Ferguson: Pro-Poor Neoliberalism?

James Ferguson is an anthropologist known for his critical work on development in southern Africa, especially his book “The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development,’ Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.” More broadly, Ferguson is associated with a larger group of scholars in anthropology and nearby fields who reacted to the failures of the development programs for the global South that were in vogue in the 1980s (the Washington consensus and all that). In a just published piece in a special issue of History of the Human Sciences (on Foucault), Ferguson offers a short but powerful critique of the “antis” – people who, like himself, have built their careers criticizing globalization, capitalism, neoliberalism, etc. Ferguson argues that the antis need to return to Foucault’s concept of power to remember that power is not inherently bad – in fact, it is an unavoidable by-product of existing in relationship with others. As Foucault humorously notes:

If I accepted the picture of power that is frequently adopted – namely, that it’s something horrible and repressive for the individual – it’s clear that preventing a child from scribbling would be an unbearable tyranny. But that’s not it. I say that power is a relation. A relation in which one guides the behavior of others. And there’s no reason why this manner of guiding the behavior of others should not ultimately have results which are positive, valuable, interesting, and so on. If I had a kid, I assure you he would not write on the walls – or if he did, it would be against my will. The very idea! (Foucault, 1988a: 11–13)

Given that power is not always bad, but rather that it is complicated and potentially corrosive, what is the left (the “antis”) to do? Ferguson argues that the left needs to come up with its own art of government and that to do so they might have to abandon their traditional disdain for the market and embrace, in a cautious way, reforms that help the poor access the market in a more equitable way, a “pro-poor neoliberalism.” Traditional leftist positions, including social democratic ones, have been premised on a notion of wage labor which never made much sense in Africa and makes less sense now:

The semi-mythical figure of the proletarian was, of course, at the heart of ideologies of state socialism, even as the extraction of labor was foundational to its political economy. But the ‘able-bodied worker’ was hardly less central to the workings of social democracies and welfare states, where Keynesian policies implied a kind of pact between capital and labor, mediated by the state. ‘Society’, in such a scheme, was grounded on the (normatively male) wage earning worker and ‘his family’, while ‘social welfare’ intervention was available for those left outside the security of labor (whether through injury, old age, or periodic dips in the business cycle)…In the rapidly expanding cities of today’s Africa, the great mass of the population is not ‘employed’ in the usual sense of the word, and increasingly lacks connections (or rights) to land as well. Neither workers nor peasants, they dwell in the so-called ‘informal economy’, eking out a meagre survival through an impressive range of improvised bits of this and that (cf. Davis, 2007). The poverty of our analytical vocabulary in describing such people and their way of life (Are they ‘the lumpen’? ‘The youth’? ‘The informal’ – whatever that means?) is matched by our inability to conceive of forms of politics that would given them a central place. (63-64)

Ferguson argues that Amartya Sen’s work, and practical programs implemented in pursuit of Sen’s model of development, might offer a solution. Sen et al have argued that anti-poverty programs work better when they come as unconditional cash transfers – basic income guarantees, say – rather than specific assistance (food during a crisis). By simply giving people money, the state relies on individuals to go into the market to solve their own problem but, crucially, after giving them at least some of the resources needed to access the market. These policies are potentially pro-market and pro-poor, and involve both a massive expansion of government and a retraction of the modes of power exercised by government:

Assistance is largely decoupled from familistic assumptions and insurance rationality alike, while the state is imagined as both universally engaged (as a kind of direct provider for each and every citizen) and maximally disengaged (taking no real interest in shaping the conduct of those under its care, who are seen as knowing their own needs better than the state does). (65)

Thus, Ferguson argues that there may be something for the left in all of this:

Why should relying on this sort of mechanism be inherently right-wing? Well, the answer is obvious: markets serve only those with purchasing power. But the food aid example shows a way of redirecting markets toward the poor, by intervening not to restrict the market, but to boost purchasing power. I have become convinced that (at least in the case of food aid) this is good public policy. Is it also neo-liberal? Perhaps that is not the right question. Let us rather ask: Are there specific sorts of social policy that might draw on characteristic neo-liberal ‘moves’ (like using markets to deliver services) that would also be genuinely pro-poor? That seems to me a question worth asking. (66)

Ferguson concludes with a call for cautious openness to the positive potential of new relations between states and citizens, in a Foucauldian tradition. Here, his words echo those I’m used to reading from my colleagues in development economics who have become enamored of experimental methods, although with slightly different aims:

Are cash transfers, for instance, a device for demobilizing the poor (as some traditional Marxists claim) – effectively buying the political quiescence of those who have the most to gain from radical social change for a paltry sum? Or do they have the contrary effect, as many proponents of basic income argue – opening up a new space of mobilization and political demand by radically decoupling labor and consumption and opening a new domain of decommodification? This is not a question to be answered theoretically or ideologically; the only answer that really convinces is the empirical and experimental one: Let us find out! (67)

So, while development economists are trying to bring experimental science to the question of how to help the poor, Ferguson will be watching and to see how these experiments model a new kind of leftist, pro-poor neoliberalism, and how they reconfigure (or fail to reconfigure) relations between the poor and their governments.

