Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mandarins of the Future

My intellectual history of modernization theory, Mandarins of the Future, has just appeared in paperback. I have recently been in dialog with a reader in Germany about the context in which I wrote the book. In the spirit of friendly critique, he argues that the turn I make at the end of the book to promote a chastened new mode of development is actually at odds with the bulk of the book, which he read as a stinging indictment of the entire project of development.

His reading is certainly shrewd about the emotional arc of the book. I wrote it more or less in the order in which the chapters appear, and as I did so my view of development and its prospects undoubtedly changed, becoming if not more optimistic about development, at least more convinced of the necessity of trying. Where this reader saw a "contradiction," however, I preferred to admit only to a "productive tension": my proposal is for a renewed and chastened quest for a welfare-oriented mode of developmentalism, one that makes an attempt to learn from the mistakes of the past while still affirming what was done right and what was good in the hopes of the earlier era. As I say in my introduction, I have a melancholy regard for the social solidarist vision of the postideological, democratic, secular welfare state: it was a beautiful dream.

The book operates in two different modes. The first 300 or so pages are devoted to an historical analysis of a specific set of ideas, intellectuals, and the environments that nurtured them. The approach is historicist, strictu sensu. Here what I try to do is to understand the modernization theorists in their own context. I try to recognize that they were responding to a real policy problem -- decolonization in the context of the Cold War -- and they tried very sincerely, with the best social scientific tools available, to come up with innovative ways to deal with this policy problem. I try to show that the political choices they made (which they denied were political) were not the most sinister available: they were neither Stalinists nor Maoists (e.g. industrialize at gunpoint, and if a million peasants die, who cares?) nor Churchillians (e.g. racists interested in maintaining the formal colonial system by force) nor isolationists (which in the context of global politics in the 1940s and 1950s would have meant conceding the field to one of the former two groups). Moreover, their vision for what they wanted to achieve in "developing" postcolonial countries was the beautiful dream referred to above -- it was far more admirable than the neoliberal dystopia of the Washington Consensus. For all these reasons, I do not much like the formulation that development theory (or modernization theory, specifically) should be seen primarily as a Kampf-Ideologie, a tool of Empire, or even of soft power (I am not sure I understand what the latter means). Although it undoubtedly was about extending the power of "the West" it must be compared to the other actually available ways in which the power of the West might have been extended. The proper counterpoint is not some post-Marxist fantasy of human beneficence. One must consider the actual choices available to a Nehru or a Sukarno in 1945. From that standpoint, I believe that modernization theory, in its softer forms, fares reasonably well.

Now, even with all that said (and this is a lot), the theory was nonetheless fatally flawed, for all the same reasons that it was admirable. This is the sense in which the larger story of the book is about the collapse of a certain liberal (small-l, American liberal) dream of society. Modernization theory was arrogant, elitist, nationalist, and excessively optimistic about the prospects for development. Worst of all, it was ultimately compromised by the fact that when forced to make an unpleasant decision -- for example: whether to allow countries to choose socialism, or to engage in (sometimes overt but usually covert) military oppression of these countries -- it was, theoretically speaking, unable to prevent the wrong choice. Modernization theory always had this other possibility within it, the militarist moment, which was never denied by the theory, and this way of thinking is what eventually resulted in Vietnam. The American invasion of Vietnam may not have been necessitated by modernization theory, but certainly wasn't denied by the theory. Rostow and Pye, in particular, reasoned themselves into a militarist corner. So was revealed the iron first beneath the velvet glove of mid-century American welfarist liberalism.

The second dimension of the book (the last ten pages or so) is oriented toward contemporary policy. As such, it is methodologically distinct from the historicist project of the book. As I wrote it, I tried to imagine what I would say to James Wolfensohn if I had a chance to speak with him about what the project of development today is missing. This was clearly a conceit, perhaps a naive one, but this was the spirit in which I wrote those last pages. I also wanted to use those last pages to strike out at what the methodological cowardice of the post-modern "development stinks" and "everything would be great if capitalism hadn't happened" way of thinking about the world. Anyone who has studied even cursorily what life was like for commoners in Ming China or Aztec Mexico or ancien regime France or even pre-1950 Tibet cannot possibly think that these are worlds we should romanticize. They had their merits, but their destruction is to be lamented only for its barbarism, not for its taking place.

