This essay argues for a return to, and renewal of, Marxist political
economy approaches in development studies. In particular, it
argues that what has been called the field’s ‘impasse’ (Booth,
1985), that is, the supposed inadequacy of dependency theorists
to predict and hypothesise about development, is a
mischaracterisation of Marxist contributions to the discipline,
based on selective restriction. I instead refigure this ‘impasse’ as
a crisis of confidence in the discipline, following the analysis by
Arsel and Dasgupta (2015), which stems from what can only be
described as ‘self-sabotage’ – the undermining of its own object.
The ‘post-development’ and ‘anti-development’ positions
influenced by poststructuralism and prevalent today from the Left
are thus critiqued. Against those positions, development as a word
broadly signifying a goal to struggle for is reinserted into the
debate. Development studies is thus reoriented as a critique of
capitalist development, as well as a political project advancing
theoretically and empirically informed alternatives. In order to
reorient development studies back to political economy I draw on
three broadly Marxist theories and posit them as interacting in a
multi-scalar matrix: world-systems theory, regulation theory, and
an internationalist political conception of class struggle.
Development studies has recently undergone a turn in thinking
against its object, influenced by several antecedent ‘turns’ – the
linguistic turn, the cultural turn, the textual turn, etc. – that have
reverberated throughout the social sciences. These have largely
been initiated by ‘poststructuralist’ thinking (e.g. Derrida, 1976;
Foucault, 1979) and postcolonial theory (e.g. Said, 1978; Spivak,
1990; Bhabha, 1994), which itself draws on the thematic concerns
of poststructuralism. Crudely put, these concerns include an
insistence on the politics of ‘difference’, discourse (occasionally
implying a discursive-monist ontology), ‘textual’ interpretation
and critique, and the effects of discourse – ideas, meanings, and
representations – on reality. Key theorists in this ‘post-
development’ tradition include Arturo Escobar (1995), Gilbert Rist
(1997), Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash (1998). The
approach, like its antecedents, “does not come in one shape”
(Corbridge, 1998: 139) but bears significant commonalities across
it. What bridges the gaps between contributions is the rejection of
‘Development’ as a disabling Western discourse and the
valorisation of the ‘developing’ world, the Global South and the
local. Encouraged is what is called an ‘epistemological turn’ away
from modernity, globalisation and capitalism. The arguments rely
on what Sally Haslanger (2003) describes as the ‘debunking’
function of social constructionism, or what Karl Mannheim (1936)
similarly called ‘unmasking’. It is the by now familiar technique of
revealing the apparent hidden particularism or exclusion of a
category purporting to be universal, such as ‘human rights’ or
The linguistic, culturalist and textualist assumptions of post-
development have been ubiquitous in social science disciplines
since at least the 1980s. In development studies, the post-
development sequence appears to have germinated as a reaction
to ‘liberal’ or ‘mainstream’ capitalist development theories, as well
as Marxist theories, which are often erroneously packaged as one
‘Western’ discourse on development by proponents (Kiely, 1999).
Other intractable problems result from the post-development
approach. Despite poststructuralism’s formation around a
critique of essentialism, the post-development argument relies on
unhelpful essentialisms such as ‘the West and the Rest’
(Corbridge, 1998). Kiely (1999: 45) assesses the uncompromising
valorisation of the local against the ‘global’ and the ‘Western’ as a
form of “Pontius Pilate politics”. At worst, this rejection of anything
‘Western’ as a false universal leads to extreme relativism, which
appears to be acknowledged and even accepted. Esteva and
Prakash, for example, “explicitly reject all contemporary attempts
to globalize human rights” (1998: 138), an extraordinary claim
they preface with an acknowledgment that this might sound
relativist and unconcerned with human rights violations in non-
Western countries. Unfortunately for them, this is exactly what it
sounds like because it is the only possible corollary of their claim.
