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myths of development or the myth of development?

November 15, 2010

Kentaro Toyama, a Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley, provides an accessible and cogent presentation of a common set of mistaken assumptions regarding ICT employment in the South. In so doing, he further dispels the deterministic notion that technology is the key to social advance. See minute 19 for a telling example of celebrated potential gone unrealized. The take home point, for me, is that technology only expands pre-existing capability and intention.

Toyama’s list of “myths” has grown beyond ten, but he only presents six of them here. I’d like to know if he considers the idea of “development” in and of itself to be a myth. Here’s Immanuel Wallerstein:

Development as the achievement of “more” is the Promethean myth. It is the realization of all our libidinal desires…. What the capitalist world-economy as a historical system has done is to make these desires for the first time socially legitimate.

Wallerstein actually sounds a little wild-eyed here. He quickly swings back to form:

… although the controversies concerning development have deep resonances in the collective social psychologies (or mentalities) bred by historic capitalism, the basic issue is not psychological but social. The fact is that historical capitalism has been up to now a system of very differential rewards, in both class and geographic terms. As an empirical fact, this seems to me uncontestable, whether or not we think it theoretically inevitable or historically enduring.

These quotes, from an essay entitled “Development: Lodestar or illusion?” (1988), are closely to related to ideas that Wallerstein pursued in “The Myrdal Legacy: Racism and Underdevelopment as Dilemmas” (1989):

Racism and underdevelopment, I fear, are more than dilemmas. They are, in my view, constitutive of the capitalist world-economy as a historical system. They are the primary conditions and essential manifestations of the unequal distribution of surplus-value. They make possible the ceaseless accumulation of capital, the raison d’être of historical capitalism. They organize the process occupationally and legitimate it politically. It is impossible to conceptualize a capitalist world-economy which did not have them…. From the perspective pf those who hold power in the capitalist world-economy, solving or not solving the “dilemmas” of racism or underdevelopment are “equally unpleasant alternatives.”

“Underdevelopment”, of course, is also nurtured here at home, in the North, where – as of October – black unemployment had dropped slightly to 15.7 percent, almost twice the rate of white unemployment, which was 8.8 percent. For black teens, the number is 48 percent, versus 23.6 percent for white teens. As Wallerstein explains:

This then is how racism, which is nothing but this whole complex system, works to keep people in while keeping people out. It does this in two senses. One is obvious. It serves to minimize the political capacity of the understratum while keeping them in occupationally. But a second way is less obvious and probably more important. Racism keeps people in occupationally when their active current labor is required and enables the system to put them on hold at other times, but always to put them on hold in such a fashion that they can rapidly be brought back in actively when the market conjuncture changes. Furthermore, this understratum has internalized values such that it is willing, even eager, to be brought back in. Thus it can be rightly considered to be a “reserve army” in the literal sense of the term.

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