Economic history

Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher

 

Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

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Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

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File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.

We should justify ourselves no more: Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia

by guest contributor Laetitia Citroen

2016 has been a particularly prolific year for the French-speaking African intellectual community, with symbolical landmarks like the appointment of a Congolese award-winning novelist, Alain Mabanckou, as guest-lecturer at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris and the gathering of some of the best minds of the continent (many of whom teach in the US) in two international and interdisciplinary conferences—one at the Collège de France, and one at the Universities of Dakar and Saint Louis in Senegal—to think about the future of Africa in terms of its economy, philosophy, and culture.

afrotopia.jpgThe organizer of the Conference in Senegal, Felwine Sarr, is a young economist and philosopher whose most recent book could serve as a manifesto for this new dynamic. Afrotopia powerfully advocates for a new Africa. Sarr combines work as an economist with a broad philosophical background in both European and African traditions. This essay is punctuated with deft quotations from Castoriadis, Lyotard, and Foucault alongside Mudimbé, Wiredu, and Mbembe, all as Saar discretely takes up the heritage of Frantz Fanon. In spite of the title, the author’s purpose has nothing of the dreamy or the unrealistic. Afrotopia is not an u-topia, a place that does not exist; rather, it is a topos, a place that can and will appear because “there is a continuity between the real and the possible.” This book is not an optimistic dream; it is a galvanizing declaration of love to an entire continent that has so much potential and only needs to become aware of it. It is also a deeply philosophical analysis of the numerous invisible ties that prevent its economies from ‘growing’ and ‘developing.’

The book also treats the ‘economy’ of Africa in the most philosophical sense: the complex network of relationships that connects African people on all kinds of levels, a study of what constitutes the inner equilibrium of the continent. Despite Sarr’s training as an economist, you will find not find here any graphs or compilation of numbers imported from World Bank Reports. Instead, he dwells on the importance of sustaining the link between culture and economy: “in human communities,” he writes, “the imaginary is a constitutive part of social relationships, including the most materialistic ones. An economic interaction is, first and foremost, a social interaction. The imaginary and the symbolical determine its production. Therefore, cultural factors will influence economic performances. (…) African economies would take off if only they functioned on their own motives.” Quoting French intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis, Sarr argues that the first step is an “imaginary institution” of this new Africa, of this “Afrotopia.” African intellectuals need to take the time to define their own “autonomous and endogenous teleonomy”: to set the goals of the African societies themselves or, to put it in other terms, to block any external attempt to determine what would be good for Africa. In many ways, the term ‘development’ itself needs to be decolonized.

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Felwine Sarr (© Léo Paul Ridet/Hanslucas.com pour Jeune Afrique)

The author hence argues that not only have International Aid Agencies forgotten to take specific cultural features into account, but that they have also brought their own teleology. Real African ‘development’ cannot and will not take place if it only aims at objectives—like ‘growth’—that Westerners consider best. He quotes his friend the Togolese novelist Sami Tchak, who once provocatively asked him: “When will we ever stop considering others’ past as our future?” Afrotopia is precisely an African place, not a copy of the global north. When reflecting on other ways of defining ‘development,’ Sarr refers to the philosophy of development as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum founded it; he also underlines the symbolical value of all economic exchanges as studied by anthropologists of economy—like Jane Guyer—who show how all economic behavior is based on cultural meaning. Simple examples of this could be the money sent home by emigrants of the diaspora or the importance of hospitality.

Therefore, writing about the African economy entails much more than drawing graphs. The pure rationality of an homo economicus yields no satisfactory explanation of economic exchanges in Africa—or, the author hints, anywhere else. So studying the economy of Africa proves nothing short of studying the social interactions themselves; Afrotopia must be a place that thrives ‘economically’ in its fullest meaning ; it has to be a place that “makes sense to those who inhabit it.” Understanding this requires taking distance from, or completely abandoning, the “methodological individualism” of orthodox economic thinking. Therefore, Sarr calls for an “epistemic decentering,” even for an “epistemogonia.” Western economics yield an épistêmè of sorts that need to be reconsidered before being applied to African situations as other non-Western economists, like Ugandan Yash Tandon or Indian Rajeev Bhargav have pointed out. Africa needs to speak about itself in its own language, and it is time to “leave the dialectic of appropriation and alienation behind.”  Africa is not faced with a binary choice of either being alienated, of losing its identity to the hands of new colonizers, or of willingly embracing the Western civilization.

