This essay questions whether countries can advance sustainably by following the prescriptions of mainstream approaches to modernisation. It questions where we are aiming to go when we talk about ‘development’. Mainstream development is questioned from a historical, social and sustainability perspective. A structural view on the inherent impediments for the prosperity of poor nations is offered. The social effects of modernisation in developed countries are discussed, and the instability of mass consumption based economies presented. Ideas for a sustainable future for humanity are presented based on global citizen cooperation and awareness of the necessity for lowering aggregate eco-systemic consumption levels.
On development trajectories, and possible futures
The science of governing a country is governance; it can be defined quickly as what democratically elected and accountable leaders do with the pooled resources of the citizenry and the collective patrimony of the contents of the national territory in order to provide things for the common good. This steering of a country is defined through economic policy, which refers to the management of resources and upkeep of things deemed to be essential; roads, pipes, schools, hospitals, courts, money, and so on. Economic policy as a subject burgeons out into everything that nation states provide, for example; government spending and tax policy, monetary policy, trade policy, industrial policy, environmental policy, financial and industrial regulation, and strategies for growth.
Over the last century, questions of what a nation state should be and what it should provide became of critical importance. Especially after the Second World War, capitalism and socialism promoted very different understandings of how states should function. As decolonization movements succeeded, and monarchies were overthrown, the number of new nation states multiplied from 69 nations in 1950 to 192 in 2002 (Rotberg 2003). In this shake up, newly formed states emerged within new ‘ecologies of context’ within which to operate. The issue of what governors of nation-states should do, and how, became of critical importance.
Due to the difference in histories of nations, economically the world at this time, and more so today can be seen on aggregate as economically and socially polarised, with a comparatively rich and powerful Northern Hemisphere, and poor and weak Southern Hemisphere. In the post WWII period, the leaders of Southern nations looked to the Northern nations as ideal examples in terms of political and administrational organisation, and the perceived prosperity of their citizens, and sought to imitate their trajectories.
From a Northern perspective, both socialist and capitalist interests were keen to win political allies and secure natural resources from the Southern countries. Both the capitalist side represented by The United States and Europe and the socialist side represented by The Soviet Union and China, altruistically offered incentives and assistance in exchange for political alliance, while at the same time having agendas for securing strategic resources within these countries for themselves.
Within this context, ideas of how countries could prosper surged forth. New subjects specifically relating to how these countries could progress emerged, Development Economics, Modernisation Theory and Industrial Development. We can call a general theory of how countries can prosper ‘Development Studies’.
‘Development Studies’, arising from this historical context is clearly not an impartial scientific discipline. The technical recommendations North on what the governors of Southern nations should do in terms of economic policies and economic assistance have mostly had Trojan Horses-like effects on these nations.
‘Development Studies’ rarely concerns itself with ‘development into what?’. This weakness in Development Studies is fundamental, as it is implicitly assumed that to develop in the moulds of Northern nation circa 1950 to now, is a virtuous objective. This point is very relevant given the environmental degradation caused by Northern consumer goods markets, and the growing social inequalities which Northern economic policies have generated in their own countries.
Furthermore, given the fact that in general the Northern states achieved their Development by means of exploitative commercial relationships with the South, imitating development trajectories of Northern countries would also require the establishment of exploitative trade relationships with other counties.
(Walt Rostow showing the President something on the map)
The promise of ‘modernisation’ in the Western mould to poorer countries was an important part of Great Game between The Soviets and The United States played out following WWII. The United States felt threatened by Soviet influence, and sanctioned ‘by any means necessary’ approaches to beating back the perceived Soviet menace. The core text of modernisation theory in the West, Walt Rostow’s ‘Stages of Economic Growth, A Non-Communist Manifesto’, published in 1960 must be seen as a product of its times. It explains the stages that countries go through to become modern, and it puts an idealised projection of the contemporary American economy as the final goal. The stages a country must pass through are:
Stage (1) traditional society,
Stage (2) the preconditions for take-off,
Stage (3) the take-off,
Stage (4) the drive to maturity,
Stage (5) the age of high mass consumption.
