Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The students are now in charge...

Term began again on Monday and this time it's the turn of the students to present their own work. Since the first year PhD seminar has taken this shape, it's only those of us on the MPhil/PhD programme in the Government department that have to attend. Consequently there's noticeably fewer students there, since the MRes people have departed.

First up were Andre Alves and Andrzej Bolesta with their work on welfare state classification and Chinese authoritarian development respectively. Both were grilled for an hour each. Andre's piece dealt with the identification of the normative aspects of egalitarian and libertarian perspectives on welfare states. This will form the basis of some classification of different OECD welfare states along an egalitarian-libertarian spectrum and the impact of such states on labour markets. My observation on his piece was to note that no pure model seemed to exist at either end; scholarly writing seemed to combine elements of each perspective. Consequently, these differences were a matter of degree.

Andrej's working chapter proved to be contentious for some in the seminar. He's interested in economic development in China specifically and what this says about development more generally. He's keen to contrast the shift from socialist development to free market democracy in Eastern Europe with China's post-socialist economic change without soncurrent political liberalisation. This, he believes, makes a case for Chinese 'exceptionalism', not least because the authoritarianism is 'rational'. I questioned that, not least because bureaucratic authoritarianism in Latin America could similarly be described as technical and less personalist than previous forms (see O'Donnell, O'Donnell and Schmitter and Roquie for this). Subsequently I suggested to him that he might want to consider Cuba's current development path as well: not only has it liberalised sections of its economy (creating 'free zones' rather like China during the 1980s), but it has also done this without ceding political power.

But it was the implicit argument in Andrej's piece that caused come consternation: namely that authoritarianism may appear to be more effective at delivering consistent and effective development than democracy. A number of people took exception to that.

Still, it seems the term has been set for some quite interesting work and presentations to come.

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