‘Polarising Development: Alternatives to Neoliberalism and the Crisis’ reviewed by Jim Kow

Reviewed by Jim Kow

About the reviewer

Jim Kow is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at King’s University College in London Canada. …


This book, edited by Lucia Pradella and Thomas Marois, argues for a Marxist approach to development in the context of the recent domination and present crisis of neoliberal economic policies since the early 1970s. We face an economic and political project. Neoliberalism is the source of our current crisis in both the developing and developed worlds; it is a global crisis. Neoliberalism has caused the economic and social polarisation and inequality which constitute the crisis. The writers in this volume wrestle prospectively with the experimental polarising alternatives available. Their reflections express the radical thinking of resistance in Marxist theory and practice, as it is already taking place in current struggles in voice and deed across the world. Consequently, neoliberalism is not a finality economically, socially, and humanly.

The volume commences with an astute introduction, then it is divided into two parts: the first focussing upon “Alternative Themes”, the second on “Alternative Cases.” The editors might have placed two concrete case studies (Chapters 5 and 9) in the section on Alternative Cases. Part One on “Alternative Themes” deals with where we are and where development might be headed; Part Two on “Alternative Cases” is more concrete and specific.

Although this review cannot do justice to all the articles, let me touch on them. Then I will offer some thoughts as we have experienced the irony of history in the latter half of 2016 in Europe, Britain, and the United States. I have some proposals at the end.

From Pradella (Chapter 2) it is clear most people are becoming poorer in both economic and non-economic terms. Poverty means opportunities are being stalled, and indeed aggressively thrust back. Financial access is being concentrated in order to benefit the few (Marois, Chapter 3), workers’ rights are being attacked even in state political economies (Selwyn, Chapter 4), “Development” where it exists is uneven (Saad-Filo, Chapter 6). Despite the decline of the USA, multilateralism and bilateralism speak the voice of business, not workers (Klassen, Chapter 7).

International migration has given rise (in the wake of methodological individualism) to methodological nationalism in reaction to fears of the other stealing jobs and taking advantage of European and American populations (Basso, Chapter 8), while neoliberal policies contribute to poorer environmental conditions for all, especially the most vulnerable – compromised air (the carbon problem), polluted water, and less fertile land (Malm, Chapter 10). How do we provide the goods and services needed in such circumstances? Macdonald has interesting ideas on private and public provisioning (Macdonald, Chapter 11); and to round out the part on “Themes”, Radice reminds us of the needed utopian dimension in trying to engage the world realistically. Nonetheless, I would note that the top four countries hosting more than ten million refugees and migrants are in the developing world: Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Indeed fifty-six percent of refugees and migrants are in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia (not North-East Asia). This immensely complicates the potential of labour’s progress in these regions.

Part Two exposes the reader to cases. Here we deal with diverse specificities and diverse concrete struggles. Note that Part One on “Themes” was an attempt to articulate wide areas of concern. With that theoretical performative deepening, we are now presented with the deep facts of struggle on the ground in many areas of the world. Yes, not all can be covered, but an abundance are. The focus is on Latin America, East Asia, India, and more briefly Africa, and the Arab world (or should I say the Islamic world, with huge Sunni populations in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh?).

Lastly cases of development in the UK and USA are discussed. The book’s section on Cases does not provide much in the way of alternatives to the neoliberal crisis. So I suggest that the cases be read as the initial guiding lights in what will have to become, not merely a wider literature of resistance, but a wider praxis of resistance whose formation from the ground up poses the current challenge to express progressive ideas of alternatives.

Issues of gender and woman’s resistance in Cambodia and Venezuela are addressed. (Margalia and Spronk, Chapter 9). This is complimented by another examination of socialist feminist alternatives against patriarchal capitalism. Here there is room to analyse the role of the family. (Yilmaz, Chapter 21). Lastly, the globalization of production by using cheap female labour in Bangladesh is scrutinized (Smith, Chapter 5).

The Arab Spring has left the indigenous left politically weak. What does democracy mean in a regional, if not Pan Arab, context heavily influenced by autocrats and political religious Islam – all of which are rooted in a tradition of clan and tribal families, criss-crossed by Ishmailies and Sunni-Shia rivalry? (Hanieh, Chapter 20)

It is unfortunate that Africa remains sidelined. Is there another scramble for Africa now weakening the peasantry and the working classes? China is buying up resources. Could it be that the curse of colonialism hangs around in addition to what Fanon thought? (Aye, Chapter 19)

Latin America has served as a laboratory for American economists’ experimentation. This began with the efficient market hypothesis of the “Chicago Boys” (i.e., economists) in Pinochet’s Chile and thence the imposed structural adjustment programs (as also occurred in East Asia in 1997). Still the shadow of America hovers over the import substitution and commodity economies of Latin America. In the last decades destabilizing capital flows into and out of the region have served to weaken national governments.

Another player has emerged: state capitalism. China is the market for Brazilian soy; for Chilean copper; and recently for Mexican oil, and other commodities from other countries. In addition, China has engaged in loans, currency swaps, and credit – all denominated in the Renminbi or Yuan as the basis of payment for Latin America so as to avoid the hegemony of the US Dollar. China is acting in a state capitalist manner here.

