Sunday, June 24, 2018

“The Underdevelopment of Development Literature: The Case of Dependency Theory” by Tony Smith (1979)

Smith (1979) “The Underdevelopment of Development Literature: The Case of Dependency Theory” World Politics (a critique of Dependency Theory)

The Smith article is a critique of development theory that I partially read months ago and stopped reading because I thought it was bullshit. I now think that it's likely something I should know about for my prelim exam because I'll need to describe the critiques of dependency theory.

Smith says that what we call dependency theory is actually a body of work with disagreements and contradictions within it, but the shared feature of all dependency theoriests is their "insistence that it is not internal characteristics of particular countries so much as the structure of the international system - particularly in its economic aspect - that is the key variable to be studied in order to understand the form that development has taken in non-communist industrializing countries" (p. 248). Additionally, dependency theorists examine both political and economic forces, and "it often identifies itself as being unambiguously on the side of change in the South in order to benefit the poorest and most oppressed members of society there" (p. 248). Additionally, dependency theorists believe that "contemporary political and economic change in the South must be understood as aspects of imperialism today and yesterday" (p. 248).

Smith goes on to say that dependency theory is not just a theory - it's an ideology and a basis for political action. This is somewhat fair but not entirely. Dependency theory highlights inequality and exploitation in the world. That's all it does. However, if you believe it is an accurate theory, for most people, it would follow that they oppose inequality and exploitation. But the theory itself does not call for political action - it's simply an analysis of the world as it exists.

Smith then introduces the main subject of his paper: Ripping dependency theory a new one. And his main argument: Dependency theory overestimates the impacts of imperialism.

He states that dependency theorists believe that integration in the global economy is harmful rather than beneficial to nations in the periphery. He says they don't provide evidence, and analysis actually shows that integration into the global economy boosts a nation's economic growth. However, dependency theorists do not simply look at economic growth as a whole (for example, in terms of GDP). They analyze the relationships between the various classes and actors within a society. For example, Peter Evans in Dependent Development writes at length about the state, foreign capital, local elites, and the working class. He makes clear that dependent development tends to be a fairly profitable arrangement for foreign capital, the state, and local elites. I don't think GDP growth in a national economy proves any part of Evans' argument wrong. Foreign capital and local elites can still profit - and the nation can even industrialize - while the nation remains dependent and the working class and peasant remain poor.

Smith cites Cardoso and the idea that even when industrialization takes place in the periphery, because it is controlled by multinational corporations, it is still not a net benefit to the peripheral nation, and dependency prevents self-sustaining industrialization.

He also writes, "Too many writers of this school make the mistake of assuming that since the whole (in this case the international system is greater than the sum of its parts (the constituent states, the parts lead no significant existence separate from the whole, but operate simply in functionally specific manners as a result of their place in the greater system" (p. 252).

Smith refers to this as "the tyranny of the whole over the parts."

On p. 255, Smith uses India as an example to illustrate his point. Baran claimed that Great Britain impeded India's progress by colonizing it. Smith says he lacks evidence AND that we don't know what would have happened if Britain did NOT colonize India. Maybe they'd still be poor? I take issue with this. Yes, I will grant him, we don't know what would have happened without colonialism. However, we do know what did happen (and I'd refer anyone who is unsure of it to the book Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis). Great Britain extracted wealth and raw materials from India, contributing to and worsening massive famines at the end of the 19th C (as millions of Indians were starving, England was exporting record amounts of wheat from India). They taxed Indians to finance British wars, and forced them into growing crops desired for export to England instead of growing crops for their own uses. Indians shifted from growing legumes (pulses, as they call them) to more wheat and cotton. The former fixes nitrogen in the soil and the latter pulls nitrogen out of the soil, so the shift in cropping patterns led to ecological problems.

Great Britain used India and the U.S. as sources of cotton for the textile industry in Manchester, but prevented India from developing its own industrialized textile industry. Britain used this exploitative relationship long enough to shelter its own textile industry enough that its factory-made textiles, even with the cost of shipping, could out-compete handmade textiles from India. Even the much lauded railroads built by Great Britain in India served mostly to take food away from areas with hungry people during the years of famine. There is absolutely no way to look at the mountain of evidence of Great Britain extracting wealth from India while preventing it from industrializing and conclude that anything else happened there.

While it's true that we don't know what the historical alternatives could have looked like, and if any of them might have been better or worse, it's dishonest to pretend that what happened didn't. Sociologists are concerned with the world as it exists, and in the world that exists, Great Britain colonized and exploited India in a way very accurate described by dependency theorists.

Smith then takes up the case of Japan. Japan wasn't colonized. Japan did OK. Maybe, says Smith, there is something about Japan that made it able to both avoid colonization and to industrialize (p. 257). And that is something internal to Japan, not having to do with the world system outside of it. I think it's likely that it's both factors internal to Japan was well as external ones that allowed it to avoid colonization. However, I don't think it follows that dependency theory is wrong. We still have an entire world of examples of colonized nations that ended up dependent, and if Japan was not colonized and is not dependent, I don't think that disproves dependency theory. Even if the point is valid that factors internal within nations play a role in their development, I don't think that disproves dependency theory. As a whole, I don't see how you can look at the mountain of evidence piled up showing that imperialism led to the core exploiting a dependent periphery and somehow conclude that imperialism did not play a defining role in the creation of that system.

I don't think I'm going to read any more of this article, because I feel like I've got the gist of his argument, and his argument is dumb.

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