This relativism is taken further in the critique of science embarked
on by proponents (Pieterse, 2000). For Shiva (1991), science is an
expression akin to the Nietzschean will to power, concealing its
desire for mastery over nature. The anti-science militancy of post-
development ecology combined with an uncritical embrace of the
local or ‘alternative’ often leads to a form of ‘neo-traditionalism’ or
‘reactionary modernism’ (Pieterse, 1998; Nanda, 2003). This
relativism is avoidable but sadly prominent in the forms of
discourse analysis engaged, and despite sounding ‘radical’ have
politically unsavoury consequences.
But arguably the worst offence of post-development theory is its
nihilism about concrete suggestions of political alternatives. Kiely
(1999) notes the tendency of post-development theorists to reject
wholesale any alternative to development as being ‘captured’ by
the dominant development discourse (e.g. Nandy, 1989; Latouche,
1993). Escobar (1992: 417) is unequivocal on this point: post-
development thinkers are “not interested in Development
alternatives, but rather in alternatives to Development”.
Unfortunately Escobar is not forthcoming on what those
alternatives are, apart from vagaries about the discursive
reconstitution of subjects and an uncritical acceptance of ‘new
social movements’, which somehow are able to step outside of the
aforementioned political ‘capturing’. This open-ended position, in
part powered by idealism and nominalism, “effectively washes its
hands of politics” (Kiely, 1999: 46). Hence, in this turn to an
uncritical, neo-traditionalist valorisation of the local, development
studies implicitly resigns itself to the hegemony of capitalist
socioeconomic relations and rescinds its political project of
improving, on a large scale, the material conditions of the
‘periphery’. Ultimately, post-development theory has led to
development studies relinquishing a coherent grasp of its object,
which is required for the project to survive in any recognisable
Post-development theory is thus clearly inadequate, fulfilling
neither the aim of development studies to coherently theorise the
politics and geographies of uneven development nor the attempt
to build a political project concurrent with this knowledge. If the
claims of this approach are consistent and coherent (and I argue
they are not), then one must surely ask what such an approach is
doing in ‘development studies’ and, indeed, whether ‘development
studies’ should even exist. But, as Arsel and Dasgupta (2015: 650)
claim, this critique has “failed to bring an end to the ideas of
development and development studies”. Yet the ostensible
inefficacy of this critical sequence begs the question: why has it
survived for so long? The perception that discourse-oriented
approaches have successfully unseated Marxist theories of
political economy, because the latter are inferior, is clearly false.
Despite this, however, discourse-oriented approaches live on,
along with their attempts to destroy the very object they rely on
for any conceivable kind of political anti-capitalist project that
improves the material conditions of the world’s poorest. Instead of
choosing to inhabit “the last refuge of the noble savage” (Kiely,
1999), I argue for not a return to the dogmatic Marxist materialism
of old but a reformulated, analytically multi-scalar Marxism that
revitalises some already-entrenched approaches and incorporates
In order to return development studies to a grounded, materialist
political project from its idealist hiatus, an uneasy but possible
alliance is negotiated between three Marxist approaches to
political economy that can be developed at different scales. The
need for this is outlined by Arsel and Dasgupta (2015: 659):
"…[W]e see development studies productively embracing an
explicit political economy approach that focuses on the working
of capitalism on a global scale with its local variations. Since
capitalist accumulation almost always has disparate effects on
different sections of the society, most importantly according to
their role in the accumulation process, the class-oriented
Marxist framework is the preferred choice."
Suggested is a multi-scalar approach that can combine the
analysis of global capitalism with its attendant local variations.
The theories are, in order of generality: world-systems theory,
regulation theory, and a Marxist theory of class struggle. (One may
notice that the ‘dependency theory’ tradition non-Marxists spend
a lot of time critiquing does not feature.) Because the role of class
antagonism within the capital relation is emphasised, a Marxist
political project of class struggle is entailed. Although class
struggle is at the centre, it is the most ‘particular’ level of analysis.
