Uneven and Combined Development: Modernity, Modernism, Revolution (4): Continuities and Changes

In part 4 of his series on Uneven and Combined Development Neil Davidson looks at its relevance in the contemporary world. A PDF of all five pieces is available here.


4.1.      The Persistence of Uneven and Combined Development

Can we still discern the process of uneven and combined development in contemporary capitalism? A common theme on the left since the late 1980s in particular, more or less coincident with the consolidation of neoliberalism, has been the elimination of the non-synchronous or, in terms of this chapter, the evening-out of unevenness and the stabilisation of combination. Guy Debord, reflecting on his 1967 critique of the Spectacular Society twenty years later, argued that it now had reached a point of total integration in which where all forms predating capitalist modernity had been absorbed and rendered affectless:

Beyond a legacy of old books and old buildings, still of some significance but destined to continual reduction and, moreover, increasingly highlighted and classified to suit the spectacle’s requirements, there remains nothing, in culture or nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry.[1]

More recently, although rather less comprehensibly, Hartmut Rosa, one of the main proponents of ‘accelerationalism’ has argued:

The ubiquitous simultaneity of late modernity…is thus, strictly speaking, no longer a simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous, since that presupposes the idea of a temporalized, directed, and moving (though asynchronous) history. Instead, it is, as it were, a static, situational, ‘timeless’, and orderless simultaneity of historical fragments.[2]

It is the theorists of postmodernism, however, how have been most insistent in claiming that the contradictions of capitalist modernity have been overcome. Fredric Jameson, perhaps the most influential of these figures, claims that everything associated with ‘pre-modernity’ had ‘finally been swept away without a trace’:

Everything is now organized and planned; nature has been triumphantly blotted out, along with peasants, petit-bourgeois commerce, handicraft, feudal aristocracies and imperial bureaucracies. Ours is a more homogeneously modernized condition: we no longer are encumbered with the embarrassment of non-simultaneities and non-synchronicities. Everything has reached the same hour on the great clock of development or rationalization (at least from the perspective of ‘the West’).[3]

As is quite often the case with Jameson, it is unclear whether the quoted passage expresses his own view or is simply intended to reflect a widely-held belief, which it certainly does: but in either case, does the belief correspond to reality?

4.1.1.   The absence of pre-capitalist survivals

One response to such claims might be to argue that uneven and combined development still persists, but that the mechanisms by which it produces its effects is no longer the same as in Trotsky’s lifetime, precisely because there are no longer any pre-capitalist survivals with which capitalist modernity can combine. ‘Today’, writes Joseph Choonara, ‘uneven and combined development is best conceived as a drawing together of successive phases – including, crucially, capitalist phases – in novel forms within countries of the Global South.’[4] Choonara stands in the Trotskyist tradition, but similar positions have been taken by writers outside it. Jan Nedervee Pieterse, for example, writes in relation to post-Fordist production that:

the actual options available and directions taken are more likely to be influenced by the interactions among different modes of capitalism than is indicated by merely examining varieties in the North, as if these represent the front end of capitalism (which is not tenable in view of the rise of Pacific Asia) and as if the front end would not be affected by the rear.[5]

In fact, although uneven and combined development can involve what used to be called ‘the articulation of modes of production’ – and actually did so in, for example, pre-revolutionary Russia and pre-Independence India, it need not.[6] Jairus Banaji has argued – possibly deploying a rather over-capacious definition of ‘capitalism’ – that ‘what the world-economy of the nineteenth century threw up was an articulation of forms of capitalism more than a combination of modes of production’.[7] Trotsky himself certainly thought that uneven and combined development was possible in societies where capitalist laws of motion were already dominant, as he thought they were in China by the late 1920s.[8] Regardless of intellectual pedigree, however, it is true that the combination of different phases of capitalist development can produce entirely new social consequences. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri discover such a process in Latin America, in passages which echo Trotsky’s remarks about the effect of English or French capital being transplanted onto the steppes of the Donets Basin.[9]

From the perspective of stages of development’ one might think that through the contemporary export of industrial production, an auto factory built by Ford in Brazil in the 1990s might be comparable to a Ford factory in Detroit in the 1930s because both instances of production belong to the same industrial stage.

According to these authors such a thought would however be mistaken:

…the two factories are radically different in terms of technology and productive passages. When fixed capital is exported, it is exported generally at its highest level of productivity. The Ford factory in 1990s Brazil, then, would not be built with the technology of the Ford factory of 1930s Detroit, but would be based on the most advanced productive computer and information technologies available. The technological infrastructure of the factory would locate it squarely within the information economy.[10]

But does uneven and combined development today only involve the transplantation of the newest technologies into those areas which had never experienced the older versions, or does it still involve the impact of capitalist modernisation on peasants and rural dwellers? The latter scenario does rather depend on the continued existence of a peasant class to be impacted upon, which several leading Marxists thinkers have suggested is no longer the case. In the final volume of his history of the ‘short’ twentieth century, for example, Eric Hobsbawm identified the most significant social change to have taken place in its second half, the one which broke decisively with the entire previous history of humanity, as ‘the death of the peasantry’:

The peasantry, which had formed the majority of the human race throughout recorded history, had been made redundant by agricultural revolution, but the millions no longer needed on the land had in the past been readily absorbed by labour-hungry occupations elsewhere, which required only a willingness to work, the adaptation of country skills, like digging and building walls, or the capacity to learn on the job. What would happen to the workers in those occupations when they in turn became unnecessary? Even if some could be retrained for the high-grade jobs of the information age which continued to expand (most of which increasingly demanded a higher education), there were not enough of these to compensate. What, for that matter, would happen to the peasants of the Third World who still flooded out of the villages?[11]

If peasants are still ‘flooding’ out of villages then this implies that reports of their death as a class have been greatly exaggerated. As we shall see, however, Hobsbawm was right to point to the consequences for the newly urbanized populations and the cities in which they live. As might be expected from his previously quoted comments, Jameson sees the supposedly disappearing peasantry as an important aspect of how everything which pre-existed capitalist modernity is being obliterated, and is particularly concerned with the effect on our sensibilities:

…people who lived in two distinct worlds simultaneously; born in those agricultural villages we still characterise as medieval or premodern, they developed their vocations in the new urban agglomerates, with their radically distinct and ‘modern’ spaces and temporalities. The sensitivity to deep time in the moderns then registers this comparatist perception of the two socioecomic temporalities, which the first modernists had to negotiate in their own lived experience. By the same token, when the premodern vanishes, when the peasantry shrinks to a picturesque remnant, when suburbs replace the villages and modernity reigns triumphant and homogenous over all space, then the very sense of an alternative temporality disappears as well, and postmodern generations are dispossessed (without ever knowing it) of any differential sense of that deep time the first moderns sought to inscribe in their writing.[12]

There is a degree of telescoping involved in both accounts. The decline of the peasantry as a proportion of the global population is undeniable, though it has been slower and more varied than expected – indeed, it is possible that peasants still constitute the largest global class.[13] The majority of the world industrial working class – 79% in 2010 – are now based in the Global South, but this does not mean that the majority of people there are industrial workers; by 2010 only 23.1% were.[14] In this respect, proletarianization in the Global South presents a paradoxical picture and one which does not simply repeat earlier patterns:

The historical pattern of capitalist industrialisation in the West and Japan was accompanied by the kind of industrialisation and employment generation there that led to the decline of the rural population to the point that it constitutes, at most between 2 and 8 per cent of the overall population in the advanced countries. For countries like Brazil, India, China and Mexico the rural population is currently a majority. In due course it may well become a minority, but well above the proportions now prevailing in the earlier industrialising countries.[15]

Furthermore, while proletarianization is an ongoing process it is not always simply a case of abandoning the farm and entering the factory in a once-and-for-all break. The move from peasant to worker involves people retaining links, moving back and forth between rural and urban areas, with a correspondingly complex development of class consciousness. The process is also spatially uneven: in some regions the ‘new enclosures’ and other processes associated with the emergence of the neoliberal trade and food regimes push small and middling peasants and their offspring off the land and into the cities (though not necessarily into factory work), while in others a degree of ‘re-peasantisation’ in the form of partial reliance on small-holdings for subsistence/income by urban workers still continues in the formal and informal sectors.[16] In the early 1980s Neil Smith wrote of how:

Pre-capitalist modes of production had been integrated into the world capitalist system as ‘internalized externals’. As such they have not made the complete transition from formal to real integration, and the real integration of the global space-economy is necessarily incomplete.[17]

To say the least, this understates the extent to which real subsumption (or integration) has taken place, even in the countryside.[18] From his studies in rural India, Raju Das argues that one of the ways in which rurality is maintained is where: a) the use of technology is aimed at increasing labor productivity (meaning that the transition to real subsumption has occurred); b) the use of various forms of tied or unfree labor as well as free labor are made to work long hours for very low wages, thus reinforcing the system of formal subsumption; or c) landowners are resorting to hybrid subsumption.