But this carries wider implications than simple methodology: the debate about Africa is stuck in a dialectic of tradition and modernity. The lack of ‘modernity’ in Africa commonly refers to the lack of technological and industrial ‘progress.’ Yet why do we still speak in these terms about Africa when philosophers in the West have long started theorizing postmodernity? Sarr situates his Afrotopia as part of this new way of thinking: simple mimetism of Western values is no real ‘progress’ for Africa; and the ‘weight’ of ‘tradition’ is no synonym of backwardness and refusal to change. Rather, it is also the unique root from which the continent can draw its future, as Japan did one hundred and fifty years ago. In the end, Sarr advocates for an “Afrocontemporanéité” rather than an African modernity: equally averting from nostalgia of a mythical past and from pure awe at technological progress, Sarr argues that Africa has to consider its situation as it is right now, in its contemporaneity, and make sure it is as unique and true to itself as it can be.

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Zeinab Mialele colletion (© Charles Bah/Fima)

There is no fatality. Africa is not this tragic continent that has lost all connection with its ancient culture, nor is it this strange space that will eventually come to resemble northern countries. The author calls pragmatically for thinkers who will take Africa as it is right now, with the inherited and the assimilated. As can be seen in the beautiful creations of young African stylists (Sarr takes his examples in all realms of activity, from fashion to urbanism), whose syncretism can be a virtue: “we are the result of what has persisted, the result of the syntheses that took place in ourselves.” In a way, Sarr also foresees Africa’s capacity to jump directly into the twenty-first century without endlessly asking itself about its past – be it colonial or pre-colonial – and invites us to trust its capacity of poiésis, of creating something new. For instance, the continent has not yet built environmentally harmful industries on its soil, and could therefore start implementing cleaner ways of production right from the beginning, and even use its resources as leverage to impose these clean industries in the rest of the world.

So where is this Afrotopia, and how can we find it—the real place of Africa, the one it has not yet been able to bring into shape? The must first exist as a mental place; it needs to be built in ideas, intention, and will before it is built on real land. As with any proper construction work, however, the foundation must be clean, and the tendency to uncritical imitation must be set aside. This is, indeed, a very classical idea in the postcolonial context look back to Fanon’s Black skin, white masks (1952). Africans should stop running away from their true selves. For Sarr, economy (and therefore civilization) is not about comparing childishly who has the more riches; it is about building societies that pursue their own happiness, defined according to their own values.

One thing that could have been interesting in addition to this powerful global analysis may have been an inquiry into the unity or diversity of ‘Africa.’ The author brings up intellectual and political references from all over the continent – from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, from Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara to Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere—and we would want to know more about his vision of “the continent” as a whole. What constitutes its unity? The question, of course, can be asked about any continent, and Sarr rightly complains that Africa has been asked that question many more times than others. But for a continent that is far too often considered as a massive entity, sometimes even confused with a ‘country,’ it would be extremely enlightening to have his contribution to a question that will likely never be fully answered.

In the end, what the author pleas for is time—it is the “longue durée” (long-term) defined by French historian Fernand Braudel as the time allowing civilizations to build themselves cautiously, carefully and wisely and the time necessary to structure strong and autonomous values one by one. It also marks the time that is needed to ‘imagine’ this new Africa, the time needed for intellectuals to conceptualize this Africa yet to come. It is the time needed for governments to plan in the long run, and not be forced to make rash decisions when selling their precious resources because the needs are too urgent. But the advent of Afrotopia is near at hand: it is like the blueprint of an entirely new continent, and this book sounds like the guideline for a whole generation of philosophers, economists, historians, architects, musicians, artists who will transform the current Africa into this “Afrotopia, this other Africa which we should hurry to make real, because it realizes its happiest potentialities.”

