Theory from the South, or Reading the Global Order from the Antipodes

By John and Jean Comaroff

There appears to be a growing echo, slowly reverberating around the world, that, for good, ill, or both, Africa is the future, a harbinger of Europe’s history-to-come. Experts may debate the reasons for this: among them, a significant population bulge heavily skewed toward youth; an urban “revolution” unique in the current era; burgeoning consumer markets, rising middle classes, and accelerating techno-development; also, a propensity to repurpose material practices both foreign and homegrown, thus to remake modernity for late modern times. Says Keith Hart (2017:2), basing his prediction on the long historical relationship between demography and economy, “Sooner or later, Africa and Europe will change rank order.” The former – Africa, the continent that once signified the West’s prehistoric past and remains a perennial “basket case” in the jaundiced eyes of Euro-America – is now frequently taken to prefigure what lies ahead for humanity at large.

A decade or so ago, our Theory from the South explored this proposition and its implications for the social sciences, one of them being that Africa, as an “ex-centric” location (Bhabha 1994) and ground-zero of the Global South, has become a privileged axis from which to theorize the emerging world order of the twenty-first century. In so doing, it provoked a great deal of argument and, among northern intellectuals unused to the idea that their hemisphere may not be the font of all knowledge and theory-work, frank skepticism.

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Investment, Sustainability, Decent Jobs: Challenges and Promises for the Sub Saharan African Auto Industry

In a comparative research recently conducted for IndustriALL Global Union/ FES South Africa, we[1] tried to shed light on the high potential of the automotive industry in Sub Saharan Africa. At the same time, we explored the key challenges and pressing issues that need to be addressed for a sustainable industrial development path in the region. Our research report focuses on seven countries, identified as promising, fast-growing or broadly committed to supporting their Auto sector: Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.

First and foremost, the report claims attention towards these economies, and industries,  that are still largely underexplored, that still enjoy very limited visibility, whereas the largest portion of research on industrial development and on the Automobile industry is often addressed to traditionally established industries in the Global North (Europe, US, Japan) or to emerging giants in the Global South (China, Mexico, Brazil etc.). Our objective was thus to emphasise the increasingly important role that these seven industries, and the Sub Saharan African region more broadly, can play within the Global Auto Industry. Despite structural weaknesses that do persist, and despite the heavy impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, these seven countries share a willingness to own their industrial development trajectory, and to widen their participation in Global Production Chains. In this regard, the local auto industry remains an important bet.

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Economic Corridors as Infrastructures of Extraction

Economic Corridors

Economic corridors are geographically targeted development initiatives currently under construction on nearly every continent of the planet. While hard infrastructure such as transportation links, power generation, ports, and industrial zones contrive a spine, economic corridors are distinguished by accompanying “soft infrastructure” including business-friendly policies, regulations, and institutions to facilitate trade and investment. They feature prominently in foreign policy and development initiatives worldwide and have provided scaffolding for billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investments. They will likely do the same for those spurred by the “Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership” recently announced by the G7. Yet despite being around for over twenty years, relatively little has been written about economic corridors beyond the grey literature supported by multilateral development banks.

Notable exceptions to this dearth of conceptual engagement include those framing them as technologies of nationhood (in Malaysia), a form of licenced larceny (in Africa), tools of containment and enclosure (in China), and neoliberal institutions and new frontiers of capital (in India). In an article recently published in the Review of International Studies I contribute to this literature on corridors and infrastructure by proposing we should understand economic corridors as an essentially extractivist paradigm: a constellation of policy prescriptions that advance processes of valorisation and accumulation based on the subjugation of human and extra human nature to intensified exploitation. The adjective “extractivist” here denotes a process whereby capital draws on its multiple outsides as it depletes the social bases of wealth. This includes but is not limited to the plundering of the earth and biosphere, extending also to social dimensions of exploitation, such as the reorganisation of production and social relations that enable production.

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Informal employment and the social reproduction of value

In the last year, the rise and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fictitious nature of some of the categories we deploy to conceptualise the world of labour. Indeed, it has revealed the contingent nature of the separation between productive and reproductive spaces, times and realms when it comes to labour processes.

