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The Rise and Decline of Latin American Structuralism and Dependency Theory

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The Rise and Decline of Latin American Structuralism and Dependency Theory

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The Rise and Decline of
Latin American Structuralism and Dependency Theory
Alfredo Saad-Filho
Structuralism and dependency theory were the first significant contributions to
political economy to arise from Latin America. Their enduring influence can be
gauged by the casual manner in which the previous sentence uses the term
‘periphery’ – no explanation is required, because it seems to express an obvious
feature of the contemporary world. Yet, on reflection, there is nothing simple
about it: dividing the world into ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ implies the existence of
systemic and possibly insurmountable differences between rich and poor
countries, which must themselves be explained, both historically and analytically.
This is what these theories set out to do, initially in the context of the Latin
American transition from primary export-led growth to import-substituting
industrialisation (ISI). In spite of this geographically and historically specific
frame of reference, the insights of structuralists and dependency theorists have
been incorporated into a rich literature on development policy, and the condition
of underdevelopment, spanning most of the world.
There is a close theoretical and historical relationship between these
schools of thought. This is partly because they share key principles and
perspectives on development and underdevelopment, and partly because
prominent structuralists played an important role in the development of
dependency theory in the sixties. In spite of their similarities, explained below,
there is a fundamental difference between structuralism and dependency theory:
while the former claims that capitalist development is possible in the periphery
through industrialisation and comprehensive social reforms, the latter is more
pessimistic, arguing that capitalism systematically underdevelops poor countries.
For most dependentistas, socialism is the only alternative.
There is much to commend structuralism and dependency theory. They
challenge mainstream economics perceptively and insightfully; usefully highlight
the importance of interdisciplinary studies in the social sciences; rightly argue that
activist state policies are essential for equitable and sustainable economic growth;
forcefully bring out the connections between social relations and economic
structure, policy and performance, and provocatively claim that democratic social
and economic reforms are pre-conditions for development. Many paid dearly for
holding these iconoclastic views, especially during the sixties and seventies, when
military regimes held sway throughout Latin America. In spite of their important
insights into the problems of underdevelopment and lasting influence among
development theorists, practitioners and the wider community, theoretical
shortcomings in structuralism and dependency theory have contributed to their
declining popularity. The first section explains the context in which structuralism
and dependency theory developed. The following section critically reviews the
rise of structuralism in the wake of ISI, and its transformation over time. The third
section outlines dependency theory and its main shortcomings. The last section
concludes this chapter.
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Latin American ISI
Most Latin American countries went through a process of ISI between the early
thirties and the mid-eighties. ISI is an industrialization strategy based on the
systematic deepening and horizontal integration of manufacturing industry, with
the primary objective of replacing imports. Different countries experienced ISI in
distinct ways, depending on the modalities and extent of state intervention, the
form and severity of the balance of payments and financial constraints (especially
the structure of exports, the efficiency of the domestic financial system and the
role of foreign capital), the level and distribution of national income, the size of
the domestic market, the composition of the labour force and other variables.
Under ISI, manufacturing expansion typically departs from the
internalisation of production of non-durable consumer goods, such as processed
foods, beverages, tobacco products and cotton textiles. It later deepens to include
production of more complex durable consumer goods, especially household
appliances and automobile assembly, oil refining, simple chemical products and
cement. In a few countries, ISI can reach a third stage, when the manufacturing
structure becomes ‘complete’ (in the jargon of structuralism and dependency
theory) the production of basic and capital goods and technologically advanced
products, including industrial machinery, electronic instruments, and even modern
ships and aircraft designed with domestic technology. Although no Latin
American country ‘completed’ ISI in this sense, especially because of the
insufficient development of their technological capability, most countries
industrialized to some extent and, by the mid-eighties, Argentina, Brazil and
Mexico had made significant inroads into the last stage of import substitution. At
that point, ISI was interrupted, and most Latin American countries shifted towards
a neo-liberal policy model. Although this policy change has helped to address
some of the shortcomings of ISI, especially the propensity to high inflation, it has
left unresolved other deficiencies of the previous model, particularly the extreme
concentration of income and wealth and the chronic weakness of the local
financial system. Neo-liberalism has also blocked employment creation in most
countries, and led to the hollowing out of the manufacturing base of every country
where it was implemented. Policy-induced de-industrialization was especially
severe in Argentina, Chile and Peru, where local industry has been profoundly
disarticulated or nearly wiped out.