By the latter Das means the ‘mercantile/usury-based exploitation as well as exploitation based on rental payment’ in situations where:

landowners, who were earlier formally subsuming labourers on annual contracts as well as daily labourers, resorted to large-scale casualization: permanent workers became casuals. This situation gradually changed to one where many landowners started renting out their land, often to those who were earlier working as casuals or on permanent contracts, contributing to their partial peasantisation.[19]

These types of complexities in the capital/labour relation, rather than smooth transitions from formal to real subsumption, or straight binary oppositions between capital and labour are of course exactly what uneven and combined development would lead us to expect.

4.1.2.   The dual economy

Even if we reject the excessive claims for the untrammelled dominance of capitalist modernity, there are still alternative concepts to uneven and combined development which tend to be deployed rather more frequently in contemporary discussions of the relationship between multiple socio-economic forms. In one of what was – until recently – the very few attempts to marry theoretical consideration of with empirical study of the process, Carole McAllister assessed two of these. Her discussion is a useful starting point for attempting to establish the continued existence of uneven and combined development as a tendency.

One of these concepts is ‘dual economy’, which, as McAllister says

…assumes the existence of two separate economic and social domains in colonial and semi-colonial societies – one organised according to the principles of Western corporate capitalism and the other representing a relatively stagnant subsistence or peasant economy. The society, and especially its economy, is conceptualized as divided into a ‘traditional’ and a ‘modern’ way of life.

The problem in this case, ‘is the lack of attention to the interactions between the two sectors, and the assumption that they are self-contained’ – an assumption that McAllister challenges on the basis of her regional fieldwork in Malaya:

…in fact, the theoretical division of any society into two such distinct and self-contained units is clearly a distortion. In Negeri Sembilan, as well as in other contemporary Third World societies, it is clear that the so-called traditional sector – organized around subsistence agriculture and the principles of matrilinear kinship – is essential to the functioning of international capitalism and that the latter in turn continues to reshape ‘tradition’.[20]

As I wrote Part 1 about China during the 1920s, even in areas subject to uneven and combined development, these absolute separations do exist. Highlighting them is quite a common approach among non-Marxist radicals. Arundhati Roy, for example, writes that:

As Indian citizens, we subsist on a regular diet of caste massacres and nuclear tests, mosque breaking and fashion shows, church burning and expanding cell phone networks, bonded labour and the digital revolution, female infanticide and the Nasdaq crash, husbands who continue to burn their wives for dowry, and our delectable stockpile of Miss Worlds.[21]

McAllister rightly regards uneven and combined development as an alternative to the mere juxtaposition of extreme differences; unfortunately, some of Trotsky’s other modern adherents have tended to see it as constituted by them, as in this passage by Tom Kemp:

India thus remained an example of combined development. Bullock carts and sacred cows existed side by side with advanced capitalist industry and a modern industrial proletariat. Religious fanaticism and superstition abounded; there was an anarchic and distorted land system, stagnation, mass poverty, sloth and filth. On the other hand there were railways, factories, banks, modern city centres and a sophisticated intelligentsia in touch with the most advanced ideas. These contradictions and paradoxes were essential parts of India’s historical legacy of colonial independence.[22]

An example of dualism being invoked to describe a specific situation can be found in the October 2003 announcement by HSBC that it was moving 4,000 call centre and back office jobs from Britain to the Indian state of Hyderabad. The story gave the media an opportunity to recycle the most banal clichés in the repertoire of travel journalism, including the classic, ‘India: Land of Contrasts’. The contrasts are scarcely picturesque: ‘The biggest difference between HSBC’s smart Babukhan Chambers and the British centres it is usurping is the grinding poverty that surrounds Babukhan – limbless beggars and families in tents’, wrote one Guardian journalist.[23]

These disparities pre-existed the decisions by British financial institutions like HSBC, Prudential and TSB/Lloyds to transfer part of their telecommunications operations offshore. Indeed, the only reason why these companies were prepared to do so is because India already had a relatively highly-skilled and – by British standards – lowly-paid workforce either already accustomed to the modern office environment or in the process of being trained to enter it. Behind these developments lies the software export industry, which has been the fastest growing sector in the Indian economy since 1991 – not coincidentally the year in which a deeply indebted Indian state sought loans from, the conditions of which were the opening up of the economy to both native and foreign private capital. The education systems of several states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are now adapted to serve the requirements of this sector, which has generated its own contrasts, as Anthony D’Costa explains:

…rural India is characterised by debt bondage, social servitude, extensive poverty, illiteracy, and limited opportunities for social and economic mobility. Culturally there is a massive divide from the highly integrated, glamorous, and globalised software industry. [24]

D’Costa does refer to uneven and combined development in this context, but only to dismiss it as indicative of the problem:

By framing the rise of the Indian software industry as integral to uneven and combined development I have demonstrated that there are serious contradictions with such a development process. … Paradoxically, in attempting to overcome technological barriers through greater international economic integration, the Indian software industry is forging ahead but it is also exacerbating uneven and combined development at the national level.[25]

4.1.3.   On hybridity again

We have already seen how uneven and combined development has been assimilated to quite different theories, from positions of both support and opposition; a similar misidentification can be seen here with respect to dual systems theory. The divisions to which D’Costa draws attention are of course never absolute and the situations where it breaks down are exactly where the concept of uneven and combined development might be more usefully applied. Many commentators recognise that there are not unsurmountable barriers between the different temporalities of Indian social life, but regard this too as a problem. Jeremy Seabrook is typical here: ‘The loss of jobs to rich countries is small compared to the cultural hybridisation of hundreds of thousands of young Indians’.[26] D’Costa similarly sees the divisions between ‘hybridised’ Indians and their compatriots as ‘inherently destabilising’ of Indian society.[27] There are a number of issues here.

As I noted earlier, hybridity is an ongoing process which predates not only Western colonialism, but even the earlier division of Europe, then the rest of the world into ‘West’ and ‘East’. The notion that there once existed a pure, unsullied, non-hybrid Indian people – or indeed any other – has been rightly criticised by Said:

If you know in advance that the African or Iranian or Chinese or Jewish or German experience is fundamentally integral, coherent, separate, and therefore comprehensible only to Africans, Iranians, Chinese, Jews or Germans, you first of all posit an essential something which, I believe, is both historically created and the result of interpretation – namely the existence of Africanness, Jewishness or Germanness, or for that matter Orientalism and Occidentalism. And second, you are likely as a consequence to defend the essence or experience itself rather than promote full knowledge of it and its entanglements and dependencies on other knowledges.[28]

As George Lipsitz notes, the world has always been characterised by ‘transformation and change’:

Instead of looking to the past for compensatory stories about cultural uniformity, we need to build the future by learning lessons from individuals and groups whose histories have prepared them to make productive use of contradictions, to embrace the dynamism of difference and diversity.

Music is one of the best examples:

Music that originally emerged from concrete historical experiences in places with clearly identifiable geographical boundaries now circulates as an interchangeable commodity market to consumers across the globe.

The most obvious example of this is the virtual universality of Hip-Hop but, as Lipsitz goes on to say, this is not simply a process through which the original sense of musical ‘place’ is lost or appropriated:

Through the conduits of commercial culture, music made by aggrieved inner-city populations in Canberra, Kingston, or Compton becomes part of everyday life and culture for affluent consumers in the suburbs of Cleveland, Coventry or Cologne. At the same time, electro-techno-art music made in Germany serves as a staple for sampling within African American hip hop; Spanish flamenco and paso doble music provide crucial subtexts for Algerian Rai; and pedal steel guitars first developed by country and western musicians in the USA play a prominent role in Nigerian juju.[29]

The guitar itself is a good example. First developed in Spain, it attained modern form in the music of black Americans who combined the five-tone scale of their West African origins with European harmonies to produce the chord progressions characteristic of the blues.[30] Or take Brazil, where no-one could claim that class politics has been adversely affected by the supposedly debilitating effects of ‘Western’ culture. During the 1990s Brazil became the sixth biggest market for recorded music in the world after the USA, Japan, Germany, the UK and France (and the second biggest market for pirate recordings, after the USA). One of the genres is the mangue beat movement which first developed in the city of Recife.

