When carrying out fieldwork in northern Mozambique, I had a series of conversations with a researcher for the local government’s cultural archives. Over a couple of months, I asked him about all sorts of aspects of Mozambique’s political economy. Often, once I had asked a question, he would leave a pause and then announce ‘nos somos pobre’—we are poor. At the time, early career and eager to generate material for a PhD and then book, I found this response a little frustrating. I wanted his different answers to my different questions. But, what he was telling me was that poverty was the meta-condition within which all manner of questions operated. Poverty was the difference that made a difference. It was not that discussions about democracy, justice, dependency on aid, or post-conflict reconstruction were not important; it was that they were profoundly conditioned by an underlying condition which was that Mozambique suffered mass poverty, slow growth, and very little economic transformation. The possibilities of progress in all of these areas was underdetermined by the lack of capitalist development. In this blog—based on my book Developmentalism: The Normative and Transformative within Capitalism—I aim to set out a characterisation of the kind of politics that capitalist development requires with particular attention to the normative questions this raises.
Want mass poverty reduction? Seek it in capitalism
If you seek mass poverty reduction, you will find it in the histories of sustained capitalist accumulation. In England from 1801 to 1901, income per capita increased fourfold over a century in which population trebled, and this increase was reflected in the incomes of the working classes. Government gradually came to regulate the intensity and extensity of work, broaden provision for pensions, education, clean water, and by the 1920s a national grid. This was a slow process in comparison with what followed between the 1830s and 1950s in other Western countries. In America, real wages rose by 25 per cent between 1922 and 1929. From 1900, life expectancy increased and the length of the working week decreased and income per capita had overtaken Britain’s. By the end of the 1920s, half of all Americans owned a car, 68 per cent of households had home lighting, 51 per cent indoor flush toilets, and 42 per cent central heating. Similar stylisations might be given for northern European countries. In Japan, from the late 1910s, economic growth and income per capita increased gradually before the destruction of the Second World War. From the mid 1950s to the 1970s, the Japanese economy grew by an average of 10 per cent per year. Life expectancy rose from 47 years in 1935 to 68 in 1961. By 1960, average wages were about 50 per cent above pre-war levels; and by 1970 they had risen again by about 80 per cent. More strikingly, the family income of an urban wage worker increased from an index of 11.7 in 1960 to 100 in 1980. Similar stylisations might be offered for South Korea and Taiwan roughly a decade later. In China, from 1979 to 1995, GDP grew at an annual average rate of 9.5 per cent, with productivity improvements accounting for 40 per cent of that growth. From 1980 to 2001, the proportion of Chinese villagers in poverty fell from 41 per cent to 5 per cent. The number of people living in absolute poverty (by the World Bank’s extremely austere definition) fell from 840 million to 84 million between 1981 and 2011. China’s growth and consequent poverty reduction has lifted one-tenth of the world’s population out of extreme poverty.
These cases are all extremely varied. But noting their historical, geographical, and economic differences should not distract from the key point: each of these has undergone a sustained process of capitalist accumulation that has transformed their political economies in ways that create the conditions of possibility for mass poverty reduction and a governance of mass social provision. In each case, more capital was invested, productivity and output increased, sectoral distributions shifted from agriculture to industry and services, wage labour expanded, and rates of economic growth increased.
There are a group of countries in which the world’s greatest efforts at poverty reduction and concentrations of wealth and wellbeing are housed. David Coates identifies twenty-five of these countries: Britain, America, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Austria, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Canada, Portugal, Singapore, Greece, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. One can add to this list, but the categorisation surely stands up. All of these countries have successfully endured a capitalist transformation.
Capitalist transformation offers all countries the slender hope of development: that the processes and relations of capitalism contained within their borders might be disciplined, incentivised, determined, and fortunate enough to generate an extended period of growth, increased productivity, employment, and fiscal resources for the state. This is what capitalist development is: always different, always the same: capital’s offer to the majority of countries with weak economies and high proportions of extremely poor people is that there might be a plan, a technique, a chance that everything changes. Not improvements in discrete indices, but a systemic change in a political economy; a transformation.
