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Socialist Review, March 1994

Dave Treece


Backwards or forwards?

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Victims of Development: Resistance and Alternatives
Jeremy Seabrook
Verso £12.95

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels described how capitalist production was drawing every society into a single cosmopolitan and global system. But they could not have envisaged the precise forms of brutality, exploitation and misery which would mark the completion of this process in the developing world of the late 20th century.

In this book Jeremy Seabrook gives us an impassioned traveller’s tour through that world. Story after story, in sometimes overwhelming succession, blurs into a single, infinitely repeated nightmare of traditional rural communities uprooted, torn apart and left to struggle for their survival at the gates of the new industrial plants, the construction sites or the peripheries of the cities themselves.

The book’s title, though, speaks volumes about Seabrook’s analysis of this latest cycle of capitalist modernisation and proletarianisation. For one thing, there is his insistence on terms like ‘the poor’ and ‘victims’. Their effect is to obscure and neutralise the class character of the new urban populations and their forms of resistance, lumping indiscriminately together the slum dwellers of Bombay and Rio de Janeiro, the street vendors, rubbish sorters and prostitutes of Manila, the textile workers of Penang in Malaysia and the Kamani tubes workers of India.

If they share an identity, for Seabrook it lies not in their common potential and interest in fighting to control and exploit rationally the resources and technologies that capitalism has squandered. Rather it is to be found in their common impoverishment, their common loss of traditional forms of community and of a special relationship to the ‘natural rhythms of the world’.

This brings us to the second problem with the book’s diagnosis. It argues that it is not so much capitalism but industrialism, development itself, which is the cause of Third World misery.

As a result Seabrook finds the struggles of industrial workers against dangerous working conditions or for union rights ultimately less inspiring than those initiatives which advocate a return to self reliant, communitarian village systems. So the September 1991 demonstration of IFTU trade unionists through New Delhi is described as dignified, moving but sadly ineffectual.

The ‘alternatives’, then, of the book’s title lie in a lost ‘third way’ – India’s ‘Gandhian tradition of modest consumption, voluntary austerity and a decent sufficiency for all’. Seabrook’s admiration for pre-industrial subsistence cultures allows him, astonishingly, to balance the catastrophic poverty produced by natural disasters or crop failures favourably against their ‘rational austerity, a not joyless, but limited claim on the riches of the earth’.

Seabrook eventually reveals the reason for this pessimistic retreat into self imposed underdevelopment. He has accepted wholesale the ‘new world order’ defeatism of the late 1980s, that the struggles of the working class have ended in defeat, that ‘there is no longer any threat to the existing order’ and that the market reigns supreme.

These are conclusions that look premature, to say the least, both in the crisis ridden economies of Europe and North America and in those parts of the world where Seabrook looks for consolation. Recent weeks have seen an extraordinary uprising of Mexican peasants against the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a strike wave in Indonesia over pay.

These fights are for more, not less, of the capitalist cake, and if Seabrook believes that the parallels and similarities between North and South are growing, then rather than reinventing old forms of poverty he should be looking out for signs of the renewal of anti-capitalist struggle worldwide.

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