Development is also a very useful ignorance

by zunguzungu

Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World is an “anthropology of modernity” which takes “development” as its subject. In other words, instead of taking “development” for granted as a coherent concept, he looks at it the same way anthropologists look at any kind of social paradigm, as something less necessary than contingent, less arbitrary than functional. To say the same thing less neatly: there’s nothing natural or necessary about the concept of “development” (or “underdevelopment”), so Escobar tries to understand how such a social imaginary came into existence at a particular time and place, for particular reasons, and for the use of particular people on other people in particular. Why, in short, did and does “development” come to seem like a useful way to understand the world?

As he puts it, “One of the many changes that occurred in the early post-World War II period was the ‘discovery’ of mass poverty in Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” and he’s right to break out the scare quotes. For one thing, Western wealth wasn’t just measured against the insecurity of the “non-West,” but the very idea of the West and the non-West was formed out of the distinction between the two. To put that another way, the world had to be integrated before it could be conceptually divided into “the West and the rest,” and while colonialism and gunboat diplomacy may have taken racial hierarchy as their justification, these enterprises were just as important in reproducing the idea of racial hierarchy. For example, the great depression hit the parts of the world we’ll scare quote as “the third world” much harder than it did the industrialized north, but such a global economic crisis could only help to create the vast ocean of poverty which developmentalists would discover, and name the third world, because those parts of the world had already been incorporated as other, and subjugated on that basis.

Are you as confused by what I‘ve written as I am? I do love me some tautological writing. But the important point is that the “poverty” that the West was able to perceive was also more or less reducible to the kinds of social difference we now associate with the grossest of ethnocentrisms. When Truman said in his 1949 inaugural address that “More than half of the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery…Their economic life is primitive and stagnant,” there were very real conditions of stark deprivation out there to be seen, but he was also disinclined to distinguish such misery from what he would have seen as abnormal economic behavior, unable to distinguish starvation from the broad failure of non-Western people to adhere to standards of bourgeois middle-class morality.

As Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts vividly illustrates, for example, the places where colonial control was most advanced really were marked by profound levels of immiseration, in large part due to the heartless Malthusian theories that colonial administrators were able to use to make policy. WWII had been pretty rough on places like the Philippines who were lucky enough to host it, and the worldwide depression fell hardest on the world’s non-industrialized farmers, both forced to compete with industrialized agriculture and abruptly denied the capitol necessary to do so. And you can’t overstress how much damage European “free trade” policies were able to do to local economies who couldn’t compete with the highly industrialized West. But the standards used in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s for describing this poverty were so blatantly racist, so specifically keyed to a Western bourgeois sensibility, that the question was far less one of freedom from insecurity than the question of whether the world’s multiplicity had achieved the glorious pinnacle of social evolution occupied by your average New York city stock broker. Instead of asking “Do these people have enough to eat?” they asked “Are these people buying products from the West?” Instead of asking “Are these people free from disease?” they asked “Are these people bathing properly?” Instead of asking “Are these societies in some kind of social harmony?” they asked “Have they all been Christianized and learned to speak English?”

The interesting thing here is not simply that these questions are often negatively correlated–penetration by British commodity markets being a common prelude to the collapse of local industries, for example–it’s that, at this time, a unique consensus started to spread through world “foreign” policy circles regarding how the problems of underdevelopment were to be solved, an innovative transformation of “primitive” to mean material deprivation. Before this period, it was rare to conceptualize the non-white, uncivilized nations of the world in such simply economic terms, to express ethnocentrism in such a bluntly material idiom. Savages, pagans, children, degenerates, and all the usual racist stuff was common as pie, but what was peculiar about that post-1945 moment was that suddenly such problems were to be addressed less by the evangelical diffusion of cultural sweetness and light, and more by raising the standard of living (a curious convergence, not insignificantly, with international communism). As Escobar puts it, “the fact of development itself, and the need for it, could not be doubted. Development had achieved the status of a certainty in the social imaginary.” Instead of looking at a yam farmer living on a dirt floor as a problem of culture (a pagan savage who had pagan savage customs), people like Truman suddenly looked out at him and said: “My god! This man can’t afford toothpaste!” And they vowed to help him.

Out of this shift (or making it possible) came what Escobar calls the “growing will to transform drastically two-thirds of the world in the pursuit of the goal of material prosperity and economic progress.” “By the early 1950’s,” he writes “Such a will had become hegemonic at the level of the circles of power” and they made policy according to a hardening consensus about what poverty was, what Escobar calls a “veritable underdeveloped subjectivity endowed with features such as powerlessness, passivity, poverty, and ignorance, usually dark and lacking in historical agency…Only from a certain Western perspective does this description make sense; that it exists at all is more a sign of power over the Third World than a truth about it.”

I’m quoting these turns of phrase because I think he turns them well. And if you want to understand why so many apparently well-meaning development workers turn out to harbor startlingly racist sentiments (a syndrome still easily observable), then an account like Escobar’s is quite useful; he illustrates how, in the Western imagination of the world, it became possible to retain racist structures of feeling (even after WWII and Hitler had made them frightfully unfashionable) by turning them into a condemnation of poverty. By condemning poverty via an exaltation of the “Western” bourgeois mode of living, developmentalists could link economics to culture, thereby moralizing about poverty and cultural difference at the same time, presuming them as the same. In other words, the more they failed to distinguish between wealthy and Western (and they quite successfully failed to do this, often), the more they could also fail to distinguish between poverty and primitive savage customs, thereby using condemnations of poverty as an avenue for condemning the poor and dark-skinned people who persisted in choosing to be dark-skinned and poor.

