In 1974, the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA) sent five academics to Nepal to evaluate the potential socio-economic impact of a section of the East-West Highway, which it was building at the time. The agency was already committed to a programme of road construction in Nepal, with this section of the highway to be followed by the construction of roads in several other parts of the country. As such, the ODA expected that the academics it had sent would produce a report extolling the benefits that the new infrastructure would bring to the local populations – in a sense, legitimising the entire project.
To much consternation, the report, completed in 1976, was heavily pessimistic about the benefits that the project would bring. The authors went beyond their mandate to provide a detailed analysis of how the roads would have widely varying effects on different social groups and classes in Nepal. They included criticism of the country’s political economy from a radically left perspective, which held that Nepal’s underdevelopment was rooted in deep structural problems in its economy, and that development projects funded by international agencies would contribute only to enriching the country’s elite.
That the ODA would not be happy with the report’s results could perhaps have been foreseen. More surprising was the rousing affect the report (modified and published in 1980 by three of the original five researchers) had among sections of the Nepali intelligentsia at that time, especially among those actively involved in opposing the king-led Panchayat regime. That the 1980 book, Nepal in Crisis: Growth and stagnation at the periphery, was banned for a period is an indication of its influence, and of its place in Nepali history.
Nepal in Crisis utilised the analytical tools and framework of neo-Marxist ‘dependency theory’, as originally developed by Andre Gunder Frank and other political economists. While the authors were the first to apply this framework to Nepal, a number of leftist intellectuals, both foreign and Nepali, subsequently used the same tools to explore diverse aspects of Nepali economy and society. Sociologist Chaitanya Mishra is one of those whose work lies within the space opened up by Nepal in Crisis. In this new collection of selected essays, written over the past two and a half decades, the influence of dependency theory, as well as that of the closely related ‘world-systems theory’ of Immanuel Wallerstein, is visible on almost every page.
Mishra applies what dependency theory and world-systems theory hold about peripheral countries in general to the particular case of Nepal. He perceives Nepal’s continuing underdevelopment as a direct result of the expansionist tendencies of capital originating in advanced industrial countries in general, and India in particular. Nepal can be said to be doubly ‘peripheralised’: it is peripheral with regards to India, which is itself a periphery to the core of capitalist countries of the West. In connivance with the Nepali elite, Indian capital expands by opening up markets for goods in Nepal – as it does in other poor and peripheral countries. While processed goods are forced upon Nepal, the country also serves as a source of raw material and unskilled labour for India. Due to the influx of foreign-made goods, Nepal is able to neither establish a competitive indigenous industrial base nor preserve its pre-capitalist system of production. As the productivity of Indian capital keeps rising, and as the Nepali elite enriches itself in its role as partner to India, Nepal’s productive base continues to be eroded. The result: Nepal’s under development intensifies.
There are two substantial essays in this collection – the first on development and underdevelopment, the second on the causes of the Nepali Maoist movement – which paint a picture in broad brushstrokes of Nepali economy and society. The other, shorter pieces – topical essays written at different times on topics such as foreign aid, the genesis of the Gurkhas and Indo-Nepal relations – are detailed explications of sociological and political themes that have been left out of the longer essays. Even in the most heavily sociological essays, however, political economy maintains a strong presence – Mishra, always a good Marxist, never forgets that the ‘superstructure’ of social forms and institutions is determined by the economic ‘base’.
Dependency and integration
The authors of Nepal in Crisis were sceptical about Nepal’s ability to remove itself from the trap of perpetual underdevelopment. Mishra, on the other hand, in his influential 1987 essay “Development and Underdevelopment: A preliminary sociological perspective”, was somewhat more optimistic. While aware of the immense difficulties associated with extricating a poor and dependent country from the clutches of such forces, Mishra advocated that Nepal must indeed be sealed off from Indian (and global) capital. Thereafter, he continued, attempts would need to be made to establish a system of production that is oriented inwards. Though this would cause extreme hardship for the Nepali people during the short term, Mishra said, there was no other option if the country were to hope to end the vicious cycle of underdevelopment.
