| Evolutions in Development Thinking & the Rise of a New Politics

How Should We Think About Development?

In the previous post we began to explore the historical roots of development through the concept of Progress. The idea of progress gives us an ideological rational for development. We might summarize the key points of progress (while leaving much out) as:

  • The human race knows more than did our primitive forerunners.
  • If rational thought, building off previous knowledge, can be applied to the human situation, the outcome will be progress and improvement.
  • That because of the first two assumptions, there exists a linear, evolutionary trajectory. This trajectory has been the rational and justification for the treatment of the Other (any peoples and societies who were not equally modern), along with nature, as objects amenable to being disciplined and reformed according to the designs of the modern world.

Of these key points we are inclined to find quite a few faults and will address these in short order. In this next section, however, I want to begin delving into development thinking and its relationship with progress.

In the first section I’m going to give a brief overview of the concept that has broadly driven the historical view of development…that is, development as the imperative of ‘catching up’ to a dominant model. I argue that this continues to be the predominant view of development at the state level (i.e., the interactions between states). This view of development negates the linear, evolutionary trajectory of progress.
–For clarity, I am using Max Weber’s definition of ‘state’, which describes the state as a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.

The second section looks at the rise of modern development thinking. There have always been questions such as, how do you structure society, how do you develop and change to create the best society? Instead of individual thinkers discussing development, we now have an industry that is recognizable for doing work in development. As this industry has witnessed the failures of ‘catching up’, this has led to a broader focus on development as improvement within the state.

I argue that development can thus be seen occurring at two inter-related levels. The first is at the national level, where the question is of catching up, driven by competition between states. The second is within the nation. Hence we see Adam Smith reflecting on the role of development to remove poverty and improve society during the Industrial Revolution. Development within the nation is focused on resolving the failures of progress & the dislocations of catching up. Here current problems such as extreme poverty (typically those living on less than $1 a day) becomes not only a failure of progress, but a symptom of attempting to catch up. It is the combination of these oft-competing imperatives which lead to a multiplicity of responses at various levels (local to global).

Development as Catch Up

As Jan Pieterse (2009) argues, development need not be linear. This is a European-centric, top-down view of history which fails to take into account the multiplicity of global experience.

If we apply a global-historical perspective towards development we find that India and China dominated economically for nearly the past 2000 years (The Economist, August 2010). This included trade routes (both land and sea) stretching from Japan to Africa, and pushing into Europe.

I should note, as Phil McCarty (my former mentor at UCSB) makes clear in his Introduction to Global Studies (2011), that “In telling the story of history from a modern and Western perspective, time and space have been dissected into ever smaller artificial periods and regions. Looking at the rise of the earliest civilizations makes it clear that societies have developed not in isolation but at the crossroads of trade routes, where empires meet and cultures mingle. Global perspectives disrupt the neat categories of our historical narratives and highlight the interconnection between multiple histories, regions, periods, cultures and realms of activity.”

This is true, and we find that it is the mingling of societies which leads to the rise of competition between states. Marco Polo’s exposure of the riches of the East was clearly only one of many triggers, yet remains an illuminating example of what drove the West to attempt to ‘catch up’ to the East. Indeed, other earlier comparisons are equally relevant; any dominant society–Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Huns–drove competition between states as they came into contact. Yet global integration was at an early stage.

A succession of European empires, Portugal, followed by Spain and the Netherlands placed Britain in a ‘catch up’ role, while expanding the globalizing role of conquest.  The industrial revolution in Britain and the resulting laissez-faire capitalist economy forced the ‘catch up’ of other Western and Central European countries, including the “late developed” nations of Germany, the United States and Japan.

In this light, we see development as the creation of a dominant model that must be caught up to. Yet this dominant model is always shifting.  We see this again with the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa), and especially China.  Indeed the shift from West to East is accelerating faster than the original shift from East to West (The Economist, June 2012).

ShiftingWorld_West to East

Dependency Theory & World Systems Analysis are instructive in this respect. Dependency Theory (from Wiki) argues that resources and wealth flow from a “periphery” of poor and underdeveloped states to a “core” of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. It is a central contention of dependency theory that poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the “world system.”

World Systems Analysis (from Wiki) builds upon, but also differs from, Dependency Theory. Immanuel Wallerstein, the leading proponent of World Systems Analysis, argues that while world inequality, the world market, and imperialism are all fundamental features of historical capitalism, core countries do not only exploit poor, periphery countries. Rather capitalists exploit workers in all zones of the capitalist world-economy, and therefore redistribution between states is now “surplus value”, not wealth or resources abstractly conceived by Dependency Theory. During the Industrial Revolution, for example, English capitalists exploited slaves in the cotton zones of the American South, a peripheral region within an emerging core state (the United States).

While having differences, both Dependency Theory and World Systems Analysis show the effects of states ‘not catching up’: domination, exploitation, underdevelopment and unequal development. We find that political and institutional structures: colonialism, imperialism, post-colonialism–and more recently international aid and financial integration (etc.) are useful in explaining how the system has continued to be perpetuated. I should note that William Robinson, building off of World Systems Analysis, points towards the rise of a transnational capitalist class which operates above the state as the main exploiters of ‘surplus value’ and increasingly become the main actors of exploitation. Yet although I see clear trends pointing towards this conclusion, there remains an imperative felt by states to ‘catch up’ and the interaction between states remains a crucial component of determining a states position in the global hierarchy.

To conclude this section, we find that a linear trajectory is inadequate when ‘catching up’ is imperative and driven by war, slavery, and other increasingly sophisticated forms of oppression (which shift in form, not substance). Indeed, if we are to accept Progress as linear, we must accept the reality that conquest and other forms of domination and subjugation are an essential component of a linear trajectory.

In the next post we will explore modern development thinking, which has increasingly become focused on development within the nation.


  1. Kevin Avery Kevin Avery
    March 31, 2013    

    I find it interesting that both of our Master’s theses are approached from a similar contextual attitude. You state that it is the “mingling of societies” that makes the study of development thinking most interesting. In my thesis it was the idea that life is composed of various “scapes” (landscapes, mindscapes, escapes, etc.) and that it is the intersection of these various scapes that prove most fruitful to explore through essays.

    Good stuff. I am interested to see how this blog of yours, um, develops and progresses.

  2. Michael J. Starks Michael J. Starks
    March 31, 2013    

    Kevin, thanks for your reply. Scapes are definitely an important concept in global studies. Check out this summary of an article by Arjun Appadari where he discusses the disjunction between scapes, especially in relation to cultural dimensions. Great stuff. http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.com/2011/05/arjun-appadurai-disjunction-and.html

    The intersections, the grey areas, the areas where things are unclear, or seemingly complicated…where else, as acadmics, could we turn? 🙂 Yet sometimes there is value in making what is clear, known. And that is partially my goal in writing these posts. To challenge people to evaluate their lives, and the world they live in, in new terms…especially since we are living in a transitional period (perhaps as some global studies suggest, an epochal change). Thanks for reading, and I’m just hoping this blog remains sustainable, due to time constraints. 🙂