Capitalism, Alone

In the realm of those interested in inequality, Milanovic and Piketty have been leading intellectual voices in the last decade. A few years ago I wrote about Milanovic's 2016 book on global inequality, this post covers his 2019 book Capitalism, Alone. In general, I think anyone interested in development economics should read this, and fortunately for the rest of us who are not specialists in development economics, this book is written for a broader audiences. A few notes:

"The uncontested dominion of the capitalist mode of production has its counterpart in the similarly uncontested ideological view that money-making not only is respectable but is the most important objective in people's lives, an incentive understood by people from all parts of the world and all classes." (p. 3).

"These gaps result in what I call "citizenship premium" and "citizenship penalty." Citizenship premium … refers to the boost in income one receives simply from being a citizen of a rich country, while citizenship penalty is the reduction in income from being a citizen of a poor country. The value of this premium (or penalty) may be up to five to one or ten to one, even after adjusting for the lower price levels in poorer countries." (p. 129)

"The same role that colonialism played then, more brutally, is played today by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, hundreds of bilateral investment treaties, and other global governance bodies: they are the guardians against nationalization and the abuse of foreign property. In that respect, globalization has created its own governance structure." (p. 148)

"The existence of the welfare state is not, in the longer run, compatible with full-scale globalization that includes the free movement of labor." (p. 156)

"By our long custom of "methodological nationalism," where we essentially study certain phenomena within the confines of a nation, we are led to the position that equality of opportunity seems to apply, and to be studied, only within the nation-state. Global inequality of opportunity is forgotten or ignored. This may have been, philosophically and practically, a reasonable position in the past, when knowledge differences among nations was vague and inequality of opportunity was not addressed even at home. But it may not be a reasonable position now." (p. 159)

"The truth is that we are willingly, even eagerly, participating in commodification because, through long socialization in capitalism, people have become capitalistic calculating machines. We have each become a small center of capitalist production, assigning implicit prices to our time, our emotions, and our family relations." (p. 195)

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Silences in NGO Discourses

Issa G. Shivji is one of East Africa's well-known critical scholars, researchers and professors. Much of his work has appeared in shorter essay form, as opposed to academic articles or books (although he has published several books as well). "Silences in NGO Discourses: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa" (2007) is one of those books, although it is a compilation of two essays. This book might not be readily available at your local bookshop, but fortunately is can be found online. The first essay (Silences in NGO Discourses) is available here. The second essay (Reflections on NGOs in Tanzania) is available here.

Opening quote: "…the transformation from a colonial subject society to a bourgeois society in Africa is incomplete, stunted and distorted. We have the continued domination of imperialism – reproduction of the colonial mode – in a different form, currently labelled globalisation or neoliberalism. Within this context, NGOs are neither a third sector, nor independent of the state. Rather, they are inextricably imbricated in the neoliberal offensive, which follows on the heels of the crisis of the national project. Unless there is awareness on the part of the NGOs of this fundamental moment in the struggle between imperialism and nationalism, they end up playing the role of ideological and organisational foot soldiers of imperialism…"

Assumptions: "I believe I have shown sufficiently that the 'common sense' theoretical assumption of the current period underpinning NGO roles and actions is neoliberalism in the interest of global imperialism. It is fundamentally contrary to the interests of the large majority of the people. Taking for granted the fundamentals of neoliberalism and financial capitalism, or challenging them only piecemeal on specific issues, for example debt, environment or gender discrimination, actually draws the NGOs as protagonists into the imperial project. Brian Murphy argues that many mainstream NGO leaders have internalised assumptions and ways of neo-conservatism, and are convinced that globalisation akin to neoliberalism are inevitable and irreversible." (p. 36-37)

Contextualization: "how can you make poverty history without understanding the history of poverty? We need to know how the poverty of the five billion of this world came about. Even more acutely, we need to know how the filthy wealth of the 500 multinationals or the 225 richest people was created (Peacock 2002). We need to know precisely how this great divide, this unbridgeable chasm, is maintained; how it reproduced itself, and how it is increasingly deepened and widened. We need to ask ourselves: What are the political, social, moral, ideological, economic and cultural mechanisms which produce, reinforce and make such a world not only possible, but seemingly acceptable?" (p. 37-38)

The non-political: "The political sphere is built on the sphere of production, and there is a close relationship between those who command production and those who wield power. Yet the NGO sector, which according to its own proclamations stands for change, accepts the ideological myth that it is the third sector: non-political, not-for-profit, having nothing to do with power or production. This bourgeois mythology mystifies the reality of capitalist production and power, thus contributing to its legitimisation. NGOs by accepting the myth of being non-political contribute to the process of mystification, and therefore objectively side with the status quo, contrary to their expressed stand for change." (p. 41-42)

