Amartya Sen’s Work Shows Us the Human Cost of Capitalist Development

Indian economist Amartya Sen has posed a devastating challenge to the dominant capitalist understanding of development. But Sen’s own analytical framework doesn’t go far enough in exposing the inherently exploitative logic of capitalism.

Amartya Sen speaking in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2012. (Fronteiras do Pensamento / Wikimedia Commons)

Amartya Sen is one of the most influential thinkers about development in the contemporary world. Since the 1970s, he has published widely across the disciplines of economics and philosophy. He received the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 1998. In 2010, Time magazine rated Sen as one of the world’s one hundred most influential people.

There is a predominant notion of development trumpeted by international institutions, many academics and journalists, and politicians of most stripes. It holds that economic growth provides the basis for human development. Given that under capitalism, economic growth is for the most part rooted in capital accumulation, “growth-first” notions of development are essentially capital-first notions.

This way of thinking places capitalist firms, managers, and the states that back them at the helm of the human development project. It conveniently excuses the ways in which such growth generates, and is often based upon, novel forms of poverty and oppression for workers. Sen’s writings pose a major challenge to the growth-first/capital-first idea of development.

A Contradictory Vision

However, his work is two-sided (or contradictory). On the one hand, Sen punches big holes in mainstream explanations for manifestations of poverty and deprivation that are caused, often directly, by capitalist development. He also provides an approach to development that, on the surface, counters the emphasis on growth and capital accumulation.

On the other hand, Sen sets out a vision of development that promotes the expansion of capitalist markets. This two-sidedness stems from the fact that Sen can identify problems with capitalist development but is unable to penetrate the veil of capitalism itself.

His understanding of capitalism is shallow and rooted in the liberal ideology that presents it as a system based on market exchange between free agents, rather than one rooted in exploitative productive relations, as a Marxist framework would suggest.

There is much in Sen’s work that we can usefully deploy to develop a critique of capitalism. But this has to involve linking his insights to an alternative, labor-centered version of political economy.

The World Food Crisis

In the context of climate breakdown, global environmental collapse, and mass hunger, the inability of the world food system to feed an expanding population is an ever-present subject of concern. In 2022, over 820 million people globally experienced hunger.

Sen’s 1981 book Poverty and Famines was an essential intervention into the political economy of famine and the analysis and alleviation of hunger. Born in 1933, the economist grew up in British-controlled India and experienced firsthand the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least three million people perished.

Dominant explanations of the Bengal famine as well as other famines and episodes of widespread hunger resort to food availability decline (FAD) arguments. Simply put, they argue that there were too many mouths to feed.

By contrast, Sen showed how in a series of cases, from Bengal in the 1940s to the Bangladesh famine of 1974, food was available at the time — often in higher quantities than during non-famine periods. Crucially, it was not the absolute volume of food that determined whether people died or lived, but the capitalist price mechanism.

Sen demonstrated that the Bengal famine was caused by rapid price inflation rather than crop failure. British military and civil construction investments, including air strips, barracks, munitions, and clothing for soldiers and civilians, fueled such inflation. It pushed up food prices in relation to agricultural wages, leaving agricultural laborers unable to afford food.

Since there was no general crop failure, peasants with access to land were relatively unaffected by price inflation. On the other hand, nonmilitary or civil construction wage workers, mostly in the rural sector, were particularly vulnerable. These sections of the wage-labor force bore the brunt of the catastrophe.

Keynes and the Bengal Famine

Sen’s arguments in Poverty and Famines were a necessary counterargument to the mainstream apologetics for mass hunger. Such arguments often ended up blaming the poor themselves for being too numerous, conveniently obscuring how the capitalist economy continually reproduces poverty.

However, more recent scholarship has shown that despite his perspicacity, even Sen himself underestimated the deliberately manufactured causes of the Bengal famine. His analysis is thus incomplete as an explanation for the persistence of global hunger.

Indian academic Utsa Patnaik’s study of the Bengal famine demonstrates how the price inflation in Bengal represented a deliberate British policy. This policy was recommended by none other than the famed liberal political economist John Maynard Keynes.

