Sen’s Development as Freedom represents a brilliant vision of human development in this time of crisis. It effectively critiques growth-based development which often encourages (explicitly or implicitly) political repression in order to stimulate high rates of economic growth. Sen argues that freedom should be both the goal and means of development, with an important
role for the state in expanding the poor’s abilities to enhance their freedoms. However, Sen weds his vision to capitalist markets, which undermines his analysis. To realise the vision it should be linked to non-capitalist development.
The current economic crisis has left a core pillar of neo-liberal ideology, its insistence that capitalist markets function best with limited state regulation, quite literally bankrupt. Large swathes of humanity across the global South exist in misery, and there is little hope on the horizon for an amelioration of their conditions. At the time of writing, however, there are movements rising across west Asia and beyond that are rejecting not only the corrupt leaders of the region, but also the neoliberal development model. It remains an open question whether these movements will push their countries in the direction of (or even beyond) the “pink tide/red wave” that has begun transforming much of Latin America in the last decade. If they do they will confront myriad questions of how to organise their societies and economies. Perhaps the core issue will be, what form of development will they attempt to establish in order to replace neo-liberalism?
Mainstream conceptions of development are dominated by an emphasis on economic growth. The aim of this article is to consider alternatives to such frameworks by revisiting and discussing
critically Amartya Sen’s (1999) widely acclaimed Development as Freedom (henceforth DAF). In his critique of growth-based development, Sen sweeps away much of the rationale and justification of catch-up development as it has been pursued since the industrial revolution, highlighting how such strategies reduce humanity to a means whilst elevating economic growth to an end, and consequently, limiting significantly human freedoms. Sen argues, instead, that expanding human freedoms should be both goals and means of development. No doubt, many of the social movements struggling for an amelioration of their political and economic conditions will find much to agree with in Sen’s vision.
However, I argue that Sen’s critique and alternative vision are compromised by his generally favourable portrayal of capitalist markets. Despite his critique of growth-based development, he does
argue that capitalist markets are both necessary and virtuous in that they facilitate economic growth (with which to provide expanding populations with the material goods they require to
avoid depredation), and that they constitute realms of freedom where individuals can make choices leading to the improvement of their lives. To be sure, he does note that “the operation
of the market economy can certainly be significantly defective under many circumstances” (Sen 2006: 137), but he concludes that they can be regulated and controlled for the common good, hence “… market forces, can be seen as operating through a system of legal relations” (Sen 1982: 166, original emphasis).
This article argues that Sen’s conception of development as the expansion of individual’s freedoms is internally contradictory because it is based on a liberal conception of capitalist markets.
Further, such a conception is undermined by Sen’s own work on famines. The contradictory nature of Sen’s approach is exacerbated by his use of both Smith and Marx to support his case.
However, Sen’s vision is, I argue, realisable, but only if it is wedded to Marx’s conception of freedom and his conception of noncapitalist development.1 Hence, I recognise with Fine (2004: 97)
Sen’s brilliance, but agree that “The key issue now is how his contributions will be taken forward”.
2 Against Growth-Based Development
The mainstream conception of development is “catch-up” – where poor countries experience rapid economic growth and technological uptake, thus enabling them to take their place alongside
already developed countries. For example, the 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), describes how Africa is “backward”, “underdeveloped” and “marginalised” from the
world economy, and asserts that its primary goal, in order to “bridge the gap” and “catch-up” with the advanced countries, is the achievement of a continent-wide 7% gross domestic product
(GDP) growth rate per annum until at least 2016 (NEPAD 2002; Mathews 2004).
Sen opposes this logic and argues that development can and should be understood “as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (1999: 3). He argues neither for freedom
in the abstract sense (for example, Liberté, égalité, fraternité) nor for the very limited freedom to own property, and to do with it what one pleases, that rests at the heart of liberal political
and economic thinking (Nozick 1974). Rather, he argues for real equal freedoms for all. Development, therefore, should facilitate the expansion and equalisation of the real freedoms of individuals.
Sen acknowledges that economic growth may be an important aspect of development, but is adamant that “If freedom is what development advances, then there is a major argument for
concentrating on that overarching objective, rather than on some particular means…” (ibid). Economic growth may contribute to the expansion of the freedoms of the poor – but growth alone has
at best been uneven and at worst has had detrimental impacts on the majority of a country’s population, and radical redistributive measures are necessary for the poor to benefit from growth.
