Review of Samuel Cohn Employment and Globalization

This review appears in Contemporary Sociology here

Employment and Development Under Globalization: State and Economy in Brazil, by Samuel Cohn.  2012. Palgrave McMillan.  236pp cloth.


Gianpaolo Baiocchi



Samuel Cohn’s latest book, Employment and Development under Globalization: State and Economy in Brazil, uses the case of Brazil to revisit some of the classic debates in development and make a case for the usefulness of “Palliative Development,” alongside the better-known strategies of “Transformative Development.”  Palliative development, for Cohn, “is concerned about the economic benefits of growth being widespread [and is] opposed to the benefits of development being limited to a select few.” (p. 2)  It emphasizes stimulating “small, labor intensive enterprises that provide services to the local population.” (p. 180)  This focus stands in sharp contrast to more common analyses of “economic miracles” and rapid social changes.


The book draws significant inspiration from O’Connor’s (1973) classic account of the fiscal crisis of the state and extends that argument to look at the developmental state.  As is well known, O’Connor argued that the state manages the externalities of capitalism, while assuring an environment propitious for profit.   It does so by different kinds of public spending, but is constantly in threat of fiscal crisis because of revolt by competitive sectors of capital that resist paying taxes.  Cohn, in extending this to development, argues for the centrality of state investments in public goods like infrastructure, as well as the constant threat of fiscal constraints that could disable those mechanisms.


Brazil, of course, is today both a marquee case of the possibilities and limits of BRICS countries, a symbol of the possibilities of the “Pink Tide,” and a traditional national case in development studies.   Cohn uses the case of Brazil in the last decades as a way to argue for a renewed look at the importance of state policies in reproducing capitalism, particularly in the post 1980s moment, when debt and the pressures of globalization made earlier strategies reliant on Import Substitution and heavy state investments unviable.  Like with other recent optimistic accounts of the Brazilian model (such as Montero’s Brazil: Reversal of Fortune), Cohn spends some time analyzing a number of successful, pro-poor, pro-development, creative, and efficient policies.   But unlike most other accounts, he does focus on headliner industries, like Brazilian aviation or auto, or even on well-known social policies, like Bolsa Familia.  He focuses instead on small, and relatively prosaic policies that exemplify palliative development.


With an admirable amount of empirical rigor, and based on a decade of research throughout the country, Cohn sets out to test the impact of these specific policies on employment using official data and econometric modeling.   He first explores the what-if scenario of no government intervention on employment through residuals analysis, finding, (perhaps not surprisingly), that intervention is impactful.  Much of the subsequent analysis delves into the outcomes of specific policies: he looks at the effect of vocational education, the creation of infrastructure, rent control of commercial spaces, tax reduction strategies, and the opening of frontiers.  He examines employment in “hotels, restaurants and barber and beauty shops in Brazil from 1940 to 2000.” (9)  The overall findings are that some of these policies, particularly the creation of airports, job training and vocational education, downtown rent control, and the opening of frontiers – have significant and positive outcomes in terms of employment.   Reducing taxes on employers, on the other hand, does not.  The book closes with a series of lessons from the Brazilian case for development policies elsewhere.


There is no doubt the book is an important account by a leading sociologist of development that calls for a recalibration of development studies in the current era.  It is precisely argued, brings a wealth of data to make its case, and fundamentally asks scholars to shift their gaze.   But perhaps because the book opens up new terrain, it also raises a number of questions.   Arguably, the book is less attentive to “politics” (either more formal or the social movement kind that has been so important in Brazil) than either O’Connor’s original account or other accounts of the Brazilian developmental state, such as Peter Evan’s 1979 classic Dependent Development.  It is not the book’s purpose to analyze these dimensions, but there are lots of specificities of Brazilian developmental state, and therefore, the conditions of possibility for the reproduction and applicability of these policies elsewhere.   Some of these policies begun in dictatorship-era Brazil, when there was a specific political calculus of the state vis a vis monopolistic and competitive sectors of capital that made some of these policies more likely in the first place.   There are other questions to be asked, too, of popular demand (or even tolerability) for certain policies or not in more democratic contexts.  “Frontier development” in Brazil dates back to dictatorship era “colonization” strategies that have often had disastrous socio-environmental impacts and worsened patterns of concentration of land (which Cohn briefly discusses).     These questions, of course, do not take away from the book’s very significant achievements, which are to put a number of new questions about policies that may be less glamorous, but ultimately more important, for development.


Evans, P. B. (1979). Dependent development: The alliance of multinational, state, and local capital in Brazil. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

O’Connor, J. (1973). The fiscal crisis of the state. New York: St. Martin’s Press.







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