Humanity interview with James Ferguson, pt. 3: what future politics and development?


Humanity: This question of politics connects to the key thesis of The Anti-Politics Machine,concerning the depoliticizing effect of development. The idea of depoliticization has become the lodestone of much current historiography of development. Now, twenty years on from the initial publication of the book, does the success of this thesis surprise you? Specifically, Nicolas Guilhot has discussed in these pages how the idea of depoliticization has taken on a life of its own, to become a common theme not just in critiques of development, but also in critiques of other fields rooted supposedly in sympathy for the oppressed, such as humanitarianism.[1] What do you make of this broadening of the “depoliticization” narrative?

James Ferguson: It remains an important move, to be able to take procedures that are described as purely technical and to demonstrate how and where they involve things that are more than just technical, how and where they may involve a politics that requires digging in order to bring it into visibility. I have no problem with that kind of work, but I am increasingly dissatisfied with work that treats such critique as the end of the project, as if to say that now we have done our job: “We’ve exposed this as political, we’ve revealed that there are relations of power and inequality behind it all, and we’ve denounced it. Now we know we’re in the right and they’re in the wrong. Gotcha!” But a lot of times, this simply demonstrates what everyone knows already. Any sophisticated observer is already well aware of the politics that are going on. I do not see that as a very powerful end point. What is more interesting is if you treat that as a beginning. OK, so there is a politics going on here, but where is that going? What are our possible points of alliance and engagement with that politics? In other words, we need a substantive analysis: given that it is a politics, what do we think of that? What do we do about that? That seems a more substantial discussion than the denunciatory one. It leads into the question of government.


H: It is true that in the case of development work a lot of people are aware of the barely hidden political agendas behind technical initiatives, even if they do not put them in their own report. And yet, sitting here in the epicenter of the Silicon Valley, we are struck by how often technology is described in ways that are not so much anti-political as purportedly post-political—undergirded by an assumption that technology can allow us to get away from politics altogether. In the more starry-eyed versions of this narrative, this is even made explicit: the claim that technology can allow us to escape the play of power. This perspective also pervades a lot of discussions about ICT4D. In other words, while you may be right that sophisticated observers of development practices are not under any illusions about the political nature of their activities, there remains a very strong constituency (that goes way beyond the development industry) that views technology as not just politically neutral, but as a get-out-of-jail-free card for political and social challenges.

JF: Ha! You do not need to tell me this—I teach at Stanford, a place that is absolutely saturated in a certain naïve technological utopianism, this idea that “we’ll solve poverty because we’re clever people, and we’ll start some start-up and invent some gadget.” And I think it is often extremely dangerous. These are powerful discourses, particularly in the United States and particularly in Silicon Valley, where people have huge economic stakes in telling that story. So I agree with you, it is not as if that is over, it is not as if there is no need for the critique any more. 


H: So here we are in decade seven of the development era. Some on the left argue that the role of the development industry—with its focus on community development, basic needs, and so-called “human development”—basically exists to palliate the depredations caused by “development” as an immanent historical process of capitalist economic penetration and resource exploitation. (This argument owes something to Polanyi’s idea of the “double movement” of capitalism, with “development aid” standing in at a global scale for the second move.) Do you think it is fair to characterize the Development Industry as essentially the velvet glove to neoliberalism’s iron fist?

JF: There is an implicit ultra-leftism that lies behind that formulation, that suggests that were it not for the velvet glove, then we would have The Revolution—if only things were worse, they would be better. I just do not find that at all convincing. If things were worse, they would be worse; and if they were better, they would be better. So I suppose that makes me a reformist, in those terms. I do not think that somehow without the velvet glove, all illusions would be undone and the masses would come to consciousness. That is the narrative I see behind that critique, but I think we should have learned something by now. On the other hand, I am more sympathetic to the Polanyian perspective that you refer to. For Polanyi, the double move is not just cosmetic—it is a real, powerful thing. The countermovement is consequential. But the thing to remember is that for Polanyi the countermovement is not necessarily a good thing. It is potentially a very dangerous thing. One of his principal examples of the countermovement is fascism. But the countermovement also contains progressive possibilities—things like the welfare state, or the New Deal, which he is clearly quite sympathetic to.

