The underbelly of the beast

  • 29/06/1994

THE world is a smaller place today; a Disneyland in France and Chinese heavy metal bands no longer raise eyebrows. Yet, vast differences also exist as industrialised countries continue to yoke poorer and newborn nation-states into the rhetoric of free market development and spiralling debts. Is it possible to imagine a way out?

For thinkers like Serge Latouche, the answer is an impassioned, "Yes!" In his own words, In the Wake of...sketches the possibility of a truly "postmodern" transformation of society, one which seeks to move beyond the grandiose but flawed schemes of modernist development. The decisive node of the author's conceptual landscape consists of bringing together the notion of "unequal exchange", borrowed from development theories in the field of international trade, and the anthropological idea of "symbolic exchange" prevalent in so-called peripheral cultures.

The former seeks to enunciate what may be called North-South trade inequities, the fact that poorer countries are forced to enter a system of exchange whereby they buy more from the better-off West (and thence the logic of debt management), while the latter evokes a culturally-ordered barter -- which is not production-oriented -- of goods in the form of "gifts".

These critical and descriptive tools are harnessed in the interest of a generalised project, the analysis/critique of Western socio-economic institutions locked in the stultifying paradigm of endless production and consumption. The withering critique clarifies the manner in which Western development "depends" upon (read "incorporates") other cultures, including environment, into a warped global logic of its own making. Simultaneously, a space is created for the enunciation of an alternative mode of existence.

The key metaphor of the book is of a shipwrecked "grand society", leading us through its 2 chapters: a) the breakdown of late capitalist logic, and, b) the emergence of what Latouche calls the "castaways", byproducts of the breakdown, forming a possible archipelago.

What unfolds is the story of capitalism's underbelly, where progress means expansion, greater knowledge brings about a dull homogenisation and rationality brings Auschwitz. Even the relativising of its economic laws is geared towards the maintainence of such conditions of production where "Westernness" ever remains on top, endlessly perpetuating itself. It is no coincidence that one recalls here Marx's questioning of such idealist principles as "harmony of interests"; at the same time, Latouche's project breaks with traditional Marxist methodology, most clearly in the solutions offered (the "post-development" of the title).

Latouche attacks such binary constructs as development/non-development, which project the false utopias of endless industrialisation and consumption. Alongside the transfer of technologies, there takes place the export of values; even the gifting of "aid" occurs in the context of business-ethical interests.

In short, there is material and symbolic impoverishment for Asian, African and other peripheralised nations and communities. Once a society's sovereignty becomes a "national question", much avowed ideals like "food self-sufficiency" and "autonomous" get trapped in power relations between developed and under-developed nations.

The solution lies in the living of a life without use-values and exchange-values, much as the African tribes studied in cultural anthropology. The castaways' society "can function only on some other logic, with some other wealth and an other poverty".

Latouche relies too easily on a form of symbolic existence which shares remarkable affinities to primitive communism; he also lays himself open to the charge of advocating a counter metaphysics when, speaking of the numbers inhabiting the "informal" sphere of material activity (the castaways), he suggests that such "information is unreadable and elsewhere". But this does not deflect our attention from the many harsh truths he succeeds in laying bare.

Soumyabrata Choudhury is a doctoral student in the Centre for Linguistics and English, Jawaharlal Nehru University