Colombo Telegraph

Deconstructing Development

By Sumanasiri Liyanage –

Sumanasiri Liyanage

The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants. ~Albert Camus

The Minister for Economic Development in presenting Divineguma Bill to the Parliament tried to portray the government’s effort to economic development as a ‘second war’, the first was the one waged against ‘terrorism’ i.e. the LTTE insurgency. The phrase ‘the war for development’ or ‘the developmental war’ sounds paradoxical. ‘Development’ is generally depicted as something ‘good’ while ‘war’ is portrayed as something essentially bad. Immanuel Wallerstein once remarked: “There is perhaps no social objective that can find as nearly unanimous acceptance today as that of economic development. I doubt that there has been a single government anywhere in the last 30 years that has not asserted it was pursuing this objective, at least for its own country. Everywhere in the world today, what divides left and right, however defined, is not whether or not to develop, but which policies are presumed to offer most hope that this objective will be achieved. We are told that socialism is the road to development. We are told that laissez-faire is the road to development. We are told that a break with tradition is the road to development. We are told that a revitalized tradition is the road to development. We are told that industrialization is the road to development. We are told that increased agricultural productivity is the road to development. We are told that delinking is the road to development. We are told that an increased opening to the world market (export-oriented growth) is the road to development. Above all, we are told that development is possible, if only we do the right thing” (Capitalism and Development edited by Leslie Sklair, London: Routledge). On the other hand, according to A J P Taylor, “wars are much like road accidents’ so ‘they have a general and particular cause at the same time’. Hence, like road accidents, these conflagrations have resulted in tens of millions of deaths and destruction of wealth. In case of Sri Lanka, the first war killed around 100,000 people and made a similar number injured. I am sure the Minister may not have implied that the second war, the so-called war of development, would produce the same outcome even with different trajectories. Hence, in what sense, did he portray the current development effort as a ‘second war’? Do adding one positive and one negative generate something positive? How do we resolve this conundrum? How do we reveal the phrase’s inapproriable difference or repressed other  as that which may yet to come to transform whatever we inherit from the conventional discourse?  This article proposes to look at the notion of development from a different perspective through deconstructing the very notion of development.

Of course one may argue that it is justifiable to equate development with war as the development effort, as in war effort, needs concrete situation analysis, precision planning and timely execution of it. Hence it also requires hierarchical structure and centralized commanding officer caste. I assume that the Minister for Economic Development meant this when he talked about a second war. And his views are visibly reflected in the Divineguma Bill. If development is an objective with unanimous acceptance, can it be equated with a war just because of the above similarities totally negating war’s destructive effects on humankind? Can it be possible to argue that the equation holds partly because of negativity of development? If the answer to this question is in affirmative, the exploring the ‘repressed other’ meaning of development is imperative. Hence the question: why has this ‘other’ meaning been constantly repressed? Economic development and the associated process of modernization in the last three hundred years or so have undoubtedly produced obvious improvements in people’s living standards, educational and health conditions, and transport and communication. As Kaushik Basu noted, “by most counts, the world is a better place today than it was in ancient times” (Beyond Invisible Hand: Groundwork for New Economics, New Delhi, Penguin Books). Of course, these achievements are unevenly spread among different classes and between different regions and countries. However, one may argue that almost everyone received some share of it either directly or indirectly. H. W Arndt made an illuminating observation that the development discourse had undergone a radical change when the concept was used in colonial context. In classical discourse, economy develops; but in colonial context it has to be developed. Hence, in the colonial context, development is posited as a structural transformation of the economy to be brought out by conscious, rational and purposeful action the objective of which has to be an achievement of the standard set up by the developed countries in the West. So the West will show the path the Rest should take. In this sense, economic development is oftentimes defined as a process of catching up of already developed countries and the per capita GNP/GDP is regarded as the target to be achieved by underdeveloped countries. This poses so many questions. Jose Mujica, the President of Uruguay, put this in clear and explicit language in his address to Rio+20 Summit in June 2012. The followings are excerpts from his speech. “We’ve been talking all afternoon about sustainable development to get the masses out of poverty. But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now: what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household than Germans? How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.” He accused most world leaders of having a “blind obsession to achieve growth with consumption, as if the contrary would mean the end of the world” . In my opinion, Mujica who is known as the world’s poorest president (his car is VW beetle 1987 model) has blown up the dominant paradigm of development by revealing the ‘repressed other’ meaning of it to which I will turn presently.

Reflecting on the development process in the world including the development process in the former ‘socialist’ bloc countries in the last three hundred years or so, I would define development as a historically determined social process organized and controlled by a hierarchy of power aiming at a ruthless exploitation of human labour and nature for the purpose of maintaining and advancing the existing structure of power. As a by-product of this process, many positive changes that have often been posited as the fruits of economic development have occurred. Since these positive changes are well recorded, I do not think repeating them here is required. This definition takes us to the repressed other meaning of development. Development is essentially exploitative and a contradictory process. It exploits labour by appropriating and expropriating surplus value and nature by destroying natural resources and disturbing nature’s imminent balance. Hence, war and development cannot be depicted as distant processes. Wars have also produces positive by-products as many new communication innovations were war-related.

When development is defined in this manner as a dialectical process, it cannot be viewed as a process without an end. It has to be stopped at some stage. It is clear, the world economy as a whole has reached this point of exit although many of its constituent countries are yet to reach that stage. In the last decade or so, many economists recognizing the ecological impact of development and continuous growth have argued for the need of adopting a zero growth strategy for economically developed countries. On the other hand ‘occupy wall street’ has focused on the second dimension, ie., exploitation of labour. Although the average per capita income in the USA exceeds $ 40,000 mark, poverty, unemployment and inequality have increased proving that development in itself is not a solution to those miseries. Similarly, the people in many EU countries are today experiencing the cost that they have to pay for economic development. Austerity measures are suggested as a solution to economic crisis those countries are facing. So it seems that the sphere of economy has now become the new battle field in which new wars have to be waged.

*The writer is a co-coordinator of Marx School, Colombo, Kandy and Negombo. e-mail:

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