In the same Polanyian frame, you can say something similar about some of things going on in the contemporary development world. If you look at things like the cash transfer programs that we were discussing earlier, for instance, I do not think they are simply a distraction or a veil. I think they are something new and consequential, significant in just the way that Polanyi suggests about countermovements. But I think we also need the Polanyian suspicion that we do not actually know where these programs lead, or what political significance they are going to turn out to have. I think of this because there is a discussion in Southern Africa that asks whether these cash payments are politically demobilizing. Are they not in fact quite conservative, people ask, because they take the people who have the most to gain from radical change, and buy their quiescence? This is the Marxist line you sometimes hear.

I would rather treat this as an empirical question. Are small cash payments to poor people in fact demobilizing? It is a big mistake to assume we already know the answer to that question. We are starting to see new politics emerging around new forms of distribution, so it will be a matter of historical observation. The advocates of more radical forms of direct distribution say to the Marxists, hey, these are exactly the people you have never known what to do with. (Read Marx on the Lumpen—he does not have an optimistic analysis of their political possibilities!) So what do you do when that fraction of the population starts to look like most of the population? The advocates argue that giving people small amounts of cash makes them more active, not less: it does not create passivity, it creates activity, it creates expectations, it creates positive claim-making relationships with the state, and creates the possibility for new forms of political mobilization.

Now, one has to treat this too as a what-if story, not as an accomplished fact. The question of what kinds of new politics and new kinds of mobilization come along with new kinds of distribution is an interesting issue that ought to be approached as an empirical question. Much depends on the political arena in which these things are set. Do you have a democratic political sphere with competitive multi-party elections, as you have in India, where people come to poor communities quite explicitly to say, “Vote for our party because we’ll give you this this and this,” and then the other party has to come in and make a rival offer? In such circumstances, you have a process whereby the political power of people who do not have any property can be transacted in a way that makes it possible for them to make distributive claims. And I do not think that is a bad thing. There is not necessarily a clear separation, in such cases, between patronage politics and democratic politics.


H: The World Bank’s flagship publication, the World Development Report, in 2011 took on the topic of the relationship between violence and development, and made a concerted claim that development practitioners, particularly ones operating in the many zones of subnational conflict, need to pay much closer attention to the political impact of development work, specifically how aid affects conflict dynamics, in addition to “developmental” outcomes.[2]The implicit assumption of this text—supported by a great deal of evidence—is that in fact the development industry has historically been woefully unaware of its political nature and impact. Is this new turn toward an open embrace of politics a positive sign of honesty, or is it simply going to pave the way for yet more intrusive interventions and state penetrations?

JF: The World Bank has always been a very articulate critic of positions that it held ten years earlier. They are very good at that. Now one conclusion you might draw from that is that you should not listen to what they are saying now, because ten years from now it is going to be shown to be wrong. It raises the question of how you should interpret these shifts. In a world that is full of shifting fads, how should you interpret these shifts? Do they just result in you speaking a different language and substituting a few buzzwords, or do they produce a fundamental transformation in the institution? Thinking about it historically makes one a little suspicious about whether there has been some massive and fundamental change here. Changing languages often do not correspond to changing lending priorities. At the same time, institutions do change. You have to be a very cynical observer to assume that a Jim Yong Kim is the same thing as a Paul Wolfowitz. So I would like to be optimistic about what is happening.


