Development is capitalist development – violent, coercive and brutal

Graham Harrison argues that all development is capitalist development. Based on his recent book, Developmentalism, he argues that development is not only risky and likely to fail but also very unpleasant. Contemporary notions of development see it is as a stable, incremental, and positive process but this is a fantasy in which capitalist development is reimagined as a planned, inclusive, and socially just modernisation.

By Graham Harrison

My book Developmentalism starts with speculation. It imagines Tanzania in 2090 as a middle-income country. Average incomes are an adjusted $12,000; wage labour has expanded and become more regulated; the fiscal effort of the state has improved; large-scale infrastructural investments have increased and generated a more densely connected national market; production has diversified; rates of saving have increased; technological innovations have taken place and been embedded in local production chains.

One might respond to this futurology by arguing that it is a fantasy that ignores well-known diagnostics of Tanzania’s—and more generally Africa’s—development problems and failures. The dependency-minded thinker might refute the optimistic 2090 prospective by arguing that Tanzania is locked into an exploitative global capitalism that makes this kind of transformation impossible. The outcome: Tanzania—and again by extrapolation many other African countries as well—cannot develop because of some combination of its own properties and its location in a global economy.

The book argues that these responses are misguided. There is nothing in Tanzania’s current condition that looks exceptional or categorically different to any other country. There is no need to foreclose the possibility that Tanzania will be a middle-income country in 2090. Yes: Tanzania is unique; it has its own troubled historical and geographical inheritance; and it faces very significant challenges. But, so does everywhere else.

Capitalist development

One of the most powerful bourgeois ideological sleights of hand has been the naming of capitalist development as simply development. ‘Development’ discursively serves to naturalise what is a profoundly disruptive and political transformation, a transformation based in an imposed reallocation of property and wealth that relies on an invigorated and restless putting to work of people, requiring sustained and muscular state action. A transformation, above all, that is extremely risky and unlikely to succeed.

Development is capitalist development. This means not only that it is very risky and likely to fail but also that it is very unpleasant. The bourgeois coinage of development is that it is stable, incremental, and positive sum. In a word: liberal. Liberal development strategies—operationalised through a massive institutionalisation of international aid from the late 1950s—is in essence a theatre of global fantasy, a fantasy in which capitalist development is reimagined as a planned, inclusive, and socially just modernisation. The ideological erasure of enclosure, corporal punishment in law, forced labour, slavery, genocidal frontier expansion, theft and fraud, and war from the concrete manifestations of capitalist development has been sustained through the rolling out of a multi-trillion-dollar aid industry underpinned by an international elite institutionalism.

The fact is that capitalist development is fundamentally Hobbesian: nasty and brutish; destructive of existing community and extremely exploitative. It is in the DNA of capital’s ascendance that it remakes societies for its own purpose and the foundation of that purpose is not ‘making money’ or ‘earning income’ (the liberal vocabulary) but maximising profit, and extracting surplus labour: again and again, maximally and forever.

This brings me to two cardinal points that address our focus back to Tanzania or many other African countries. Firstly, that capitalist development requires the emergence of strong, purposeful, and well-resourced capitals. Secondly, that the conditions under which these emerge are, vitally, politically secured. Let me comment briefly on each.

In relation to the first point, we should note that much of the more progressive mainstream development discourse revolves around capabilities, microfinance, poverty reduction strategies, participatory development, empowerment, and resilience. All of these aid-driven devices are variations on a theme which the book describes as strategies to allow mass populations to ‘enjoy poverty’. That is, to live in an enduring and untransformed condition of material scarcity in meagre relative comfort. This discourse is at heart—and despite the often pleasing imagery it purveys—neoliberal. The story goes something like this: the enhanced capabilities of an individual lead them to secure a loan that allows them to earn a little more money that brings them to purchase a second-hand motorbike, a solar panel, a corrugated roof or a three-month class at a night school to learn accounting methods. Often told in vignette, these narratives bear slender connection to the major engines of poverty reduction which reside in those zones of capitalist industrialisation in northeast Asia and elsewhere in which tens of millions of people have experienced increases in income. All of the evidence indicates that capitalist industrialisation generates poverty reduction not through individual or community vignettes but through the structural changes wrought by capitalist industrialisation.

So, capitalist development is nasty, brutish, and impoverishing and also the world’s most tenacious engine of poverty reduction. It might seem that there is a contradiction here, but it is only apparent, not substantive. Capitalist development is the rolling out of what Anwar Shaikh calls turbulent trends: a collision of disorders set in unstable social relations that in their own dynamics generate the conditions of possibility for a generalised improvement in mass material well-being. Conditions of possibility, no more than this. There is no modernisation-style certainty of mass consumption; there is, paceThe Economist, no inexorable rise of a global middle class. But, in a way that is historically unprecedented, capitalism presents the possibility that a level and breadth of shared wealth can be achieved. This possibility depends on levels of economic growth and productivity and the strength of social mobilisation to makes claims on the commonwealth that capitalism generates and alienates.

