This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
How can I tell a story we already know too well? Her name was Africa. His was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her, and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted with a high hand in resolving her affairs in places like Côte d'Ivoire, a name she had been given because of her export products, not her own identity.
Her name was Asia. His was Europe. Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth. Her name was Her, but what was hers? His name was His, and he presumed everything was his, including her, and he thought he could take her without asking and without consequences. It was a very old story, though its outcome had been changing a little in recent decades. And this time around the consequences are shaking a lot of foundations, all of which clearly needed shaking.
Who would ever write a fable as obvious, as heavy-handed as the story we've just been given? The extraordinarily powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization that has created mass poverty and economic injustice, allegedly assaulted a hotel maid, an immigrant from Africa, in a hotel's luxury suite in New York City.
Worlds have collided. In an earlier era, her word would have been worthless against his and she might not have filed charges, or the police might not have followed through and yanked Dominique Strauss-Kahn off the plane to Paris at the last moment. But she did, and they did, and now he's in custody, and the economy of Europe has been dealt a blow, and French politics have been upended, and that nation is reeling and soul-searching.
What were they thinking, these men who decided to give him this singular position of power, despite all the stories and evidence of such viciousness? What was he thinking when he decided he could get away with it? Did he think he was in France, where apparently he did get away with it? Only now is the young woman who says he assaulted her in 2002 pressing charges—her own politician mother talked her out of it, and she worried about the impact it could have on her journalistic career (while her mother was apparently worrying more about his career).
And the Guardian reports that these stories "have added weight to claims by Piroska Nagy, a Hungarian-born economist, that the fund's director engaged in sustained harassment when she was working at the IMF that left her feeling she had little choice but to agree to sleep with him at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2008. She alleged he persistently called and emailed on the pretext of asking questions about [her expertise,] Ghana's economy, but then used sexual language and asked her out."
In some accounts, the woman Strauss-Kahn is charged with assaulting in New York is from Ghana, in others a Muslim from nearby Guinea. "Ghana—Prisoner of the IMF" ran a headline in 2001 by the usually mild-mannered BBC. Its report documented the way the IMF's policies had destroyed that rice-growing nation's food security, opening it up to cheap imported US rice, and plunging the country's majority into dire poverty. Everything became a commodity for which you had to pay, from using a toilet to getting a bucket of water, and many could not pay. Perhaps it would be too perfect if she was a refugee from the IMF's policies in Ghana. Guinea, on the other hand, liberated itself from the IMF management thanks to the discovery of major oil reserves, but remains a country of severe corruption and economic disparity.
Pimping for the Global North
There's an axiom evolutionary biologists used to like: "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," or the development of the embryonic individual repeats that of its species' evolution. Does the ontogeny of this alleged assault echo the phylogeny of the International Monetary Fund? After all, the organization was founded late in World War II as part of the notorious Bretton Woods conference that would impose American economic visions on the rest of the world.
The IMF was meant to be a lending institution to help countries develop, but by the 1980s it had become an organization with an ideology—free trade and free-market fundamentalism. It used its loans to gain enormous power over the economies and policies of nations throughout the global South.
However, if the IMF gained power throughout the 1990s, it began losing that power in the twenty-first century, thanks to powerful popular resistance to the economic policies it embodied and the economic collapse such policies produced. Strauss-Kahn was brought in to salvage the wreckage of an organization that, in 2008, had to sell off its gold reserves and reinvent its mission.
Her name was Africa. His name was IMF. He set her up to be pillaged, to go without health care, to starve. He laid waste to her to enrich his friends. Her name was Global South. His name was Washington Consensus. But his winning streak was running out and her star was rising.
It was the IMF that created the economic conditions that destroyed the Argentinian economy by 2001, and it was the revolt against the IMF (among other neoliberal forces) that prompted Latin America's rebirth over the past decade. Whatever you think of Hugo Chavez, it was loans from oil-rich Venezuela that allowed Argentina to pay off its IMF loans early so that it could set its own saner economic policies.
The IMF was a predatory force, opening developing countries up to economic assaults from the wealthy North and powerful transnational corporations. It was a pimp. Maybe it still is. But since the Seattle anti-corporate demonstrations of 1999 set a global movement alight, there has been a revolt against it, and those forces have won in Latin America, changing the framework of all economic debates to come and enriching our imaginations when it comes to economies and possibilities.
Today, the IMF is a mess, the World Trade Organization largely sidelined, NAFTA almost universally reviled, the Free Trade Area of the Americas cancelled (though bilateral free-trade agreements continue), and much of the world has learned a great deal from the decade's crash course in economic policy.
Strangers on a Train
The New York Times reported it this way: "As the impact of Mr. Strauss-Kahn's predicament hit home, others, including some in the news media, began to reveal accounts, long suppressed or anonymous, of what they called Mr. Strauss-Kahn's previously predatory behavior toward women and his aggressive sexual pursuit of them, from students and journalists to subordinates."
In other words, he created an atmosphere that was uncomfortable or dangerous for women, which would be one thing if he were working in, say, a small office. But that a man who controls some part of the fate of the world apparently devoted his energies to generating fear, misery, and injustice around him says something about the shape of our world and the values of the nations and institutions that tolerated his behavior and that of men like him.
The United States has not been short on sex scandals of late, and they reek of the same arrogance, but they were at least consensual (as far as we know). The head of the IMF is charged with sexual assault. If that term confuses you take out the word "sexual" and just focus on "assault," on violence, on the refusal to treat someone as a human being, on the denial of the most basic of human rights, the right to bodily integrity and corporeal safety. "The rights of man" was one of the great phrases of the French Revolution, but it's always been questionable whether it included the rights of women.
The United States has a hundred million flaws, but I am proud that the police believed this woman and that she will have her day in court. I am gratified this time not to be in a country which has decided that the career of a powerful man or the fate of an international institution matters more than this woman and her rights and wellbeing. This is what we mean by democracy: that everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender.