Arturo Escobar on Development and Discourse

Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development is one of those books that felt like it fundamentally changed how I see things.

Because of this, maybe, I never properly blogged it — I have a PDF full of highlights, bought the book, I flip through seeking key insights and instead get involved again on every page. But I wanted to get a bit down, an overview of argument as I think through some of these ideas for new work of my own (and finishing up a article long overdue). I start with the preface:

THIS BOOK grew out of a sense of puzzlement: the fact that for many years the industrialized nations of North America and Europe were supposed to be the indubitable models for the societies of Asia. Africa, and Latin America, the so-called Third World, and that these societies must catch up with the industrialized countries, perhaps even become like them. This belief is still held today in many quarters.

It is quite puzzling. Sadly it still seems almost as true in 2021 as it did in 1995.

While he calls this a poststructural approach and it focuses in on discourse, he never loses sight of the material. This is one of those works that manages to bring two very different, and often opposing, ways of though together in fruitful and powerful ways. I think maybe Anna Tsing is the last person to so impress me with this alchemy. So to say again what Escobar wishes for this book to be and do:

…the approach is discursive, in the sense that it stems from the recognition of the importance of the dynamics of discourse and power to any study of culture. But there is much more than an analysis of discourse and practice; I also attempt to contribute to the development of a framework for the cultural critique of economics as a foundational structure of modernity, including the formulation of a culture-based political economy. In addition, I include a detailed examination of the emergence of peasants, women, and the environment as clients of the development apparatus in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, I incorporate throughout the text accounts of Third World scholars, many of whom tell stories that are less mediated by the needs of the U.S. and European academy.

YES Third World scholars. And YES Stuart Hall. He does this too of course.

The approach is also anthropological. As Stuart Hall said. ‘If culture happens to be what seizes your soul, you will have to recognize that you will ‘always be working in an area of displacement.” (vii)

The economic orthodoxy to be examined is familiar across the US and Europe. It caused its own ravages here, but was turned upon the rest of the world as a weapon. In the (in)famous words of the UN:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress is impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of caste, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated. Very few communities are willing to pay the full price of economic progress.
(United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs, 1951, 15, p 3)

Add this to the Truman doctrine:

To bring about the conditions necessary to replicating the world over the features that characterized the “advanced” societies of the time—high levels of industrialization and urbanization, technicalization of agriculture, rapid growth of material production and living standards, and the widespread adoption of modern education and cultural values. In Truman’s vision, capital, science, and technology were the main ingredients that would make this massive revolution possible. Only in this way could the American dream of peace and abundance be extended to all the peoples of the planet. (4)

And so what we have is incredible power wielded through the UN, IMF, World Bank, USAID and etc that is focused on ‘no less than a total restructuring of “underdeveloped” societies.’

This book tells the story of this dream and how it progressively turned into a nightmare. For instead of the kingdom of abundance promised by theorists and politicians in the 1950s, the discourse and strategy of development produced its opposite: massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression. (4)

Also, of course, climate crisis. This is all that must be repaired, and it requires a radical rethinking, reconceptualising, re-imagining. That’s where this book goes, seeking such rethinking in the active grassroots resistance to all of it.

But first what Escobar unpicks here is how this very Western and colonial ideology and discourse came to set the terms of the debate, and how it has set hegemonic limits on what could be said, argued, imagined. He writes:

Even those who opposed the prevailing capitalist strategies were obliged to couch their critique in terms of the need for development, through concepts such as “another development,” “participatory development,” “socialist development,” and the like. In short, one could criticize a given approach and propose modifications or improvements accordingly, but the fact of development itself, and the need for it, could not be doubted. Development had achieved the status of a certainty in the social imaginary… reality in sum, had been colonized by the development discourse, and those who were dissatisfied with this state of affairs had to struggle for bits and pieces of freedom within it, in the hope that in the process a different reality could be constructed. (5)

Here he cites Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Liberation Theology, Fals Borda, Cardoso and Faletto, Illich. Moves on to Foucault, postcolonial theory of Mudimbe, Mohanty, Said, Bhaba. I have drawn hearts, many hearts in the margins. He writes about his methodology:

Thinking of development in terms of discourse makes it possible to maintain the focus on domination—as earlier Marxist analyses, for instance, did—and at the same time to explore more fruitfully the conditions of possibility and the most pervasive effects of development. (6)

This is also part of a group project to uncover systems of knowledge. As he writes:

Cultures … are characterized not only by rules and values but also by ways of knowing. Development has relied exclusively on one knowledge system, namely, the modern Western one. The dominance of this knowledge system has dictated the marginalization and disqualification of non-Western knowledge systems. In these latter knowledge systems, the authors conclude, researchers and activists might find alternative rationalities to guide social action away from economistic and reductionistic ways of thinking.9

Boaventura de Sousa Santos has written extensively on such differing epistemologies, as have Walter Mignolo and others. This does not ignore them, but draws most heavily on other postcolonial theory to analyse the discourses of domination. Development and its discourse is, of course, rooted in unequal power and ‘the colonialist move’ as theorised by Mohanty, ‘specific constructions of the colonial/ Third World subject in/through discourse in ways that allow the exercise of power over it‘ (72).

