Whose Polycrisis?

‘if God the Father had created things by naming them, Elstir recreated them by removing their names, or by giving them another name’.

Marcel Proust (II, 566)

An emerging consensus originated in the US has declared 2022 as the year of the ‘Polycrisis’, with a view to marking the beginning of an era of turbulence and unrest in the global economy.  Under this conceptualisation, recent events including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change catastrophes, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise in energy and food prices are generally postulated as separate crises, which can have an effect on each other but nevertheless have separate origins.  This centrifugal analysis of events predicates on the decline of the uni-polar world order, as well as acknowledging the emergent structural weaknesses in the traditional western powers; all of which can be loosely interpreted as occurring in a period during which power is dispersing and perhaps as a consequence of this dispersion, the current drivers of crisis have multiplied, leading to a multitude of crises, in contrast to preceding historical instances.

In spite of the current use of the term, the origins of the Polycrisis date further and can be more sparsely contextualised. However, there is no doubt that it has now become an important neologism for conventional western media and policy institutes, especially adopted by Bretton Woods Institutions, as well as other leading investors.

Civil society has also used this term as a neat summary, however, theirs is a critical response and is not interchangeable with how powerful International Financial Institutions (IFIs), policy think-tanks and investors use the term.  In this sense, the instrumentalisation of this neologism, seems to have more value than its meaning, with the discernible possibility that any perceived political mileage of the Polycrisis, is a complete transformation away from its intellectual roots. Nonetheless, as an artefact, the intellectual roots and the political role of the Polycrisis merits an integrated analysis beyond its instrumentalisation. 

A remarkable feature of liberal thought is the tendency towards identification of social phenomena through the selective elevation of their key distinguishing features, which are abstract enough to form ‘systems’ and neutral enough to subsume the inherent contradictions of capitalist development. Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations- long predicted by a diverse group of thinkers. That these events converge in time is a political outcome, subject to planetary limits, not abstract systemisation, as the Polycrisis seems to imply.  

Critical responses to the Polycrisis have pointed towards its disregard in accounting for the long and sustained crisis of the capitalist world order and a resort towards ‘brute empiricism’ to conceptualise things as they appear to be,  rather than questioning what is occurring beneath mere appearances. Prima-facie accounts often seek to capture the zeitgeist in the endeavour to simplify things. However, there is a need to differentiate between simplification and reductionism. As a concept, the Polycrisis is simultaneously all-encompassing as well as abstract.

In an attempt to grasp both these aspects, this short blog starts with a focus on three messages of the Polycrisis: a) the qualitative nature of change, b) the drivers or causes of crises and c) the role of Bretton Woods Institutions in adopting the concept. In addition, the blog proposes an alternative way of understanding the contemporary crisis, which hinges on the decline of the western capitalist model, followed by some thoughts on multipolarity and geopolitics. 

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The labor of land

Contemporary land grabs and agricultural investments have generated huge attention. The transformations in land tenure, production and social reproduction in the aftermath of land rushes have generated a rich literature. A central question is about labor, and its implications for structural transformation and agrarian futures.

Extraversion, exports and the labor question

In Senegambia, the intersecting pressures of food, land, and capital were historically linked to the quest for new labor and cash crops (cotton, then groundnut, followed by fresh fruits and vegetables) in frontier markets for Europe. Some of these transformations have been widely documented by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, Senegalese historian Boubacar Barry and American historian Sven Beckert. In 1819, the Ndiaw Treaty between France and the leaders of the Waalo Kingdom (in northern Senegal) was signed, allowing France to set up three agricultural bases in northern Senegal for export. This agricultural colonization project failed mostly because of the resistance of the inhabitants of the Waalo Kingdom (the Waalo-Waalo) and the inability of  French colonial leaders to secure land concessions they thought were automatically and permanently transferred to them through the treaty. The Waalo leaders, who managed the land on behalf of their community, understood otherwise. This conflicting interpretation on how land is governed became a recurrent source of conflict.

Another problem was the shortage of labor—the Waalo-Waalo refused forced labor and preferred to cultivate their subsistence crops rather than those for export. This refusal led to the return of clandestine slave trade and related abuses. The insecurity created by Waalo’s neighbors and the resistance of merchant capital added to the failure. These are key to understanding how various historical dynamics have sedimented to make the Senegal River Valley Region (historical Waalo) the site of the land rush that began in 2007-2008, especially for the production of export fresh fruits and vegetables.

Revisiting this rich history offers us a better understanding of relations of exploitation and contemporary resistance to extractivism by a number of communities in this region. It is a reminder of the violence of primitive accumulation, a violence that is ongoing. Tanzanian historian Issa Shivji puts it well:

The early encounter of Africa with Europe was not commercial involving the exchange of commodities, but rather the unilateral looting of human resources. African slavery was neither a trade, nor a mode of production. It was simply a robbery of a people on a continental scale perpetrated over four centuries through force of arms.

