Critical Thought, Development, and Social Movements

Imagining a Post-Development Era?

Critical Thought, Development, and Social Movements

By Arturo Escobar

Introduction: The Demise of Development and the Problematization of Protest

Today, there is a crisis in developmentalist discourse. It can be seen in at least two ways:

  • The inability of critical thought and most social forces to imagine a new domain, which transcends development’s dependence on Western modernity and historicity
  • The emergence of a powerful social movement discourse which has quickly become a privileged arena for intellectual inquiry and political action

The aim of this essay is to bridge these two insights. The argument can be summarized in three propositions:

  • The present crisis does not call for a “better” way of doing development, not even for “another development.
  • Development must be seen as an invention and strategy produced by the “First World” about the “underdevelopment” of the “Third World,” and not only as an instrument of economic control over the physical and social reality of much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America
  • “Alternatives to development” requires a theoretical practical transformation of the notions of development, modernity, and the economy, which can be best achieved by building upon the practices of social movements, essential for the creation of alternative visions of democracy, economy, and society

The Hegemony of Development

Development has functioned as an all-powerful mechanism for the production and management of the Third World in the post-World War II period. Once Third World countries became the target of new mechanisms of power – embodied in endless programs and “strategies” – their economies, societies and cultures were offered up as new objects of knowledge that, in turn, created new possibilities of power. It was the creation of a vast institutional network (from international organizations and universities to local development agencies) that ensured the efficient functioning of this apparatus. Once consolidated, this system determined what could be said, thought, imagined; in short, it defined a perceptual domain, the space of development.

Industrialization, family planning, the “Green Revolution,” macroeconomic policy, “integrated rural development” and the like, all exist within the same space, all repeat the same basic truth, namely, that development is about paving the way for the achievement of those conditions that characterize rich societies: industrialization, agricultural modernization, and urbanization.

Until recently, it seemed impossible to get away from this imaginary development. Everywhere one looked, what one found was the busy, repetitive reality of development: governments designing ambitious development plans, institutions carrying out development programs in cities and countryside alike, experts studying development problems and producing theories ad nauseam, foreign experts all over the place, multinational corporations brought into the country in the name of development. In sum, development colonized reality, became reality, and no matter how sharp an instrument we used to pierce it, to break through it, we seemed to be left embarrassingly empty handed.

This view of development as discourse is certainly different from analyses carried out from the perspective of political economy, modernization, or even “alternative development.” Such analyses have generated proposals to modify the current regime of development: ways to improve upon this or that aspect, revised theories or conceptualizations, even its redeployment within a new rationality (for instance, socialist, anti-imperialist, or ecological).

These modifications, however, do not constitute a radical positioning in relation to the discourse; they are instead a reflection of how difficult it is to imagine a truly different domain. Critical thought should help recognize the pervasive character and functioning of development as a paradigm of self-definition. But can it go further and contribute to the transformation or dismantling of the discourse?

Social Movements and the Transformation of the Development Order

In the long run, it is the work of these movements which would largely determine the scope and character of any possible transformation. Hence the importance of linking the proposals for the transformation of development with the ongoing work of social movements.

Although there is disagreement about the nature and extent of today’s social movements, it is clear to most analysts that “regardless of which perspective you adopt, it is impossible not to recognize that there has begun a change in the structure of collective action. The fact is there, redefining a new space for theory and social action, the contours of which we are beginning to visualize, even if we cannot yet fully explain them”. For many it is in relation to social movements that questions about daily life, democracy, the state, political practice, and the redefinition of development can be most fruitfully pursued.

The Construction of the “Old” as a Way to Specify the “New.”

Much of the recent literature on social movements and new social movements takes for granted the fact that a significant transformation has taken place, perhaps the coming of a ew period altogether.

The “old” is often yoked to analyses of modernization or dependency; to politics centered around traditional actors like parties, vanguards, and the working class who struggle for the control of the State; and to a view of society as composed of more or less immutable structures and class relations that only great changes (i.e., massive development schemes or revolutionary upheavals) can alter in a significant way. The “new,” by contrast, is invoked in: analyses based not on structures but on social actors; the promotion of democratic, egalitarian and participative styles of politics; and the search not for grand structural transformations but rather for the construction of identities and greater autonomy through modifications in everyday practices and beliefs.

Social movement discourse is thus divided into two orders – the old and the new – characterized by specific historical features. In the process, the many continuities between the two regimes – as well as the ways in which, for instance, old styles of politics are still pervasive among the new movements – are overlooked or may not be completely accurate.

A Theory of Crisis or Transformation from Old to New

The demise of old models is arguably brought about by the failure of the developmentalist state to bring about lasting improvements, and of political mechanisms, on either Left or Right, to deal with that failure. Moreover, the untenability of the old models is reflected in the present crisis. This dual crisis of paradigms and economies is forcing a new situation, a “social reconfiguration,” as Mires (1987) has aptly put it.

Beyond these general assertions, however, most talk about the crisis is imprecise at best. It is conceptualized mostly in economic and political terms, but many questions remain.