All in all, a remarkable and very short (9p) article, which I very much recommend. If nothing else, the idea of asking what neoliberal “moves” might ultimately be pro-poor is worth the very small price of admissions.

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1 Comment

  1. I don’t know how novel an idea this is, but I have thought along the same lines for at least 5 years now. Here’s why I think Ferguson is right:

    1) “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” — Sherlock Holmes

    What Ferguson is suggesting *has* to be the answer, simply because we’ve tried everything else other than naked transfer. All flippancy aside, I’ve heard of almost every single kind of aid program imaginable, that have varying levels of success. Many of these ideas are great ones, and have the potential do a lot more good, IF wealthy societies embraced them and provided them with more funding. HOWEVER, that seems to be exactly the problem. When you have any kind of specific mission (e.g. bed nets, condoms, etc.), people always find a reason not to fully embrace the concept. Most of the time, I think these ideas are underfunded because some rich group of people (or some government) donates a million bed nets, and then feels good about themselves, even though a lot more than a million bed nets are needed. This model is based on the idea of *charity* and it suggests that anything I give to someone is a good thing.

    I think Ferguson’s idea is different because it brusquely confronts the problem head on. It says “So you want to give aid, and you’re a neo-liberal-type who thinks that markets are the answer to every problem in the Western world. Then go ahead, treat people in the developing world as the vigorous homo economici you believe exist in your home country. If you claim to be a libertarian, then be a libertarian in your giving.”

    What’s more, Ferguson’s approach denies the individualistic, charity approach. Development isn’t just about the piecemeal eradication of mosquitoes, or AIDS, or poor water. The developing world needs these things, but they also need to have a greater proportion of the world’s wealth so that they can have the power of expression that attends to having a sizable piece of the pie. It’s very Foucaultian — the only thing that keeps power in check is its plurality. If we want as many different types of people to have a voice, we’re not going to get that unless developing nations have the raw power of money to back up their voice. Ferguson’s redistribution approach turns the focus away from donors “being nice people,” and puts the focus on the real problem: empowering poor individuals to be co-equals with their counterparts in the “developed” world.

    2) Everything he says regarding Sen and the problems of in-kind aid. Also, people *are* kind of smart with solving their own problems.

    3) Duh. How many times have the following ideas been reiterated: Markets are a good idea. Markets have the inherent problem that they coalesce economic power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. To maintain the valuable competition that comes from markets, some extra-market force must redistribute economic power to keep a healthy level of economic dispersion.

    The only thing that’s missing here is the key step mentioned by Ferguson: You don’t want the extra-market force redistributing economic power in unfair ways. You also don’t want it to redistribute in ways that contravene the power of markets to quickly find good solutions, to keep everyone honest through competition, to lower transaction costs, etc. Hence the obvious answer: as much as possible don’t let the extra-market force make decisions with its redistribution — JUST HAVE IT REDISTRIBUTE, BRUTE FORCE.

    If you ask me (which you didn’t, for reasons I’m acutely quite aware of)… The best answer for all the world’s problems is to have a global GINI coefficient we pursue with extreme prejudice. We just start taking currency from the richest person in the world, and redistribute it to the poorest person in the world, until the poor person is no longer the poorest person in the world. After multiple rounds, when the richest person is no longer the richest person in the world, then we start taking from the two richest people, then the three richest people, all the way down the line, until working our way inward from the margins we hit a GINI coefficient of .6 (or whatever number is best). Then we let the market work as usual, and at the end of the year, we repeat the preceding process. We still let governments do all the other stuff they need to do, but when it comes to redistribution (as much as possible) we follow the blind, brute force approach.

    Almost every global problem I see is related to distribution. If we shrunk the current disparities I think we would consume less, have a more sustainable number of children, have more innovation, have greater happiness from our economic production, and have more unified and intelligent responses to global issues. Basically, this is utopia.

    P.S. – This guy is also anti-antis. I think I have a new man-crush.