Hybridity is not new in Brazilian music. Here, as in other nations, what is usually called ‘traditional’ national genres like the samba and the choro mixed modes of the Portuguese colonial settlers, the transplanted African slaves and the indigenous population since the nineteenth century. Mangue is no different in this respect except that it has not existed long enough to receive the respectable aura of tradition conferred by time and familiarity. Worse, it employs rhythms and instruments derived from rock – which is itself of course a hybrid. ‘In fact, Mangue is a metaphor for cultural diversity based on an environment full of diversity.’ Far from submerging what I will call ‘older’, rather than ‘traditional’ musical forms, it has brought them to the surface: ‘One of the most interesting effects of the mangue movement and its offshoots is that instead of suffocating traditional culture, mangue beat is helping local culture to rejuvenate itself.’[31]

4.1.4.   The problem of ‘the West’

Part of the problem here is the very notion of ‘the West’.[32] As Gordon Matthews has written of the equation of global capitalism with Westernisation: ‘One problem with this view is that “Western” is hardly a monolithic category, but encompasses many different societies, ideas, values: are there really any such things as “Western values”, “Western ways of life”?’[33] National cultures are never homogenous; above all, as Lenin insisted, they are divided on class lines.

The elements of democratic and socialist culture are present, if only in rudimentary form, in every national culture, since in every nation there are toiling and exploited masses, whose conditions of life inevitably give rise to the ideology of democracy and socialism. But every nation also possesses a bourgeois culture (and most nations a reactionary and clerical culture as well) in the form, not merely of ‘elements’, but of the dominant culture.[34]

The point which Lenin is making here is that while there may be no such thing as a proletarian culture, the proletariat does have a culture, which is not identical to that of the bourgeoisie, even though it exists in the context of capitalist society and the dominant bourgeois ideology. Consequently: ‘we take from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements; we take them only and absolutely in opposition to the bourgeois culture and bourgeois nationalism of each nation.’ What Lenin is thinking of by ‘proletarian culture’ is not the early 20th century Russian equivalent of Eastenders, but something more like internal trade union democracy, or the libraries established by the German Social Democratic party and by the miners of the Rhondda Valley in south Wales for the self-education of working class people.

The object of the socialist movement is not to preserve the ‘proletarian’ aspects of that culture but to create an international culture drawn from all these cases: ‘The slogan of working-class democracy is not “national culture” but the international culture of democracy and the world-wide working class movement.’[35]

Black workers in South Africa before the fall of apartheid, for example, were heavily influenced by the best aspects of British working class organisation. In 1983 the Federation of South African Trade Unions produced a 72-page pamphlet called The Shop Steward: ‘Half of it is an historical account of the British shop steward movement with upbeat accounts of the strength of shop stewards during the First World War or at Ford plants in Britain in the 1960s.’[36] Working class movements do not only learn from the experience of the working class, but from those aspects of the dominant culture which the bourgeoisie has subsequently betrayed.

South Africa also gives us an example of this. Early in 2001 a teacher’s committee in Johannesburg advised the provincial education department that several of Shakespeare’s plays should be removed from school reading lists. In the ensuing controversy it became apparent the extent to which these works had been part of the cultural formation of leading activists in the anti-apartheid struggle, particularly Julius Caesar, in which they identified with the conspirators against tyranny.

In 1944 the first manifesto of the Youth League of the ANC, in which Nelson Mandela played his first political role, concluded with the passage from the play that begins: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.’ Later, when many of the same activists were imprisoned on Robben Island, they would recite passages from the same text and others which were open to radical interpretation. When Sonny Verkatrathnam secretly circulated his copy of the Complete Works asking his fellow-prisoners to autograph their favourite passages, Mandela chose the speech which begins: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths.’[37] And in this respect they were resuming a tradition which had started nearly 200 years before in Britain. As Robert Hughes points out:

When thousands of voteless, propertyless workers the length and breadth of England met in their reading-groups in the 1820s to discuss republican ideas and discover the significance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, they were seeking to unite themselves by taking back the meaning of the dominant culture from custodians who didn’t live up to them.[38]

In this context concerns over the supposed cultural homogenisation resultant on Westernisation’ – which Naomi Klein summarised in 2000 as ‘the idea of everyone eating at Burger King, wearing Nike shoes and watching Backstreet Boys videos’ – is to fixate on the superficial.[39] As Klein herself recounts of the workers she met in the Special Enterprise Zones of Global South:

They are young men and women in Hong Kong and Jakarta who wear Nikes and eat at McDonald’s, and tell me they are too busy organising factory workers to bother with Western lifestyle politics. And while Westerners sweat over what kind of shoes and shirts are the most ethical to buy, the people sweating in the factories line their dorm rooms with McDonald’s advertisements, paint ‘NBA Homeboy’ murals on their doors and love anything with ‘Meekey’ [i.e. Mickey Mouse]. The organisers in the Cavite zone often dress for work in ersatz Disney or Tommy T-shirted – cheap knockoffs from the local market. How do they reconcile the contradiction between their clothes and their anger at the multinationals? They told me they had never really thought about it like that: politics in Cavite is about fighting for concrete improvements in worker’s lives – not about what name happens to be on a t-shirt you happen to have on your back.[40]

The arrival of the new is any case not necessarily experienced as an alien intrusion by people who in most respects adhere to longer-established forms of social and economic life. Electronic media and communications technologies are perhaps the contemporary bearers of capitalist modernity in the way that the railway and the telegram were in the mid-nineteenth century, and like their predecessors, they can also play a role in social organisation. In what – for Seabrook – is a relatively balanced passage, he notes their contradictory impact:

People are not tabula rasa on which the global media inscribes its messages at will. But neither is it an adequate explanation to claim that people interpret the messages after their own fashion and integrate them into their own world-view. It is more complicated. People do assimilate images and information according to their own experience, but, particularly in cultures where until recently people have remained closed to the assault of efficient technologies of cultural dissemination, this is scarcely an encounter of equals.[41]

Seabrook here elides media content and technological form: the former will indeed contain an ideological charge – although it is not clear to me why unfamiliarity should necessarily lead to greater susceptibility – but the latter can be put to multiple uses, with quite different political implications. An illustration of the simplest type of impact is given by the novelist William Dalrymple, who here evokes a mixture of archaic and contemporary forms in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh:

Within a day, I had walked beyond the last metalled road. Along with the tarmac, I left both the telephones and the electricity grid far behind me. Soon I was heading into an apparently premodern world: up in the hill villages, the harvest was being cut by hand with sickles and bound in sheaves, stacked one by one into stooks. Oxen ploughed the narrow terraces with wooden ploughs. In the villages, stone houses with wooden fretwork balconies like those in Mughal miniatures tumbled down steep mountainsides, slate roofs alternating with roof terraces where the women were drying apricots and stacking kindling for the winter. You could almost taste the woody resin-scent of the deodars and the warm peach-brandy aroma of the drying fruit. One of the goatherds who wandered past our camp the second evening said he was on his way to consult the local oracle, a shaman who channeled a Pahari deity and was celebrated for the accuracy of his prophecies. It was trekking as time travel: I seemed to have walked up into a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk world about as far as I could imagine from the noise and pollution of New Delhi. … Later that morning, at the top of the pass, I stopped in at the village [of] Shakti Dehra, and fell into conversation with the head­man. Within minutes, Joginder Raj­put had whipped out a cellphone and begun talking to his younger brother who needed him to send down some bullocks for the ploughing. The government telephone network had failed to get landlines up to the village yet, he explained, but there was a good signal from one of the private cellphone companies and about half the households in the village now had mobiles.[42]

Rajput’s reliance on a private provider certainly indicates the extent to which late uneven and combined development occurs under the sign of neoliberalism, but it is clear that the possession of a mobile phone has made easier aspects of his working life and that of his family.

Technology does not, however, only impact on individuals, but can also be incorporated into forms of social interaction. In Sipsongpanna, the southwestern border region of Yunnan in China, the ‘hills have been levelled to make way for new roads, power lines have replaced the canopy of the rain forest, and new migrants from the coast are building cities in place of villages’. The Buddhist religion practised by the Tai population has been repressed since 1953, but has recently experienced a revival as monks operating across the national borders of Thailand, Laos, Burma and China have attempted to revive the classical Tai ‘though today they carry it not on palm leaves but on floppy disks, videos and CDs’. As Sara Davis says:

Thus we should attend not just to the video itself but to the person who carries the video, who puts it in the machine and presses ‘play’, who explains the images that appear in terms a village teenager can understand. In the right hands, modernity is made to feel, not foreign or alienating, but as familiar, remembered, and natural as old legend.[43]

Both these examples display what I earlier called ‘adaptation’ in the face of capitalist modernity. I will discuss the modernity of political Islamism below, but it has to be seen as a similar response. The familiarity of adherents with the latest means of destruction allows Roger Scruton to contemplate the irony whereby, ‘the techniques and institutions on which Al-Qa’eda depends are the gifts of the new global institutions’: ‘It is Western enterprise with its multinational outreach that produced the technology that bin Laden has exploited so effectively against us.’[44] Gray extends the argument in a way that points to a more significant aspect of Al Qaeda’s implantation in contemporary capitalism – its reliance on communications media:

It is modern not only in the fact that it uses satellite phones, laptop computers and encrypted websites. The attack on the Twin Towers demonstrates that Al Qaeda understands that twenty-first century wars are spectacular encounters in which the dissemination of media images is a core strategy. Its use of satellite television to mobilise support in Muslim countries is part of his strategy.[45]

