The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

"Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism" (2018) by Slobodian (Harvard Press) is a detailed history of the people and ideas neoliberalism, and the institutions they created. The book is historical and delved into the deep end. One reflection, which is somewhat counter intuitive, is that neoliberals are not opposed to government or regulation, just certain types. In fact, they are very pro certain types of governance / law / regulation, such as protecting private capital internationally (which requires clear and strong international law). A few quotes:

"If we place too much emphasis on the category of market fundamentalism, we will fail to notice that the real focus of neoliberal proposals is not on the market per se but on redesigning states, laws, and other institutions to protect the market." (p. 6)

"Hayek himself was explicit that the international power needed "an authority capable of enforcing [the] rules." Although after the war Hayek swerved away from engagement with international order, other neoliberals did not. As we will see, neoliberals argued against adding social and economic rights to the basic list of negative rights, even as they made the case for economic rights of their own - above all, the right to keep foreign investment safe and to move capital freely over borders. Like Hayek, they focused on the expropriation of foreign-owned property and controls on capital movements as being the central violations of rights. They would help design institutions that would safeguard the "negative rights" of freedom from expropriation and capital control." (p. 123)

"Other neoliberal thinkers downplayed the centrality of culture and race after 1945, but Ropke insisted on its importance. "Racial fanaticism," he wrote in 1965, "does not justify denying that there is something called ethnos, race, and it is elementary importance." The literature he footnoted was stark in its hierarchical biological essentialism. Among his recommendations for the field of "ethnopsychology" was a study that concluded that "mental capacity tends to be adequate among peoples and races adjusted to cold and temperate climates but inadequate among those adjusted to hot climates" and warned of "lethal power in the hands of nation-states dominated by populations incapable of rational thought." At a time when biological race was being either marginalized or recorded for many of the social sciences, Ropke brought it to the center of his analysis." (p. 157)

"Scholars often use overly broad characterizations of Global South countries as adherents to the ideology of dependency theory, which supposedly privileged the protection of infant industry above all else to diversify the economy. In that narration, the exceptions are those countries with especially close ties to the United States - Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea - whose export-oriented industrialization models are usually seen as prefiguring the direction in which development would go once the third world snapped out of its dependency-theory-driven delusions. Looking at the response to the Haberler Report, one sees that the truth is less black-and-white. In fact, developing countries were advocates of both protection and liberalization at the same time. They followed a policy of "both-and" rather than "either-or"." (p. 202) 


The Ghost Map

"The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World" (2006) by Steven Johnson is the story of cholera in Victorian London and how germ theory emerged. The book is well written, conveyed through the key figures involved, and enjoyable. The author weaves in the macro and with the micro, such as urbanization, and towards the end speaks of germ warfare (amongst other threats). Not an academic work, an interesting read during a time of pandemic.

One random note on the connection between diet and change: "The dramatic increase of people available to populate the new urban spaces of the Industrial Age may have had one other cause: tea [amongst others mentioned]. The population growth during the first half of the eighteenth century neatly coincided with the mass adoption of tea as the de facto national beverage... Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases: the tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that haven't already perished during the boiling of the water. The explosion of tea drinking in the late 1700s was, from the bateria's point of view, a microbial holocaust. Physicians observed a dramatic drop in dysentry and child mortality during the period." (p. 94-95) 


Philosophy and African Development

Earlier I posted about a CODESRIA book on methodology, in the same year (2011) CODESRIA also published the book "Philosophy and African Development: Theory and Practice", edited by Lansana Keita. As with the other volume, there are amazing contributors and contributions. The text was largely published earlier, as a 2004 journal issue, however most remains relevant. The chapter topics range quite widely: religion, human rights, Fanon, culture, coloniality, decolonization, education, globalization. This is a book that should be widely shared, and adopted within relevant areas of study particularly within African universities. The book is available online here


Elections and Development in Africa

What does democracy / democratization result in within African contexts? Robin Harding argues that due to the increase of elections, combined with a majority of many countries being rural, is an increase in rural interests as an outcome. The answer is summarized in his 2020 book "Rural Democracy: Elections and Development in Africa", which is part of Oxford's series on African Politics & International Relations. The book draws on doctoral work, with research done in Botswana and Ghana (which have case study chapters). This is a brief book of 169 pages, but makes a clear and compelling case for the this rural interest process as one influence on elections as well as outcomes of elections. I began the book skeptical, and probably shared some of the biases of the literature that focus on ethnicity and clientelism (interestingly, the countries I have more experience with are mostly not included in the 28 countries included in the sample). I would have liked to see some discussion on governance systems (Nigeria and South Africa, included in the sample, are federal; and South Africa is an outlier; in these contexts the expression of rural interests may differ. Would have also liked to see this tested not only in improvements of outcomes, but in actual expenditures. Could further strengthen the case, in both instances. Well worth a read (fortunately a paperback version makes the book somewhat more accessible to those beyond the gated walls of privileged academia - Oxford sells the hardback for $155!). Very short summary by the author is here.