Historical and contemporary cases support Sen’s argument. Navarro (2000: 662) details how during Brazil’s economic “miracle” (1968 to 1981) “for the top 5% of the Brazilian population the percentage of national consumption increased from 20% …to 48% by the end; [while] for the bottom 50% …consumption declined from 20 to 12%”. The infant mortality rate increased from 70
infant deaths per 1,000 in 1968 to 92 per 1,000 in 1981. Growth in the Brazilian case was based on further concentrating wealth in the hands of the rich and orienting economic activity towards the production of luxury and relatively expensive consumer goods (Kholi 2004). It was achieved through high levels of repression: Under the military dictatorship “the repressed, purged and even
tortured were initially leftists …but the category rapidly broadened” and “Labour strife was brutally put down” (ibid: 195).
Contemporary India and China are lauded for their high growth rates by neo-liberals and statists alike (Wade and Wolf 2002). However, these countries are experiencing the “paradox” of rising
average incomes, but falling living standards for large numbers of urban and rural workers – a process intrinsically linked to rural peasant differentiation, and labour regime intensification.
Patnaik provides data showing that while according to official Indian statistics rural income poverty in India declined from 37.3% to 27.4% of the population between 1993-94 and 1999-2000:
Over exactly the same period, a number of interrelated indicators of rural well-being have worsened…foodgrain absorption per head has declined sharply to reach levels prevalent 50 years ago. Rising farm debts have led to loss of assets reflected in a rise in landlessness, and to the historically unprecedented situation of many thousands of farmer suicides…Annual foodgrains availability per head of total population has fallen steeply from 177 kg in the early 1990s to only 153 kg by 2003-04 (Patnaik 2007: 3132, 3134).
Patnaik explains these trends as emanating from processes associated with capitalist expansion: monetisation, peasant differentiation and land dispossession. She notes the increasing rate of monetisation of the rural economy and that, as a consequence, wages which had previously been paid in kind have increasingly been paid in cash, which is then used to purchase increasingly expensive foodstuffs. As part of the monetisation (and privatisation) process, common property and gleaning rights have disappeared. Mehta and Venkatraman (2000) highlight how crop-straw, fuelwood and fodder, which were previously gleaned by the rural poor or gathered by access to common property are increasingly purchased at retail rates. Patnaik (2007: 3132) observes how simultaneous monetisation and “rising farm debts have led to loss of assets reflected in a rise in landlessness…”
Hence, despite the poor’s rising nominal money incomes (if official statistics are to be believed), their purchasing power is falling. In China, Reddy (2007: 63) observes that during the 1990s
nutritional intake worsened for low-income groups, caused by rising food prices “induced by the liberalisation of the grain marketing system, and the abolition of the food coupon system
by most provinces in 1993”. Meng et al (2004: 1) also detail how “…despite the rapid increase in income, the average nutrient consumption of low income urban households declined in the 1990s”.
A (banned) Chinese study documents a decline of peasants’ per capita farming incomes by 6% since 1997, and concludes that “given the rising costs of health and education, their real purchasing power has probably fallen still further” (cited in Lian 2005). And average figures disguise processes of peasant differentiation. The South China Post estimated that “the vast majority
of the 800 million peasants’ have incomes of less than $1 a day” (cited in Hart-Landsberg and Burkett 2005).
In the Indian case, but also as a general hypothesis for industrialising countries, Deaton and Drèze (2009: 43) suggest that such declines in consumption might be “due to declining levels of
physical activity and possibly also due to various improvements in the health environment”. But this is an implausible explanation considering labour regime intensification during industrialisation.
Thus, in their study of food consumption trends in Britain between 1770 and 1850 Clark et al (1995) note how during Britain’s industrial revolution rural workers generally displayed better health indicators (for example physical height) than urban industrial workers, and that “Urbanisation and industrialisation cut food expenditure and the intake of calories and protein” (ibid: 234). And Frederick Engels observed in 1845 in his Condition of the Working Class in England: The food of the labourer, indigestible enough in itself, is utterly unfit for young children, and he has neither means nor time to get his children more suitable food….Temporary want of sufficient food, to which almost every working-man is exposed at least once in the course of his life, only contributes to intensify the effects of his usually sufficient but bad diet… The neglect to which the great mass of working-men’s children are condemned leaves ineradicable traces and brings the enfeeblement of the whole race of workers with it (2009: 86). If these cases are accepted as reflecting the reality of growthbased capitalist development for the masses, what does Sen propose as an alternative?
