Sen on well-being

In 1985 Amartya Sen published a very short book entitled Commodities and Capabilities. The book was reissued by Oxford after Sen received his Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

The topic is at the core of Sen’s economic and philosophical work. Most basically, he is asking Aristotle’s question — what is happiness? — and is putting forward an answer that combines analysis of economic behavior with philosophical analysis of action and purpose in human life. Economists from Mill to Samuelson sought to understand economic choices in terms of subjective utilities and unanalyzed sets of preferences. A consistent theme was that economics can’t be concerned with the content or validity of the individual’s utility function or preference ordering. Rather, economics is about the rules by which rational agents design their actions to maximize utility or preference satisfaction. Economic rationality has to do with the choice of means, not ends.

This approach to action also unfolded into the formal theory of social choice. Given that citizens have a set of preferences about social outcomes, what rational procedures can be designed to aggregate these preferences into a single coherent social choice preference ordering.  Essentially the underlying idea is that the social good is secured when we succeed in aggregating citizens’ preferences onto a single social preference ranking.  And this is where Kenneth Arrow’s famous impossibility theorem comes in: given a small set of reasonable constraints on social choice, there is no social choice procedure that is both complete and transitive (Social Choice and Individual Values, Second edition). Sen’s first major book (1970) gave a different formal exposition to this set of arguments (Collective choice and social welfare).

One of Sen’s most fundamental contributions in economics is to question the theory of subjective utility and revealed preference. He thinks that we can give a substantive, not formal, account of wellbeing that permits us to analyze the individual’s behavior and choices in a more meaningful way.  He writes here:

It is fair to say that formal economics has not been very interested in the plurality of focus in judging a person’s states and interests. In fact, often enough the very richness of the subject matter has been seen as an embarrassment. There is a powerful tradition in economic analysis that tries to eschew the distinctions and make do with one simple measure of a person’s interest and its fulfilment.  That measure is often called ‘utility’. (1)

He wants to complicate the issue by drawing distinctions — that is, by breaking down the austere abstractions about choice that are most comfortable to the economists:

I would distinguish broadly between two ways of seeing a person’s interests and their fulfilment, and I shall call them respectively ‘well-being’ and ‘advantage’. ‘Well-being’ is concerned with a person’s achievement: how ‘well’ is his or her ‘being’? ‘Advantage’ refers to the real opportunities that the person has, especially compared with others. The opportunities are not judged only by the results achieved, and therefore not just by the level of well-being achieved. It is possible for a person to have genuine advantage and still to ‘muff’ them.  Or to sacrifice one’s own well-being for other goals, and not to make full use of one’s freedom to achieve a high level of well-being.  The notion of advantage deals with a person’s real opportunities compared with others. The freedom to achieve well-being is closer to the notion of advantage than well-being itself. (3)

This discussion announces his important distinction between capabilities and functionings; functionings are the realized form that capabilities take when they are fully cultivated.  “A functioning is an achievement of a person: what he or she manages to do or to be” (7).  It is worth noticing that the idea of freedom comes into this formulation in a fundamental way — fifteen years before freedom becomes central to his thinking about the good of economic development in Development as Freedom.

Sen’s argument next moves into another topic that has been characteristic of his thinking throughout his career, the relationship between two or three central components of “satisfaction” or “well-being”.  There is subjective satisfaction — the degree to which the individual has accomplished a large portion of his/her preferences.  There is the role of commodities and material things in the composition of individual satisfaction — the bundle of stuff that the individual can call upon in attempting to satisfy basic needs and desires, from grain and clean water to iPads and access to the Internet.  And there is the “fit” between the individual’s material circumstances and his/her ability to fulfill capabilities and complete an autonomous plan of life.

The key idea expressed in this monograph and subsequently in Sen’s work is that well-being is the aggregation of the individual’s collection of functionings.  “It is possible to argue that the well-being of a person is best seen as an index of the person’s functionings” (17).

On what does the claim of functionings to reflect well-being rest? Basically, the claim builds on the straightforward fact that how well a person is must be a matter of what kind of life he or she is living, and what the person is succeeding in ‘doing’ or ‘being’. (19)

And Sen thinks about this formulation in formal terms: the person’s functionings are represented as a vector of qualitatively distinct characteristics, and one of the central problems is to assign relative values to the components of the package.

The primary specification of a person’s well-being is in terms of a functioning vector bi. It can be converted into a scalar measure of well-being only through a real-valued ‘valuation function’ vi(.), mapping functioning vectors into numerical representations of well-being. (33)

Sen’s approach is appealing largely because it replaces “utility” with a more granular conception of “functionings”.  This permits more concrete discussion of the individual’s life activities and, as Sen argues here, a better way of assessing his/her overall well-being.

What has turned out to be enormously important in Sen’s framework of capabilities and functionings is its relevance to the topic of economic development.  We want economic development to lead to an overall improvement in human happiness.  But how should such a goal be assessed and measured?  By offering a concrete theory of functionings, Sen lays a basis for attempting to empirically measure changes in functionings over time.  Literacy, for example, is an important functioning for the human being.  Extremely poor societies invest very little in formal education, and literacy in the population is low.  We can make a very concrete argument that a given strategy of development is improving human well-being if we can demonstrate that it is leading to a higher level of attainment of literacy.  Health itself is a complex functioning for the human being; here too, it is possible to measure progress in health achievements in different societies.  So the functionings approach provides a concrete way of trying to assess progress in economic development processes.  The approach is a great improvement over the “average GDP” approach, since Sen demonstrates in numerous places that average income implies something about access to commodities, but it has only a weak connection to the functionings that the population is able to realize.

The Human Development Index championed by the United Nations Development Programme takes advantage of this insight.  HDI includes three measures: life expectancy, literacy, and per capita GDP (link).  And a very powerful argument can be made that societies that make the most progress in improving their HDI levels have made more progress in improving human well-being than those that increase GDP but fail to improve factors like literacy and health.  It will not surprise the reader to learn that Sen’s writings and advocacy played a crucial role in the design of the HDI.

Is justice a security issue?

Most people would probably say they would prefer to live in a more just world to a less just one. There is a strong moral basis for preferring justice. But is this a consideration that states and large international organizations need to take into account as they design their strategies and plans for serving their present and future interests? Do national governments have good practical reasons to think about the consequences their policies and actions may have on the circumstances of justice in the world? What about policies and actions through which states attempt to secure their future economic wellbeing — do policy makers need to pay attention to the social justice consequences of these actions?

There is a strong empirical and historical case for thinking that the answer to this question is “yes.” Injustice is a source of resentment, indignation, and conflict. In the long run, the victims of injustice will not be ignored. Justice is a security issue for states and supra-national organizations, and simple prudence demands that policy makers take it into account. To put a simple label on this idea, justice is a security issue.

Here is a European Union statement about its longterm interests that makes this point fairly explicitly (link):

In the context of ever-increasing globalisation, the internal and external aspects of security are inextricably linked. Flows of trade and investment, the development of technology and the spread of democracy have brought prosperity and freedom to many people, while others have perceived globalisation as a cause of frustration and injustice. In much of the developing world, poverty and diseases such as AIDS give rise to security concerns, and in many cases economic failure is linked to political problems and violent conflict. Security is a precondition for development. Competition for natural resources is likely to create further turbulence. Energy dependence is a special concern for Europe.

What are the theoretical and historical arguments for this conclusion? Here are several.

On the side of theory, several points are well established. Chronic and unrelieved poverty leaves people with low attachment to their own societies and less for the global community. The frustration of very basic human needs is bound to fuel indignation and resistance. So poverty and deprivation are causes of resistance. But there is also evidence that inequality itself has negative consequences for a society’s health; this is the central finding of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (link). Finally, the social psychology created by a system that is perceived to be unfair and exploitative is likely to breed resistance and lawless action. Barrington Moore, Jr. was right when in Injustice he wrote:

Without strong moral feelings and indignation human beings will not act against the social order. In this sense moral convictions become an equally necessary element for changing the social order, along with alterations in the economic structure. 469

Gareth Stedman-Jones summarizes Barrington Moore’s conclusion in these terms: “His argument is that human beings in stratified societies accept hierarchies of authority, so long as these hierarchies are not merely imposed by force, but based upon an ‘unwritten’ social contract, which binds together dominant and subordinate groups in a set of mutual obligations” (link).

So there are good empirical reasons, based in social psychology and the study of contentious politics, for expecting that injustice breeds conflict. 

Are there historical demonstrations of the consequences of injustice for disorder? There are. We have the examples of slave revolts throughout the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries; anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia following World War II; the sustained resistance of the Burmese and East Timor peoples to dictatorship; and the sustained struggle for equal rights in the United States by African Americans, sometimes punctuated by major urban riots. In each case a set of social institutions had been created that were profoundly unjust for a sizable population, and this population gathered resolve and courage in opposing those arrangements.

So the conclusion seems clear. If we want to have a world in which there is a sustainable level of the rule of law and a low level of social conflict, we need to invest in justice. We need to work to create a system in which all peoples can satisfy their most basic human needs; where everyone can feel that he/she is respected in her humanity; and where no one judges that the basic structure of social life is exploitative. 

In other words, states are well advised to actively include the basic requirements of justice in their plans for the future. Otherwise they are simply creating the tinder for future conflict.


New thinking about taxes in France

The structure of the tax code in France is getting new attention these days. President Sarkozy has made fiscal reform a key issue in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2012. The Nouvel Obs has a very good section this week on a recent book by Camille Landais, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez, economists with long expert knowledge of the French fiscal system. The book is Pour une révolution fiscale: Un impôt sur le revenu pour le XXIe siècle, and it offers a stringent critique of the existing system and a set of proposals for a reformed system. The book has a companion website here.

In a word, these experts conclude that the existing tax structure in France is seriously unjust because it is anti-progressive at the very high end of the income distribution — the top 1 percent decline steeply in the percentage of their income that is collected in the form of the several tax vehicles.  Only 20% of the state’ revenues derive from taxes that are truly progressive (Nouvel Obs, 2411, p. 180).


As we can see from the graph, the total tax burden of the top 1 percent of income earners declines sharply from 48% to about 32%. And the reason for this is the portion of the French tax system devoted to funding social services (Cotisations sociales et taxes sur les salaires). This assessment is roughly flat from the 30th percentile to the 99th percentile, and then it declines rapidly. (The other components of taxes represented here include the income tax, a tax on returns on capital, and taxes on consumption including the TVA.)

Here is what the distribution of tax burdens would look like on the basis of their proposals:


So what is their proposal? It is to significantly revamp the income tax and the cotisation. The cotisation needs to be progressive rather than regressive; and the income tax needs to be higher. Their proposal is revenue-neutral in this particular sense: the median tax payer today bears a 47% tax burden, and this remains the same under the reform.

Ce livre plaide pour une revolution fiscale précise et opérationnelle, dont tous les détails sont chiffrés au grand jour. Nous proposons en particulier la création d’un nouvel impôt sur le revenue, remplaçant un grand nombre de taxes existantes, notamment la contribution social généralisée (CSG), l’actuel impôt sur le revenu (qui, sou sa forme actuelle, serait purement et simplement supprimé), le prélèvement libératoire, la prime pour l’emploi et le  bouclier fiscal.  Ce nouvel impôt sur le revenu, payé par tous les Français et socialement adapté a la France du XXIe siecle, sera entièrement individualisé, prélevé directement a la source sur les revenus du travail et du capital. (18)

Also of interest are the summary graphs that the authors provide of the distribution of income and wealth in France:

Two things are particularly striking in this discussion. One is how significantly different the French fiscal system is from the U.S. system. Income tax is less than 10% of income for all income levels. And the cotisation is a substantially larger share of total taxes than the Social Security tax in the U.S.

But the other striking thing is the significantly different perspective that these authors take on taxes, compared to almost all discussions of taxes in the U.S. They are fundamentally concerned about the fairness of the tax burden; they care about progressivity; and they are concerned to prevent the ability of “les tres aisées” to exercise political influence in order to reduce their share. “Fiscal rigor” doesn’t mean severe budget reductions and elimination of the social security net for French citizens; it means creating a tax system that is adequate to the spending commitments of the French state, and that is fair in its distribution of tax obligations across the whole of society.

I think most observers of French politics doubt that this kind of progressive and sweeping fiscal reform is in the cards in the coming decade. But it is at least encouraging that the issues are being raised.


Thinking cities darkly

Image: frame from West of the Tracks

Cities capture much of what we mean by “modern,” and have done so since Walter Benjamin’s writings on Paris (link). But unlike the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, much of our imagining of cities since the early twentieth century has been dark and foreboding. A recent volume edited by Gyan Prakash, Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City, offers a collection of recent work in cultural studies that attempts to decode some of this dark imagery.

Several things are particularly interesting about the volume. Most basically, it represents an interesting conjunction of humanities perspectives and sociology. The articles are individually very good. And as a group they pose a series of important questions. How does a film set in Los Angeles or Shanghai serve to depict the city? Is there sociological content in a film that can contribute to a better sociology of the city? But also — what can we say about the cultural currents that produce a particular vision of the city? Are there post-modern sensibilities and fears that lead filmmakers to turn the ambience dark?