Despite the subsequent attempt to develop new crops in 1826 in Saint-Louis, merchant capital eventually prevailed with the failure of agriculture. As a result, post-colonial leaders “inherited a country organized by and for merchant capital” after 1960 as Catherine Boone puts it. In the same vein, Koddenbrock, Kvangraven and Sylla note how merchant capital subsequently established colonial and post-colonial structures of extraction.

Beyond processes of land acquisition, it is important to pay attention to how land becomes capital and how agricultural workers are included, excluded, or rather adversely incorporated into these agri-food networks.For instance, in her 2011 essay on land grabbing in Southern Africa, Ruth Hall provides a useful typology of agricultural transformations from subsistence to capitalist imperatives. Besides models that are based on the displacement of primary producers and the establishment of large export-oriented agricultural estates, Hall emphasizes “commercialization in situ” and “outgrower” schemes whereby petty commodity producers and other land users are incorporated into commercial value chains. This is a further invite to go beyond eurocentrism and methodological nationalism in our analyses of the genealogy of capitalism and of processes of exploitation.

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Why global value chains should be called global poverty chains

Global value chains (GVCs) “boost incomes, create better jobs and reduce poverty,” according to the World Bank. Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1991 and the reintegration of China into the global economy, world trade has become increasingly organized through GVCs. For example, the components and inputs for Apple’s iPhone, an icon of contemporary capitalist globalization, are made by millions of workers in over fifty countries.

Transnational corporations (TNCs) — labeled “lead firms” in the academic literature — established GVCs as part of their competitive strategies, outsourcing existing work or starting up new activities in countries where labor costs were cheap. State managers across the Global South increasingly gave up on establishing integrated domestic industries and sought instead to enter GVCs as component suppliers. Today, over four hundred fifty million workers are employed in GVC industries.

Many prominent figures suggest that these systems of production and distribution represent radically new development opportunities. As the former secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Ángel Gurría, claimed:

Everyone can benefit from global value chains . . . encouraging the development of and participation in global value chains is the road to more jobs and sustainable growth for our economies.

The academic Gary Gereffi, the intellectual father of GVC analysis, asserts that development across the Global South requires supplier firms “linking up with the most significant lead firm in the industry.”

In reality, GVCs are a great boon for some of the world’s biggest companies, but not for their workers. It would be more accurate to describe many GVCs as global poverty chains.

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Layers of compounding pressure: the gendered experiences of rural migrant youth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“I have lived everything there is to be lived in this city. Now I need to leave because all that is left for me here is misery and I want a better life for my child.”

It is with these words that Tizita, a 21-year-old mother-of-one from Gojjam in northern Ethiopia, described her dismay at life in Addis Ababa when I interviewed her in 2022. After living in the Ethiopian capital for eight years, she had had enough. Tizita was set on moving to one of the Gulf States, a part of the world from where many of the women she met on the street had returned from and were planning to re-migrate to. Having previously worked as a domestic worker in Addis Ababa, and having learnt that sex work was the only way to make “real money” in the city, the young woman remained focused on meeting the fundamental purpose of her migration project: transforming her life.  

For Fikadu, a 27-year-old man from Wollega in western Ethiopia, the strain of life in the city is similar, yet different. Unlike for young women like Tizita, whose income-earning activities are overwhelmingly limited to domestic work, petty street work, commercial sex work and begging, the fractions of the informal economy available to migrant men are slightly wider. Nevertheless, this is not to say that times have not been hard. Having previously worked as a street vendor selling second-hand clothes, Fikadu has had to downscale his work and is struggling to meet the rising costs of food, rent, sending money to his family of origin, and realising his plans for the future:  

Our supplies disappeared and when they were back, the price went up by more than double. That was the end of it. Now I pay for my life here by selling socks, but I don’t let that dismay me. I remain focused on my plans of transforming my life here, and once things improve I will start saving for my own metalwork shop.” 

The testimonies of Tizita and Fikadu form part of a longitudinal qualitative research project that maps the livelihood strategies of a sample of migrant youth in Addis Ababa at two points in time between 2018 and 2022. Drawing on these findings, this blog outlines some of the ways in which rural-urban migrant youth between the ages of 15-27 experience and counteract pressure. Through an exploration of migrants’ everyday strategies of navigating the city, findings presented here show how dealing with the intricacies of urban life relates intimately to the lives rural youth left behind and the imaginary futures they aspire towards, the ways in which youth relate to the social and economic responsibilities they carry, and the manner in which subjective pressure experienced by women and men has a compounding effect that further exacerbates the challenges migrant youth face.