The two classes at play are quite simply workers as objects of
surplus-extraction and the capitalists who, in competition with
each other (Marx, 1973: 421), appropriate that surplus. This
formation is situated against ‘post-Marxist’ (e.g. Laclau and
Mouffe, 1985) and ‘discourse’ formulations that attempt to refute
the centralisation of class struggle through what Wood (1986: 76)
calls the “randomization of history and politics” (see also
Anderson, 1983). Such a refutation is both possible and necessary
because without the objective of class abolition, a socialist project
is incoherent. If class abolition is rejected as an objective,
development studies as a political project drastically limits itself
to cross-class reformism within the capitalist economy. This is
why development needs to be recognised as capitalist
development. World-systems theory is used to describe the nature
of the modern capitalist world-system in the most general sense
as structured by centre-periphery relations. Regulation theory is
applied more rigorously to analyse the differences across ‘regimes
of accumulation’ and how these transform the centre-periphery
relations. We now turn to a discussion of the three levels of
Wallerstein (1974) identifies the ‘capitalist world-economy’ (as he
calls it) emerging out of the ‘medieval prelude’ or ‘world empire’
era and developing in the sixteenth century (see also Amin, 1991).
Characteristic of this world-economy is what he later calls an
“axial division of labor” (Wallerstein, 2011: xiii), between the
‘centre’ areas, the ‘semi-peripheries’ and the ‘peripheries’. The
‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ are distinguished at a national level, and
prior to the era of expansion known as colonialism, Wallerstein
draws these distinctions only within the European continent. The
idea that capitalist relations of production would inevitably
expand and penetrate the ‘natural economies’ of not-yet-capitalist
areas was pre-empted by Rosa Luxemburg (1951; see also Mandel,
1975: 44-74). The core in Wallerstein’s programme is generally
understood as North America, most of Western Europe, Japan,
Australia and New Zealand; the semi-periphery as Mexico, Brazil,
Argentina, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Russia and India; and
the periphery as everywhere else. Peripheries, for Wallerstein,
generally have weak states. Semi-peripheries are “in between the
core and periphery on a series of dimensions, such as the
complexity of economic activities, strength of the state machinery,
cultural integrity, etc.” (Wallerstein, 1974: 349). The development
of the capitalist world-economy is characterised by the transfer of
surplus generated in the peripheries to the centre areas, but also
by the global class opposition, as Marx and Engels (2012) already
noted, between the bourgeois class and the workers from which it
appropriates. The capitalist state generates the conditions for
surplus-appropriation and capital accumulation by various
enterprises, which it then comes to administer and manage. The
state protects the property rights of the bourgeois class, socialises
losses and ensures stable monopolies (Wallerstein, 1974: 355).
Capitalism is thus founded on moments of ‘accumulation by
dispossession’, what Harvey (2005a) calls the “new imperialism”
and what Marx (2011) earlier called “primitive accumulation”. The
effects of this dispossession essentially prove that Lenin’s thesis
on imperialism – that colonialism would hinder the development
of the colonies rather than facilitate it – is indeed correct (Lenin,
1939). Levels of exploitation and surplus-appropriation occur with
centre areas exploiting peripheral areas, and class exploitation
occurring inside centre and periphery areas. Dispossession occurs
in a variety of modes, as Harvey (2006: 92-93) notes: mercantilist
powers, colonial powers, ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ states, multinational
companies, the mobilisation of surpluses produced by non-
capitalist social formations, and the emergence of ‘compradors’
(Poulantzas, 1976: 42) that morph into new capitalist elites.