In Latin America, ISI was not usually due to deliberate policy choices,
although state support was essential for its continuity and relative success. In most
countries, ISI was the outcome of the success of primary product exports,
including sugar, coffee, cereals, meat, guano, bananas, rubber, copper and tin.
Success in traditional activities fostered the expansion of complementary
economic sectors, especially transport, storage, trading, finance and other service
industries. It also led to the emergence of a professional urban middle class and
the rapid expansion of the waged working class, whether through the state-
managed transformation of the pre-existing (largely peasant) workforce or through
state-sponsored mass immigration. Urbanisation, capital accumulation and income
growth created markets for low-technology non-durable consumer goods that
were too bulky or uneconomical to be profitably imported. For these reasons,
manufacturing development was normally located near the centres of primary
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production, such as Buenos Aires and São Paulo, where the essential requisites for
capitalist production were already present: wage workers, money capital, some
degree of mechanisation of production, markets, transport and trade links, and
finance (see Bulmer-Thomas 2003, Hirschman 1968, Thorp 1992). In sum, early
manufacturing development was almost invariably pro-cyclical and non-dualistic:
it depended heavily on the prosperity of the primary export sector, rather than
being autonomous from, or antagonistic to it. At a later stage, manufacturing
would expand during the downturns of the export sector, supplying the domestic
market when imports were not available. At an even later stage, it could become
largely independent of the fortunes of the primary export sector, finally becoming
large enough to lead the economy.
The two world wars and the Great Depression powerfully accelerated ISI.
These events were experienced in Latin America as strongly adverse exogenous
shocks. The Depression caused a sharp contraction of the region’s external
markets and a reduction of its commodity export prices, leading to a substantial
decline in Latin America’s capacity to import. In most countries, the purchasing
power of exports declined by at least one-third and, in some cases (especially
Chile and El Salvador), by more than two-thirds. The World Wars also
significantly reduced the availability of imports, because of the disruptions in the
main sources of manufactured exports and in the Atlantic trading system. Less
obviously, these adverse shocks also triggered large fiscal deficits in most Latin
American countries, because import tariffs were normally the most important
source of tax revenue (in many countries, tariffs generated 50 per cent of
government revenue in the late twenties (see Bulmer-Thomas 2003: 178, 192).
In normal circumstances, trade and fiscal deficits would have been
financed externally, but this was not possible during the wars or the Depression.
Governments were forced to choose between accepting vigorously expansionary
monetary policies and sharp devaluations of the exchange rate, or seeking to
impose fiscal balance through harshly contractionary fiscal policies, that would
inevitably worsen the economic crisis. In the large countries, where markets were
relatively developed and there was unused capacity in the non-export sector,
proto-Keynesian expansionary policies generally led to a rapid economic recovery
based on domestic manufacturing growth. In contrast, in the smaller countries,
where markets were relatively undeveloped and there was little unused capacity,
expansionary fiscal and monetary policies frequently triggered inflation and the
collapse of the exchange rate.
Latin American ISI was unquestionably successful on several grounds; for
example, it fostered extraordinarily rapid rates of economic growth for over half a
century, and led to profound economic, social and political transformations across
the region. In several countries, primary exports ceased being the main dynamic
force of the economy as early as the forties, allowing national income to grow
regardless of the fluctuations of export revenues. However, the extent of this shift
varied greatly, and manufacturing expansion was rarely smooth. It was frequently
hampered by political instability, administrative incompetence, institutional
inadequacies, poor infrastructure, lack of finance and skilled workers, insufficient
market size and lack of consensus around the industrialisation strategy, either for
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economic or ideological reasons. Different combinations of these factors explain
why Brazil and Mexico advanced further than Argentina and Peru on the road to
industrialisation, while Paraguay and Honduras hardly moved at all.
