Thursday, October 16, 2008

some 3 weeks!

The past 3 weeks have been a period of intense scholarly activity for me; a period that has deeply reminded me why I do the work that I do. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that they have been the best 3 weeks, professionally speaking, since I returned to Canada after an effective absence of 25 years. Set against the backdrop of a deepening global financial crisis, and the effective collapse of neo-liberalism, I have been fortunate to be able to engage with a number of leading intellectuals in the field of international development, and this has left me remarkably refreshed.

Three weeks ago I attended the inaugural Development Studies Seminar at York University, organized by my old friend and colleague Sharada Srinivasan. My former colleague at the Institute of Social Studies, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, delivered an outstanding talk on transnational cultures and 'deep culture'. Now at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, Pieterse is a major international figure in post-development thinking, and I must confess that, in this light, I was surprised by how few academics from York University attended his seminar.

Pieterse argued that throughout history relations between cultures has paid attention to difference, rather than the commonalities that he terms deep culture. However, increasingly global communities now articulate their differences in terms of a common global transnational culture, which allows a shared deep culture to come to the foreground, creating, in effect, a global multiculture that balances sedantary cultures, non-place bound culture, and increasingly mobile flexible acculturation. Pieterse reflected afterwards on the place of violent conflict in the processes he described, with violence seen as a means of locating oneself within a transnational culture. Pieterse's seminar was very, very good; and later in the evening we enjoyed our first meal together in a decade, reflecting upon life in the North American academic environment, changes in European society, and his reflections upon U.S. society, as well as, of course, his current thinking on international development issues.

One week later I had dinner with Diane Elson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex and one of the world's outstanding feminist economists. The former Chief Economist for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem), I am privileged to be able to call Elson a friend (I hope!), for along with a sharp and critical intellect she has a remarkably inclusive and open approach to intellectual engagement (something that she shares with another great feminist economist, Nancy Folbre). We had no agenda, per se, but nonetheless had a lively discussion on the role of the International Monetary Fund in Africa, on the Gender Team within the United Nations Development Programme, and on (again!) the North American academic environment. Elson has been actively engaged recently in a major, and important, intervention in international development studies, the creation of a master's degree in gender and economics at Makere University in Uganda, and this we also discussed.

Five days later the Department of International Development Studies at Trent University hosted the first David Morrison Lecture in International Development, and Professor James C. Scott of Yale University, whom I have read for decades but whom I had never met, delivered an outstanding address on globalization and the relationship between the 'vernacular' and the 'official'. Scott described how the state seeks to standardize society by creating national systems of taxation, legal codes and land rights, language and names, and even weights and measures, and that this follows a logic of control, manipulation and management over populations. He then went on to argue that the 'Washington Consensus' represented an international effort led by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization to standardize the world’s economies even though it was itself a vernacular approach of 19th century North Atlantic world. Hence, globalization is a vernacular that is presented as a universal.

Following Scott's lecture there was a very good open discussion, and this discussion continued amongst colleagues in the Department into the second U.S. presidential debate, and indeed on into the next day. Along the way I learned a great deal about Southeast Asia, the United States, and Scott's own intellectual development.

Two days after the Scott lecture I attended the University of Manitoba's Global Political Economy Group conference on the world food crisis. The Keynote Speaker at the conference was Professor Utsa Patnaik of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, one of the world's most formidable political economists. I had not seen Professor Patnaik in more than 14 years, and she delivered an important address on the contemporary food crisis, arguing that it witnessed the articulation of 3 contemporary contradictions: of food versus feed, of food versus exports, and of food versus fuel. She demonstrated that the structural causes of the food crisis lie in the increasing indirect demand of Northern consumers for grain, in the form of the meat that they consume. She demonstrated the fallacy of free trade and comparative advantage, explaining how the drive to export, imposed as a consequence of the 'Washington Consensus', was predicated upon the compression of demand in the South, a compression that directly contributed to rising poverty and inequality. She also explored the geopolitical ramifications of the quest for agrofuels.

The excellence of this lecture paved the way for a great conference; I was particularly moved by Fred Tate of the National Farmers' Union, who explained how corporate agribusiness was driving farmers out of farming. The conference also allowed me to catch up with old friends from the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba, Canada's outstanding heterodox economics department: John Loxley, Robert Chernomas, Ardeshir Sepehri and Fletcher Baragar. Much of our time was spent discussing the financial crisis, as last weekend was the watershed of it, with the Canadian dollar collapsing on Friday along with global stock markets before UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown saved the day by beginning a process in which national governments around the world assumed partial ownership of a number of major banks, in order to recapitalize them and thus inject liquidity into the global financial system.

As I have also been teaching my full load at Trent University during this period, it has been a very tiring, but also quite exhilirating, time. I have learned a lot over the last 3 weeks, and am extremely fortunate to be in a position where I can continue to learn, from new acquaintances, old colleagues, students and friends.

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