My browsing brought me today to this article in the Guardian about Colombian thinker Arturo Escobar. Has anyone hear heard of him? Or referred to his work? I'd particularly like to hear Keith Hart and David Graeber's take on him.

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Comment by Nick Jackson on December 22, 2012 at 4:20pm

I agree with Keith.  This is a big topic.  I also agree that James Ferguson does a better job with Foucauldian discourse, in The Anti-Politics Machine, Global Shadows and Culture, Power, Place (with Akhil Gupta).  For critical perspectives on the "post-development" literature, in which Escobar is a major force, I would suggest Arun Agrawal's "Post-Structuralist Approaches to Development: Some Reflections"  Agrawal's article is a bit "old" but the critiques are still quite valid.  Note that Agrawal critiques Ferguson as well.  I would also suggest the introduction to Marc Edelman's Peasants Against Globalization (though the entire book is excellent).

I don't use Escobar's work very much at all.  Instead, besides Edelman's book, I have found Tania Murray Li's The Will to Improve and Suzana Sawyer's Crude Chronicles to offer much more nuanced views of this thing called "global capitalism" as "it" plays out in innumerable localities.

Comment by Keith Hart on December 22, 2012 at 9:19am

This is a big topic, John. I have co-written chapters on development in two books, Economic Anthropology and The Human Economy. The article doesn't mention that Arturo Escobar is an anthropologist. As such he belongs to a long 20th century tradition of anthropologists who deny the reality of global capitalism, a trend I call "Stop the world, I want to get off" which treats exotic rural places in isolation from world history. The timing of the book is imprtant too. It was written in the early 90s and reflects the 1980s, but not what came after.

Where we agree is that the 80s inaugurated a cynical ripoff by western capital (massive transfers through Third World debt, dismantling of the political means of resisting capital flows etc) for which "development" was a cynical discourse of benevolence that disguised an exploitive reality. This was reflected in a Foucauldian discourse analysis which Jim Ferguson did better, showing that development was just talk, and neoliberal economics abandoned any commitment to transformation of poor economies while disguising the politics of what was really going on.

Cowan and Shenton in their book Doctrines of Development argue convincingly that development in the last two centuries has meant two things: how to achieve the capitalist growth that makes countries richer and the sticking plaster that is put on the wounds of the damage that capitalism does to existing societies. Since the 1970s western aid was mainly the second, but the three decades after WW2 saw developmental states everywhere which to some extent were committed to reducing the gap betyween rich and poor, inclduing globally.

The end of the Cold War changed everything: one world capitalism took over, the Russian economy was privatized, the Europeans embarked on their ultimately failed attempt to create a single market, China, India and Brazil emerged as genuine capitalist powers, the internet transformed commerce. In the last decade 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world were African, the others being China, India and Vietnam. After 2008, the western economies went into a tailspin, while growth is still strong elsewhere. Latin America is the most politically dynamic area in the world. The alter-globalization movement that came out of there is flourishing. Revolution stalks the Middle East.The world may be teetering on the brink of war, but Escobar's vision has almost nothing to say about it.

What he has to say does resonate with another powerful trend that reflects the decline of western dominance, particularly in Europe. This is the idea of limits to growth, degrowth or sustainable development linked to perceptions of climate change, resource scarcity and overpopulation. Post-development plays into that constituency which probably includes a fair number of Guardian readers. But the vast majority of poor humanity out there can see what is on offer on TV and they are not ready to tighten their belts. At the 2009 Copenhagen summit, where the US and Europe tried to fix carbon emission levels for the rest of the world lower than their own, the Chinese and Brazilian presidents both made the same joke. Obama was like a rich man who gorges on a private feast, then invites the neighbours in for coffee and asks them to split the bill. All the BRICS rejected the anti-development philosophy of that meeting and were blamed for its failure. In the meantime they are now moving to build the welfare states that provide some social protection for the masses who now participate in capitalist growth, as the West and the communists did after WW2.


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