’, along with the fact that another woman now claims to have been attacked by the former I.M.F. chief, do not look good).
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Second item: A brief account concerning one of the world’s poorest countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where, according to a report issued by the American Journal of Public Health, a woman is currently raped at the rate of one per minute amidst an ongoing conflict where armed militias fight over lucrative minerals. The accompanying photo depicted a row of stricken women lying in hospital beds, illustrating what it means to live in a culture of generalized sexual violence. The smallish picture, arranged among the many other news items of the day, had the dual effect of condemning the atrocity while distancing me from its horror. It all seemed so far away.
And yet, less than a mile from me in New York City, one of the West’s most powerful men was sitting in a jail cell on suspicion of committing a violent sex crime.
Soon after the story broke, the generalization of our own Western culture of violence became stomach-turningly apparent. European bloggers wasted no time in suggesting that DSK’s arrest was just another example of American “puritanical” attitudes. Blogger Jacques Savary had this to say:
To tell the truth, everybody knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine; what distinguishes him from plenty of others is his propensity not to hide it. In Puritan American, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism, they tolerate infinitely better the sins of money than the pleasures of the flesh.
The “frisky’ Frenchman was just doing what Frenchmen do, wasn’t he? While it’s fine to invoke cultural relativity in attitudes towards liaisons between consenting adults, there can be no gray area in judging the violent crime of rape. Such an act is barbaric, and to suggest otherwise is to capitulate to barbarism of the kind these same bloggers would not hesitate to condemn in a faraway land like the Congo.
In our Western world, the vapors of money and power often intoxicate men like DSK and countless others who advertise their status by treating women as mere objects of consumption, utterly disposable. This pervasive trait comes close the Western Heart of Darkness: our capitalist frenzy of consumer-driven desire; the gaping maw that wants more-more-more and will rape and pillage to get it. In his derision towards America’s Puritan roots, Savary ironically invokes one of the forces of restraint which, at least before the 20th century, would have made a man who sought society’s respect hesitant to flaunt an unbridled appetite for either money or sexual gratification. That these Puritan echoes still reverberate in America, however problematically, at least gives us the sense that there are moral considerations that may serve to check our ravenous, violent capitalistic id. The images of Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, where underage women are mere items on the menu along with cocktails and cigars, suggest a European political culture in which women are just a stone’s throw from violence. This is not charming hedonism and liberation, but cruel, money-and-power driven domination.
Ultimately, the struggle against violent domination is not a struggle against one demented or corrupt individual, but the authority represented by that individual. DSK represented the authority which controls a global system in which the few are privileged and the many are exploited. Partly because they have been subjected to the I.M.F.’s neo-liberal policies, developing nations have suffered rising inequality, environmental destruction, and weakened labor laws. The I.M.F. is not a democratic system in which each member country has an equal vote, but a system dominated by rich countries, with the U.S., Germany, Japan, France, and Great Britain exerting disproportionate control. Bankers, investors, and multinational corporations are usually the winners in the policies promoted. The world’s poor are generally the losers — like the people of the Congo, for example, who have been subjected to the I.M.F.’s push to privatize the mining sector, giving multinational corporations control of the country’s resources. The minerals conflict is the main reason why the country is ravaged by war, and a big reason why women are increasingly ravaged by violence (rape as the violence of choice dates back to the days of colonial domination by Belgium).
In a Guardian article considering who might replace DSK, econ editor Larry Elliott explained how the chieftains of the I.M.F. are selected: “In a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the founding of the fund and its sister organisation, the World Bank, at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, the Europeans have chosen the head of the fund while Washington has appointed the president of the bank.”
Isn’t it time to move beyond this “gentleman’s agreement” – often just an insider deal made among men who are not gentlemen at all to perpetrate economic assaults on the have-nots of the world? The majority of the Earth’s inhabitants are likely ready for an entirely new face of the I.M.F. — a non-Western face, like the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen. An appointment that breaks a bad tradition could restore faith in the I.M.F. and help cultivate a global culture where violence of all kinds is the exception, rather than the rule.