And the winner is… Developmentalism!

  • July 24, 2023

While it has become fashionable to speak of “inclusive development” or “alternative development”, we must expose the exclusivist nature of development and provoke thinking for an “alternative to development”, writes Nilanjan Dutta.


It’s monsoon time and as the rains are lashing many parts of the country, umbrellas are in high demand. The same applies to the political arena as the parliamentary elections are due in a few months and forming coalition governments has become almost a norm in India. In this crucial time, it is quite an event that as many as 26 Opposition parties from across the country have huddled under a common umbrella. These parties, ranging from crass populists to ‘Marxist-Leninists’, have agreed upon a name for their conglomerate. It is ‘Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance’. The two-day Opposition conclave in Bengaluru also found a smart acronym for the name: INDIA, presumably to project an impression that the whole nation was behind them.


Not willing to fall behind, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) immediately gathered 38 parties in Delhi, Addressing the meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi endowed the initials NDA with a new meaning:

N means New India
D means Developed Nation
A means Aspirations of the people


So, this coalition promised to fulfil the ‘aspiration of the people’ by making the ‘new India’ a ‘developed nation’.


It cannot be predicted now how the NDA versus INDIA contest will culminate at next year’s elections. However, one thing is evident — though largely overlooked by commentators — that even before we hear the voting machines beep, it is one ideology that has won over the ruling as well as the Opposition sides. It is developmentalism, the mantra chanted and propagated by the capitalists the world over during the last few decades. Both the blocs have taken pains to inscribe ‘development’ in their names, assuring the masters of the capitalist universe that it will be a win-win situation for them: whoever forms the government will not deviate from the path of ‘development’.


We must iterate at this point that here we are not dealing with development as a generic term, which implies an improvement in the quality of life of the common people, but with ‘development’ as a brand name, given to an ideology promoted by the modern bourgeois state that it wants the people to imbibe in its own interest. In order to be successful in the promotion of this brand, it plays upon the generic sense from which it is in fact totally divorced.


From this perspective, I am tempted to share what I wrote in a piece titled ‘Towards an anti-development manifesto for the anthology ‘Beyond Developmentalism’ edited by me in 2010.


Kalingnagar and Nandigram have done to “development” what Haymarket had done to capitalism in its heyday – splatter some blood on its pristine white robe. Bloodshed is always as undesirable as it can be, but it was historically necessary. But for this blood branding, many of us would not have been able to see development in its devilish best.


There has not been an act of deception more cunning than the use of this D-word (other than the use of the word ‘science’, perhaps) in the whole course of human civilisation. There has not been a concept more confusing. For the last six decades, it has been used by the capitalist political economists and economic politicians to mean various things, playing artfully on a fundamental part of human psychology – the “aspiration to happiness”.


Initially, we had been told that development was an act of uplifting – the raising of the standard of living of the people of the ex-colonies and the newly independent countries. The latter, it was said, were ‘underdeveloped’ and needed to become ‘developed’. Without admitting that their present state was due to capitalist exploitation under the colonial regime, they were asked to follow the capitalist path in order to attain upward mobility. Since the post-Second World War peoples’ upsurges, the pursuit of development was projected as the ultimate goal of humankind in order to put the production of underdevelopment completely out of sight.


But underdevelopment refused to go away. It bounced back to provoke the world-wide wave of militant struggles against the established order during the late 1960s and the early part of the following decade. This wave of rebellion was suppressed by a combination of brutality and guile by the united forces of capital from the centre to the periphery of the system. To prevent its recurrence, the energy of the youth, who proved to be potentially the most dangerous agents of spreading the fire of rebellion against the capitalist order during these tumultuous years, were sought to be diverted to the rat-race of self-fulfilment. Similarly, development was now portrayed as an act of competition. As if the ‘underdeveloped’ countries, rechristened as ‘less developed’, were competing with the ‘developed’ ones in a level playing field. Inequality was only a difference in the degree of acquisition and consumption of wealth. Anybody, we were told, could win this competition. Being in the race was the only point.


Capitalism, as a system, was competing in another event at the same time – the race with the so-called socialist system which gave primacy to planning and the role of the state in economic activities. With the disintegration of the ‘socialist bloc’ and the Chinese “miracle”, it could claim the victory stand.


Here also, development had a distinguished role to play. Because of several factors, it had a fatal attraction for the Left, or the socialists, who had once set out in search of an alternative world order. First, a wrong reading of Marxism led them to arrive at the conclusion that industrial development alone could strengthen the working class physically as well as morally. The ‘development of productive forces’ had become almost a fetish. And, in pursuing this goal, they ignored the degradation of democracy within the ranks of the working people, just as they ignored the degradation of the environment. Second, a dogmatic application of the logic of the defence of the ‘Socialist Fatherland’ (read, in the case of West Bengal for example, any territory where “we” are holding the government) and the missionary zeal to take it ahead in competition with the ‘capitalist world’ (read, in this case, the other Indian states where the “bourgeois parties” are in power). Third, the lure of globalisation and the “success” of China (“It is good to be rich”, after all). And fourth, the overwhelming pressure of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor after the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite economies.


