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In Politics Rules: Power, Globalization and DevelopmentAdam Sneyd confronts the neglect of politics in government and mainstream development circles, stressing the importance of careful, ‘disinterested’ political analysis. While suggesting that there may be no easy way out of the trap of ideology, Gavin Fridell welcomes the book as a thought-provoking and engaging guide that plots conceptual and practical ways to go beyond narrow visions of development. 

Politics Rules: Power, Globalization and Development. Adam Sneyd. Fernwood Publishing. 2019.

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For those of us tired with obsessive mantras over ‘hard’ data and unquestioned devotion to quantitative metrics, Adam Sneyd’s new book, Politics Rules: Power, Globalization and Development, will come as a breath of fresh air. Longstanding debates over the effectiveness of qualitative versus quantitative research have been overrun in the era of the triumph of numbers and formulas. The goal has become to measure and re-measure anything that can be measured, however superficial or irrelevant, and ignore anything that can’t (even when it is central to human experiences). Neoclassical economists have led this charge, but its political and ideological weight extends widely. The new NAFTA 2.0, for instance, contains a chapter on regulatory cooperation that will, in essence, pressure policymakers to abandon precautionary approaches to social and environmental policies in favour of ‘cost-benefit’ and ‘science-based’ assessments. While this might sound strictly technical at first, the political effect could well be to clog up policymaking, shifting it toward the endless accumulation of data and tireless corporate consultations, thwarting the ability of governments to act at the very time when the world needs bold action to avoid climate catastrophe.

It is the neglect of politics in government and mainstream development circles, compared to unwavering devotion to neoclassical economics, that Sneyd sets out to confront in Politics Rules—named in opposition to Dani Rodrik’s book, Economics Rules. Informed by years of research in Africa on cotton and food, Sneyd offers an inventive and wide-ranging book, accessible for students and an engaged public, designed to assert the significance of the politics of development, which he argues is what ‘development’ is always about. Drawing on classic themes in political science, Sneyd asserts that ‘development is not a condition that is realized when quantitative economic growth targets or other metrics are deemed to have been met’ (5). Instead, it involves ‘qualitative changes in the lives of regular people’ (5), emerging out of conflict and contestation to define, protect or challenge the dominant consensus.

While covering a range of themes—from colonialism, nationalism and inequality, to the politics of order, the developmental state, patronage and participation—Sneyd’s overarching goal is to convince the reader of the importance of careful, ‘disinterested’ political analysis (18). Despite the ‘celebrity-like status’ (9) conferred on famous neoclassical economists and their pretence of rational objectivity, Sneyd argues their arguments are often politically and ideologically-motivated in ways that extend well beyond the limits of macroeconomic models. Famous economist Dambisa Moyo, for instance, has argued that free market policies should be facilitated by allowing more educated people more highly weighted votes in elections, an idea which Sneyd observes has ‘zero empirical basis’ (9). He has more affinity with social democratic economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, although they fail to understand the ways in which their proposals ‘butt up against entrenched vested interests’ (10). Only a return to classic and contemporary themes in political science can get us to a more rigorous appraisal of development, its dynamics and its limitations.

Image Credit: (Alex Sanchez Unsplash CCO)

To make political analysis accessible to an undergraduate audience, in Chapter Two of the book Sneyd lays out a methodological map, envisioned as ‘a page filled with terms, names, issues, arrows and other scribbles’ (23). He draws on the example of Canadian students travelling to Kenya to build rural schools and its political consequences, including constructing a ‘helping’ narrative around outside intervention and entrenching politics that have historically held back widespread school construction in the country. The map, however, is designed to be applied to any case study. It involves charting out, first, the ideas that have mattered in the past and present around the case study; second, the prominent stakeholders, from the powerful to the least powerful; and third, the main controversies in the past or present that have surrounded the theme. Then, one looks for links between them. The outcome ‘may not be as aesthetically elegant as the calculations that astrophysicists generate’ (23) but, in a soberer way, offers the most accurate assessment that we can hope for.

On this basis, Sneyd draws on numerous cases, teasing out the politics behind them. One of the most interesting examples is in Chapter Five, where Sneyd systematically critiques the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for reproducing the status quo, allowing all stakeholders, in particular corporations, to selectively showcase their connections to the Goals while avoiding political discussions of disempowerment, social exclusion, emancipation and justice. While the outcomes of the SDGs, Sneyd argues, are not foreordained, without careful analysis to uncover the politics at play, ‘we cede the ground to the masters of the universe and their narrow visions of sustainable development’ (114).

Sneyd’s assessments throughout Politics Rules are flexible and open-ended, reflecting a central thrust of the book that ideas are always contested from a range of perspectives that must be taken seriously. Political consumerism, for example, Sneyd depicts as a form of consumer power that promotes relational thinking and offers ‘new opportunities for young people to apply their talents’ through corporate social responsibility (37). At the same time, he cautions against ‘the darker ramifications of individualism linked to globally pervasive individual choices [which] have not stimulated much international and global action and attention’ (88). While some readers might find Sneyd difficult to pin down, others might appreciate his tentative nature, especially for classroom use.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the book is the imperative to advance disinterested knowledge free from ideology. While Sneyd views this as a central goal of political analysis, he is not always clear on how to do it. Economist Sachs, for instance, is criticised in the book, correctly in my view, for imposing a standard development model on all countries, driven more by the ideology of modernisation than careful analysis. Sachs himself, however, advances the claim that his ‘clinical economics’ is in fact flexible, rational and beyond ideology. How do we determine whose claims toward unbiased analysis are true?

While Sneyd recognises that all ideas, including his own, are open to ideological critique, he suggests a fairly straightforward ‘analytical choice’ (116) between research that is ideological/biased and disinterested/objective. In contrast, other works on the ideology of development, such as that of Ilan Kapoor, argue that our commitments to development are deeply embedded with unconscious desires that deny some traumas (the persistence of global inequality, racism, imperialism), while upholding fantasies that give us pleasure (performing the role of development ‘expert’, lording bureaucratic power over the poor). This perspective, I think, convincingly makes the case that there is no easy way out of the trap of ideology; only careful attention to unconscious gaps and slippages can uncover biases, even if they can never be fully avoided.

In the end, Sneyd offers a thought-provoking and engaging guide that would be of great use in the classroom, and would also be highly instructive for specialists and development practitioners, themselves so often caught up in the politics of development without fully acknowledging it. Politics Rules offers a framework for understanding the politics of development, recognising its significance and plotting conceptual and practical ways to go beyond the narrow vision of development imposed by ‘the masters of the universe’ (114).

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Gavin Fridell – Saint Mary’s University
Gavin Fridell is Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and the author of three books, Coffee (2014), Alternative Trade (2013) and Fair Trade Coffee (2007) and numerous articles on fair trade and free trade. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN) and, in 2015, was elected a member of the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada. His latest research explores trade policy and social power and the political economy of trade in North America and the Caribbean.