Mishra’s work lies within a broader constellation of Nepali left thought, within which is also found the ideology of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Indeed, in its outlines, there is little difference between Mishra’s account of Nepal’s political economy and that of the Maoists. This becomes clear through a reading of the author’s stimulating essay on the causes of the Maoist movement. Chief Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai is quoted as identifying the key structural problems of Nepal’s political economy as “imperialist oppression, expansionist oppression, semi-feudal relations and underdevelopment in agriculture, decline of industry, expansion of comprador and bureaucratic capitalism, regional inequality and the question of nationalities”. With slight modifications of language, and the omission of the last point, this list could serve as an expression of Mishra’s own opinions.
Perspectives such as Mishra’s were immensely influential in Latin America and the decolonised countries of Asia and Africa during the second half of the 20th century. In retrospect, the attractions of neo-Marxist theory for the people of the ‘Third World’ are not difficult to understand. Neo-Marxist thought provided a comprehensive and seemingly deep structural analysis of almost all of the ills of their societies. For those who struggled with the question of why decolonised countries were unable to rise out of poverty even after they had gained independence (and even as their former colonial masters continued to flourish economically), dependency theory demonstrated that formal independence does not prevent the continued exploitation of poorer countries by richer ones.
The recognition that poor countries were inextricably intertwined within the web of global capital – and not merely floundering by the wayside – gave the inhabitants of the formerly colonised world a significant boost in self-esteem. Perhaps most importantly, the notion that the only path to development lay in severing ties with the global capital regime gave the politically inclined a fortifying vision of sacrifice and national redemption.
These modes of analysis began to fall out of favour during the last decades of the 20th century. An import-substitution economic model, after making some gains, appeared to be failing in Latin America. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the steady shift of China towards state-led, export-oriented capitalism severely undermined socialist ideologies. And the remarkable rates of growth that a number of East Asian countries (and, later, China and India) were able to achieve seemed to deflate the notion that it is impossible for poor countries to escape the cycle of underdevelopment as long as they remain integrated in the world economy.
In Nepal, however, Marxism and its derivatives have not been pushed aside to the same degree that they have been in many other countries; and, indeed, they still command respect in the public sphere. More to the point, Nepal has not seen any significant gain from globalisation, and continues to suffer from dependency and underdevelopment. A decade-long insurgency, meanwhile, has brought a Maoist party and its ideology to the forefront of the public consciousness. Mishra’s structural account of Nepal’s political economy subsequently does not seem to have been disproved by any internal development.
Yet cracks have begun to appear in the edifice. In the preface to Essays on the Sociology of Nepal, Mishra states that he no longer subscribes to the view that Nepal should separate itself from the global capitalist order,
as such a step, in this particular phase of world history, retards the process of development of both the global and national productive forces, builds up irresolvable contradictions between the local and the global and is necessarily extremely costly to the local.
This is a significant admission, and one that would lead a reader to believe that Mishra would have revised his analytical framework accordingly. Yet, there is no evidence of this in the book, even in those essays written and published in the past few years. It appears that the author continues to believe that Nepal’s underdevelopment is exacerbated by the onslaught of foreign capital. Is the difference only that Mishra no longer believes there to be an alternative to passively enduring increasing exploitation and impoverishment?
Or, does Mishra now believe it possible to gain some benefits from greater integration in the world economy, while avoiding its more deleterious consequences? If so, will his neo-Marxist analytical framework require a major overhaul, or can it get away with minor adjustments? The comprehensiveness, rigidity and totalising qualities of Mishra’s structural account of political economy – the very qualities that made his ideas so appealing in the past – now seem to be major weaknesses. Minor adjustments do not seem feasible; a thorough overhaul is required if his theory is to survive in any form.