Laetitia Citroen studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Lyon (France). Her dissertation examines the philosophical background necessary to rethinking economic development in West Africa, namely through taxation, in a less abstract and more humanist way.

New Grounds, New Voices: Postwar Politics and Economics

by guest contributor Eric Brandom

The Western Society for French History meeting is always rewarding, and this year in Chicago did not prove an exception. “Searching for New Ground: Re-Evaluating the Theoretical Foundations of Politics and Economics in Postwar France,” a panel of graduate students at different phases of their work, is particularly worth highlighting here.

Alexander Arnold presented an essai at recovery of the rationalist historical epistemology of Gilles-Gaston Granger, especially his investigation into the conceptual foundations of economics, principally in his 1955 thesis Concept, structure et loi en science économique. Arnold began by sketching the widely noted postwar crisis of economics or, in the title of one important early statement, La crise de la pensée economique. What are the foundations of economics? What kind of a science is it? This, Arnold indicates, remained a problem not least because the study of economics was not institutionally centralized. It was conducted here as econometrics, there as social studies, and nowhere was a sustained investigation into its theoretical content carried out. In any case, no agreement could be found and no central institution emerged in which such agreement would be forged.

Gilles-Gaston Granger (© Martine Franck/Magnum Photos)

Gilles-Gaston Granger (© Martine Franck/Magnum Photos)

In this context then, we have Granger’s attempt at a rationalist historical epistemology of economics in the vein of Bachelard and Cavaillès. The bold move here is to transfer an historical epistemology developed with the natural sciences (and especially mathematics) as an object to the terrain of social science. The method would be to investigate the historical movement and development of concepts. Granger argued that only when the concepts of economics have been thus investigated and clarified would they become productive and mobile again. Arnold gives us the central example of equilibrium, which Granger traced back to ancient notions of two balanced physical forces. How is it possible to get between the individual instance of exchange and this larger metaphor of balanced forces, say supply and demand?

Arnold’s presentation was elegant, and I am convinced that we should read Granger. Two central questions occur to me. The first is that I would like to know a great deal more about the nature of this ‘crisis of economic thought’ that unfolded over the course of the 1950s. Why the crisis? Is the lack of institutional centralization a sufficient explanation? Are we coming down from Mont Pèlerin here? The legacy of fascist-era planned economies? And then, pointing toward my second question, there’s the other major claimant to being in possession of an economic science—the Communist Party. Even aside from the politics of economics and communism, does Granger not engage with the obvious theoretical interlocutor here, the Marxist tradition of critique of political economy? Arnold finished with a flourish: Granger may not be a major figure in the intellectual history of economics, but perhaps he should be—is—in the conceptual history of economics.

Luca Provenzano (a JHI blog contributor) suggested an unabashed ‘return to Althusser,’ although not to what is normally thought of as Althusserianism. Provenzano exploits the manuscripts relatively recently made available at IMEC (parts of which were published in PUF’s 1996 Sur la reproduction) to look again at Althusser’s famous 1970 essay on ISAs in La pensée. Out of the archive comes a much more pluralist and less straightforwardly pessimistic Althusser, one more willing to discuss the failures of ideology to successfully hail individuals, more interested in the competition between ideologies, their overlaps and conflicts. Provenzano is also interested in deepening our understanding of the context in which the essay appeared, and developed in this presentation arguments for the importance of three contexts: first, the institutional contexts of writing and publishing, here the relevant shift is from Maspero, a more broadly leftist publisher, to the PCF journal La pensée. Second is the ongoing political conflict between the PCF and the gauchiste students, some of them Althusser’s, for whom he was held responsible by the Communists. Third are the comments and objections made to Althusser’s earlier writings, or draft versions, by his students. Provenzano mentioned a fourth important context, Althusser’s illness, but prudently set it aside. I will simply mention here that, given Provenzano’s laudably dense approach to political context, it seems unavoidable if only at the most vulgar level of obliging Althusser to be periodically absent from Paris.

Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser

Provenzano argues that if we attend to the manuscripts, we can see Althusser elaborating a theory of ideology that, in its sensitivity to what I (not Provenzano and surely not Althusser) want to call human experience, comes to seem much more like a theory of social action, or practice. This is because ideology really does permeate everything, but is also not unified. So that ideologies compete and may well fail to ‘hail’ an individual into subject-hood. Provenzano argues that this work—transparently biographical in parts—was actuated by the specific political context. Althusser was torn between the PCF and the students. He wanted to support the students, to reconcile the students and the PCF, but in the end could not, and also could not abandon the PCF. So, says Provenzano, the moment closed and the manuscripts remained in the archive. I would like to hear more about the nature of this closure. Here in any case is an Althusser that E.P. Thompson might have hesitated to call (more or less) a theologian of Stalinism.

In 1975, the French educational system was subject to significant “modernizing” reforms, including a more unified early curriculum, fewer general requirements for those pursuing the scientific track, and a reduced role for philosophy in the lycée. This, indeed, is the world that Althusser criticized. Philosophers mobilized in different ways to defend themselves. David Sessions’ paper looks at how Jacques Derrida, together with GREPH (Le Groupe de Recherche sur l’Enseignement Philosophique), rejected the traditionalist defense of philosophy—and its “sacred” place in the curriculum—but also rejected the implied philosophy of “modernization.” Derrida’s historical starting point, nourished by a perhaps surprising engagement with sociology, for instance Bourdieu and Passeron on education and reproduction, was the recognition that philosophy had always been complicit, a prop to the established order, rather than a place somehow beyond politics. Conceptually, the beginning was to see that philosophy never argues against non-philosophy (as might at first appear to be the case in the reform), but against some other philosophy.

In his work with GREPH, Sessions tells us, Derrida argues that the 1975 reform represents scientism. Derrida is not anti-science, but against the essentially authoritarian modernizing ideology often associated with technoscience. Philosophy should not abandon the field of struggle (the state educational system), but should stay within it and remain critical. This would be a philosophy committed to understanding the institutional conditions of knowledge, whose practices would not be inherently subversive, perhaps, but which could open new possibilities. The position Derrida wished to occupy is a difficult one to maintain, and his attempt to do so should certainly be of interest to the humanities broadly in the contemporary Anglophone world. Sessions also suggests some historiographical consequences for attention to this part of Derrida’s work, first of all for answering questions about the political significance of deconstruction, although these writings also allow us to place Derrida together with certain contemporaries, Marxist theory, and more broadly the attempt to come to grips with changes in French society in the wake of 1968.

If I have understood Sessions’ account of Derrida’s critique of authoritarian technoscience correctly, it seems to me a critique leveled at a fundamentally modernist kind of modernization—that is, ideology flattening things out at the service of/by means of a centralized authority. Famously, it was the 1970s that saw Foucault move away from such an account of State power toward his analysis of neoliberalism as governmentality (we cut off the king’s head, now we must behead the State). We have Provenzano reminding us that Althusser was important for Foucault’s thinking here, and perhaps made some of the same moves away from monolithic ideology himself. I would love to hear what Provenzano’s Althusser has to say about Sessions’ Derrida. What did Althusser think about the reforms of the 1970s? Arnold argued that Granger sought in a more or less depoliticized way to put economics really in possession of its own concepts—is this the kind of critical/foundational work Derrida has in mind? Is it rather just the opposite?

IMEC-Institut Mémoires de l'édition contemporaine

IMEC-Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine

Thomas Dodman’s comment was a model of the genre. For him the panel was evidence of a revival in intellectual history. Perhaps, Dodman suggested, it is a Koselleckian moment in which “concepts” matter most, but certainly all three papers gave an important place to context in actuating concepts or demanding work on them. Paris remains the scene, although the relevant documents seem mostly to be at IMEC in Caen or elsewhere now. I wonder if the increasing importance of IMEC, given its peculiar institutional position within the galaxy of French archives, will push intellectual historians of the later 20th century to think about the politics of their archives and subjects—what the archive itself reproduces and silences—as other sub-disciplines have done?

Eric Brandom is a James Carey fellow and visiting assistant professor in the department of history at Kansas State University. His book on Georges Sorel and the political thought of the Third Republic is in preparation. He maintains an academia.edu page, and also tweets @ebrandom.