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Ben SelwynExposing the ‘development’ myth

Ben Selwyn’s book examines the world economic crisis with its escalating inequalities of wealth by asking what we mean by “development” and how its discourse has changed over time.

Review by Susan Jappie

The current world economic crisis has seen the 100 richest people become $241 trillion richer, which, according to Oxfam would be enough to end extreme poverty four times over!

So rather than defining “development” as the “accumulation of capital”, we need an alternative which means the expansion of peoples’ freedom: a new paradigm  beyond capitalism.

In The Global Development Crisis, Benjamin Selwyn acknowledges the challenge to socialism when the initial positive revolutions in Russia and later China, were defeated from without by isolation and from within by Stalin’s (and Mao’s) counter-revolutions.

But Marx still has much to offer on how to change the world, which forms the impetus of this study of development from below rather than from above. He and Engels were already aware of the dangers of the commodification of nature when they wrote in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 about the subjection of nature’s forces to man,  as “the epidemic of over-production”.

The ideology of free market economics, promoted by state leaders such as Bush and Thatcher in the late eighties, as well as the transnationals and international financial institutions, had a purpose. It more than suggested that global capitalism is the source of developmental opportunities and so poverty will evaporate through inclusion in the system.

Trade liberalisation and de-regulation were promoted because economics is seen as a-political; politics is externalised from the model of the markets. Economists defend sweatshop labour as the first rung of the ladder in development, and focus on corruption, conflicts and authoritarian governments rather than investigating capitalism as the generator of  poverty as well as wealth.

Selwyn explores the various approaches of theorists who look at the increasing need for state involvement in post-colonial countries to achieve “catch-up” based on the exploitation of labour.

He also considers Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction”, which sees capitalism as a system of disruption, crisis and transformation through competition, leading to a few entrepreneurs seizing the lion’s share of profits.

But he too excluded class relations in his hierarchical model and focused on national rather than international analysis, whereas Marx sees the domination of global markets through the control of commodity chains, which can be vulnerable to workers’ disruption of production.

More radical theorists like Karl Polanyi and Amaryta Sen, both challenge the others by understanding development as “human” and based on mutual respect. Sen sees the economic growth model as involving the oppression of most of society by states and firms, but neither agree with Marx’s theory of exploitation, and stick to elite conceptions of development. According to Selwyn, it is only Marx and Trotsky who see workers as the source of a way forward.

Towards the end of the book, there are examples of recent challenges from the workers in Venezuela in 2010 over their rights; and in Bolivia, when commodification of nature went one step too far with the privatization of water and gas, leading to the successful gas and water wars and the subsequent socialist regime under Evo Morales.

Argentina experienced a series of workers’ assemblies which took over factories and successfully ran them as co-operatives. He also includes the recent protests and uprisings across the world, shifting from Tahrir Square in Egypt to many other countries.
Selwyn finishes with questions about “how far the political economy of labour can be extended against capital before it supersedes it? and what forms of human development would arise from such a transformation?”. This is a stimulating book although it requires a great deal of concentration to acquire the specialist language such as “hyperbabbagization”!

20 March 2014

The Global Development Crisis. Ben Selwyn. Polity Press. £16.99

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