Development and Social Change: old wine in new bottles?

Bottles in Row.

Ronaldo Munck looks at the different development models.

Development is one of those concepts that is ever-present but rarely defined. It is assumed to be the engine of social change and it is taken for granted as a ‘good thing’. But is the development debate not just endlessly recycling old issues?  And are the new paradigms that emerge regularly not just ‘old wine in new bottles’?

Theories of development and social change most often seek to trace a continuity to the era of Antiquity, presumably to show its centrality to the ‘human condition’ and its universal relevance. It is often submerged within an overarching teleological concept of ‘progress’ that colours all aspects of the theory and its application. For myself, following Foucault, the pursuit of origins is necessarily essentialist “because it is an attempt to capture the exact, and pure [transhistorical, immanent] essence of things”. For a genealogy which rejects the pursuit of origins this means a refusal of faith in metaphysics, a careful listening to history.

Development, as I understand it, is inseparable from the British industrial revolution and the French democratic revolution which ushered in the first ‘great transformation’ of society. The upheavals caused by these twin earthquakes created the need to deal with the social, economic and cultural problems emerging with the new capitalist order. Development, in a way, can be seen as a new philosophy and practice seeking to impose a moral order on the chaos of progress. Thus Auguste Comte, founder of sociological positivism, inspired a whole phase of development policy in 19th Century Latin America and Brazil’s flag still carries his logo Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress).

Much later, following the decline of British imperialism and decolonization in the 1950s a new development project emerged through a U.S driven discourse. In the post- war decolonization era we saw the emergence of a ‘Third World’ between the capitalist and communist antagonists of the Cold War. The low level of economic development in decolonizing Africa in particular was contrasted to the booming economy of the United States rapidly becoming the hegemonic global power. Decolonization would lead to development in this vision of the ‘brave new world’ emerging after the retreat of the old colonial powers. U.S. President Truman declared in 1949 that “We must embark on a bold new programme for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of the underdeveloped areas”.

Latin America was the paradigmatic case in terms of this project but it was also central to an ‘internal’ critique of the development project from the so-called dependency school in the 1970s. Reflecting on the contradictions in the developmental model, these theorists began to articulate an alternative model based on a clear rejection of foreign ‘dependency’. In some way it was the binary opposite of the Truman inspired modernization theory: where one saw the diffusion of capital into underdeveloped areas as the key to development the other saw it as simply developing underdevelopment. Furthermore, dependency theory, as much as the dominant modernization theory, took for granted, and saw as natural, the nation-state as the self-sufficient framework for development.

Another later critique was that of ‘post development’ that emerged in the 1980s. Whereas the dependency paradigm was still set firmly in a modernist frame, post-development springs form the post-modernist world view. Undermining the universalist pretensions of the Enlightenment was a key element in the postmodern critique of modernist development theory. The notion that the whole world could be analysed according to universal criteria of justice, truth and reason looks particularly hollow from a Third World perspective.  Notions of truth and objectivity were seen to mask underlying power relations or, put simply, a claim to truth is also a claim to power. Searching for the master key to development must be viewed with considerable scepticism from this perspective.

What the development project was for the 1950s, so the globalisation project became for the 1990s, the dominant new development paradigm. Since the mid 1970s the internationalization of production, finance and trade had been accelerating and a new regime of capital accumulation emerged by the late 1980s. As Philip Mc Michael notes “although the globalization project replaces the development project, “development” has not lost its currency. Its frame of reference has simply shifted….” Neoliberal globalization marked a new phase of capitalist development insofar as it was truly global and marked a decisive break with the paradigm of national development led by the state.

A key issue in terms of assessing the globalisation project is its impact on inequality within and between nations. The promise of the globalization project was that income inequality and poverty would steadily reduce under the new free market global order. For optimists like Stuart Corbridge we need “to acknowledge that the Age of Development (1950-2000) saw improvements in global life expectancy the likes of which had never been seen before…with the average person in China and India living more than twenty years longer in 2000 than in 1950”.  Yet China and India had embarked on an endogenous modernization and development programme driven by the state in a national development mode. The East Asian ‘tigers’ (Korea, Taiwan, Japan), used to ‘disprove’ dependency theory in the 1980s, were also state driven protectionist models which hardly go to show the merits of an unregulated global market.

As to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which dominated the official development industry and the radical discourse of civil society since 2000, they need to be understood in terms of the underlying dynamics of the globalisation project. Despite their discursive dominance they were never actually a development strategy. Effectively the MDGs (and now the SDGs) are the ‘human face’ of neoliberal globalization and represent a way of maintaining a degree of social cohesion in a development model that prioritizes financialization, privatization and an export oriented model.

In conclusion, there is a definite sense if which development models seem to constantly repackage ‘old wine in new bottles’.

G. Honor Fagan, Professor of Sociology, Maynooth University and Ronaldo Munck, Head of Civic Engagement, Dublin City University, Ireland

Honor Fagan HbkHandbook on Development and Social Change  is available now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.

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