From the start: "Elections are a powerful thing, but they are not a panacea. Despite being a means to peacefully manage conflict, they remain inherently conflictual, creating winners and losers out of those with competing interests and ideals. In light of this recognition, this book is in part an attempt to understand who has benefited from democratic electoral competition in sub-Saharan Africa, and why." (p. vii)

"Urbanites across Africa are unhappy with their governments. Evidence from public opinion data demonstrates this clearly; urbanites are significantly and substantially less likely to support incumbents, and more likely to express dissatisfaction with democracy itself. While there are likely multiple facets to any explanation for this situation, it is not merely the result of structural factors, because these differences transcend demographic variations, and differential access to information. My argument in this book is that the large residual differences, those unexplained by structural factors, result from the differential experiences of urban and rural residents with regard to government policy choices. Put simply, urbanites sense that they are getting a raw deal." (p. 54-55) 


Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education

In 2015 a symposium was held at the University of Regina on "Public Engagement and the Politics of Evidence in an Age of Neoliberalism and Audit Culture", which went on to be the basis of the book "Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education", published in 2018 by the University of Regina Press. The book is edited by Marc Spooner and James McNinch. I share many of the concerns raised in the chapters, and have written about some of them myself. Rather than share a few quotes, as I typically do, I will reflect on some of the tensions that emerge when reading this book. Before moving to those tensions, this book is quite North America centric, and as I read this in Ethiopia in 2022 the situation is partly similar but also notably different (so, the title might be better specified about particular types of higher education).

  • One tension concerns freedoms: it is suggested that the "Right" should not be free to speak and hold events (we should protest against this), but the "Left" needs to vigorously defend its freedom to do so. One author described this as "playing both sides of the free speech fence", but is a tension that exists between chapters (and between examples used within chapters).
  • Similarly, the university should be a site for organizing (as a primary function), but not be a space where the "Right" is allowed to organize, which should be resisted.
  • Social media is a positive way to engage new audiences and activism, and is negative as an intrusion into the personal lives of faculty that make academic freedom more fragile.
  • Research should have positive impacts on well-being and improve society (and we should know that our work is enabling positive change), but the orientation of research toward impact or attempts to assess impact are negative aspects of a burdensome neoliberal audit culture.
  • The university should be public and for the public good, embodying the values of good governance, but transparency of the university institution to the public (and the processes that would do that) are bad (e.g., making course outlines available to the public).
  • Many actors in society (corporations, political parties, lobbyists) are acting unethically and there is a need for oversight and regulation, but researchers see ethical regulation of themselves as negative, burdensome audit culture.
  • Governments should be accountable to the public, including being able to access data such as via Freedom of Information Requests, but government-funded public universities and their employees should not be subject to these same accountability processes (viewed as intrusions into academic freedom).
  • Good policy should be thoroughly assessed and evaluated, but research and teaching should not be thoroughly assessed and evaluated (the standardizations that result from assessing large institutions in particular, with no proposed alternatives).
  • Tenure processes entrench privilege such that some people disproportionately retain positions of power, but tenure must be protected as the neoliberal university erodes tenure and expands contract-based teaching.

Not all of these tensions are mutually exclusive. I raise them as interesting questions that the book largely does not explore, but ones that need to grappled with. 


Measuring Tomorrow

There are piles of critiques of economic indicators driving decision making, and a range of proposals for alternatives. In 2018 Eloi Laurent published "Measuring Tomorrow: Accounting for Well-Being, Resilience, and Sustainability in the Twenty-First Century", which proposes new metrics. The book gives concrete examples of metrics and existing data sets - for those interested in this subject, this is a great introduction.

"The starting point of this book is therefore that, contrary to their etymology, data are the product of values, which in turn influence human attitudes and behaviors via policy when they become indicators by the combined action of scholars and policy makers." (p. 1)

"What happened to economic analysis to make all these key insights largely forgotten for so long? The shift away from well-being and sustainability happened in two crucial steps. First, at the beginning of the twentieth century, economists decided to divorce their study from philosophy – or, more precisely, from ethics – and make it a science of efficiency, modeled on physics… Then, after the Second World War, it purported to become the science of growth. Both metamorphoses were symbolized by a single indicator: gross domestic product." (p. 5).

"…trust is the bedrock of economic activities: without it, no bank, no business, no government can long remain, let alone prosper. Trust reduces the uncertainty inherent in human behavior, turning it into acceptable or unacceptable risk… To measure trust, it is important first to define its different forms. There are essentially three of these: trust in institutions or organizations (which is by far the most important in contemporary societies), trust between people, and finally the problematic notion of "trust in the future," widely used in economic forecasting." (p. 88-89)

"We should therefore not confuse different dimensions of trust with one another, especially what political scientists Pascal Perrineau calls "vertical trust" (e.g., trust in institutions) and "horizontal trust" (e.g., trust between people)." (p. 94)

"The challenge posed to developed countries is that, yes, they are often more advanced in terms of good environmental practices on their own soil, but in so doing they are only paying attention to part of their environmental footprint, one that is visible and directly under their control. As their level of economic development increases, countries reduce the levels of natural resource extraction in their own territory but do not reduce their consumption of natural resources. Instead they outsource the environmental damage caused by their economic development to countries that are willing to pay the environmental costs in exchange for pay. But this cost is often paid by the poorest people who see little of the actual money." (p. 115)

"We have thus arrived, before concluding this book, at an interesting paradox. If sustainability is best measured globally, resilience and well-being are best assessed locally." (p. 189) 


Readings in Methodology – African Perspectives

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), based in Dakar, Senegal, has produced some excellent books and journals. One example of this is "Readings in Methodology – African Perspectives", published in 2011, and edited by Jean-Bernard Ouedraogo and Carlos Cardoso. The book has five parts: (1) social reasons for scientific practice, (2) logics of discovery, (3) contextual determinations, (4) tools for investigation, and (5) writing and research. The collection is 272 pages and has 13 chapters.

The book is available online here.

I quote from Chapter 2, by Jean-Bernard Ouédraogo and Pierre Bouda, to provide a glimpse into the collection.

"African intellectual activity thus appears to be something like a market of second hand or recycled goods. Conceptual objects are seldom new when they are imported and they are hardly ever invented here. To add some credibility to a social activity with staged intentions, this practical system adopts a rigid methodology as a way of fighting against academic theorisation. From the ordinary viewpoint, this asks too many questions without getting many answers. We need answers, even wrong answers – expert investigation will look for the error. But the heuristic power of this domain is extremely limited, in many cases, by the constraint of a methodological monism, which blocks the discovery of anything original and imposes an ideology of local demand that is supposed to be authentic, sacred but still prefabricated. In the background, one can detect the implementation of a modernist model, which is based on a bipolar and static perception, expressed in terms of what is 'modern' and what is 'archaic'. The calm application of these approaches leads to a sterilisation of the scientific approach. But for us, the question is still one of defining the way in which knowledge of the social world can contribute to the development of collective well being." (p. 23)

"Epistemological prejudices affect both methodology and areas of investigation. The wise observer of the African research world soon learns an almost systematic and one-sided definition of research themes that are 'interesting' for wealthy sponsors, for 'experts' and for international organisations. These organisations and 'partners' constantly interfere to define a hierarchisation of problematics, which often has nothing to do with the concerns of researchers themselves and even less to do with any local perspective of building up and using information. In this situation, the African researcher is reduced to being nothing more than a collector of 'facts'1 on the ground, for the 'partner from the north' to analyse and to write in a language that is suitable for such raw material. This skill moves further and further away from the spirit of discovery, and its arrangements are made in accordance with market forces. One cannot say often enough that the symbolic benefit of academic recognition is devalued in favour of the doubtful advantages of acquiring material possessions" (p. 26)

"The African researcher, either as a happy clown or as a sad and obstinate Prometheus, painfully tries to master the dilemma that overwhelms him and to refuse to retire into internal exile or to deny his own identity." (p. 29)


Agroecology - Science & Politics

If you are looking for an introduction to agroecology and/or a textbook for a course on sustainable agriculture, "Agroecology: Science and Politics" (2017) by Rosset and Altieri is it. This book is written by leading experts, activists, and advocates (which motivates the book), for students this might be read in combination with a parallel book offering a different perspective for comparative purposes. As a stand alone book it is also excellent, concise (for a topic that could be complicated), and readable at 146 pages. Chapters cover the principles, history, current directions, evidence, examples of scaling, and politics. Examples given are concrete, with references for follow up and deeper engagement. A key point that the authors make throughout is that agroecology is political. Very useful introductory book. One of the authors has put the book online here.

