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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Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, Part 1: The colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian business

Though its influence may have waned in recent decades, dependency theory remains an indispensable prism through which to regard the bifurcated, or polarized, development of national economies within the capitalist world-system. This framework, in which the persistence of uneven development is attributable to the interrelation between the industrialised core and the underdeveloped periphery, admits both the geographic and historical scope to adequately tackle the hard problems of political economy and to accurately trace the chains of dependency which inhibit peripheral economies. Through two blog posts, I wish to explore how dependency theory can help us understand various ecologies of dependence in Latin America, including Brazilian agribusiness in Paraguayan soy (this blog post) and the role Chinese industrial demand plays in constraining Brazilian subimperial autonomy in soy cultivation (in the second blog post). In this post, the colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian agribusiness is used to demonstrate that Sub-imperialist powers can achieve relative autonomy within the periphery by making dependent weaker states in their vicinity.

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Gendering the debt crisis: Feminists on Sri Lanka’s financial crisis

By Kanchana N. Ruwanpura, Bhumika Muchhala and Smriti Rao

Countless images of women carers flitted through April-July 2022 on Sri Lankan television screens, social media, and newspapers. Carers with young children, mothers with new-borns leaving them with equally young children while they stood in queue for gas or kerosene, children doing their homework on tuk-tuks while their parents got in line for petrol and diesel. Yet, Sri Lankan policy pronouncements rarely mention working-class women. In a country where women comprise 52% of the population, this is astounding. Especially so when the dominant three foreign exchange earners for the country – garments, tea exports and migrant workers to the Middle East – rest on the efforts of women workers. 

In the current response to Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, the voices and needs of working-class women are once again being ignored by policymakers, despite the evidence all-around of women intensifying their unpaid labour even as the conditions under which they perform paid labour deteriorate. 

As feminist economists, our argument is straightforward: debt justice is a feminist value and principle. And at the core of our understanding of debt justice is the principle that working class women cannot be made to pay for the ‘odious debt’ generated by the recklessness and corruption of (almost entirely male) Sri Lankan political elites.

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Building up debt traps: Risk, climate adaptation and microfinance

How to adapt to a changing climate is one of the foremost questions of our era. In the last decade, microfinance has shot to prominence as a highly-promoted tool of adaptation to climate and environmental change. In an abridged version of a 2009 report commissioned by the Grameen Foundation and Oxfam US, Dowla argues that ‘within the populations that will be most affected by global warming, the plight of many individuals is linked to the ability of microfinance institutions to adapt to the consequences of climate change’.

With access to already-existing as well as newly-adapted financial products and ser­vices, the argument goes that people and communities will be better placed to reduce risk, diversify their livelihoods, and build assets. ‘Green microfinance’ would facilitate adaptation in two key ways: ‘by improving ex-post [after the event] risk recovery’ via coping capacity enhancement, and ‘by improving ex-ante [before the event] risk reduction’ via adaptive capacity enhancement. Recommended strategies include improving access to microcredit for climate change responses as well as promoting insurance schemes to reduce the burden of climate risk on society.

In contrast to these emerging discourses and practices that frame microfinance as a key tool of climate adaptation, our recent research with rice farmers in rural Cambodia finds that microfinance loans are leading to an over-indebtedness emergency that significantly undermines borrowers’ long-term coping and adaptive capacity in a changing climate. Such loans often push households to borrow more, work more, sacrifice food quality and quantity, quit farming, and erode and sell their assets, including land. The cost of financialised coping strategies can trap rural populaces in financial obligations which they struggle to service and which manifests ultimately as over-indebtedness. Microfinance ends up promoting a particular form of climate adaptation: one that is individualised, incremental, and geared towards the further integration of populations into processes of capital accumulation.

This form of adaptation is highly profitable. Indeed, as Dowla argues in that same paper, each new climate-linked shock ‘opens up opportunities for the microfinance institutions and their clients’. Yet the corollary to this profitability is that the costs of such an adaptation tend to be borne by the poor, who find themselves exposed not only to the rigours of the environment but now the global market too.

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Ha-Joon Chang has exposed the fallacies of neoliberalism

Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang is a brilliant, best-selling critic of neoliberal orthodoxy. But Chang stops far short of taking the necessary next step: questioning the capitalist system itself.

Ha-Joon Chang is a rarity in the contemporary world: an economics professor who is highly critical of the neoliberal free-market orthodoxy, advocates progressive social change, writes and speaks accessibly, and is very, very popular.

Chang’s books have sold millions of copies, and he is a regular contributor to mainstream media outlets. According to Chang himself, his aim is not simply to challenge free-market orthodoxy, but also to support, through his work, the kind of “active economic citizenship” that will demand “the right courses of action from those in decision-making positions.”

While socialists can learn a lot from Ha-Joon Chang’s work, we also need to read it critically and identify some of the gaps in his thinking. Chang’s self-professed aspiration is to promote an alternative form of capitalism, but our goal should be to develop an alternative to capitalism.

