THE ECONOMIST'S PREJUDICE
into " the archaeology of the development idea "
Western self-delusion and mahatma Gandhi
India ever resolve to imitate England, it will be the ruin of
the nation." In 1909, while still in South Africa, Mohandas
Gandhi formulated the conviction upon which he then, over a period
of forty years, fought for the independence of India. Although
he won the fight, the cause was lost. No sooner was independence
achieved than his principle fell into oblivion. Gandhi wanted
to drive the English out of the country in order to allow India
to become more Indian. Nehru, on the other hand, saw independence
as the opportunity to make India more Western. An assassin's bullet
prevented the controversy between the two heroes of the nation
from coming into the open, but the decade-long correspondence
between them clearly demonstrates the issue.
was not won over to technical civilisation with its machines,
engines and factories, because he saw in it a culture which knew
no more sublime end than that of minimising bodily effort and
maximising physical well-being. He could only shrug his shoulders
at such an obsession with gaining comfort; as if a good life could
be built on that ! Didn't India's tradition, undisturbed for thousands
of years, have more substantial things to offer ? Although far
from being a traditionalist on many issues, Gandhi insisted on
a society which, in accordance with Hindu tradition, gave priority
to a spiritual way of life. An English style of industrialism
is out of place wherever "swaraj", the calm freedom
to follow personal truth, is to rule. Gandhi pleaded for a renewal
of the countless villages of India and for a form of progress
to be judged accordingly. In his eyes, India was committed to
an idea of the good and proper life that contradicted the ideals
prevalent in England during the age of automation. For this reason,
a wholesale imitation of the West was simply out of the question;
individual elements should in his mind be adopted only insofar
as they could help give better expression to India's aspirations.
disagreed. He saw no choice other than introducing the young nation
to the achievements of the West as soon as possible and taking
the road toward an economic civilisation. Even in the early days
and in spite of his great admiration for the man, he found Gandhi
"completely unreal" in his vision. Though he intended
to avoid the excesses of capitalism, he still viewed Indian society
primarily as an economy, that is as a society defining itself
in terms of its performance in the provision of goods. From an
economic viewpoint, however, the nature of man, the function of
politics and the character of social reform assume a particular
meaning. People are seen as living in a permanent situation of
scarcity, since they always have less than they desire. The most
noble task of politics is thus to create the conditions for material
wealth; and this in turn requires the reorganisation of society
from a host of locally-based subsistence communities into a nation
thus fostered precisely that Western self-delusion which was also
at the core of the development idea : the essential reality of
a society consists in nothing else than its functional relations
to achieve useful things; the rest is just folklore or private
affair. In this view, the economy overshadows every other reality.
The laws of economy dominate society and not the rules of society
the economy. This is why, whenever development strategists set
their sights on a country, they do not see a society that has
an economy, but a society that is an economy. To take this conquest
of society by the economy for granted is a burden inherited from
19th century Europe which has been passed on to the rest of the
world over the last forty years.
as a matter of secondary importance
a group of Indios who work their fields in the mountains around
Quiche, and seeing the barren ground, the primitive tools and
the scanty yield, one might easily come to the conclusion that
nothing in the world is more important to them than increasing
productivity. Remedies could swiftly be found : better crop rotation,
improved seeds, small machines, privatisation, and anything else
the cookbook of business management might recommend. All this
is not necessarily wrong; however, the economic viewpoint is notoriously
colour blind : it recognises the cost-yield relation with extreme
clarity, but is hardly able to perceive other dimensions of reality.
For example, economists have difficulty in recognising that the
land bestows identity upon the Indios since it represents the
bridge to their ancestors. Likewise, economists often fail to
note the central importance of collective forms of labour, in
which the village community finds visible expression. The outlook
of the Indios is incompatible with that of the economists : neither
land nor work are for them mere production factors waiting to
be optimally combined.
put this in the form of a paradox : not everything that looks
like an economic activity is necessarily a part of economics.
Indeed, economics offer only one of many ways of apprehending
goods-oriented activities and putting them in a larger context.
Obviously, in every society things are produced, distributed and
consumed. But only in modern societies are prices and products,
conditions of ownership and work, predominantly shaped by the
laws of economic efficiency. Elsewhere different rules are valid,
other models prevail.
does not need to cite examples of ancestral beliefs, such as those
held by the Bemba in Zambia, who see a good harvest or a successful
hunting expedition as a gift from their ancestors and thus court
their favour in the hope of higher production. Even the haggling
and chaotic hustle and bustle in the souks of an Arabian medina
have nothing to do with undercutting the competition. Who pursues
which of the many trades is determined by factors of social and
geographical origin as well as by one's allegiance to a Sufi sect.