Finally, and more positively, communications technologies have also played an important role in facilitating working-class movements. Geoffrey Crothall, editor of China Labour Bulletin, recently pointed out that the spread of strikes was not only due to the increasing volatility of Chinese workers:

One of the key reasons is simply that strikes are much more visible. Just about every factory worker, especially in Guangdong, has a cheap smartphone and can post news about their strike and the response of management and the local government to it on social media and have that information circulate within a matter of minutes.  This enhanced visibility has also encouraged more workers to take strike action. They see workers from other factories or workplaces that are in exactly the same position as them taking strike action and they think ‘we can do this too’.[46]

The other dominant alternative to uneven and combined development is syncretism. In one sense this is the more important of the two, since the postmodern argument for the end of the non-synchronous is effectively a ‘super-syncretism’ on a global scale. As McAllister notes, syncretism registers ‘the thorough mingling and mixing of historically separate social and cultural traits’, but: ‘In such a perspective, historically discrete elements merge into a syncretic mixture whose different strands eventually become so tightly woven that they are quite difficult to separate out.’ The difficulty here is that adherents of syncretism fail to recognise the tensions which these mergers produce:

…under the impact of the current process of rapid economic and social change, some of the strands that appeared to be bound together in one ‘rope’ are being dramatically ripped apart and then reinterpreted and rewoven into new patterns. In sum the model presents reality as more static and seamless than it proves to be and as composed of discrete cultural elements that easily combine and recombine rather than fundamental social relations that often wrench as they shift.[47]

4.1.5.   Syncretist positions

Some syncretist positions converge with positions which are nominally informed by the concept of uneven and combined development. Mike Davis, for example, argues that Dubai and China have this in common: ‘Starting from feudalism and peasant Maoism, respectively, both have arrived at the stage of hypercapitalism through what Trotsky called “the dialectic of uneven and combined development”.’ What this suggests, however, is that uneven and combined development is a process with an end point at which the specific tensions associated with it are overcome – although obviously not those characteristic of capitalism in general:

In the cases of Dubai and China, all the arduous intermediate stages of commercial evolution have been telescoped or short circuited to embrace the “perfected” synthesis of shopping, entertainment, and architectural spectacle on the most pharaonic scale.[48]

A different case for syncretism has been put by leading former-neoliberal-turned-dissident-conservative, Gray, for whom non-Western societies are free to adapt aspects of Western capitalism to create entirely new formations:

The growth of the world economy does not inaugurate a universal civilisation, as both Smith and Marx thought it must. Instead it allows the growth of indigenous kinds of capitalism, diverging from the ideal free market and from each other. … Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill believed that modern societies throughout the world would become replicas of western societies. The West would necessarily be a model, its imitators secular, Enlightenment cultures. … History has falsified this Enlightenment faith. Modern societies come in many varieties. Like nineteenth-century Japan, China and Russia, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia are developing as modern countries today by borrowing selectively from western societies while rejecting western models.[49]

What Gray calls ‘selective borrowing’ is close to what in Part 1 I called ‘debased adaptation’, and carries the same risks for the ruling-classes involved. These have been pointed out by a very different conservative thinker, although one who is similarly sceptical about the prospects for neoliberalism, Edward Luttwak, who has highlighted ‘the perils of incomplete imitation’, whereby developing world ruling classes ‘have been importing a dangerously unstable version of American turbo-capitalism, because the formula is incomplete’. What is missing? On the one hand, the legal regulation to control what he calls ‘the overpowering strength of big business’ and on the other the internal humility by the winners and acceptance of the essential justice of their personal situation by the losers from the system:

So far, however, in too many countries undergoing turbo-capitalist change, the winners enjoy their wealth all too visibly, are enormously eager to enrich their children, and they give away very little, except to the Church. As for the losers, what they feel is not guilt, but bitter resentment. And neither group is filled with the moral certainty required to punish losers who break the rules.[50]

It is possible to consider ‘incomplete adaptation’ in more concrete and explicitly Marxist terms, in relation to growth in specific sectors of the economy, where expansion may be at quite a different level from the rest. Beverley Silver has focussed on the impact of working-class organisation in such situations of sectional growth:

Strong new working class movements had been created as a combined result of the spatial fixes pursued by multinational capital and the import substitution industrialisation efforts of modernising states. In some cases, like Brazil’s automobile workers; labour militancy was rooted in the newly expanding mass production consumer durable industries. In other cases, like the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland’s shipyards, militancy was centred in gigantic establishments providing capital goods. In still others, like Iran’s oil workers, labour militancy was centred on critical natural resource export industries.[51]

As we have already seen, Silver is not the only Marxist effectively to recapitulate elements of uneven and combined development without being aware of the concept, or its relevance. Presenting her particular perspective on the impossibility of complete ‘catch-up’, Silver notes that ‘while spatial fixes tend to erode the North-South divide, technological fixes, product fixes and protectionism tended to reconstitute the divide continually’:

Spatial fixes relocated the social contradictions of mass production (including strong working classes), but they have not relocated the wealth through which high-wage countries historically accommodated these same contradictions. As a result, strong grievances and strong bargaining power go hand in hand, creating the conditions for permanent social crises in much of the post-colonial world.[52]

4.1.6.   UCD in the West – an incomplete process

If uneven and combined development still occurs in the Global South, can we at least declare it to be completed process in the West? Clearly, it is less significant there, particularly since the Second World War, but two aspects still remain. One is the continued drawing together of different phases of capitalist development, a process of which we saw examples earlier in the Global South. Hardt and Negri highlight similar combinations in Italy during the 1970s and 1980s:

The transformation of the Italian economy since the 1950s demonstrates clearly that relatively backward economies do not simply follow the same stages the dominant regions experience, but evolve through alternative and mixed patterns. After World War II, Italy was still a predominantly peasant-based society, but in the 1950s and 1960s it went through furious but incomplete modernisation and industrialisation, the first economic miracle. Then, however, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the processes of industrialisation were still not complete, the Italian economy embarked on another transformation, a process of postmodernisation, and achieved a second economic miracle. These Italian miracles were not really leaps forward that allowed it to catch up with the dominant economies; rather, they represented mixtures of different incomplete economic forms. What is most significant here, and what might usefully pose the Italian case as the general model for all other backward economies, is that the Italian economy did not complete one stage (industrialisation) before moving on to another (informatisation). Various regions will evolve to have peasant elements mixed with partial industrialisation and partial informatisation. The economic stages are thus all present at once, merged into a hybrid, composite economy that varies not in kind but in degree across the globe.[53]

Although the concept is not named, the argument here suggests one of the ways in which uneven and combined development (‘hybrid, composite economy’) retains its relevance in the contemporary West.

The other aspect is migration. Again using post-war Italy as our example, we can see the process unfolding as in-migrants from the Mezzogiorno revolted against their living conditions and low pay during the ‘industrial miracle’ of the late fifties and early sixties.[54] We have already noted in the case of Hardt and Negri how many Italian commentators invoke ‘leaping over stages’ without any reference to Trotsky. Here, for example, is former Communist militant Lucio Magri discussing the way in which post-war Italy was the site of both the most highly advanced technologies and forms of labour organisation:

Technological leap did not only mean the application of better equipment and better work organisation to a productive apparatus partly out of use (as in Germany and France). It meant revolutionizing both the one and the other and involving large areas previously excluded from modernity: that is moving quickly from a narrow and sometimes craft based, industrial base to a Fordist industry that was already (at its most advanced) on the threshold of automation, and then extending it to new sectors and new types of production and consumption. It meant leaping over the intermediate stages that other countries had previously crossed with difficulty.

Magri then refers to ‘the social and cultural upheavals induced or anticipated by the Italian economic miracle’ and highlights its ‘novel interlinking of modernity and backwardness, how it fuelled imbalances and regional or class conflict between North and South, capital and labour, and old and new middle layers’.[55]

4.2.      New Developments in Urbanism and Ideology

The preceding section indicates some of the enduring characteristics of uneven and combined development; but given that it necessarily involves the unexpected outcomes of drawing together different forms, within a system as dynamic as capitalism, it would be unusual if new combinations did not arise. Two of these are particularly significant.

4.2.1.   Mega-Cities

I have stressed throughout this chapter how urbanisation – whether in Lahore or Los Angeles – has played an equivalent role to industrialisation and, in some cases, has been even more significant in generating uneven and combined development. This remains the case but, in the Global South at least, it has taken on new forms. The number of cities with populations of over one million rose from 86 in 1950 to 400 in 2004 and these are expected to account for all future population growth from 2020, until the anticipated peak is reached with a global population of 10 billion in 2050, of which 95 per cent will live in urban areas in the developing world.[56] What kind of urban areas are these?

