03 Aug 2015

The Crisis of Development and the Alternatives: Politics of the Commons and the Potentials – Ümit Akçay

In response to the economic and ecological crises which are becoming more and more frequent, more serious questions have emerged about hegemonic notions of development, which are based on the assumption that economic growth, namely the increase in commodity production, may continue forever. The discontent with the hegemonic development approach and the economic policies implemented in line with that approach has become all the more apparent following the global economic crisis which began in the USA in 2008 and has continued up to this date.

On the other hand, we see that the fundamental problem of the social oppositions which emerged in many regions ranging from the Occupy Street movement in the USA to the social movements in Latin America, from the revolts in the Arab regions to the demonstrations against the austerity policies in Europe and the resistance at Gezi Parkı in Turkey is related to how to turn that social energy into a transformative capacity and to unite these movements around an alternative program. Within this context, it has become all the more important to leave the hegemonic development approach and to discuss alternative policies that aim at surpassing the capitalist social relations, which are the basis for this hegemonic approach.


 The “Invention” of Development

The development of capitalist social relations marks the point in history in which the idea of moving economic growth beyond the limits of nature was brought to the fore. In that regard, capitalist development involves the assumption that economic growth may increase year by year in a linear fashion forever.

On the other hand, the issue of development was brought to the agenda as the theory of capitalist development came to be used for the countries categorized as “under-developed” under the international economic-political conditions of the post-World War II era. Although focusing on economic growth, this idea of development was constructed in relation to such concepts as “modernization” and “progress” within the period in which it emerged and was based on the belief that the late capitalist countries would catch up with the early capitalist countries if the traditional economies were modernized and industrialized.

Three fundamental dynamics have been influential in this process which may be called “the invention of development.” The first dynamic was the development of a social system alternative to and opponent of the capitalist system in the USSR and the emergence of the Cold War conjuncture in the post-world war II era. This era witnessed the escalation of the war between the two social systems that competed with each other to have controlling influence over large geographic areas.

The second dynamic, which needs to be evaluated in relation to the first one, was the process of de-colonization which also started in the post-1945 period. In this process, the previously colonized countries established new nation-states and one of the most important agenda of the Cold War pertained to the question of whether these new nation-states would choose the capitalist or the socialist camp.[2] The third dynamic was the change in the hegemonic understanding of economy following the crisis in 1929. Accordingly, the neoclassical approach to economy, which argues that the freedom of markets would result in economic growth and ensure the effective distribution of resources, was replaced by the Keynesian approach, which suggests that state intervention may be utilized actively to solve the problems which cannot be solved with the free operation of the markets. The legitimation of the state intervention by the Keynesian approach laid the necessary intellectual ground for the emergence of development economics, which argues that systematic state intervention is needed in “under-developed” countries to direct them towards development.[3]

The fundamental aim of the concept and practices of development that emerged as a result of these three dynamics was to ensure that the late capitalist countries ally with the Western countries and that their economies integrate into the capitalist system. In this context, the concept of development is an invention of the USA to a large extent.[4] However, to the extent that it represented a “common good,” the concept of development was also an important tool of social legitimacy for the political elites engaged in state-making practices in late capitalist countries. The development policies which were practiced in most of the late capitalist countries between the years 1945-1980 were able to be implemented through the three-partite program that evolved in the sphere of legitimacy opened up by Keynesianism. This program was comprised of systematic state intervention, industrialization strategy based on import substitution and development planning.


Neoliberal Development

The fundamental feature of the development policies implemented between the years 1945-1980 was the systematic state intervention and the creation of the necessary conditions for the accumulation of capital within the domestic market by means of a foreign trade policy based on import substitution. However, when the crisis of the industrialization strategy based on import substitution in late capitalist countries overlapped with the structural crisis caused by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the early capitalist countries in 1970s, the hegemonic approach to development underwent a change.

The dramatic increase in the interest rates aimed at controlling the inflation in the USA triggered the debt crises in the Global South in the early years of 1980s. With the subsequent conditional structural adjustment credits issued by the IMF and the World Bank, the hegemonic approach to development was turned into a market-centered approach negating state intervention. The fundamental properties of this new model that can be called “neoliberal development” may be summarized by the policies of the Washington Consensus. To the extent that it is based on a critique of the previous conception of development, the neoliberal development approach claimed that the interventions to the operation of the market are the fundamental reason for the stagnation of the economic growth. The neoliberal development approach continued to be centered on economic growth and argued that economic growth is to be realized through strategies based on private property and the market rather than public initiatives such as state intervention.[5]

The 1980s and 1990s were the years in which the neoliberal development policies were implemented in the Global South. The neoliberal approach to development was revised in 2000s when it could not provide the results it promised through the market-based de-regulation policies such as privatization, restricting public services, putting pressure on wages and the liberalization of foreign trade and capital movements. The post-Washington Consensus inspired by the institutionalist economics represents the revisions in neoliberal development. Accordingly, the markets may not be perfect; the state has a regulatory role to play especially with respect to such matters as asymmetric levels of information and externalities.[6] Therefore, pro-market state intervention and regulation was brought to the agenda for the sake of such reforms as developing autonomous regulatory institutions, ensuring the independence of the central bank and strengthening and protecting property rights.[7]


The Crisis of Development

The implementation of the neoliberal development approach, which is based on the belief that the freedom of the market may solve such problems as economic growth, unemployment, effective distribution of resources or economic crises has led to another wave of commodification in the post-1980 era. This new wave of commodification operated in two ways. The first one operated through the privatization of public enterprises while the second one involved the commercialization of the very logic of public enterprises and their inclusion in market relations. This new wave, called “accumulation by dispossession” by David Harvey[8], pursued an incremental progression well into the 2000s, which were the years in which policies of the post-Washington consensus revised by the institutionalist approach were implemented. Therefore, very little of what was promised to the late capitalist countries was delivered through the discourse and practices of development in the post-1945 era.[9]

The recent developments in the market-centered approach to development have focused on micro strategies aimed at reducing poverty.[10] In this framework, it is argued that such practices as financial inclusion and its improvement would accelerate economic growth. It is not hard to guess that the financial inclusion policies proposed in the 2000s when personal indebtedness exploded worldwide will lead to further household indebtedness.[11] Therefore, in line with the financialization of economies worldwide, the market-based solutions developed in response to the crisis of development propose a framework which may be defined as “more of the same.”[12]

The new developmentalist proposals emerged as an alternative to the limitations of the neoliberal argument for a development framework in which the state resumes a more active role by “returning to the origins”[13]  to implement selective industrial policies.[14]  However, the problem with this approach is that it positions the state as the guiding force of this type of development framework at a time when the relative autonomy of the state is increasingly restricted.[15]  The reason is that the state which they call back is not the same as the state of today. Now the state is not simply an active executor of neoliberal policies but is increasingly managed like a company itself.

In short, the neoliberal and state-centered suggestions, despite being based on different theoretical frameworks and socio-political alliances, both take the capitalist development process for granted and therefore, have not been able to develop satisfying responses to the inequalities and crisis tendencies inherent to this process. This process points to the crisis of development itself. This means that there is an undeniably huge gap between what was promised to late capitalist countries with the invention of the concept of development in the post-1945 era and what has been realized up to this date.


The Alternatives: Politics of the Commons and the Potentials

Actually, the “crisis of development” is not a new issue. For instance, Escobar claimed in 1990s that the development approach of 1960s came to an end and this concept needed to be re-defined in line with the demands of the newly developing social movements.[16] The suggestion that Escobar made more than 20 years ago is still valid today. Within this framework, the increasing frequency of economic and ecological crises requires a re-evaluation of the thought and practices relating to development through a perspective which questions capitalism, the dominant mode of social organization, and aims at moving beyond it.[17]

In this context, it is all the more important to think about a framework of social development which aims at surpassing commodity relations to move beyond the current crisis of development. In this framework, the politics of the commons, which is discussed more frequently in the recent period, carries crucial potentials.[18]

The politics of the commons aims at founding a system of thought and practice which brings to the agenda models of commoning, production and management oriented towards surpassing the divisions between economics and politics or the public and the private. If we are to think within this framework, we need to elaborate on three fundamental columns on which we may build social development models aimed at surpassing commodity relations: democratization of economy, self-government and democratic planning.

Democracy is used as a concept restricted to the political sphere in the hegemonic approach to development. This construction of democracy assumes that people who are citizens of a country are free as political subjects and are equal before the law. However, when we transfer this concept of democracy restricted to the political sphere, to the economic sphere, we see that the only freedom we have is the “freedom” of private property. That is the root of the problem. When the inequalities established in the economic sphere are not addressed, the political equalities become nothing but hollow concepts. Therefore, the alternative perspective to social development which needs to be developed has to go beyond this apparent division between the economy and politics and to see the economic sphere itself as a site which needs to be democratized.

When we approach the issue with this framework, we could see that the hegemonic development approach has always had a technocratic content. In this context, the fundamental problem with the hegemonic development perspective is that it prioritizes increasing capital accumulation to the extent that it is based on economic growth. It is inevitable that the accumulation of capital within the capitalist mode of production will increase social inequalities and the economy will continue being a fundamental site in which social inequalities are instituted. Therefore, democratization of the economy is one of the essential components of a politics of the commons aimed at surpassing commodity relations. Accordingly, real democracy may only be instituted if political equality and freedoms are supported by economic ones.[19]

When we approach the process of democratization of economy more concretely, we have on our agenda the issue of supporting and developing public enterprises which would surpass private property relations, the basis of inequalities in the economic sphere. However, this does not simply mean calling back the state as is the case in new developmentalist approaches. The politics of the commons must simply argue for communization rather than nationalization. The reason is that profit–driven enterprises subjected to market relations would have limited social benefit even if they are owned by the state. Therefore, when the public enterprises are supported, they need to ensure that workers participate in the management of the enterprises in which they work and that they are inspected by the workers themselves together with the expert institutions. Therefore, the perspective favoring the democratization of economy argues for communization instead of nationalization and thus, emphasizes the need for the development of common mechanisms of production, management and inspection.[20]

Based on this argument, we may approach the second component of the politics of commons, which is the issue of self-government. The units of self-government, which are possibly the principal components for the democratization of economy, are also potentially the principal components of a social development project aimed at surpassing commodity relations. The concept of self-government is commonly used in relation to the political sphere. However, the institutions of self-government may also function as the fundamental mechanisms which could enable the workers to have the right to speak and participate in decision making processes both within a production process based on use-value and in the management process in general. These institutionalizations may be possible through cooperatives in agricultural sector, communized production units in industrial sector and common credit unions in finance sector.[21]

Finally, the mechanism of democratic planning will be the complementary component of the politics of the commons by serving both the democratization of the economy and the coordination of units of self-government. As is known, the hegemonic theory and practice of development are not unrelated to the debates on planning. Despite having been discredited by the neoliberal development approach,[22]  development planning was a commonly used method, especially between the years 1945 and 1980. The new developmentalist approaches proposed as an alternative to the neoliberal development today bring the issue of development planning to the agenda. However, the fundamental problem with both the previous practices and the new proposals is that they argue for an economic planning by taking private property and the capitalist system for granted. In that case, various tools such as guaranteeing profit or tax reductions and subsidies were used to steer the investment of profit-driven private companies towards desired sites. However, in this structure, no sanction is applied to the capitalists if they do not act in line with the priorities of the plan. The plans prepared following these practices became shelved technocratic documents and since there was no sanction at stake, these documents were also used as a tool in canalizing social resources to the companies to support the accumulation of private capital.[23]

The planning initiatives which take the capitalist system for granted constitute one of the fundamental contradictions of the theory and practice of development. However, the failure of the development plans does not mean that the mechanism of economic planning is to be abandoned. There is no proof to suggest that the free operation of the market system may have any positive results in the face of the ecological and economic crises which have become more frequent. In addition, economic planning has become all the more possible at the current level of technological development. Therefore, democratic planning is indispensable for the coordination and development of common initiatives feeding on the participatory mechanisms of self-government units and aiming at surpassing commodity relations.


The Kernel of Post-Capitalist Social Relations: The Commons

The experiences of development up to this date have led to the inclusion of the late capitalist countries in the capitalist system. The result of the grand capitalist development caused by these experiences has been the further aggravation of contradictions: unemployment and idle capacity, the homeless and residential oversupply, liquidity excess in financial markets and millions of people who are indebted more and more each day. Many needs that cannot be met and over-accumulation exist simultaneously and side by side. In this framework, to the extent that they were based on the capitalist development, the hegemonic theory and practices of development could not produce effective solutions either to “catch up with” the early capitalist countries or to reduce the existing social and economic inequalities. Therefore, it is time to move beyond the hegemonic development framework which is based on commodity relations and capitalist accumulation and to seriously think about the possible alternatives. Even though it needs to be developed further, the politics of the commons that I tried to outline above carries an important potential within this context.

Finally, I would like to conclude this essay with a warning in relation to a crucial matter. With the market-centered neoliberal development model developed after the 1980s, public initiatives and social commons such as education, health, pension, access to water or social security were dissolved to a large extent. However, we need to underline the fact that integration with market relations does not have to result in the dissolution of the commons.[24]  In other words, the social commons which carry the potential kernels of post-capitalist social relations,[25]  the practices of commoning aiming at the realization of these potentials and commoning as a mode of organization need to be constantly constituted and re-constituted. Within this framework, the existence of the social commons may not produce a post-capitalist alternative on its own if they are not supported by the democratization of the economy, self-government and democratic planning.