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Top posts of 2022

Although many commentators hoped 2022 would be a ‘return to normal’, this year has been anything but that. On Developing Economics, contributors have been grappling with many fundamental issues, ranging from social reproduction, labour exploitation and unrest, the many failuers of contemporary development policies, decolonisation, the food regime, new debt crises and industrialisation. Among the most widely read posts are those that challenge hegemonic thinking about the crises unfolding this year on both the left and right. For example, Farwa Sial’s interview with Max Ajl, Bikrum Gil and Tinashe Nyamnuda challenges the uncritical use of sanctions by the West in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Güney Işıkara’s critique of polycrisis challenges what he deems to be superficial and ultimately inadequate efforts on the left to understand the contemporary crisis of capitalism. Amidst all the hype about returning to normal, contributors on DE also recognize both that pre-pandemic times were also deeply unequal, exploitative, and extractive, which calls for a deeper appreciation of critical scholarship that can help us understand the forces that produce this inequality even in allegedly normal times, and that the crisis responses have been highly unequal across the world.

This year we also launched a new podcast where you can listen to critical scholarship on development and economics in a conversational format. Season 1 is now out and you can listen to episodes on environmental issues, mining, labour, and global value chains.

Here are the top 10 most read posts of 2022:

  1. Sanctions and the changing world Order: Some Views from the Global South (Farwa Sial interviews Max Ajl, Bikrum Gil and Tinashe Nyamunda)
  2. Race to the bottom: Competition between Indonesian food delivery platform companies for cheap gig workers (by Arif Novianto)
  3. (After) Neoliberalism? Rethinking the Return of the State (by Ishan Khurana and John Narayan)
  4. Neoliberal capitalism and the commodification of social reproduction, from our home to our classroom (by Alessandra Mezzadri)
  5. Feminist political economy, land, and decolonisation: Rama Salla Dieng in conversation with Lyn Ossome (by Lyn Ossome and Rama Salla Dieng)
  6. Beating around the Bush: Polycrisis, Overlapping Emergencies, and Capitalism (by Güney Işıkara)
  7. Marx and Colonialism (by Lucia Pradella)
  8. Who’s in control? Wall Street Consensus, state capitalism, and spatialised industrial policy (by Seth Schindler, Ilias Alami and Nick Jepson)
  9. On the perils of embedded experiments (by Jean Drèze)
  10. Ignorance is Bliss: Why should we study Leontief? (by Thair Ahmad)

This is just a tiny, tiny sample of our around 40 posts on the blog this year, so please have a browse through the rest of the blogs too. You can also follow our active blog series on State Capitalism(s) and Pressure in the City, and delve into all COVID-19 related analysis here, and book reviews here. In 2023, Developing Economics will continue to provide much-needed critical perspectives on development and economics. Want to join the conversation?: Become a contributor.

The pressure to provide and perform: Anti-feminism, masculinity consultants, and the threat of male expendability in contemporary Nairobi

Women are the reason why men have changed because women are hard on men. […] The expectations they come with into a relationship, and generally how they have been brought up, or the life they live, that is what gives some men stress. […] When someone is living with a woman in the house, you find that issues are many because money is little.

Wellington Ochieng, 36-year old labor migrant from western Kenya

During almost three years of ethnographic fieldwork among male migrants in Pipeline, an over-populated high-rise estate in Nairobi’s chronically marginalized east, I heard complaints like Wellington’s almost daily. Migrant men, in my case predominantly Luo from western Kenya who came to Nairobi with high expectations of a better future, bemoaned a life full of pressure caused by the romantic, sexual, and economic expectations of their girlfriends, wives, and rural kin. The blame often lay on ‘city girls’ who were portrayed as materialistic ‘slay queens’who ‘finish’ men by leaving them bankrupt only to suck away the next sponsor’s wealth after grabbing him with their ‘Beelzebub nails’ as Wellington called the colorful nails sported by many Nairobi women. Soon, so a fear expressed repeatedly by my interlocutors, most men would no longer be needed at all and Kenya’s economy would be ruled by economically powerful women who raise chaotic boys brought up without an authoritative father figure. Such fears of male expendability also manifested in imaginations about a future in which more and more men and women would live in homosexual relationships or ‘contract marriages’ that replace trust and love with contractual agreements. When my flat mate Samuel, a student of economics divorced from the mother of his baby son, returned to our apartment after passing the neighbor’s house where a group of women celebrated a birthday, for instance, he just shook his head and sighed: ‘We live like animals in the jungle. Women and men separately. We only meet for mating and making babies. Maybe that’s where we’re heading to.’ Overwhelmed by their wives’ and girlfriends’ expectations, many migrant men who spoke to me in Pipeline decided to spend as little time as possible in their marital houses. Instead, they evaded pressure by lifting weights in gyms, stockpiling digital loans and informal credits, placing bets in gambling shops, gulping down a cold beer in a Wines & Spirits, playing the videogame FIFA, or catcalling ‘brown-skinned’ Kamba women on the roads. Some men who could no longer cope took even more drastic measures involving murder and suicide. One man, for instance, cut the throat of his girlfriend only to try to kill himself, while another tried to poison himself, later quoting the wife’s actions and character as the cause. Anything appeared better than spending time with the ‘daughters of Jezebel’ who were waiting for them in the cramped houses of Pipeline, sometimes demanding migrant men to engage in romantic and sexual practices they were unfamiliar with as expounded upon by Wellington:

When you come to Nairobi, our girls want that you hold her hand when you are going to buy chips, you hug her when you are going to the house, I hear there is something called cuddling, she wants that you cuddle, at what time will you cuddle and tomorrow you want to go to work early? […] you don’t go to meet your friends so that you show her you love her, you just sleep on the sofa and caress her hair, to me, this is nonsense because that is not romantic love, I think that romantic love, so long as I provide the things I provide, and we sire children, I think that’s enough romance. […] Another girl told me to lick her, and I asked her ‘Why do you want me to lick you?’ She said that she wanted me to lick her private parts. Are those places licked? […] Those things are things that people see on TV, let us leave them to the people on TV.

Figure 1: Pipeline

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Agricultural production, sectoral imbalances and inflation in Albania: A Kaleckian view

The current remarkable surge in inflation is considered to be a nearly global phenomena (Reinhart and Lucker 2022), affecting both developed and developing nations. While there may be common drivers of inflation, such as factors associated with the Covid-19 pandemic followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are considerable variations in the causes of it, especially with reference to developing countries, including Albania. Drawing on Kalecki’s (1976) Essays on Developing Economies, I argue that there are also domestic factors attributed to the increase in inflation that resides in the structural sectoral imbalances of the Albanian economy.  

Rising prices in Albania sparked protests across the country in March 2022. The protests highlighted the rise in food prices which increased by more than 9% compared to March in the previous year; with the price of bread being the main contributor to such increase. With Albanians spending more than 42% of their total budget on food, rising prices of ‘necessities’ adds more pressure to the poor households to make ends meet. Nearly a quarter of Albanians, 640,000 people, already live in poverty (Kote 2022) and soaring prices in the economy could push people further into poverty. But what is pushing food prices to soar in a country where agricultural land accounts for 24% of overall land, a good Mediterranean climate, and water resources, all of which are crucial for agricultural development? Despite these favourable conditions, the productive capacity of Albania’s agriculture sector to meet domestic demand for food and feed meets is only one third (World Bank, 2022a).  

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Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, part 2: Limits to sub-imperial autonomy

Brazilian agribusiness’s fervour for Soybean cultivation has manifested itself domestically as much, if not more so, than externally, with deforestation accelerating as plantations abound with similar velocity in both the Brazilian Amazon and the Paraguayan Chaco. The domestic intensification of Soybean cultivation can, in large part, be attributed to growing demand from China, the world’s primary soybean consumer (Song et al, 2009). China is the largest market for both Paraguayan and Brazilian soy, with both nations essentially relying on continued Chinese imports to balance their trade deficits (Giraudo, 2020). Accordingly, the impact of Chinese demand on Brazilian agriculture, and on other resource sectors across the region (Ganchev, 2020; Oviedo, 2015), replicates many of the dynamics previously mentioned with regards to Brazilian ‘Subimperialism’ in Paraguay.

As soybeans are typically exported with minimal processing, and monocrop agriculture generates comparatively little employment (Giraudo, 2020), few of the benefits of the soybean supply-chain are appropriated within Brazil. Meanwhile, cheap Brazilian soybeans indirectly support the Chinese labour system by lowering the price of staple foods, especially pork, allowing Chinese manufacturers to keep wages low, thereby maintaining the competitiveness of Chinese exports (Wise & Veltmeyer, 2018). With Chinese demand likely to remain high, it seems inconceivable that either the Brazilian or the Paraguayan economies will wean themselves off of soy and will instead remain conditioned by, and dependent on, the whims of the Chinese industrial system

Furthermore, this integration of soybeans into the Chinese industrial economy exacerbates the existing China-Brazil trade imbalance. 98.4% of Chinese exports to Brazil are manufactures, whilst the majority of Brazilian exports to China are primary-resources, with soybeans representing the single most valuable export-commodity (Jenkins, 2012). Low-price Brazilian commodities thereby fuel an industrial system which exports value-added goods back to Brazil, creating a trade-deficit which entrenches the nation’s dependence on the industrialised core, reproducing the fundamental dynamics observed by dependency theorists in the mid-twentieth century (Frank; 1966; Prebisch, 1962).

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