Rostow’s position was that ‘traditional societies’ could achieve take off very quickly, if assisted they sided with The West, through: ‘the diffusion of Western culture, know-how, and capital, to overcome legacies of economic and cultural stagnation.’ (Proyect 2008).
The text was written towards the end of the 1950’s at the height of the cold war, at the time Rostow was advocating that the US Government Administration should pay more attention to interventions in developing countries (in order to make sure that they sided against socialism) for strategic reasons.
Naturally, Rostow’s vision for the ultimate state of development was ‘The Age of Mass Consumption’, which was the economy of The United States at that time, with high domestic consumption levels, and high rates of energy use. Development Theory is to this day delineated by this goal. That the goal of development should be to reach the ‘age of high mass consumption’ is pervasive within the discipline.
1950’s America did have elements of a Golden Age about it, the fruits of technology were making domestic chores much easier, freeing women for domestic servitude with vacuum cleaners, electric irons and washing machines for example. At the same time, because of The New Deal economic policies, people could afford their own homes and energy saving devices, and have enough leisure time to enjoy them.
However, the age of high mass consumption (i.e. high aggregate consumption levels and access to cheap electrical products at prices within the reach of salaried workers) is only possible through securing cheap resources from overseas in order to keep prices low. Einstein pointed out; “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption” (1949), thus the consumption in one area affects the production in another. Periphery countries were encouraged only to export primary commodities at a low cost. For example, remember that around this time United Fruit Company was deposing Central American countries’ governments in which they owned plantations who sought to raise the export price of bananas. Even today, we are seduced by mobile phones and computers and most of us want to change model every year, this built in obselition is good for the economy, as consumer spending stays high, but is not so good for Congo, where the Coltan for the chips is extracted for at a very low cost. If the Coltan was not so cheap we would not be able to afford the hallmarks of being ‘high mass consumers’. The high mass consumption model inherently requires a periphery with whom it can interact symbiotically, pulling in cheap inputs, but at the same time causing detrimental effects to peripheral economies.
(Coltan mining in Eastern Congo)
The 1950s American lifestyle available for those with steady jobs, characterised by the big bungalow, car, and electric appliances, within reach of the majority of the population is impossible, planet wide, in terms of sustainability. We cannot all live in this ‘high mass consumption’ mode, because the world has finite resources. Ecological Footprint analysis points out that if all the individuals on the planet had the consumption characteristics of Americans, the planet would need the resources of six Earths to meet this demand. Sustaining US consumption levels requires a constant influx of cheap raw materials to keep products within reach of customers. However, as a developmental goal for nations, it is hardly an example of best practice as it is clear that this way of life is not sustainable in terms of Earth’s resources. A new stage of development best practice is needed which offers leaders a virtuous and sustainable goal to orientate national policies around.
An alternative perspective – Development as Neo-Colonialism
Kwame Nkrumah, leader of Ghanaian independence and the Pan African movement asked if the ‘extended tentacles of the Wall Street octopus’ really rule Great Britain, France Germany or The United States rather than their Prime Ministers of Presidents. (1965). In Nkrumah’s speech, the real rulers are the ‘Invisible Government’ a network which arises from Wall Street’s connections with Intelligence Services.
Nkrumah problematizes the way the Rostowian development takes place by contextualising the development of the newly independent states within their historical context. Nkrumah questions how independent the post-colonial states were, considering the continued ownership of the old colonials over key sectors of the economy, and influence over economic decisions. For Nkrumah the ‘neo-colonial’ powers perpetuate the developing countries’ weakness, rather than assist them to ‘take-off’. For Nkrumah this continued domination is maintained through international capital’s control of the world market, the high rate of interest for developing countries’ borrowing, the subtle policy influence of the small print of ‘multilateral’ aid deals, the neo-colonial control of 90% of shipping lanes, and Coup d’états and political assassinations. Hollywood, the monopoly press and Evangelism, play a complementary role, deepening the ideological penetration of neo-colonial norms in the minds of the masses. Nkrumah’s observations belie the fallacy of Rostow’s mirage of modernisation.
