New Internationalist

Development As Forced Labour

Issue 324

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Illustration: Brick
Development as forced labour

C Douglas Lummis counsels against counting
the votes people make with their feet.

Several years ago, in a book called Radical Democracy, I wrote that: 'Economic development... is antidemocratic in that it requires kinds, conditions and amounts of labour that people would never choose - and, historically have never chosen - in a state of freedom. Only by giving society one undemocratic structure can people be made to spend the greater part of their lives labouring "efficiently" in fields, factories or offices, and handing over the surplus value to capitalists, managers, Communist Party leaders, or technocrats.'

A book reviewer for the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs responded tersely that in fact 'the people have been voting with their feet in favour of capitalist prosperity pretty convincingly for some time now'.

This is the myth, stated with fine succinctness. Industrial capitalism was freely chosen. How can anyone call it antidemocratic?

Of course what most of the people in the world actually got, whatever they may have voted for, was capitalist poverty. But did this voting actually take place, and if so, when? 'For some time now' could mean recent decades or recent centuries. Are we supposed to believe that, at the beginning of the industrial revolution in England, the farmers who trudged into the cities to become the first generations of industrial wage workers were voting retroactively with their feet in favour of having been driven off their land by enclosure? Are we supposed to believe that the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America voted in favour of being colonized? Perhaps the reviewer is thinking of the era following World War Two, when colonialism and imperialism gave way to an allegedly more benign policy of 'the development of underdeveloped countries'.

This is the myth... Industrial capitalism was freely chosen. How can anyone call it antidemocratic?

For while few have claimed that colonialism had the consent of the colonized, part of the ideology of development implies such consent. Without it, how could development - which means the restructuring of societies such that they will sustain the industrial capitalist mode of production - support its claim to be different?

When Harry Truman in 1949 announced his 'bold new program' for 'the development of underdeveloped areas', he was launching the most massive sustained assault on both nature and culture that history has ever known. At the same time he was launching a massive paradigm shift in political economy. Before his announcement, 'modernization' did not exist as a technical term in the social sciences and the only thing that could be 'underdeveloped' was camera film. After his announcement the world was covered with under- developed countries in which development and modernization were either taking place or just about to.

The ideological power of the concepts of 'modernization' and 'development' comes from their use of retroactive teleology. Put bluntly, this means redefining something so that what you are about to do to it appears as its predetermined destiny. For example, we call a certain kind of stone 'iron ore', which means that if we crush it to powder and subject it to intense heat, it will yield iron. It wasn't 'ore' until this technology was discovered. But once we have the technology, we redefine the stone such that extracting iron from it is seen as the actualization of its latent potential, its fated end, its telos. Not only that: the dictionary defines 'ore' as 'native metal from which precious or useful metal may be profitably extracted' (Oxford English Dictionary; emphasis added). Even the market system is retroactively implanted into our definition of this natural object: when the market value drops, what was ore today may be stone tomorrow.

'Underdeveloped society' is a word like 'ore'. It is a redefinition made possible by the fact that the leaders in the industrial capitalist countries believe they have the power and the technology to smash such a society, melt it down and remold it on the industrial capitalist model. At the same time, the word gives the impression that to do this is to fulfill that society's predetermined destiny. This conceals the violently antidemocratic nature of development.

In the heady first years after Truman's speech, the new modernization/development ideologues propagated the myth that the chief motivating force behind development would be 'the revolution of rising expectations' brought about by the 'demonstration effect' of industrial capitalist life. Merely being exposed to this way of life - whether through pictures in magazines, or movies, or stories you got from your cousin who scrubs floors at the local Hilton - would cause the scales to fall from your eyes, after which you would drop everything (culture, tradition, values, whatever) to have it.

But at the very time the ideologues were popularizing this myth, they knew well that it wasn't really happening. In 1963, in his Communications and Political Development, Lucian Pye wrote: 'It is no longer possible to assume that people in traditional societies will readily experience a revolution of rising expectations simply by being exposed to the prospect of new standards of material life... Instead of having to cope with an agitated population carried away with exaggerated expectations, most governments in transitional societies are confronted with the problem of a disturbingly apathetic public which is inured to all appeals for action.'

Many of the chief tropical railways and roads have been constructed by forced labor

Merely renaming the stones 'ore' did not, it seems, cause them to disintegrate into powder and leap into the furnace on their own. But this did not cause the developmentalists to abandon the revolution of rising expectations. The myth persists to this day. There is a doublethink here. What matters is not what people actually want but what they are theoretically bound to want. Underdevelopment is to development what the acorn is to the oak. Development is what the acorns want by their very nature, and if they aren't aware of that, well, they'll find out soon enough.

