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The Fund is back in town

The tough remedies of the IMF won it few friends and, in recent years, countries have found more obl

A year ago I attended an informal briefing in Washington by a senior British policymaker who lamented the passing of the International Monetary Fund as an institution of any worth. Globalisation meant that bankrupt nations no longer needed IMF medicine to cure their ills. Rather, they could obtain all the finance they required from the global banking system without strings attached.

Instead of a nasty IMF able to topple governments - as almost happened in Britain during the sterling crisis of 1976 - the world needed a different kind of international authority: one that was slimmer, cheaper to run, fleeter of foot and able to provide advice on the great global issues of the day, such as the mismatch of exchange rates between the US dollar and the Chinese yuan.

The IMF could no longer rely on the interest rate charges it received on loans to support its operations, as the last of a previous generation of big borrowers, Argentina and Brazil, paid back their debts by the start of 2006, two years ahead of schedule. To stay afloat, the IMF would have to sell off some of its huge gold reserves, paid in by western governments as the Second World War drew to a close. That same year, the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, warned that the Fund was in danger of "slipping into obscurity".

How rapidly things changed. By the spring of 2008 the IMF, under the leadership of the then recently appointed managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a socialist and former French finance minister, was among the first global organisations to predict doom for the world's banking system. When it suggested the eventual losses from the US sub-prime debacle could reach $1trn, this was airily dismissed by bankers and policymakers as scaremongering. It is now clear that the eventual cost could be at least twice that.

Now, a crisis that began in the more recherché areas of the banking system is spreading far and wide. Countries from Iceland to Pakistan are knocking on the doors of the IMF's fortress-like headquarters in Washington, a few hundred yards from the White House, asking for advice and money. The Fund is back in business.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that just as the IMF is starting to be revitalised by the task of saving global capitalism from itself, it has been bedevilled by allegations concerning the priapic behaviour of its leader. Strauss-Kahn now finds himself under investigation by one of the world's largest law firms (on behalf of the IMF's board) over allegations of an improper relationship with a former member of staff, Piroska Nagy, an economist who worked in the Fund's Africa department. Nagy, a Hungarian national, has since moved on to work for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development but, according to the Wall Street Journal, may have received "an excessive pay-off" when she left.

The incident will rekindle memories of the departure of Paul Wolfowitz from the World Bank in June 2007, after similar allegations of an affair with a member of staff. In both cases, the complex politics of the Bretton Woods institutions played a part. Wolfowitz was under fire for his neoconservative views and for using the Bank to support regimes he favoured. Strauss-Kahn is being targeted for his advocacy of tight market regulation and his support of Keynesian policies to refloat the global economy.

Irrespective of what the investigators turn up at the IMF (in the Wolfowitz case, a huge dossier of documents eventually emerged), it would be calamitous if Strauss-Kahn were forced to step aside at present.

The IMF's previous boss, Rodrigo Rato, resigned for mysterious "personal reasons" in October 2007, midway through his term of office. This exposed a huge rift over the traditional, undemocratic way in which the leaders of the IMF and World Bank are chosen. His torically, the Europeans - when they eventually agree among themselves - have chosen the managing director of the IMF, while the Americans have chosen the president of the World Bank.

This convention has so far blocked Asian, Russian and Latin American access to these hugely influential jobs.

The last thing the world needs now, with the banking and financial system on the edge of a precipice and the capital markets all but closed down, is a long-drawn-out fight over financial leadership. As we saw in the US Congress, when the Treasury's $700bn bailout of American banking was first rejected, politics plays badly on Wall Street and financial markets around the world. A fight for the soul of the IMF, in the middle of a crisis, could be dangerous.

The flow of capital from the west to emerging market economies is under severe pressure because of the banking catastrophe. Last year, emerging markets received inflows of $900bn from western financial institutions. This year, the figure will be only $56bn, thus starving countries across the world of the money they need to service their debts, to invest and to buy goods on global markets.

Moreover, nations holding large foreign exchange reserves, such as China and the oil-rich Gulf states, are pulling in their horns because of market uncertainty. It is when the flow of capital dries up that the global “lender of last resort”, the IMF, comes into play.

In the 1980s, the IMF was at the forefront of economic reform in Latin America. The arrival of IMF teams with proposals to end food subsidies would often result in rioting on the streets. In the 1990s, the Fund turned its attention to the former Soviet Union and its satellites, unleashing a period of klepto-capitalism.

This time around, Iceland, which has caused so much grief for British local authorities and consumers, is at the front of the queue and will collect $3.5bn in loans. Iceland is a classic case of a country in need. The banks have been nationalised. The currency, the krona, has fallen 18 per cent since March, and interest rates have been raised to 15 per cent with little noticeable effect.

But what is true of Iceland is typical of many nations around the world that have been able to live beyond their means because of the explosion in free capital flows. No one has worried about running a balance-of-payments deficit, because the assumption has always been that there will be a bank or foreign investment fund willing to meet the difference.

The year 2008 is starting to feel like 1996-97, when the Asian economies were under siege and suffered a precipitous drop in living standards.

Eastern European economies led by Hungary and Ukraine are struggling to remain solvent. South Korea, having had a run on its currency, has made a desperate call to Washington. Tur key, a perennial IMF client, is back in trouble. And Pakistan, up to its neck in debt and political unrest, also needs a bailout.

It could all become much worse, and developing nations are likely to be the victims hardest hit. One of the features of a slump is falling prices for primary goods and commodities. Just since July, commodity prices have fallen 37 per cent, cutting off a huge source of income for growers and people working in the mining industry. With western banks in disarray, there is little possibility that private capital flows will fill the vacuum. The only choice countries will have is to borrow from the IMF, whose money does not come cheap. And its loan fees come with austerity packages attached.

Strauss-Kahn may plead the Keynesian case to save the world from depression, but the IMF economists have been trained on a diet of balanced budgets, an end to subsidy, and privatisation. The result can be politically disruptive and socially divisive. The Fund is back and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more accommodating than in the past. That is not its way.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood