Sunday, 21 December 2008

Taking Stock

The first term is over! It is hard to believe that I have technically completed half of the masters. I leave for Liberia on the 25th to be with my better half and spend some time in my adopted home. I can't wait to get a break from my routine and enjoy some sunshine and warmth.  I will be carrying ten books with me as I have an essay due in the first week of the second term. At least my consolation is that I will be writing this essay on the beach. 

Ha! That's not true at all. Anyone who knows me, I don't do the beach. I do Mamba Point or my balcony overlooking the chaotic Randall Street. 

So what I learned and experienced so far that I may be able to summarise and share it? 

Firstly, I have had a hard time keeping up with my reading and coursework given the fact I missed the first three weeks of classes and lectures. It took me a while to orient myself and, get into a routine. I have been struggling to keep up with the sheer volume of reading that is required for each week. I have also been highly frustrated with the fact that our tutorials are only one-hour long. Furthermore, students are assigned presentations for each class which is code for summarising and regurgitating core reading which everyone has to do anyhow. That takes up 30 minutes of class and, then, we delve into half-baked discussions around that reading. Most times, the class tutor tries to keep the discussion centred but if that is not the case, we sit through class floating superficially above the text itself. I have been apalled by the quality of discussions sometimes.

I have been academically and intellectually challenged in every respect. I guess the challenge of being back at school is having to conceptualise, place into frameworks and theories things like 'war,' 'peace,' 'violence,' 'state,' 'aid,' 'NGOs,' 'historical legacy,' 'economy,' etc. How do we define them? What is the nature, origin of these notions? To think of these notions in an abstract sense, of course, allows us to deconstruct and analyse them. At the same time, it moves us far from reality, too. Moreover, the fact that everything I study here is unabashedly Eurocentric makes frustrated. 

One of my classmates and good friend who is from Latin America finds it amusing that I am making such a big deal about the Eurocentrism. She asks, why didn't you study in Africa or Asia, then? It's a great question and has been a big source of dilemma for me. The sad reality is that the best universities dealing with development issues are in Europe or the US; it only makes logical sense given that the development project is a colonial/post-colonial, followed by Cold War, preoccupation to begin with. My friend says that the universities in Latin America are not narrow-minded in this respect and give equal importance to thinking originating from other parts of the world. I guess now that I am here and, plan to return to Africa or Asia to work, I must actively seek out academic writing on the subjects I have studied. 

It is not just me who is frustrated with the lack of attention given to academic thought or voices originating from the so-called Third World. Quite a few other classmates I have met were surprised that the School of Oriental and African Studies ended up being so Eurocentric. But then again, as my friend says, why are you surprised? Moreover, SOAS is a colonial institution - it was an institution to train and educate administrators of the Empire.

It is not as if I do not have any access to other thought. I read Pakistani papers regularly and follow columns which are usually an excellent source of political opinion and thought. We do have a great press. I have my Eqbal Ahmed, Said, eternally Chomsky and must start to read Fanon, more of Samir Amin, etc. 

What I also pleasantly and wondrously discovered is my own thought! I realised that a lot of my blind and often confused grasp of history, experience, observations are not so blind and confused. I now recall a lot of discussions with my father who lectured us on American foreign policy, Vietnam, Algeria, Third World politics, the challenges of development, the failings of Third World governments, and, the need for investment in education and technology. Our future lay in our hands, it was just a matter of taking it.  I think a lot of these notions of the need for Third World governments and states to purse independent and responsible state-making stayed with me. 

I applied a lot of it to my experience in Liberia. I went there as a naive, wide-eyed, adventure-seeking Pakistani girl. Because it was Africa, post conflict Africa, I probably got sucked into my artificial, we-wanna-save UN/humanitarian professional environment. I did not bother to understand the country I was in - a sovereign country with a history, with a lot of tragedy but above all else, a real country with real people. It was only after spending the five years I have there along with my better half who started a company from scratch that I began to see Liberia. I quickly abandoned the blah-blah-blah of international organisation speak. I realised that Liberia has to come into its own finally and, really carve an identity and strategy of its own. I realised that a country so crippled and devastated by war cannot and will not recover on dole. That the huge challenges of creating infrastructure, health facilities, schools and universities can only be done by the state, a strong state. Liberia must carve a vision for itself independent of MDGs and multinationals. I even wrote an essay on this 'Musings on Nation Building' which I believe is my own dependency theory. 

I hope the next term is equally, if not more challenging.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Now for some serious stuff

Professor: Why is your essay 1 year late?
Student: Oh, I decided to read the entire works of Marx. 

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Midnight Muddling

Is it possible to do without conceptions of modernisation and dependency theory?