The volume treats cities and their depictions in many parts of the world — China, South Africa, Mexico, India, Europe, and the United States.  What is unusual about the volume is the fact that it is not a collection in “film studies” or in “urban studies”, but rather a series of contributions taking seriously representation and the represented.  Moreover, there is no effort to force the perspectives taken into a common theory of “noir representation”; there are common themes that emerge, but each contributor brings forward a singular perspective, informed by the specifics of the region and genre that he/she studies. It is a project on the nexus between imaginative representation and existing social realities.

Prakash’s excellent introduction begins with these observations:

As the world becomes increasingly urban, dire predictions of an impending crisis have reached a feverish pitch. Alarming statistics on the huge and unsustainable gap between the rates of urbanization and economic growth in the global South is seen to spell disaster.  The unprecedented agglomeration of the poor produces the specter of an unremittingly bleak “planet of slums.” Monstrous megacities do not promise the pleasures of urbanity but the misery and strife of the Hobbesian jungle.  The medieval maxim that the city air makes you free appears quaint in view of the visions of an approaching urban anarchy.  Urbanists write about fortified “privatopias” erected by the privileged tow all themselves off from the imagined resentment and violence of the multitude. Instead of freedom, the unprecedented urbanization of poverty seems to promise only division and conflict.  The image of the modern city as a distinct and bounded entity lies shattered as market-led globalization and media saturation dissolve boundaries between town and countryside, center and periphery. From the ruins of the old ideal of the city as a space of urban citizens there emerges, sphinx-like, a “Generic City” of urban consumers.

As important as it is to assess the substance of these readings of contemporary trends in urbanization, it is equally necessary to examine their dark form as a mode of urban representation. This form is not new.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, dystopic images have figured prominently in literary, cinematic, and sociological representations of the modern city. In these portrayals, the city often appears as dark, insurgent (or forced into total obedience), dysfunctional (or forced into machine-like functioning), engulfed by ecological and social crises, seduced by capitalist consumption, paralyzed by crime, wars, class, gender, and racial conflicts, and subjected to excessive technological and technocratic control What characterizes such representations is not just their bleak mood but also their mode of interpretation, which ratchets up a critical reading of specific historical conditions to diagnose crisis and catastrophe. (1)

All the essays are interesting and insightful, but I was particularly interested in the Asian contributions — India, China, and Japan.

First is Li Zhang’s treatment of some current treatments of the dark side of Chinese cities (Shanghai and Shenyang) in “Postsocialist Urban Dystopia?”.  She treats the Sixth Generation and New Documentaries movements in contemporary Chinese filmmaking, focusing on two recent works (Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, about the decline of a rust-belt city in the Northeast, and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, about the lives of poor and disaffected people in Shanghai).

Both works serve as powerful examples of “noir urbanism” in a Chinese context.  West of the Tracks is a nine-hour documentary capturing the lives and declining prospects of working class people in Shenyang following the reform of Chinese industry in the 1990s.  (C. K. Lee describes this process in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.) Here is a link to West of the Tracks, well worth viewing.  And Suzhou River captures some of the gritty, squalid aspects of life in contemporary Shanghai, but also dwells on the moral shift that China is undergoing, towards a consumerist, wealth-oriented corrupt society.  Here is a clip from Suzhou River:

Zhang combines her own anthropological fieldwork in Chinese cities with her reading of these films, giving her essay a multiple sense of authority.  Here is a brief description of West of the Tracks that illustrates the intersection of criticism and fieldwork:

While capturing the “raw and the real” experiences of workers, West of the Tracks offers a subtle yet powerful critique of the postsocialist state and its neoliberal turn.  What is so striking in the story told here is the lack of government help and the indifference of society toward workers’ dilemmas. (137)

She refers to the bleak setting of the break room at the factory:

In their daily conversations in the break room, smelting workers frequently talk about how the managers and cadres of the factories steal public money to line their own pockets by taking kickbacks at the expense of the enterprise.  The management and bosses rarely appear in the film.  The longest presence is a banquet gathering at a local restaurant where factory managers and cadres talked about the imminent total privatization.  They are well dressed in leather and wool coats with fur collars. (137)

So there are several key themes here: First, there is a critical perspective on the rising inequalities and dispossession of ordinary people that have followed from China’s growth policies; this is the documentary aspect of the films she discusses, and plainly reflects the filmmakers’ interest in capturing an important and disturbing contemporary social reality in China.  And second, there is a critical vision of the moral dislocations that China has undergone, from Maoist egalitarianism to capitalist and consumerist pursuit of wealth.  Zhang captures this element of contemporary China in her discussion of both films, but especially in Suzhou River.  There is squalor and poverty, to be sure, but more pervasive is the sense of moral ungroundedness.

Moneymaking, market exchange, and pleasure-seeking are the dominant forces of everyday life.  For example, the power of money erodes Mardar’s blossoming love for Mudan and eventually destroys her, the symbol of innocent, unpolluted love.  Human greediness corrupts souls and drives violent acts such as kidnaping and murder. (139)

Zhang’s summary is explicit:

During market liberalization, Chinese society has irrevocably changed into a mass consumer society in which money increasingly controls people’s lives and determines their lifestyles. (139)

Another fine contribution to the volume shifts focus to India’s cities.  Ranjani Mazumdar’s “Friction, Collision, and the Grotesque: The Dystopic Fragments of Bombay Cinema” focuses on the mental urban landscape — the way in which an Indian city is perceived by its residents, and the ways in which the residents are impaired by the city.  Mazumdar discusses three “urban fringe” films, Dombivli FastBeing Cyrus, and No Smoking.  Here is a clip from Dombivli Fast:

Dombivli Fast is quite different from the films discussed by Zhang. It is reflective of the current social realities of Mumbai — meaningless work, endless commuting on super-crowded trains.  But it is more personal and introspective than the Chinese works, in that it focuses on one man and his family; it attempts to reveal his inner anxieties and thoughts.  The dystopia here is not crushing poverty — Madhav Apte and his family live a middle-class life in Mumbai.  Here the dystopia is the pressure, stress, and callous injustice of society that drives Madhav to the breaking point.

Madhav Apte does not go back home for three days after he explodes. Armed with a cricket bat, Apte acquires a menacing persona as he moves through a city that is almost fated to collapse because of corruption, inequality, and indifference. In his journey across Bombay’s deadly streets, Madhav becomes an active figure whose rage makes him see the city with a heightened perception. (159)

(There are clips from Being Cyrus and No Smoking on Youtube as well.  This is one of the fascinating realities of reading the volume: it is possible for us non-specialists to view segments from most of the films that are discussed.)

