A theory-wonkish excursus

Posted on: May 11, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

[Note:  this short note is intended as more background for the Castles in the Sand post.]

“Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.”
–Max Weber

 “…until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”

A theory-wonkish excursus

The view from 35,000 feet
Encountering C W Mills’ The Sociological Imagination early in my career provided me with a critical set of conceptual tools.  Though the book offers much more, what I emphasis to my students is that the sociological imagination urges us to take the long view both geographically and historically, thus demanding a ‘the global is an interwoven social system the current state of which can only be properly viewed using a keen sense of world history’ perspective.  Mix Max Weber and his pathbreaking work on the inexorable stranglehold on humanity by capitalism and bureaucratic organization into that framework and that begins to explain the quotation above.

Understanding why the World Humanitarian Summit is destined to ‘fail’ begins here.

That Karl Marx and Charles Darwin were contemporaries is well known, their intellectual and professional paths crossing in the UK, at least to the extent that Marx sent Darwin a copy of Das Kapital (that Darwin wrote back and thanked him for).  I mention these two monumental figures because each is responsible for first articulating the two driving algorithms of our world, Darwin, evolution and Marx, of course, capitalism.

Just as Theodosius Dobzhansky argues that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” I would offer that nothing makes sense in the world of economics except in the light of capitalism.  To go further, I would point out that Marx’ full-on version of economic determinism -that all aspects of modern culture are driven by the logic of capital (does the phrase “follow the money” come to mind?)- merits a serious look even more so in 2016 than when he first began to formulate it in the mid Reagan Thatcher1800’s.  This Guardian article by George Monbiot does a great job of explaining the ideology of neoliberalism and provides deep insight into the massive economic and political forces that control our entire global social system. This system includes within it, of course, the three parts of the humanitarian aid system, namely (1)  aid organizations that get funding from (2) donors (be they individuals, governments, the UN, foundations or whatever) and (3) those who are the object of these efforts.

Side note:  The irony that Henri Dunant experienced Solferino the same year On the Origin of Species was published -1859- is not lost on me.  While Marx and Darwin were giving voice to the major forces determining our life on this planet for his part Dunant was doing the same for our inner urges to respond to those in need though his book A Memory of Solferino.

A third person of note in this context, one of our contemporaries, provided us with a bridge between the biological and the social and must be mentioned.  In the last pages of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins coins the term ‘meme’ and defined it as a “unit of cultural transmission.”   Other thinkers, notably Daniel Dennett in the US and Susan Blackmore in the UK have done much to extend Dawkins’ concept of the meme, Dennett pointing out that the process of evolution is substrate neutral and can/does include memes and Blackmore offering an extended discussion of the concept of ‘memeplexes’ by noting that just as human bodies are complexes of genes, social entities can be seen as complexes of memes (the Catholic Church being one of her main examples).

Let’s now consider Marx’ observation that “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”  Biological evolution is fundamentally Darwinian in nature (survival of the fittest and all that) whereas memetic evolution is partly Darwinian but also has an even bigger element of Lamarckianism (acquired characteristics can be passed on to others).   Stated differently, the vectors of communication for genes are limited (sex, anyone?) and change takes place over many, many generations while the vectors for spreading memes are increasing -and increasingly rapid- due in large part to technological change in how we communicate.  The spreading of memes can be virtually instantaneous via, for example, YouTube and Twitter. Critical to note is that those most heavily influencing the flow of information, i.e., the spreading of memes, are those, typically, with money and power, i.e., “the ruling class.”Marx

Non-linear systems
As I have pointed out elsewhere, human life on this planet can only be fully understood as being part of multiple nonlinear systems.  In her 2013 article “Nonlinear Systems Theory, Feminism, and Postprocessualism” Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood does an excellent job in probing and explaining this perspective, doing a very solid job in weaving in a discussion of the impact that human agency has on chaotic and nonlinear systems.

Genetic and memetic evolution are impacted now by (an in turn impact) economic and cultural evolution.  The bottom line is that engineering cultural change is extraordinarily complicated and that our efforts at “development” -despite our best intentions- can never yield predictable long term results and may in fact lead to negative impacts.  Perhaps more distressingly, our short term specific (tsunami, for example) relief efforts are also injecting influences that inexorably will have unanticipated and unpredictable results both locally and in the global social system as a whole.

As one aid worker put it “Compared to the money being invested, we’re doing a pretty poor job of getting anywhere. A lot of misguided approaches or self-interested approaches or inappropriate interventions or I could go on and on. Why do we know that poverty is not simple or linear, yet still implement interventions as if it is? We need to get better. We need to be smarter, think more critically.”

To understand the humanitarian aid sector you have to acknowledge that it is part of larger social and even biological systems.  No part -even you, MSF- is disconnected from any other.  Input into the system, however small or positively intentioned, at any one point can and does impact the rest of the system.  A “fix” at one point can never be in isolation from the rest of the larger sociocultural system.

Said one aid worker,

“I think humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit (i.e. access to cheap disposable goods, foreign foods and fresh imports, temporary foreign workers to fill low-income job vacancies, etc…), humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.” (emphasis added)

So, yes, the message that I heard from many aid workers about the future of the aid sector about the larger forces impacting the sector (e.g., neoliberal economic policies) are spot on.  See this deep critique of the sector along these lines from aid workers  and this post in particular for aid worker voices on the future of the sector.

Yes, more to come….

Please do contact me with your feedback or critique.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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