Land reform is inadequate; most land is still in the hands of the wealthy. Nevertheless tokens of resistance do erupt. However, substantive land reform appears, at present, out of reach. The demographics of the peasants’ situation make extraparliamentary movements inadequate at present (Weber, Chapter 14). There is further a pre-critical level of consciousness which the coalition requires to combat neoliberalism. Land, not bourgeois property, is crucial for a polarising alternative (Vergara, Chapter 15).

China, in joining the WTO, striving for reserve currency status, and striking trade deals, is being integrated into neoliberalism. China and the Asian Tigers provide us with an ambiguous “alternative” model for development which focuses on the needs and opportunities for the peasant and working classes. Despite passing the Lewis Turning Point many in the rural class in China have been left in a land-trap. Their destiny is to be poor and hence powerless. China is more interested in producing a consumer class than in strengthening the working class (never mind the rural population). Consequently, China is still the global factory in manufacturing for global capitalism or neoliberalism, but is gradually losing that status to Vietnam among others. The real question is whether the Chinese working class has revolutionary potential. Yes there is resistance from those abused by local officials,. e.g. Wukan. Sites of resistance against power flare up daily. For China is following industrialization through provincial authorities, general privatisation, and state-owned enterprises. As an export-dependent economy holding huge US treasury debt, the state is acting on the basis that the working class –which is very fluid – will not have time to solidify to the point of significant self-conscious resistance to the Communist Party.

In Europe resistance to austerity has been vocal. It has been combined with the environmental movement. (Horn, Chapter 22). But for the present resistance increasingly seems to arise from the populist political right rather than from the left. Nonetheless the constancy of the European left is a cause for hope in resisting neoliberalism.

The USA is inward looking (McNally, Chapter 23). Technology is withering the working class more than trade is. This is the globalization of technology for neoliberal goals. It is the area of financial institutions, corporations, small business, and the public service or government sector. It is not a question of either neoliberalism or technology, but the interpenetration of the two. Big business exploits publicly funded state sponsored technological research for private corporate profit. Moreover, in 1990 the big three automobile companies booked $36 billion in revenue while employing a million plus workers; now Apple, Facebook, and Google book one trillion in revenue while employing 137,000 workers. Look at skilled labour and non-skilled labour, and rural skilled and non-skilled labour: capital in our modern societies requires less labour, as technology in the form of robots and advanced software systems replace traditional jobs.

To return to the book: Marois’ article is crucial. We have to understand the inner workings of neoliberalism through the banking and non-banking financial sectors of the economy. The IMF, WTO, World Bank, and Bank of International Settlements are all implicated here with national central banks, the ECB, and PBOC. Against these who are the working class? Manufacturing and factory jobs in the USA employ less than each of construction, retail, financial services, and state employees. The working class is highly diversified, if not fragmented. Yet there is a huge group of service workers who are at the low end of the spectrum. This is where sites of resistance to neoliberal power might be mobilized. A narrative is required to do this.

What the book Polarising Development delicately probes, but does not articulate, is a more explicit form of democratic self-organization in popular movements in the struggle against imperialism and for socialism. We need a rhetoric of diverse socialist alternatives. What are the potentially revolutionary visions? To this end a redefinition of alternatives, class, the working class, and its revolutionary potential, are required. Uneven inequality needs to be mapped out. We are not all equally impoverished. But we are all poor for the waste of human potential that could make our home better for all of us.

Who will be the collective subject of resistance? Can it self-organize in a spontaneous manner? I doubt it. The development which is requisite is the hard process of the development of political culture and of sustainable community institutions.

I would suggest that women and the marginalised (the underemployed) could be the sources for the new collective subject. But there is something one should look closely at: demographics favourable to advancing democracy lie more in the youth of the developing countries than in the advanced economies. We face a demographic polarisation. The question of intergenerational justice will to some degree cut across the radical alternatives to neoliberalism we register on our horizons at present.

Do we need a bourgeois revolution before socialism when the working classes are being drastically reduced in advanced bourgeois economies, and bought off in developing economies? There is room to reconsider the weight of false consciousness. People are persuaded against their own best interests. In the current backlash against globalization they are still embracing their chains.

In regard to the role of subjective agency, there is an inadequate hypothetical model purveyed – the rational expectations individual – but the collective model of agency is blunted by individual idiosyncrasies. Can we take advantage of the incoherencies of neoliberalism and capitalism in their tendency to crises and instability to pose a more humane and economically effective alternative? This may be controversial, but the seeds of this endeavour reside, I propose, in the current crisis of neoliberalism or capitalism in its latest variant of populist alternatives to neoliberalism indigenous to neoliberalism itself, if we are to move forward.

So it is not either/or. Socialist alternatives must critically embrace what is of use in neoliberalism. This is Radice’s “realistic” utopianism. Nationalism is the result of many peoples’ experience of belonging to a group. We ignore this at our peril. The right wing through the distress of the working classes in the USA and Europe has politicized it to their advantage. These people are being taken advantage of. They do not feel they belong to a universal working class, they feel abandoned. The old are disillusioned and the young are indifferent and so frustrated. These are the social categories realistic Marxists need to operate with. Exploitation is uneven objectively, but subjectively, I would propose, for the people concerned it is evenly and deeply felt.

For the collective subject we need to draw upon a cultural sensibility of the individuals and peoples we are trying to learn from in particular cases. Thus the notion of the working class may be too generic a thrust at theoretical universal categoriality. A supersession of neoliberal domination especially in the area of how we think about ourselves beckons us. We have a responsibility to respond. This elegant book tentatively performs that task: it summons to the struggle to do better.

4 January 2017

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