Undeveloping the North

by Aram Ziai

The concept of ‘Undeveloping the North’ (‘Abwicklung des Nordens’) opposes both the discourse of ‘development’ in general (and its imperative of ‘developing the South’) and the discourse of ‘sustainable development’ as its accompanying ecological modernization. It sees relations of power in global capitalism and its drive for accumulation as the cause of poverty in the South and ecological degradation worldwide. Therefore, it focuses on struggling against these relations of power and this economic system. The concept (Spehr 1996: 209-236, Hüttner 1997, Bernhard et al. 1997) arose from a critique of sustainable development, which was seen as an ecological modernization of corporate capitalism reproducing ideas of Western superiority, patriarchal faith in science and technology, and unjustified trust in planning and ‘development’ (Hüttner 1997: 141).

The historical roots of the concept lie in debates which took place during the 1990s in the Bundeskongress entwicklungspolitischer Aktionsgruppen (BUKO), the federation of Third-World-solidarity and internationalist groups in Germany. It built on ecofeminism and world systems theory, but also on postcolonial studies and postmodern internationalism, i.e. an international struggle for solidarity which abandoned traditional concepts of the communist party being the avant-garde, the working class being the revolutionary subject and state socialism being the solution. The concept was sympathetic towards ecofeminist subsistence approaches, but criticised their proposed solutions as too much focused on agriculture and too little concerned with macro-political alternatives and struggles. They feared that the valuable ecofeminist critique might end up building non-capitalist or alternative niches while leaving larger structures intact (Bernhard et al. 1997: 195f).

Undeveloping the North perceives the North not primarily as a geographical area, but as a model of society and a system of domination, in which some groups are forced to provide their productive, reproductive and emotional labour for a pittance while others (disproportionally often found in the North) enjoy unjust privileges.  It sees the model of society found in the ‘developed’ world as based on exclusion and thus unsuitable for other parts of the world, as suggested by the discourse of ‘development’. The concept is explicitly focused not on the creation of alternative niches, but on general social structures which are to be tackled from the bottom up and aims at reducing the amount of work and nature to be exploited within these structures, thus on strengthening autonomy. Its five principles are:

1. Preventing the capacity of the North for military interventions to implement its access to labour and nature (‘no blood for oil’ was the corresponding slogan against the wars in Iraq);

2. Pushing back the global sector which forces local initiatives into global competition with each other, thus eliminating economic alternatives;

3. Lessening the privilege of formal labour as it  excludes major parts of the population from the benefits of the welfare state and should be replaced by the provision of basic social security for all;

4. Direct appropriation of spaces and relationships for the satisfaction of needs (‘land and freedom’);

5. Measures for securing survival, preventing the use of large areas by the global sector and using it instead for local food security in the South, coupled with re-building structures to achieve subsistence also in the North and thus decolonizing the regions where people have profited from a colonial division of labour until today (Spehr 1996: 214-223).

In contrast to some ideas of sustainable development, Undeveloping the North insists that it is not legitimate for Northern actors to, for instance, prevent deforestation of the Amazon in the name of a global environmental consciousness (‘saving the planet’).  In contrast to some Post-Development approaches, it does not want to prevent Westernization, modernization and industrialization. This is the point where the concept is linked to debates about Zapatista politics and not speaking for others. In contrast to Marxist approaches, Undeveloping the North explicitly avoids statements on how societies should organize and produce, except for the principle that they must not do so on the basis of exploiting other groups’ work and resources. However, this principle would severely limit attempts to modernize and industrialize (Spehr 1996: 224). Undeveloping the North does not by itself abolish capitalism, patriarchy and racism, but offers a way of dealing with social and ecological crises that does not reproduce these structures. It merely aims at providing a frame for the future arrangement of society (ibid.: 226).

While the concept has been debated in internationalist and leftist environmentalist circles in Germany since its inception, in recent years it is also increasingly promoted within the Degrowth movement as a radical alternative to approaches which seek to overcome growth without confronting capitalism per se (Habermann 2012). Instead of suggesting that ecological crises can be solved by technological progress and efficiency revolutions, as suggested by mainstream approaches of sustainable development, the concept tackles their structural causes. Undeveloping the North links the critique of global capitalism and of development discourse with a wider perspective on relations of domination in general. It is an attempt to abolish the ‘imperial mode of living’ (Brand/Wissen 2013) in the metropolis.

Aram Ziai is a member of the BUKO and Professor of Development and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kassel, Germany.

This text  has been published as part of Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, (edited by  Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta), which is a collection of over 100 essays on transformative alternatives to the currently dominant processes of globalized development, including its structural roots in modernity, capitalism, state domination, and masculinist values.

Further reading:

Bernhard, Claudia/Fedler, Bernhard/Peters, Ulla/Spehr, Christoph/Stolz, Heinz-Jürgen 1997: Bausteine für Perspektiven. In: Schwertfisch 1997, 183-200.

Brand, Ulrich/Wissen, Markus 2013: Crisis and continuity of capitalist society-nature relationships: The imperial mode of living and the limits to environmental governance. In: Review of International Political Economy 20 (4), 687-711.

Habermann, Friederike 2012: Von Post-Development, Postwachstum und Peer-Ecommony: Alternative Lebensweisen als „Abwicklung des Nordens“. In: Journal für Entwicklungspolitik 28 (4), 69-87.

Hüttner, Bernd 1997: Von Schlangen und Fröschen – Abwicklung des Nordens statt Öko-Korporatismus. In: Schwertfisch 1997, 139-152.

Schwertfisch (ed.) 1997: Zeitgeist mit Gräten. Politische Perspektiven zwischen Ökologie und Autonomie. Bremen: Yeti Press.

Spehr, Christoph 1996: Die Ökofalle. Nachhaltigkeit und Krise. Wien: Promedia