Latin American economies showed increasing signs of stress from the
fifties. Growth rates declined, political crises followed in rapid succession, and
there was mass discontent in several countries. Political democracy, often closely
associated with populism, exhausted itself and was replaced by military
dictatorships almost everywhere between the mid-sixties and the mid-seventies. It
was clear that ISI was plagued by severe shortcomings. Its decline was closely
followed by the crisis of structuralism, and the swift rise of dependency theory.
However, dependency did not thrive for long. When Latin American ISI entered
into terminal decline in the seventies and eighties, through bouts of financial
instability, foreign debt crises, economic stagnation and hyperinflation,
dependency theory also yielded to the combined weight of its internal
inconsistencies, persecution at home and ideological defeat abroad, as monetarism
and neo-liberalism became hegemonic around the world.
Structuralism
The Second World War turned several Latin American countries into net creditors
for the first time, and, by the end of the war, the region held large foreign currency
reserves. Latin America seemed to be poised for a long period of sustained growth
and, in fact, average GDP growth rates reached 5.8 per cent between 1945 and
1954, pushed by the expansion of the manufacturing sector. In spite of this, there
were severe doubts in Latin America and abroad about the viability and economic
efficiency of continuing industrialization.
In 1950, Raúl Prebisch, the Argentine central banker appointed executive
secretary of the newly-created UN Economic Commission for Latin America
(ECLA or, in Spanish and Portuguese, Cepal), outlined an innovative
interpretation of the ongoing Latin American transition from primary export-led
growth (desarrollo hacia afuera) to internally-oriented urban-industrial
development (desarrollo hacia adentro) (Prebisch 1950). This report became the
founding document of Latin American structuralism. In it, Prebisch reviewed the
limitations of the previous growth model, explained the origins of ISI, rationalised
the developmentalist (desarrollista) role of Latin American states, and submitted a
compelling case for industrialisation in order to overcome poverty and
underdevelopment. Prebisch’s report captured the spirit of the times and caused an
immediate sensation. During the next few years, an extraordinarily talented group
of Latin American economists would gravitate around the Cepal office in Santiago
(Chile), among them Celso Furtado, Octavio Paz, Aníbal Pinto, Osvaldo Sunkel
and Maria da Conceição Tavares. There, or in economic planning and finance
ministries or development agencies throughout the region, structuralists produced
influential papers, reports and economic plans that interpreted, legitimised and
directed the region’s process of industrialisation. The next section reviews the
principles of structuralism and its policy prescriptions, and the most important
critiques of structuralism.
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Principles and Policies
Structuralists were heavily influenced by Keynesianism and, at a further remove,
by the Veblen school of institutional political economy. They claimed that
markets do not always work well in poor countries (the food and labour markets
are especially prone to failure), argued that the state should promote
manufacturing growth at the expense of such primary activities as agriculture and
mining, did not shy away from recommending the nationalisation of strategic
industries, and vigorously advocated the democratisation of social and economic
life, including the promotion of social welfare, rising wages and the redistribution
of income and land. However, in contrast with their Keynesian colleagues in
developed countries, Latin American structuralists did not suggest that states
should fine-tune the level of demand in order to achieve short-term economic
stability. For them, rapid long-term growth is more important than stability, and
the state should focus primarily on the former, rather than the latter (see
Bielschowsky 2000, Rodríguez 1981, Sunkel and Paz 1970; for didactic
introductions to structuralism, see FitzGerald 2000, Kay 1989, Larraín 1989).
Latin American structuralism is dualist. Structuralists traditionally argue
that the production structures in the centre and the periphery are very distinct, and
that these regions fulfil different functions in the international division of labour.
