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Book Review

Critical analysis of the impact of modern economic theory and prescriptions on Egyptian society

Laila Juma

Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity by Timothy Mitchell. Pub: University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, USA, 2002. Pp: 413. Hbk: $49.50 / Pbk: $19.95.

Timothy Mitchell, professor of politics at New York University, is author of a landmark work of postcolonial studies, Colonising Egypt (1991). In it, he examined European cultural preparation for colonial hegemony over Egypt in the nineteenth century, and the role of Egyptian elites in this preparation. His approach was to codify the modern state’s efforts to impose a meaning and structure of society based on European experience on to Egyptian society, thus creating an image and representation of Egypt — based on improvements of spatial organization and public order — which became self-fulfilling through the efforts of Egyptians who accepted European perceptions that their society needed to be Europeanised in order to be modernised.

In this new work, he takes a similarly critical approach to twentieth-century Egyptian affairs, examining the meanings which the power of global capitalism and techno-science impose on Egyptian affairs in order to reproduce their own understanding of the world. In doing so, he goes beyond Egyptian affairs to critique the idea of ‘the economy’ as an object of social science study, arguing that it is a recent creation which emerged from a more and more generalised and theoretical approach to financial matters, and has little basis in the genuine dynamics of social economic processes.

In his introduction, Mitchell characterises the discipline of economics as a university profession based, like other social sciences, on an assumption that "a singular logic provides the unseen dynamic of social life." In the case of economics, he believes this rationality to be depicted in an ideal form, and that particular cases are understood in terms of their deviation from this "unreal abstraction". He argues that while critical theory has raised questions about the assumptions underpinning virtually every other social science, the idea of the economy as a separate, virtually self-contained sphere has remained largely unexamined.

Mitchell tells us that the contemporary idea of the economy did not emerge until the middle of the twentieth century, and that it was neither a "social construct" in the same way that ideas of ‘culture’, ‘nation’ and ‘class’ are now understood to be, nor simply a new and more coherent name for economic processes that already existed. Instead he attributes it to the emergence of a new branch of the discipline, macroeconomics, in relation to which most earlier economic theory was repositioned as ‘micro’; to the emergence of econometrics, which attempted mathematical modelling of economic processes; to the emergence of efforts to statistically enumerate economic trends and behaviour; and to major events such as the collapse of the international financial system in the interwar period, the domestic crises of the Great Depression, on which economists needed to impose some sort of meaning in order to be able to propose policy responses to them.

For Mitchell, these processes were a reorganization and transformation of these diverse processes "into an object that had not previously existed", and that "in the twentieth century... the economy became arguably the most important set of practices for organising what appears as the separation of the real world from its representations, of things from the values, of actions from intentions, of an object world from the world of ideas."

The colonial and post-colonial context in which these processes emerged was critical, Mitchell argues, to their impact on non-Western societies. The examination of the significance of imperialism and colonialism in the formation and practice of social theory is central to post-colonial critical studies. Mitchell argues that economics offers a particularly clear illustration that the "possibility of social science is based upon taking certain historical experiences of the West as the template for a universal knowledge."

This book consists of a series of essays in which Mitchell examines the implications and effects of attempts to analyse, guide and develop Egypt’s economy according to this fundamentally flawed theoretical framework. Concerned as he is with the over-generalisation of economic theory, Mitchell himself does not theorise; instead he provides detailed analyses of a diverse range of areas in which the theories and prescriptions of economists, imposed through a range of institutions ranging from the Egyptian state to the IMF and the USAID organization, have impacted on Egyptian life with consequences often very difference from those intended.

Although Mitchell describes his work as political theory, it is perhaps better characterised as anti-theory: he deliberately avoids the abstractions from the particular that usually characterise theorising. It is easier to regard the book as being based on a number of common themes. The first is what Mitchell calls "the character of calculability". The phrase is the title of Mitchell’s third chapter, which focuses on the definitions of equivalences, circulations, social actors and agents, quantifiable and measurable elements and performances, relations or control and command, boundaries, distinctions and exceptions which economists establish in order to be able to theorise. The theme also occurs in several other chapters, notably the later ones dealing with the contemporary period.

