Benjamin Selwyn’s The Struggle for Development challenges the dominant view that argues human development can only be achieved through continued economic growth and industrialisation. In this review, Andy Wynne praises a book that aims at the total reconceptualisation of human development, to see development as a process of resisting and ultimately transcending capitalist exploitation.
By Andy Wynne
This book describes labour-led development as an alternative view to what the author calls the ‘Anti-Poverty Consensus.’ This dominant view argues that human development can only be achieved through continued economic growth and industrialisation. The aim of the book is to ‘reconceptualise human development as a process of resisting and overcoming capitalist exploitation and to stimulate thinking and actions that contribute to that objective.’
Labour-led development views society from the perspective of the labouring class rather than from the perspective of capital accumulation or national development.’ It takes the view that the working class are the gravediggers of capitalism and that the success of the global socialist revolution develops organically from the day to day struggles of labour against capital.
Benjamin defines the class that through its own endeavours has the potential to liberate itself as follows:
The global labouring class includes unpaid women workers largely responsible for social reproduction in the household, urban/industrial employed workers (‘the working class’ in traditional Marxian terminology), urban and rural unemployed workers, ‘informal’ workers that populate the ever-expanding urban slum lands, many members of the peasantry, and many members of the so-called emerging developing-world middle class.
Benjamin critiques hard neoliberalism then goes on to expose the holes in the alternative softer, ‘progressive’ capitalism promoted by a range of thinkers. These writers still accept that the prime aim of human development should be economic development, but to a greater or lesser extent accept a key role for the state in regulating this development. Benjamin points out the fundamental contradiction arising from this approach of the ‘advocacy of labour exploitation and oppression in the name of ameliorating labour’s condition.’
The Big Lie
Global wealth increased by two thirds in the decade to 2013. But these resources were overwhelmingly captured by the world’s wealthiest people. According to Oxfam’s 2018 World Inequality Report, since 1980, the poorest half of humanity only gained 12 cents of each dollar of global growth, in contrast the richest 1% gained 27 cents. As Warren Buffet, one of the 1% said, ‘there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won.’
The World Bank and others claim that the number of the global poor reduced by half in the first 15 years of this millennium. However, this is solely based on a reduction in the numbers of those who attempt to exist on less than ‘a dollar a day.’ The same group also welcome the growth of what they call the ‘middle class’, defined as those having only between $2 and $10 a day.
Yet, Selwyn writes that this ‘middle class’ are ‘better described as part of the burgeoning global labouring class.’ They are compelled to sell their labour power for wages in order to survive. In the process they are exploited by capital which is able to benefit from surplus value in a manner described by Karl Marx in Capital. This book argues that ‘capitalism is a social system of exploitation, expropriation and degradation which generates continually evolving forms of poverty.’
So in reality the number of the ‘extremely poor’ may have reduced, but the number of poor in the world is increasing at a faster rate. In addition, finally eliminating global poverty even measured by ‘a dollar a day’ as envisaged by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals would take at least 200 years at the high global growth rate of the decade to 2008.
In contrast, empirical evidence in The Struggle for Development shows that, even in a very poor country, using numbers which could be drawn from Bangladesh for example, extreme poverty could be eliminated by transferring only three per cent of GDP from the richest to the poorest eighths of the population.
Benjamin points out that neoliberalism and the varieties of capital centred development being implemented over the last 30 to 40 years have resulted in ‘accumulating resentment among labouring classes [that] represents a social tinderbox, where sparks can detonate mass collective unrest. These revolts can be toxic as well as potentially emancipatory.’ Whereas the author celebrates collective actions especially in South Africa, Argentina, South Korea and China, he also acknowledges that this resentment can also be turned against other nationalities, ethnic groups or religions. He gives the example of South Africa in April 2016 when such anger was directed against migrants from other African countries.
Benjamin acknowledges this danger but does not seem to recognise the importance of building effective political organisations to focus this resentment against capital nor the dangers of trade union leaders’ inability to lead effective struggles against capital rather than negotiating compromises. The failure, so far at least, to build effective mass parties of the global labouring classes to successfully fight for what Selwyn describes as ‘labour-led development’ is arguably our greatest weakness.
Poverty Chains and the World Economy
Benjamin’s second chapter describes what are called global value chains but may be better understood as outsourcing to the Global South. This is causing de-industrialisation in the north with the famous Rust Belt in the US which formed at least part of the base for the election of Donald Trump. The classic import of raw materials from the Global South for production in northern factories has now changed significantly, much global industrial production is now taking place in areas of the south. So at least some southern countries are now at least as industrialised as their northern counter-parts.
