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Polarizing Development?

by Lucia Pradella on July 13, 2015

Polarizing Development is the result of a collaborative project that started in 2011 with a debate on the theoretical foundations of development studies. We realised that after ten years from the height of the alter-globalisation movement and four years after the eruption of the global economic crisis, very little Marxist research had been produced about collective and international alternatives to neoliberalism.

But the crisis, and the movements that emerged in response, had opened up a new space to debate about alternatives. Initially, however, the bulk of the alternatives literature pointed to continued growth in the so-called BRICS to affirm the necessary role for the state in sustaining development. And this new developmental proposal converged into a broader demand for global Keynesianism.

We identified four main problems in new developmentalist approaches:

  1. new developmentalists ignore the exploitative nature of capitalist production relations;
  2. they uphold an idealised understanding of the state, as an autonomous and elite institution that can moderate development for the overall ‘social good’;
  3. they rest on methodologically nationalist assumptions, isolating the national economy from world market dynamics; and
  4. new developmentalists thus underestimate imperialist relations and capitalism’s tendency towards uneven and combined development.

In our view, new developmentalism targets some of neoliberalism’s economic failures, but only modifies neoliberalism as a form of class rule responding to labour and social mobilisations. It is no accident therefore that the consolidation of new developmentalist governments gave rise to new social tensions in countries like China and Brazil.

PolarizingThis all proved that there is a great need to elaborate on radical alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. That is why Thomas Marois and I thought of editing Polarizing Development. In this collection of essays, a network of more than 20 Marxist scholars from the Global South and North seeks to overcome national and eurocentric approaches, and look at dynamics of capitalist transformations and crisis internationally: contributions span from Europe and the U.S. to Latin America, Asia and Africa. But the book’s perspective is global, also, in looking at relations of both production and reproduction, in their gendered and environmental dimensions.

Neoliberalism appears as a global, class-based political and economic project characterised by the attack of capital on the collective capacity of organised labour, the peasantry and popular classes in the South to resist the subordination of all social spheres to accumulation imperatives. Relations of imperialist domination, racial and gender oppression, and environmental exploitation are not external, but constitutive dimensions of this global class struggle from above.

But neoliberalism has also been contested by a global class struggle from below. Since the early 2000s, resistance in the Middle East has stopped the expansion of western imperialism, contributing to its declining control over Latin America. Social movements there enjoyed new spaces for action, giving rise to a variety of progressive governments less subservient to imperialist interests. The relocation of industrial production from the West towards East Asia, moreover, laid the premises for the emergence of new centres of accumulation and of new, combative working classes.

The main idea behind Polarizing Development is pretty straightforward: in order to elaborate realistic alternatives to the crisis we need to look at these global dynamics. As many contributors highlight, the current crisis is linked to fundamental transformations in the international political economy, including the growth of new industrial centres of accumulation and a decline of Western hegemony. The current process of social polarisation in western Europe is not just a temporary aberration; it is both an outcome and a radicalisation of the class struggle from above unleashed in the neoliberal period. The crisis, moreover, is indeed global. Despite much rhetoric, the ‘BRICS’ are still subordinated to imperialist countries, with their economic growth now decelerating or stopping altogether.

But the crisis is not just opening up scenarios of increasing international competition, global impoverishment, and harshening geopolitical rivalries. It is also triggering new working class and social mobilisations – suffice it to mention the waves of strikes in China, the Arab Uprisings or the social mobilisations in southern Europe. Despite their limits and setbacks, these movements indicate the possibility, after the decline of the alter-globalisation movement, that a new international movement emerges, rooted in workplace resistance.

In Polarizing Development we do not develop a unitary alternative programme or course of action, but try to build on past experiences of struggles to draw lessons for the future. From various contributions it emerges that any realistic alternative to the crisis needs to be centred on international working class unity and develop forms of power alternative to institutional politics. All the social gains made by workers and popular classes, in fact, are due to their collective mobilisations. The sustainability of these struggles depends on the capacity of labour and social movements to build local, national, regional and international movements oriented toward structural transformation. The fight against racism and imperialism is central for this goal. Women’s agency and the fight to democratise the public sector, moreover, are crucial to challenge the gendered inequalities that shape relations of social production and reproduction. Environmental struggles are intimately tied to worker and women’s aspirations.

These lessons may seem pretty straightforward, and basically re-propose the fundamental principles of the international working class movement. So the question is if and to what extent our everyday politics still follows these principles, and how to apply them in a world of globalised capitalism.

This post draws on a talk delievred at the book launch of Polarizing Development recently held at the Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex.

Lucia Pradella
Lucia Pradella is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London, and teaches at the University of Venice Ca' Foscari. Her research is concerned with globalisation and the changing nature of labour and poverty. Her more recent publications include articles on migration and the working poor in Western Europe (Comparative European Politics and Competition & Change, 2015), and her latest monograph Globalization and the Critique of Political Economy: New Insights from Marx's Writings (Routledge, 2015). Lucia also co-edited Polarizing Development: Alternatives to Neoliberalism and the Crisis (Pluto, 2015).

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