DeLong on Islamic backwardness

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jul 9 08:17:23 MDT 2003

Some comments on selections from Brad DeLong's "The Roots of Islamic
Backwardness", which is online at:

DeLong is an ubiquitous figure in cyberspace, who is on the faculty at
Berkeley and was a former official in the Clinton administration.
Despite being ideologically to the right of Lester Thurow, some
inexplicably regard him as a social democrat of some sort.

That struggle goes beyond development strategies and touches the roots
of Islam. "The people of Iran," the late Ayatollah Khomeini is reported
to have liked to say, "did not make the Islamic Revolution to lower the
price of watermelons." By that logic, capitalism and Islam are
incompatible. Are they?

Whatever Khomeini said is inconsequential compared to the class
realities of Iranian society. The Iranian revolution of 1979 reflected
the divergent class interests of the plebian masses and the bazaar
bourgeoisie. Tensions between these two groups have obviously never been
resolved, despite the overthrow of the Shah.

History may provide some guidance here. The Industrial Revolution
started in the English midlands and Belgian forests--regions endowed
with coal, canals (along which barges could carry the coal), and skilled
metalworkers (who could build coal-burning steam engines). Coal, canals,
and metalworkers were the foundation for building, installing, and using
the automatic spinning machines, power looms, and railway locomotives
that were the first modern machine industries.

Steam power, factories, markets, and industry quickly spread throughout
northwest Europe and its settler colonies. By the end of the 19th
century, Turin, Vienna, Prague, Wroclaw, Essen, Paris, Lille, Liege,
Lyons, and Barcelona in continental Europe, much of Britain and the
United States, parts of Canada and Ireland, and Melbourne, Buenos Aires,
and Johannesburg (plus, of course, Tokyo) were centers of modern industry.

In fact Buenos Aires was not a center of modern industry. DeLong's
falsification of Argentine history is driven by a neoliberal agenda. If
you see the early 1900s as a Golden Age, which it really wasn't, then a
return to the period when Great Britain dominated Argentina would appear
beneficial. In essence, this is a variant on NYU professor Niall
Ferguson's Imperial nostalgia.

In the early 19th century, Egypt's Mehemet Ali looked at the global
balance of economic and military power, and decreed that Egypt must
industrialize, fast. He feared that unless Egyptians could learn modern
industrial technologies and develop an economy prosperous enough to
support modern industrial armies, his descendants would be mere puppets
of British and French viceroys. His decree went nowhere: Egypt did not
industrialize, and Mehemet Ali's great grandchildren did indeed become
puppets of the British and French.

DeLong's article confuses industrialization with capitalism. The two do
not go hand in hand. Egypt was a source of cotton for English mills,
particularly during the American civil war. The cotton was picked by
wage labor, and when that was not available, by slaves. This *is*
capitalism. The fact that Egypt supplied raw materials for Great Britain
explains its backwardness, but this is *because* of capitalism and not
its absence. Can you imagine how confused Berkeley students can get over
this nonsense?

Today's 70 million Egyptians live much better than their heavily taxed
cotton- and grain-growing predecessors of Mehemet Ali's time. But the
gap between the economies of the Arab Middle East and Western Europe--in
(non-oil sector) productivity, technological capability, and standards
of living--is wider than it was a century ago, and vastly greater than
at the start of the Industrial Age.

Well the real benchmark is not the start of the Industrial Age, which
coincides with the hegemony of European colonialism, but the
pre-Industrial Age. Although I am not that familiar with Egyptian
history, I strongly suspect that it enjoyed the same kinds of living
standards as Indian or China, both of which became immiserated under
British rule.

In many respects, the slow pace of the Islamic world's economic
development has been a matter of choice. The Prophet Muhammad was a
merchant, and the Quraysh (Mecca's ruling tribe at the time of the
Prophet) lived by guiding caravans from Arabia to the Fertile Crescent.
But the affinity between Islamic attitudes, rulers, merchants, and
craftsmen that made Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Samarkand jewels of
High Medieval urban civilization vanished long ago.

Industrialization means novelty and change. If those who hold power fear
that change may bring unpleasant consequences, they will systematically
obstruct it, which rulers in the Middle East proceeded to do for centuries.

This is Orientalist garbage. When a nationalist leader dedicated to
economic reform emerged in Egypt in 1881, British gunboats fired on
Alexandria for 10 hours straight. When Nasser seized the Suez Canal, he
was attacked by a coalition of imperialist countries. Feudalism in the
Middle East is kept alive by capitalism imperialism, not by the Mosque.

But slow and distorted development in the Islamic world is the result of
blocked opportunities as well. Wouldn't Pakistan be much better off if
it exported more of its textiles to the rich industrial world? Wouldn't
waiving Pakistan's quota under the Multi-Fiber Agreement have been a
very good and important step for the US government to take in
reciprocation of the Pakistani government's help as US-led forces
attacked Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan?

This argument against protectionism rings hollow. An increase in
Pakistani exports would not necessarily lead to an increase in
well-being. NAFTA has been a disaster for Mexican workers and peasants
despite the free flow of goods north and south. Of course, DeLong was a
big booster of NAFTA, as was his boss Bill Clinton.

But other key reasons for the slow pace of economic development in the
Islamic world reflect the standard dilemmas of poor governance. "Protect
property rights and enforce contracts," say Western economists. But
property rights and contracts are threatened at many levels. They are
threatened by roving bandits, by local notables, and, most of all, by
government functionaries who use their offices to extort extra income.
Simply put, a weak state cannot enforce contracts and property rights,
while a state that is strong enough to enforce them must control its own

This is sheer nonsense. The slow pace of economic development has
nothing to do with "governance". This is the same garbage we heard as an
explanation for the collapse of the East Asian economies. Islamic
countries tend to be poor because they are forced to play by the rules
of world capitalism. A socialist Mideast would be able to exploit oil
riches for the masses. Iraq's success in the 1980s, even under a
compromised Baathist regime, suggests what might be possible under a
radical development regime. Since DeLong is opposed to genuine progress,
this would never occur to him.

However, the most important reasons that the Islamic world has done
worse than Latin America or Southeast Asia seem to be focused around
education. There can be little hope for sustained economic development
where the educational system is at least one generation--and possibly
three generations--behind other regions in terms of its commitment to
universal literacy, and where higher education largely ignores the
skills and subjects needed to enable people to master technology.

Education? Not really. American college graduates are scrambling for
jobs during a intractable recession that shows no signs of going away.
Why would things be any better in the Islamic world that has been in the
grips of economic depression for as long as anybody can remember?


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