The second point indicates what is, intellectually, a considerable lacuna in studies of capitalist development: its normative foundations. The major attraction of liberal visions of (capitalist) development resides in its ability to suture over the violence. The liberal vision is, to twist Rousseau, all freedom, and no force. This is a seductive fiction. It evades what is the most important political question facing any state that aspires to achieve capitalist development: how to engineer the social transformation within which capital can ascend into a dominant position within a national political economy. But this question is unavoidable. The book goes through variants of an answer to this question: England, America, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, China. All different; all the same. All extreme, not exceptional. All coercive, all risky. Only enjoying success after generations of uncertainty, chaos, and violence, and even then, success is not permanent. Developmentalism argues that, in radically different geographical and historical circumstances, all of these states only succeeded in forging capitalist transformation when this transformation was seen as inextricably integrated into a major-order or existential threat to sovereignty. Forging a nation, securing a border, or consolidating a besieged elite’s rule… in these circumstances in which states are seen as inextricably part of a project to promote the ascendance of capital one can identify the emergence of ideologies where capitalist development is not desirable but necessary. This ideological family is developmentalism.

So, the core question for African states that wish to pursue capitalist development is political-strategic. It is not about ‘getting the institutions right’ or good governance. It is broader and more ambitious than that and set in a temporality that is generational, not what economists call medium-term. It requires authoritarian state action—as it did in almost all other cases.

The book’s argument here is unlikeable: that there is no implicit commensurability between capitalist development and rights. If a ruling elite wishes to promote capitalist development it will only succeed if it deploys top-down and coercive state action—through law, programmes of social engineering, and also police action—to reallocate property, discipline workforces, secure exploitation, and push money into ascending capitals. One of the most unhelpful conflations in development studies in Amartya Sen’s development as freedom. To see development as an expanding freedom is to define away the central feature of capitalist development.

This is, of course, normatively very troubling. Does this perspective serve as an apology for forced resettlement, the detention of labour leaders, the top-down enclosure of land and resources for capital? No, it does not. There are three co-ordinates here.

In the first place, a theoretical orientation towards political realism. Realism is not amoral—this is a caricature that cannot really be found centrally in major Realist texts. Realism simply argues that normative politics is contextual: the modes of address to justice and right are not ideally-derived but produced in specific circumstances. So: the normativity of development does not disappear, it simply relocates into the processes of struggle themselves. This orientation leads to a better awareness of the political norms and normative contestation that accompany capitalist development. This is because the focus on rights is enriched through a recognition that socially-embedded political normativity is only in part about rights. It is also about a stability that allows people to see a better future, a sense of value in community and/or nationhood, religious cosmologies, economic growth, and other situated values which can only be understood through actual research. From a Realist point of view, these other value-clusters enjoy equal status with equally contextualised manifestations of rights norms and their significance and value are empirical matters. As a result, normative investigations from a Realist perspective do not insist on an a priori and idealised derivation from universal and absolute rights. And, they are all the richer for that.

Secondly, analytically, the book insists that there must be a separation of rights and development. They are not commensurable. They are antagonistic, or perhaps in the midst of capitalist transformation, highly strained: constantly requiring non-ideal play-offs. Capitalist development requires active deception from states; force strategically deployed; heavy ideological underlabour; secrecy and cronyism. In other words: politics… politics in the sense of making least-worst decisions in the midst of incomplete information and risk. Human rights scholars and activists work within a very well-specified moral universe that is founded on a meta-norm of justice. But this is not the province of the development scholar.

Thirdly, the political agencies that drive justice claims and indeed underpin the sustained demands for generalised material improvement emerge from concrete situations, not idealised norms. Consequently, we need to situate them in the very turbulence of capitalist transformation itself. As political economies change, so do the possibilities for political mobilisation. Normative agency itself develops within organisation, mobilisation, debate, and public action. This is, historically, a story of the changing organisation of labourers, but also of middle-class organisations, and mobilisations that intersect across poverty, race, gender, and other identities. None of these mobilisations exist because they are intrinsically or ideally right; they exist because they are produced within the transformations themselves.

In summary, the normativity of capitalist development is a non-ideal pluralised normativity that is composed within transition itself. It does not accept rights as its master norm because to do so would be to relinquish the necessary acceptance that capitalist development is not rights compatible.

All of which takes us to Rwanda, the African country that ends the case studies in the book. The Rwandan government is clearly not a ‘rights state’. What kind of a state it is, is still intensely contested. Rwanda does illustrate what a contemporary developmentalism might look like. Its future is very uncertain, but the government constantly and heavily claims otherwise, and portrays the government’s strategy as one of national revitalisation and esteem. It has used covert and extra-legal devices to allocate property and wealth in ways that have, arguably and in some instances, been based in securing expanded circuits of accumulation rather than simply graft. It has achieved a high degree of re-engineering of its rural areas through diktats on habitation, cropping, water usage, the formation of co-operatives, agrarian-ecological zoning, village governance, and performance management. It has invested in the infrastructure of an upgraded service economy: IT, hospitality, air freight, and national highways. It has done all of this whilst consistently reiterating a discourse of national economic transformation. The Rwandan government, in the midst of its authoritarianism and security obsessions, pins its legitimacy on its ability to generate development through an ascendance of capital. Its chances of success are slender; its record on human rights is poor; the challenges it faces are major-order or even existential. In short, it is, for now, developing.

Graham Harrison’s book Developmentalism: The Normative and Transformative within Capitalism is published by Oxford University Press.

Graham Harrison teaches political economy at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and is on the editorial board of ROAPE.

Featured Photograph: Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in 2013 (posted by DFID – UK Department for International Development – as ‘Golden Opportunities for Development‘ by Simon Davis).


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