Feb 1, 2017

Reclaiming the state

From talks with (foreign) corporations and investors active in agriculture in Africa, particularly in Zambia in my case, I realised that many of them are concerned about the issues critics have raised. These critics, ranging from (international) NGOs to local communities, human rights lawyers, international organisations, journalists, and social movements, increasingly point to the negative consequences of current forms of global capitalism. They try, in a way, to put ethics back into economics. They demand a halt to ‘land grabbing’, better treatment and wages for labourers, the mitigation of environmental damage, and so forth. Resonating with the thoughts of John Kenneth Galbraith and Karl Polanyi, the critics can be considered a countervailing power or countermovement aimed at reducing the damaging effects of agricultural investments – and corporate practices and market expansion more generally.

The countervailing power of critics, such as NGOs, has been at the origin of phenomena such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), impact investment, and ethical consumption. Notwithstanding the many limitations of these phenomena, they symbolise a more or less constant struggle between economic beliefs and ethical and social concerns. I have actually come to believe that this is a recurring pattern of capitalism. The raising of concerns, I have noticed, is not without its results. Change is possible. Large-scale systemic slavery has been abolished. In many Western countries labour conditions have seen improvements. Minimum wages have been implemented. There are laws that allow for the prosecution of companies in case of pollution. Yet it is never enough, never completed. There is always something to hope for. Besides, when one issue is solved or attention wanes, a new issue presents itself – or labour rights are gradually undermined again. It is, in a way, a perpetual taming of the ‘capitalist beast’. [read the rest of the article here]