Tuesday, March 04, 2008

History Marching On?

One of the advantages of two-hour lectures is that you get potted summaries of frighteningly dense academic texts, which you later recall as actually having read.

Tonight we were introduced to the work of two historians called M P Cowen and R W Shenton, who, in a work of apparently monumental difficulty, tease out the difference between what they call 'immanent' and 'intentional' development.

According to the authors, 'immanent development' is the organic, undirected, potentially chaotic process exemplified by the Industrial Revolution. It involves rapid technological change, massive urbanisation, and the overthrow of old values and institutions, destroying while it creates.

'Intentional development' is the intervention of governments and other institutions to control and direct development. It aims to slow down urbanisation through favouring rural development, and preserving some parts of existing customs and institutions. Most of what we think of as 'development projects', by government agencies and NGOs, would fall into this category.

It helps to learn that Cowen and Shenton are Marxists, disapproving of 'intentional development' as a reactionary impediment to the glorious march of history. Seen in this light, their characterisation of 'intentional development' sounds similar to the attitudes of magazine Spiked, whose contributors like Frank Furedi and Brendan O'Neill are cuttingly scornful of the concept of 'sustainable' development and lambast the 'eco-miserabilists' that are pessimistic about human progress.

writers are contemptuous of the patronising do-gooding of western agencies who set African villagers' sights on a donkey-powered well, rather than a modern reticulated water system. O'Neill has launched an attack on the practice of offsetting carbon emissions by discouraging third-world farmers from using energy-intensive technologies -- something he calls 'eco-enslavement'.

The description of intentional development also sounded to me like Alan Garcia's slogan of 'responsible change' with which he carved out his position in the 2006 Peruvian elections. But if you look closely, here the concept described by Cowen and Shenton is flipped on its head. In Garcia's case, the 'change' didn't refer to development, but to redistributive policies and more help for the poor. 'Responsible' referred to not trying to regulate and redistribute too much -- i.e. not doing anything radical that might frighten investors and financial markets.

This suggests that, since the late 1980s, the dynamic march of global capitalism has come to be seen as the orthodox state of affairs, and upholding it is in effect the conservative position.
The 'immanent', grassroots tendency in many countries is to seek stability and security, and to oppose or put conditions on the unsettling flux of capitalism. This is now seen as radical.

Garcia's actual behaviour in government has been rather different from promised, with less 'change' and rather more 'responsibility' to the business elites that the likes of La Republica columnist Humberto Campodónico claim are his taskmasters. He has declared certain major mining projects as 'in the national interest' and called those who oppose them 'old communists'.

Pondering these paradoxes led me to wonder whether there aren't two conflicting kinds of 'intentional development'. Sure, the NGOs are squirreling away, trying to promote productive rural communities, just as Cowen and Stenton say. But they're overshadowed by the alliance between business elites and government, which pushes more rapid economic transformation than would occur naturally.

There's a name for this -- corporatism. It's at the heart of what Noami Klein is critiquing (in a sometimes overblown, but broadly effective style) in her book The Shock Doctrine. The 'creative destruction' of unfettered capitalism might have originally been an 'immanent' process driven by new technologies and organic social changes. But as Klein and others have argued, in recent times it has often been imposed from the top down.

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