According to estimates produced by Janine Berg, Florence Bonnet, and Sergei Soares, when the crisis hit, around 30% of North American and Western European workers were in occupations that could allow home-based work, as opposed to only 6% of sub-Saharan African and 8% of South Asian workers. This is to say that in the Global North, the pandemic could de facto manufacture million homeworkers overnight, following national lockdowns. In many cases, these would still be contributing to formal sectors of the economy.

It is rather unsurprising that this shift to homeworking could not materialise in the Global South. Labour relations here are largely characterised by informal employment, in its double character – namely, employment in the informal economy and informalised employment in otherwise formal settings. While homeworking represents one segment of informal employment, its major share is composed instead of precarious forms of casual employment, far more difficult to immediately insource in home-settings. By the time the crisis hit, according to the ILO, informal employment constituted 69.6 percent of employment in the Global South and, given the share of working people it hosts, it constituted over 60 percent of total employment on our planet.

One of the key characteristics of informal employment is the interpenetration between productive and reproductive dynamics, activities and realms. The ever-growing reality of informal employment forces us to reflect and revise theories of value generation and extraction, and ultimately the basis of exploitation worldwide. That is, they force us to re-engage in the study of key Marxian categories of analysis, in ways that may account for how the majority on earth labours. These ways must necessarily account for the centrality of social reproduction in the working of labour processes and relations worldwide.

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Challenging the Orthodoxy: Race, Racism and the Reconfiguration of Economics

Books abound on what is wrong with economics (Chang 2014Keen 2011Nelson 2018Mazzucato 2018Raworth 2018Stanford 2015), and what we would have to do to change it. Given the little change we have seen in economics training and policy-effective economic thinking since the global finance crisis of 2007/08, and in light of the global environmental, inequality and health crises, it is to be seen whether these interventions can make any meaningful impact. What is good though: Half of these impactful books were written by female economists. Despite this ‘wind of change’ in an overtly male discipline, it is striking that these books still offer a glaring lacuna: the issues of race and racism (except for brief mentions in Nelson 2018 and Stanford 2015). For many people around the world, these are no mere ‘issues’, but integral to their daily struggles and experiences in White majority countries. These are part of a differentiated life– a life differentiated so much that it can be full of unrealized potentials, suffering and trauma, physical harm and violence, and premature death in the worst of cases. Therefore, while we could move on, building on these interventions and many others (e.g., Obeng-Odoom 2020Sarr 2019 or here), to discuss what would have to change in economic thinking (which includes economics training), policy and praxis to help achieve a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Raworth 2018), the goal of this blog entry is more firmly tied to the question of how economic thinking would change if race and racism were taken seriously as structural-relational problems?

Much of economic thinking happens via economics. Therefore, my entry will often refer to economics as an institutionalized field. That said, expertise about the economy is not just rooted in economics. In fact, economists should not hold an intellectual monopoly over explaining how the economy works and should work (even though many of them, ironically, seem to appreciate that monopoly). That is why I as an economic geographer dare write this post. Pluralizing the economy, economics and economic thinking are separate but still interconnected projects. Some of the arguments that follow apply to other disciplines, too. Nevertheless, economics is singular among the social sciences in terms of its socio-demographic homogeneity (at least in countries of the Global North), prestige, student intake volumes, policy influence and partial self-isolation from other disciplines. It thus deserves particular scrutiny.

So what would an economics that takes race and racism seriously as structural-relational problems have to look like? To what kind of epistemic and institutional practices would it have to commit itself in an effort to effectively engage with these lived realities? A partial answer is already provided by economists who do study race and racism in a field called stratification economics, not to be mixed up with the so-called economics of discrimination that is largely rooted in a neoclassical economics framework. Building on some the insights of the former, and adding a few more perspectives, we can call for at least 10 ways of how to challenge the broader field of economics (i.e. variants of neoclassical and behavioural economics, but much more than that, as we saw above!) via race and racism.

