Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation

Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation

Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation

Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation


In recent years, debate on the state's economic role has too often devolved into diatribes against intervention. Peter Evans questions such simplistic views, offering a new vision of why state involvement works in some cases and produces disasters in others. To illustrate, he looks at how state agencies, local entrepreneurs, and transnational corporations shaped the emergence of computer industries in Brazil, India, and Korea during the seventies and eighties.Evans starts with the idea that states vary in the way they are organized and tied to society. In some nations, like Zaire, the state is predatory, ruthlessly extracting and providing nothing of value in return. In others, like Korea, it is developmental, promoting industrial transformation. In still others, like Brazil and India, it is in between, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering. Evans's years of comparative research on the successes and failures of state involvement in the process of industrialization have here been crafted into a persuasive and entertaining work, which demonstrates that successful state action requires an understanding of its own limits, a realistic relationship to the global economy, and the combination of coherent internal organization and close links to society that Evans called "embedded autonomy."


A perennially popular Brazilian joke about two lions evokes one way of seeing the state. Escapees from the zoo, the two lions take different paths. One goes to a wooded park and is apprehended as soon as he gets hungry and eats a passerby. the second remains at large for months. Finally captured, he returns to the zoo sleek and fat. His companion inquires with great interest, “Where did you find such a great hiding place?” “In one of the ministries” is the successful escapee's answer. “Every three days I ate a bureaucrat and no one noticed.” “So how did you get caught?” “I ate the man who served coffee for the morning break,” comes the sad reply.

The moral is clear: bureaucrats do nothing and are never missed; even other bureaucrats care more about their morning coffee than about anything their colleagues do. the joke is popular because it affirms the conviction that Third World states deliver little of value. It is also popular because it converts bureaucrats from predators to prey. Identifying with the lion, listeners reverse their usual self-perception as victims of the state.

For those with less sense of humor, the quotidian power of the state over their individual lives can take on disturbing proportions. As Anita Desai (1991, 3–4) puts it, “In the present time, in which the laws and whims of politicians and bureaucrats are as pervasive and powerful as those of the gods, not only must a minister be propitiated before he will issue a license, allot a house, or award a pension, but so must every clerk through whose hands the relevant file passes.” This is not a lament about dictatorship or authoritarian repression, it is a complaint about how the Third World state conducts “business as usual” in relation to ordinary citizens.

Identification with the escaped lion is natural, but until less hierarchical ways of avoiding a Hobbesian world are discovered, the state lies at the center of solutions to the problem of order. Without the state, markets, the other master institution of modern society, cannot function. We do not spend our valuable time standing in lines in front of the counters of bureaucrats because we are masochists. We stand there because we need what the state provides. We need predictable rules, and these in turn must have a concrete organizational structure behind them. We need some organizational reflection, however imperfect, of general as opposed . . .

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