This process underpinned the global boom until 2008 as transnational companies gained an increasing share of their profits from overseas subsidiaries (a third of world trade is now within such multinational companies) and other production in the Global South where profits may be a third higher than in the previous heartlands of capitalism. Benjamin argues that low wages in the Global South are less due to lower productivity than the socially determined rates of pay in these countries and the inability of trade unions to win progressive wage settlements for their members.
This chapter ends by considering the implications for northern workers. Some authors have claimed that northern workers benefit from the super-exploitation of southern workers and peasants. In contrast Benjamin points out that this exploitation ‘has exerted colossal downward pressures on worker’s wages across much of the global north.’
Beyond Exploitation Democratic Development
The last chapter of the book moves to consider what could be done if a labouring-class movement was to ‘conquer political and economic power in a relatively poor country.’ This would be the first stage Selwyn argues in building socialism (which he calls a ‘minimum utopia’) – which would require international change and the development of a real global social commonwealth. This global process, Selwyn considers, would take significant time and would require the socialist state to maintain relations in a hostile world still dominated by capitalist states – a process that the author says, ‘may be called intermittent revolution.’
The new state would move towards decentralised participatory planning with democracy extended into the workplace. This would be based on social ownership of the means of production, allowing the identification and satisfaction of communal needs through worker-community co-operation.
Concerning the banking system, odious debts would be cancelled and capital controls introduced to stop capital flight. Money would be treated as a public resource which should be controlled for the collective good. A universal basic income would be introduced in return for household work and social care for dependants. Democratic industrial policy would be based on equitable and ecological innovations with ‘up-cycling’ using local skill sets to recycle material, including, Selwyn adds rather bizarrely, 3D printers! Agrarian reform would recognise the need to earn foreign currency from exports, achieve local food security and generate high-quality employment. But Benjamin emphasises the national level in ensuring food security and in planning.
Foreign policy would be a delicate balance between peaceful existence with capitalist powers and links with social movements in these countries. Although these social movements could perhaps be used to apply pressure for non-intervention and positive development assistance. Pressure would also have to be applied to ensure the development of a collective agenda to combat environmental destruction.
Economic policy would be based around ‘spreading and sharing of tasks’ and so establishing full employment. While priorities would be based on collective determination of priorities rather than profits maximisation for the few. The state would campaign for real gender equality, probably using quotas in the process and steps would be taken to develop a multi-cultural society which learns and respects all social groups.
These ideas, Selwyn argues, would be proposed in collective discussion and l ‘advanced and debated in the same democratic spirit.’ This would be part of the process of re-education that would be necessary to instil a new set of democratic and co-operative values across society, in contrast to the selfish and individualistic values of our own societies. This is an aspect that Selwyn rather underplays.
This is only a short book and so does not provide all the answers, but it does provide an overarching analysis of current capitalist production and a strategy, especially for Southern workers and the poor, to adopt if they are to achieve real development. Selwyn sees labour-led development where the ‘global labouring class’ themselves organise and struggle to increase their own wages and improve the conditions in which they work.
Benjamin echoes the Communist Manifesto by saying that ‘Capitalism is an immensely dynamic wealth-generating system. It has established, on a global scale, the basis for a world free from poverty.’ Unless this happens, he recognises that capitalism ‘will more certainly wreck the planet, create new forms of mass poverty, and reproduce mega-inequalities than deliver the dream of well-being for all.’ This is almost certain with all varieties of top-down development, in contrast to the labour-led approach that he comprehensively and convincingly argues for in this book.
The book ends with an emphasis on the links between current struggles and a future utopian society, in the words of an organiser of an occupied factory in Argentina, ‘This [process of factory occupation] is big, because . . . what one has regarded as a utopia, has become now necessary and possible . . . If we could take this . . . to a regional, country, world level . . . we would be talking of another world,’ It provides a strategy for socialists to identify and support, both theoretically and practically, as real-existing examples of labour-led struggles and development across the world.
Benjamin Selwyn’s The Struggle for Development is published by Wiley and available here.
Andy Wynne is a Senior Lecturer in Public Financial Management at the University of Leicester and a consultant who works extensively in Nigeria.
Featured Photograph: A demonstration in support of the Zanon factory occupation (or ‘recovered factories’), now known as FaSinPat (‘Fábrica Sin Patrones’, which means ‘Factory Without Bosses’), in the southern Argentine province of Neuquén.