Dispossession also occurs when factions of capitalist
administration cannibalise each other, such as in the
financialisation or the repossession by financial institutions of
agricultural or industrial property, and when crises occur where
capital is devalued and its surpluses destroyed. Global financial
and political institutions, such as the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank, also dispossess the capital of
The world-systems approach can also be used to explain processes
of macro-scale class recomposition in the contemporary
globalising world-economy, and attendant changes in culture and
ethnic identification. Jonathan Friedman for example argues that
globalisation is a “discourse of hegemonic crisis” (Friedman and
Ekholm Friedman, 2013), based on a false narrative of
progressivism from stable, closed units of culture and society that
diversify and diffuse due to newfound monetisation,
technologisation, mobility, etc. (e.g. Appadurai, 1990). It is a
reaction to this globalisation discourse of cosmopolitanism that
powers nationalist and racist political movements and
organisations. Friedman (2000) links the growth of this discourse
to the de-hegemonisation of the West, decentralisation and
political fragmentation and identitarianism. Counteracting the
postmodern emphasis on ‘mobilities’ (Urry, 2007), Friedman
describes a new cultural process of ‘indigenization’ (650), which
he describes as “an identity of rootedness, of genealogy as it
relates to territory”. This form of nationalist and/or localist
identification has emerged not only in former colonised
peripheries but in some centre areas as well. What is important,
as well, is the globalisation of elites and the development of a
cosmopolitan elite identity that opposes an ‘indigenised’ mass
population seeking rootedness (Friedman and Ekholm Friedman,
2013: 251). Significantly, the development of both a ‘transnational
capitalist class’ (Sklair, 2001) that operates in spaces of capitalist
development, and ‘Third World elites’ (e.g. what Poulantzas calls
an ‘internal bourgeoisie’ – Poulantzas, 1976; Lipietz, 1987: 114-
118) who accumulate wealth and manage capital in the
peripheries, is characteristic of contemporary capitalism’s
globalised vertical polarisation of class relations.
From identifying the contextual layer of analysis in a Marxist
political economy approach in development studies as the modern
capitalist world-system, I turn now to the difficult intermediate
layer of analysis that is regulation theory. Regulation theory goes
beyond a perceived deadlock between centre and periphery in
world-systems theory (Lipietz, 1987: 2) to analyse changes in the
structure of capital accumulation occurring at international and
national levels, and sometimes smaller scales. Various schools of
regulation theory exist that differ in their scale of analysis –
national or international; and their theoretical complexity – either
solely theorising economic or both societal and economic
mechanisms (Jessop, 1990). The periodisation known as ‘Fordism’
is emphasised, particularly how Fordist periods of growth ended
in crisis and contraction and what this means for the future
development of the capitalist economy. Michel Aglietta (1979: 16)
defines regulation theory as “the study of the transformation of
social relations as it creates new forms that are both economic and
noneconomic, that are organized in structures and themselves
reproduce a determinant structure, the mode of production”.
These social relations of production are a fundamental unit of
analysis. As Marx (1999: n.p.) states, “In the social production of
their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which
are independent of their will, namely relations of production”. The
mode of production is part of the Althusserian ‘social formation’,
which consists of economic, political and ideological practices
interrelated in complex ‘overdeterminations’ (Althusser and
The two concepts central to regulation theory are the ‘regime of
accumulation’ and the ‘mode of regulation’. The ‘regime of
accumulation’ is defined by Alain Lipietz (1987: 14) as the “long-
term stabilization of the allocation of social production between
consumption and accumulation”, while the mode of regulation is
the materialisation of that regime by way of rules, procedures,
norms and networks. Fordism was a tightly regulated regime of
accumulation that hit a bump on the road to full growth, namely
the crisis of overproduction, in the 1930s. This crisis was caused
by an unprecedented rise in productivity as a result of the
‘scientific management’ (Taylorism) of the Western industrial
labour force, which intensified the division of labour and micro-
managed labour-time in particular (36). Wage relations were
regulated in such a way to adjust mass consumption practices to
rises in productivity, which brought Fordism into a new successful
period of growth. The United States enjoyed a period of “implicit
hegemony” (39) as the victor of World War Two, unleashing its
capitalist project of development on the world “first culturally,
then financially with the Marshall and MacArthur plans, and
finally institutionally with the Bretton Woods agreements and the
establishment of GATT, the IMF, and the OECD” (40). This entered
a period of direct threat as the economy began to slow down in the
turn from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Lipietz identifies the
“general downturn in rate of productivity growth” (42) as the cause
of the 1967 recession, which became a full-blown crisis of
profitability caused by the rise in the ‘organic composition of
capital’ (a Marxist term meaning the ratio of fixed capital to
variable capital). Third World nationalist movements and, more
significantly, the oil crisis of 1973, eroded American hegemony.
