Unraveling Meles Zenawi’s Concept of Developmental State

The developmental state (DS) literature puts competent and autonomous public institutions at the kernel of developmental success and effective state intervention.

The standard economic argument also takes its theoretical imperative of state structure and the capacity to intervene from Max Weber: Effective state intervention is predicated on the existence of a well-developed bureaucratic apparatus.

Alan Winters even takes this one step further when it comes to the developmental state: “the application of second-class economics [economics that allows for imperfect markets and therefore potentially beneficial government intervention] needs first-best economists not its usual complement of third and fourth raters.”

The problem with the state-structure side of the definition of the developmental state is that “it equates economic success to state strength while measuring the latter by the presumed outcomes of its policies”.

By confusing desirable ends with what is needed to grow and catch-up, the DS literature has led into “a myopic concentration of analysis around success to the neglect of the ‘trial and error’ nature of policy making even in the most successful cases”.

As such, the DS literature remains to be a black-box for tautological non-explanations. As Merilee Grindle, professor of international development at Harvard University, notes, the process of getting from what is ‘an undesirable here’ to a ‘more perfect there’ is not enough explored.

Similarly, the late Meles Zenawi did not discuss this area in detail, giving his critics a rare chance of attacking him on a theoretical battlefield they usually do not dare pick.

For starters, capable bureaucracy has historically been the result rather than the cause of economic development, save for the reinforcing effect if carried in tandem.

It is possible to summon enough evidence for this, but Bruce Cumings’ words would capture everything. “It is not that in the beginning there was the world. In the beginning…was the conception: [Japan’s] Itto searching for the answer to the state”.

For those who would like to resort to a chicken-egg debate, common sense dictates that even if capable institutions were prerequisites, then it is less likely that supply will match demand.

“He who has no dog hunts with a cat”, say Brazilians. Once started hunting with a cat, the cat evolves into a dog and then manages to hunt better; the ball keeps on rolling.

Similarly, embedded autonomy is primarily defined in class terms, while institutional autonomy is defined in functional terms.

The embedded autonomy in Ethiopia intends to have two travellers by the name of ‘developmental coalition’ and ‘business’ travelling in one train but never in the same compartment.

In the developmental compartment, the bureaucracy and the party (state) share the same bed; when the Small & Micro Enterprises (SME) graduate, they leave this compartment and join the capitalist compartment.

When the peasants graduate and industrialization is brought about, the developmental state will have successfully dug its own grave, making itself irrelevant.

Why do the party and the bureaucracy share the same bed in the same compartment? First, autonomous bureaucracy is a practical impossibility in Ethiopia.

It is not only because the bureaucracy that Meles had inherited was hostile towards Meles’ policies and their effective implementation.

But also it was because of the word ‘Mengist‘-denoted the state, the government, the ruling party and the bureaucracy; hence fusion in the psyche of both the public and the bureaucracy.

And in praetorian societies like Ethiopia, institutions are inherently political. As a result, they are arenas of social conflict. Leaving the bureaucracy by assuming that it would remain autonomous from social forces is tantamount to giving your rivals a powerful apparatus through which you would be destroyed.

In the 2005 election, Rene Lefort chronicles that the public judges in North Shoa thought heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the current ‘Mengist‘. Then “they decided in favour of the opposition in the appeal lodged by the latter against the government’s hindrance of the campaign,” thereby showing their allegiance to the future power.

“The sun that comes up tomorrow will be our sun”, went the old dictum, “the government that rules tomorrow will be our government.”

Such was the bureaucracy Meles had inherited that he could not read Weber without intuiting that Weber’s teleology could not be his. To pile heresy upon heresy, let me now say that Meles was right in trusting Marx rather than Weber on bureaucracy.

For Marx, the practical autonomy and public-spiritedness of the bureaucracy that is cherished by the German civil service were a matter of faith, an illusion.

The bureaucracy, Marx says, is the “imaginary state along the real state; it is the spritualism of the state. With in itself however, spiritualism degenerates into crass materialism, the materialism of passive obedience, the worship of authority, the mechanism of fixed, formal action, of rigid principles, views and traditions. As for the individual bureaucrat, the purpose of the state becomes his private purpose, a hunt for promotion, careerism“.

“The bureaucracy is a magic circle from which no one can escape. Its hierarchy is the hierarchy of knowledge. The apex entrusts insight into particulars to the lower echelons while the lower echelons credit the apex with insight into the universal and so each deceives the other”.   .

Giving movement to this ‘catatonic horde’, this “series of fixed bureaucratic minds held together by passive obedience and their subordinate position in the hierarchy” requires an external animus, a spark from above or outside, which will take the dead weight of bureaucratic routine and set it in motion, give it a direction. The bureaucracy receives its content from outside itself.

And this animus in the direction of which the bureaucrats genuflect from their position in the ideal state is the executive. This for Hegel is the monarch, for the Catholic Church is the Vatican, for North Korea is The Great Leader, for Lenin and Mao is the party, but for Marx is ‘vexed’. And Cummings, the American historian of East Asia, calls this all a spider in the web!

In South Korea and China, the party served as a spider in the web, giving the bureaucracy its content and the non-bureaucratic element it needs for coherence.

According to Peter Evans, informal networks and solidarity groups based on tight-knit party organizations or academic cliques like the Japanese Gakubatsu, built on an amalgam of meritocratic selection, intensive socialization, and quasi-primordial ties, give the bureaucracy an internal coherence and corporate identity that meritocracy alone could not provide.

