Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rural Poverty, Land, and Capitalist Globalization

At the PropertyProf Blog, Steve Clowney draws our attention to a recent New York Times article “on a conflict between subsistence farmers in Mali (who unknowingly don’t have good title to the land they farm) and international agricultural investors:”

Across Africa and the developing world, a new global land rush is gobbling up large expanses of arable land. Despite their ageless traditions, stunned villagers are discovering that African governments typically own their land and have been leasing it, often at bargain prices, to private investors and foreign governments for decades to come.

Organizations like the
United Nations and the World Bank say the practice, if done equitably, could help feed the growing global population by introducing large-scale commercial farming to places without it.

But others condemn the deals as neocolonial land grabs that destroy villages, uproot tens of thousands of farmers and create a volatile mass of landless poor. Making matters worse, they contend, much of the food is bound for wealthier nations. [….]

My comment to Professor Clowney’s post follows, as well as some further remarks:

This painfully illustrates one of the downsides of capitalist globalization (facilitated by the political powers-that-be: from the State downward). In India, activists (notably, but not only, those on the Left, including Communists) have resurrected the Gandhian notion of gram rajya (village autonomy or rural democracy) to fight such land grabs (with varying degrees of success).* Of course this concept was, with Gandhi, part and parcel of other “Euclidean” constructs or utopian concepts (swaraj, swadeshi, sarvodaya, satyagraha, ahimsa, etc.), some of which are completely forgotten or ignored today.

This is also a reminder of the fact that in the so-called developing countries or emerging polities (with regard to common processes of ‘modernization,’ democratization and integration into the global economy), spatially localized resources

“are frequently neither private property nor state property, but common property. In poor countries communal property rights to resources are often based on custom and tradition; they aren’t backed by the kinds of deeds that could pass scrutiny in courts of law. [....] In poor countries the local commons include grazing lands, threshing grounds, swidden fallows, inland and coastal fisheries, rivers and canals, woodland forests, village tanks, and ponds. Being spatially localized, their use can be monitored by members of the community. [....] Communal property rights enable members of a group to reduce individual risks by pooling their risks. Moreover, the incentive to pool risks that are associated with the use of any particular resource depends on the other risks people face, it depends on their remaining sources of income, on transaction possibilities in other spheres of life, and so forth.”
As Partha Dasgupta** also explains, the communal management of local commons doesn’t imply open access: they are open typically only to those whose kinship ties and community membership is thought to confer historical rights in this regard. Dasgupta notes case studies have concluded that such communal property rights and management “have prevented rural and coastal communities from experiencing the tragedy of the commons.”

Finally, these are exquisite examples of the various means used to facilitate and sustain cooperation and non-market interactions outside the legal power of the State. Alas (at least in the short-term; relatedly, this may be a case of taking one step backwards in order to take two steps forward—which is not a normative policy endorsement of this strategy), the growth of modern markets in these countries often has “an adverse effect of the functioning of a local, non-market institution,” prompting, for instance, the weakening of prevailing social norms (e.g., of reciprocity, authority, and trust) which, in turn, leads to the precipitous deterioration of communal management systems: one reason why “free trade” simpliciter sans consideration for those who are vulnerable to the (inevitable?) erosion of communitarian practices is ethically disturbing and defective economic and political policy.
To widen our perspective yet further, it should go without saying that polemical rhetoric against capitalism, or free trade and globalization, can only be made in the context of a nuanced economic and historical accounting of the virtues and vices of capitalism, one along the lines made by the Marxist economist Meghnad Desai in Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (2002):
“Capitalism is not a kind or a benevolent system. It is the most effective mode of production discovered so far in wealth creation [despite its endemic ‘cycles, with their manias, crashes, and panics’]. It has no overarching objective, since it works through the profit-seeking efforts of millions of capitalists. It generates economic growth, prosperity, and employment as side-effects. It also causes much misery and destruction in its tendency towards incessant change. But over the last two hundred years, it has achieved the largest gain in well-being in all previous millennia. For one thing, many more people are alive now than in 1800 (around six times as many), and they live longer on average—between ten to twenty years longer—than they did then. [….] If length of life can be taken as a crude measure of potential well-being, a billion people living, say, forty years on average in 1800 compared to six billion people living sixty year today speaks volumes for the success of capitalism. In 1800, perhaps two thirds of that billion were poor; today, at most a quarter of the six billion are poor. Yet the reduction of poverty is neither automatic, nor to be taken for granted.
Adam Smith was not wrong, however, in saying that the new system of natural liberty imposed the cost of inequality while delivering a universal betterment of living standards. More people have been brought out of poverty in the last two hundred years, especially since 1945, than ever before in history. The very idea that poverty could be eliminated could not have occurred in any precapitalist stage. Capitalism provides the means for eliminating poverty, but these means were not directed immediately, or evenly, in the course of its development.”
China, and to some extent India (e.g., the state of Kerala), provide compelling contemporary evidence that capitalism can make enormous strides in addressing the question of poverty, but as both China and India make plain, this is often purchased at the price of recalcitrant and novel forms of inequality (gender, geographical, urban/rural, income, and otherwise). The creation of new forms of “relative” poverty and inequality, the system’s “manias, crashes, and panics,” and the urgent ecological and environmental problems we face today, are among the more prominent and pressing reasons we have to endeavor, with Marx, to look beyond (in an Hegelian dialectical sense) this economic system (although Marx himself had very little to say about socialism and communism, his analytical prowess being devoted to capitalism). Along with Desai we might therefore ask:
“Is it possible to have a society that is not merely self-organizing, but consciously so? A society fully self-conscious of its own workings, and able to direct them, where individuals are not alienated from their work, or from themselves, but fully participate in their self-emancipation, and realize the full potential of the species-being that they are—in other words, Socialism beyond Capitalism?”
As Desai makes powerfully pellucid, any economic transcendence of capitalism will have to incorporate a full and honest accounting of its historical accomplishments and economic virtues, or transcendence by way of Hegelian-like negation and sublation. In other words, sloganeering along the lines of “capitalism sucks” or crude anti-globalization polemics is pointless, not unlike (assuming the sloganeering and polemics are sincere and grounded in coherent beliefs) the reasons Marx had for excoriating the socialists of his time and place for “their delusions about the prospects of achieving socialism.”
* See, for instance, this story: “Karnataka JD(S) vows to usher in gram rajya.” On the Janata Dal (S), see the Wikipedia entry.
**Partha Dasgupta, Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Further Reading:
  • Bardhan, Pranab. Scarcity, Conflicts, and Cooperation: Essays in the Political and Institutional Economics of Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.
  • Bardhan, Pranab, Samuel Bowles, and Michael Wallerstein, eds. Globalization and Egalitarian Redistribution. New York: Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Basu, Kaushik. Prelude to Political Economy: A Study of the Social and Political Foundations of Economics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Bhala, Raj. Trade, Development and Social Justice. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2003.
  • Brock, Gillian. Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Cottier, Thomas, Joost Pauwelyn, and Elisabeth Bürgi, eds. Human Rights and International Trade. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Held, David and Anthony McGrew. Globalization /Anti-Globalization: Beyond the Great Divide. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007.
  • Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 2nd ed., 1983 (1st ed., Oxford University Press, 1973).
  • Macy, Joanna. Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, revised ed., 1985.
  • Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
  • Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Free Trade Reimagined: The World Division of Labor and the Method of Economics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

[cross-posted at]


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