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!

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