David Ambaras takes up Tokyo in its cultural representations in “Topographies of Distress: Tokyo, c. 1930.” He too highlights the discrepancy between official, ideological expressions of the city, and the underlying grinding reality that modern cities often represent.

Yet despite this ebullience, to many contemporaries, urban modernity signaled the destruction of Japanese social values by Western materialism and individualistic hedonism, of which the modern girl served as the prime example. (188)

Ambaras doesn’t work through cinema, but rather what he calls “slum discourse” and graphic pictorial representations of urban life.  He highlights the popular and journalistic literature of the 1870s through the early 1900s as a barometer of the anxieties Tokyo residents experienced about their changing city.  Stories of disease, child murder, beggars, and abject poverty permeate this literature.

These various forms of representation, … had combined to produce in the Iwanosaka case a set of images that both shocked the sensibilities of readers and investigators and were necessary to their understanding of themselves as part of a modern metropolitan social formation. They reinforced the sense, common to many interpretations of the modern condition, that modernity was best apprehended through contrasts — between, for example, utopian promise and dystopian reality — or in terms of dark mysteries concealed beneath the surface of social relationships, and that the modern (urban) subject was compelled to navigate anxiously between these two positions, ever unsure as to which was the “truth” or in which direction he/she was being led. (210-11)

It is worth sorting out the different perspectives on social knowledge represented in this volume.  First, there is the question of knowledge of the object, the contemporary city.  Does cinema shed light on the current social realities of Shanghai or Mumbai?  Can cinema contribute to urban sociology?  Second is the question of the mentality of a place and time; the way that contemporary Mumbai-ers or Shanghai-ers think of themselves and their society.  Can cinema accurately capture some strands of social consciousness and anxiety that are real threads in the social landscape?  Is cinema a legitimate form of ethnography?  And third is the mentality and intentions of the creative class itself — the filmmakers.  Can the critic discover threads in the filmmaker’s work that sheds important light on the preoccupations of this slice of contemporary society?

Finally, we can ask the question of perspectivalism: how many Shanghai’s are there?  Zhang refers to the Maoist preference for social realism or socialist romanticism; there are the entertainment-oriented Shanghai thrillers; there is the global Shanghai as an exotic backdrop to drama; and there is the noir representation of the social problems of the city.  Can we say that one depiction is more veridical than the other?  Or perhaps, can we say that several of these perspectives are compatible with the truth of Shanghai; and that optimism and pessimism are equally distorting frames for social perception?

(I note that several of the essays refer to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums; this is worth reading.)


Super-high-density Shanghai

Shanghai is a city approaching 20 million people, and it is arguably the most economically dynamic city in Asia.  This concentration of population and economic activity surely has important long-term consequences.  There was an interesting piece in the Shanghai Daily recently by Nate Stein, called “Sky’s the limit for well planned city of Shanghai.”  Stein makes a really intriguing point about the Shanghai metropolitan region that seems very important.  He argues that the “invisible boundary” of a city is a margin that is roughly 45 minutes from the city center; and that this boundary is moving out fast in the lower Yangtze River Delta.  Improvements in transportation have brought a handful of mid-sized cities into the 45-minute zone, with the result that Shanghai is fast becoming the most populous high-density metropolitan area in the world.

Here is the heart of Stein’s view:

After building a subway in 1995 that has quickly grown to the world’s longest and most traversed, Shanghai’s invisible border moved outward significantly and drastically increased its growth potential. Instead of surrounding dense urban development with sprawling suburban homes, Shanghai’s residents live in apartment buildings that do not restrict the growth of a city like stand-alone homes do.

Being built upon a backbone of compact flats and public transit, rather than homes on large lots and personal automobiles, means that the population has no upper boundary or, in a very literal sense, the sky is the limit, depending on how many people can fit in one building.

People are stacked on top of and below others as growth extends up, and not out. Concentrations of people make mass transit feasible and waste less fuel and energy. Efficiency greatly increases in compact cities and provide for the feasibility of small businesses staying in demand among residents without cars who need the convenience of small neighborhood shops.

The almost entirely urban design of Shanghai provides for impressively sustainable growth potential. The problem of overcrowding is on the horizon, but Shanghai has been effectively advancing its transit infrastructure. There is a two-level road tunnel under the Bund, the main portion of downtown, to prevent congestion and high-speed rail lines coming into existence that will further extend the reach of its invisible 45-minute boundary.

So Shanghai is a city with almost limitless density, in the sense that it can add population vertically rather than laterally and it can serve that population with a high-capacity rapid transit system.

Here is the Yangtze River Delta mega-region by night:

The transportation improvements that continue to transform the Shanghai urban landscape include both the subway system and the high-speed rail system connecting China’s cities.  Here is what the Shanghai Metro system looks like today:


And here is the plan for 2020:

The system currently consists of twelve lines, with new track being added rapidly.  It handles something like five million passengers a day.

The other major improvement in transportation is the extension of the high-speed inter-city rail network.  High-speed trains now connect Shanghai to Hangzhou and Suzhou, bringing those cities comfortably within the 45-minute radius of Shanghai.  The high-speed train from Shanghai to Hangzhou takes only 25 minutes today.  In practical terms, this means that there can be a tight integration among firms, knowledge workers, and universities throughout this region with a total population approaching 90 million people in the Yangtze River Delta Region.  Professionals can live in Hangzhou or Souzhou and do their work in Shanghai.

Here is the intriguing question: does this development of a high-density, high-population metropolitan Shanghai have important implications for social and economic development?  Is this mega-city going to represent a qualitative change in the world’s urban history?  Will Shanghai become a unique new kind of mega-urban place, with significantly higher growth potential than other world cities?

One reason for thinking that this may be true is the case that people like Richard Florida and Saskia Sassen have made for the synergies created by a densely interconnected urban area.  Florida talks about the concentration of talent afforded by a high-density city, and Sassen focuses on the economic and informational networks that are stimulated by high-density cities.  In each case there is the idea of non-linear interaction effects and positive feedback loops.  Sassen’s concept of a global city captures her core idea; a global city is one that has a large volume of connections to other cities around the globe, in terms of trade, services, telephone calls, internet traffic, and financial transactions (The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.).

Shanghai is not the only large metropolitan area in the world, of course; but it appears to have features of urban system interconnectedness that take it out of the category of “sprawl” cities like Mexico City or Johannesburg.