Escobar tells this story quite well. But in order to tell the story of Western success in making “development” into a hegemonic social imaginary, he has to tell another story less well, the story of Western failures to do so. This story is, in some ways, much less dramatic; while the “rise of development” has clear bad guys and clear victims, the story of how colonialism and development failed is less a fable of glorious resistance than a story of overstretch and incompetence in the face of a very mundane and unsurprising human pushback. To put this most simply: Escobar is very good at showing how the powers that be rammed the idea of “development” down the throat of the third world–a group of human beings who came to be identified as such by this process of ramming–but he has to turn his head away from all the myriad ways that development and the broad project of Western imperialism got derailed and produced all sorts of strange and interesting effects that were never intended by those powers that were.

After all, while European imperialism in Asia and Africa (and over a century of US interventions in Latin America) had done a great deal to break down the walls that kept local communities insulated from world markets, there’s quite a difference between the achievement of the kind of political control that colonialism signified and the kind of economic integration that colonialists wanted to produce. Western expansion into (what would later be called) the third world was sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent, but you can track that expansion by the extent to which “local” people were making their living by selling commodities into the global marketplace and buying commodities from it. And even by WWII, that extent was occasionally much more limited than a narrative like Escobar’s is able to acknowledge. West African cocoa farmers, for example, were starting to do quite well for themselves selling their products to the colonial commodity boards, but such examples are more the exception than the rule: for every “local native” cultivating cotton to send to England to be woven into garments and sold back to him (the colonialist dream scenario), there were countless more farmers making their living by selling for and buying from strictly local markets, markets that were more or less shielded from global economic pressures.

They weren’t necessarily poor, per se; they were also non-industrial, protected or detached from global capitalism, and in varying states of local autonomy. It’s easy to idealize what I’m talking about in an unhelpful way, of course. It’s not like we’re talking about happy subsistence farmers growing yams and living lives of edenic not-yet-fallen-apart bliss; Europe’s conquest of the world in the nineteenth century had a broadly pernicious impact on the ability of “local” societies to control and order their affairs, and the damage that was done is hard to even conceptualize, not least because we know so little about the “local” societies being damaged. But European “hegemony” was also far from complete, even by the early twentieth century (heck, even by today), and no matter how hard colonial authorities tried to use their limited resources to forcefully re-order the societies they conquered, conquest was always easier than control. One of the great untold stories is the extent to which “local” people managed to make the best of a bad situation and find ways of surviving and producing outside the modes of life that colonialists wanted to impose (indeed, James Scott’s Seeing Like a State makes the FTW argument that local people’s successes in getting around high modernist projects of social control was the very thing that made those high modernist structures viable). Again, this is no rosy scenario: human beings have a way of making the best of their situations, no matter where they find themselves, but it doesn’t at all imply that the situation itself ceases to be bad. The real point is simply that (as we see in Iraq today) the ability to conquer a place doesn’t mean you can control it, and while almost no one in the world was un-influenced by Europe, the kind of social re-structuring Europe had managed to inflict on their colonies and protectorates was much more humble and limited than they or their chroniclers have liked to admit.

In the African context, this was particularly true, for reasons that have applied to both pre-colonial and post-colonial African governments as well: African society is a difficult social terrain for a state to exert meaningful political power over. There are a host of reasons for this–and J-F- Bayart’s Politics of the Belly can fill you in on many of them–but the main one would simply be that environmental conditions necessitated a type of agriculture that has always proved to be poorly suited to supporting a strong central state. In contrast to Braudel’s concentrated pockets of tightly integrated rural populations out of which Western capitalist society grew (or out of which the Chinese administrative state and its many other East Asian imitators grew), the “slash-and-burn” agriculture that typified much of equatorial Africa meant that populations were relatively dispersed, and while well integrated by trade, their production chains stayed basically autonomous and separate by necessity. The colonial states rarely had the resources or the will to change that; blinded by an inflated opinion of their own power, they were unable to close the gap between ambition and realization because they were unable to admit it existed. And so, like our own adventure in Mesopotamia, they got out not by achieving their goals but by moving the goalposts.

Thus, when Escobar describes how “political economy succeeded in imposing production and labor as a code of signification on social life as a whole” and how “modern people came to see life in general through the lens of production,” concluding triumphantly that “the language of everyday life became entirely pervaded by the discourses of production and the market,” I’m left with a certain dissatisfaction. Yes, the project of development, which he eloquently illustrates, is poorly understood, and we need about seven more books like his to better understand how and what and why “Development” was and is. But what it was and is comes and came into existence just as powerfully as a part of a negotiation with its own failures, its own dark spaces and limitations, and unless we take account of that, our picture of “development” is as incomplete as cosmological models without dark matter. The stuff you can see is important, maybe even the most important thing, and it’ll give you a coherent picture if you add it up right. But it won’t be complete.