At one extreme they simply involve adding new streets and buildings of modern design and composed of modern materials onto an older base, as in Thailand: ‘Bangkok is a First World City imposed on the decaying fabric of the original’, writes Seabrook.[57] At the other extreme, it involves constructing entirely new cities in previously uninhabited rural or even desert conditions, as in China. What is perhaps even more startling than the appearance of these monuments to Chinese expansion is their tendency to expand to the point of convergence: the Pearl River Delta was still a rural agricultural area as late as 1973; it now consists of 9 cities, the total population of which is 42 million people. These are already merging, as it were, organically, but the Chinese state plans to consolidate them into one gigantic megacity by 2030, by which point the population should have risen to 80 million.[58]

Between these two extremes lie two other, perhaps more typical developments. One is where the boundaries between the cities and their surrounding hinterlands begin to dissolve, along with their distinction from each other. Gregory Guldin has written of areas in China which are ‘neither rural nor urban but a blending of the two wherein a dense web of transaction ties large urban cores to their surrounding regions’.[59] The other is where cities expand in ways which are genuinely urban, creating peripheral slums quite unlike those which arose during the original process of industrialisation in the West.

Davis describes this as a consequence of ‘urbanization-without-growth’ which has become ‘radically decoupled from industrialisation, even from development per se‘:

The global forces “pushing” people from the countryside – mechanization in Java and India, food imports in Mexico, Haiti and Kenya, civil war and drought throughout Africa, and everywhere the consolidation of small into large holdings and the competition of industrial-scale agribusiness – seem to sustain urbanization even when the “pull” of the city is drastically weakened by debt and depression.[60]

Seabrook describes this process in the capital of Indonesia:

Urbanization in Dhaka is quite unlike any traditional idea of the city. Whole areas remain semi-rural, and there is little high-rise building. Whole tracts of open land become covered with dense grass in the monsoon, lush grazing ground for cattle. … Even so, an invasive industrialization is the reason for their existence. The tension between village and city is made visible in Dhaka, and in the end it is not the village that prevails. The cooking fires may be in traditional clay chulhas, or stoves, in front of the huts, but the cooking fuel proves to be a mixture of waste material from plastics and garment factories, which melts into a foul-smelling liquid.[61]

Quite often, the cities of the global south display elements from all four of the ‘ideal types’ outlined here, which are rarely incarnated in completely pristine form. What they all have in common is that many inhabitants of the new slums can increasingly be characterised as ‘informal workers’, now over a one billion strong and two-fifths of the population of the developing world. Davis reasonably asks:

The labour-power of a million people has been expelled from the world system, and who can imagine any plausible scenario, under liberal auspices, that would reintegrate them as productive workers or mass consumers?[62]

Seabrook imagines the sense of frustration and loss experienced by former peasant transplanted into a city that endlessly denies them what it promises:

Whenever you look at the goods in the shop window Рespecially in the air-conditioned mall, where you sometimes take few minutes refuge from the heat or the rain Рit strikes you afresh how poor you remain in spite of the striving. In the village you knew what you needed for survival; and although you might have wished for some small luxuries, you never allowed your imagination to wander in the realms of the impossible. In the city, you are taunted with the absences in your life every time you pass through the central shopping area, with its glass and marble enclosures, and windows full of thin papier-m̢che models wearing fashionable clothes for a foreign autumn, the array of dazzling white refrigerators and washing machines, the rows of flickering TV screens all showing different channels Рospreys in flight, speedway racing from Minneapolis, Alpine peaks in Switzerland. At night, the street-lamps and advertisements shimmer in the wet road, so that even beneath your feet a chasm of magical colour reflects your own diffuse feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction.[63]

This is powerfully evocative, but – typically – has no sense of how experiences of this sort might lead city-dwellers to organise, rather than simply bemoan their fate. In fact, it would be wrong to imagine that the mass of the population live lives of quiescent desperation in the absence of an immediate catalyst. In the Egyptian context, for example, Eric Denis has gone so far as to write of ‘urbanization from below’:

In 1996, the rate of urbanization in Egypt (defined as the part of the population living in the 800 agglomerations greater than 10,000 inhabitants) was calculated at 70 per cent. Today, that figure is around 80 percent. Most of these neo-urbanites, no longer engaged in agriculture, have to earn their living and make settlements habitable by themselves – without services from the state and, indeed, without its recognition.[64]

The middle-class hatred and fear of these populations is palpable. During the 1990s: ‘Commentators warned that the inhabitants of the ‘ashwa’iyat [i.e. ‘random’ or ‘haphazard’] were not urban and hadari (‘civilized’) but rather rural fellaheen – something that didn’t belong in the city and was poisoning its lifeblood.’ As Jack Shenker notes, two decades later, on the eve of the revolution of 2011, the inhabitants of the informal settlements were not simply occupying the wrong space, but living in the wrong time:

These people, went the narrative, are not our flesh and blood; they are not even of our time. … One investigation into the ‘ashwa’iyat uncovered ‘carts dating from the time of Methuselah’.[65]

These smug moderns were right to be fearful. Co-existence with Methuselanian modes of transportation would indeed represent an extreme form of uneven and combined development, far beyond even the polarities fused prior to Russia in 1917: but the impacts are quite similar. Shenker rightly points out that, despite the media focus on Tahir Square, the roots of the revolution of 2011 lay elsewhere:

The start of the revolution was…not truly in the city, but in the non-city – those ever-expanding pools of state abandonment which, for so many decades, had been seeping through the metropolis even as those at the top gazed stubbornly out at sand.[66]

Although defeated, the Egyptian revolution has been the most important of the contemporary social explosions. It was not, however, alone in having its roots in the new urban peripheries. As Colin Mooers points out about Latin America:

Urban neighbourhoods under popular control in Caracas, Santiago, Lima, Buenos Aires and La Paz mobilized around issues of housing, water rights and food distribution; and the recuperation of closed factories was pivotal in bringing down traditional governments committed to neoliberalism and paving the way for the ascendancy of Left governments.[67]

In at least one important case, that of El Alto in Bolivia, an entire city has been the site of new forms of social organisation. In one sense El Alto is an overspill of La Paz, for which it provides much of the workforce and, crucially, through which three of the four supply-routes pass. El Alto is both relatively new – as a city it has only really existed since the Second World War – and also growing exponentially, with inhabitants mostly consisting of those driven from their former occupations or locations. In a way, the population of El Alto is a classic ‘combined’ group, consisting of former peasants forced off their land, former tin miners made redundant following the ‘rationalization’ of the industry, and former inhabitants of La Paz who can no longer afford to stay there. It has also the largest indigenous population of any city in Bolivia.

Sian Lazar has made an important study of the city, conducted around 2003, the year in which the explosion of struggle in El Alto ultimately compelled President Sanchez de Lozada to resign. In her work, Lazar notes that, for both peasants in the surrounding area and urban workers in the informal sector:

Their household model of production allows for fluidity of associational life, but has also allowed them to form alliances and organisations based on territorial location; the street where they sell, the village or region where they live and farm, and, with the addition of the vecino organisational structures in the cities, their zone.

This does not mean that more traditional forms of association have been completely overtaken:

Trade unions are flourishing in the informal economy of El Alto and form a crucial part of the structure of civic organisation that is parallel to the state and shapes multi-tiered citizenship in the city.

The emergence of these complex interactions between forms of organisation based on both place of residence and place of work leads Lazar to conclude that ‘the working class in Bolivia is reconstituting itself as a political subject, albeit not in its traditional forms’.[68] These forms may not resemble those which emerged in Petrograd in 1905 or 1917, but why should this be surprising?[69] In the fusions of the archaic and the contemporary the latter component at least is always subject to change, although as El Alto demonstrates this has not lessened the resulting potential for social explosiveness.

However, as I have emphasised throughout this chapter, it would be wrong to imagine the consequences of contemporary uneven and combined development always tend towards revolutionary or at least left-wing conclusions. The rapid transformation of cities has a dark side exemplified, perhaps, by the rise of urban gendered violence in India, as Manali Desai reports:

For the new, urban, middle-class India, hedonism, voyeurism and sexual prowess are eternally emblazoned on the cities’ and highways’ larger-than-life billboards, in films and, not least, in a vast amount of pornography. India is the world’s fifth largest consumer of online porn – not such a surprise, given the size of its population, yet the relatively poor e-connectivity of rural India compared with China, for example, also needs to be taken into account. All this points to a release of libidinal energy after decades of prudery, leavened only by the occasional glimpse of Bollywood flesh. But this sexual ‘freedom’ is not only circumscribed by sharp gender inequalities, reinforced by caste and ethnic domination; it has also produced a fierce reaction, which is directly threatening to women. The aspirational, gym-toned male body, with distinctly Western consumer tastes – whisky, cigarettes, fast cars – looms large on city billboards, enjoining men to participate in the image, if only vicariously. For India’s surplus men, fantasies fuelled by bootleg liquor are compounded by frustrated mobility and other forms of class desire.