(And of course by one's sex. Trade is usually a man's job, but
in Haiti, for instance, women have the say in such matters.) Likewise
it is enough to consider the cycles of cultivation practised by
farmers in Maharashtra, which neatly fit into the yearly round
of weddings, festivals and pilgrimages. New methods of cultivation
can soon disrupt this social calendar.
societies that are not built on the compulsion to amass material
wealth, economic activity is also not geared to slick, zippy output.
Rather, economic activities like choosing an occupation, cultivating
the land, or exchanging goods, are understood as ways to enact
that particular social drama in which the members of the community
happen to see themselves as the actors. That drama's story largely
defines what belongs to whom, who produces what and how, and when
what is exchanged with whom. The "economy" is closely
bound up with life and has not been isolated as an autonomous
sphere which might stamp its rules and rhythms on the rest of
society. But in the West the economy alone dictates the drama
where everyone must play his role.
rules of the market, an invention of the West
late as 1744, Zedler's Universal Encyclopedia unwittingly gives
a naive definition of the heading "market": "...
that spacious public place, surrounded by ornate buildings or
enclosed by stands, where at certain times, all kinds of victuals
and other wares are offered for sale; hence the same place is
also called market-place". The market, heralded both as blessing
and as bane over the last two centuries, this powerful idea -
nothing more than a location ! The author of the Encyclopedia
seemed only to be thinking of crowds, stands and baskets. There
is no mention of "market shares", "price fluctuations"
or "equilibrium". His concept of "market"
had practically nothing to do with the familiar concept of today.
Between then and now a far-reaching change has taken place in
the self-image of society.
Smith was the first thinker who, when using the term "market",
no longer envisaged a locally determined outlet for goods, but
that society-wide space throughout which all prices intercommunicate.
The term, which until then had designated a specific place, subsequently
acquired its generalised and abstract meaning : it now refers
to the action of supra-individual equilibrium mechanism.
conceptual innovation was no accident, but mirrored a new social
reality : an economy of national scope. Before then, a domestic
market was not something to be taken for granted; even in Europe
at the end of the 17th century, one could hardly find trade between
different regions of one country ! Of course, from time immemorial,
there has been trade - one need only think of the North German
Hanseatic League or the splendour of Venice - but it was trade
with distant countries, which remained limited to a few cities
as bridgeheads. And, it is true, history knows markets in all
shapes and sizes, but they were precisely local and temporary
places of exchange, mostly between towns and the surrounding country
with prices more a matter of custom.
Adam Smith's century, however, the nation-state had drawn a web
of trade relations over the whole of society and established the
domestic market. Like today's developing countries, the young
states of that time pushed hard to make economic principles prevail
everywhere, be it only to finance their own existence. That was
the birth of the national economy, even on a lexical level. While
the term "economy" had formerly been applied to the
"domestic economy" of the prince, now the whole nation
was transformed into a "political economy". And Smith
became the theoretician of a society governed by the rules of
to the economy ?
transformation of society into a political economy was, of course,
only achieved after a prolonged struggle demanding many sacrifices.
After all, neither how people gained their livelihood or regarded
property, nor their idea of good conduct or their sense of time,
was shaped by a commercial ethos. The merchant was not yet an
entrepreneur, land was not saleable, competition was frowned upon,
usury disreputable, and those who worked for wages lived on the
fringes of society. As a result, the progress of capitalism was
punctuated by bitter disputes about whether and to what extent
land and forest, grain and money, and workers themselves, could
be treated as commodities.
the last decades, similar radical changes have taken place in
large parts of the Third World as economic ideology has tightened
its grip. Traditions of sufficiency have been pushed aside, local
exchange relations dissolved, collective forms of ownership broken
up, and subsistence economies wiped out. For a long time the guiding
light of international development policy was to create societies
of paid workers and consumers everywhere. Experts scrutinised
countries to identify "obstacles to development" which
were hampering the free mobility of "production factors".
No cost was too high, few sacrifices too great to turn societies
into smoothly-running political economies.
any doubt, miracles were thus wrought, and a great tide swept
through the countries of the Southern hemisphere. History has
taken an enormous lap. However, it becomes progressively clear
that a disaster is in the offing. At the very moment the economy
has finally achieved dominion world-wide, social disruptions and
environmental destruction have become rampant. The autocracy of
the economy reveals its menacing head. Societies find themselves
concerned : neither can they afford to surrender to this autocracy,
nor can they escape from it. In fact the economy, during its rise
to the top, has stamped out the alternatives to itself and created
a wasteland for modes to secure a livelihood which are not hazardous
for man and nature. How is it possible to reinvent economic institutions
that allow people to live gracefully without making them prisoners
of the pernicious drive to accumulate ? Maybe there will be more
creative power in the Third World to meet this historical challenge.
Simply because, in spite of everything, many people there still
remember a way of life in which economic performance was not paramount.
(article first published in Interculture,
vol XXIII, 4 ; titles partly ours)
Cultures and Development ", n° 5/6, May 1991.