07 November, 2006

Recently in Spy School

"Recently" in this context is rather relative.

A couple of Fridays back we had a double lecture on Development. The lecturer (OK, let's call him Peadar then, affecting an impertinent familiarity) talked about how the development project burst into being after the second world war, summoned into existence by Truman's inauguration speech (I'm guessing in 1949 rather than when he succeeded Roosevelt in '45). The context was interesting - both post war optimism (the sense that if we stuffed the Nazis then anything is possible) and Cold War paranoia (making sure the Soviets do not lure people to their kind of development).

The theoretical underpinnings of the development project were discussed. Marx was mentioned in passing, in the context of his blandly confident sense of capitalism as being a progressive force in the world (although one he questioned when looking at Ireland and India). I think maybe Marx is more important in this context for the idea that societies can and do change - when you have that intellectual possibility you are in a position to start thinking of fundamentally changing society. Other intellectual stars of the pre-Development theoretical views of the world are Max Weber (protestant work ethic and all that) and Emile Durkheim, with the latter having apparently more or less invented the idea of the "modern" and "traditional" as two radically different things, thereby launching the Modernist project; development comes to be seen as a process of moving from traditional to modern.

Moving on from the precursors, we get actual rogues gallery of early development theorists, who seem to all come at it from different directions but share a vision of development as being about modernisation: Talcott Parsons (sociology), Walt Rostow (economist), David McClelland (psychology), & Seymour Lipset (political science). McClelland is one of the more entertaining of these, with his idea that reading children stories about self-reliant heroes will make them become entrepreneurs in later life. They all think in terms of a natural progression of societies from backward traditionalism into something akin to the USA in the 1950s. The development project is seen as being about helping the backward societies along this road a bit more quickly than they could manage on their own.

An influential reaction to the broadly liberal and pro-capitalist development model emerged in the dependency theory model especially popular in Latin America. This to some extent took Marxist ideas but left out his bland confidence in the progressive transformative power of capitalism in the non-west. Instead the dependency theorists talk about transnational exploitation, of a world "core" and of nations of the "periphery". The latter are seen as being in a dependent relationship to the former, with people in the periphery being at the end of a chain of exploitation from the rulers of the core. Whereas the modernisation theorists saw engagement in the world economy as straightforwardly positive, dependency theorists saw international trade as exploitative, and argued that peripheral countries should detach themselves from the world economy; they were however a bit vague as to what this actually meant, not really going so far as to suggest that peripheral states should actually adopt fully autarkic policies.

In practice, modernisation and dependency theory turned out to be a bit rubbish. Modernisation theory could not cope with the emergence of countries with economies that were obviously growing, but which were also seeing increasing inequality and poverty. Dependency theory suffered from a lack of any real policy programme and a tendency to encourage fatalism about the unjust nature of the world. AG Frank, one of the leading dependency theorists, subsequently claimed that it had failed empirically. One might add that it is simplistic to talk of peripheral countries being dependent on the core, when all countries are joined in a complex web of interdependence, with even the richest being dependent on trade. Our lecturer, though, is an unreconstructed leftist and felt that dependency theory still has much in the way of positive results, even though it failed to deliver on economic development. These would be in the areas of political mobilisation and the development of civil society in the "periphery".

So now there is a theoretical void at the centre of the development project, and two positions have emerged which implicitly or explicitly challenge the conceptual validity of development. Postmodernists lambaste the development project as a typically totalising Enlightenment grand narrative, an attempt to coerce the world into one way of living. The proponents of neo-liberalism, meanwhile, seem to give up development as a heroic project, instead suggesting that the untrammelled workings of the market will lead to the most optimal of outcomes.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I reckon you're a bit quick to dismiss both modernisation theory and dependency theory.

Re: dependency theory:

First of all, I do think that practical policy prescriptions are important. But just because dependency theory didn't provide immediate answers doesn't mean that it is totally without merit. For me, the question is: how accurate is dependency theory's description of the concentration of capital, and of the exploitation of economic surplus from the satellites to the metropolis? I think that it gives some insight into how the South has played a role in the development of the North.

And re: modernisation theory:
Do you not think that the idea of other countries having to follow the West, and having to industrialise and aspire to a Western society, still has a lot of currency?