Empirical Studies of Social Movements

Despite several difficulties, studies of social movements have been successful in clarifying a number of macro issues. The relationships among crisis, social movements and democracy have been broadly defined; causes for the emergence of new actors have been identified, ranging from the exclusionary character of development, increased fragmentation and precarious urbanization to general social decomposition and violence, the growth of the informal sector, loss of confidence in the government and political parties, breakdown of cultural mechanisms, and so forth.

Theories of Social Movements

The new intellectual and political challenges have provoked a significant renewal in social science activities, such as the reappraisal of civil society (although accompanied by renewed violence and factionalism, and in part as a response to these latter), the importance of the micro-sociology and politics of everyday life, the possibility for new types of pluralist democracies and alternative ways of satisfying basic needs.

There is, then, a sort of “thematic renewal” which, despite conflicting demands and the existence of conservative tendencies, such as neo-liber­alism and greater normalization of research in some cases, is having a great impact on the social sciences.

Social Movement Theory: Historicity and Hegemony

There is a useful distinction between:

  • Those social movements primarily concerned with strategy, organization, resources, interests, conflict and
  • Those which emphasize the process by which social actors struggle to constitute new identities as a means to open democratic spaces for more autonomous action

Historicity and Social Change

Social action can no longer be seen as the result of some meta social principle – God, Reason, Evolution, the Economy or the State. Society today is the result of a set of systems of action characterized by the presence of actors who may have conflictual interests but who share certain cultural orientations. On this view, social movements are not “dramatic events” but rather “the work that society performs upon itself”.

What, then, is a social movement?

A social movement is the action, both culturally oriented and socially conflictual, of a social class defined by its position of domination or dependency in the mode of appropriation of historicity, and by the cultural models of investment, knowledge and morality toward which the social movement itself is oriented.

New Social Movements and the Hegemonic Form of Politics

In the new situation there is no privileged political subject, but a political space defined by a plurality of collective actors each struggling within their own sphere (workers, women, students, ecology activists…) Movements, then, cannot be understood independently of the “submerged” cultural background out of which they emerge”.

Given the growing importance of mass media, the construction of political facts increasingly relies on the symbolic effectiveness of the movements. Social movements, in sum, bring about social practices which operate in part through the constitution of spaces for the creation of meaning.

The emergence of new practices and new social actors is recognized by many as the most striking and hopeful sign of these crises. This is why postmodernism is at once welcomed and resisted in Latin America. It is welcomed as a new intellectual horizon but resisted to the extent that it does not lead clearly to the formulation of alternative social projects.

Epistemologically, it is necessary to appeal to non­ reductionist and non-teleological notions of politics and development; politically, the task is to foster the democratizing potential of the new social subjects.

Other Issues in Social Movement Research: Knowledge, Politics, and Needs

  • A Subaltern Domain of Politics: The conventional view of politics has produced a pre-understanding which shapes any “normal” understanding of the political, entrenched as it is in structures and everyday practices (including the state, interests’ groups, parties, forms of rationality and behavior such as strikes, visible mobilizations, etc.). A redefinition of this situation cannot be achieved without changing political discourse.
  • The Exteriority of Social Movements in Relation to the State: A critical reflection on the politics of knowledge and of the State is also crucial for transforming our understanding of social movements and development. Although social movements are usually thought of in connection with the State, they bear a relation of exteriority to the State apparatus. The exteriority of new social movements in relation to the State, as well as the existence of a domain of popular knowledge, are hinted at in some of the social movement literature.
  • The Autopoietic Character of Social Movements: As self-producing and self-organizing entities, social movements can be characterized as autopoietic. Through their own actions they establish a distinct presence in their social and cultural environment. They produce themselves and the larger social order through their own organizing processes (sets of relations or articulations among key elements). They create a social phenomenology, so to speak, in the very social forms they produce as autonomous entities.
  • The Centrality of the Politics of Needs, Interpretation for Social Movements and Alternative Development: Social movements necessarily operate within dominant systems of need interpretation and satisfaction, but they tend to politicize interpretations; that is, they refuse to see needs as just “economic” or “domestic.”


The possibility for redefining development, this paper argues, rests largely with the action of social movements. Development is understood here as a particular set of discursive power relations that construct a representation of the Third World as “underdeveloped.” While this critical understanding of development is crucial for those working within social movements, awareness of the actions of the latter is equally essential for those seeking to transform development.


To learn more about the post-development paradigm, listen to this abbreviated lecture by Arturo Escobar, speaking at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University in Rotterdam:

In this video, Prof. Dr. Aram Ziai, Chair of Development and Postcolonial Studies from the University of Kassel discusses Post-Development.

Disclaimer: This is a summary handout I had prepared during an internship program. The content belongs to the author/s of the original article/s.

One thought on “Critical Thought, Development, and Social Movements

  1. This is a very interesting analysis. It also goes to the heart of what “development” means and what parameters we use to measure it. Well worth reading!

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