So, labour was advised to lie low in the interest of development; ironically, “in the interest of the working class” itself. And for about two decades now, locking out a factory and reopening it has become entirely the prerogative of the owners almost everywhere. Thus, they have been able to shift the burden of their own shortcomings, such as the lack of initiative, lack of market, lack of appropriate technological inputs and diversification, etc., on the workers and get away without any legal action on the part of the government. This has created a psychosis of fear and frustration among the workers that whenever a factory is reopened, often under new owners, or a new one is set up, they are forced to accept almost any condition including reduced pay, increased workload or working hours, deprivation of elementary facilities and forgoing of their statutory dues.


Thus, the erstwhile firebrand “vanguards” of the working class transformed themselves into not only advocates of peaceful coexistence with capital, but also practising neoliberals. And capitalists now began to tout about development as an act of survival. Develop or perish – that became the anthem of the new world order in the age of ‘globalisation’.


We must see through this design and clearly view development as neoliberal capitalism’s most refined art of class warfare. Indeed, sparks of people’s movements around the world – from the Chiapas to Chhattisgarh, from Genoa to Gurgaon – are helping us to have this vision. But these movements have so far remained localised and sporadic. While spontaneity has been their strength in the sense that these cannot be easily “controlled” from above by political “leaders” to suit their narrow interests, this has been the source of their weakness, too. For, they have lacked the kind of organisation, planning and networking that is needed to counter the forces they are up against. On the other hand, all the established political parties, whether on the Left or on the Right, seem to have evolved a consensus that ‘development’, as dictated by capitalist globalisation, is necessary, though some of them suggest it must have a “human face”. As a result, there is hardly any challenge to the fundamental tenets of the overall model of ‘development’. Everyone who opposes a particular project also seems almost duty-bound to add the refrain: “We are not against development though”. So, the path of the bulldozers has not been much thorny in most of the cases. Yet, it is in these small independent people’s movements that one may seek to discern the seeds of a potent option for the future.


Almost a decade ago, the late radical economist Ajit Narayan Basu, in a not too widely circulated thesis entitled ‘Towards understanding the economics and politics of Indian development (a draft for discussion)’, had called for a “basic transition from ‘development’ to ‘re-constructing’”. His viewpoint, though based on a local perspective, can be the starting node of our ‘rethinking development’ on more general terms. Basu identified the points of distinction between the two as follows:


  1. While ‘development’ meant some improvement within the already-existing socio-economic-political system, ‘re-structuring’ visualised the crucial need for basically altering the whole of the present system.


  1. While ‘development’ depended on investment of capital, the main force for ‘restructuring’ the economy was full utilisation of the joyous labour of the society, on the existing (including required modification of) physical means of production. The basis of ‘restructuring’ would be ownership and management of the total means of production, including land, by the workers. This would make possible, full view of the existing (huge) idle labour-time and also removal of alienation of the current wage slaves. This would make available to the society a substantive new, sustainable, eco-friendly and self-reliant productive force for the new economic system.


  1. While the motive force for ‘development’ had to be profit for the owner of capital, in a ‘re-structured’ society the motive force for going ahead would be, how best to satisfy the felt (short and long-term) needs of the people in a sustainable fashion.


  1. In ‘development’, the de-centralisation had to be invoked mainly to consolidate the hegemony of the state, by extending the long arm of the centre to the grass-root level, making local development dependent on central resources, governmental or commercial banks. In ‘re-structured’ society, local areas in general, will be self-reliant on the basis of the resource released in the area itself. This would enable the self-reliant local associations of working people, to become the primary constituent of a new type of state. This of course would not look at all like the present state. In this new situation, these associations in villages, factories and urban mahallas would have maximum possible power; such that they would exercise hegemony over the upper levels of the hierarchy, including the centre.


Such a restructuring, obviously, cannot be possible without rejecting the whole paradigm of capitalist development. Any effort at “humanising” the demon will only end up in perpetuating its atrocities. Real restructuring presupposes dismantling the established structure – not only in physical terms, but also in terms of ideas. This is what Marx did, as Engels pointed out in his preface to the English edition of Capital (1886): “… a theory which views modern capitalist production as a mere passing stage in the economic history of mankind, must make use of terms different from those habitual to writers who look upon that form of production as imperishable and final.” This is what we must do today when we discuss development.


We must take a position. While it has become fashionable to speak of “inclusive development” or “alternative development”, we must expose the exclusivist nature of development and provoke thinking for an “alternative to development”.


Share this
Leave a Comment