My reading thusfar on modernisation theory is sketchy - limited to the knowledge that modernisation theory was propagated by American sociologists and political scientists in the post world war two context. And anything in the post world war context was a free world - evil communist nexus. Modernisation theory attempted to explain why the 'Third World' was underdeveloped or undeveloped (there is a subtle difference here) - the 'Third World' was still traditional and 'backward' and, had not made the transition to a modern, industrialised society. As Prof Bernstein explained in lecture 4 for TPP, the undeveloped 'Third World' was everything the modern, developed, industrialised world was not. Hence, to get to that ideal stage of development, the 'Third World' needed a modern elite assisted by a benevolent West. Prof Bernstein stressed that we should understand this in the fight against communism which threatened to engulf, win over, influence these vulnerable Third World states. This is a sketchy understanding but serves my purpose for the moment.

As is clearly easy to see, modernisation theory was ahistorical. It ascribes the 'backwardness' of states to their 'backward' cultures, still very traditional. 

Dependency theory thus takes a step back and attempts to explain why these states are not only undeveloped but underdeveloped. 

And I am going to go all romantic here. It is essentially what you and I would instinctively believe. It is the stuff of revolution, of rebellion, of political consciousness, the realisation of struggle, factoring in imperialism and exploitation,  and of cause and effect. It incorporates language that does not even exist on the other side. What other grand umbrella but Marxism can equip the thinker, you and me, for such analysis? But as I said, it is instinctive. There are 'millions of anti-imperialist militants' who know it as it is:

"Bjorn Beckman's observation on dependency of the 1980s was no doubt true, however: 'Academics may have contributed in articulating it but the tremendous diffusion of its perspective can only be understood as a response to specific historical experiences and the development of social forces at the world level, including the realities of colonialism and neo-colonialism, the rise of socialist countries and armed liberation struggles. It is not a specific political line with a uniform theoretical basis. It is a position held by millions of anti-imperialist militants most of whom may have never heard of or read the works of Andre Gunder Frank or Samir Amin."

(Bjorn Beckman, 'Imperialism and the 'National Bourgeosie'", Review of African Political Economy 22, 1981) 

Dependency theory's roots are in Marx and his analysis of the historical development of capitalism. Capitalism had a specific role to play for the future success of socialism. In a very compacted piece by Gabriel Palma (and learned a great deal of the evolution of Marx and Engel's thought, the expansion of the left in Russia by the likes of Lenin, further trajectories by the Narodnik folk who thought they were more Marx then Marx himself), we read that Marx "condemns this expansion as the most brutalising and dehumanising that history has ever known" but that it is necessary for the development 'backward' countries. Capitalism has to take root, take off before the proletariat can organise itself  and stage a socialist revolution.  Contrary to the line adopted by dependency theorists which did not come along until the 50s or 60s in Latin America, Marx was optimistic about capitalism taking off in countries where capitalism had made impact. 

From what I understand, then, is that the Narodnik folk are the original dependency theorists who as early as 1860 were pessimistic about capitalism taking off in in 'backward' countries. They pointed to the slow development of capitalism in Russia and because it was a 'late entrant' into the capitalist system, it would not take off. Hence, they believed that the solution was to move directly towards socialism. 

This is what Andre Gunder Frank proposes in his 1966 piece. There are three levels of analysis in Frank: i) there are ares in the periphery which are incorporated into the world economy ii) this has transformed the peripheries necessarily into capitalist economies iii) this is achieved through interminable metropolis-satellite chain, surplus is generated and drawn off to the centre. In this context, there is no real possibility of sustained development - it will only be underdevelopment. 

The nature of capitalist imperialism was already clearly defined by early Marxist analysis in Russia by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky  in the early 20th century. It was the 'policy of conquest which financial capital in struggle for markets, for the sources of raw materials and for places in which capital can be invested.' This would result in a dependency towards a greater integration of the world economy, a considerable degree of capital movement, international division of labour restricting growth of 'backward' economies to solely the production of mineral/agriculture primary products supplied cheaply by subsistence level labour. The 'backward' countries would be affected by increasing indebtedness and a productive structure which leads 'backward' countries to consume what they do not produce and produce what they do not consume. Regardless of when these unequal relations between centre and peripheries were forged in the monopolistic phase of capitalism, possibilities of development for the 'backward' countries would remain limited. 

What astounds me is the painfully accurate analysis of the lasting subjugation of 'backward' countries by capitalism made at the time it was made either by Marx in describing the capitalist modes of production and his elaboration of primitive accumulation or, the analysis of imperialism by thinkers following Marxist analysis and extending it to the prospects for colonial and post colonial countries. Capitalism and imperialism are synonymous. Explosion in my mind. Capitalism's imperialist nature, need for resource extraction, new markets for investment was plainly evident to Marxist analysis. There was no doubt of capitalism's nature of exploitation. 