The extension of Fordism’s geographical base to the peripheries,
as Lipietz argues, has its roots in these crises of the centre.
The contemporary capitalist world-economy, as is true for the
world-economy at any other time, clearly features a range of
accumulation regimes that interact in global networks of surplus-
appropriation, distribution and trade. Lipietz (1982) identifies the
shift to a ‘peripheral Fordism’ in the developing countries that
reflects a number of changes, including but not exclusively the
growth of a new middle class and the autonomous development of
the state from the wealthy classes (see Note 1). Amidst this process a new
international division of labour is being established, one that
superimposes itself on the preceding division but inside the
periphery. The periphery, Lipietz argues, although never a unified
‘whole’, is being split into the highly technologized ‘newly
industrialising countries’ (NICs, see Note 2) that have emerged wealthier
from a particularly pronounced period of Taylorization, and those
countries that remain simply exporters of raw materials or have
little resources at all. Whilst the peripheral areas have diverged
from each other in this manner, the centre is undergoing a period
of dispersal as the United States is de-hegemonised and other
centre economies develop intensive accumulation (Aglietta, 1976),
specialise, and technologise. The introduction of new technology,
of course, may also contribute to the ‘deskilling’ of the labour force
It is by now a familiar argument that we have transitioned from a
‘Fordist-Keynesian’ economy to something called a ‘neoliberal’
economy, and this represents a specific shift in the regime of
accumulation, entailing a new mode of regulation.* Wadgymar
(1994: 297) identifies a “new international order” (which he names
as neoliberalism) caused by the lapse of ‘communism’, the
unification of Germany, the effective end to American hegemony
and a continual recession of its economy, and the ongoing
geopolitical crises in the Middle East, where “underdeveloped
countries” are the biggest losers. Peripheral states are regulated
and their economic autonomy sufficiently weakened by financial
relations of debt entered into as a consequence of the ‘structural
adjustment programmes’ of the IMF and the World Bank. Centre
states transfer their assets to private hands and significantly
diminish their own power through commercial deregulation.
Jessop (1993: 10) refers to this as the “hollowing out” of the nation
state. Harvey (2005b) provides an excellent historically informed
elucidation of neoliberalism as a class project, resulting in
significant upward redistribution of wealth to an entrepreneurial
class and the nouveaux riches and the proliferation of a global
financial industry with enormous speculative power over world
markets. The effects of neoliberalisation cannot be disputed. It has
been instrumental in the global-economic hegemonisation of
multinational corporations, the creation of new relations of
financial dependency between Western European economic
centres and the global periphery, and generalised increases in
forms of economic inequality the world over.
In a similar fashion, Peck and Tickell (1994: 319) argue
neoliberalism “represents the politics of the unresolved crisis”
which they call a “jungle law”, rather than an alternative to
Keynesianism that can be sustained. It is a “regulatory expression
of capitalism’s predatory, self-destructive dynamic” (320). Lipietz
(1992) agrees, arguing that the contradictions of Atlantic Fordism
– progressive labour alienation and the build-up of a profitability
crisis – are unsolved by neoliberalism. Instead, the economy is
now even more fragile, threatened by crisis and contraction with
a shortening wave period and increasing amplitude. Despite this,
the neoliberal counter-revolution has ideologically benefited from
a particularist politics advocated on the Left, which “emphasises
the inevitability of global competitive forces and the virtues of
locally-based coping strategies” (Peck and Tickell, 1994: 319).