This is not a liberal cheerleading for capital. It is simply an acknowledgement of one of its essential features: its desire to accumulate and the growth and productive effects that this drive manifests. This is, of course, one facet. We can accept that capitalist transitions are commonly extremely disruptive, rights-denying, exploitative, and impoverishing. We can also accept that capitalist transitions do not fulsomely address inequality or insecurity. And they certainly do not resolve social-structural inequalities that derive from race, ethnicity, gender, caste, and so on. But, as my Mozambican interlocutor was trying to teach me, issues of governance, development, policy, and justice look very different when ‘you are not poor’, and this is surely the core telos of the politics of development
If this argument seems unconvincing, we might consider the dominant approaches to development and poverty reduction. The most popular orientation at present broadly follows Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach and it sets its stall on the small-scale, enabling, and incremental support for livelihood improvements. Microcredit, training, and deliberative and participatory mobilisations offer more obviously normatively pleasing visions of development. But, individually or as a whole, they do not offer mass poverty reduction. They offer a means through which the poor might enjoy their condition in relative comfort through discrete localised interventions.
Liberal economic policy (which is not antagonistic towards the capabilities approach) assumes that restrained and adroit regulatory governance generates competitive market-based growth that lifts people out of poverty. This is a model that does not reflect the particulars of any of the countries we briefly reviewed above, and arguably has no concrete cases that substantiate its faith in laissez-faire.
So, if one is serious about mass poverty reduction, one requires a partial but necessary defence of capitalism: it is irrefutably the motor for the world’s most pervasive processes of sustained development, inclusive of growth, improved productivity, economic diversification, more wage labour, improved incomes, mobilities, and expanded social provision. The chances of success in pursuing this transition are slight; the experiences of capitalist transformation are awful; and the achievement of a successful transition does not solve a great many problems and injustices. It is between the teeth of this historical reality that the politics of development resides.
Situating capitalist development within this concrete history has repercussions for our understanding of the politics of development. In the first place, it requires us to recognise plainly that capitalist development is a political project. Capitalist development is not natural, organic, or a product of an exclusively economic logic. Secondly, capitalist development involves a kind of spatial fix in which the exercise of state power, the interests of capital, and the notion of commonwealth are substantially bounded within a sovereign territory. For all of the globalisation research, cosmopolitanism, and focus on transboundary activities, it is impossible to construct any notion of development outside the nation-state without indulging in ideology and idealism.
But the politics of development is not simply a defence of an interventionist state and a recognition that markets need regulation; these have been commonplaces of ‘developmental state’ research and its various Weberian, institutionalist, and ‘new structuralist’ spin-offs. The exacting politics of capitalist development requires a more full-blooded politics, what I have termed developmentalism. The ‘ism’ matters. I am not wanting to identify a set of policies, an institutional form, or an elite mindset. I am wanting to analyse an ideology that pervades all of these aspects and which has an exceptionally durable property fit for the turbulence of capitalist development. Capitalist development is not simply the careful management of economic growth. It is the ability to endure crisis, to enforce pervasive and deep social change, and to fight above one’s weight in a world of rival capitalisms.
Developmentalism and the slender hope of success
So, one might reasonably ask: how does developmentalism exist in such austere circumstances? The starting point of an answer is that developmentalism most likely emerges when the existence of the state and the foundations of the political become tightly intertwined with capitalist development. Although it might be desirable for a government to facilitate capitalist development, most do not. But they do not start to collapse as a result. In some cases, where the state’s existence and capitalist development become more intertwined, the political conditions for capitalist transformation are more propitious.
For most governments in poor countries, development might be desirable but not necessary: some growth might happen over three or four years but its falling away does not lead governments to face major insecurities in terms of civic order, control of territory or external threat. Other political aims might be as important as promoting development and success in these areas might not require sustained growth and transformation. In these contexts, development is commonly aspired to in the absence of a fundamental political imperative. Herein the aspirational politics of seeking the right policies, smart development assistance, requisite political will, and appropriate institutional design… all with limited results, development-wise.