Can we do without dependency theory, then? What we really  have to ask is whether or not we can ever do without conceptions of capitalism and imperialism.  What is the Third World struggle? To close the capitalist gap? To enjoy economic growth? Political stability? To eliminate poverty? End its conflicts? Are the Third World distortions, miserable human conditions, political instability legacies of imperialism? Why could not the Third World catch up with developed West? Because it was backward and remains so? Or is it because it is permanently subjected to unequal and exploitative dependency on centres of wealth in the West?  

Is there any other way to look at the world? 

I find it interesting that dependency theory propagated as it did in Latin America. Why did it develop there? Did this logically take root there because it was a good 100 or 150 years since independence from Europe? (Although Latin America suffered its share too in Cold War proxies and devastation wreaked by the US) What was happening in the 1950s and 1960s in Africa or Asia? Well, it should be noted that Africa was only beginning to gain independence from Europe. If we take a thinker from Africa, say Franz Fanon, and I need say no more, his work centered on anti-colonial thinking, its dehumanising effects: Black Skins, White Masks or Wretched of the Earth. Eqbal Ahmed was writing eloquently of American's terrorism in Vietnam. The Algerians were fighting the French and, "Battle of Algiers" was being made (Eqbal Ahmed helped to research the script).  The former colonies were fighting for independence, looking towards the future and, seeking their destiny. This world was flush on socialist thinking than anything else. Socialism was the ideological inspiration and, national state planning was going to be the tool. On the whole, I imagine, Africa and Asia was merely realising its political independence. It seems only logical that Latin America was going to give birth to dependency theory analysis. 

Can we extrapolate this analysis and apply it to political and social aspects of the 'backward' countries? Are not these spheres also under subjugation? 

Capitalist countries continued to march forward, build their economic prosperity and, even build political unity. Why has an entity like the EU and EC successfully merged most of European terrority and consolidate political unity and, not in Africa or Asia? Why is politics still so fractured? 

Again, it seems that Latin America is blazing the trail in terms of seeking alternative political paradigms. Or at least it seems. And this has to be explored further in my analysis. Where is Latin America now? How much has dependency theory and its broad propagation there moulded political consciousness, movements and organisation?

"Thank you, before I begin, I'd like everyone to notice that my report is in a professional, clear binder...When a report looks this good, you know it'll get an A. That's a tip kids. Write it down." Calvin, Calvin and Hobbes

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Writing Essays

"Any discussion concerned with the future of the Third World ought to begin with an inquiry into the past, because the past is very present in these so-called transitional societies. That it is a fractured past invaded by a new world of free markets, shorn of its substance and strength, incapable of assuring the contintuity of communal lives lived for millennia does not make it less forceful. Its power drives from the tyranny of contemporary Third World life and the seeming absence of viable alternatives. For the majority of Third World people, the experienced alternatives to the past is a limbo - of alienation from the soil, of living in shantytowns, of migration into foreign lands, and, at best, of permanent expectancy. Leaning on and yearning for the recovery of an emasculated but idealised past is one escape from the limbo, breaking out in protest and anger is another. At times, the two are mixed; at others, they are separated in time but historically, organically linked. In our time, peasant millenarian rebellions have often been the harbingers of modern revolutions."

Eqbal Ahmed, "From Potato Sack to Potato Mash: The Contemporary Crisis of the Third World" (1980) first appeared in Arab Studies Quarterly.

I have an assignment due at 4 pm today and, once again, as for my previous essay, am finding it difficult to approach the topic in question. I have knee-jerk reactions, informed opinions, and many many sentiments and intentions, but find myself hopelessly stranded. For one thing, how can one demonstrate an understanding of political positions, contrast them, bring in any other positions that vary usually only in subtle shades, all the while offering one's own original take on the matter in merely 3,000 words?

Secondly, I am frustrated with the Eurocentric approach to development issues. I only hear Western intellectual voices on issues that concern the Third World, the South, the poor, the impoverished, the refugees, the combatants, the peripheries, whatever construct or term you want to use. Yes, development itself is a construct that came about at the time of decolonisation by guess what, colonial administrators themselves, firstly, and then, Western thinkers and intellectuals. We are taught that the nation-state, the free market, democracy, rationality and, modernisation are notions and concepts with roots in Western intellectual tradition. Acknowledged. These ideas were not abstract ideas but actually the basis on which Europe developed and expanded. Without knowledge of Western political thought and philosophy which now enjoys hegemony over the world today, how can one possibly understand the mess we are in today, to put it one way?

I thought I had left politics behind in my undergraduate degree (Economics and Politics at QMW 7-8 years ago) but nope, can't get through a lot of the more abstract and theoretical musings on state, violence and conflict in my course without bumping into Marx (although don't mind bumping into him at all), Weber, Gramsci, Hegel, Adam Smith, Bentham, Mills, Foucault, and some newer upstarts as well. They can talk as much Marx as they want to - I do not mind! In fact, I have only now begun to appreciate Marx's discourse and his overwhelming contribution to our understanding of the modern, capitalist world we have inherited. I finally get primitive accumulation! Joy!

