Rethinking Dor Bahadur Bista’s, "Fatalism or Development?”

A New Perspective on the Development of Nepal

by Geoffrey Clarfield (December 2016)

1) Introduction

In the scramble to assist Nepal in its desire to reach the standard of living of an average OECD nation, the OECD provides more than 50% of Nepal’s development funding. Clearly then Nepal is a different kind of society than those of the fully industrialized world. But what is its exact nature? Until 1950 Nepal was a classic agrarian state. Since 1950 it has become an industrializing agrarian state, with many of the classic features of this kind of social formation that characterizes societies as culturally distinct but structurally similar as Mexico, Guatemala, Turkey or Morocco.

Macrosociologists would argue that contemporary Nepal as an industrializing society combines elements of traditional agrarian societies with elements of modern industrial practise. Despite the adoption and promotion by urbanized elites of modern education, evidence based medicine, bureaucracy and professional standards in science, medicine, engineering and banking, the characteristic attitudes and practices of the pre-industrial agrarian world persist, and get in the way of a more rapid move to modernity, especially in the faction ridden world of Nepali politics and the guild-like cartels of the private sector, that dominate this country’s private sector.

For those interested in the development of Nepal this provides a different perspective from which to contemplate the late Dor Bahadur Bista’s classic anthropological and controversial tome on underdevelopment, Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization.

Bista blamed Nepal’s underdevelopment on Hindu theology and caste, which in comparative perspective, is not that much different from the beliefs and behavior of traditional agrarian elites, whether they be Ottomans or the landowning elites of Guatemala, who until liberation theology were strongly supported by the Catholic Church.  

2) Social Types and Their Evolutionary Taxonomy

Mainstream macrosociologists like the late Gerard Lenksi and his colleagues, argue that despite the almost infinite variation of cultural practice over time and space, at the end of the day, ten kinds of societies have evolved on the face of the earth, each one having emerged or evolved from the one before it. However, once a new social form arose, through peaceful migration or conquest, it often established itself as the dominant social form in an area, either wiping out, encapsulating or absorbing previous social forms and inevitably increasing its former territory and political power.

The ten kinds of societies in their temporal sequence begin with hunter-gatherers, simple and advanced horticultural societies (swidden agriculturalists without and with metal tools), simple agrarian societies, advanced agrarian societies (with plows and iron implements) and marginal societies based on distinct ecosystems conducive to fishing, maritime trading and pastoralism, culminating in industrial societies.

Speaking in terms of quantity and not quality, as we move from the earliest to the latest societal types the level of a society’s overall technological and social complexity rises. There are more parts to society, a greater number of distinct roles and greater hierarchy. At the same time, each form of society is larger than the one that went before it. As well, demographically each type “contains” more people than before and needs to use its resources more intensively.

Its division of labour becomes complex and differentiated and its agricultural surplus is appropriated by urban elites, with their rationalized systems of money, trade, taxation, literacy, world religions, priestly hierarchies and hereditary nobilities, armies, tax collectors and police. The recent work of Jared Diamond in his many books that use Darwinian models to explain development and underdevelopment, are in many ways similar to the approaches to social analysis adopted by macrosociologists. Oddly, none of them feature in his bibliographies.

Agrarian states throughout history were expansive and occupied more and more territory, and as one theoretician of social evolution argues, became progressively more aggressive in their competition for power and resources with similar societies that they met with on their expanding frontiers. For those familiar with Nepali history it gives the conquest of Nepal and its establishment as an agrarian state by the Shahs and Ranas during the 19th century a comparative dimension.

At the beginning of social evolution, societies were egalitarian. With the rise of agrarian empires the world became dominated by societies that are hierarchical and unequal with the exception of industrial societies that have had democratic revolutions linked to industrial revolutions, such as England (and its overseas daughters-Canada, Australia, New Zealand) France, Scandinavia, Western Europe and the United States. It is only in this last social form that there has and continues to be a “pushback” of equality against hierarchy and which also contributed to the decline of industrial empires such as that of Great Britain and France.

The modern Western European versions of these societies not surprisingly have become the “beau ideal” or ideal type which development organizations use as models to construct their various development indices, the most notable being HDI (the UNDPs Human Development Indicators), and which they use to measure the progress of developing societies. It is not surprising that HDI it has become one of the leading motives of “inclusion” or equality in the latest Nepali quest for modernity, as it is a fundamental feature of egalitarian democratic ideologies.