3 Markets, Opportunities and Development as Freedom
Sen argues that development entails the double expansion of freedoms: Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. …However, for a fuller understanding of the connection between development and freedom we have to go beyond this basic recognition…The intrinsic importance of human freedom, in general, as the pre-eminent objective of development is strongly supplemented by the instrumental effectiveness of freedoms of particular kinds to promote freedoms of other kinds (Sen 1999: X11).
Sen’s conception of positive freedoms rests on expanding individuals’ capabilities (abilities) and thus functionings (choices), rather than simply their incomes. Genuine human development
therefore requires removing unfreedoms, including practices such as bonded labour. Here Sen stands squarely within the tradition of liberal politics and economics which emphasis the
importance of negative freedoms (“freedom from”). Such negative freedoms leave individual producers and consumers Free to Choose (Friedman and Friedman 1980). However, Sen also
embraces what Berlin (1969) labels positive liberty (“freedom to”), that is, individuals’ ability to function well in life, understood in terms of ends that people “have reason to value”, and he
supports state actions to expand positive liberties for the masses.
Sen lists at least eight “instrumental freedoms” that he considers essential to any development process: The ability of individuals to live life free of “starvation, undernourishment, escapable morbidity and premature mortality, as well as the freedoms that are associated with being literate and numerate, enjoying political participation and uncensored speech and so on” (Sen 1999: 36). Bagchi (2000: 4418), notes that placing these positive freedoms as primary represents a move beyond what Marx would have called “bourgeois” rights to broad human rights.
In DAF, following Adam Smith, Sen acknowledges that capitalist markets are a source of economic growth, but his principal argument is that they are a source of individual freedom. Smith
regarded the market as a mechanism that would free human potential from the stagnation of feudalism. Sen also cites Marx’s characterisation of the victory of the North in the American Civil
War as the great event of 19th century history because it established “the importance of the freedom of labour contract as opposed to slavery and the enforced exclusion from the labour market” (Sen 1999: 7). Further, “freedom of exchange and transaction is itself part and parcel of the basic liberties that people have reason to value” (ibid: 6). Sen’s conception of the relationship between
markets, states, and individual freedom is shown in Figure 1, which can be understood as a self re-enforcing, closed system.
And Sen castigates critics of markets: To be generically against markets would be almost as odd as being generically against conversations between people…The freedom to exchange
words, or goods, or gifts does not need defensive justification in terms of their favourable but distant effects; They are part of the way human being in society live and interact with each other (unless stopped by regulation or fiat) (ibid, emphasis in original).
However, the (intended?) effect of this formulation is to sideline any discussion of how the freedom to exchange and engage in transactions under capitalism is one not naturally given, but
derived from control over things (property). This is a narrow concept of freedom, one which Sen in his attack on growth-based development appears to oppose. DAF argues for the expansion of
all peoples’ freedoms to act, to engage in a rich public life, and thus, to continually expand their freedoms. However, here Sen is elevating the freedom to exchange to a “basic liberty” (Bagchi
2000). But, as will be discussed later, such freedom represents a partial liberty, based upon institutionalised unfreedoms (for example, the inability of individuals’ to use other people’s property
in ways that may benefit them). That is, under capitalism, the freedoms of some are maintained and realised through nonfreedoms of others (Cohen 1981).
The sources of the division of these freedoms and unfreedoms are, contrary to Sen, a necessary condition and outcome of the capitalist accumulation dynamic. Capitalism is characterised,
above all, by competitive accumulation between owners of capital, usually based upon the employment (exploitation) of free wagelabour. Both capitalists and labourers are dependent upon the
market for their reproduction (profits and wages). Hence, Brenner notes how “it is the producers’ [employers] commoditising of their output and their consequent dependence upon the market which results in their subjection to the creative pressures of competition” (1986: 45, emphases added). Thus, what is portrayed by Sen as opportunity is shown by Brenner, to be market dependence, and hence imperative (Wood 1999). The drive to accumulate capital is a response to an externally determined imperative imposed by market mechanisms of competition and cost-price rationalisation.
Such competitive pressures manifest themselves through continual attempts to reduce input costs (including labour costs/wages), often realised through limiting workers freedoms both within and outside the workplace. Sen’s portrayal of capitalism is one where the market system is an arena for choice and a realm of freedom. Central to development, therefore, is the removal of barriers to market access. Hence: “the crucial challenges… in many developing countries today include the need for the freeing of labour from explicit or implicit bondage that denies access to the open labour market”. And later “We must…examine…the persistence of deprivations among segments of the community that happen to remain excluded from the benefits of the market-orientated society” (Sen 1999: 7). This is a myopic view.