Nkrumah stated that the above are not as a sign of imperialism’s strength, but signs of its last desperate gasps. He counsels that it can be defeated only through unity.
Where are we now?
It is currently in vogue to refer to ‘developing’ countries and ‘advanced’ countries. Where is this path, on which some are developing and others advanced, leading to? We now live in a world where millionaires control 39% of the World’s Wealth. In 2011the total number of billionaires reached a record 1,210, with a total net worth of $4.5 trillion (Frank 2011).
In a leaked 2006 Citigroup investors report, it was stated that the greatest challenge to the continued prosperity of the top 1% is the pressure that the ever growing number of disenfranchised citizens can put on their elected representatives to change the rules of the game towards a more proportional division of wealth (Kapur et al 2006).
‘The balance sheets of the rich are in great shape and are likely to improve’
‘What could go wrong?’
The most potent and short term threat would be societies demanding a more equitable share of wealth’ (Op. Cit.)
Emblematic of this is the gold plated, T-Rex bone inlaid yacht of a Malaysian business man which cost £3billion. This is more than triple the combined GDPs of the ten poorest countries.
Table 1: GDP’s of the Ten Poorest Countries, compared with price of a Golden Yacht
|Burundi … $90 million
|Rwanda … $210 million
|Ethiopia … $110 million
|Democratic Republic of Congo … $110 million
|Liberia … $110 million
|Malawi … $160 million
|Guinea-Bissau … $160 million
|Eritrea … $190 million
|Niger … $210 million
|Sierra Leone … $210 million
|Gold Yacht $4.7 billion
Modernisation and development have not lead to increased prosperity for all, rather to the current situation of extreme imbalance between ever more concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, and a decline in material wealth at minimum and unprecedented poverty at the extreme end for the rest.
(The Golden Yacht in question)
(A scene from Burundi)
A future scenario
As the Plutocracy Symposium document notes, the challenge for the ultra-rich is populations revolting against these mind-boggling sums of riches in the hands of individuals who spend it on playthings. One future scenario shows the ultra-rich separating from state in order to ensure their private wealth by setting up their own kingdoms. ‘The Sea-Steading Institute’ is researching luxury dwellings using oil rig platforms as bases, where the super-rich can live, ‘free’ from any social responsibilities.
According to its main backer Peter Thiel , Sea Steader dwelling will be a “kind of floating Petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage and few restrictions on weapons. ” (Moser 2011).
Modernisation and high mass consumption
The fallacy of ‘High Mass Consumption’ as a goal (which is the fundamental basis for modernisation theory) should be seen as the dangerously outmoded concept that it is. Unfortunately elected leaders still cling to it.
Accelerating into a mode of being characterised as ‘high mass consumption’ is an untenable goal for any country, as ecological degradation evidence shows. However, the logic of orthodox development theory is that to become a high consumption nation is the right thing to do, and thus has the common good as its guiding principle. This position is flawed because it is modernisation in this mode is not applicable to all humanity at the same time. In order to be ‘high resource consumers’ we need some other place to appropriate resources from. Thus as a model it has an intrinsic hypocrisy, as there always needs to be some under-developed people and places from whom to get our stuff from.
‘Advanced’ industrial fishing methods lead to fish species extinction. ‘Advanced’ agricultural practice leads to nutrient depletion, soil erosion and contamination and aquifer depletion. At the same time Britons throw away out half the food that the country produces. For every gold ring produced, twenty tons of mine wastes are also accrued. This sort of global economy is the sort of governance that ‘advanced’ industrial nations
It is therefore a sad state of affairs when we see that the BRIC countries are pursuing this goal, we can see that their policies will inevitably deepen the existing social and ecological degradation of the world. The modernising goal for their citizens which they are pursuing requires the citizens of elsewhere to use less, and their ecosystems be depleted, in order to pursue the high mass consumption dream.