In the context of the UK’s wartime crisis, Keynes advocated “profit inflation” to achieve a “forced transference of purchasing power” from the mass of the population to the British exchequer. Military investments in Bengal were to be paid for by printing money, without regard for their impact upon the poor of the region.

The increased money supply pushed up prices, benefiting the region’s capitalists who were then taxed in turn by the colonial state. The state used these funds to raise its military investments in India itself while siphoning off surplus funds to the UK exchequer to finance its European war effort.

As Patnaik puts it:

Without deliberate state policy of curtailing mass consumption, over £1,600 million of extra resources could not have been extracted from Indians during the war, with the bulk of this enormous burden falling on the population of Bengal since the Allied forces were located in and operated from that province. The state policy was to induce a very rapid profit inflation which redistributed incomes away from the working population, towards capitalists and companies, which were then taxed.

Sen’s emphasis on the capacity of the capitalist price mechanism to generate mortal threats to millions of people is indispensable for any analysis of the current world food crisis. But we also need to identify deliberate state policies designed to further weaken the poor and accelerate marketization.

Changing the Food System

In response to the continued existence of hunger and malnutrition in the contemporary world, mainstream institutions still resort to arguments about the availability of food. One example comes from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization:

By 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion, 34 percent higher than today. Nearly all of this population increase will occur in developing countries . . . In order to feed this larger, more urban, and richer population, food production (net of food used for biofuels) must increase by 70 percent.

The reality is rather different. At present, the world already produces 1.5 times the amount necessary to feed everyone on the planet — indeed, it produces enough to feed even a population as high as ten billion by 2050.

The problem of world hunger now, as in the cases analyzed by Sen, is not insufficient food but rather the poverty and unequal power relations that are intrinsic to capitalism. The world’s poor simply do not have the money to pay for the food they need to live healthy lives.

Moreover, the argument that the world needs to ramp up food production to avoid mass hunger in the future deliberately obscures how the contemporary food system is itself a major generator of hunger. The concentration of land for agribusiness entails mass dispossession of rural populations, often facilitated by the states that rule over them.

The capitalist profit motive drives firms to produce more lucrative crops — such as soy for feed to animals, or corn for ethanol biofuels — instead of food for humans. Wages in agriculture are often too low for workers to feed themselves adequately.

Collective Resistance

The Bengal famine occurred under antidemocratic British colonial rule. In Poverty and Famines, Sen called for greater democracy as a counterbalance to the ability of undemocratic states to ignore the needs of the poor. Yet while postcolonial India has not experienced famines like that in Bengal, it still suffers from widespread hunger and deprivation.

Since 1997, for example, more than three million small-scale farmers have committed suicide in response to falling incomes as a consequence of the increased marketization of Indian agriculture. The existence of electoral democracy is not enough in itself to solve deep-seated problems of inequality and exploitation.

Poverty and Famines largely ignored the collective action of workers to bring about improvements in their social conditions. This reflected a latent methodological individualism in Sen’s conception of social change, which came to the fore in his later work. As professor Pritam Singh told me, this means overlooking important forms of popular resistance during the 1943 famine:

The better organized working class in Calcutta forced the then British government in India to arrange for food for them and was thus significantly less affected than the scattered, illiterate, and unorganized rural population.

Singh notes that the British government demolished refugee camps for famine victims, which worsened their conditions. Once again, it was the rural masses rather than what Singh calls the “more conscious and more organized urban population” who were the main targets of the colonial state.

Real democracy does not just mean the right to vote and the existence of a free press. In order to combat world hunger, our goal should not be to ramp up food production, but rather to establish the democratic distribution of power and resources. In particular, this would mean land reform under the democratic control of rural and urban workers.

The Problem With Development

Capitalist development is brutal. It requires the formation of large working classes that lack property and are often subject to political brutality, whose members will then be available for exploitation by capitalist firms. From the emergence of agrarian capitalism and the first industrial revolution in the UK, to the catch-up development by the so-called Tiger economies of East Asia and their giant neighbor China, this economic system has always prioritized capital accumulation over real human flourishing.

