Good morning. Here are some loosely connected articles on development, bureaucracy, and state power…
- I am quite taken by James Ferguson’s metaphor of “swarming state power” as an alternative to James Scott’s “controlling state power” and thus as a way of understanding contemporary “development” (a discourse whose objects have apparently all but abandoned progress for the “hope of egress”). Ferguson helps us to understand both why so many development projects “fail” and what development projects are actually (i.e. functionally) doing even as they fail repeatedly and spectacularly. Surely, this metaphor of the state as a swarm, i.e. an enlarged bureaucratic state that engages usable objects without a coordinated and rationalized apparatus of planning and control, can be extended beyond the field of development?
- I’m still working through my copy of Akhil Gupta‘s Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India, but it is a gripping read. Gupta’s work challenges the (often faddish) application of Agamben’s Homo Sacer to developmental policy — particularly in a democratic republic like India. The irrationality and arbitrariness of the plan-rational bureaucracy which routinizes the suffering of the poor is carefully detailed by Gupta’s ethnographic field work. On reading Gupta, one cannot help but recall Marx’s dictum that “The bureaucrats are the Jesuits and theologians of the state.”
- The irrationality and arbitrariness of the bureaucracy is not confined to the “lesser places,” of course. John Sifton‘s brilliant account of how the US FBI reacted to a practical joke is well worth the read. What could be more amusing than forcing a dilettante to explain Finnegan’s Wake to humorless and intellectually brain-dead bureaucrats and lawyers?
- Stephen Graham‘s essay on Foucault’s Boomerang is also worth a read. The essay reminds us that techniques of bio-power and bio-politics that served as the foundation for the surveillance state were the product of Europe’s colonial encounters. Nevertheless, these techniques have evolved rapidly toward a form that Graham calls “militarized urbanism.” The vision of urban spaces in capitalist heartlands as problematic sites or infected zones beyond the scope of the authentic national community fuels the incendiary politics of the right wing. Thus it is not surprising to see the emergence of a rightist discourse which weaponizes the bodies of migrants; and national security states that display an almost “instinctive anti-urbanism.”
In our newish MA program in Global Policy Studies, it turns out “International Development” is the most popular concentration. Now, many of our students who are interested in this “specialization” have what I call a distinct project-based approach to development. They think of international development as projects foreigners go out and do. Since most of our students are from the United States, they envision themselves doing development the same way I did as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador where I served from 1997-1999 (the photo above is of a quinoa export project I worked on with some great people; it’s a little dark but I’m the guy in the front left with the ball cap). This vision of development is you the foreigner go out to some rural area and you help the locals.
It’s been much derided in contemporary international development circles, most notably in Bill Easterly’s work White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Easterly’s work is a specific indictment of foreign aid rather than micro project-based development, but the two are related. Easterly clearly is of the macro school of getting the foundations of the economy and governance right, but there has been a whole revolution in economics over the past half-decade with a fascination for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that has made micro-level project-based international development even sexier to our incoming students, some of whom have gone on to work for these outfits like J-PAL (Poverty Action Lab) and Innovations for Poverty Action. I find all this micro stuff fascinating and hopeful, but I worry about what I call the “islands of goodness problem.” Let me explain.