(Self)Control, International Development and Global Transformation

Few thoughts on development policy and the social science that underpins it. Significant sources and twitterizations (the action of reshaping complex outcomes of thinking processes into twitter-size bytes for the minds of the “busy” reader) of more sophisticated arguments, that got me thinking the three following (selected only for chronological reasons, they are the latest snippets of virtual reality that caught my attention and that I can therefore remember):

  1. Adbusters #85, September-October 2009. Topic: Thought Control in Economics.
  2. Adam Philipps, Insatiable creatures, on the Guardian of the 8th of August 2009
  3. Madeleine Bunting, In control? Think again. Our ideas of brain and human nature are myths, again the Guardian, 23rd August 2009-09-06

What do, then, thought control (Adbusters), individual autonomy and policy-making (Bunting) and excess (Philips) have to do with international development and global transformation?

Mounting on the unmatched heights of Aristotelian logic and Newtonian physics (as if no other wisdom had taken shape afterword or in places of the world other than ancient Greece and modern England) social scientists suggest that “evidence-based”, “thoroughly analytical” and “cutting edge” (for good measure and because it sounds – how can I put it? – “cool”) social science is indeed the best way to understand why life in society is structured the way it is and how “bad”, no, “wrong”, no ehm, “different” societies, and “underdeveloped”, I mean, “developing” ones, can be forced (uff, “lead”, better, “convinced” or… ah this, “inspired”!) to change while generating deep transformational processes of the individuals that make them.

But now, the syllogism is simple: if the social science that informs policy-making and doctrine (of development) shaping is based on antiquated “scientific truth” (oh now this is a topic for a post on power and political coercion and manipulation!), what happens to the policies informed by that science? Ok I admit, that’s an easy one, after all one only need to have a look at the world after 60 years of continue, deliberate, and “evidence based” development policy and practice.

Simply, the social sciences have taken a life of their own completely severed from the nature of the bodies (yours and mine) that form the interactions that generate society and have climbed fairly high in thin air, higher indeed than Munchausen himself (remember the Baron who would haul himself up in the air by simply pulling his own ponytail?). The social sciences ponytail is an unbreakable braid of few tough interwoven strands: individualism, rationality, self-interest, competition, evolution and, eventually, heaven (ok, maybe I’m letting myself go, but you got the point). Except the science behind this is decades old and little remembered. Even by the most anachronistic “natural scientists” that the “social” ones so much love to imitate. An existence drowned in inferiority complexes can’t be a good existence and its creations not so good after all. And so it is indeed.

So the science of individualism, rationality and behavioural control is bad science, reports Madeleine Bunting in not altogether satisfactorily way given the science she could have referred to while instead choosing to have a look, as she admits, only to the bestsellers on the mind and its workings (of Gerald M. Edelman and his scientific philosophy of consciousness I will say some other time). What instead seems the case is that we are not in fact autonomous individuals, but wholly socially determined ones (please be suspicious – this is a disclaimer due to space as it’s used in sophisticated writing they tell me – of the rather crass opposition between society and individual here implied and outcome of another modern – what is the word I’m looking for here? – “misunderstanding”, Cartesian dualism, that I have no time to fully and utterly debunk, the immense pleasure that it would give me notwithstanding. Nest time! It’s a promise, not a threat…). It also seem that we act inspired and motivated by instincts and drives that are less than rational and of which not only we may have not full control but indeed not clear consciousness.

And all that is beyond the reach of our consciousness is the domain of the psychoanalyst, isn’t it? Adam Philips acutely exposes the obsessed mechanisms that drive the unbudging desire to control (oneself, the others and the world) to the insatiable thirst of knowledge (the instruments to better achieve control). He convincingly links excessive phenomena different enough like eating disorders, religious fanaticism, sexual manias and indeed compulsive studying. In other words the obsessive desire to control oneself, that to control the others and that to change the world (and make it a better place, of course) may indeed be seen as directly related to precise disturbs of the personality developed in the early infancy and have to do with unresolved attachment to one’s mother (here I am once again over simplifying, a look at Philips work would be advisable to dig the mine of utter wealth that he unearthed, or is in the way of unearthing as its work will appear in a book to be published next year).

To conclude, am I then saying that all those working in development should be welcomed guests of psychiatric wards or, at least, are in urgent need of the care of a shrink (perhaps in different ways and with different degrees of coercion or frequency varying if the “patients” are volunteers of a small charity that provides relief out of a truck in the Democratic Republic of Congo to repeatedly raped women, or if they are the presidents of the World Bank and the IMF)? No, I don’t think this is what I am saying, but perhaps a more conscious and humble take on oneself and the world might enlighten the patient (no pun intended here) researcher of the arcane workings of the mind and society. Someone told me once that in the charity where she worked in South Africa psychological counselling was compulsory for all staff (from the receptionist to the director), but the implications of this last consideration stretch far too much into another – the next, the following? – post.

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