Dualism in the world economy is replicated within the peripheral countries. While
productivity is high in all sectors of the economy in the industrialised countries,
the peripheral economies are heterogeneous. In these countries, productivity is
generally high in the primary export sector, but this sector tends to be a relatively
small enclave, often owned by foreign capital, and only loosely connected to the
rest of the economy. Although profits in this sector are high, they are also highly
concentrated, and tend to be either repatriated abroad by exporting firms or wasted
through luxury goods imports by the solvent classes. In addition to the highly
profitable export sector, there is also a relatively inefficient sector in the periphery
producing agricultural and manufactured goods for domestic consumption, as well
as a vast subsistence sector, where masses of isolated peasants scrape a living
outside the market economy. Dualism in the periphery and in the world economy
is due to the exploitative social and economic relations imposed by the process of
colonisation. These unequal relations are continually reinforced by commercial,
financial and cultural exchanges between rich and poor regions; therefore, they do
not tend to be overcome ‘spontaneously’ by market processes.
Structuralism is heavily critical of neoclassical economic theory,
especially its presumptions that markets work, that countries should specialise in
international trade according to their comparative advantage, and that economic
efficiency can be ascertained by microeconomic cost-benefit analysis.
Structuralists claim, instead, that markets do not work well in the periphery
because of structural (non-market) factors. They include strong trade unions in
urban areas, monopoly power in the manufacturing sector, concentration of power
and income in society, and the prevalence of large unproductive landholdings in
the countryside. These latifúndios are held for prestige reasons rather than
economic profit, and do not respond to price signals. For example, they
systematically fail to raise output when food prices increase due to the growth of
urban demand, contributing to food scarcity and inflation (the subsistence sector
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also fails to respond to market incentives, squeezing food supplies simultaneously
from two sides). Structuralists also argue that free trade and the existing
international division of labour systematically benefit the centre at the expense of
the periphery, because of the secular decline of the periphery’s terms of trade (see
below). Finally, they suggest that investment projects should be assessed macro-
economically (presumably, by state agencies) because economic development
generates strong externalities that must be factored into cost-benefit analyses.
Loss-making ventures may therefore deserve subsidies, or may be undertaken by
state-owned enterprises, because of their growth or employment-creating potential
or positive implications for other sectors of the economy.
The deterioration of the periphery’s terms of trade (the ‘Prebisch-Singer
hypothesis’, see Prebisch 1950, Singer 1950) is one of the distinguishing features
of Latin American structuralism, and has generated a vast and continuing debate.
Terms of trade are the ratio between the unit prices of exports and imports of a
given country. Starting from trade equilibrium and ignoring financial flows, a
country’s terms of trade improve if its exports become relatively more valuable,
allowing it to accumulate trade surpluses (or import more) with the same quantum
of exports. Conversely, if the relative price of the country’s imports increases, its
terms of trade decline. In this case, the country will run a trade deficit or,
alternatively, it will have to export more in order to restore its trade balance. In a
world with financial flows, the deterioration of terms of trade may also be
temporarily compensated by foreign debt, foreign investment, or aid flows.
The deterioration of terms of trade can be analysed from the supply or
demand sides. Let us start from the supply side. In the periphery, there is a large
pool of unemployed and underemployed workers, mostly based in the rural
subsistence sector, but also, increasingly, in urban areas, preventing modern
(manufacturing and export) sector wages from rising the employers can hire all
the workers they need at the going wage. In this case, if there is productivity
growth in the modern sector, unit costs decline and output prices tend to fall
because of competition, transferring to the buyers (based in the centre) a large part
of the benefits of productivity growth in the periphery. In contrast, in the centre,
unemployment is low, the workers are unionised, and they resist nominal wage
cuts. In this case, productivity growth reduces unit costs, but prices do not fall: the
gains are appropriated by the workers and their employers through higher wages
and profits. Since primary product prices tend to fall while the prices of
manufactures remain constant, the periphery’s terms of trade tend to decline over
time.