Such a turn away from political economy and the imagination of
broad socialist alternatives, to a romanticisation of ‘local
communities’ at a scale where problems can only be internally
ameliorated, is indeed present in many Left responses to
neoliberalism. Unfortunately, this includes within development
studies, an area where it is perhaps most important to resist
making such a localist turn. Rather than representing a desirable
step forward, this turn is symbolic of intellectual atrophy and a
defeatist attitude. The localist politics that underpins the ‘post-
development’ ‘crisis of confidence’ in the discipline is thus
demonstrated to buttress neoliberalisation rather than challenge
The importance of these two hitherto discussed analytical levels –
world-systems theory and regulation theory – is, to use Roy
Bhaskar’s ontological phrasing, in their identification and
explanation of capitalist social relations and the ‘generative
mechanisms’ that underpin the actual and empirical levels of
reality (Bhaskar, 1979). As Bhaskar puts it:
"Transforming society towards socialism depends upon
knowledge of these underlying structures. The world cannot be
rationally changed unless it is adequately interpreted (Bhaskar,
Bhaskar claims that because social systems are “intrinsically open
and cannot be artificially closed”, the judgmental criteria for
choosing appropriate research programmes is based on
explanatory rather than predictive power. I identify Marxism,
then, as a generative research programme in this vein which may
be able to rescue development studies from its ‘crisis of
confidence’. This programme necessarily has an attendant politics
of class struggle. To quote Bhaskar (2011: 7) again:
"The task of socialists must be to work for the development and
release of our underdeveloped and repressed capacities and for
the transformation and dissolution of existing oppressive and
repressive tendencies. It must also be to struggle for the social
and natural (e.g. environmental) conditions for their fulfilment
Class struggle is elusive in that it must occur with a view to all
spatial scales: with the traditional Marxist internationalist outlook
yet necessarily accounting for the concrete circumstances of local
specificities: fights against local elites, struggle over territory
control, etc. This means that no particular scale of struggle is
precluded from analysis. Arsel and Dasgupta (2015: 661) state
that it is “precisely because the economic outcomes for some of
the most vulnerable sections of society are determined by forces
beyond national boundaries and therefore inherently uncertain,
that nation states continue to have a major role in providing
appropriate social security and facilitating rehabilitation and re-
employment”. What must happen for any radical change to occur,
however, is for class politics to “become the unifying force that
binds together all emancipatory struggles” (Wood, 1986: 199).
Without class struggle, as for example in de-Marxified ‘new social
movements’, capitalism will simply be able to reconsolidate and
incorporate any elements that resist it.
Thus, I take up the challenge that Arsel and Dasgupta (2015) set
for development studies: “to engage continuously with what
development should mean and how it should be attained”, and
refusing to remain “oblivious to the capitalist present” (662). For
development studies to survive in any serious way and make an
impact, it must return from the cul-de-sacs of poststructuralist
and discourse theories to a firm grounding in political economy. I
have used this essay to advance a basic framework of such a
research programme. Development studies must have a global
focus and pay attention to mechanisms operating at a variety of
spatial scales. Given development is politically contested, the
proposed programme has at its centre the Marxist politics of class
struggle. Only through such a project of social transformation
does socialism stand a chance of becoming the enlightened
common-sense of our age.
*I accept the term 'neoliberal' here with qualified hesitancy.
1. This migration of unskilled labour under Fordist regulation to the peripheries occurred
first in peripheral regions of the centre (e.g. certain regional areas of France) before
extending in the 1960s to what Lipietz calls the “immediate ‘outer’ periphery” (mostly
encompassing what Wallerstein calls the ‘semi-periphery): Portugal, Spain, Poland,
Romania, Mexico, and trade-liberalised parts of East Asia (Lipietz, 1987: 71, 206 n. 4.1).
2. Alain Lipietz suggests NICs be listed thus: Portugal, Spain, the former Yugoslav states, South
Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Greece, and several ‘state-capitalist’
countries in the Eastern Bloc. This list may more than anything show the datedness of
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