Alternative Development or Alternatives to Development – I

Rio + 20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held 22-24 June in Brazil, is over. The Conference did not achieve much. With most of the world, particularly the Global North, preoccupied with the aftermath of the 2008 global financial meltdown, no breakthroughs were expected at Rio- + 20. There was perhaps never a better moment to interrogate the concept of “sustainable development” and the general category of “alternative development.” This is what I plan to do in the next few posts.

First, a word about the current conjuncture: The fog of market fundamentalism and the neoliberal consensus has lifted a bit in the wake of the financial meltdown and the lingering economic crisis. Bond market vigilantes are turning even governments in the Global North into debt-collection agencies on behalf of the global oligarchy of finance capital; a fate until now reserved for the Global South. The purported link between capitalism and democracy appears strained if not severed – note Italy and Greece being run by technocrats appointed by the European Central Bank and cities in the United States resorting to declaring “financial martial law” to facilitate gutting labor contracts. “Capitalism with Asian characteristics” complements “socialism with American characteristics” – read public bailouts of private banks. Technocratic governance displaces political government. While the welfare state follows the fate of the development state towards shrinkage and oblivion, the coercive capacity of states, the capacity and willingness to wage wars both within and without, grows unabated. Ubiquitous austerity measures and structural adjustments are yet again transferring wealth from the poor to the rich both within and between polities. Apparently, the only growth industry today, besides privatized prisons, is the production of liminal spaces and subjects at the margins of legal orders and formal economies. All this unmistakably underscores that mythologies of the “free market” notwithstanding, the concert of the hidden hand of the market and the iron fist of the state is indispensable for capitalism, and that accumulation by dispossession is a basic ontological condition of capitalism rather than just its historical precondition.

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3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    I live in Japan, but I’m not sure what “Capitalism with Asian characteristics” is. Nor what is meant by “Asia.” Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia, are all quite different from each other, and from India, for example. Can you elaborate?

  2. Tayyab Mahmud says:

    My use of the construct “capitalism with Asian characteristics” refers to the combination of private ownership of means of production with centralized state planning particularly by way of an elaborate industrial policy sutured with complimentary monetary, trade, banking and exchange-rate policies. First made famous by Japan and its Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), this model was later taken up by the so-called “Asian Tigers,” particularly, Korea and Taiwan. Today, China takes up important aspects of this model of development.

    Your caution against undifferentiated use of “Asia” and “Asian” is very well-taken!

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks. At least in Japan, certain industrial segments have advanced to the more globalized “capitalism with FU characteristics.” For example, many manufacturers threaten to export more jobs overseas unless the government reduces the corporation tax, liberalizes labor regulations, etc. — and then move jobs overseas anyway, even when the government complies. Some segments that can’t move offshore so easily, such as power companies, have undergone this evolution, too. While they remain close to government ministries — I’ve heard one knowledgeable speaker call TEPCO the “favorite son” of METI (the successor to MITI) — who is doing the planning for whom is less clear these days. TEPCO (known locally as TouDen) recently blamed the then-Prime Minister of Japan for causing “unnecessary confusion” by visiting the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant during the disaster. The Board of another kept him waiting over a weekend while they considered his “request” to shut their nuke down. The centralized state planning model may be quite transitory, not necessarily inherent to any region or country (Communist Party-dominated systems excepted — maybe).