The fact that formal competence, rather than clientelistic ties or traditional loyalties, is the prime requirement for entry into the bureaucracy makes it much more likely that effective performance will be a valued attribute.

The overall result is what is called a reinforced Weberianism, in which ‘the non-bureaucratic elements of bureaucracy’ reinforce the formal organisational structure in the same way that non-contractual elements of contract reinforce the market.

Chalmers Johnson, the author of a book about the miraculous policy role that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) of Japan have had to the country’s economic growth, attributed Japan’s success to MITI’s highest concentration of brain power. He also noted that officials of MITI were tribal and corrupt.

Dan Henderson echoes Johnson: the University of Tokyo graduates, who were in charge of MITI “… are successful, tribal, and successful because they are tribal”.

As much ironic as this seems to be, it is what captures the secret behind the success of the East Asian bureaucracy.

The political subordination of the civil bureaucracy and “corrupting it in favour of the ruling party” if you like, while maintaining its functional autonomy is aimed at avoiding the costly mistakes that successful and semi-successful leaders of ‘revolutions from above’ have historically brought about to their respective countries.

Otto Von Bismarck created a non-political bureaucracy to give himself extraordinary power and to prevent the nascent political parties from using the bureaucracy for party patronage. It was not about efficiency but power.

Bismarck saw to it that the parties he dearly despised remained weak, so much so that Lenin once reportedly remarked that “the German Social Democrats would never launch a successful revolution in Germany because when they came to storm the railway stations, they would line up in an orderly queue to buy platform tickets first.”

In August 1866, Bismarck pounded his fist on his desk and cried, “I have beaten them all! All!” That was true except that he could not outmaneuver General Moltke, another military genius of the last two centuries, with which he eventually arrived at a truce of mutual respect.

As a result, the military remained to be accountable to the monarch, not Bismarck nor the parliament.  A powerful military bureaucracy coupled with weak political parties in a land power surrounded by strategic and historic rivals meant that the military- or the monstrous ‘state within the state’ would become nervous of encirclement and eventually take the country into the First World War.

Similarly, according to Chalmers Johnson, the famous scholar who coined the word ‘developmental state’, “The Meiji leaders [of Japan] did not plan to perpetuate samurai government under a new guise, nor for that matter were they much interested in creating a modern state officialdom. Their reasons for creating a “nonpolitical” civil bureaucracy were, in fact, highly political. … In seeking to forestall competitive claims to their own power by the leaders of the political parties, the Meiji oligarchs created a weak parliament and also sought to counterbalance it with a bureaucracy they believed they could staff with their own supporters, or at least keep under their personal control. But over time, with the bureaucracy installed at the center of government and with the passing of the oligarchs, it was the bureaucrats both military and civilian who arrogated more and more power to themselves.”

And in 1941 the Japanese military bureaucracy decided to go to war with the West, a decision in which neither the monarch nor the parliament participated. Japan took the German baby with all its bathwater.

Other attempts at ‘revolution from above’ through autonomous bureaucracies in Turkey, Peru and Egypt meant that state autonomy was eventually compromised and industrialization not sustainably achieved.

An autonomous political system is inherently unstable even though it is effective in instilling mass apathy for politics. This is because failure to mobilize the mass and to consolidate a power base would give vested interests a chance to either mobilize the mass for further revolution or force ones to compromise their autonomy.

“The promoters of modernization…attempt to modernize their society politically without establishing the institution that will make their society politically stable.”

“They pursue modernity at the expense of politics and in the process fail to achieve the one because of their neglect of the other,” argues Huntington.

The political party is the distinctive organization of modern politics. “Where traditional political institutions collapse or are weak or nonexistent, legitimacy is sought in ideology, charisma, and popular sovereignty. Each of these principles of legitimacy must be embodied in a party. Instead of the party reflecting the state, the state becomes the creation of the party and the instrument of the party”.

As such, Huntington notes, “the actions of the government are legitimate to the extent that they reflect the will of the party”.

And strong political parties have historically been built either by a revolution from below or patronage from above or, more accurately, both. Hence, Patron-age!

This should not be considered as taking a position on the conflict between good and evil or prioritizing ‘ends’ over ‘means’ but recognizing the importance of politics in constructing systems for the management of the state.

Meles’s project of building the party as a spider for or of the web, therefore, intends to achieve both technical and political objectives, each working in tandem.

The difference between the American and the East Asian experience, Bruce Cummings beautifully notes, is breathtaking in that the United States is “the replication of the British model thus to supersede” whereas the East Asian is “a selective replication of a continental experience thus to pass muster.”

The East Asian experience was industrialization without enlightenment and technique stripped away from Weltanschauung and would inevitably result in a kukutai, Juche, and the insoluble t’i-yung problem.

The theory and practice of Meles Zenawi, on the other hand, is a consistent reading of global experience and inventing the Weltanschauung, and then selective replication of the best experience – thus to take the baby and not the bathwater.

Meles uncovered a truth about the simultaneous process of political and economic development that has eluded generations of analysts, thereby re-valuing the entire field of political economy.

If Meles and his works did not exist, the idea of “Revolution From Above through Dominant Party Democracy”, i.e. the Democratic Developmental State Model, would have had to have been invented. But who would have had the genius, the iconoclasm, the patience and the political dexterity to simultaneously theorize and experiment it had it now been for Meles?


Merkeb Negash, is a Lecturer of Political Science and International Relations at Jimma University. He is a blogger on HornAffairs and can be reached at elroenegash(at)gmail.com

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