The Third World
Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations.
by Gunnar Myrdal.
Pantheon. 3 vols., paperbound. 2284 pp. $8.50.
It is always difficult to review the big books of great men, particularly if, as with Gunnar Myrdal, their more important contributions lie in their actions rather than in their words. The difficulty is even further compounded in Myrdal's case by the fact that his influence on the modern world is almost impossible to document in concrete terms. But if the extent of his influence cannot be documented, it also cannot be exaggerated. Through his work with the United Nations, and through the personal friendship he has maintained with many statesmen of the Third World, Myrdal has striven over the years to help bring formerly neglected ex-colonies and pseudo-colonies into the world system and enable them to participate as equals rather than as dependents.
This activity has required a very high level of expertise in mediating between the highly developed and self-regarding “West” and the poor but determined “East.” Much as he disapproves of Communism, Myrdal was one of the first to acknowledge its ineluctable existence and to recognize that it would grow increasingly influential as a model for development. Throughout his career, Myrdal has brought to his actions that genuine sense of neutrality which is the distinguishing hallmark of Scandinavian academics and international civil servants, and without which the effectiveness of the United Nations would have been long since greatly diminished.
A top international civil servant with decades of experience in the field; an economist profoundly receptive to cultural variety and nuance; an intellectual with startling powers of analysis and insight—such a man could reasonably have been expected, in a book of this scope and magnitude, to strike a correct balance between utopian theory and immediate practicalities, and to provide us with solutions to at least some of the problems of development in the modern world. But this, unfortunately, Asian Drama fails to do. Instead, the work is an uneasy compromise between two frameworks of thought, almost between two personas—between the Myrdal who has exhorted us previously and often on the dangers of imposing the value systems and techniques of the developed West on the undeveloped Third World, and the Myrdal who is finally and irretrievably committed to those selfsame Western values and techniques. As a result of this tension, Asian Drama is in the end a very pessimistic book, long on analysis, short on hope.
Much of Myrdal's writing over the last twenty years has been focused on the problem of the value biases implicit in Western economic thought. In the introductory chapters to Asian Drama we are taken over this ground once more at length. In addition, we are reminded very forcefully that differentiated economic theory has little meaning in social environments where politics, economic activity, and the social structure are so locked together that the very notion of an abstract economic theory has no relevance. This is true enough, and is said with authority and insistence. But anyone interested in these problems who is not aware of such facts today is either deluded or an incompetent. The unorthodox views which Myrdal claims to hold have become by now the orthodoxies of all competent professionals.
Following his long introduction, Myrdal proceeds to a panoramic analysis of his chosen area, South Asia—primarily India and Pakistan, with subsidiary but substantial discussion of Burma, Ceylon, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaya. Volume I is a lengthy political history, dealing with the events leading up to independence and with the process of becoming independent itself. This reads well, with a magisterial sweep, but also contains much that is arguable. The sources used are not always the best available, and in my view this political history is not really germane to the issues Myrdal wants to discuss. For what we are not told—what political history could not in fact tell us—is that the winning of independence inevitably entails the creation of a huge gap between expectation and human possibility, between the actual, day-to-day autonomous history of South Asia and its self-proclaimed goals, the form and substance of which were acquired mainly from abroad.
The third part of Volume I and the whole of Volume II are devoted to a detailed economic and demographic analysis of South Asia. Students will find here a wealth of material. The best parts are those in which conventional approaches are demolished; in particular, the notions of underemployment and the panacea of urbanization as a cure for rural overpopulation are submitted to lucid critical analysis and shown to be irrelevant. Myrdal makes a sustained attempt to discuss the relationship between demographic change and economic growth, and much attention is also paid to the parameters of such problems as the social costs and economic benefits of investing in human resources.
Volume III consists largely of appendices in which particular problems are raised (mostly for the second or third time). The heart of Myrdal's argument is to be found in Appendix 2, “The Mechanism of Underdevelopment and Development and a Sketch of an Elementary Theory of Planning for Development.” Here we have all sorts of valuable emphases: the fact that planning is a political rather than an economic instrument, the need for coordinating economic planning with political control and social change; the direct relationship of consumption and productivity peculiar to poor countries; and much more.
But it is all ultimately only a critique rather than a program. In no conceivable sense is it a theory, nor does it offer the new insights we so badly need. By the end of the study we know pretty well what is wrong, not how it might be put right. Myrdal emphasizes the problems created by what he calls “soft states,” where rhetoric cannot be matched by actions, where existing or anticipated opposition from vested interests will prevent good intentions from being translated into performance. He emphatically rejects the Communist solution of mass mobilization, as well as the uncontrolled laissez-faire approach. His remedies, insofar as he proposes any, are tax incentives and disincentives, controlled land reform, and the rational use of information. Indeed, rationality nudges almost every precept from behind the scenes. The ideal poor countries must work for, according to Myrdal, is a closely directed market economy in which the incentive of reward, properly manipulated by the state, will produce growth. It is, in other words, a very Western, social-democratic vision. In spite of all his assertions to the contrary, we finish up, if not with the tools and concepts of Western analysis, at least with the vision of a Western-style Utopia. After so much explicit rejection of Western assumptions in modes of analysis, it is astonishing to find Western goals dominating the prescribed modes of action. That is the trap of economics even at its most sophisticated and skeptical.
Hence the pessimism of Asian Drama. Myrdal knows quite well that to postulate a rational Western Utopia means also to postulate ultimate dependence on Western solutions. Having rejected these specifically, he has created a yawning gap between analysis or diagnosis on the one hand and solutions or prognosis on the other. “If in a country like India,” he writes, “the government were really determined to change the prevailing attitudes and institutions, and had the courage to take the necessary steps and accept the consequences, then these would include the effective abolition of caste, prescribed by the constitution, and measures . . . such as effective land reform and tenancy legislation; a rational policy for husbandry, even if it required the killing of many half-starved cattle; the eradication of corruption at all levels . . . forceful attack on the problem of the educated unemployed and their refusal to do manual work, and so on.” Now, if there were the slightest chance of doing these things in Indian society as it is presently constituted and with the present Indian government, this book need never have been written. The historical analysis provided by Barrington Moore in his recent Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy seems to me to indicate a much more radical and yet more likely program for India, but with exactly the same end in mind: a social upheaval which will bring to the fore a ruling class that is self-interested and hence eventually progressive. To take another recent example of a different kind, I found Jemru E. Johnson's discussion of “The Ideology of Economic Policy in New States” (in his Economic Nationalism in Old and New States) more illuminating as an explanation of the “policy gap” in the Third World than Myrdal's endless polemic with conventional and often out-of-date Western economic theory. If we are to believe Myrdal, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent the Asian drama from turning into a long, dreary tragedy.
The books of great men are presumably addressed to posterity, but in this case I am not so sure. Asian Drama, intended to be an outline for possible future success, may well come to serve as an explanation of ideas that have failed. At best, it will show Myrdal as an authoritative debunker of conventions which were already being eroded by circumstance at the very moment he was writing. This is a pity, for Myrdal should not be judged by his words alone. His actions, which have spoken louder than words, confirm the outstanding contribution he has made to the modern world, particularly his creation of bridges of understanding among all those who are conscious of the need to reduce the disparity between the international rich and the international poor.