H: Rosa Brooks has suggested that one way to characterize the international system is as a global-scale failed state.[3] She points out that there was once a time when right-thinking cosmopolitans assumed that the telos of global politics was some sort of world government—a government which would surely be federal in its structure, but nonetheless unified in its application of democratic governance and the promotion of welfare and economic growth. That vision was always utopian, but if we re-adopt the idea of a world state as a normative horizon, then it is hard to argue with Brooks’s sly suggestion that the world in toto constitutes a failed state, marked by vast stretches where states lack the will (to say nothing of capacity) to promote the general welfare of local populations. Surveying the landscape of the Global South, do you think that the progress of the state’s penetration of the social sector has stalled, or will we continue to see greater state control, for better or worse? If not, what should we expect to see in places where state control appears to be receding rather than advancing—places like the Sahel, central Africa, parts of central Asia, and perhaps even urban Latin America? Are we seeing a withdrawal of the swarming capacity of the state in some places, and what does this mean for development?

JF: This question makes me think about the health care system of the United States. People say the U.S. does not have a public health care system. But that is not true. We do have a public, state-funded health care system—it is just a really crappy one: you cannot get primary care, you cannot get preventative care, you cannot get treatment when treatment would have saved your life. But when you finally have tumors all over your body, then they will put you in the hospital and keep you there for six months and it costs $500,000 and the taxpayer pays.

You can say something similar about global social protection. We do have global social protection—it is just that it is really, really bad. So, if we see that there is a famine coming in Somalia, we wait and we wait and we wait. It is only when people start actually dying and we take pictures of people with bones sticking out of them that we act. Then we raise a whole lot of money and put food on ships and bring it there at great expense in order to mop up the damage. The result is not just that the human suffering of the Somalis is much worse than it needed to be, but also that the interventions that do take place end up costing more than the much more modest interventions that might have prevented the famine in the first place. So maybe the failed state is a provocative image for capturing that.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that the choice is so stark, that either we have proper world government, or else we have nothing. What we actually have now is a very complicated institutional landscape that is not well theorized. Even empirically, there is a lot we do not know about how these things work. But it is very important to realize that there is a lot of stuff going on that is not at the level of the nation-state, much less anything like world government, but that is nonetheless very consequential. I think of the work of Ramah McKay on the Gates Foundation in Mozambique.[4] The Gates Foundation is huge, and they are part of this big thing that calls itself Global Health that is all over the world spending lots of money and dispensing a standard package that it presents itself as how the world should get its health. States are not irrelevant here. The Gates Foundation makes a point of setting itself up in partnership with the state, and taking on certain responsibilities that we would think of as belonging to the state, but with resources that dwarf the resources that are available to a state like Mozambique. So states are not driving this, but they also have not disappeared. Meanwhile, you have a bunch of resources that are being deployed in ways that are not attached either to states or to international agencies like the United Nations. But they are unquestionably doing important, often beneficial work.

So here again we need a research-led strategy. We in fact do not know exactly what the politics of this are—that is one of the things we are trying to figure out in the course of this research: what are the politics of this, what are the possibilities?


H: As mentioned earlier, your newer work on neoliberalism urges the left and “progressives” to move beyond critique (i.e. of anti-politics, neoliberalism, privatization, imperialism, etc.) to think about positive programs for political change. You ask, “What do we want?” Can you elaborate, in answer to your own question?

JF: I can hardly fault you for asking that question, because of course I invite it. Obviously the “we” in that essay is a rhetorical device. I cannot speak for the whole “we group” I was trying to provoke, and I think clearly “we” should not all want the same thing. But for me, the political programs I find most exciting turn on this issue of distributive politics. We are in a world in which a whole bunch of certainties have been disrupted. There has been a presumption for a long time that labor represents the central set of institutions that are or should be how distributive questions get answered. But what you find more and more, especially in Africa but not only there, is increasingly large proportions of the population that are not wage laborers; and people are increasingly realizing that they are never going to become wage laborers. That old transition story in which we were waiting for the industrial revolution to come and then we will all be working in factories is not the future we are actually going to get. At the same time, you have more and more people who are not attached to the land the way they used to be. Class analysis used to start with workers and peasants, and then you add in a few other smaller or residual categories. But in most African countries today, you have huge populations living in cities who are not by any stretch of the imagination peasants, who no longer have claims to land (or any interest in farming for that matter), but who do not have jobs in any conventional sense. So they do a bit of this and a bit of that and we call it the informal economy because we do not know what the hell it is, but somehow people are getting along.

