The deliberate uprooting and displacement of the indigenous population, the ‘de-skilling’ and underuse of the Palestinian labor force, the segmentation and fragmentation of the economic sector in the periphery, the usurpation of land and water, the proletarianization of the workforce and the increasing insignificance of the ‘proletariat,’ the alienation of the Arab labor force, or the intentional denial of access to the means of production as a form of collective punishment.
These phenomena are not simply the distortion of economic development, but the deliberate denigration of productive life to a lower level. It is not a stunting, but a shrinking. Roy sees the consequences of these policies as the “negation of rational structural transformation, integration, and synthesis, where economic relations and linkage systems become, and then remain, unassembled…and disparate.” This policy of negation includes three main tools: “expropriation and dispossession”; “integration and externalization”; and “deinstitutionalization.”
Roy finds what Israel has done to the Gaza Strip, de-development, unique. First, it is not aimed at the subordinate or dependent incorporation or exploitation of the “peripheral entity,” but at the disarticulation and erasure of its potentially productive elements. Such goals are distinct from those that usually animate a dominant economy’s encounter with a weaker one. They stem from imperatives that she terms “ideological and political” as opposed to “economic.” For Roy, surplus accumulation and remolding Gaza to extract profit from trade constitute the “economic.” The “ideological and political,” in the case of Israel, is the goal of a sovereign Zionist state. In Roy’s reading economic policy has been subordinate to this political goal. Thus, “Israeli military power and physical force,” leads to the “destruction of the peripheral entity as an economic, political, and cultural unit.”
This rough-and-ready conceptualization of Zionist aspirations works well. However, the strict analytical separation between “the economic” and “the political” has its limitations. First, the social relations which these concepts envelop interpenetrate and constitute one another. More importantly, as categories, they mask a social reality better described as made up of institutions and classes, as opposed to one composed of economies and polities. The deeper point, however, is that this argument positions Israeli state formation as exceptional in the history of settler-colonial state consolidations. Such a tacit hypothesis of uniqueness is misleading. In all such states, the hunger for land has been paramount, even or especially, in places where the goal was not the exploitation but the elimination of native labor. This makes Israel akin to rather than distinct from Australia or the United States. In addition, land theft is not simply, or only, an ideological or political goal, since a land-base is central to all forms of accumulation.
De-development as a concept could travel to other instances of settler-colonial state formation. It could offer a set of conceptual lenses to account for indigenous social dissolution and institutional dismantling in North America and elsewhere under European and especially Anglo advance. Roy’s pioneering work and those writing on settler-colonialism could be in productive conversation. Such a scholarly dialogue could suture historical materialist accounts of Israeli settler-capitalist state formation with the vast and crucial literature chronicling the cataclysmic consequences of the settlement of Palestine, as well.
Roy’s work, especially this most recent revision, also raises questions about the temporality of concept-formation. She rightly notes that both dependency and modernization theories attempt to account for development. The concept “and the ways in which it has been conceived over the last four decades, deny certain possibilities, especially negative possibilities.” Liberal and Marxist theories of development have often assumed a universality of the developmental process, and suggested that countries could not regress. (Theorists like Rosa Luxembourg, insisting on the permanence of shattering and consuming violence, the destruction of capitalism’s “outside” as part of the accumulation process, have been more the exception than the rule). This was so because of the moment in which those theories were born. Amidst Fordism in the United States, social democracy in Europe, import-substitution industrialization and national liberation movements across the Global South, and the state-directed autarky of the Soviet-controlled Second World, there was little pressing need to theorize negative possibilities, of the disarticulation and shattering of peripheral social formations. However, the lingering wounds of settler-colonial conflicts could have put paid to that notion, too.
It is in this world in which development was an aspiration marred by underdevelopment – which the Latin American dependista school theorized as dependent development – that Roy incisively noted that development theory had stipulated the impossibility of negative development. The Gaza Strip appeared as an empirical exception and revealed a theoretical gap. Roy filled this gap with skill and precision. But the world in which she built her theory, and development practitioners and theorists built theirs, the world in which national societies were slowly advancing towards a shared prosperity, is no more. It may have been no more than a mirage, a visual trick of the post-war socioeconomic landscape. But now, the universality of development is clearly a hallucination, or a fantasy. A simple glance at the post-1990 ruinscape reveals this shift. Latin America and the Soviet sphere, which followed structural adjustment guidelines, deteriorated or were static on many of the indices used as proxies for development – life expectancy, for example. So did much of Africa. Those areas subject to US state violence, kinetic or everyday, nowhere more so than in the Middle East, severely deteriorated.
There are differences between the Israeli occupation violence of “ordinariness, prosaism, and invisibility,” in Roy’s words, and the even quieter violence of neoliberalism. Perhaps, as some have pointed out, there is less difference between Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, some dissolving under US sanctions and others shuddering under US war, and the Gaza Strip amidst de-development in its final stage. Roy’s conceptualization of Gaza as exception now has a broader historical and geographical scope. Today, a wide range of regional countries experience processes with greater or lesser similarities to Gaza’s de-development. Roy’s work, crucial on its own terms, might speak poignantly to the devastation of a rapidly de-developing post-2001 world.