Let us now shift to the demand side. Goods can be divided into necessities
(food and other primary products) and luxuries (manufactures). The economic
difference between them is that the demand for necessities grows more slowly
than income (i.e., their income elasticity of demand is less than one), while the
demand for luxuries grows more rapidly than income (their income elasticity of
demand is greater than one). If the periphery exports necessities and imports
luxury goods, as income rises in the periphery of the world economy, its ratio of
imports to consumption tends to increase, leading to excess demand for imports,
higher prices for manufactures, and balance of trade deficits. In contrast, as
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income rises in the centre, its ratio of imports to consumption tends to decline,
primary product prices tend to fall, and the centre’s balance of payments tends to
improve.
Structuralists claim that the periphery can escape from this vicious circle
only through industrialisation. Manufacturing expansion would allow peripheral
countries to avoid the tendency towards the deterioration of their terms of trade
and, instead, benefit from rising terms of trade. It would also alleviate their
balance of payments constraint, permit export diversification, provide an
alternative engine of growth, offer an important source of employment and
contribute to rapid productivity growth, raising living standards and helping to
eliminate poverty. Industrialisation would also modernise society through
introduction of new technologies and new (urban, sophisticated, developed)
values. For them, writing in mid-20th century Latin America, import substitution
was the only realistic industrialisation strategy. Manufacturing exports to the
centre seemed to be unfeasible, because of protectionism, the poor quality of Latin
American goods, and their high prices, partly due to low productivity, and partly
to the overvalued exchange rates in most countries (which cheapens the capital
goods imports required by manufacturing development, but makes exports more
expensive in dollar terms). Finally, industrialisation in the periphery could be
successful only with state support. ‘Spontaneous’ ISI is limited, because of
competition from established foreign producers, lack of infrastructure (which
could not be supplied by a weak private sector lacking technology and finance),
insufficient co-ordination of production and investment decisions, and resistance
by powerful interests, preventing the indispensable transfer of resources from the
primary sector. Industrial success necessitates state subsidies, affordable credit,
trade protection for infant industries, foreign exchange controls, and the attraction
of foreign capital and technology to the growing manufacturing sector.
Finally, structuralists claim that Latin American industrialisation is
severely limited by the lack of savings to finance investment in the ‘modern’
sector. On the one hand, public savings are low because the tax system is both
regressive and inefficient. On the other hand, private savings are insufficient
because the periphery’s large labour surplus and low average productivity limits
incomes and savings; moreover, the wealthy groups tend to mimic the luxury
consumption patterns originating from the centre, which drains away the country’s
savings and foreign exchange. Here, too, state intervention is essential, in order to
stimulate the growth of savings and productivity, and direct resources away from
wasteful luxury goods imports.
Critiques of Structuralism
Structuralism was criticised from different angles, especially by mainstream
economists and the dependency and Marxist schools. Their arguments are briefly
reviewed below.
The Neoclassical Critique
Mainstream economists often conflate structuralism with ISI (see, for example,
Bruton 1981, 1998;, Little, Scitovsky and Scott 1970). Although this
oversimplifies the process of industrialization in Latin America, and grossly
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exaggerates the role of structuralism in bringing about ISI, it facilitates the
critique of structuralism because it can be blamed even for those shortcomings of
ISI first highlighted by Cepal.
Neo-classical economists claim that structuralism and ISI were misguided
theoretically and costly in practice. They argue that there is no harm specialising
in primary exports because, first, attempts to demonstrate the Prebisch-Singer
hypothesis have been either inconclusive or methodologically flawed and, second,
the shift of incentives towards the manufacturing sector, in which Latin America
does not have comparative advantage, misallocates resources in the present and
reduces growth rates in the future. Manufacturing inefficiency is due to
inadequate (excessively capital-intensive) technologies imported from the
developed countries. These technologies are not conducive to cost-efficiency,
because Latin America lacks the adequate combination of factors of production as
well as market size needed for the efficient use of these technologies. They also
lead to urban unemployment, since rural dwellers tend to flock into the cities
looking for non-existent ‘good’ urban jobs. Since these causes of inefficiency
could not be eliminated rapidly, Latin American industries would need to be
protected indefinitely, which would be enormously expensive and hugely wasteful
(it would be much more efficient to direct resources towards the further expansion
of the primary sector, in which Latin America had comparative advantage).
