Agrarian Change in the Lap of Neoliberal Growth: Field perspective from India

If I had to describe three central characteristics of the Indian economy—its three defining features in the neoliberal period—they’d be i) premature de-industrialization and expansion of the services sector, ii) growth in the absence of formal job-creation, and instead an explosion of informality, and iii) the declining share of agriculture in value added even as its share in employment remains sizeable. In June-July 2019, I did intensive fieldwork in Sangli, a village in Rewari district in southern Haryana, to make sense of the ways in which these processes interact with agrarian change and play out for agrarian households, i.e. the contemporary Agrarian Question [1]. 

Sangli is in Haryana, where Green Revolution techniques (high yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and agricultural machinery like tractors and threshers) were adopted early on. It also happens to be close to the industrial belt that extends from the national capital Delhi to its surrounding districts, where foreign capital has congregated in the neoliberal era. This makes it an interesting place to study processes of generation and re-investment of agrarian surpluses, and to peer into the relationship between “modernized” agriculture and neoliberal industrial and urban growth that has dwarfed the rural economy.

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Race to the bottom: Competition between Indonesian food delivery platform companies for cheap gig workers

The race to pay drivers as little as possible is underway in Indonesia. In this competition, the participants are platform companies in online transportation services, such as Gojek, Grab, Shopee Food, Maxim, InDriver. Some researchers argue that competition between platform companies will create equilibrium prices, also called a race to the middle, which is considered positive.

This positive assessment of the platform’s inter-corporation competition is rooted in the neoclassical economic notion of perfect competition. In this theoretical framework, it is assumed that competition equalizes supply and demand to create a balance of goods prices, wages, and profits; the results of which will create mutual benefits. Therefore, the preconditions for such competition are emphasized as important from a policy perspective. These preconditions include strong legal systems to support the operation of the ‘free’ market and the minimization of state intervention, which is thought to distort market price signals.

However, the story of perfect competition is far removed from how competition actually plays out. Indeed, capitalism is not as harmonious as the neoclassical framework suggests. This has led to the recognition of imperfect competition within the neoclassical framework. Stiglitz, for example, sees that markets may not work perfectly because of information asymmetries. The Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh has proposed an entirely different view of competition. For him, what takes place in capitalism is not perfect competition, but real competition. In a real competition framework, there is competition between companies to cut production costs so as to enable them to lower commodity prices below those of their competitors. With lower prices compared to their competitors, their commodities tend to be chosen by consumers. This means that competition is a fight to beat rival companies, which often leads to a process of centralization: the strong get stronger and the weak get competed out of the market.

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On the perils of embedded experiments

There is growing interest in ‘embedded experiments’, conducted by researchers and policymakers as a team. Aside from their potential scale, the main attraction of these experiments is that they seem to facilitate speedy translation of research into policy. Discussing a case study from Bihar, Jean Drèze argues that this approach carries a danger of distorting both policy and research. 

Evidence-based policy is the rage, to the extent that even village folk in Jharkhand (where I live) sometimes hold forth about the importance of ‘ebhidens’, as they call it. No one, of course, would deny the value of bringing evidence to bear on public policy, as long as evidence is understood in a broad sense and does not become the sole arbiter of decision-making. However, sometimes evidence-based policy gets reduced to an odd method that consists of using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to find out ‘what works’, and then ‘scale up’ whatever works. That makes short shrift of the long bridge that separates evidence from policy. Sound policy requires not only evidence – broadly understood – but also a good understanding of the issues, considered value judgements, and inclusive deliberation (Drèze 2018a, 2020a).

Enormous energy has been spent on the quest for rigorous evidence, much less on the integrity of the process that leads from evidence to policy. As illustrated in an earlier contribution to Ideas for India (Drèze et al. 2020), it is not uncommon for the scientific findings of an RCT to be embellished in the process. This follow-up post presents another case study that may help to convey the problem. It also illustrates a related danger – casual jumps from evidence to policy advice. The risk of a short-circuit is particularly serious in ‘embedded experiments’, where the research team works ‘from within’ a partner government in direct collaboration with policymakers.

The case study pertains to an experiment conducted in Bihar in 2012-2013 and reported in Banerjee, Duflo, Imbert, Mathew and Pande (2020)1. This is a large-scale, influential experiment by some of the leading lights of the RCT movement – indeed, a formidable quartet of first-rate economists reinforced by one of India’s brightest civil servants, Santhosh Mathew. The high technical standards of the study are not in doubt, and nor is the integrity of the authors. And yet, I would argue that something is amiss in their accounts of the findings and policy implications of this study.