Developmentalists engage in a similar kind of doublethink with regard to the history of colonialism and imperialism. These unfortunate things happened, as Marion Levy argued in his Modernization and the Structure of Societies, but they weren't essential to the inevitable process of modernity overcoming tradition. To focus on imperialism can only be a distraction, since 'the morals of imperialists are essentially irrelevant to the problems faced by members of relatively non-modernized societies in contact with modernization'.

Of course, this won't do. What happened in colonial and imperial times is not peripheral to the story of economic development - it is the first chapter in that story. In the 1933 International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, written before the shift to the development paradigm, there is an entry which discusses forced labor in the modern world. In most tropical areas the 'white man' is unable or unwilling to perform manual labor and enterprise must rely either upon the local population or upon imported coolie labor. Since the material wants of primitive peoples are few and they are unfamiliar with a money economy and unaccustomed to arduous and continuous toil, they are usually unwilling to work for European entrepreneurs. Out of this conflict between native indifference and the desires of governments and industrialists, forced labor arose. Many of the chief tropical railways and roads have been constructed by forced labor. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the tropics could have been held and developed without it.

Forced labor, the author continues, is still - ie in the 1930s - practised in all of Central Africa, French Algeria and Indo-China, British India, Dutch East Indies, Belgian Congo, British East Africa, Madagascar and French West Africa, Liberia, Portuguese West Africa, Dutch Java. The author goes on to describe some of the actual consequences. When the 'native' is suddenly and forcibly thrown into contact with industrial civilization their psychological resistance to diseases such as tuberculosis is lowered. Because of the compulsory methods used in the construction of the Congo-Ocean railway in French Equatorial Africa and a lack of adequate precautions, 17,000 native workers engaged on the enterprise died between 1925 and 1929.

The author then summarizes the justification colonialists offer for using forced labor, an argument in which we can see the postwar ideology of development in its embryonic form: 'Many businessmen [sic] and some colonial officials... defended forced labor for private enterprises on the ground that primitive peoples will not progress until they learn to work and that the wealth of the tropics cannot be exploited for the outside world unless forced labour is employed.'

Indian child workers stand up to the Development Dictatorship.
PAUL SMITH / PANOS PICTURES

Still, in most colonies direct forced labor was used only for public works and not by private enterprise. In some colonies, however - for example, parts of British South and East Africa - indigenous people, having been deprived of land adequate enough for independent economic existence, were literally compelled to labor for European mine or plantation owners. They may also have been indirectly subjected to heavy cash taxes which they could not pay except out of wages.

Here we find the first generation of 'underdeveloped' people 'voting with their feet' for the life of the industrial wage earner. When you are driven off the land by new laws of private ownership, or when the forest from which you draw your livelihood is cut down and replaced by a plantation, there may be nothing for it but to trudge down the road to the owner's house and ask for a job. And remember, this process - the transformation of the natural, social and legal environment such that wage work becomes the only choice - is not something that disappeared when colonialism was replaced by development. This is development.

In the 1968 revised edition of The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences the entry 'Forced Labor' has disappeared. It is hardly ever mentioned in any work on economic development. Industrial capitalism is a system of rule; it rules people by gaining control over their means of subsistence. Economic development is the extension of this system of rule to every corner of the globe. In the age of colonialism this required direct forced labor. In the age of development it is done by means of indirect forced labor, supplemented by the political power of the Development Dictatorship. In the age of globalization the process seems to be nearing completion: industrial capitalism is now claiming to be The Only Game in Town. In this situation, to look at the long column of development refugees trudging down the road from the blasted countryside into the slums of the cities in search of jobs, and to say these people are 'voting with their feet for capitalist prosperity', is to make a bad joke. Isn't a plebiscite where there is just one candidate supposed to be a symbol of tyranny?

But of course this is not really the only game in town, nor the only set of rules. In recent decades people's movements all over the world have defied 'economic common sense' to block development projects that threaten their subsistence. The search for an alternative economic logic - or non-economic logic - is something that no longer takes place only in books. The Zapatista chant - 'the First World ? Ha, ha, ha!' promises to echo deep into the 21st century. The real election of the feet - the long march to a democratized economy - is yet in the future.

C Douglas Lummis is an activist based in Japan and the author of Radical Democracy.


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