When capitalist development does not deliver the promised results for the majority of people, which it never does, its defenders often argue that these shortfalls merely arise because such development has not taken place on a sufficiently broad scale. By doing so, they deflect attention away from the problems that capitalist growth itself causes, from dispossession and poverty wages to heightened reliance upon unpaid domestic labor to sustain the long working hours of family members. Such arguments lead to the call for more growth as the solution to those problems.

Sen’s 1999 work Development as Freedom was his second profound intervention into the field of development. By the time it was published, Sen had already become one of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject. He initially delivered the book’s core arguments in the course of six lectures at the World Bank, reflecting his major presence in the development community.

In Development as Freedom, he noted that much growth-based development had the effect of suppressing freedom. He argued that human development could and should be understood instead “as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy.”

Sen adopted an individualistic conception of “people,” rather than a collective one. This constituted a major source of tension as he elaborated on his vision. For Sen, development as freedom meant expanding the abilities of individuals and thus the choices available to them, rather than simply increasing their incomes.

Development as Freedom called for the expansion of “instrumental freedoms” that Sen considered essential to development. These included being able to live a life free of starvation, undernourishment, and premature mortality. Other such freedoms arose from the possession of literacy, numeracy, and the right to engage in uncensored speech and political participation.

Such instrumental freedoms may not have been as radical as the rights associated with classical visions of socialism, such as collective democratic ownership of the means of production and substantive social equality. However, much that unfolded in the history of capitalist development would simply not have been possible if Sen’s instrumental freedoms had taken priority over the capitalist growth imperative. In fact, capitalism itself would be at risk if we prioritized these freedoms over economic growth.

Idealizing Markets

The problem with Sen’s vision was not necessarily that it was insufficiently radical. Although he identified some of the elements required to bring about real human development, he does not consider the shift in class relations — in particular the mass struggles from below — through which they could be achieved.

In Development as Freedom, Sen ultimately put his faith in capitalist markets. His criticisms of capitalist development gave way to a contradictory celebration of those markets and the pro-capitalist logic that governs mainstream development thinking.

For example, he argued that “freedom of exchange and transaction is itself part and parcel of the basic liberties that people have reason to value.” In words that would be music to the ears of pro-capitalist thinkers, he also spoke about “the persistence of deprivations among segments of the community that happen to remain excluded from the benefits of the market-orientated society” (my emphasis), as if such “exclusion” was merely a malfunction of the system.

In Poverty and Famines, as we have seen, Sen showed that it was the capitalist price mechanism, not the availability of food per se, that functioned as the core determinant of whether the poor lived or died. Yet in Development and Freedom, he portrayed capitalist markets as spheres that promote freedoms, and called for the expansion of those markets as a remedy to the poverty and inequality they generate.

Sen’s analytical weakness derived from his understanding of capitalist markets as spheres of freedom. He conceptualized them as systems of exchange between individuals that all parties entered into freely, ignoring the reality of productive relations based on the exploitation of subordinate social classes. Despite its critical thrust, Development as Freedom thus veered toward a relatively uncritical celebration of the power of markets to deliver development.

Development as Liberation

We can still embrace Sen’s advocacy of real human freedom over economic growth. But this requires us to conceive of freedom as liberation from capitalist rule. Instead of “development as freedom,” it would be better to think in terms of “development as liberation.”

India provided us with a recent glimpse of what movements for development as liberation might look like. In 2020–21, hundreds of millions of workers went on strike to support a mass farmers’ movement opposed to Narendra Modi’s attempt to ram through the marketization of Indian agriculture. For over a year, in the face of brutal state repression, the farmers’ movement engaged in nationwide strikes, sit-down protests, and the blockade of India’s capital, Delhi.

This mass movement generated class solidarity among laborers and cross-class alliances between workers and small farmers. It stopped, temporarily perhaps, the continued commercialization of Indian agriculture, and illustrated the potential of mass movements from below to shape state policy.

However, the major challenge remains how to go beyond such defensive struggles, important as they are, and transform private means of production into a commonwealth, in the true sense of that term. This is part of the struggle for development as liberation.