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Neoliberal capitalism and the commodification of social reproduction, from our home to our classroom

It is official: we are getting ready for another round of industrial action in the UK higher education sector. For those who may be wondering what the current UCU national strike 2021-22 is all about, a short recap may help. Higher education UCU members are striking because of planned pensions cuts that risk pushing academic staff into ‘retirement poverty’; to fight against ever-growing labour casualisation in universities; and because of the growing inequalities of gender, race and class the UK higher education sector has nurtured in the last five decades. Colleagues at Goldsmith – to whom we shall extend all our support – are also fighting against planned mass staff redundancies.

We – higher education workers and students – were on this picket before, so many times, fighting other policies deepening the process of commodification of education. We were on this picket fighting cuts in real wages – which education workers are still experiencing. We were on this picket to fight against the trebling of university fees for our BA students. At SOAS, where I work, we were on this picket to fight against cuts to our library, against Prevent, against the deportation of SOAS cleaners on campus ground – an event which remains the darkest chapter of SOAS industrial relations and for which the university has not yet apologised in recognition of the harm caused to the SOAS 9 and to all our community. We hope the school will acknowledge the need to do so, so that we can move forward, together.

We were at other demonstrations and on other picket  lines, protesting against austerity, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, against climate change, against racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, against gender violence. The picket really is a sort of archive, which can be consulted backward to reconstruct a history of attacks to our rights – at work, at home, or both.

And if we consult this archive, we can clearly see a pattern emerging in the last decades, a pattern which in fact connects neoliberal Britain with many other places in the world economy, which have also experienced processes of neoliberalisation. All the pickets and demonstrations, become a sort of tracing route; we can reconnect the dots spread across a broader canvas. These dots design a specific pattern; that of a systematic attack to life and life-making sectors, realms and spaces.

Neoliberal capitalism, starting from the 1980s, has promoted a process of systematic de-concentration of resources in public sectors, and particularly in so-called ‘socially reproductive sectors’, that is those that regenerate us as people and as workers. This attack has been massively felt in the home, which has become a major battleground for processes of marketization of care and social reproduction. The withdrawal of the state from welfare provisions, the rise and rise of co-production in services (i.e. the incorporation of citizens’ unpaid labour in public service delivery;  a practice further cheapening welfare) –  and processes of partial or full privatisation of service delivery in healthcare and education have generated massive reproductive gaps. These gaps have been filled through outsourcing of life-making to others. Homes have become net users of market-based domestic and care services. The in-sourcing of nannies, au-pairs, and elders carers, from a vast number of countries in the Global south and transition economies have remade the home as a site of production and employment generation, at extremely low costs.

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(After) Neoliberalism? Rethinking the Return of the State

By Ishan Khurana and John Narayan

A number of commentators have recently suggested neo-liberalism is dead, or is in a process of retreat. During the disruption of global commodity chains caused by the Covid 19-pandemic, free-market policies that have dominated the global economy for the past 40 years appear to have less purchase. Here, authors point to a reversion to a national form of capitalism and protectionism, the questioning of globalization and return of state intervention in the economy. A prime example is the Biden regime’s approach to the US economy, which has turned to deficit driven social spending, expansion of union rights and protectionist measures to public procurement. This hasn’t come out of nowhere – with the neo-liberal global economy being zombie-like since the 2008 global financial crisis.

The fracturing of the global economy along national lines may herald conflict and a new cold war between the US and China. However, the retreat of neo-liberalism also seems to offer a possible opening – through a critique of globalization and a return of the state. Here, a rejuvenated politics of the left may be able to avoid the pitfalls of an emergent authoritarian capitalism and launch a new national form of progressive politics around welfare policies such as the Green New Deal and Universal Basic Income in locations such as the UK and US.

Neo-liberalism is in trouble, but missing from these debates about its demise is a discussion of neo-liberalism in the Global South and, thus, the reality of what the crisis of neo-liberalism means for all rather than simply those within the Global North. 

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Living in the shadows of Dubai

Figure 1:. Dubai Marina, an affluent residential area in New Dubai. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

By achieving economic success while embracing market friendly policies: lower taxes, free trade, privatization and deregulation, Dubai has earned the reputation as a neoliberal success story. As it is typical of neoliberal economic policies, economic growth has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Rather, inequality has been reenforced, and Dubai consists of two distinct parts: ‘Old’ Dubai housing and representing the distressed and economically disadvantaged, and ‘New’ Dubai where the economically and politically powerful live (see Figure 1 and 2).  Existence of poverty alongside wealth puts pressure on both poor and rich city residents. Among the poor, the kind of pressure they face usually is related to the lack of money to provide basic needs for themselves and their dependents, as highlighted in Dawson’s remarks on Johannesburg (Dawson 2020). On the other hand, the rich (and also the poor) face pressure caused by challenges that are psychological or social or both. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with mostly African migrants in Dubai in 2015 and 2020, focusing particularly on their housing and labour market conditions, this piece’s central argument is that the extreme inequality in Dubai puts economic pressure on low-income migrants, the city’s poorest residents, while the juxtapositions of poverty and wealth right next to each other exert psychological pressure on the wealthy by instigating fear of low-income migrants because of crime concerns.