So the question I am interested in is, how do people make distributive demands if it is not in exchange for labor, that is, outside the traditional model of the labor market? There are a lot of ways that that is happening. People are making claims based on citizenship, or based on autochthony (“We’re the original people of this place, it is our land, so why don’t we see the proceeds from it?”), or based on suffering or injury, or based on the fact that they are not cutting down the forest, which is housing carbon. And so on. So there are all sorts of ways that people are making new kinds of distributive claims. What are the possibilities of these new distributive politics? What can and can’t they do? In that connection I have been interested in social protection, especially. I am very interested, for example, in the campaign the ILO is now engaged in, to establish what they call a “social protection floor.” Their idea is that there should be international norms according to which all states are expected to provide a certain level of education (we have such norms), of health care, of housing, and, they now say, of income. Income should be one of those things like education, health care, or housing—there should be a floor below which you cannot be permitted to fall. They say that if every state can provide primary education—if you are going to call yourself a state, if you want to have legitimacy as a state then you are going to have to have a system of primary education—then why can we not have a minimum income? It begins to become something more than a utopian scheme: it becomes something we expect states to do. That is quite interesting.

I am interested in the metaphor of the floor, rather than the safety net. The old idea was that everyone is up there playing on their circus apparatus and from time to time they fall. What the ILO is proposing is a rather different conception that says, no, everyone starts out here on the floor, and if you build something on the floor that is fine, but everyone is entitled to have that starting place. There is a new rationality of poverty embedded in that metaphor. Along the same lines I have been interested in the campaign for the Basic Income Grant, especially in Namibia. There too there is a quite thoughtful, conceptually innovative politics at work that starts with questions of distribution, and questions of justice. Namibia is a rich country, it has all these resources, it is a middle-income country. So why are there all these desperately poor people? Is it not their country? Is it not their wealth? The legitimacy of their claim to be members and even owners of this rich country allows them to make distributive demands.


H: Can you say more about where you see these new forms of claim-making? Are they directed exclusively at the nation-state? If so, how would that sort of claim-making work in a place where the state barely exists—in a place like, say, Chad or Somalia?

JF: The kinds of politics that are possible depend on the kind of state that is present. The programs I have been most interested in are occurring in states that have both a lot of administrative capacity and that have large and economically diverse populations. Places like Brazil, like India, like South Africa—places that have states that can do things like tax people, do things like distribute universalistic social payments across the entire population more or less effectively, and that bring together both large numbers of poor people and significant numbers of rich people who can be taxed in a redistributive way. Lots of parts of the world do not have those features, of course, and we need a different way to think about the politics of distribution in those places.



[1] Nicolas Guilhot, “The Anthropologist as Witness: Humanitarianism between Ethnography and Critique,” Humanity 3, no. 1 (2012): 81-101.

[2] World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development (Washington, D.C.: IBRD/World Bank, 2011).

[3] Rosa Brooks, “Failed States or the State as Failure,” University of Chicago Law Review72, no. 4 (2005): 1159-96.

[4] Ramah McKay, “Post-Social Prescriptions: Medical Welfare in Mozambique” (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 2010).


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About Editorial Collective

EDITORIAL COLLECTIVE Samuel Moyn, Editor Columbia University Nicolas Guilhot, Executive Editor Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique-New York Nehal Bhuta, Coeditor New School Graduate Program in International Affairs Nils Gilman, Coeditor Monitor Group Joseph R. Slaughter, Coeditor Columbia University Miriam Ticktin, Coeditor New School for Social Research

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