Dependency Theory

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Thu May 24 04:39:09 MDT 2001

There's quite a lot in Julio Huato's post (Digest 3532) that I agree with,
especially his general defence of Marx and Engels' methodology.  He also
rightly notes that their view of particular socieities did not involve
value judgements or racialised notions about people.  I recall that Marx's
historical hero was Spartacus, and yet Marx regarded rebellions against
chattel slavery in the Roman Empire as hopeless as slaves could not create
a new mode of production (a fair enough point).

However, there are a couple of points in Julio's post that I disagree with
and think are simply wrong.

>To summarize, the obstacles to the capitalist mode of production in Latin
>America are not essential or absolute as the dependency theorists
>postulated.  They are historically contingent.

But the point that they are historically contingent does not mean they are
not necessary, viewed from the standpoint of the capitalist world economy
as a whole.

In Asia, the crusade against 'communism' meant a different imperialist
relationship with countries like SKorea, Taiwan and Singapore than with
Latin America.  The United States, in particular, allowed a niche opening
for these particular countries in East Asia, and for Japan after WW2, in
order to defend wider imperialist interests.  But, while imperialism can
allow for a substantial degree of capitalist development in a few
peripheral, or formerly peripheral, Third World countries, it cannot bring
about the development of *the whole of the Third World*.
Investment/development in one part of the Third World has been, inevtiably
I would suggest, at the expense of investment/development in some other
part of the Third World.  Capitalism simply cannot develop the entire
globe.  Marx and Engels overestimated, certainly in earlier works like the
'Communist Manifesto, the power of capitalism to make the world one.

The actual course of capitalist development, which did not become clear
until after Marx's death, was analysed by Lenin.  It is simply not possible
to debate the actual course of capitalist development by using Marx and
Engels because they lived and wrote *before imperialism* - ie before the
highest stage of capitalism.

Lenin's analysis of actual capitalist development noted the division of the
world into a handful of imperialist powers and a mass of nations oppressed
and exploited by imperialism, enabling the creation of 'super-profits'.
This division is not accidental or incidental - it is a central part of
imperialist capitalism.

The plunder of Latin America, Africa, parts of Asia and elsewhere, retarded
development there and hooked them into the world economy in a way which was
quite distinct from the way in which the advanced capitalist powers are
hooked into the world economy.

>It is not that the
>capitalist mode of production in Latin America is of some peculiar brand,
>'deformed', 'dependent', etc. such that it's doomed to remain small and shy.
>  It's not either that monopolization has imposed on the capitalist mode of
>production in the rich countries a one-sided mission such by which it is
>forced to kill capitalists B at birth, as a matter of necessity, as if the
>expansion of 'peripheral' capitalism were only a threat and did not open new
>opportunities to rich capitalism.
>It is, instead, for the most part that there are pre-capitalist structures,
>political configurations, policies, laws or lack thereof, etc. hindering the
>capitalist mode of production in Latin America.  And, if the condition of
>productive forces in Latin America is such that the capitalist production
>relations are most conducive to their further development than available
>alternatives, then capitalist production relations might have a hard time
>but they will end up imposing themselves.  This follows from Marx's view of

I don't think any of this follows.  Capitalism already rules Latin America,
but the predominant capitalism is imperialism, which is centred in North
America and Europe.  It is not possible for imperialism, the decadent stage
of capitalism, to deliver the same kind of capitalism in Latin America as
exists in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The notion that pre-capitalist structures in Latin America hinder
capitalist development is problematic for two reasons.  First is the one
that Louis argued - namely that capitalism has ruled there for centuries
and what are often depicted as pre-capitalist structures are pre-capitalist
in appearance or form only, but really capitalist (eg the difference Louis
noted between peonage in Latin America and serfdom in feudal Europe).  The
other is that, even if we accept that there are pre-capitalist structures
in Latin America (and I'm agnostic on this, I simply don't know enough,
although I know from combined and uneven development that it is possible
for elements of different social systems to co-exist for some time), their
prolonged existence would have to be explained.  How is it that they have
withstood the onslaught of commodity production for so long?  Their
continuance would suggest that capitalist development in Latin America has
been weak due to imperialist domination holding it back.

A big problem I have with rooting the underdevelopment in the persistence
of pre-capitalist structures, rather than in imperialist domination, is
that it is a form of blaming the victim and a key ideological position of
the imperialists.  They shift attention from the malignant effects of
imperilaist exploitation and instead find the problems of the Third World
as being rooted in the Third World countries themselves.

Unfortunately, there has been a growing tendency of Third World leftists to
accomodate themselves to this position.  I think this is a result of
disillusionment with political independence.  Often Third World leftists
had inflated ideas of what would become possible once political
independence was achieved.  Frequently, however, dictatorial regimes,
including often with left-wing backgrounds, came to power and little
changed.  The regimes became the direct force suppressing the left,
enriching their own families, etc, and left-wing disillusionment became
focussed on them.  An understanding that imperialist domination meant a
narrow surplus for the local bourgeoisie and middle class to survive on and
thereforea very thin basis for (bourgeois) representative democracy, tended
to be lost.

I know that in Ireland, disillusionment with the results of political
independence (in reality pseudo-independence) led no few leftists into
arguing that Irish underdevelopment was due to the 'Catholic bourgeoisie'
not having any 'get up and go'.  Imperialist investment was welcomed,
indeed hailed and called for.  A whole section of the Republican Movement
adopted this position in the early 1970s - the 'Officials' - and even tried
to get themselves jobs in government/state 'industrial development'
agencies where they oculd smooth the way for imperialist investment.

Of course, the political logic of this was to oppose the anti-imperialist
struggle and so the Officials ended up seeing the 'Provos', the
revolutionary republicans, as the main enemy and calling on epople to
inform on IRA activists.  Leading 'Officals' propagandists like Eoghan
Harris ended up in Fine Gael, the most pro-imperialist party in the South,
and the Officials eventually became yuppies and fused with the (right-wing,
pro-imperialist) Irish Labour Party.

In the course of this evolution they rejected Marx and Engels work on
Ireland - Engels, for instance, said that the more familiar he became with
Irish history, the more convinced he was that British domination had thrown
Ireland back by centuries.

All this is not to say that there are not some serious problems with
dependency theory.  I haven't got time to go into my disagreements with it
here in any depth, so I'll just mention one.  Namely, it suggests that
workers in the imperialist centres and the masses of the Third World do not
have the same interests and therefore it cannot make a material appeal to
workers in the West, only a moral (and moralistic) one.  Lenin's theory of
imperialism escapes the problems of both dependency theory and the
prettification of imperialism which is so often found at the other end of
the argument.

Philip Ferguson

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