Another theme running through the essays is that of human agency. Mitchell emphasises that human involvement is not restricted to calculating and measuring the objects of economic theorising. Once this theory is made the basis of policy formation, human involvement also extends to trying to manipulate what are presented as otherwise natural social processes. However, the effectiveness of this policy depends very much on the validity of the theory on which it is based. In fact, the results are often very different from those intended because the theories on which policy are based are routinely deeply flawed, based on invalid models, faulty data, and failing to take into account numerous factors which are either immeasurable, unquantifiable or simply ignored because they do not feature in the economic models.

A third theme is the rule of institutions such as the law of property, price mechanisms, central command, bureaucracies, economic institutions, classes in society, and so on. A fourth is the question of the territory over which the institutional order asserts control, requiring demarcation, the establishment of borders, and the containment of collective exchanges, movements, values and identities. A fifth, following from this, is the definition and making of a nation to coincide with definitions established for the institutional state. Although historians traditionally regard the nineteenth century Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali as the "founder of modern Egypt", Mitchell considers that Egypt as a state was not consolidated as a distinct entity until the twentieth century, and the consolidation of the Egyptian nation remained incomplete certainly into the rule of Anwar Sadat.

A last theme is the destructive violence that results from attempts to impose the logic or rationality attributed to modernity, the market, law, science, technology and capitalism on social patterns which have their own separate logic, which is ignored or deliberately contradicted.

The nine essays of the book are developed into three broad sections. The first, ‘Para-sites of Capitalism’, looks at how the colonial representations of economics were imposed on Egyptian society, and some of their consequences, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first chapter of this section, ‘Can the mosquito speak?’, looks at Egypt’s economic disaster of 1942-44, examining its roots in "some of the most powerful transformations of the twentieth century", beginning with the building of the original Aswan dam in 1898-1902. His object is to demonstrate how human agency combined with numerous other factors – "the forces of technology, disease, hydraulics, war, nature, chemistry and several others"– to create outcomes totally different to those expected by policy-makers. In the process he exposes the limitations and gaps in the understanding offered by economic theory and policy planning agencies.

The second section is ‘Peasant Studies’. It focuses on the role of the ‘peasant’ as an abstract category of human being in ecomic theory, expected to behave and respond in certain predetermined ways around which economic theory is built. The reality, of course, is very different. In the first chapter of this section, Mitchell examines ‘The Invention and Re-invention of the Peasant’, demonstrating how this image of the peasant has been consolidated by studies in different fields of social science. (In an interesting postscript to this chapter he also suggests that the priorities of such studies are often determined by the West’s international political priorities.) The second chapter of this section, ‘Nobody listens to a poor man’, examines the peasants’ experiences of these changes, and the third, ‘Heritage and Violence’, looks at the their social impact.

The third section, ‘Fixing the economy’, looks at the experience of development and efforts by international agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank to guide Egypt’s economic development. It begins by highlighting some of the false assumptions about Egypt’s economic situation on which economic analyses are normally based, highlighting in particular the classic formulation of "geography versus demography." The first chapter in this section looks at ‘The Object of Development’, pointing out that a false analysis leads to the determination of the wrong object and thus the formulation of inappropriate policies. The second, ‘the Market’s Place’, looks at the realities behind the rhetoric of free market economics, while the third, ‘Dreamland’, examines the realities of Egypt’s economic liberalization.

This book is eye-opening in its demolition of some of the most fundamental assumptions of modern economics, and offers a devastating critique of development programmes. As such it should be compulsory reading for any social science or modern history student for the alternative perspective it offers on themes that are normally taken to be above questioning or criticism.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 11

Jumada' al-Akhirah 03, 14242003-08-01

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