4 Social Classes under Capitalism: Opportunities or Exploitation?
If the capitalist market is a sphere of opportunity, then individual’s choice of work must be understood as an outcome of relatively free choice (based upon each agent’s sum total of human
capital). But if the market is a sphere of compulsion then interactions through it, such as employment contracts, take on a darker hue. Because Sen is wedded to the first axiom, he needs to distort Marx in order to claim that wage labour under capitalism is a source of human freedom. He does this by using Marx’s analysis of forms of bonded labour common to feudalism. For example, he quotes Ramachandran’s study of agricultural labourer in India to enforce his argument: Marx distinguishes… the formal freedom of the workers under capitalism and the real unfreedom of workers in pre-capitalist systems: ‘the freedom of workers to change employers makes him free in a way not found in earlier modes of production’…. The extension of the freedom
of workers in a society to sell their labour power is an enhancement of their positive freedom, which is, in turn, an important measure of how well that society is doing (Ramachandran 1990, 1-2, cited in Sen; ibid: 29-30, emphasis in original).
To be sure, wage labour under capitalism represents an important improvement in the position of the “direct producers” compared to say, feudalism or chattel slavery. Wage workers under
capitalism are, by and large, free to sell their labour power to whichever capitalist they chose. As G A Cohen characteristically puts it “You cannot be forced to do what you are not able to do,
and you are not able to do what you are not free to do” (1981: 14). But that is not the end of the story. Wage labour under capitalism is founded upon a fundamental unfreedom. Generally, workers
are not free not to sell their labour power, rather, they are forced to do so by the “dull compulsion of economic relations” (Marx 1906: 809). This is why it is initially curious that Ramachandran’s
emphasis of the formal freedoms of workers under capitalism is neglected by Sen. However, perhaps it is not so surprising when we consider that such a discussion would ultimately undermine Sen’s central claim about the market – that it is source of expanding human freedom. Thus, Cohen comments that “to think of capitalism as a realm of freedom is to overlook half its nature”
(ibid: 14): Capitalism generates certain freedoms. But it also generates certain unfreedoms.
Before proceeding further with this essentially theoretical argument it is important to remember that really existing capitalism is often both compatible with, based upon, and generative of
unfree labour. Brass’ study of bonded labour in India argues that “worker attachment is a form of unfreedom, the object of which is to discipline…control, and cheapen labour-power by preventing
or curtailing both its commodification and the growth of a specifically proletarian consciousness” (1990: 37). In a similar vein Jan Breman’s analysis of evolving rural and urban India finds that
“unfree labour may well and actually does go together with the drive towards capitalist accumulation dominating the economy of both rural and urban India” (Breman 1993: 168). And Banaji (2003) argues, “Historically, capital accumulation has been characterised by considerable flexibility in the structuring of production and in the forms of labour used in producing surplus value”, and cites examples as varied as sharecropping in colonial Bengal and the forced labour of Polish seasonal workers in Nazi Germany. Moreover Blackburn (1997) shows how the industrial revolution, based upon expanding free wage labour in Britain, propelled the rapid growth of American slavery. Once we look more closely at the really existing social (class) relations of capitalism past and present we often find forms of unfree labour that would surprise us if we simply adopted Sen’s benign approach to capitalist markets.
The nature of freedoms and unfreedoms under capitalism are intimately connected to the question of social class. Sen’s comprehension of social classes under capitalism is grounded in a
Weberian methodological individualism which, while it enables him to see the effects of class, as in the Bengal and famines, it precludes him from connecting these effects to underlying
systemic processes (Fine 2004). For example, in DAF he is critical of the activities of powerful interest groups and their abilities to influence public policy to their advantage and other groups’
detriment. Such exercise of power is analysed by Weberian-influenced sociology more broadly (e g, Tilly 1999) where classes are defined by their degree of access to or exclusion from economic opportunities, and the practice that E O Wright (2009: 104) labels “opportunity hoarding”: More powerful social classes attempt (and by definition mostly succeed) to monopolise access to wealth, power, and status-generating resources, in the process excluding less powerful social classes from access to these resources, the social outcomes of which are visible in numerous spheres – from educational and employment attainment to escaping the worst effects of famines. Whilst this approach understands that “the economic advantages gained from being in a privileged classposition are causally connected to the disadvantages of those excluded from such positions” (Wright 2009), it does not illustrate how market mechanisms are both guarantor and outcome of exploitative class structures. Rather it understands these processes as a natural outcome of the struggle for the realisation of vested interests. From this angle, Sen argues that Adam Smith “saw the need to understand the working of markets…as an antidote to the arguments standardly used by vested interests…” (Sen 1999: 121 emphasis added). In this schema, opportunity hoarding and vested interests are phenomena that constrain potentially liberating market mechanisms. But what if market mechanisms guarantee the reproduction of unequal access
to resources – from rice to control over the means of production and labour power?