Sassen puts some of her thinking into an interesting paper titled “Megaregions: Benefits Beyond Sharing Trains and Parking Lots?” (link). Here is how she frames her problem in the paper:

I have been asked to examine whether there are particular advantages to economic interactions at the megaregional scale and whether such interactions might play a role in enhancing the advantages of megaregions in today’s global economy. Familiar advantages of scales larger than that of the city, such as metropolitan and regional scales, are the benefits of sharing transport infrastructures for people and goods, enabling robust housing markets, and, possibly, supporting the development of office, science, and technology parks. Critical policy options identified by RPA in this regard would aim at strengthening the megaregional scale of economic interactions by investing in intercity and high speed regional rail, enhanced goods movement systems, and land use planning decisions.  More complex and elusive is whether the benefits of megaregional economic interaction can go beyond these familiar scale economies and, further, whether this would strengthen the position of such megaregions in the global economy.

And here is part of her answer:

One central argument I develop in this paper is that the specific advantages of the megaregional scale consist of and arise from the co-existence within one regional space of multiple types of agglomeration economies. These types of agglomeration economies today are distributed accross diverse economic spaces and geographic scales: central business districts, office parks, science parks, the transportation and housing efficiencies derived from large (but not too large) commuter belts, low-cost manufacturing districts (today often offshore), tourism destinations, specialized branches of agriculture, such as horticulture or organically grown food, and the complex kinds evident in global cities. Each of these spaces evinces distinct agglomeration economies and empirically at least, is found in diverse types of geographic settings –from urban to rural, from local to global.  The thesis is that a megaregion is sufficiently large and diverse so as to accommodate a far broader range of types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings than it typically does today. This would take the advantages of megaregional location beyond the notion of urbanization economies. A megaregion can then be seen as a scale that can benefit from the fact that our complex economies need diverse types of agglomeration economies and geographic settings, from extremely high agglomeration economies evinced by the specialized advanced corporate services to the fairly modest economies evinced by suburban office parks and regional labor-intensive low-wage manufacturing. It can incorporate this diversity into a single economic megazone. Indeed, in principle, it could create conditions for the return of particular (not all) activities now outsourced to other regions or to foreign locations.

It would appear from a non-specialist’s perspective, that Shanghai promises to have many of these multiple “agglomeration economy” dimensions, and from this we might expect that its economic growth will be accelerated with further densification.

Here is another interesting application of the idea of a global city to the case of Shanghai — a conference paper by Professor Lin Ye, “Is Shanghai Really a ‘Global City’?” (link).  Ye’s test involves examining three factors:

  1. Central place in the national economy
  2. Concentration nodes for global capital
  3. Agglomeration sites to provide professional services (5)

Does Shanghai rate highly enough in these three areas to qualify as a global city?

Ye concludes that the data support a “yes” in each area.  The Shanghai region represents a very significant percentage of the total Chinese GDP, and was increasing from 1992 to 2001 (7).  It represented 5.16% of total GDP in 2001, with only roughly 1.5% of population.  Second, Shanghai represented a significant concentration of China’s foreign direct investment and exports during these years.  Shipping and air traffic were concentrated in the metropolitan region as well.  So Ye concludes that “Shanghai has become a strategic concentration node for global capital” (12).  Finally, Sassen’s most important criterion has to do with being a key node in the global network of professional services.  He finds that here too, Shanghai measures up.  So-called “tertiary” industries amount to 45.8% of employment — dramatically greater than China’s overall 27.7% rate (14).  And the volume of financial services, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) business activity is very high as well.  “Shanghai is leading the way to transform to an information-based professional service concentration place” (15).  One important measure is the Globalization and World Cities Study Group assessment (link).  GaWC singles out a list of 46 global firms (accounting, financial services, architecture, …), and then ranks cities according to how many offices they possess of these firms.  Ye notes that GaWC identified 55 global cities based on the concentration of global advanced producer service firms in each city, and Shanghai is on this list, with 27 offices out of the 46 global firms (compared to 105 offices in New York).  Ye concludes that Shanghai has “quickly adjusted from a traditional manufacturing center to a place that provides advanced professional services to the whole world” (17).  It isn’t yet in the top rank; but it is increasing its global interconnectedness rapidly.

These transitions from primary sector to tertiary sector businesses that Ye documents indicate that Shanghai is already well on its way to being a knowledge-centered global city.  And the processes of densification described above should only amplify this process.

Toyota in Guangzhou

I got a chance to visit Guangdong this week, and it's a pretty amazing place.  You get a very vivid feeling for globalization when you see dozens of container ships lined up off Kowloon, preparing to off-load and reload in several container ports in eastern Guangdong and the lower Pearl River delta.  I visited the district of Nansha in an eastern area of Guangdong that was primarily agricultural only five years ago.  Now there has been extensive development, with the population going from 40,000 to 260,000 in just a few years.

One of the largest parts of the development in Nansha District is a large Toyota factory, opened in 2006 and now producing 360,000 cars a year.  This plant is a joint venture with Guangzhou Automobile Group. The factory employs about 7,000 workers in two shifts, and it embodies one of the most recent examples of the Toyota production system. A vehicle passes by every 68 seconds, so a new Toyota exits to the test track every 68 seconds as well. 1,000 cars a day roll of one of the production lines and another 500 exit the second line.  (Here is a 2004 news release on the venture from China Daily.)

But here is the first surprise. Every car produced in Nansha is headed for the domestic Chinese market — along with the output of the other major Toyota factory near Beijing.  Toyota plans to sell more than half a million cars in the domestic Chinese market in the coming year.  Compare that to European and American production for China, and you get a sense of Toyota's worldwide ambition. Fiat just celebrated its millionth car sold in China. Toyota will exceed that number from just this factory every three years.

The factory is highly automated, with numerically controlled welding machines and other robotic assists, and it appears that the skill level of shop-level workers is low.  Training is brief for the regular line worker.  Workers are largely recruited from Guangdong Province, and the factory boasts of its conformance to the highest standards of worldwide vehicle quality. The company representative wasn't able to share information about workers' wages, but someone familiar with the local economy estimated a monthly wage somewhere around 3,000 RMB. That works out to an income of about $5,100 a year — significantly higher than China's per capita income, but not a middle class lifestyle either.  That's about $2.33 per hour, and it works out to about $87 in direct assembly labor costs per vehicle.

This is a fairly good factory environment, though it's a bit Chaplin-esque to watch hundreds of workers rushing to return to their stations after a 10-minute break during which the line is turned off. But it's no sweatshop, and it appears that workers are likely to be grateful for their jobs. Safety, efficiency, and quality seem to be the guiding management goals. The recent strike at a Honda plant in Guangdong makes it plain, of course, that Chinese workers have important demands. But realistically, this plant is good for China's goals of improving the standard of living for poor people. It seems a bit analogous to GM or Ford in Detroit in the 40s and 50s.

