5.1.2: Baby or bathwater? Conflations of development and underdevelopment in historical and materialist perspective
Social scientists have largely embraced an understanding of development as a colonizing discourse that projects its modernist telos and marginalizes the world’s most vulnerable. While accurately describing features of many conflicts, the post-development orthodoxy has extended its reach at just the moment in history when some countries outside the ‘core’ show signs of finally ‘catching up’. Conceptualizations of development as inherently colonial break with traditions of thought that identified underdevelopment as a lasting effect of foreign domination—and as a process to be struggled against through (and after) decolonization. Challenging contemporary notions of decolonization that distance themselves from analysis of underdevelopment, this panel examines unfolding histories of contested efforts to ‘climb’ capitalist hierarchies of value. The panel links three theoretical insights. First, we understand underdevelopment as a process based on exploitation with features both spectacular (value seized from land and producers) and hidden (suppressed possibilities to increase the productivity of labour and foster internal circulation of the value it generates). Second, we identify so-called ‘dependent’ markets and ‘rentier’ states—where the circulation of value is based on claims to value captured from a given territory, rather than productive labour per se—as outcomes of impeded efforts to overcome underdevelopment. Third, we view the collapsing of differences between ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ as a tactic of legitimation deployed to defuse opposition to rentier arrangements and the forms of exploitation they perpetuate. The papers will include case studies on issues such as the ascendance of ‘social protection’ policies in Venezuela and controversies over foreign direct investments in Indonesia, as well as global-scale assessments of the viability of national development as a form of resistance to imperialism.
Presentations of the Symposium
Distributive Development: The Highest Stage of Rentier Capitalism
In his seminal study Unequal Development, Samir Amin argues that the loss of control over the deployment of social labour and production of value in peripheral capitalist settings is one of the key features of imperialist relations at a global scale. The mass of peasants and slum-dwellers living outside the wage relation are just one side of a dialectic of underdevelopment that equally embraces zones of ‘super-exploitation’ where commodified labour in oil camps, commercial plantations, and export enclaves facilitates the transfer of value to global centres. Payment for this dual extraction often takes the form of rent controlled by local elites invested in obscuring the unequal exchange inherent in these transactions. In this paper, I explore the case of Venezuela and distributive politics that hinder transition from a regime of rent capture as well as iterations of postcolonial theory that seek to obviate the category of ‘development,’ thereby rendering illegible forces that make these societies unstable.
Dependent Investments: The Submerged Politics of Bifurcated Development in Indonesia
In 2020, the issue of foreign investment became a hot-button topic in Indonesian politics. Mass protests and riots against legislation to facilitate foreign investment recalled previous moments when Indonesians had taken to the streets to oppose foreign economic hegemony. Activist communications and scholarly literature have narrated the issue of foreign investment as a matter of extractive capital using the banner of ‘development’ to justify raids on natural resources. Missing has been consideration of the fact that foreign investment in Indonesia predominates in value-added industry, while primary activities such as mining, timber, and agribusiness are largely controlled by domestic capital. This paper traces the historical construction of this bifurcation of investments to highlight the otherwise obscured dependence of labour productivity growth on both foreign capitalization and foreign-currency earnings from primary commodity exports. It analyzes a politically destabilizing manifestation of imperialism today: a type of inter-sectoral dependence, of development on underdevelopment.
Anti-Imperialist Development: Then and Now
Post-development discourse can only dismiss development as an imperialist project by overlooking what it always meant in national liberation movements and in the early post-war decades: autonomous national development. It was an inherently anti-imperialist project which is, perhaps, best articulated in Samir Amin’s concept of delinking. Based on my work on the geopolitical economy of capitalism driven forward by its uneven and combined development, which unites the work of the largely non-Marxist developmental state theorists with a Marxist understanding of the role of nations in a capitalist world, and on the inherently predatory and unstable character of the world dollar system, this paper will revisit the content and rationale of anti-imperialist development, particularly from a financial point of view. It will argue that, contrary to contemporary ‘globalization’ and ‘US Hegemony’ discourses that argue that such strategies are impossible today, they are not only possible but the only path to any broad-based and sustainable prosperity at a time when imperialism has, over the past many decades, taken on a more rentier form than ever.
Displacing Financial-rentier Imperialisms?
Development, like capitalism and imperialism, demands to be historicized by periodising specificity. Development’s histories may have lost their way in the present by eliding and losing sight of the larger macro-processes through the distorting, but enabling lens of how the many national and local sites of intervention appear to be enacted. If development has always been about normatively and materially ameliorating the effects of the consequences of intervention, it has also always been to ensure that those subject to its behests are brought into the intersecting material and financial flows of imperialism. In looking at many parts of Africa, there have been continuities in the substantial appearance that the forms of imperial exploitation have taken—e.g. various forms of extractivism—or the class conduits through which they are enacted under or through the neo-liberalized states. However, if the intensity of these forms remain, they often do so through the reconfigured nexus of the financialization of global rentier capitalism: through the low tax regimes of extractivism and through the extraction of rentier income through tax havens.