In the Indian case, the recent explosion of sexual violence against women is partly produced by a tension between the contradictory demands of Hindu nationalism for male libidinal restraint and the new temptations and frustrations attendant on new forms of city life. In other areas, however, it is religion itself which has been reshaped by uneven and combined development. Religion represents a consolation or defence against the intrusion of capitalist modernity, but religion is also communicated and celebrated using the techniques and technologies that capitalist modernity has provided. Elsewhere it has formed an alternative to a left politics. Davis has gone as far as to say that in the mega-cities:

Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost. If God died in the cities of the industrial revolution, he has risen again in the post-industrial cities of the developing world. …populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and, in Bombay, the cult of Shiva) occupy a social space analogous to that of early twentieth century socialism and anarchism.[70]

As a general argument this is too pessimistic. What is involved is not simply an unchallenged revival of religious belief, but a contest between radical left and populist religious responses to capitalist modernity. As we have seen, in Latin America it is the former which has tended to dominate, in Central Africa, it is the latter. As Alexander Colas has written, Marxists needs to use the notion of ‘populism’ as it is represented by Islamism,

not as descriptors of accidental, residual forms of mass political mobilisation, but, rather, as structural features of societies – like those in Africa – far more powerfully subject to the vagaries of combined and uneven capitalist development.[71]

The situation in the Middle East is more mixed, although – as the unfolding catastrophe in Syria reminds us – it has to date had no happier an outcome.

4.2.1.   Political Islam

I noted in Part 1 that uneven and combined development tended to produce three possible responses in the Muslim world: (1) in which Islam incorporated sufficient elements of capitalist modernity to maintain organisational structures and modes of social interaction, even if this meant inventing novel traditions which allowed it to function in a changed social context (‘renewal’); (2) in which former adherents simply abandoned their beliefs in order to embrace new revolutionary doctrines associated with capitalist modernity (‘adoption’); and (3) which in a sense faces in both directions, where new forms of collective organisation such as trade unions were deployed to defend both material conditions and forms of religious observance (‘adaptation’). This position is, in a sense, the most important, as it represents an unstable situation which ultimately leads to the alternatives represented by either (1) or (2). It is the main terrain of the contest to which I have referred. It is however important to understand that outcome (2) today has two possible variants: revolutionary socialism or radical Islam. These alternatives were brought into opposition for the first time in the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9.

As we saw in Part 1, Tim McDaniel has drawn parallels between the Russian and Iranian Revolutions. He compares the Russian and Iranian working classes before the overthrow of their respective autocracies, but contrasts the roles which they played during these revolutions:

Both were numerically small. … In addition, both industrial labour forces were highly heterogeneous, characterized by large influxes of peasant migrants unacquainted with socialist ideas or traditions of worker struggle. In both too, because of the rapid pace of industrialization, ‘industry’ was very heterogeneous, ranging from traditional craft-type establishments to modern plants with advanced technology. Obviously, these traits shared by the two industrial labour forces were not decisive in shaping labour protest, for they cannot explain the very great differences in militancy and class consciousness.[72]

There are two points to be made here. First, it is not clear that the role of the Iranian working class was less than that of the Russian in the revolutionary process, given that the former – although even smaller as a proportion of the population – was decisive in breaking the regime and even, in the Shoras, threw up forms of organisation which are clearly of the same type as the soviets or factory councils.[73] Second, without reducing the entire difference in outcome to the ‘absence of revolutionary leadership’ beloved of Leninist cliché, it is simply unhistorical to ignore the role of the Bolsheviks and particularly, the distinct political programme which they were able to offer workers, which was at least partly responsible for consolidating class consciousness and providing strategic leadership, the absence of which was telling in Iran.

There is, however, one aspect of McDaniel’s argument which points towards a central issue of state forms. McDaniel rightly affords ‘key significance’ to ‘the contrast between a basically capitalist model of industrialization with pre-twentieth-century styles of political despotism’, as in Russia, and ‘a neopatrimonial model with the most modern technology of repression’, as in Iran.[74] Behind this slightly over-elaborate terminology lies the fundamental distinction between the state in pre-capitalist Russia and the state in capitalist Iran, whatever formal similarities there may have been between the respective titles held by Nicholas Romanov and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.[75] This distinction was carried over into the outcomes. Theda Skocpol writes that, ‘the central phalanx of the clergy fused its authority and activities with the state itself’ and claims that this was not:

‘a return to tradition’ in Iran, but rather a strikingly innovative contemporary departure, in which Khomeini and his associates took upon themselves a vanguard, state-building and state-controlling role analogous to that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France and the Communists in revolutionary Russia and China.[76]

Whatever the other differences between the latter three revolutions, in each case the state was overthrown; in the case of Iran, it was only the regime. Consequently, and despite the Western fixation on the supposed singularity of Islamist ideology, the regime of the mullahs inherited the pre-existing state rather than creating its own. Skocpol indicates as much herself later in the same discussion:

Pre-revolutionary Iran was…a rentier state, where revenues from exports of oil and natural gas were channelled into the state, not so much into truly productive investments, but instead into lavish purchases of modern armaments and into luxury consumption. An Iranian Islamic Republic could remain, for quite some time, another sort of rentier state: a populist, welfare-orientated rentier state, with ulama passing out alms in return for moral conformity on a grander scale than ever before.[77]

If the Islamic Republic resembles the state of the Pahlavi dynasty in its rentier essence, it also has a wider set of affinities with other capitalist states, as Fred Halliday points out:

If one looks at the subsequent history of the Iranian revolution, not as a scriptural but as pragmatic, political one, with ideology used to justify the mundane and universal goal of keeping state power, then much becomes clear. The mullahs have seized and kept control through the mechanisms found elsewhere – mobilization for war, discretionary use of welfare, repression of political opponents, demagogy about foreign threats and conspiracies abroad.[78]

Halliday is right to emphasise the constraining effects on ideology of attempting to successfully manage a capitalist nation-state of any size, but in his understandable desire to resist Islamophobic hysteria, he perhaps underplays the impact the Iranian and other Islamic regimes on social and personal behaviour. Ankie Hoogvelt highlights the real dividing line in relation to state intervention:

The Islamisation of officially secular and moderate regimes targets personal law and penal law, leaving intact the existing economic formation and political model inherited from previous regimes.[79]

The constraints mentioned above apply to regimes, but not to Islamists who have no prospect of achieving state power. Political Islam as a form of adaptation is quite different from the defence of tradition involved in renewal. This dissimilarity has been obscured by the fact that any group of Muslims who happen to be opposed to Western interests tend to be described as ‘Islamic radicals’, no matter how conservative they may be. The Taliban may have allowed Al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base, but that did not mean the two organisations were similar in any way other than their shared religious designation: the former was deeply traditional in its desire to return established forms of village organisation; the latter profoundly radical in its ambition to create a regime which had not previously existed on earth. In neither case is ‘religion’ an autonomous force. On the contrary, the motivations of radicals in particular are formed by their material circumstances:

Just because a lack of graduate employment, decent housing, social mobility, food, etc., is explained by an individual through reference to religion does not make it a religious grievance. It remains a political grievance articulated with reference to a particular religious worldview.[80]

Indeed, Olivier Roy has argued that in the French context, Islamism:

is not the revolt of Islam or that of Muslims, but a specific problem concerning two categories of teenagers – mostly immigrants, but also native French citizens. The question is not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.[81]

Roy’s question – why does radicalization take this particular form among certain groups – is one that needs to be asked, not only of France or the West more generally, but of the heartlands of the Muslim world itself. Part of the answer lies with the modernizing secular nationalist regimes, which not only failed materially to provide for the majority of their populations, but usually took the form of murderous dictatorships which were – as in the case of Syria – prepared to kill countless people and destroy unquantifiable amounts of property in order to preserve themselves in power. Those lucky enough to escape the attentions of the Assad regime might of course then find themselves victim of the latest incarnations of capitalist modernity in the form of US drone missiles. It is not entirely surprising that those on the receiving end of either or both might be driven to identify their own, quite different, version of what it means to be modern.