At the same time, the numbers here document the challenge faced by manufacturing companies in the US and Europe.  A similar factory in Michigan would have direct labor costs per vehicle in the range of $450, and no amount of labor concessions can erase that difference. So to compete on price American producers need to find more efficient ways of handling the other cost components of the manufacturing process — but those efficiencies are equally available to producers worldwide.

I suppose one way of reading the situation is to see Guangdong as one of the leading change points in a longterm evolution towards a common global wage for unskilled or semi-skilled labor. Wages and quality of life have certainly gone up for Chinese workers in Guangdong in the past 10 years — just as they've gone down for industrial workers in the US.  And the living standard gap that existed between Hong Kong and Guangdong has substantially narrowed in the past decade as well, according to longterm observers. And this makes the point about education and talent in a very pointed way: the only thing that commands a premium in the world labor market is talent, skill, education, and innovative capability. We are certainly not doing nearly enough in the US to take the steps needed to prepare our population for this basic reality.

So what's next for Guangdong? Will the region be content to exploit its labor cost advantage and continue to gain market share as the world's low-cost manufacturer?  I don't think so. The economic development official I talked with in Guangdong was eager to discuss the region's plans for the expansion of universities, increasing support for research and development, and moving into the industries of the twenty-first century. She specifically cited growing knowledge capacity in sustainable energy and electric vehicles, advanced logistics systems, electric battery breakthroughs, and information technology enhancements in life sciences and healthcare. The province and the central government want to make the investments in education and research that will position the region for a talent-based economy of innovation. And the infrastructure investments you can observe in the region — new sea-water port facilities, major apartment complexes, new university facilities, extension of passenger rail — suggest the region is taking the long view about its economic future.

Methodological nationalism

Are there logical divisions within the global whole of social interactions and systems that permit us to focus on a limited, bounded social reality?  Is there a stable level of social aggregation that might provide an answer to the “units of analysis” question in the social sciences?  This is a question that has recurred several times in prior postings — on regions (link), on levels of analysis (link), and on world systems (link). Here I’ll focus on the nation-state as one such system of demarcation.

We can start with a very compelling recent critique of current definitions of the social sciences.  Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller offer an intriguing analysis of social science conceptual schemes in “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences” (link). (Wimmer’s Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity is also of great interest.) The core idea is the notion that the social sciences have tended to conceptualize social phenomena around the boundaries of the nation-state.  And, these authors contend, this assumption creates a set of blinders for the social sciences that makes it difficult to capture some crucially important forms of social interaction and structure.

Wimmer and Schiller characterize the idea of methodological nationalism in three forms:

The epistemic structures and programmes of mainstream social sciences have been closely attached to, and shaped by, the experience of modern nation-state formation….  The social sciences were captured by the apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states….  Because they were structured according to nation-state principles, these became so routinely assumed and ‘banal’, that they vanished from sight altogether. (303-4)

A second variant, typical of more empirically oriented social science practices, is taking national discourses, agendas, loyalties and histories for granted, without problematizing themor making them an object of an analysis in its own right.  Instead, nationally bounded societies are taken to be the naturally given entities to study. (304)

Let us  now address a third and last variant of methodological nationalism: the territorialization of social science imaginary and the reduction of the analytical focus to the boundaries of the nation-state. (307)

The three variants of methodological nationalism … are thus ignorance, naturalization, and territorial limitation. (308)

Their view is a complex one. They think that the social sciences have been trapped behind a kind of conceptual blindness, according to which the concepts of nation and state structure our perception of social reality but disappear as objects of critical inquiry. Second, they argue that there were real processes of nation and state building that created this blindness — from nineteenth century nation building to twentieth century colonialism. And third, they suggest that the framework of MN itself contributed to the concrete shaping of the history of nation and state building. So it is a three-way relationship between knowledge and the social world.

“Nationalism” has several different connotations.  First, it implies that peoples fall into “nations,” and that “nations” are somewhat inevitable and compact social realities.  France is a nation.  But closer examination reveals that France is a social-historical construct, not a uniform or natural social whole. (Here is a discussion of Emmanuel Todd’s version of this argument; link).  Alsatians, Bretons, and Basques are part of the French nation; and yet they are communities with distinct identities, histories, and affinities.  So forging France as a nation was a political effort, and it is an unfinished project.

Second, nationalism refers to movements based on mobilization of political identities.  Hindu nationalists have sought power in India through the BJP on the basis of a constructed, mobilized (and in various ways fictional) Hindu identity.  The struggle over the Babri Mosque, and the political use to which this symbol was put in BJP mobilization, illustrates this point.  But “nationalist politics” also possess a social reality; it is all too evident that even fictive “national identities” can be powerful sources of political motivation.  So nationalist politics in the twentieth century were a key part of many historical processes.  (Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing illustrates this point.)  And, of course, there may be multiple national identities within a given region; so the “nation” consists of multiple “nationalist” groups.  Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism provides an extensive development of the political and constructed nature of ethnic and national identities.

What about the other pole of the “nation-state” conjunction — the state?  Here the idea is that the state is the seat of sovereign authority; the origin and enforcement of legal institutions; and the holder of a monopoly of coercive power in a region.  A state does not inevitably correspond to a nation; so when we hyphenate the conjunction we make a further substantive assumption — that nations grow into states, and that states cultivate national identities.

The fundamental criticism that Wimmer and Schiller express — the fundamental defect of methodological nationalism — is that it limits the ability of social scientists and historians to perceive processes that are above or below the level of the nation-state.  Trans-national processes (they offer migration as an example) and sub-national processes (we might refer to the kinds of violent mobilization studied by Mann in the Dark Side of Democracy) are either invisible or unimportant, from the point of view of methodological nationalism.  So the methodology occludes social phenomena that are actually of great importance to understanding the contemporary world.  Here is how they suggest going beyond methodological nationalism in the field of migration studies:

Going beyond methodological nationalism in the study of current migration thus may require more than a focus on transnational communities instead of the nation and its immigrants.  In order to escape the magnetism of established methodologies, ways of defining the object of analysis and algorithms for generating questions, we may have to develop (or rediscover?) analytical tools and concepts not coloured by the self-evidence of a world ordered into nation-states.  This is what we perceive, together with many other current observers of the social sciences, as the major task lying ahead of us.  We are certainly not able to offer such a set of analytical tools here. (323-24)

Wimmer and Schiller seem to point in a direction that we find in Saskia Sassen’s work as well: the idea that it is necessary for the social sciences to invent a new vocabulary that does a better job of capturing the idea of the interconnectedness of social activity and social systems (for example, in A Sociology of Globalization; link).  The old metaphors of “levels” of social life organized on an ascending spatial basis doesn’t seem to work well today when we try to deal with topics like global cities, diasporic communities, or transnational protest movements. And each of these critiques makes a convincing case that these non-national phenomena are influential all the way down into the “national” orders singled out by traditional classification schemes.