Formal Equality and Reality of Class Relations
To understand this possibility it is necessary to recap upon Marx’s contrast between the appearance of formal equality between capitalists and labourers in the labour market and the reality of
class relations where the capitalists’ ownership of the productive forces in turn compels workers “to sell their labour power to the capitalists on terms that lead to their exploitation” (Callinicos
2000: 68). Or, as Erik Olin Wright (1994) puts it, exploitation is: Defined by a particular kind of mechanism through which the welfare of the exploiters is causally related to the deprivation of the
exploited. In exploitation, the material well-being of exploiters causally depends upon their ability to appropriate the fruit of the labour of the exploited (40).
For Marx, capitalist exploitation is historically specific because it is generally achieved through economic means (the market) as opposed to extra-economic means (force) utilised under feudalism, slavery and other class societies (Marx 1965). That it is achieved via “invisible” economic means both enable the existence of legally formal equal rights under capitalism, and makes it
appear that these formal equalities are in fact real equalities (Wood 1999). And while Sen highlights the horrors of bonded labour, he is blind to those of wage labour. For example, he discusses the violence associated with US slavery, noting that many slaves escaped to join the armies of the North to fight against the South. But, he also cites Fogel and Engerman’s (1974) study of the conditions of US slaves and notes that: The commodity basket of consumption of slaves compared favourably… with the incomes of free agricultural labourers. And the slaves life expectancy too was, relatively speaking, not especially low – “nearly identical with the life expectation of countries as advanced as France and Holland” and much longer [than] life expectations [of] free
urban industrial workers in both the United States and Europe (emphasis added) (cited in Sen 1999: 28).
This passage reveals much about the brutality of early capitalism in the US and Europe. But, because of his commitment to and understanding of capitalism, Sen cannot investigate further.
However, when investigation the transition from “bonded” to “free” labour, we are, in many ways, trying to understand processes of the widening and deepening of capitalist social relations.
This expansion of market imperatives, in Britain and in all countries following its lead after the industrial revolution, has been one of violence and dispossession, rather than one of markets
opening up new arenas of choice and freedom for individual actors (Byres 2005). As Marx comments on the formation of the modern working class in Britain, they were “forcibly expropriated
from the soil, driven from their homes and turned into vagabonds”.
And they were “whipped, branded, tortured by laws so grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system” (Marx 1906: 808-09). Here Marx points to the interrelation
between the expansion of market imperatives and specific, property-based forms of law implemented and upheld by the modern capitalist state. And these observations are crucial to understanding the root causes of famines and contemporary cases of chronic hunger and extreme non-freedom in the context of rapid economic growth and market expansion.
As Banaji (2003) notes, it is Marx’s contestation of the concept of “free” labour under capitalism that distinguishes him from the classical political economists that preceded him (notably Smith)
and the neoclassicals and neo-liberals that followed him. Marx does this by distinguishing between spheres of capitalist circulation and production. He characterised the former, which include
labour markets, as the “very Eden of the innate rights of man… Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” (Marx 1906: 195) where formal, individual contracts appear to govern relations
between freely choosing individuals. But whilst Sen stops here, Marx goes further. He notes the transformation of the two parties: “he who was previously the money-owner now strides
out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker” (1906: 196). And, as Lebowitz notes “They are entering the place of work… where the capitalist now has the
opportunity to use that property right which he has purchased” (Lebowitz 2002: 21). Marx continues and characterises the employment contract as a “legal fiction” which “sustains the
appearance of independence” (1906: 628). Indeed, the relationship between “freely choosing” workers and capitalists is one not between individuals but between social classes: In reality, the labourer belongs to capital before he has sold himself to capital. His economic bondage is both brought about and concealed by the periodic sale of himself, by his change of masters, and by the
oscillation in the market price of labour-power (1906: 633).