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Internal and external constraints: economic development without currency crisis

Simply speaking, development macroeconomics can be summarized as the challenge of improving productivity and production capacity in poor countries. This involves the conditions that need to be fulfilled for a development process to start as well as the policy framework and instruments that support it. Heterodox approaches consider the state’s role in steering productivity growth as essential (Cardim de Carvalho, 1997). Markets may be able to exploit price signals and adjust resource allocation correspondingly. However, they guarantee neither sufficient profitability of key sectors nor the demand for the goods produced. Both the profit rate and effective demand are conditions for investment to take place (Oberholzer, 2020). It is thus up to the government to make public investment in priority sectors and to apply instruments such as taxes and subsidies in ways that simultaneously allow for economies of scale, higher productivity large-scale employment and demand. This is what is generally referred to as industrial policy (see for example Chang, 2006; Oqubay, 2018).

But this is not everything. Policymakers have to pursue such a development strategy in face of an (often permanent) shortage of foreign currency. While domestic currency can be generated via the domestic banking system including public development banks, the availability of foreign currency is limited unless a country is able to increase exports or restrict imports. Since larger export capacity and a higher degree of import substitution are long-term goals, the current account is determined by domestic and foreign economic growth. This insight has come to be known as the balance-of-payments-constrained model or Thirlwall’s law, respectively (Thirlwall, 1979, 2013): it is reasonable to assume that demand for a country’s exports grows in income in the rest of the world while imports increase with domestic economic growth because a part of increasing incomes is reliably spent on imported goods. Therefore, stability in the balance of payments requires that imports do not grow faster than foreign exchange earnings via exports allow. A limit to the growth of imports implies a limit to the country’s economic growth, hence the balance-of-payments-constrained growth rate.

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Who will Benefit from the Bitcoinization of El Salvador?

On 8 June, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly voted to pass the Ley Bitcoin(Bitcoin Law), with a majority vote of 62 out of 84. The legislation was presented to the Assembly days after President Nayib Bukele announced his intention to make bitcoin legal tender, speaking via video broadcast to the Bitcoin 2021 Conference in Miami. Effective from 7 September, all businesses in the country will be required to accept bitcoin alongside the United States dollar, El Salvador’s current currency. Since the bill’s passing, legislators in Panama and financiers in Mexico have expressed interest in recognizing bitcoin as legal tender.

Rather than China’s digital renminbi or Venezuela’s petro, El Salvador will not be pursing the creation of its own cryptocurrency. Bukele is adamant that at this stage Bitcoin will not make up any of the nation’s reserves, held in the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. Rather, a trust in the country’s development bank (BANDESAL) worth US $150 million will guarantee convertibility to dollars as a safeguard against bitcoin’s volatility. In doing so, the BANDESAL trust would make sure that the price of a commodity does not widely fluctuate between point of purchase and completion of transaction.

In Bukele’s address he made mention of the lack of financial inclusion for Salvadorans being a motivation for the law. In a country where informal employment makes up around 70% of the labor force, anonymous peer-to-peer cash transfers without the formal requirements of a bank account or the high charges of Western Union make sense as an alternative. Bukele has also expressed his hope that the move will make El Salvador “less dependent” on the United States, given that dollarization ceded monetary independence to the Federal Reserve. But given the increasing centralization of Bitcoin and its reliance on big tech money, it is far more likely that bitcoinization will merely make El Salvador dependent on a different section of US capital.

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A need to re-examine the temporality of anti-trust action

The structure of anti-trust laws is generally and neatly divided into ex-post enforcement and ex-ante regulation of market conduct and its participants. It is a matter of social and economic policy choice as to whether any regulation should precede ‘harm’ or follow it, as is the construction of ‘harm’ across statutes. For example, the requirement of a merger notification is an ex ante means to understand and assess the market impact of a merger. On the other hand, abuse of dominant position is an ex-post assessment once the dominance has set in, which may be in the long run. The determination of abuse is subject to a rule of reason and analysis by the competition authorities. Against this background, the question is what happens in the intervening period when an undertaking is slowly and surely inching towards domination, engaging in conduct which would be punished only once it becomes dominant ? What happens to the process of concentration of markets, along with the practices in concentrated markets? These questions are not borne out of academic interest alone and are not completely answered by a simple focus on anti-competitive agreements, as will be seen below. The analysis will zoom in on the Indian market conditions to make a case for questioning the timing of regulatory intervention and proceed to show that new economic methods may be required in this task.

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