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Alleviating rural poverty

What theories and values ought to underlie our best thinking about global economic development?  Along with Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), I believe that the best answer to the ethical question involves giving top priority to the goal of increasing the realization of human capabilities across the whole of society (The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development). We need to put the poor first.  However, I also believe that our ability to achieve this goal is highly sensitive to the distributive structures and property systems that exist in poor countries.  The property institutions of developing countries have enormous impact on the full human development of the poor.  As a result, ethically desirable human development goals are difficult to attain within any social system in which the antecedent property relations are highly stratified and in which political power is largely in the hands of the existing elites.

The fundamental question of poverty is this: how do people earn their livings? The economic institutions of the given society (property relations and market institutions, for example) determine the answer to this question. An economy represents a set of social positions for the men and women who make it up. These persons have a set of human needs—nutrition, education, health care, housing, clothing, etc. And they need access to the opportunities that exist in society—opportunities for employment and education, for example. The various positions that exist within the economy in turn define the entitlements that persons have—wages, profits, access to food subsidies, rights of participation, etc. The material well-being of a person—the “standard of living”—is chiefly determined by the degree to which his or her “entitlements” through these various sources of income provide the basis for acquiring more than enough goods in all the crucial categories to permit the individual to flourish (Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation). If wages are low, then the consumption bundle that this income will afford is very limited. If crop prices are low, then peasants will have low incomes. If business taxes are low, then business owners may retain more business income in the form of profits, which will support larger consumption bundles and larger savings. There is thus a degree of conflict of interest among the agents within the economic system; the institutions of distribution may favor workers, lenders, farmers, business owners, or the state, depending on their design. And it is very possible for economic development to proceed in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the upper levels of society without leading to much change at the bottom.

Here I want to review an important empirical example of economic development without commensurate gain for the poor of the region: the effects of the Green Revolution in the rice-growing regions of Malaysia. James Scott provides a careful survey of the development process in Malaysia in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (1985). The chief innovations were these: a government-financed irrigation project making double-cropping possible; the advent of modern-variety rice strains; and the introduction of machine harvesting, replacing hired labor. Scott considers as relevant factors the distribution of landholdings, the forms of land tenure in use, the availability of credit, the political parties on the scene, and the state’s interests in development.

Scott’s chief finding is that double cropping and irrigation substantially increased revenues in the Muda region, and that these increases were very unequally distributed. Much of the increase flowed to the small circle of managerial farmers, credit institutions, and outside capitalists who provided equipment, fertilizers, and transport. Finally, Scott finds that the lowest stratum—perhaps 40%—has been substantially marginalized in the village economy. Landlessness has increased sharply, as managerial farms absorb peasant plots; a substantial part of the rural population is now altogether cut off from access to land. And mechanized harvesting substantially decreases the demand for wage labor. This group is dependent on wage labor, either on the managerial farms or through migration to the cities. The income flowing to this group is more unstable than the subsistence generated by peasant farming; and with fluctuating consumption goods prices, it may or may not suffice to purchase the levels of food and other necessities this group produced for itself before development. And these circumstances have immediate consequences for the ability of poor households to achieve the development of their human capabilities. Their nutritional status, their health, their literacy, and their mobility are all directly impaired by the fact of low and unstable household income. Finally, the state and the urban sector benefits substantially: the increased revenues created by high-yield rice cultivation generate profits and tax revenues that can be directed towards urban development.

Scott draws this conclusion:

The gulf separating the large, capitalist farmers who market most of the region’s rice and the mass of small peasants is now nearly an abyss, with the added (and related) humiliation that the former need seldom even hire the latter to help grow their crops. Taking 1966 as a point of comparison, it is still the case that a majority of Muda’s households are more prosperous than before. It is also the case that the distribution of income has worsened appreciably and that a substantial minority—per­haps 35‑40 percent—have been left behind with very low incomes which, if they are not worse than a decade ago, are not appreciably better. Given the limited absorptive capacity of the wider economy, given the loss of wages to machines, and given the small plots cultivated by the poor strata, there is little likelihood that anything short of land reform could reverse their fortunes. (Scott 1985:81)

This example well illustrates the problems of distribution and equity that are unavoidable in the process of rural development. The process described here is one route to “modernization of agriculture,” in that it involves substitution of new seed varieties for old, new technologies for traditional technologies, integration into the global economy, and leads to a sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture. Malaysia was in effect one of the great successes of the Green Revolution. At the same time it created a sharp division between winners and losers: peasants and the rural poor largely lose income, security, and autonomy; while rural elites, urban elites, and the state gained through the increased revenues generated by the modern farming sector.

Gillian Hart, Andrew Turton, and Benjamin White’s Agrarian Transformations: Local Processes and the State in Southeast Asia (1989) provides detailed case studies of these sorts of processes of property and power in development in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

A modern world-system?

Immanuel Wallerstein created a huge stir in the 1970s with the publication of The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (1974).  The book is an intellectual masterpiece, synthesizing a vast range of fundamental literature on the economic history of Europe and the world.  You could look at the book as the first serious and extended effort to theorize globalization — a term that barely existed at the time of publication. Or you could look at it as a general theory of colonialism — an account of the pathways and influences through which the metropole dominated and exploited the periphery. It is worth looking back at this work today to tease out some of the guiding assumptions about history, sociology, and globalization it reflected.

The concept of “world system” is itself a key component of our current understanding of globalization, in that it captures the idea of causal interconnectedness across the globe among major organizations, firms, populations, and states.  Wallerstein observes that earlier social scientists had usually centered their analysis at the level of the political unit — the nation-state; whereas his own approach is different:

This book makes a radically different assumption.  It assumes that the unit of analysis is an economic entity, the one that is measured by the existence of an effective division of labor, and that the relationship of such economic boundaries to political and cultural boundaries is variable, and therefore must be determined by empirical research for each historical case.  Once we assume that the unit of analysis is such a “world-system” and not the “state” or the “nation” or the “people”, then much changes in the outcome of the analysis. (xi)

But what, more exactly, did he mean by a system?  Did he imagine something analogous to a mechanical system in which the relations among the parts were governed by a few simple laws?  He seems to suggest this possibility when he asks the question, “What do astronomers do?  As I understand it, the logic of their arguments involves two separate operations.  They use the laws derived from the study of smaller physical entities, the laws of physics, and argue that … these laws hold by analogy for the system as a whole.  Second, they argue a posteriori.  If the whole system is to have a given state at time y, it most porrobably had a certain state at time x” (7).  Here he seems to suggest that social systems are tied together by the working of governing laws — a particularly unconvincing starting point.