A few notes:

"Agroecology combines indigenous knowledge systems about soils, plants and so on with disciplines from modern ecological and agricultural science. By promoting a dialogue of wisdoms and integrating elements of modern science and ethno-science, a series of principles emerge, which when applied in a particular region take different technological forms depending on the socio-economic, cultural and environmental context." (p. 9)

"Most analysts today agree that increasing food production will be a necessary but not a sufficient condition to prevent future hunger around the world. Hunger results from underlying inequities in the dominant capitalist system that deprive poor people of economic opportunity, access to food and land and other resources vital for a secure livelihood (Lappé, Collins and Rosset 1998). Focusing narrowly on increasing food production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy food or have access to seeds, water and land to produce it." (p. 68)

"While most agroecology research to date has emphasized natural science, these results point to the need to prioritize social science approaches and self-study by rural movements, to draw systematic lessons from their successful experiences. This can produce the information and principles needed to design new collective processes." (p. 114) 


Masters of the Pearl

From the many historical books of Qatar, one of the newest is "Masters of the Pearl: A History of Qatar" (2020) by Michael Quentin Morton. The author has written a history of the UAE, oil in the Middle East, Buraimi, his father's life as an oil geologist, and this book on Qatar (where he spent time as a child). Overall, this is a detailed history that is well structured and well written. The author is not an academic and this book is not published by an academic press (publisher: Reaktion Books), most of my issues with this book are because I am reading this book as an academic with an interest in the sources. However, even as a book for the general audience, as a historical work, it seems consistently referencing sources is good practice.

References: The book does list references and has footnotes, but inconsistently. Many historical details are unreferenced, leaving readers guessing the source of information (trying to look back to the last reference or another nearby footnote). This is missing when evidence is directly referred to, for example: "archeological evidence" (p. 61) and "there is evidence..." (p. 61), which don't have references. Or, there are mysterious sources, such as "one Khalifa historian" (p. 22), "one source" (p. 23), and "from the oral tradition" (p. 24), also without references. This makes an interesting book less useful (for those of us wanting to read the original sources).

Colonial terminology: The author unquestionably uses terminology such as "tribal" and "tribes" as well as "pirates" to describe the people of Qatar (apparently the author disagrees with or has not come across alternative, non-colonial perspectives, such as Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi's 1986 book "The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf"). In part, this may be because the author is not a historian by training (a lawyer by profession), where the contextualization and problematization of historical sources would have been a topic of consideration. This relates to the broader framing of the entire book, discussed next.

Colonial lens: The book does not use Arabic sources (or alternatives, such as Turkish or Farsi), and relies heavily on the British colonial record, and thereby privileges the colonial gaze in the telling of history. Western sources are the main reference points (be that maps, names, sources, etc), creating a Eurocentric frame around which history is told. The colonial record is replete with bias (what is included and what is excluded, whose voice is heard and whose is silenced, et cetera). The author does not grapple with this, and largely adopts the colonial gaze as the true and accurate representation of history. This approach is taken even when alternative perspectives do exist, in English, such as Al-Qasimi's book noted above. Amongst the missing books and references is one of the strongest academic books of recent, written by Kamrava in 2013. 


Critical Development Studies: An Introduction

I try to keep an eye out for useful teaching materials, particularly ones that provide unique perspectives on issues that students may not have encountered in their studies (unfortunately many courses are similar ideas/voice on repeat, in various forms). "Critical Development Studies: In Introduction" (2018) by Veltmeyer and Wise is brief (170 pages), easy to read (lots of lists), and accessible (first year undergrad level). While not a "sharp edge" of critical studies per se, it provides a counter narrative to the dominant discourses. The unique offering is (largely) a vantage point from Latin America.

A couple of quotes for insight into the book:

"There are three fundamentally different ways of understanding 'society': as a collection of individuals, each motivated to better themselves or to seek self-advantage; as a system of institutionalised practices that sets rules and limits to the action of individuals; and as a system of overlapping and interconnected social groups with shared experiences and identify which enable them to act collectively in the struggle for social change. The first way of understanding society is widely shared by economists and political scientists in the liberal tradition. For the sake of analysis they see the individuals as rational calculators of self-interest, or as citizens who are equal in their opportunities for self-advancement, and as the fundamental agents of social change. The second and third ways of understanding society and the development process relate to what could be described as the 'sociological perspective'—the view that the problems, experiences and actions both of individuals and nations can and must be related to the potion that they occupy in the broader system, and understood in terms of the way society or the economy is organised and structured." (p. 54)

"From a critical development perspective (that is to say, one that questions neoliberal institutionality and the structural dynamics of capitalism in order to promote development alternatives that benefit the majority of the population), sustainable human development is understood as a social construction process that starts by creating awareness: the need for change, organization and social participation in order to generate a popular power that can then strive for social emancipation. This involves the eschewal of socially alienating relations that deprive people of their merits, destroy the environment, and damage social coexistence." (p. 118) 

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