Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

BRICs Workshop Looks Beyond Washington Consensus

October 4, 2010

With global flows of trade and power in flux, scholars of and from Brazil, Russia, India, and China gathered at the Watson Institute in late September for a workshop on “Dreaming with the BRICs: Neoliberal Ideas and Policy Change Outside the Core.”

The main objective of the workshop was to explore the rise and ambiguous denouement of the Washington Consensus from an interdisciplinary perspective and with a special focus on the BRIC countries. The workshop brought together sociologists and political scientists who have studied the history of this economic policy paradigm over time.

Draft research papers on each of the BRICs presented “neoliberalism and the variations in acceptance and implementation in these four different countries,” said Dietrich Reuschemeyer, a Brown sociology professor emeritus who opened the workshop.

Added Professor of International Political Economy Mark Blyth, “These papers are the stories of the BRICs themselves – of 20 years of transformation and crisis.”

Selected draft papers are summarized below. Final papers will be compiled into a special forthcoming issue of the Review of International Political Economy, which is published at the Institute, with Rueschemeyer, Blyth, and Cornel Ban serving as editors. The work will also expand upon a recent special issue of Studies in Comparative International Development, also published at Watson, on “Dependency and Development in a Globalized World.”

“The Washington Consensus as Policy Paradigm”
Though the power of the Washington Consensus in the developing world has declined, a new paradigm should not be expected to replace it, according to a paper by Sarah Babb, associate professor at Boston College’s Department of Sociology. The policy paradigm was chiefly centered on opening the economies of developing countries to the forces of the free market. Both prescriptions from the academic circles and enforcement by international financial institutions are instrumental in understanding the Consensus’ extraordinary reach, according to Babb’s paper, titled “The Washington Consensus as Policy Paradigm: Its Origins, Trajectory, and Likely Replacement.” However, these two key characteristics also precipitated the Consensus’ decline. Today’s divided responses to development make the emergence of a new policy paradigm unlikely, Babb argues. “This powerful combination of transnationally legitimate policy prescriptions and structured incentives arose under a very particular set of intellectual and political circumstances that are likely never to be repeated,” the paper concludes.

“Taking International Socialism Seriously"
The historical origins of neoliberalism in Eastern Europe and Latin America were addressed by Johanna Bockman, assistant professor of sociology and global affairs at George Mason University. Johanna asks: If Marxist economics only apply to a capitalist economy, then what do you do in a socialist economy? Answer – back to marginalism. It’s not neoliberalism, but it is the technology that underlies it – marginalism. What the paper can then do is to give a lesson in mechanisms – how the availability of “toolkit ideas” such as marginalism as a communist lingua franca allowed neoliberal ideas to move more freely in Eastern Europe and “travel” from there to Peru.

“China, the Idea of Neoliberalism and Illusions of Consensus”
China is simultaneously seen as delving into, rejecting, and providing alternatives to neoliberalism, according to Matt Ferchen, assistant professor at Tsinghua University’s Department of International Relations. His paper, “China, the Idea of Neoliberalism and Illusions of Consensus” examines the varieties of internal and international perspectives on the Chinese economic model. Domestic opinions reveal a range of insights – from the Party-sponsored critique of liberalism to the country’s struggle with whether and how to implement Western policies. His paper also speaks to Babb’s (see above) when discussing the idea that the Chinese model provides an alternative to the Washington Consensus. But ultimately, the “Beijing Consensus” as part Western Sinophilia, part development exemplar, part empty signifier, is simply not “the next new thing.” Ferchen’s paper questions the assumption that there has to be a coherent “next.”’ Not all paradigms are succeeded by other paradigms. Drift and the ad hoc can also be the result.

“Neoliberalism and the Post-Socialist Transition”
Neoliberalism should not be viewed as an economic philosophy but more as a political label, according to Peter Rutland, professor of government at Wesleyan University, as it was principally used by intellectuals who fiercely opposed the changes that occurred under this economic trend. In his paper, “Neoliberalism and the Post-Socialist Transition,” Rutland examines the different conceptualizations of neoliberalism and the transition to the free market in Eastern Europe. In retrospect, the policy of “shock therapy” in states exiting socialism has been strongly criticized. “But it is hard to make the case that a radically different policy package was available for implementation,” writes Rutland. At the same time  Rutland stresses how Russia fits neither the more market-oriented Washington nor the more statist Beijing mold, and how this country has its own particular set of ideas, policies, and problems.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11