He uses Bhaba’s definition of colonial discourse as ‘a form of governmentality that in marking out a “subject nation,” appropriates, directs and dominates its various spheres of activity’ (75). And so of course

…the development discourse is governed by the same principles; it has created an extremely efficient apparatus of producing knowledge about, and the exercise of power over, the Third World. This apparatus came into existence roughly in the period 1945 to 1955 and has not since ceased to produce new arrangements of knowledge and power, new practices, theories, strategies, and so on. In sum, it has successfully deployed a regime of government over the Third World, a “space for ‘subject peoples'” that ensures certain control over it.

And of course all of this is spatialised:

This space is also a geopolitical space, a series of imaginative geographies, to use Said’s (1979) term. The development discourse inevitably contained a geopolitical imagination that has shaped the meaning of development for more than four decades. For some, this will to spatial power is one of the most essential features of development (Slater 1993). It is implicit in expressions such as First and Third World, North and South, center and periphery. The social production of space implicit in these terms is bound with the production of differences, subjectivities, and social orders. … There is a relation among history, geography, and modernity that resists disintegration as far as the Third World is concerned, despite the important changes that have given rise to postmodern geographies (Soja 1989).

We reach Escobar’s view of development:

To sum up, I propose to speak of development as a historically singular experience, the creation of a domain of thought and action, by analyzing the characteristics and interrelations of the three axes that define it: the forms of knowledge that refer to it and through which it comes into being and is elaborated into objects, concepts, theories, and the like; the system of power that regulates its practice; and the forms of subjectivity illustrated by this discourse, those through which people come to recognize themselves as developed or underdeveloped. The ensemble of forms found along these axes constitutes development as a discursive formation, giving rise to an efficient apparatus that systematically relates forms of knowledge and techniques of power.

This book seeks to create ‘A map of the invention of development, the discourse of underdevelopment, anthropologizing the West to show how ‘exotic its constitution of reality has been.'(11) But above all this is to chage development, transform it. As Escobar writes:

The goal of the analysis is to contribute to the liberation of the discursive field so that the task of imagining alternatives can be commenced (or perceived by researchers in a new light) in those spaces where the production of scholarly and expert knowledge for development  purposes continues to take place. (14)

Perhaps why I loved this so much when I read it was that it served to bridge worlds for me. I was struggling so much with theory, but Escobar continuously brings it to earth, relates it to struggle and highlights what any good orgaiser knows — that people do not just fight for bread and butter but for ways of life, for culture and for dignity. So this is central to his theorising (and that of others).

As Mohanty (1991a) insists, both projects–deconstruction and reconstruction–have to be carried out simultaneously. As I discuss in the final chapter, this simultaneous project could focus strategically on the collective action of social movements: they struggle not only for goods and services but also for the very definition of life, economy, nature, and society. They are, in short, cultural struggles. (16)

I am never sure what I think about grand alternative models or strategies and their critics, never quite understand the all or nothing arguments on both sides, but love this book as one that manages to deconstruct discourse as well as examine its material costs. He writes:

Whether we can unmake development and perhaps even bid farewell to the Third World will equally depend on the social invention of new narratives, new ways of thinking and doing. (20)

He looks at constructions of poverty and of hunger, reframing both so that they no longer serve the goals of modernisation and profit. Likewise the discourse of sustainability, and the iterlinked constructions of peasants, women and the environment. There is such deadly power in how these have been delimited in Western thinking and policy. I love how his idea of discourse cracks open ways of understanding, and destablising, this power:

Discourse is not the expression of thought; it is a practice, with conditions, rules, and historical transformations. To analyze development as a discourse is “to show that to speak is to do something–something other than to express what one thinks; … to show that to add a statement to a pre-existing series of statements is to perform a complicated and costly gesture” (Foucault 1972, 209).

Said differently, changing the order of discourse is a political question that entails the collective practice of social actors and the restructuring of existing political economies of truth. (216)

As he continues, and why this work is so important:

The process of unmaking development, however, is slow and painful, and there are no easy solutions or prescriptions. From the West, it is much more difficult to perceive that development is at the same time self-destructing and being unmade by sodal action, even as it continues to destroy people and nature. The dialectic here tends to push for another round of solutions, even if conceived through more radical categories–cultural, ecological, politico-economic, and so on, This will not do. (217)

Escobar, Arturo (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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