But Wallerstein’s practice as a sociologist is far more defensible than this language would suggest.  He was in fact sensitive to causal heterogeneity, contingency, and variation in the systemic relations he meant to capture — particularity as well as universality.  So he doesn’t actually treat the modern world system as if it were analogous to a set of gravitational objects governed by fixed laws of nature.

I think the clue to an answer to his working definition of a system is found in his definition of scope in terms of an “effective division of labor”: a set of regions constitute a system in his framework if there is significant exchange and dependence among various of the regions for products, people, knowledge, skills, and resources from other regions.  If Europe, Asia, or the Americas had been “autarkic” in 1700 — that is, if one or more of these continental regions had been a closed economy and society making no substantial use of products, knowledge, resources, or people from other regions — then there would not have been one “world system” but rather several independent macro-regional systems.  And Wallerstein explicitly affirms this point late in the book:

By saying that in the sixteenth century there was a European world-economy, we indicate that the boundaries are less than the earth as a whole.  But how much less?  We cannot simply include in it any part of the world with which “Europe” traded.  In 1600 Portugal traded with the central African kingdom of Monomotapa as well as with Japan.  Yet it would be prima facie hard to argue that either Monomotapa or Japan were part of the European world-economy at that time.  And yet we argue that Brazil (or at least areas of the coast of Brazil) and the Azores were part of the European world-economy. (199)

So in postulating the concept of world system as a framework for analysis of the modern period (let’s say 1700), Wallerstein is laying a few important cards on the table; he is indicating his judgment that there was significant and necessary exchange among virtually all accessible places on the planet.  There were economically meaningful movements of resources, people (emigrants and slaves), crops (cotton, sugar), finished products, and ideas throughout the system of places defining the system of transport and trade.  This in turn implies that we cannot properly understand the workings of the regional economy without taking into account its exchange relations with other regions — or in other words, we need to place the regional economy into the system of international division of labor in which it is located.  And in fact, historians like Ken Pomeranz make a substantial case for the empirical accuracy of that judgment (see for example The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy and The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, And the World Economy, 1400 to the Present).

If we begin with this assumption — the idea of the substantial interdependence of continental regions in the early modern period — then we are naturally drawn to the question, what were the terms of trade?  Was exchange among regions mutually beneficial, as trade theory would have it?  Or was it extractive and exploitative, as the theory of colonialism would have it?  This is where Wallerstein makes substantial use of the core-periphery framework in his analysis.

The periphery of a world-economy is that geographical sector of it wherein production is primarily of lower-ranking goods … but which is an integral part of the overall system of the division of labor, because the commodies involved are essential for daily use.  The external arena of a world-economy consists of those other world-systems with which a given world-economy has some kind of trade relationship … what was sometimes called the “rich trades.” (199-200) 

Wallerstein was particularly interested in interconnections between places that were the expression of power and commerce.  Core and periphery are linked by relations of subordination — military and economic domination, leading to the persistent disadvantage of the latter in favor of the former.  These features define the “general attributes of a colonial situation” (5).

This analysis lays a theoretical and historical foundation for a theory of globalization.  Wallerstein writes late in the book:

One of the persisting themes of the history of the modern world is the seesaw between “nationalism” and “internationalism.” I do not refer to the ideological seesaw … but to the organizational one.  At some points in time the major economic and political institutions are geared to operating in the international arena and feel that local interests are tied in some immediate way to developments elsewhere in the world.  At other points of time, the social actors tend to engage their efforts locally, tend to see the reinforcement of state boundaries as primary, and move toward a relative indifference about events beyond them. (147)

Where has the effort to theorize globalization gone in the thirty-five years since Wallerstein’s book appeared? A particularly important contemporary voice on this subject is that of Saskia Sassen.  Her recent A Sociology of Globalization (2007) represents a current cutting-edge effort to provide a vocabulary and set of theoretical premises in terms of which to understand the global interconnectedness that characterizes the contemporary world. And she wants to provide a sociology of these processes — that is, she wants to provide a theoretical vocabulary and a set of hypotheses about the causal mechanisms that are involved that are adequate to the problem of describing and explaining the workings of this system. One thing this means is providing a framework within which the empirical details and structures of global networks can be investigated.  Another key point in her approach is her attention to differentiation across institutions and mechanisms.

A deeply important part of her analysis is her effort to overturn the assumption of “linearity” and hierarchy among levels of analysis — the line of thought that assumes that neighborhoods are encompassed by cities, which fall within regions, which fall within states, which fall within international relations.  She argues repeatedly and effectively that this linear scheme doesn’t work for today’s global relationships.  The local neighborhood may be implicated in extra-national relations of immigration, crime, and trade that make it a global place.  More importantly, what she calls “global cities” have crucial relationships at many levels in these supposed hierarchies — local, national, and supra-national.  So the question of scale cannot be defined within a simple hierarchy of relationships of locality, nationality, and globality.  (Significantly, Wallerstein opens his treatment of the modern world system by wrestling with this issue — a discussion that he frames in terms of the idea of the appropriate unit of analysis in considering colonialism.)

Sassen is particularly interested in the networks of communication, finance, and service organizations that constitute the fabric joining what she calls “global cities” (link; see also an earlier posting on regional interdependence). But in this book Sassen broadens considerably the angle of view in order to consider social networks at many levels of scale, including sub-national as well as supra-national.

Sassen makes an important point about international economic power that has a Wallerstein-like feel to it but that would probably not have been true in 1700 or 1970.  This is her view that there has been an important process of “de-nationalization” that has removed traditional powers of the state and placed them in the scope of international economic and finance institutions that are significantly controlled by large economic actors and firms. We sometimes refer to this process as one of “liberalization”; Sassen makes the point that the construction of the new supra-national regulatory regimes is an extended historical process that can be studied in detail.  She refers to the result of this process as the global corporate economy.  One of Wallerstein’s key arguments is that nations in the periphery were dominated and controlled by an economic system run by European nations. Sassen argues for the reality of a world system of regulatory arrangements that subordinates the sovereignty of even previously hegemonic nations to a non-democratic set of institutions and rules that implicitly favor one set of economic actors over others.  But Sassen’s inference from this fact about international economic power is less about north-south exploitation and more about the rising likelihood of global exploitation of all ordinary citizens by powerful extra-national economic forces that are beyond the reach of democratic processes (what she refers to as the “democratic deficit”).

Sassen’s book warrants a close reading.  It proposes a significantly different way of conceptualizing the meaning of globalization, and one that will suggest many new research agendas.

(The Minard trade map above is borrowed from the fascinating blog Cartographia.  The blog has many great discussions of some very interesting maps.)