On Monday, 27 November Ben Selwyn from Sussex University gave the Annual Lecture 2017 of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ). In his excellent lecture, Selwyn drew heavily on his new book The Struggle for Development (Polity, 2017). I will reflect on some of the key themes in this blog post including labour-centred development and the possibility of system transformation through democratisation of the economy.
Development and the failed promised of neo-liberalism
Selwyn’s starting-point of analysis is the total failure of neo-liberal economics and its promise that the magic of the market ensures the right price and ultimately highest possible welfare for everyone. Ultimately, he argued, this rationale is based on a big lie, measuring poverty through the $1.90 a day figure. By setting the barrier of poverty so low, capitalism would mask its failure. ‘Ending global poverty through economic growth alone will take more than 200 years (based on the World Bank’s inhumanly low poverty line of $1.90 a day) and up to 500 years (at a more generous poverty line of $10 a day)’ (Selwyn, 2017: 3). In short, any more meaningful measure of poverty reveals that the vast majority of the world’s labouring classes live in poverty and are likely to do so in the medium- to long-term future.
Key to these levels of super-exploitation is the unchallenged power of transnational corporations (TNCs). In many cases, pay for sweatshop labour is so low that workers are not even paid enough to reproduce themselves. So-called global value chains, the way production is organised in multiple processes across borders, should really be called global poverty chains.
Putting labour first: an alternative to market-based and state-led development
If we do want to ensure that people actually benefit from development, we have to put labour first, Selwyn pointed out. Pro-labour policies by left-leaning governments are good, but in themselves not enough. If workers want to secure gains, development needs to be labour-driven, i.e. workers organise and push capital for concessions. Even more importantly, development has to be labour-led. Rather than hoping that others would implement policies beneficial to them, workers should improve their situation by determining themselves the way of how production is organised and the generated wealth is distributed.
When analysing the exploitation of labour and the potential alternatives, we need to look at both directly at the workplace, where exploitation takes place, but equally indirectly at the sphere of wider social reproduction, which includes those who depend on the income of the wage earner, but at the same time provide the (unpaid) support for workers, and thus the capitalist system, to reproduce themselves. Hence, struggles for development are highly diverse, with different outcomes and objectives. They include struggles by South African shack dwellers, South Africa’s mineworkers and metalworkers, rural struggles by the landless workers’ movement and urban struggles by the homeless workers’ movement in Brazil, mass strikes in East Asia as well as the numerous examples of occupied factories run by workers, notably in Argentina, but increasingly also in Europe (Selwyn, 2017: 101-23).
Beyond Exploitation: Democratic Development.
Importantly, in order to achieve a total transformation of the current situation, ‘societal reabsorption of the state is required to subordinate and transform capitalist social relations’ (P.130). In other words, people need to be empowered so that they can properly participate in deciding about how to organise their local community in local-level participatory planning procedures. Hence, democracy needs to be decentralised and re-introduced into the economic sphere.
When thinking about change, income re-distribution is an easier start to re-balance the environment and address the problem of inequality than hoping for continued levels of economic growth. Further areas of immediate action could be an emphasis on local food production, agricultural reform, universal basic income, a sharing of resources at the local level, learning from indigenous people and an emphasis on gender equality in society. Is this planning? Yes, of course, Selwyn confirmed. However, considering that there is no such thing as a ‘free market’, it is better to engage in democratic planning than the autocratic planning by transnational corporations.
Selwyn’s lecture made clear the achievement of his book. While he succeeds at providing a total systemic analysis of the capitalist system, encouraging social movements to go beyond their particular single issue campaigns, he provides solutions for people to follow in the here and now at the same time. And while doing this, he is careful not to tell people what they should do. He only makes suggestions, realising for well that people themselves, if empowered, have the capacity of establishing concrete alternatives.
He starts his book with a quote by Louis-Marie Prudhomme, Révolutions de Paris: ‘The great are only great because we are on our knees. Let us rise up’. In his book, Selwyn provides concrete suggestions of what rising up could look like. A must-read for everyone who is interested in going beyond capitalism.
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://andreasbieler.net
1 December 2017