Deimpoliticising Development: The World Bank and Social Capital

Of late, there has been a ceaseless flow of concepts – mainly western and that too popularised by the Bretton Woods institutions – into the vocabulary of Social Science most of which having an enveloping presence, particularly in theories of democracy and development. Civil society, civic engagement, cultural capital, social capital, globalisation etc. belong to this vintage. Strangely enough, all these concepts also have an intricate tessellation of meaning and implication in the sense that they are anti-statist in their ultimate essence. They reject the role of state (by implication that of politics) in human affairs and privilege non-state actors – for instance non-governmental organisations – in its place. The book under review is a critique of one of these concepts viz., social capital. To begin with, the book renders a detailed discussion of social capital -its origin, meaning and implication. After a careful reading of this section one gathers the following impression about the concept: The origin of the term could be traced back to the Scotish enlightenment. It was later theorised by two writers with radically different theoretical persuasions, Pierre Bourdieu – a French Cultural Theorist-and James Coleman-an American Rational Choice Theorist. In the course of his investigation Bourdieu came up with the idea that, ‘connections play a part in the reproduction of classes and pointed out that investment, for example, in membership of a prestigeous club builds a sort of social capital which might be converted into economic capital’. Coleman, on the other hand, argued that, ‘social capital inheres in the structure of relations between persons, and among persons and that it facilitates actions of the persons who are connected by the structure of relations.’ Thus for both theorists, social connectivity is a critical site where social capital is formed and consolidated. The book also tells us how, roughly half-a-decade later, Robert Putnam, an American Social Scientist, used social capital as a conceptual category for explaining the difference in performance of regional governments in Italy. He linked the reasons for this with the presence/absence of civic involvement which he sought to measure in terms of the extent and type of political participation, newspaper readership and density of voluntary associations. Later, civic involvement was replaced by social capital which was defined as ‘trusts, networks and norms shared by a group of actors that enable them to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.’- It is a resource – a capital – that consists of relations people have with each other and is social since one cannot have it in isolation. With the publication of Putnam’s work, the concept gained wide currency and is now considered to be an elixir for all the ills of a society by international financial institutions like World Bank, I.M.F and A.D.B, and by neo-liberal economists. -A heavy dose of social capital is supposed to make a society healthier, wealthier and perhaps wiser or atleast more tolerant. It is also supposed to strengthen democratic tradition by paving the way for enhanced political participation. According to its advocates, all these are possible because it connects people to each other creating a high degree of social synergy in the process. At this juncture, however, the book turns critical of the concept. The credibility and the real intention of the advocates of social capital are questioned; doubt is expressed about its so called ‘emancipatory’ potential from the vantage point of the marginalized sections of the society, including women; and it is also viewed as part of a conspiracy hatched by right wing and neo-liberal economists, politician and intellectuals to retain status-quo. According to John Harris, the champions of social capital have an ulterior motive in high-lighting its virtue. And this consists in de-politicizing development. This, to the author, is one of the reasons why Pierrie Bourdieu’s theory of social capital was rejected and those of James Coleman’s and Robert Putnam’s (the latter’s theory in particular) were privileged by the neo liberalists. This incident actually reflects the hegemony of a style of Social Science dominated by methodological individualism and rational choice theorising both of which, in their pristine purity, reject issues of class and power. Stated differently, the language of social capital shuns the tougher questions of political economy. The author says that there is a catch in this. It may be recalled that under-development is not only economic and technological but also social and institutional. Besides lack of investible surplus (capital) and technological backwardness, inequality in ownership of property and possession of power by individuals/social groups also act as bottle-necks towards balanced economic growth and development. Therefore, unless this crucial issue is tackled, no amount of labour could achieve development. Not only that social capital never addresses this issue, but in reality, it seeks to reinforce the existing socio-economic contradictions by emphasising that what is needed for development or democracy is not structural transformation but trust, norms, networks and social bonding, in short social capital. The author also maintains that by rejecting politics, the concept also repudiates democracy and works against the interests of the poor. For, how can one conceive of democracy without politics? he asks. In fact, everywhere political society is at the core of democracy and is the chief site where conflicting ideologies content with each other for power. Viewed thus, what social capital holds out is the prospects of democracy without the inconvenience of contestational politics and of the conflicts of ideas and interests. The anti-poor predilection of the theory also becomes manifest here. To understand this one should note the nature of politics as ‘a great leveller.’ Remember, it is only in the political society the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value is applicable. As such, because of their sheer number, the poor could politically mobilize and struggle against exclusion and paucity of resources and ultimately upset the status-quo. But the high priests of social capital, by overemphasising its role in governance and development, in effect, denies such a possibility for the marginalized. Further, John Harris also argues that even if one accepts, for arguments sake, the proposition that the concept is good for stabilising democracy and that it even leads to the welfare of the poor in the long run through trickle-down effect, there remains the issue of differential access to social capital. It goes without saying that certain sections of the society-for instance women or, in the case of India, the Dalits-who have hardly any education or economic assets or even social esteem have only very little of this form of capital. Hence the argument that social capital is the ultimate remedy for all the ills of a society hardly stands intellectuals scrutiny. Contrariwise it only helps in skirting the problem of poverty and social justice and safeguarding the interests of the dominant sections by elevating the significance of voluntarism in human affairs. As a result of the aforesaid facts, social capital came to be embraced enthusiastically by conservative forces across the world. It serves their purpose well, as it is consistent with the neo-liberal agenda of reducing the role of the state and slashing public spending. Naturally, therefore, a good deal of the literature on social capital reflects the idea of ‘people pulling’ together, themselves, from below without much help from governments or their privileged fellow citizens which is very convenient for those who benefit from cut backs in social expenditure. The book also points towards the issue of the differential impact of social capital. Social capital for one group need not be beneficial either to the entire society or even to another group. The network or trust enjoyed by a fundamentalist outfit is a case in point. The social capital of such a group would, no doubt, be detrimental to public health. Again strengthening of solidarity and social capital in one group can also lead to divisions and conflicts with other groups. The best example here is the caste system in India. The book, thus, ends with a highly critical note on social capital and rejects altogether its potential either for sustaining democracy or bringing about development. On hindsight, it seems that, John Harris has overstated his case. It is true that social capital is used by the Bretton Woods twins and neo-classical economists for thinning the role of the state in development and preserving the status-quo, thereby serving the interests of global capital. It is equally true that people have differential access to social capital. However, while all these are relevant, the significance of social capital in strengthening democracy in its own little ways could not be overlooked. One can hardly say that democracy will exist in the absence of vigorous social ties. Similarly social capital can profitably play a consequential role in ensuring space for fringe groups to coordinate among themselves under a larger umbrella of mobilisation and help sustain it for a longer period of time. But at the same time, it is not at all a substitute for the much needed structural changes for establishing substantive democracy or for attaining growth with justice. Also the role of the political society in both creating social capital and sustaining democracy and bringing about development could not be discounted. Thus viewed, in spite of all its defects, the concept has also certain amount of usefulness in relation to democracy. John Harris misses this dimension of social capital in a flush of enthusiasm for rendering a high voltage critique of the concept. In this process what he has lost is a much more balanced and sober view of the entire issue.

Took his Ph. D from the University of Kerala. Teaches in the Department of Political Science, University of Kerala. Is the Honorary Director of the International Centre for Kerala Studies, University of Kerala. He is the Associate Editor of the Kerala Journal of Political Studies and editor of the Journal of Kerala Culture and Society. Is a member of the Academic Council, University of Kerala and the Board of Studies in Political Science, University of Calicut. Has written a book on Democratic Decentralisation in Kerala and has over seventy research and popular articles to his credit.

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John Harris

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