Figure 2: Deira, a district in Old Dubai where many low-income migrants live. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

With migrants accounting for over 80 percent of the population in Dubai and the UAE (de Bel-Air 2015, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2019), the city and country stand out as a leading immigration destination in the world. While some of the Africans I encountered in the UAE travelled for studies or tourism, the vast majority of them had migrated for economic reasons–in search of employment or with the intention to establish their own businesses. Convinced by the prospects of greener pastures in Dubai, these economic migrants spent their savings to pay for the migration journey. In some cases, migrants or family members borrowed money at high interest rates to cover the cost of migration. In either case, the financial obligations of African labour migrants in Dubai increased because of migration. Upon arrival in Dubai, they were shocked to realise that opportunities are limited and the living conditions for the majority of migrant workers are unbearable.

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World Development under Monopoly Capitalism

Photo: do bicycles come from? Source: WDR2020, Figure 1.1, pp. 16.

One of the main effects (I will not say purposes) of orthodox traditional economics was…a plan for explaining to the privileged class that their position was morally right and was necessary for the welfare of society.

—Joan Robinson1

The recent period of globalization—following the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the reintegration of China into the world economy—is one where global value chains have become the dominant organizational form of capitalism. From low to high tech, basic consumer goods to heavy capital equipment, food to services, goods are now produced across many countries, integrated through global value chains. According to the International Labour Organization, between 1995 and 2013 the number of people employed in global value chains rose from 296 to 453 million, amounting to one in five jobs in the global economy.2 We are living in a global value chain world.3

The big question is whether this global value chain world is contributing to, or detracting from, real human development. Is it establishing a more equal, less exploitative, less poverty-ridden world? Which political economic frameworks are best placed to illuminate and explain the workings of this world?

Recent critical scholarship has applied monopoly capital concepts and categories to the analysis of global value chains. John Bellamy Foster and others have illuminated how global value chains represent the latest form of monopoly capital on a world scale.4 John Smith shows how surplus-value transfer and capture—from workers in poorer countries to lead firms in northern countries—is portrayed by mainstream economists as “value added” by those firms.5 Intan Suwandi analyzes how global value chains are enabled by, and also intensify, differential rates of worldwide labor exploitation.6

Mainstream advocates of global value chain-based development tend to ignore such critical analyses, and continue to preach the benefits of global value chain integration by drawing on examples and data that support their claims. However, it says much about the anti-developmental dynamics generated by global value chains when a World Bank report advocating global value chain-based development actually provides data that supports the analyses of the aforementioned critical authors.

Here, we interrogate the data used and the claims made in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2020, titled Trading for Development in the Age of Global Value Chains (WDR2020, or “the report”).7 While the report portrays global value chains as contributing to poor countries’ development through job creation, poverty alleviation, and economic growth, we reveal how its data shows the opposite.8

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The Struggle for Development

This post is adapted from the preface for the newly published Turkish edition of The Struggle for Development, first published in 2017. The original edition aimed to root development thinking and practice in the analysis of class relations, and intellectual and political support for labouring class struggles. Turkey is experiencing numerous social struggles that illuminate the relevance of the arguments in this book. It is my hope that this book contributes to illuminating the social, developmental, value of these struggles.

Collective struggles by labouring class communities – in and beyond the workplace – have the capacity to generate real human developmental gains for these communities. Consequently, these struggles and the labouring classes that pursue them, should be considered as developmental.  

The majority of development thinking across the political spectrum – whether theoretically or policy focussed – tends to downplay labouring classes, their struggles and the gains they generate.  Rather, such struggles are usually ignored or are portrayed as obstacles to development, because they do not adhere to dominant capitalist notions of development. 

Capitalist notions and strategies of development take many forms, and can be thought of as existing along a spectrum – from more market-led/neoliberal, to more state-directed forms. In this book I argue that, despite notable differences, these forms of development represent varieties of capital-centred development. Here capital accumulation is prioritised as the basis of economic and human development. As I show in this book, both market led and state led forms of development are based upon the assumption that labouring classes represent an objective input into the development process, rather than a subjective agent of development. This assumption legitimates labour exploitation and repression for the greater ‘good’ of capital accumulation.  

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