Marx describes “free” wage labour as wage-slavery in order to draw attention to the overriding element of unfreedom that characterises class relations under capitalism, highlighting how individual workers’ “enslavement to capital is only concealed by the variety of individual capitalist to whom he sells himself” (ibid). Manifestations of the unfreedoms of the capital-labour relationship are myriad, and include the capitalist division of labour. And ironically, given Sen’s reliance on Smith, it is the latter not the former (despite his infinitely greater knowledge about historical capitalist development) who identified the consequences.
For Smith, the division of labour is “the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility: the propensity
to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” (1976: 25). Whilst the capitalist division of labour gives rise to a significant rise in output, trade, and wealth generation, it also has the effect
of degrading the workforce: “the man whose whole life is spent performing a few simple operations…has no occasion to exert his understanding. …He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” (1976: 782).
If the foregoing argument is accepted – that capitalist markets are based intrinsically on combinations of freedoms and non-freedoms determined and mediated by class relations and competitive capital accumulation – then we are better placed to approach Sen’s analysis of the relationship between markets and famines. And in doing so we can go beyond Sen in understanding the root causes of famines, chronic hunger, and other processes of deepening capability deprivation.
5 Famines, Markets and Starvation
Sen grew up in British controlled India and experienced firsthand the Great Bengal Famine where around 3 million people perished. His Poverty and Famines (1982), where he offers an
original interpretation of the causes of famines, is a celebrated text in development studies. It dismantles the food availability decline (FAD) thesis by showing how in cases from Bengal to
the Sahel, food was available during famine periods and often in higher quantities than in non-famine periods. In both cases food was hoarded in response to “market failures” (in particular
lack of reliable information), leading to widespread starvation. In place of the FAD thesis Sen proposes the entitlement approach. Whilst this approach does not lead Sen to conclude that markets
are sources of structural non-freedoms, I suggest that when placed in a broader historical framework, this is indeed the logical conclusion of his approach – that market dependence is based upon non-voluntary processes of dispossession, that it generates gross vulnerabilities amongst the poor, and that states play a central role in both generating and guaranteeing it.2
Sen’s (1982: 45-46) entitlement approach (EA) enables him to outline how a family’s or an individual’s entitlement (access) to food, is determined principally by: (a) the endowment of the family
or person, and (b) exchange relations. Endowments refer to individuals’ or family’s access to or ownership of land and/or their ability to work and sell their labour power in exchange for a wage
(in Weberian terms, their control over resources). Exchange relations determine the relative prices of the individual’s labour in relation to commodities – in these cases food (rice). Landed peasants can suffer “direct entitlement failure” under conditions of flooding or drought, which disables them from growing enough food to sustain themselves. Wage workers can suffer “trade entitlement failure” as a consequence of changes in relative prices between wages and food which disable them from purchasing sufficient food.
Sen (1982) illustrates how the Bengal famine was caused not by crop failure but by rapid price inflation (fuelled by British military and civil construction investments). Price inflation pushed
up food prices relative to agricultural wages, leaving agricultural labourers unable to afford food (trade entitlement failure) (ibid: 64-65). Because there was no general crop failure, peasants with
access to land were relatively unaffected by price inflation. Nonmilitary or civil construction wage workers were, by contrast, particularly vulnerable. Consequently, these sections of the wage
labour force bore the brunt of the approximate 3 million deaths.
The Bengal famine was not exceptional. Bhatia (1985) calculates that during British rule India experienced 25 major famines in which between 30 and 40 million Indians perished. Sen also
documents how similar dynamics of entitlement failure were at work in the 1974 Bangladesh famine. Whilst food availability had increased and sufficed to feed the population in the first half of
the year, flooding in June 1974 contributed to a combination of rising prices for rice, increased unemployment of rural labourers (no longer required to work the flooded land) and food hoarding.
Agricultural wages fell, food prices rose and tens of thousands died (Sen 1982: 134, Alamgir 1980). Role of State Action Inability to afford food stemmed not always from trade entitlement
failure, but also from state actions, themselves often designed to expand and/or deepen commodity markets. Thus Sen (ibid: 122) observes how, in the 1973 Sahel famine, sedentary agriculturalists were not only affected by drought, and thus rising food prices, but also by state taxation. Davis (2001) and Peacock (2010: 67) discuss how in the Egyptian famine of 1878 British
authorities continued to collect taxes. Tax collection was not simply a revenuegenerating mechanism, but one designed to initiate and then accelerate commercial agriculture (through cash-crop production) and market dependence (through proletarianisation of the peasantry). Watts (1983: 276) cites the British governor of Zungeru (Nigeria) who, during the 1905 famine, suggested that
“the experience of hunger will stimulate the people to cultivate larger areas”. Taxation represented a tool for the social transformation of societies and the generation and expansion of market
mechanisms favourable to the imperial and industrial centres.