The American modernisation was not sustainable in the United States even for more than a few decades. For example, following the debt crisis, it is reported recently that one quarter of Houston’s youths are currently food insecure. It seems that developed countries are modernising towards a future social reality that is more in the image of a Jakarta, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro or Lagos, than a Paris or a Frankfurt.
“As many nation-states of the northern hemisphere experience increasing fiscal meltdown, state privatization, corruption, ethnic conflict, it seems as though they are evolving southward, so to speak, in both positive and problematic ways.”
‘We’ citizens of the North would be advised perhaps to learn from innovations and survival strategies of the global South, given the current trend. On reflection who is this ‘We’? It means ‘We’ the non-billionaires and non-millionaires, the ones without the golden yachts, the better we can work together for an alternative.
Towards a sustainable future for humanity
It is becoming clear that a path of global solidarity and unity among citizens is the only way to overcome the many structural challenges to ensure the survival of the human race before elements within it destroy the race’s life support system.
Today structurally embedded relationships of exploitation between countries are acute and vast distances separate the populations of these countries, who interact with each other in trade and politics in such an unequal way. Achieving solidarity between the citizens of these disparate places is an essential step.
We have common factors which unite us. For example, ‘We’ the citizens of the richer areas feel that we have been exploited in the same way as the majority of citizens in neo-colonial client states. The structural adjustment plans implemented in the third world were also implemented in the USA and Britain, leading to the on-going financial crisis, lack of jobs, and current protests. The same hand that corrupts third world leaders corrupts the political leaders of the richest countries. There is an awareness that ‘we the citizens’ o have as much in common with ‘we the citizens’ of all other countries than we do with the elites of our own countries. This consciousness is key to establishing the global unity required to implement environmental and economic policies which truly benefit the common good.
To achieve a sustainable modernity, resource use by the richest countries will have to decline, and terms of trade of the richer countries will need to be more fairly balanced with the poorer countries. In this way poorer countries’ environments will be less exploited, and hopefully become more prosperous. For this change to occur however, rich country electorates must be convinced to lower their resource use out of compassionate concerns for the imbalance in regard to the poorest countries. The only way that the population of a rich country would willingly accept this, would be if somehow quality of life discourse could be positioned above the importance of perpetual economic growth. A new concept, relating to happiness, through belonging and harmony could be established which emphasises self-sufficiency in energy and low energy use. I look forward to a change, that in light of the growing general malaise with the fruits of modernity; the feelings of isolation and oblivion that consumer-workers of the rich countries are feeling, a new way of living will is sought out.
It is now glaringly obvious that the elected leaders in all countries pay mere lip service to democratic protocol and serve the interests of the very rich almost without exception. This occurs at all levels of government, from the local to the national. The Sage of Bandiagara, Tierno Bokar pointed out the consequences of a country having a bad leader:
“When the opportunity to assume the role of leader comes to a coarse soul, he only knows how to set up a megalomaniac dictatorship. Instead of establishing a reign of peace for all, this will be the beginning of a dark terror. Scoundrels will become bankers and rogues will mint money. Morality will toss dangerously on the raging sea of unleashed passions.” (Hampate Ba 2008: 155)
We are governed by bad leaders, and feel impotent to change anything. Better leaders must be demande. I hope that soon the criteria for choosing leaders will be personal integrity and courage, as hypocrisy will not be accepted. In order to have some form of roadmap for the next few decades, should we not also ponder what ‘developed’ has to means and what we ‘modern’ must be if these are to be concepts which truly reflect the common good?
Ivan Illich’s comment “free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle” (1978: 6) is every day more pertinent, on a global scale.
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