Review – Bates, Beyond the Miracle of the Market

Beyond the Miracle of the Market addresses broad questions, among which perhaps the broadest, most enduring has occupied theorists for centuries: Why do some countries succeed where others fail? To answer this in the context of late-twentieth century developing nations, Robert Bates constructs a detailed way of thinking about this central issue in economics, which troubles the very position of the State in its course. Markets, and the institutions that dominate their constituencies, take center stage here, while political and social interests form the supporting apparatus and the lenses through which to examine change in those institutions over time. In this way, Bates approaches the questions of growth, stability, and crisis in developing-nation economies without striking either condescending or dismissive tones, and without mistaking patterns for general truths.

The book frames these larger issues within a detailed study of Kenyan agrarian politics and economics. The case focuses on why Kenyan economic growth and political development continued after the Cold War, while other African countries, especially former colonies, faltered. It sets questions of political history in the institutional perspective of social structures, and ties both class and agricultural conditions to structures of political negotiation. Its analysis and critique of a particular developmental logic, that of neoclassical economics, which drives rhetoric and research on development in the context of global capital, proceeds patiently, if unflinchingly, to detail the contradictions and mutual conflicts of interest between market-based and governmental forces. Indeed, the argument’s ability to supercede the details of economic planning through an examination of social phenomena, while retaining the highly localized impact of incentives and threats put forward by competing interests, allows it to explain a complex history in an accessible and rigorous way.

Bates’s methods, though they center on political economy, cannot be summarized so succinctly. He takes statistical and historical approaches to Kenyan agrarian development, but embeds these localized approaches within the more robust interpretation of institutional change. Comparing agrarian versus urban forms of accumulation of wealth, for example, requires more attention to the political dealings between groups of cooperative and competitive organizations than the tightly modeled and broadly assumptive approaches of traditional economics can provide. To take stock of drought patterns, famines, and other (not solely) agrarian crises necessitates not just those tools of planning and intervention, but also an awareness of the arts and sciences that help analyze social networks. Bates’s explanation of the drives towards accumulation rather than distribution of wealth in modern Kenyan history, then, views the concentration of influences and of institutional controls in groups of agrarian producers early on as a linchpin in the formation of ideological and socially embedded goals. He argues that the culmination in the Kenyatta regime of these tendencies marks a difference from Western Equatorial Africa, where Nkrumah or Lumumba struck a very different tone of economic governance. This intersection between economic markets and political institutions takes shape at the level of interests and their deployments, which escapes the notice of neoclassical economics but which the ethnographic portions of Bates’s research help illuminate.

“The neoclassical revival in developmental economics thus requires fundamental modification,” Bates concludes, if it is to give appropriate consideration to the social and cultural factors that impact development (152). His approach suggests that such consideration requires a conceptual model that incorporates methods that range from anthropological and sociological to historically materialist. In short, Bates does not draw hard ideological boundaries around the available data or the possible conclusions that can be drawn from them. Instead, his method is measured, patient, and holistic. This serves to advance an “institutionalist” view, centered on but not limited to economic institutions, which fields vast possibilities for the imagination and study of contemporary development.

Reference: Bates, Robert H. Beyond the Miracle of the Market: The Political Economy of Agrarian Development in Kenya. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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