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Beating around the Bush: Polycrisis, Overlapping Emergencies, and Capitalism

It is in vogue nowadays to describe the multifaceted and intertwined crises of capitalism without referring to capitalism itself. Obscure jargon of ‘overlapping emergencies’ and ‘polycrisis’ are brought up to describe the complexity of the situation, and they serve, with or without intention, to conceal the culprit, namely the totality of capitalist relations. This short piece discusses the content, function, and limits of these evasive practices with concrete examples.

A Hodgepodge of Risks

“A polycrisis is not just a situation where you face multiple crises” writes Adam Tooze, it is rather a situation “where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts” (Tooze 2022a). Even at first sight, he is able to count seven radical challenges on the radar, including Covid, inflation, recession, hunger crisis, climate crisis, nuclear escalation, and a ‘Trumpite’ Republican Party storming back to power.

Former long-time Harvard President, Larry Summers celebrates the term polycrisis for its capacity to capture the many aspects at stake, and adds: “I can remember previous moments of equal or even greater gravity for the world economy, but I cannot remember moments when there were as many separate aspects and as many cross-currents as there are right now” (Summers 2022). Make no mistake, the approval comes from a life-time mouthpiece of the establishment, foe of the working classes and the oppressed, frank enough to argue as the then Chief Economist of the World Bank that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable”.   

In Tooze’s view, in the 1970s, too much or too little growth, or late capitalism could be shown as the ultimate source of the problems at hand depending on one’s political position. What makes the current moment distinctive is the fact that “it no longer seems plausible to point to a single cause” (Tooze 2022b). He is thus quite explicit that one should avoid the use of grand narratives, or, in line with that, the designation of the capitalist mode of production as the root cause of the radical challenges upon us.

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Beyond ideology, we need an emergency tax for emergency times: What the UK could learn from tax debates in Latin America

Paying for the energy price guarantee has highlighted a deep political cleavage around tax ideology. Reframing windfall as emergency will be critical to leverage a change in direction. 

Tax is always contentious. Debates surrounding who should pay, how much, and where the revenues are redistributed to are the heart of state power and national and global political economies. No one likes paying taxes but seeing tax only through the lens of either powerful interest groups or electoral politics misses the extent to which the contemporary tax debate in the UK, in particular in relation to so-called ‘windfall’ taxes on energy companies is driven by ideology. Ideas of tax – which ones should be levied, at what rate, to whom – are embedded in wider ideas of state and the role of government in socio-economic life. In the UK, political parties that call for higher taxes are associated with an interventionalist and redistributive state, while those who argue for low taxes believe in individual responsibility and markets. But the UK is currently facing an unprecedented economic crisis and the decision not to backdate taxes on the extraordinary profits energy companies have been making to pay for state intervention in energy markets in September 2022 has been based on ideology, underpinned by a set of ideals and ideas, when what is needed is a pragmatic response to an emergency. If opposition parties could move away from the language of ‘windfall’ that suggests the need to ‘punish’ companies for excess profits and speak instead of the need to come together to respond a national emergency, it might have helped them cut through the government’s ideology approach. To do so, there are lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, in this case Latin America.

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Epistemicides vs Epistuicides: What are we missing in the decolonial movement?

Academia has always been political. On some occasions, it has been appropriated and deployed to meet political ends while in other occasions it has modelled itself to challenge politicisation. In their study of curriculum framework governing economics teaching in Brazilian higher education, Guizzo, et al (2021: 258) show how the idea of a pluralist education system is under threat from a “strong disciplinary, institutional and wider political pressures with both domestic and global roots”. Indeed, the threats towards education systems in the global South often have global as well as local origins. These days, the threat of epistemicides – that is the killing of a people’s knowledge – has displaced and suffocated academic spaces in the global South (de Sousa Santos 2016; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018). This killing has taken both subtle and unsubtle forms. One way this has happened has been through dominant and domineering western oriented knowledge production institutions and systems which disregard approaches and writings from the global South.

In this discussion, however, I will use the case of the University of Zimbabwe to show how domestic roots have also contributed towards the suffocation of academic spaces. I argue in this piece that epistemicides work together with epistuicides (see Kufakurinani 2022) – a process where a people kill their own knowledge systems. The twin evils of epistuicides and epistemicides have suffocated knowledge production in the global south. Indeed, the problem of a dominant western centric gaze has been a subject of examination by decolonial thinkers. Mainstream journals in many disciplines have been known to promote certain perspectives and specific research approaches at the expense of others.  It is in this context that there has been a huge global movement to decolonise and decentre knowledge systems and knowledge production in many disciplines. Admittedly, decolonisation has become a buzz word over the years to the point of losing meaning. For me, decolonisation is simply about elevating alternative and at times rare voices and perspectives, particularly those from the global south. These voices and perspectives may be parallel or even contradictory to dominant perspectives and voices.

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