[2] Akçay, Ü. (2007) Kapitalizmi Planlamak: Türkiye’de Planlama ve DPT’nin Dönüşümü, Istanbul: Sav Yayınları.

[3] Türkay, M. (2009) Sermaye Birikimi, Kalkınma, Azgelişmişlik, Istanbul: Sav Yayınları.

[4] Trak, A. (1984) “Gelişme İktisadının Gelişmesi: Kurucular”, Yapıt, 5: 50–61.

[5] Antonio, J.R. (2013) “Plundering the Commons: the Growth Imperative in Neoliberal Times”, The Sociological Review, (61,2):18–42.

[6] Fine, B. (2005) “Beyond the Developmental State: Towards a Political Economy of Development”, in Beyond Market-Driven Development, Editors: C. Lapavitsas and M Noguchi, London and New York: Routledge, 17-33.

[7] Rodrik, D. (2006) “Goodbye Washington Consensus, Hello Washington Confusion? A Review of the World Bank’s Economic Growth in the 1990s: Learning from a Decade of Reform.” Journal of Economic Literature, 44(4): 973-987.

[8] Harvey, D. (2004) “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession”, Socialist Register 40: 63-87.

[9] Akçay, Ü, Ergin, I. and Hassoy, H. (2011) “Kalkınma”nın Bilançosu: Eleştirel Bir Değerlendirme”, İktisat Dergisi, 519-520.

[10] Akbulut, B., Madra, Y. M. and Adaman, F. (forthcoming, 2015) “The Decimation and Displacement of Development Economics,” Development and Change.

[11] Karaçimen, E. (2015) Türkiye’de Finansallaşma: Borç Kıskacında Emek, Istanbul: Sav Yayınları.

[12] Akçay, Ü. and Güngen, A.R. (2014) Finansallaşma, Borç Krizi ve Çöküş: Küresel Kapitalizmin Geleceği, Ankara: Notabene Yayınları.

[13] Nixon, F. (2006) “Rethinking the Political Economy of Development: Back to Basics and Beyond”, Journal of International Development, 18: 967-981.

[14] Grugel, J and Riggirozzi, P (2012) Post-neoliberalism in Latin America: Rebuilding and Reclaiming the State after Crisis”, Development and Change (43-1): 1–21.

[15] Akçay, Ü, (2013) “Sermayenin Uluslararasılaşması ve Devletin Dönüşümü”, Praksis, 30-31: 11-39.

[16] Escobar, A. (1992) “Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements”, Social Text, 31: 20-56.

[17] Hollender, R. (2015) “Post-Growth in the Global South: The Emergence of Alternatives to Development in Latin America”, Socialism and Democracy, (29-1): 73-101.

[18] Fırat, B. Ö. and Genç, F (2014) “Strateji Tartışmasına Katkı: Müşterekler Politikasının Güncelliği”, Müşterekler, access: http://goo.gl/9hCl90.

[19] Akçay, Ü (2014) “Ekonomik Demokrasi ama Nasıl? Özyönetim, Katılım ve Demokratik Planlamanın Güncelliği”, Demokratik Modernite, 11, access:https://goo.gl/yOma3F.

[20] Akçay, Ü. and Azizoğlu, B. (2014) “Kamulaştırma mı? Kamusallaştırma mı?”, Başlangıç, Erişim: http://goo.gl/8WRe9I.

[21] Akçay, Ü. and Azizoğlu, B. (2015) “Devletleştirme, Kamusallaştırma, Müşterekleştirme: Somut Ütopik Uğraklar Üzerine Düşünmek”, Başlangıç, 3; Güngen, A.R. (2014) “Kamusallaştırma ve Olanaklar”, Başlangıç, 21.12.2014, access: http://goo.gl/MLAz4s.

[22] Öztürk, Ö. (2014) ”Piyasa Ekonomisinin Sonuna Doğru”, İktisat Dergisi, 539: 45-57.

[23] Chibber, V. (2003) Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[24] Vaccaro, I; Zanotti, L.C. and Sepez, J (2009) “Commons and Markets: Opportunities for Development of Local Sustainability” Environmental Politics, 18(4): 522–538.

[25] Caffentzis, G and Federici, S. (2014) “Commons Against and Beyond Capitalism”, Community Development Journal, 49(1): 92-105.


This article previously appeared at Perspectives, Issue: 13, Link: http://tr.boell.org/de/node/2671