Social capital and development

Print edition : January 05, 2002

Depoliticizing Development: The World Bank and Social Capital by John Harriss; LeftWord Books, Delhi, 2001; Rs.250.

IN junctures of policy paralysis, theoretical innovations of rather dubious origins have a tendency to force themselves into public attention. If the 1980s were the lost decade for developing countries seeking to lift themselves up by the bootstraps into a future of relative material comfort, the 1990s were the decade of new certitudes. Orchestrated by the neo-liberal priesthood in Washington D.C., a new consensus was consolidated, which managed with breathtaking cynicism to ignore the mounting empirical evidence of the crisis of development.

The new orthodoxy insisted that growth would inevitably follow from "getting the prices right", that is structuring policies so that resource allocation decisions are determined entirely through the mediation of the markets. Policy guidance was required, but only to the extent that it would liberate native entrepreneurial energies from the irksome controls of government intervention.

As the 1990s wore on, it became increasingly apparent that there was something lacking in the calculus. Free markets provided ample opportunity for the aggrandisement of those already occupying the higher tiers in the scale of income and wealth. But the vast majority, who saw some hopes of advancement in the days when the "development State" bestowed its paternalist attentions upon them, were being rapidly squeezed out. A new conceptual fix was called for and the neo-liberal priesthood, never lacking in innovative abilities, chanced upon "social capital" as the magic bullet or the "missing link" in development theory.

As a concept, "social capital" was constructed from a wide variety of sources - part history, part sociology and part economic development theory. It also straddled the ideological polarity of social conservatism and radicalism. And in drawing upon the vocabularies of both these discourses, it seemingly showed the potential to attract adherents from both sides.

Yet as Harriss demonstrates with a wealth of examples and an exhaustive review of the literature, "social capital" is ultimately a gigantic conceptual vacuity, which confuses consequence with cause and fudges the historical evidence in an outrageous fashion.

Early theorising about social capital spoke of it as an intangible, though influential, factor in civic life. For the French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu, "social capital" was a key element in the perpetuation of patterns of social dominance and subordination. It was, as Harriss points out, "an instrument of power".

This was not a concept that was designed to win a wide audience and it did not. Rather, an alternate conception from the realms of American social theory was to provide the seed for the growing "social capital" industry. Sociologist James Coleman, for example, spoke of "social capital" as something inherent to the structure of relations between individuals, which could facilitate and potentially optimise their economic interactions. Yet it was a long way from here to theorising "social capital" as a policy variable. That distinction was achieved by American social theorist Robert Putnam, who in Harriss' words "has been the High Priest" winning over "masses of converts" and convincing them that "in social capital they have a concept that will help to solve many problems and change the world".

Italy was the laboratory from where Putnam's innovations arose, in particular from a prolonged historical study of the much-discussed polarities between the north and the south of the country. His book, titled Making Democracy Work was published in 1993. It went on to become the most widely cited book in social sciences in the 1990s.

Putnam's basic thesis is that the differential performance of regional governments in the north and south of Italy - as also the wide disparities in socio-economic parameters - could be attributed to varying levels of "civic involvement" or "civic engagement" or "civic tradition". This attribute, variously labelled, is quantified by Putnam using several parameters, such as voting behaviour, turnout in referenda, newspaper readership, and density of sports and cultural associations. Government performance similarly is reduced to a composite index using parameters such as the dispatch with which basic processes (such as presenting and adopting a budget) are fulfilled, and the efficiency with which essential services are delivered.

Putnam manages to telescope his findings on contemporary Italy back into a distant past and purports to see the origins of the differential evolution of north and south in Renaissance history. As Harriss points out, his work has been subjected to devastating criticism both on grounds of logic and fact. And despite an elaborate pretence, in later works, that he has sought to take these critiques on board, Putnam fails to distinguish between consequence and cause. For example, he ignores overwhelming historical evidence that the agrarian patterns that prevailed in southern Italy in the early 20th century did not date back to medieval times, but could more credibly be located in social and political changes that occurred in the 19th century.

The cause of economic disparity that Putnam identifies is, in other words, the consequence of a political pattern of domination and subordination that emerged in the 19th century, with southern Italy being subjected till the unification of 1861, to a period of foreign rule. And the form of colonial exploitation that was imbedded in this period did not disappear with the unification of the Italian nation, which created no more than an illusion of sovereign rule in the south.

Putnam bore these criticisms with supreme unconcern as he moved on to higher doctrinal achievements. His next book, evocatively titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, systematised the fragile findings of Making Democracy Work into iron-clad dogma. The arresting use of the metaphor of bowling, that quintessential American pastime, is undoubtedly a methodological master-stroke. Putnam reveals that between 1980 and 1993, league bowling fell by 40 per cent. This was an index of the decline of civic life in general for which the statistics follow in a torrent: church attendance is down, voter turnout is in decline, union membership is dwindling, and the general interest in community groups is fading.

These findings provided a rationale for a political and ideological project that was being pursued by sections of the American elite with renewed force in the 1990s: the retrenchment and retreat of government, the drastic curtailment of taxation, and the devolution of responsibility for remedying social inequalities to local community-based organisations. Harriss shows that this political programme, though subtly hidden in Putnam's work, is inherent in his characteristic pattern of evasions. He displays a longing for American society as it was structured in the middle of the 20th century, with its racist intolerance, gender inequalities and massive class biases. He observes at one stage that "social capital" could be associated with inequality, but then refuses to follow up on the implications. The ultimate consequence, which is the central thesis of Harriss' book, is that he succeeds in neutering the understanding of economic development by stripping away from it the essential element of political engagement and action.

"Social capital" for all its dubious provenance, became a key concept in the global development dialogue in the latter-1990s, in the main because of its espousal by the World Bank. The attractions of the concept are obvious. It relieves the doctrine of free-market liberalism of the onus of responsibility for the crisis of development of the 1990s.

With all its infirmities, the notion of "social capital" has had a charmed life because of its multitude of influential backers - from the U.S. President to the World Bank. Its practical consequences of course are quite another thing. Efforts to construct social capital invariably bring the participants up against the hard edges of class inequality. And ultimately, concludes Harriss, these mystifications cannot be allowed to distract attention from the need for a development agenda to address problems of distribution, class and power.

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