"The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation."

From Karl Marx’s history of capitalism in part 8 of the first volume of Das Kapital.

Weber is another giant for his work on rationalisation in government, organisational behaviour and especially sociology of religion. His The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism makes a fascinating link between Protestant Christianity and capitalism. Capitalism evolved when the Protestant ethic influenced people to work in a secular world, embarking on enterprise and engaging in trade and the accumulation of wealth for investment. Weber quotes Benjamin Franklin who went around saying "time is money." Remember Adam Smith and the invisible hand that would guide markets? This would produce benefits for everyone in terms of low prices and, a variety of goods and services. Self interest, then, became a positive force rather than a vice in Western society is interestingly chronicled in Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and Interests (1977) a history of economic ideas and the rise of capitalism.

What does this reading of history, the advent of capitalism, the hegemony of certain ideas, the tragedy of history mean for me? In many ways, it has re-affirmed my view of the world order. Towards the end of my five years in Liberia, an African country modelled on the US state by ex-slaves, with a brutal history of repression and injustice, a country with strong rentier-state qualities, I used to go around saying, what did market-democracy, highly interchangeable words today, ever do? What did capitalism give to the world? Enslavement? Colonisation? Coca Cola and Hollywood? Liberia would not have existed were it not for slavery. Imagine. Free labour for Europe and America. Liberia has one of the biggest rubber plantations in the world but is a country mostly famous for its warlords and child soldiers. If you want to study capitalism, primitive accumulation and rentier states, go to Liberia.

It is easy to see why many former colonies newly independent were flush on more socialist visions rather than Western ones. Take Africa. Most politicians in the 50s and 60s hoped to embark on socialist planning – what academic literature calls the ‘developmental state.’ Tanzania’s collectivisation under Julius Nyerere was not successful – to put it mildly, for example. In academic thought, thinkers explaining the ‘underdevelopment’ of the former colonies made direct links between capitalism’s long history of exploitation, colonisation and underdevelopment. There’s no escaping capitalism. The market is everywhere.

Since the inception of development, the goal was to model economic growth based on the experience in the West without much consideration of the other social transformations that would have to take place for this to happen. The dependency theorists came along and, rejected this framework claiming that it was precisely the exploitative nature of capitalism, the outflow from the poor peripheries to the centres of wealth that has resulted in underdevelopment to begin with. Andre Gunder Frank in fact said the only hope was to retract from the world capitalism system and forge alternatives. This is what Amir Samin said recently in the face of the current financial crisis through embarking on a long road towards socialism.

What happened after the failings of the developmental state? Structural adjustment – a beast that we all know. These are the devil-incarnate policies forced down the throats of developing countries in the 80s by the World Bank and IMF that forced poor countries to reduce the state, cut back social spending, privatise national industries, and adopt market reforms.

The market was always the force that was going to deliver. It gained even more ascendency in the Thatcher/Reagan eras and subsequently, in the Third World too, by force or adoption. It’s called neo liberalism or new policy agenda or whatever you want to call it.

So what am I really studying here? The long trajectory of Western thought and its application to state, society and not to mention foreign policy. I read highly absurd and reductionist theories on why conflict occurs in developing countries (greed, resource abundance, resource scarcity, religion, ethnicity, primordial hatred). And mind, you most of it is highly ahistorical. We sit through classes talking about why such and such theory makes no sense in the real world. Of course, it is important to read these theories because these theories have resonated in Western thinking and even informed policy. But I do not hear any other voices from the South. Apart from a few interviews mentioned in a case study, are there are any African or Asian thinkers writing about violence and conflict? Or are the Others not concerned with violence and conflict in the way ridiculous way Westerners are or have the time for? It is the objectification, this relaxed inaccurate, selective and broad at the same time, study that ticks me off.

I am currently reading modernisation and dependency theories for this essay which I will obviously not turn in today. I have to answer the question whether we can do without these concepts. Can we for purely debate sake? Is dependency theory even alive today? Has modernisation theory really been discredited? Is it not alive and kicking in the form of neo liberalism? Needless to say, capitalism and its exploitative nature and effects is at the root of the debate.

Good intellectual debate cannot do without a good thrashing of capitalism! Even male bashing in this week’s topic for TPP (Challenges to Development III: From Women-in-Development to Gender Mainstreaming) could not do without bashing of capitalism. And, capitalism bashing, then, inherently is West-bashing. It is a really vicious cycle.

I do not mind bashing of the West so much but I would like to hear a few more voices from the rest of the world. What if my trusted volume of Eqbal Ahmed cannot carry me through the year? What if I can't use it for every assignment? Banish the thought, banish the thought!