For some governments, the state and its ruling elite are united in the face of major-order political challenges which pose the real possibility that the ordinary politics of statehood and governance cannot be sustained. One might call this condition one of existential insecurity. In these circumstances, one means to address the primary political challenge of establishing the basic legitimacy of the state and national politics is to promote capitalist transformation. This may or may not work. If it does, it can consolidate the presence of the state in a territory, engineer national societies of citizens, generate improved material circumstances for large numbers, open up new livelihood possibilities or aspirations for many, and generate a larger stream of revenue for the state which it might deploy strategically to shore up its legitimacy and respond to various political and economic challenges.
Developmentalism contains two other features, both of which relate more closely to class. The social origins of elites matters. It is within these elites that the ideological ferment that generates an exceptional degree of political determination to promote sustained and expanding accumulation might emerge. It is also within these elites that broader projects and dispensations of property allocation are forged. The strategic allocation of suffering and benefit through property, patronage, and the putting to work of people requires a clenched fist of elite purpose and capitalist ambition. We can see this in all of the histories of success, albeit with varying degrees of authoritarianism and violence.
In America, capitalist development was, in all of its complexity and localism, a project of immigrant colonising elites. Until the ‘closure’ of the frontier, the American state surveyed, commoditised, invested, subsidised, and exercised massive amounts of violence to make a national capitalist economy, and it did so most profoundly in the name of nation-building against a diverse and resistant multitude of indigenous peoples. Japan’s early capitalist transformation under the Meiji ‘restoration’ was also propelled by an ‘immigrant’ elite that came to power through an occupation-coup. In Taiwan, an immigrant elite from the mainland took power after 1949 over an indigenous population and facing external threats of occupation. In China, a victorious party-military enters government after a civil war, facing a country it has partial control over and a continuing external threat.
In these countries—and also others such as Israel and Rwanda—elites immigrated into insecure states, found themselves facing indigenous populations that they did not know well and who did not treat their government as a legitimate presentative of their community. Constructing a growing economy and generating a motor of social transformation was not something that these elites did because it was desirable from some normative standpoint. They did this because without this project, there was a real and present possibility that the elite might be removed from power and, without close access to the state, these elites might be exiled or even destroyed.
Capitalist development became the existential necessity of statehood in these insecure ‘immigrant states’. It generated, and in some cases generates, an obsessive and tenacious ideology of developmentalism which shapes elites’ ideas of what is possible. It becomes thinkable to undertake major social engineering as an absolute necessity; it becomes an imperative to deploy the state to fuel politically-amenable processes of accumulation; it becomes possible to discipline accumulation in order to generate socially-beneficial outcomes from capitalist development. For these cases, ‘political will’ is nothing like up to the task of forging capitalist development. It requires a deeper ideological and sociological underpinning that touches of the foundations of how a state might operate.
Valuing capitalist development
None of this makes for pleasing argument. Developmentalism is a concept that is based in the premise that rights and development are not commensurate. One of the main strengths of the capabilities and liberal approaches to development is their normative congruence: they posit that development can happen in conjunction with the expansion of rights-affirming sociability. Seen in comparison, the politics of developmentalism looks either amoral, unpleasantly utilitarian, or perhaps apologetic of all manner of crimes of state.
But, a skirting of the nature of capitalist development via an idealised derivation of human rights does not an historically-contextualised argument make. Indeed, the conflation of research on human rights with research on development through liberal and capabilities approaches has generated an archive of research that does not address the nature of capitalist development. To assume that both poverty reduction and human rights are both absolute and categorical goods is to conflate two equally important but distinct value systems and to generate analytical confusion and conflation that reaches its apogee in Sen’s statement that one can have development and expanding freedoms because development is about expanding freedom.
I would see developmentalism not as an apology for authoritarianism but as an acknowledgment of the realities of capitalist development. This position will never lead to moral perfection or a realised ideal: there is no normative resolution here. But, in a sense, the liberal-capabilities framing is also and more clearly apologist. It constantly endeavours to portray capitalism—a nice, liberal, Whiggish, positive-sum imaginary of it—as a real prospect to lift hundreds of millions of poor people out of extreme poverty. Liberal and capabilities approaches implicitly but constantly give capitalism an historic makeover it does not deserve.