New directions? "Just as the African people have struggled and opposed structural adjustment in the streets, African intellectuals have critically scrutinised its neoliberal underpinnings and exposed globalisation as a new form of imperialism. African NGOs must creatively appropriate these intellectual insights. They must learn from the actually existing struggles of the people before evangelising on donor-fads of the day: gender, human rights, female genital mutilation, good governance, etc. The educators must first be educated." (p. 45)

NGO business: "We activists are not in the business of brokering power where expediency and compromise rule. Our business is to resist and expose the ugly face of power. We are guided and our work is informed by deeply held human values and causes. It seems to me that consistency of principles and commitment to humanity should inform all our work, thought, activism and advocacy." (p. 59)

Self-reflection: "In 2003 the whole world was shaken to the core and basic human values were cynically challenged when the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. Millions of people all over the world demonstrated and protested in great defiance of this monstrosity – as individuals, as NGO activists, as simple decent human beings. Here in Dar es Salaam, our NGO world was shamefully silent. A small demonstration organised by the university student union attracted a few NGOs and activists. But well-known human rights NGOs and advocates were conspicuous in their absence. The umbrella NGO organisations did not so much as issue a simple statement, either on their own or in solidarity with others. How can we who espouse democratic values of freedom and self-determination explain such silence?" (p. 60)

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Envisioning Power

Anthropologist Eric Wolf (1923-1999) last book, Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Power (1999) is not his most well-known work, but is a book that should be read by those seeking to understand how anthropological studies, and comparative cultural studies, can contribute to our understand of power and politics and their relation to ideas and ideology. Wolf's most well-known book, Europe and the People Without History (1982), will be covered in a future post. The book Envisioning Power offers three in-depth case studies (Kwakiult, Aztec and National Socialists of Germany), and a brief conclusion that summarizes his main conclusions. For those not interested in the detailed case studies, the first two chapters (Introduction and Contested Concepts) as well as the concluding chapter are worthwhile reads. I will not draw upon the case study content, at it is detailed and requires significant context.

As many voices had done during the 80s and 90s, the limitations of disciplinary silos was addressed by Wolf in this work, at a time when interdisciplinary work and programs were becoming more common practice: "I write these lines as an anthropologist, albeit as one who see his discipline as a link in the more encompassing effort of the human sciences to understand and explicate the multiple human conditions" (p. 19). And, later in the book stating that the "anthropologist's task should be neither to exalt nor to condone but to explain" (p. 134). While Wolf's approach tends to take an academic-as-authority approach that has been criticized, such faults do not make the book one not worth reading. Consider reflections on the power of ideas:

  • "One must not forget to ask who is using reason, rationality, logic, and emotional neutrality to do what to whom. As states and enterprises around the worked incorporated Enlightenment appeal to reason to enhance their managerial efficiency, the application of instrumental logic often exacted an exorbitant price… Those charged with dispensing reason can readily tag others as opponents of progress. Down to the present, the protagonists of reason have seen themselves as apostles of modernity. They have advocated industrialization, specialization, secularization, and rational bureaucratic allocation as reasoned options superior to unreasoned reliance on tradition." (p. 25)

And, on the nature of power more explicitly:

  • "Thinking of power in relational terms, rather than as a concentrated "power-pack," has the further advantage that it allows one to see power as an aspect of many kinds of relations. Power works differently in interpersonal relations, in institutional arenas, and on the level of whole societies." (p. 5)
  • "structural power. By this I mean the power manifest in relationships that not only operates within settings and domains but also organizes and orchestrates the settings themselves, and that specifies the direction and distribution of energy flows. In Marxian terms, this refers to the power to deploy and allocate social labor. It is also the modality of power addressed by Michel Foucault when he spoke of "governance," to mean the exercise of "action upon action" (1984, 427-28). These relations of power constitute structure power." (p. 5)

In the concluding remarks Wolf writes:

  • "The three case studies presented in this book revealed societies under increasing stress, facing multiplicity of tensions posed by ecological, social, political, or psychological crises. In each case the response entailed the development of an ideology that Kroeber would have characterized as an "extreme expression." These ideologies, carried forward by elites, were fashioned out of pre-existing cultural materials, but they are not to be understood as disembodied cultural schemata. They addressed the very character of power in society, specifically the power that structured the differentiation, mobilization, and deployment of social labor, and they rooted that power in the nature of the cosmos." (p. 274)

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