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International development and the potential for change beyond capitalism

Finn Smith speaks to Lucia Pradella and Thomas Marois, editors of Polarising Development, a collection of essays exploring the antagonistic structure of capitalist development

August 17, 2015
7 min read

polarizing-developmentCould you introduce Polarising Development?

Polarising Development is the result of a project started in 2011 with a debate on the theoretical premises of development studies. We realised that 10 years had gone from the height of the alter-globalisation movement and some years from the eruption of the global economic crisis, and yet very little Marxist work had been produced on international alternatives to neoliberalism and the crisis. This has been the main goal of this book, which collects the contributions of more than twenty Marxist scholars from Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

The title of your collection reminded me of Red Pepper’s recent issue, The End of Poverty and Other Development Myths. In this issue Global Justice Now explained that they had changed their name from World Development Movement, in part because ‘development has been co-opted’. Do you think ‘development’ is an adequate term, or is it so synonymous with capitalist growth that it is impossible to deploy for progressive aims?

This is very much where the book sits – that is, in a space of contesting the meaning of development vis-à-vis understandings that seek to preserve and/or re-craft capitalism. To equate development simply with capitalism is too simplistic. That said, we all exist within contemporary forms of capitalist development and so must directly engage this reality. But capitalist development is a contradictory process, which sows the seeds of increasing global interdependence and class power.

Labour and social movements point to the possibility of a different form of social organisation. And yes, we do believe that a different society could lay the premises for a free human development.

You describe the contributors to Polarising Development as ‘Marxian-inspired’ but explain that they do not ascribe to a single, shared vision. What are the unifying characteristics of this inspiration?

The main unifying characteristics are three, closely interrelated. First, we adopt a labour-centred approach, grounding our analysis in an examination of relations of social production and reproduction (these relations govern the lives of the whole working class, including those who are excluded from production, underemployed or in precarious employment).

This approach is an essential premise for questioning the naturalisation of capitalist society, and reflecting about alternatives to it. In our view, actually, one cannot do critical theory any longer without in fact engaging in critical problem solving.

The third thrust is the attempt at developing a global analysis of neoliberalism and its crisis. We are today in a globalised capitalist system, and our alternative ambitions must also be of global scope.

You explain that problems such as poverty and social inequality are exacerbated by neoliberal policies and the economic crisis. However, if we hang on long enough, could there eventually be a positive convergence of living standards?

As you point out, the gist of many of the chapters is exactly that – holding on to neoliberal policies exacerbate poverty, social and international inequality, as well as unequal and exploitative relationships of class, race, and gender. There is little evidence of economic (let alone social) convergence occurring under neoliberalism. Saad-Filho’s chapter shows that predictions of global convergence are exaggerated, while real processes of convergence always derive from heterodox policies and social mobilisations.

Other contributions, including my own (Lucia Pradella), show how the crisis is extending to the Global North conditions of poverty and social exclusion traditionally associated with the South. All contributors agree that improvements in workers’ living and labour conditions always result from their struggle; they are never ‘spontaneous’ outcomes of development.

You detail how a ‘new developmentalism’ has emerged which criticises neoliberal approaches and advocates attempts to stabilise growth and alleviate poverty using, for example, an increased role for the state. However, you explain that this new developmental alternative is also inadequate. Given the current situation, what are the other options?

All advocates of capitalism – Keynesian, new developmentalist and neoliberal – would like us to believe that the solutions to the problems of capitalism rest in different modified and improved forms of capitalism.

In our collection, each of us recognise the potential for change beyond capitalism existing in history and in contemporary struggles. For example, McDonald presents how struggles for public services redefine the meaning itself of publicness, Sarah Miraglia and Susan Spronk investigate the gendered dimension of the Bolivarian movement in Latin America, I (Thomas Marois) point to the past and present potential of public banks.

Recognising potential alternative practices, institutions, and relationships that exist today is not to pretend these exist outside the powerful structural context of neoliberal or new developmental capitalism. We point to these examples because they hold some elements or seeds of a substantive societal alternative, of a possible really existing utopia, as Radice sees it. Various contributors point to the limits of new developmentalism itself, and reflect on how to develop an anti-capitalist agenda.

You stress that ‘the struggle to break with neoliberal capitalism necessarily begins within the historical confines of neoliberalism’. What does this mean for those concerned with improving living standards whilst negotiating daily life under neoliberal conditions?

As you see in the collection the issues tackled and cases explored are heterogeneous. We did not try and graft a single notion on to these. But we did agree that we had to begin with the here and now, and that labour and social struggles will take many different forms therein.

For example, while Leandro Vergara Camus explores the MST and Zapatista movements, Andreas Malm discusses alternatives to climate change, and Angela Wigger and Laura Horn the prospects of anti-austerity struggles in the EU, other contributors investigate the challenges facing labour movements in China, India and Bangladesh, the new phase opened up by the Arab uprisings and the post-Marikana conjuncture in Africa.

By analysing these and other existing struggles, we have tried to provide an analytical framework within which a strategy of change can be shaped. The main points emerging are: that workers have a leading role in building local, national and international movements oriented toward structural transformation; that women’s agency is central in challenging the gendered inequalities of social production and reproduction; the centrality of the struggle to renew and democratise the public sector; and the intimate tie between environmental, workers’ and women’s struggles and aspirations.

Given uneven development, there are a wide range of different struggles being fought globally in response to varying circumstances and material conditions. In light of this apparent fragmentation, is there any hope for global solidarity?

The problem isn’t that there are diverse struggles. The issue is to find unity in struggle, power in collaboration, and concrete solutions that address immediate and long-term threats to the social reproduction of the vast majority of people in this world in ways that overcome structural barriers like class, race, and gender oppression.

Global solidarity is not something that is ‘imported’ into the movements from the outside, it emerges as a necessity in everyday struggles – and since processes of international production restructuring and migration are making workers’ labour and living conditions more and more interconnected, this is even more the case. Capitalist restructuring is increasing the potential power of increasingly ‘multinational’ working classes, as the examples of immigrant workers’ struggles in the US and Europe discussed by David MacNally and Pietro Basso show.

Opposing imperialism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression thus becomes central for this potential power to realise itself. We know this is not easy, but, among all setbacks and retreats, we do see some signs of a confluence of social upheaval internationally. Our message is to get prepared. Much more work needs to be done to excavate and build existing and possible alternatives.

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