Politics and the Role of the State

Paradoxically, the place to begin a discussion of the politics of development is with the work of a major Scandinavian economist, Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal had published a great three-volume survey of development in Asia, Asian Drama, in 1968 and in it reflected in the nature of the state in the region. He believed that he had identified a pattern in the region, and termed it the ‘soft state’, which he implicitly contrasted with the strong and orderly regimes of his own (Scandinavian) background. For Myrdal, the ‘soft state’ was characterised by:

A general lack of social discipline in underdeveloped countries, signified by deficiencies in their legislation and, in particular, in law observance and enforcement, lack of obedience to rules and directives handed down to public officials on various levels, often collusion of these officials with powerful persons or groups of persons whose conduct they should regulate, and, at bottom, a general disinclination of people in all strata to resist public controls and their implementation. Within the concept of the soft state also belongs corruption, a phenomenon which seems to be generally on the increase in underdeveloped countries.

Quote from Myrdal, ‘The “soft state” in underdeveloped countries’ in Paul Streeten, ed. Unfashionable Economics, p. 229.

Myrdal (pictured left) blamed much of this on the colonial powers, which in the interests of strong central government had destroyed many of the centres of local power and influence (especially at village level) without crating any alternative. At the same time, the attitude of disobedience to (western) authority, which had been so much a part of nationalist politics had continued after the colonial powers had withdrawn. In this context, the soft state was incapable of imposing the necessary priorities for development and was generally unwilling to act decisively against corruption at any level. In fact, Myrdal’s analysis focuses much more on ‘society’ than ‘the state’, narrowly defined, but he launched political scientists upon a search for distinctive features of the post-colonial states in the Third World that would result in aborted or frustrated economic development. In this respect, he is one of the most important of postwar development theorists, and his work should be sampled by everyone taking the module.

It would be unrealistic to make any claims for consensus in the literature that has followed Myrdal. But political scientists have recognised that the nature of the state in the post-colonial developing country is very different from that in the industrial countries, and that its capacity and coherence might be a major cause of the slow pace of economic development. Work on Pakistan, for example, has suggested that the post-independence state owed much of its structure and institutional underpinning to the class structure, political and institutional structures and economic imperatives of the metropolitan society rather than that of the colonial one. Hamza Alavi identified the ‘overdeveloped state’, where the post-colonial state was not a product of the development history of its own society but had been imposed from outside. The original function of the overdeveloped state was to further the economic and political goals of the metropolitan country and its commercial interests. At its core was a military-bureaucratic apparatus that had controlled and subordinated the indigenous social classes. This same military-bureaucratic apparatus was at the heart of the new post-colonial states and served to control and subordinate indigenous social classes in the interests of the dominant indigenous propertied classes. In the case of Pakistan, there was a running conflict between the local land-owning class and the small but powerful commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. The state apparatus did not try to confront these dominant interests nor did it ever relegate their needs to the wider purposes of national economic development. Thus inherited state structures merely continue the essence of the strategy of the displaced metropolitan power.

Further work in the 1980s and 1990s pointed out the huge variation in the capacity and character of states in the Third World. Although many were post-colonial developments of structures left by imperial powers, the exact nature of their capacities, characters and potential depended upon the precise pattern of the colonial legacy and the pattern of class relations since independence. In many ways, this work has filled out and anchored the work of Myrdal, Alavi and others. Some have concentrated on the capacity of the state ‘to penetrate society, regulate social relationships, and extract or use resources in determined ways’ (Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States, p. 4). Migdal has concluded that many states in the Third World are weak in relation to strong societies, or rather to social forces that stand out against the state and resist its drive for social control. In some cases, these strong elements in society have their roots in pre-colonial institutions. Landlords and moneylenders are primary examples of such institutions, but the group will also include business and commercial groups, labour organisations and religious organisations. Thus, Latin American states may be able to exert despotic powers over some highly disadvantaged groups in their societies, but their powers of mobilising civil society as an organic whole has been limited by the continuing power of landowners and the patron-client relationships that they maintain. Similarly, the power of the religious community in many Middle and Far Eastern states poses an effective barrier to the organisational and executive abilities of government in these countries. By the same token there are strong states faced by weak societies, most of them in East Asia (such as Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore), where there is a strong tradition of state intervention caused in part by the relative weakness of social classes, religious organisations and economic interests. These developmental states figure prominently in the economic and sociological literature.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the ‘predatory state’, which has been identified by Margaret Levi (Of Rule and Revenue, 1989) and applied to Third World examples by Adrian Leftwich, States of Development). The characteristic of predatory states is the use of state power to expropriate resources from the many for the few. The predatory state is in effect the corrupt state. All states are potentially predatory, but what makes the classic predatory state so powerful is the degree of control exercised by rulers over coercive, economic and political resources. The Philippines under Marcos (pictured on the cover ot Time magazine) was a good illustration of how the machinery of the state can be used to plunder the country, but the best illustration of the predatory state is Zaire under President Mobutu Sese Seku. From the late 1960s onwards, Mobutu began to consolidate coercive, administrative and financial means to increase his own relative power and crush any alternative sources of political and economic power. He granted rewards, prizes and wealth to loyal followers and turned a blind eye to official fraud, corruption and illegal ventures. Mobutu terrorised his population and extracted from them tribute to line his own pockets.

For background see: http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9703/26/zaire.economy/


Similar examples can be found in Haiti under the Duvaliers


and ‘Old Corruption’ in late 18th century Britain.

The net effect of all this work is to show how some political scientists have come to identify the importance of power, politics and the state in the processes of development and non-development. In this perspective, social and political forces are the key elements in assessing the developmental potential and capacity of nations. In short, the state and how it is structured and governed is not a black box that cannot be analysed. Rather it can be the most significant element in developmental performance.

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