So, the argument here is not one that can resolve the rights-development antagonism. Rather, it is one that recognises that it is an intrinsic agony of capitalism itself. There is no escape. A realistic understanding of capitalist development—one that derives its insights from the study of historic case studies and non-idealised understandings of politics—is that capitalist development is incommensurate with rights.
But, this is far from the end of the matter. In fact, this position—ostensibly a very dour one—takes rights and freedom more seriously than liberal/capabilities approaches. There are three ways in which this is the case. Firstly, it behoves us to focus attention on concrete and situated political practices and to ask questions about specific practices’ effects on capitalist development. Rather than focusing on constitutional and legislative change or the presence of elections, it seeks out in more detail myriad particular interventions: land reform, social provision, rezoning and relocation, the regulation and disciplining of labour, the partial use of power and money to support capital and so on. It connects these to the varying and ongoing project of capitalist development and it makes provisional judgements in this context.
Secondly, a focus on capitalist development is more amenable to dynamic and collective political agencies. In other words, as capitalist development—with all of its oppressions and dispossessions—continues, new forms of political mobilisation emerge. If individuals receive basic education and healthcare and are otherwise generally left alone by the state then no rights violation has taken place. And, if multiparty elections take place in this context, then countries might be considered to have entered into a club of ‘well ordered’ and rights-respecting nations. This liberal vision shows a lack of ambition and a weak sense of historical change. Capitalist development generates new politics: new classes of labour in agriculture, industry, trade, services might construct new political parties, representative organisations, media outlets, and mobilisations. And, as economic growth continues, states have the wherewithal to generate better-resourced projects for the commonwealth. They also enter into conditions where they might escape the supine half-sovereign state of being reliant on aid and loans from development agencies.
The point here is that developmentalism’s non-idealism might upset those who wish to put human rights as an absolute priority but it does so for good reasons. If one wishes to cleave to an absolute and/or ideal valuing of human rights then one is a human rights scholar, not a development scholar. Taking development seriously means making human rights a second-order value. But its location thus is not abandonment. Rather, it requires us to consider the specific acts of state and capital in relation to capitalist development. This will not harmonise rights and development but it will contextualise the relationship and allow more nuanced judgement to be made. Furthermore, capitalist development itself opens up more fulsome possibilities for collective political agency within its own transformation.
Thirdly, developmentalism allows for a more inclusive notion of moral value. Mainstream discourses on development tend to assume that success is possible for all countries. What is needed is some combination of the right policy science, with the right elite dispositions. The sense of universal possibility is expressed in the bizarre codifications of the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals. This is nothing less than a global ideological makeover of capitalism’s actual developmental potential: an authoritarian and deeply political project, unlikely to succeed, and motivated by major insecurities.
Within developmentalist projects, there is a great deal to play for. Developmentalism is not simply an economic transition; it is socio-political. The state seeks in capitalist transformation the basic legitimacy to govern. This is not only about the ‘performance legitimacy’ of growth. It also something embedded in thicker and more contextualised value systems. In this respect, we can recognise that rights value systems are not the only ones in politics. Other political values underpin legitimacy: nationalism, stability, and social justice. Capitalist development offers a very powerful means to articulate and realise these values, and in so doing, construct the legitimacy of the state and the conditions of possibility for mass improvements in people’s material well-being. There is a tendency to couple rights and justice as if they were near-synonyms. Other values exist, and in conditions of poverty, instability, weak state capacity, and intervention they might play a prominent role.
Two cheers for development
The historic promise of capital—and its ultimate claim to legitimacy—is that accumulation generates economic expansion that makes people’s lives better. Clearly, globally, this is more promise than claim. Developmentalism is the ideology of a politics that aims to move a society from this promise to its reality, and it recognizes that this move is one that requires the distribution of suffering as well as benefits.
The trajectory of capitalist development is in no sense a great historic resolution of poverty, overwork, or inequality. It is nothing more—or less—than a transformation of the realities upon which these material phenomena play out. To deny capitalism’s progressiveness is as mistaken as denying its limits and contradictions. Development achieved is hardly the end of history. Indeed, as Marx insisted, within and against the historical engine of capitalism, anything is possible.