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Beyond elitism: towards labour-centred development

There is a fundamental paradox in development as currently conceived. The poor are forced to partake in an economic system that is based upon their exploitation and oppression. The way neo liberal and statist thinking gets round this paradox is to see these exploitative relations as developmental opportunities rather than impositions. 

Benjamin Selwyn
25 January 2014

It is increasingly en vogue for development processes to be packaged neatly – first the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), then the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt and Turkey), and now the MINTS (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) have been held up as representing new hope for the world’s poor. It seems that emerging economies are queuing up at the door of the world economy to enter the development club. In these portrayals, development is a process predicated upon rapid economic growth and increased global competitiveness, which in turn benefit these countries’ populations.

The above-mentioned countries have experienced their rapid economic growth through combinations of market orientation and state actions. The two predominant conceptions of development – free market neo liberalism and statist political economy - rest upon the same assumptions about the world’s poor. They are poor because they are excluded from the benefits of the market system. They require incorporation into that system through employment within competitive economic sectors. Primary development actors are (combinations of) states and entrepreneurs who incorporate the poor into the economy. The poor are the objects of development, and elite actors are the subjects. Development is undertaken by the minority for the majority.

Conceiving of development in this way gives rise, however, to a fundamental paradox. The poor are to be forced to partake in an economic system that is based upon their exploitation and oppression. The way neo liberal and statist thinking gets round this paradox is to conceive of these exploitative and oppressive relations as developmental opportunities rather than impositions.

The first large-scale neo liberal development experiment was carried out in Chile under General Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship. One of neo liberalism’s founding fathers, Friedrich Hayek wrote how: “I have not been able to find a single person even in much-maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under [deposed former president] Allende”.

Perhaps the most impressive examples of statist catch-up development is South Korea, which, between the 1960’s and 1980’s transformed itself from an overwhelmingly agrarian economy to a dynamic industrial one. This transformation was based upon mass labour-repression and exploitation - active trade unionists were sent to concentration camps, workers were subject to one of the world’s longest working weeks, and women experienced a strict and deleterious gender hierarchy.

Contemporary China, a hybrid of dynamic state and market-led development is much lauded by neo liberals and statist political economists alike for its rapid economic growth.  The burgeoning Chinese labouring class is denied any democracy and subject to a life-threatening labour regime, as illustrated by the suicides at Foxconn and other high-tech factories.

Is there an alternative to these kinds of elite-led, exploitative development strategies? In The Global Development Crisis I advocate the concept of ‘labour-centred development’. Here the struggles of labouring classes are analytically and politically prioritised as generating bottom-up forms of human development. This conception escapes the subject-object paradox that characterises statist and market-centred conceptions of development, because the poor are their own agents of change.

In the 1970s and 1980s mass social union movements in South Africa, Brazil and South Korea toppled the former apartheid regime and latter dictatorships. These movements achieved improvements in pay and conditions for workers, and gave rise to democratic political systems. In contemporary China, an ongoing wave of strikes and mass protests has won concessions from local and international capital and has forced the Chinese state to implement, in 2008, new labour laws that have created some small, but nevertheless real, improvements to workers’ conditions. In Brazil, the landless labourers movement has, through its strategy of land-invasion and occupation, gained access to land for over 350,000 families. In Argentina, following the economic collapse in the early 2000s, hundreds of factories were taken over by workers, who rather than face redundancy, occupied and managed their workplaces, in the process generating employment and raising wages. The rise of relatively progressive governments across Latin America over the last decade and a half has been propelled by mass movements from below, demanding alternatives to neo liberalism.

In all of these examples, labouring classes have sought, and succeeded in various ways, to achieve their own human development, rather than rely on political and economic elites. It is time to reconsider our often elite-based comprehension of development, and to enquire into how the poor can transform their own livelihoods for the better. 

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