Development as Anarchism?

Continuing through the fantastic Hobsbawm book I’m currently reading, I was struck by the similarities between a current debate in development and one that Hobsbawm wrote about in the 1960s.

William Easterly conceives the battleground in development policy as a fight between ‘planners’ and ‘searchers’. He scorns the planners as blind men drawing and then following maps for terrain that can not be known. Searchers, on the other hand, are where hope lies. Without grand plans, they try; they fail. They try again. They fail better. Eventually they succeed. And eventually one of these successes lights a fuse for larger development, or all of these successes build upon each other until the economy is fully formed.

Easterly’s enemies are those who believe that the economy and economic development path can be planned. Ha-Joon Chang is one, believing that industrial policy is a central component of development success. Yet Easterly is definitely fair in maligning all planners, including those who ‘plan for markets’ by dismantling all vestiges of the pre-existing economy and its controls and letting the market do it’s magic.

This argument is oddly reminiscent of an older intellectual approach in a very different context. Anarchism historically sought to bring down Governments through constant, random, revolutionary acts. At least one, they felt, would eventually prove to be the spark of revolution. This approach contrasted with, for example, revolutionary socialists, for whom planned revolution was required to effect a change in the way the state was structured.

It’s not such a bizarre comparison to make – anarchism ran aground because its approach equated the failure of many planned revolutions to materialize with the bankruptcy of the planning approach, instead believing that random acts have a better chance of success. What this analysis failed to recognize was that these plans depended on the confluence of certain social, economic and political conditions. When they did not obtain, the plans would not come to fruition, or would fail when attempted. What this denotes is not the fundamental uselessness of the plan, but the reality that all plans must depend also on external factors. In other words, the conditions were not right for this plan to succeed; or this plan was not right for these conditions, but it was not the case that planning as an approach was inherently unsuccessful.

Anarchism attempted to remove the tyranny of circumstance. When an opportunity to act arose, it was taken. Very occasionally this led to massive social unrest, but most often it fizzled out because the opportunities were not built upon, precisely because concerted efforts require some level of planning. This is not to deny the importance of the ‘searchers’, those who act upon circumstance and build successes. They are central to success. It is simply to point out that their impact is maximized when set within a structure designed to do so.

In development, success is likely to be contingent on a wide array of conditions: is the government actively malignant, helpful or not such a strong influence one way or another? What are the natural resources available? Are there terms-of-trade trends that will influence macroeconomic conditions? What is the level of development in domestic capitalism? And so on and so on.

That plans often fail isn’t necessarily surprising. We need to consider all of these questions before we decide on either a plan that suits the circumstances or on an approach to change the circumstances till we can apply a reasonable plan. That this is difficult and will often fail should not be taken to mean something that it doesn’t. Trying to build on success as and when it is found is by no means more likely to succeed. In fact, in the knowledge that so much needs to change and so many efforts need to be coordinated, it rather seems that it is a more difficult approach, less likely to succeed; albeit one that is also less likely to fail outright simply because it doesn’t set for itself clear criteria by which it can be judged.

Skepticism of the grand plans is important. We need it to remind us that we must constantly prune our planning instincts and constantly assess conditions and plans that seek to exploit them. Yet planning itself should not rejected – the problems we deal with are too many and too interlinked to address without the coherence it can bring.