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(Self)Control, International Development and Global Transformation

September 9, 2009

It’s late! I’m late, so no time for introductions. Next time maybe, or the following, or maybe by then it will all be clear. Travelling, navigating as I used to do when age and curiosity would compel me, I have discussed human nature and the future of humanity in dingy bars by the harbour with characters from the dubious past (and present). Now, although I still sail the seven seas of worldly imagination, I seem to be often restricted to the glittering pages that compose themselves on the monitor of the electronic compass, no, computer. In the past few weeks stranded, or rather, leisurely beached, on the Sicilian shore, I’ve been moved to musings on human nature, society and transformation. Later, I’ve been warmly, kindly, altogether unthreateningly, invited to share those lazy thoughts here. So here they are: few thoughts on development policy and the social science that underpins it. Significant sources and twitterizations (the action, of course, of reshaping complex outcomes of thinking processes into twitter-size bytes for the bird-size minds of the “busy” reader) of more sophisticated arguments, the three following (selected only for chronological reasons, they are the latest snippets of virtual reality that caught my attention and that I can therefore remember and submit to you).

  1. Adbusters #85, September-October 2009. Topic: Thought Control in Economics.
  2. Adam Philipps, Insatiable creatures, on the Guardian of the 8th of August 2009
  3. Madeleine Bunting, In control? Think again. Our ideas of brain and human nature are myths, again the Guardian, 23rd August 2009-09-06

What then, do thought control (Adbusters), individual autonomy and policy-making (Bunting) and excess (Philips) have to do with international development and global transformation?

Mounting the unmatched heights of Aristotelian logic and Newtonian physics (as if no other wisdom had taken shape afterwards, or in places of the world other than ancient Greece and modern England) social scientists suggest that “evidence-based”, “thoroughly analytical” and “cutting edge” (for good measure and because it sounds – how can I put it? – “cool”) social science is indeed the best way to understand why life in society is structured the way it is and how “bad”, no, “wrong”, no ehm, “different” societies, and “underdeveloped”, I mean, “developing” ones, can be forced (uff, “lead”, better, “convinced” or… ah this! “inspired”) to change while generating deep transformational processes in the individuals that make up them.

But now, the syllogism is simple: if the social science that informs policy-making and doctrine (of development) shaping is based on antiquated “scientific truth” (oh now this is a topic for a post on power and political coercion and manipulation!), what happens to the policies informed by that science? Ok I admit, that’s an easy one, after all one only need to have a look at the world after 60 years of continual, deliberate, and “evidence based” development policy and practice.

Simply, the social sciences have taken a life of their own completely severed from the nature of the bodies (yours and mine) that form the interactions that generate society and have climbed fairly high in thin air, higher indeed than Munchausen himself (remember the Baron who would haul himself up in the air by simply pulling his own ponytail?). The social sciences’ ponytail is an unbreakable braid of few tough interwoven strands: individualism, rationality, self-interest, competition, evolution and, eventually, heaven (ok, maybe I’m letting myself go, but you got the point). Except the science behind this is decades old and little remembered. Even by the most anachronistic “natural scientists” that the “social” ones so much love to imitate. An existence drowned in inferiority complexes can’t be a good existence and its creations not so good after all. And so it is indeed.

So the science of individualism, rationality and behavioural control is bad science, reports Madeleine Bunting, in a not altogether satisfactorily way given the science she could have referred to while instead choosing to have a look, as she admits, only at the bestsellers on the mind and its workings (of Gerald M. Edelman and his scientific philosophy of consciousness I will write some other time). What instead seems the case is that we are not in fact autonomous individuals, but wholly socially determined ones (please be suspicious – this is a disclaimer due to constraints of space, as used in sophisticated writing so they tell me – of the rather crass opposition between society and individual implied and the outcome of another modern – what is the word I’m looking for here? – “misunderstanding”, Cartesian dualism, that I have no time to fully and utterly debunk, the immense pleasure that it would give me notwithstanding. Next time! That’s a promise, not a threat…). It also seems that we act inspired and motivated by instincts and drives that are less than rational and of which not only might we not have full control, but indeed no clear consciousness.

And all that is beyond the reach of our consciousness is the domain of the psychoanalyst, isn’t it? Adam Philips acutely exposes the obsessed mechanisms that drive the unbudging desire to control (oneself, the others and the world) to the insatiable thirst of knowledge (the instruments to better achieve control). He convincingly links excessive phenomena different enough like eating disorders, religious fanaticism, sexual manias and indeed compulsive studying. In other words the obsessive desire to control oneself, to control the others and to change the world (and make it a better place, of course) may indeed be seen as directly related to precise disturbances of the personality developed in the early infancy and have to do with unresolved attachment to one’s mother (here I am once again over simplifying, a look at Philips’ work would be advisable to dig the mine of utter wealth that he unearthed, or is in the process of unearthing as his work will appear in a book to be published next year).

To conclude, am I then saying that all those working in development should be welcomed guests of psychiatric wards or, at least, are in urgent need of the care of a shrink (perhaps in different ways and with different degrees of coercion or frequency depending on if the “patients” are volunteers of a small charity that provides relief out of a truck in the Democratic Republic of Congo to victims of multiple rapes, or on the other hand if they are the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF)? No, I don’t think this is what I am saying, but perhaps a more conscious and humble take on oneself and the world might enlighten the patient (no pun intended here) researcher of the arcane workings of the mind and society. Someone told me once that in the charity where she worked in South Africa psychological counselling was compulsory for all staff (from the receptionist to the director), but the implications of this last consideration stretch far too much into another – the next, perhaps the following? – post.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. snugglebus permalink*
    September 10, 2009 10:53 am

    I loved the article, but in the end I wonder whether what you say applies to the ‘development industry’ as much as it does social sciences.

    I think the problem is most obvious with this question:

    “[T]he syllogism is simple: if the social science that informs policy-making and doctrine (of development) shaping is based on antiquated “scientific truth” …what happens to the policies informed by that science?

    I think you make too big a leap in suggesting that development doctrine is basically a function of this sort of work emerging from the social sciences. I could be wrong, but I think, even as far as this is true, in the end there is a crucial element of lesson-learning that mitigates any flawed assumptions. You only have to look at the things that come out of the WB now to have a sort of double-take moment, as it can read a lot like the critical literature that used to be directed at it. That is not to say that this can’t be in some sense a cooption of what were once critical ideas, this of course plays a part, but there is I think a lot more to it than that.

    And I think the clearest sign that you are here making a leap, not a logical step, is given by this statement:

    “[A]fter all one only need to have a look at the world after 60 years of continual, deliberate, and “evidence based” development policy and practice.”

    Yes, you are right, one does need only to do this. To look at the longer life expectencies, erradication of crucual diseases in many parts of the world, and the massive transformation of large parts of Eastern Asia into industrialised economies.

    Its very easy to talk about ‘international development’ as though there is genuinely a ‘thing’ there to be talked about. But in the end, increasingly I think there isn’t, except perhaps in the sense that it is created conceptually in the minds of both proponents and critics alike.

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