The starting point for understanding Islamism in the mirror of uneven and combined development has therefore to be that it is not a traditional rejection of modernity. By this I do not simply mean that Islamists inhabit contemporary culture, although this is how a certain school of conservative thought tends to conceive their relation to modernity, offering, at its most superficial, scenarios such as the one imagined here by Samuel Huntington:

Somewhere in the Middle East a half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking Coke, listening to rap, and, between their bows to Mecca, putting together a bomb to blow up an American airliner.[82]

If, as we have already seen, the techniques and technologies of Islamic radicalism are quintessentially modern; the ideology, and the forms of consciousness to which it corresponds are, as we should by now come to expect, far more ‘combined’. ISIS, which has of course long surpassed Al Qaeda as the incarnation of the Islamist threat, illustrates the ways in which the archaic and the contemporary can fuse under present conditions. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Hari Kunzu rightly scorned those who regarded the killers as exponents of a ‘medieval’ ideology:

The jihadi movement is a thoroughly modern beast, which ironically owes much to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789. Though they are religious millenarians, looking to bring about global submission to the will of God, they are also utopian revolutionaries, and have adopted tactical thinking from the various movements that trace their legacy to Paris, and that inaugural moment of modernity.[83]

Gray has argued that, consciously or not, ISIS stands in an even longer revolutionary heritage, in that it has parallels with both millenarian experiments like that of the Anabaptist commune at Munster and modern revolutionary movements, by which he means the entire range from the Jacobins to the Khmer Rouge; but also adduces another aspect, that of transnational crime syndicates:

So what is Isis essentially – violent millenarian cult, totalitarian state terrorist network or criminal cartel? The answer is that it is none of these and all of them. Far from being a reversion to anything in the past, Isis is something new – a modern version of barbarism that has emerged in states that have been shattered by western intervention.[84]

Ultimately, combination of the archaic and contemporary is embedded in the consciousness of individuals who are subject to the process.

The men who planned and carried out the Islamist attacks on America – all but four of them Saudi citizens – have often been depicted in the press as being “medieval fanatics”. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe them as confused but highly educated middle class professionals… Such figures represent a clash of civilisations occurring not so much between civilisations, as the author Samuel Huntington would maintain, but rather within individuals, products of the same cultural dislocation and disorientation that accompanies accelerating economic change and globalisation.[85]

The journalist Jamie Doward wrote of his encounter with the British jihadi, Mohammed Ezzouek, whom we can take as one example:

The first thing I noticed about him was his size: tiny, birdlike. … The second thing was his beard. Long, black and wispy, it had clearly taken months to grow and was central to his identity. The third was his trainers, Nike, almost box-fresh. This man is a walking contradiction, I thought. He spoke street slang while praising the prophet. He went to Somalia to live under a caliphate and here he was, talking to me in London, complaining about the difficulties getting a mobile phone contract. … The group’s members appear to have existed in a liminal world where east met west and modernity clashed with medieval. Many played five-a-side football together, shared an interest in designer clothes and were at the same schools. But they were also captivated by a London-based Islamist cleric, Hani al-Sibai, who refers to himself as a sheikh and has been named by the US Treasury as a supporter of al-Qaida. Their world is exemplified in the Twitter feeds of Isis fighters who link to speeches by extremist clerics interspersed with rap videos and pictures of themselves posing with fearsome-looking automatic weapons.[86]

To conclude this part of my discussion, it might be useful to stand back from ISIS, the horrors associated with it and the controversies to which it has given rise, and turn to an earlier example of the emergence of modern Islamism. This was centred in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan, and was not dominated by young men with ‘fearsome-looking automatic weapons’ of the sort mentioned by Doward. We are fortunate to have McAllister’s case study of this process, to which I have already referred, as she explicitly treats it as an example of uneven and combined development.

McAllister argues that the Islamic revival or dakwah in Malaysia:

is primarily a reaction against both the economic stress and dislocation and cultural deracination brought by capitalist development; it is in large part an attempt to define a personal and a political alternative.

As in many other, more famous cases, it is essentially modern rather than a retreat to tradition:

Although such resistance might in one sense be interpreted as a return to the past or a strengthening of tradition, it is eminently clear that this wave of Islamic militancy – and the reassertion but also reinterpretation of traditional Malay Islam it promotes – is a contemporary phenomenon, arising from people’s current problems and needs.

But McAllister also draws attention to the contradictions which this reinterpretation involves, not least for the women who were so central to the dakwah movement:

At the same time, immersion in the revival serves to divert attention away from social to primarily religious matters and essentially blunts their critical awareness of economic and political realities; this occurs in spite of the collective choice of so many young women to embrace fundamentalist Islam represents at least an unconsciousness [sic] resistance to the hegemony of capitalist culture. For a minority of Negeri Sembilan devotees, the dakwah movement, however, has a radically different effect. It actually helps them focus and articulate their growing criticism of their country’s course of dependent capitalist development and its impact on their own lives. For these female adherents, conscious resistance and protest are part of their commitment to Islamic revival, even though such commitment is often characterised by a denial of their matrilinear traditions and thus their pre-existing rights and freedoms as women.[87]

The fact that adherents of radical Islam desire a complete transformation of society does not mean that even the successful achievement of state power would necessarily lead to that outcome. Those who do not consciously seek to overthrow capitalism, those who do not even recognize it as the real force shaping the conditions to which they are opposed, will always end up accepting capitalist imperatives, if only because these seem to be natural, God-given processes beyond human intervention. Unlike ISIS, the dakwah movement was not shaped by the catastrophic impact of Western military intervention, but by the type of industrial and urban intrusions which we have now traced for over the two hundred years or so; but it raises the same issue as the emergence of ISIS: the need for an alternative and socialist form of modernity.


[1] Guy Debord [1988], Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso,) 1998, p. 10.

[2] Harmut Rosa [2005], Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 292-293.

[3] Fredric Jameson, ‘Secondary Elaborations’, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism  (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 309-310.

[4] Joseph Choonara, ‘The Relevance of Permanent Revolution: A Reply to Neil Davidson’, International Socialism, second series, 131 (Summer 2011), p. 182.

[5] Jan Nedervee Pieterse, ‘Globalization North and South: Representations of Uneven Development and the Interaction of Modernities’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 17, no. 1 (February 2000), p. 135.

[6] The concept of articulation in this sense originates not, as is commonly thought in the work of Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, but in that of Pierre-Phillipe Rey, most of whose major works have still not been translated into English. See Aidan Foster-Carter, ‘The Modes of Production Controversy’, New Left Review I/107 (January-February 1978), pp. 55-77. For one of the earliest attempts outside of France to use the concept, see John G. Taylor, From Modernization to Modes of Production: A Critique of the Sociologies of Development and Underdevelopment (London: Macmillan, 1979), chapter 13, especially pp. 226-234.

[7] Jairus Banaji, ‘Modes of Production: A Synthesis’, in Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2010), pp. 259-260.

[8] Leon D. Trotsky [1928], ‘The Draft Programme of the Third International – a Critique of Fundamentals’, in The Third International After Lenin (London: New Park, 1974), p. 162.

[9] Their failure to recognise the parallels between their own work and Trotsky’s may be simple ignorance of his positions rather than unwillingness to be associated with them. Hardt  was once asked whether his failure to consider uneven and combined development in Empire reflected ‘a more general disagreement or critique of [Trotsky’s] view’. He replied: ‘No, I think it’s just a missed opportunity. But I think Toni [Negri] and I are less familiar with Trotsky’s work than we are with Lenin’s work, but, sometimes, those kinds of familiarities are just coincidences of background.’ See Michael Hardt, ‘An Interview with Michael Hardt’, Historical Materialism, vol. 11, no. 3 (2003), p. 135.

[10] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 287.

[11] Eric J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London: Allen Lane, 1994), pp. 289, 415; see also David Reiff, Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991), p.179

[12] Fredric Jameson, ‘The End of Temporality’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 29, no. 4 (Summer 2003), p. 699.

[13] Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (London: Bookmarks, 2009), p. 47.

[14] John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalisation, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), pp 101-104.

[15] Achin Vanaik, ‘Emerging Powers: Rise of the South or a Reconfiguration of Elites?’, in Shifting Power: Critical Perspectives on Emerging Economies, edited by Nick Buxton and Nicola Bullard (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute, 2014), p. 8.

[16] Henry Bernstein, ‘”The Peasantry” in Global Capitalism: Who, Where and Why?’, in The Socialist Register: Working Classes: Global Realities, edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (London: Merlin Press, 2001), pp. 38-40.

[17] Neil Smith [1984], Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space (Third Edition, London: Verso, 2010), pp. 188-189.

[18] Surprisingly perhaps, given his background in the unorthodox Trotskyism of the International Socialist tradition, Smith’s path-breaking book is at its weakest precisely in dealing with combined, as opposed to uneven development. See, for example, Uneven Development, pp. 5-6.

[19] Raju J. Das, ‘Reconceptualizing Capitalism: Forms of Subsumption of Labour, Class Struggle, and Uneven Development’, Review of Radical Economics, vol. 44, no. 2 (June 2012), pp. 195-196. For Marx’s original discussions of ‘hybrid’ or ‘intermediate’ subsumption, see Karl Marx [1867], Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books/New Left Review, 1976), p. 645; see also Karl Marx [1861-3], ‘Intermediate Forms’, in Collected Works, vol. 34 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1993), pp. 118-20

[20] Carole McAllister, ‘The Uneven and Combined Character of Third World Development: Lessons from Women’s Everyday Forms of Resistance in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia’, Working Paper No. 9 (Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education, 1990), p. 7.