3) Nepal as a Traditional Agricultural Society

Although he never mentions macrosociology, that past master of Nepali history, the late Mahesh C. Regmi described Nepali society before 1950 in the following words:

Nepal’s political and economic system before 1950 might aptly be described as an agrarian bureaucracy, or a system that depended upon a central authority for extracting the economic surplus from the peasantry. Ownership of the land was normally vested in the state. The state therefore combined the roles of sovereign and landlord in its dealings with the peasantry…the state granted large areas of state-owned lands on freehold tenure to members of the political elites and the bureaucracy whom we may designate as the landowning elites. These elites derived their political and economic rights and authority from the state. They were consequently able to combine political control of the peasantry with economic exploitation. Their rights and privileges included: the right to a share in the produce of the land; the right to appropriate the proceeds of miscellaneous taxes and levies collected from the inhabitants of the lands and villages granted to them, the right to exact unpaid labor on a compulsory basis from those inhabitants, and the right to dispense justice within prescribed limits. They enjoyed the ascriptive right to appropriate a part of the peasant’s produce in the form of rents, but were not liable to provide any compensatory services or benefits to the peasant. The peasant and the land were of interest to them solely as sources of unearned income. (P 176.)

Regmi’s description of pre-1950 Nepal presents a classic case of a traditional agrarian society. However, he betrays a slightly anachronistic use of language. In the traditional polity that was once Nepal, and in many other societies like it (pre Revolutionary France and Russia) the leaders believed it was their divine right to live in an unequal relation to the sources of their wealth. They did not feel that they were “exploiting” anyone. In that sense Bista was right for he put caste and its ideology and one of the great impediments of development.

In the case of Nepal, such inequality was supported by the Hindu religion and the urban based priesthood with the South Asian twist of caste, although there has been much caste-like behavior in the theory and practice of the divine right of kings in Europe, for example among the Spanish aristocracy who still believe in “pure blood” in contrast to the “impure” blood of the non-aristocratic masses. Behind Regmi’s description lies the basic features of agrarian states, which could still be applied to Nepal after 1768 and which reminds us of the state of France before the French revolution.

4) Nepal as a Modernizing Agrarian State

A modernizing agrarian society is therefore a hybrid society. If one compares Nepal to its neighbours of China and India, it is also a “late comer” to modernity due to hits mountainous isolation, the isolationist oriental despotism of the Ranas and the King and the historically recent access to literacy and higher education (the first Nepali university was opened in 1956). The recent Maoist insurgence, being anti-capitalist, extorted businesses and drove much capital and manufacturing out of the country, further crippling Nepal’s race to catch up with its industrializing neighbours.

Modernizing societies are characterized by the survival and flourishing of traditional social elites, such as the Bahun and Chetri (upper castes) of Nepal who are the most educated, the most influential and who are the majority in government and the professions. In Nepal relationships between the sexes are still asymmetrical. Women’s rights may be affirmed but not mainstreamed and there is still a traditional underclass, which in Nepal’s case are the Dalits (untouchables) and perhaps the growing number of poor urban migrants. Child mortality is higher than in the OECD, public as opposed to private hygiene is low and life expectancy lower (but rising). Although the poverty indicators of Nepal are improving, this is connected to the remittance economy as hundreds of thousands(perhaps millions) of Nepalis work in India and the Gulf.

Unlike Marxists and dependency theorists, macrosociologists argue that the urban rural dichotomy of modernizing urban elites versus rural peasants is a function of a worldwide trend, connected to the selective diffusion of industrial technology into systems that are still geared towards an agrarian culture. This is “aggravated” by the success of modern medicine, which has caused rapid population growth, the resulting crisis and decline of rural agriculture and media penetration of the rural areas (that shows peasants a picture of the urban-based “good life,” in this case from Bollywood-Indian popular films). With access to passports and the ability to travel freely, the opportunities and benefits of Nepalis working in India and the Gulf as well as the Far East thus reinforces the growing remittance economy.

Given Nepal’s mountainous isolation and the Rana imposed semi feudal isolationism, the social, political and educational revolutions that came to India eventually swept over Nepal only in the last sixty years and so as one sociologist coined it, Nepal could be also be considered a “late comer to modernity” with all the civil wars and ideological conflicts that that unfortunately entails, and that has characterized the factional new leaderships of modernizing agrarian states from Chile to Southeast Asia.

Gustavo Lagos was the Chilean sociologist who coined the word “atimia.” He used it to describe the lack of political self-esteem that he saw emerging among his own and other developing nations as they entered the community of nations. It is a psychological and social syndrome, which underlies the lack of self-esteem of developing nation’s leaders as they entered the political world after WWII.

At a deep level, it may partially explain the near political paralysis of contemporary Nepal’s politicians, their factionalism and deeply held mistrust of one another. This puts Nepal at a double disadvantage beside its two traditional neighbours India and China, who just happen to be the two major competitors for investment in the Hydro dams that may dam the Himalayan waters of Nepal that will fuel the industries of India and China.

In the case of integrated rural development for example in the farthest west Himalayan  districts of West Seti this means that the modernizing sector of Nepal will be working to upgrade that part of Nepal, which still lives an almost traditional agrarian lifestyle, while negotiating the funding of rural development activities from companies that are based in India and China and, that are supported by the formidable political apparatus of these two growing superpowers with their Nepali clients in the capital city of Kathmandu.

And so, Nepal is between a rock and a hard place. If it can manage modernization and not fall into a negative dependency on China and India it could become the Switzerland of the Himalayas. If not, it will become a client of India and China.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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