These processes constitute the historical background to Sen’s analysis of famines: It is thus, from the ranks of the peasantry, that wage-labourers are recruited; they have little or no direct food entitlement, are therefore dependent on markets, and are highly vulnerable to price movements and the effects of famine (Peacock 2010: 67). And, as argued in Section 2, these processes of dispossession (generating market dependence) via marketisation and commercialisation, are occurring at high speed in contemporary India and China, and the effects are manifested in mass unemployment, falling calorie intake, worsening health and general degradation for tens if not hundreds of millions of these countries poor.
Two important conclusions follow from this discussion. First, if the processes through which peasants become (fully or partially) proletarianised and market dependent, was not a voluntary
one, but one generated and re-enforced through increasing competitive pressures then clearly the establishment of (labour) markets is one based primarily upon market force(s), rather than participants’ free will. Second, if market dependence makes wage labourers and poor peasants vulnerable to famine and chronic hunger then the argument that markets promote
freedom is undermined.
Sen proposes that democracy is the key guarantor of the poor’s entitlements. But there are many forms of democracy, and the dominant contemporary form is often understood a “low intensity”
variant (Robinson 1996), which guarantees capitalist social property relations and leaves the poor vulnerable to depredation. Fine (2004) asks provocatively whether Sen’s solution of more and enhanced democracy could practically, and should normatively, be applied to other commodities such as housing, health, education and employment. Such a move would require a radical
social(ist) democracy (Boron 2005). It would be accompanied by widening de-commodification – a process whereby owners of capital exercise decreasing power over other actors in the market
by virtue of their ability to command fewer (commodified) resources (McNally 2002). And whilst I suggest that Sen’s vision in DAF can only be realised via large-scale social change, he himself
does not contemplate this. Rather, he argues for the extension of market-relations (increasing commodification) aided, and sometimes mitigated, by the capitalist state. Not only does this approach preclude greater democracy, but, quite paradoxically, as we shall see, it pushes Sen back into a growth-based development paradigm.
6 Poverty as Capability Deprivation
Sen understands poverty as capability deprivation and fighting poverty as enhancing the poor’s abilities “to do things”. Because Sen dismisses the standard money-metric approaches to absolute poverty (the World Bank’s notional $1 a day), and because he understands development as the expansion of real, equal freedoms to all, he rejects simply focusing on relieving absolute poverty, but aims also to eliminate relative poverty (often defined as those living on less than half the average wage of any given society (Townsend 1993)). Poverty should, therefore be “sensibly identified in terms of capability deprivation… [by concentrating]…on deprivations that are intrinsically important (unlike low income, which is only instrumentally significant)” (Sen 1999: 87). This
enhances the “understanding of the nature and causes of poverty and deprivation by shifting primary attention away from means (income)…to ends that people have reason to pursue, and correspondingly, to the freedoms to be able to satisfy these ends” (ibid: 90, emphases in original). This is a radical position indeed.
Despite these objectives, Sen also utilises absolute and relative approaches to poverty alleviation. He argues that the primary focus of development work must be about the provision and expansion of the poor’s capabilities, which include adequate nutrition, access to healthcare, acquisition of literacy and education, and a low chance of premature death. And beyond these “fundamentals” or “absolutes” he also argues, in a relational vein, that the self-respect and dignity provided by gainful employment within society are central to development. And again he draws on Adam Smith. Smith had argued, contrary to most neo-liberals who claim him as their heir, for a concept of what today would be conceived of as relative poverty, maintaining that:
By necessities I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life [neo-liberals’ absolute poverty line], but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lower order, to be without…Custom has rendered shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them (Smith 1976: 869-70).
The problems (contradictions) of employing a relative understanding of poverty and simultaneously portraying markets as potentially overcoming such poverty are becoming clearer. On the one hand enabling the poor to enjoy the basic abilities mentioned above (literacy, health, etc) constitutes something of a base line which benign states can realistically be expected to aspire towards. Indeed, the international financial institutions are in favour of enabling the poor achieve these capabilities (via, for example, the Millennium Development Goals). However, Sen wants more than these basic, absolute capabilities. Dignity and the ability to appear in public without shame are quintessentially relational properties. And to achieve the latter, implies ensuring that no individual lives beneath the relative poverty line. But this requires a radical, redistributive, political economy. But, at no point in DAF does Sen advocate placing limits on the accumulation of wealth by the rich, nor does he propose radical redistribution of wealth. While this may please his admirers in the neo-liberal institutions, it undermines his own approach. This is because as the general wealth of a society increases, so does the median income rise, and, so too does the relative poverty line rise, under which live the poor: The richer a society becomes, the higher the relative poverty line (Townsend 1993).