My friend wasn't having it with this explanation for the closing pages of the book (which, by the way, are available online here). He said that rather that write an imaginary exhortation to the President of the Bank, it would be better to ask why people like he or I will never be selected to run the Bank--ideologically, institutionally, etc. His argument goes to the heart of the basic lameness of my conceit: anyone running the Bank would almost certainly (perhaps by definition) be uninterested in the views that I express about development. However, I chose to suspend my disbelief on this point, in favor of the hope that these institutions are reformable in a positive direction. And indeed, I believe these institutions are reformable, in part because they have been reformed in the past. The Bank's mission as it exists today is a product of reforms rooted in the same Kennedy-era liberalism that I describe as underpinning modernization theory, in large measure in order to implement a vision of development very similar to the one described by modernization theory. These reforms replaced a vision of development that focused well nigh exclusively on infrastructure investments (hence mirroring the original pre-modtheory economists' definition of development) with a much more encompassing mission based on vision of development that included education, health care, family planning, and so on. And guess who implemented those reforms at the Bank? None other than the human embodiment of the technocratic "mandarin of the future," the perfect incarnation of all that was good and bad about postwar liberalism, and the critical architect of the Vietnam War: Robert McNamara.

P.S. For anyone interested in the debate about the actual policy-impact of modernization theory, it is worth comparing Bruce Kuklick's Blind Oracles and Michael Latham's Modernization as Ideology. Kuklick (who describes me as a "left" scholar!) argues that the actual policy impact of Rostow and Rostowism was quite minimal, that it merely provided a figleaf for policies that would have been pursued for reasons of Machtpolitik. I disagree quite strongly, in part because I dispute his narrow view of historical causality: I believe policy ideas are important not just in a direct causal sense, but also for creating an ambient sense for what is possible and legitimate, for creating a "climate of opinion" that frames a range of acceptable policy options. In this sense, modernization theory was, in my view, very important from a policy perspective. This is of course my final point, which is that, despite everything, modernization theory in some sense has never disappeared, because its dream of a single human ecumene, united in a single developmental trajectory, remains far more seductive than anything that has come along since, with the possible exception of religious fundamentalism. This is what Washington today should be thinking about: if you get rid of the dream of universal human welfare, what the masses will choose as their alternative dream will not be neoliberalism, but fundamentalism. To paraphrase Rosa Luxembourg, the choice is welfarism or barbarism.


Samuel said...

Wonderful post, Nils

chris said...

I think you’re right that modernization theory has never disappeared, and I agree that it is, in a sense, our best option, despite its flaws. But the question of whether it functions as a fig leaf for policies that are less than high-minded is very hard to answer. It seems to me that it can be used to justify nearly anything, including the debacle in Iraq. So what to do?
There is an interesting profile of Wolfowitz in the April 9th New Yorker, and naturally the article explores how his responsibilities at the World Bank overlap, or could be seen to overlap, with his advocacy of the Iraq operation. I know very little about the World Bank, but as you mention, McNamara’s role as both MT policy maker (in the practical, not theoretical, sense) and WB president seem particularly germane. Like Wolfowitz, he could be realistically viewed as both a neoimperialist and an honest advocate for improving the lives of impoverished people around the world. But if the US is the WB’s biggest shareholder, and reserves the right to its presidency, isn’t it always open to the charge that it is just another policy arm of the US? MT’s dream of a ‘single human ecumene’ remains powerful, but whose ecumene? I realize that I may be too readily conflating MT/WB/US foreign policy, but I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that much of the world perceives it that way.
Washington should indeed be thinking about “universal human welfare,” but what does that phrase (or what can that phrase) ever truly mean to American policy makers?