[21] Arundhati Roy, The Algebra of Infinite Justice (London: Flamingo, 2002), pp. 167-68.

[22] Tom Kemp, Historical Patterns of Industrialisation (Harlow: Longman, 1978), p. 143.

[23] Julie Finch, ‘In India, Its Service with a Compulsory Smile’, The Guardian (17 November 2003).

[24] Anthony D’Costa, ‘Uneven and Combined Development: Understanding India’s Software Exports’, World Development 31, no. 1 (January 2003), p. 221.

[25] Ibid, pp. 221-222.

[26] Jeremy Seabrook, ‘Progress on Hold’, The Guardian (24 October 2003).

[27] D’Costa, ‘Uneven and Combined Development’, pp. 215-216

[28] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993), pp. 35-36.

[29] George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso, 1994), p. 4.

[30] Ibid, p. 177.

[31] Luciana F. M. Mendonca, ‘The Local and Global in Popular Music: the Brazilian Music Industry, Local Culture and Public Policies’, in Global Culture: Media, Arts, Policy and Globalization, edited by Diane Crane, Nobuko Kawashima and Ken’ichi Kawasaki (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 107-9, 110-111. There are even more extreme examples of cultural adoption by Brazilian musicians, notably in the way some embraced British post-punk approaches in the early 1980s. In part this was a reaction to the types of music which were supposed to exemplify Brazilian culture – not only bossa nova and samba, but also such counter-cultural forms such as Tropicalismo. See Eliete Mejorado and Bruno Verner in conversation with Gavin Butt,’40 Degrees in Black’, in Post-Punk: Then and Now, edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher (London: Repeater Books, 2016).

[32] I am also guilty of using ‘the West’ in shorthand ways, not least elsewhere in Part 4 of this article.

[33] Gordon Matthews, Global Culture/Individual Identity: Searching for Home in the Cultural Supermarket (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 182.

[34] Vladimir I. Lenin [1913], ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, in Collected Works, vol. 20, December 1913-August 1914 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), p. 21.

[35] Ibid, p. 24.

[36] Denis MacShane, Martin Plaut and David Ward, Power! Black Workers, Their Unions and the Struggle for Freedom in South Africa (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 1984), p. 65.

[37] Anthony Samson ‘O What Men Dare Do’, The Observer (22 April 2001). The history of Robben Island prisoners and how they found resources for their struggle in  the English literary tradition has been told in compelling detail in Ashwin Desai [2012], Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

[38] Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (Revised and Augmented Edition, London: The Harvill Press, 1995), p. 128.

[39] Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 357

[40] Ibid, p. 429. Or as the Ghanian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah put in a related context, ‘what can you tell about someone’s soul from the fact that she drinks Coca-Cola?’ See Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2007), p. 103.

[41] Jeremy Seabrook, Consuming Cultures: Globalization and Local Lives (Oxford: New Internationalist Publications, 2004), p. 189.

[42] William Dalrymple, ‘After the Blackout’, New Statesman (12-18 October 2012), pp. 23-24.

[43] Sara Davis, ‘Premodern Flows in Postmodern China: Globalization and the Sipsongpanna Tais’, Modern China, vol. 29, no. 2 (April 2003), pp. 177, 199.

[44] Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat (London: Continuum Books, 2003), p. 128.

[45] John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 76.

[46] Patrick Boehler, ‘Q&A: Strikes Peak in China with New Generation of Interconnected Blue-Collar Workers’, South China Morning Post (13 August 2014).

[47] McAllister, ‘The Uneven and Combined Character of Third World Development’, p. 7.

[48] Mike Davis, ‘Sand, Fear and Money in Dubai’, in Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 53-54.

[49] John Gray, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism (London: Granta, 1998), pp. 195-96.

[50] Edward Luttwak, Turbo Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998), pp. 25-26.

[51] Beverley Silver, Forces of Labour: Workers’ Movements and Globalisation since 1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 164.

[52] Ibid, p. 170.

[53] Hardt and Negri, Empire, pp. 288-89.

[54] Paul Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), pp. 223-229, 247-253; Lucio Magri [2009], The Tailor of Ulm: Communism in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 2011), pp. 141-55.

[55] Magri, The Tailor of Ulm, pp. 142, 148.

[56] Mike Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, New Left Review II/26 (March/April 2004) pp. 5-6; A Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006), pp. 13-14.

[57] Jeremy Seabrook, In the Cities of the South: Scenes from a Developing World (London: Verso, 1996), p. 251. He then adds, with typical distaste for anything which might pollute the supposed purity of the non-Western: ‘it exhibits the limits of development, and the unsuitability of Western urban transplants in the South’.

[58] Chris Weller, ‘The world’s largest megacity already has more people than Canada, Argentina, or Australia’, Business Insider UK (8 July 2015).


[59] Gregory Guldin, What’s a Peasant to Do? Village Becoming Town in Southern China (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press 2000), p. 17.

[60] Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, p. 10.

[61] Seabrook, In the Cities of the South, pp. 176-77.

[62] Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, p. 27.

[63] Seabrook, Consuming Cultures, pp. 251-252.

[64] Eric Denis, ‘Demographic Surprises Foreshadow Change in Neoliberal Egypt’, in The Journey to Tahrir: Revolution, Protest and Social Change in Egypt, edited by Jeannie Sowers and Chris Toensing (London: Verso, 2012), p. 241.

[65] Jack Shenker, The Egyptians: A Radical Story (London: Allen Lane, 2016), pp. 89-90. The notion of populations belonging to a different period in history from the present is not, of course, confined to elites in the Global South. As the late Doreen Massey wrote of the Western hostility to migrants from the Global South, ‘it was not merely the arrival of what have frequently been called “the margins” (a spatial concept) but the arrival of people from the past. Distance was suddenly eradicated spatially and temporally’. See For Space (London: Sage, 2005), p. 70

[66] Shenker,  The Egyptians, p. 99.

[67] Colin Mooers, Imperial Subjects: Citizenship in an Age of Crisis and Empire (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 127.

[68] Sian Lazar, El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 178.

[69] Although we should remember that in Russia too there were peasant soviets – inevitably based in communities – and in the armed services, in addition to those in workplaces.

[70] Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, p. 29, 30.

[71] Alejandro Cola, ‘The Re-Invention of Populism: Islamist Responses to Capitalist Development in the Contemporary Maghreb’, Historical Materialism, vol. 12, no. 4 (2004), p. 257.

[72] Tim McDaniel, Autocracy, Modernization, and Revolution in Russia and Iran (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 138.

[73] For the classic discussion, see Assef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London: Zed Books, 1987), pp. 100-66, but see also Miriam Poya ‘Long Live Revolution!…Long Live Islam?’, in Revolutionary Rehearsals, edited by Colin Barker (London: Bookmarks, 1987), pp. 143-49.

[74] McDaniel, Autocracy, Modernization, and Revolution in Russia and Iran, p. 138.

[75] There was a period in which revolutionary events in Iran could be directly compared to those in Russia because of the commonality of pre-capitalist state forms, but this was much closer in time to 1917: the ‘constitutional revolution’ between 1906 and 1911. During this period the working class was however too insignificant to play a role of any significance. For a discussion, which situates this revolution with the context of uneven and combined development, see Kamran Matin, ‘Uneven and Combined Development and the “Revolution of Backwardness”: The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911’, in 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects, edited by Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice (London: Pluto Press, 2006).

[76] Theda Skocpol [1982], ‘Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution’, in Social Revolutions in the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 253. Fred Halliday concurs: ‘The paradox of the Iranian revolution was that it was both the most traditional and the most modern of social revolutions.’ See Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001, Causes and Consequences (London: Saqi Books, 2002), p. 62.

[77] Skocpol, ‘Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution’, p. 254.

[78] Halliday, Two Hours That Shook the World, p. 63.

[79] Ankie Hoogvelt, Globalisation and the Postcolonial World: The New Political Economy of Development  (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1997), p. 200.

[80] Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: the True Story of Radical Islam (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 25.

[81] Olivier Roy, ‘The Islamization of Radicalism’, Mada Masr (11 January 2016).


[82] Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (London: Simon and Schuster, 1998), p. 58.

[83] Hari Kunzu, ‘Charlie Hebdo: Understanding is the Least we Owe the Dead’, The Guardian (9 February 2015).

[84] John Gray, ‘An Apocalyptic Cult Carving a Place in the Modern World’, The Guardian (26 August 2014).

[85] William Dalrymple ‘Inside Islam’s “Terror Schools”‘, New Statesman (28 March 2005), p. 16.

[86] Jamie Doward, ‘My Encounter with Jihadi John’s Friend as they Sought a Radical Path’, The Observer (1 March 2015).

[87] McAllister, ‘The Uneven and Combined Character of Third World Development’, pp. 12-13.


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