The World Bank claims in its official website to be ”like a cooperative”. It may first sound as if the Yes Men had hacked the site. Yet, it may also reveal how undemocratic institutions seek legitimacy by claiming to have what they most obviously lack.
“The World Bank is like a cooperative, made up of 188 member countries”. Even if there certainly are many definitions of a cooperative, most of them imply a relatively democratic decision-making system. Why would the World Bank with its openly antidemocratic internal structure want to make such claim?
What did the person who wrote that opening sentence of the World Bank site’s “leadership” section think? Let us co-opt the hippies? We really are a cooperative since all my colleagues cooperate so smoothly? Whatever the exact intentions of the author, I believe the line stands as a surreal signifier of something not merely trivial.
Even if it were partially a slip of the tongue, it is probably fair to assume that the sentence has functional similarities to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Make grandiose claims about how democratic or responsible you are and hope a sufficient number of readers buy your claim and value you ever more. That can be useful, but sometimes it gets risky. The risks increase as these claims can be used as an example of a major ideological contradiction of the wealth-based system of rule that these institutions represent.
So why do the World Bank and the CSR-touting corporations make those claims? Are they not aware that making such claims could take them far from their traditional comfort zone of capitalist legitimacy? Once they claim that they are socially responsible or cooperativishly democratic, someone may actually ask them to practice what they preach. The bolder the claim, the harder it is to deliver. I do not see becoming “like a cooperation” a very likely scenario for the World Bank any time soon.
Making such claims thus sounds somewhat silly. Why wouldn’t the World Bank simply cling to its traditional economic neutrality doctrine? Why wouldn’t big business simply repeat after Milton Friedman that the purpose is to make as much money as possible?
This is not the place to pretend to explain the whole situation, but let me throw in a simple hypothesis. The main reason for the appearance of the CSR and similar pretensions is that the contradictions of capitalism and the activities of anti-corporate social movements have made the inherently political role of the “economic” increasingly visible.
In this context, it would simply not be as credible as it once was to claim that the World Bank or Shell or Nokia is “purely economic”. The successful expansion of capitalism has made the “economic” an increasingly important locus of power. While this is what capitalist expansion is supposed to be about, it also means that further expansion may at some point become more difficult to justify. Much of the legitimacy of the expansion of undemocratic spaces of power depends on the credibility of the claim that they are not political and therefore not subject to democratic norms.
It is a serious dilemma. If the undemocratic economic institutions claim not to be concerned with democratic responsibilities, in today’s world their legitimacy may erode. Once they start claiming such concern, someone may actually call their bluff and their legitimacy might erode even more. Until now I find their legitimacy still relatively high compared to how low I think it could drop through concerted action by social movements and concerned citizens. The future is uncertain. As long as the World Bank is able to call itself like a cooperative without much notice, the wealth-based system of rule maintains some ideological advantages.
One of my reasearch projects is to analyze the ideological contradictions of wealth-based systems of rule. Direct and indirect democracy claims in the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) and the corporate social responsibility talk are two interesting examples. For an example of the attempts of the Managing Director of the IMF to claim that his insitution is “highly democratic”, see my old article in the Journal of World-Systems Research. The analysis of my dialogue with Michel Camdessus, the IMF boss back then, appears toward the end of the article (pp. 717-718). I am grateful for any comments and suggestions on this topic, so please get in touch.