Capitalism’s class-based accumulation dynamic requires and reproduces unequal freedoms across society. Sen’s vision of equality of capabilities and the ability to freely and equally make real life choices under capitalism is thus unrealisable. The logic of competitive capital accumulation is that as the rich in society accumulate ever more material goods, the poor will be forced to trail
behind in the constant accumulation of goods, or risk “shame”. The growth and accumulation imperative is back with a vengeance. Without conceiving of some kind of limits on the wealth of the
rich within countries (for example, maximum wage limits and very progressive welfare policies), Sen’s vision goes up in smoke. Due to his political timidity Sen is unable to connect his vision to
a politics capable of achieving it. However, if we turn to Marx we see a way to re-establish this connection.
7 Marx, Capabilities and Struggle
When we read Marx in relation to Sen we encounter many similarities. While their closeness enables Sen to quote Marx approvingly in order to bolster his own argument, he can only do
so selectively, as a fuller engagement would run up against Marx’s foundational critique of capitalism. If we allow ourselves to engage with Marx and Sen with a mind open to possible
alternatives beyond capitalism, then we gain more from Marx and restore coherence to Sen’s position. We also arrive at a very different understanding of the relationships between markets,
states and individuals as illustrated in Figure 2.
The foundation stone of Marxism is the development of human potential – the possibility of humans developing to great heights, unconstrained by oppressions associated with capitalism, in particular class-based exploitation. Hence, wealth in a future society will not be calculated in terms of competitive accumulation, but will be understood as “the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures [and] productive forces…” Note here, that “productive forces” is last in the list. A future, non-capitalist society is, contrary to Smith, one where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and then makes it possible for me to do one thing today and
another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner,… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic (Marx and Engels 1976: 53).
Marx, therefore, views the possibilities and limits to extending humans’ abilities and choices as determined, fundamentally, by capitalist class relations. Contrary to Sen and Smith, he does not
regard the extension of these abilities as “public goods” to be provided by a benign state, but portrays them as outcomes of successful workers’ struggles. Unlike Sen, Marx connects explicitly
the extension of worker’s freedoms under capitalism to their struggles for better conditions (Figure 2). For example, Marx described the Ten-Hours Act, introduced in England in 1847
which legally reduced the working day to a maximum of 10 hours as a major victory by the English working class over “the blind rule of the supply and demand laws”. It was the first time
that “in broad daylight the political economy of the [capitalist] class succumbed to the political economy of the working class” (Marx, cited in Lebowitz 2002: 24). In fact at one time Sen came
close to this conclusion himself. At the beginning of On Economic Inequality, he acknowledged that “a perceived sense of inequality is a common ingredient in rebellion in societies…”
(1973: 1). But to integrate this perspective into DAF would require a gestalt switch beyond the political (but certainly not intellectual) willpower of Sen.
Development as Freedom represents a bold alternative development narrative, all the more needed in the current conjuncture of global crises and rebellion. However, by wedding his vision to
a conception of capitalist markets as spheres of freedom, Sen undermines his own attempts at seeking out alternative routes to human fulfilment. His framework (methodological individualism,
a Weberian conception of class and a limited Smithian understanding of the market) disables him from getting at the roots of causes of mass deprivation. His critique of growth-based development is made untenable by his commitment to capitalism and private property and his subsequent inability to propose radical, distributive, developmental policies and practices.
An alternative approach rooted in Marxist political economy is potentially able to take up, make coherent and transform Sen’s criticisms’ of capitalist development, into a broad critique. Whilst
Sen weds his vision to the expansion and unfettering of capitalist markets, Marxist political economy bases itself on the self-activity of the masses and the conviction that it is through such activity that capitalism can be transcended – into a system where development truly is a process of a continual expansion of freedom for all.
1 On my conception of post-capitalist development see Ben Selwyn (2009).
2 In making these arguments I draw upon the outstanding work of Peacock (2010).
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Ben Selwyn () is at the Department of International Relations, University of Sussex, UK.