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Critique of social capital

DEPOLITICIZING DEVELOPMENT — The World Bank and Social Capital: John Harriss; LeftWord Books, 12, Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 250.

THE BOOK under review is a critique of Robert Putnam's notion of "social capital", which has become something of a buzzword. The phrase refers to intangible economic resources of trust and reciprocity, which inhere in social relationships and, it is argued, ground successful transitions to modernity.

Putnam's comparative historical study of late medieval Italy shows that the crucial difference between the developed North and the "underdeveloped" South was the presence of social capital in the history of the former.

The present book presents the lay reader with a compendium of the scholarly critique of social capital.

The idea of social has appeared earlier in the work of Pierr Bourdieu and James Coleman.

The former conceptualised social capital as an analytical term, describing historical relationships, which worked to enrich specific social classes. Coleman, working from the theory of rational choice, found that contrary to his individual decision model, people succeeded because of social relationships, which enveloped their decisions.

Harriss argues that Putnam, a populariser, elaborates a concept of social capital implicitly prescribing a development intervention that strengthens civil society and ignores the state.

Social capital becomes the "missing link" of development. The World Bank likes "social capital" since it corrects the neo-classical stress on an unfettered free market which formed the cornerstone of disastrous Bank and Fund policies in the 1980s.

The charm of "social capital" is that it does not force these agencies to back the state in rebound. Harriss also argues that communitarianism, with its anti-statist bias, adds weight to the World Bank's espousal of the notion of social capital.

The problem, the author convinces us, is that social capital is never good for society as a whole — it helps specific groups to the disadvantage of others. Social capital has been criticised for its lack of precision and poor explanatory ability. Putnam's historical inaccuracies and biased perspective have also drawn flak. Recent reviews of the notion of social capital have proved that often it was the benign coercion of state institutions which forstered the growth of social capital and that social capital cannot be a cause of development.

The World Bank theme website adopts a few distinctions based on these criticisms, differentiating between "bonding", "bridging" and "linking" variants of social capital. Bonding social capital within specific communities is seen as injurious to developmet as a whole, and therefore needs to be discouraged.

Bridging social capital working across community boundaries is the most beneficial and should be facilitated through NGOs. Linking social capital between communities and representatives in the state apparatus falls into disfavour.

Harriss' arguments are overstretched and result in flatulent prose. The sarcasm irritates. Of more consequence, his response to free market "anti-totalitarianism", where he opposes, knee-jerk, the good state to potentially bad civil society is sterile and evades important criticisms.

In a refreshing contrast, Olle Tornquist, the Swedish political theorist, devotes a concise chapter to social capital and civil society in his recent textbook on politics and development. Tornquist, drawing on the work of Mahmood Mamdani, points out that the state itself, in the post-colonial context, is complicit in oppression, as is the civil society.

In colonial Africa, civil society was based on urban privilege, with the countryside facing decentralised communitarian despotism organised by the colonial state. The post-colonial inheritors to civil society and state in tandem engender misery in the hinterland.

Partha Chatterjee's recent theoretical innovation on the opposition between state and civil society in India, through the introduction of a third term, political society, also points in the same direction.

Harriss' doctrinaire perspective misses these insights because it conflates free market anti-totalitarianism with an integrated critique of the modern state and civil society traceable through Gramsci, Althusser and Foucault.


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