Moreover, blanket infant industry protection, as was often the case in Latin
America, would foster the over-diversification of manufacturing, replicating the
problems of technological inadequacy and economic inefficiency across several
sectors, and leading to rent-seeking behaviour as entrepreneurs look for profit
opportunities generated by protection, other incentives, legal loopholes or
corruption. Finally, neoclassical economists claim that state economic activism is
inflationary, because subsidies to private and state-owned enterprises, and
‘populist’ funding of public services, generate large fiscal deficits that tend to be
financed by printing money.
In sum, although ISI may lead to a limited period of rapid growth, it is
unsustainable in the long term because of its cumulative inefficiencies, and
because it causes rising inflation and unemployment. Economic recovery requires
a shift of investment towards the primary sector, export diversification, industrial
rationalisation (eliminating the inefficient producers), and public expenditure cuts
to control inflation and reduce the economic role of the state.
The Left Critique
Left-wing critics of structuralism, especially the dependency theorists and
Marxists, had an altogether different view of structuralism and ISI.
1
Many had
worked with Cepal or reformist governments, and their critique was often based
on first-hand experience of the limitations of manufacturing development in Latin
America, and profound familiarity with structuralist theory.
Dependency theorists and Marxists rightly acknowledged that
structuralism could not be blamed for many of the shortcomings of ISI. Their
critique was, therefore, largely conceptual. First, dependency theorists and
Marxists claimed that the theory of structural duality does not provide a
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satisfactory account of the different forms of labour in Latin America, including
the persistence of (low productivity) remnants of feudalism and slavery, the
diffusion of subsistence production, and their intricate relationship to the (high
productivity) modern sector.
Second, Cepal expected the urban bourgeoisie to lead the process of
industrialisation, and the majority of the population was normally included in the
analysis only as consumers or wage workers, rather than as independent social and
political agents. This is insufficient, because structuralists themselves gradually
realised that the local bourgeoisie is profoundly dependent on their foreign
counterparts, and will never engage in a consistent (and necessarily radical)
project of autonomous national development. Moreover, it gradually became clear
that the fruits of manufacturing development would not spontaneously trickle
down to the poor, as the structuralists initially expected. For the left-wing critics
of structuralism, sustained manufacturing development and distribution of
income, wealth and power can be achieved only through popular or socialist
governments (see below).
Third, the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis is untenable and should be rejected.
Its use of the undifferentiated concepts of ‘primary products’ and ‘manufactures’
is unhelpful, since they cannot be distinguished unambiguously (at what stage of
processing does a primary product become a manufactured good?), and because
no country exports ‘primary products’ as such – the international markets for
coffee, copper, meat and other primary products are profoundly different from one
another, and these differences should be taken into account in any study of price
trends and their implications for specialisation. Finally, the use of international
commodity prices is misleading. They are only loosely related to the farm-gate
prices received by producers in the periphery and, therefore, cannot explain their
economic behaviour.
Fourth, it became clear in the late fifties that ISI suffered from
fundamental problems that structuralism was ill equipped to address. ISI had
worsened the balance of payments constraint, both because the transfers from the
primary sector (required to support industrial development) had sapped export
performance, and because imports had become increasingly incompressible.
While consumer goods imports can be cut relatively painlessly in the event of
adverse fluctuations of primary product prices, industrial inputs are rigid. With
ISI, crises affecting the export sector often triggered the contraction of
manufacturing output and urban unemployment. ISI had also increased the
concentration of income and the degree of foreign dependence, now including
technology, finance, ownership of industry, culture, patterns of consumption and
so on. Finally, being based on imported technology, the Latin American industrial
plants normally had excess capacity, which contributed to industrial concentration
and reduced competition. In sum, contrary to all expectations, ISI had increased
the power of large players, and the economy’s vulnerability to adverse external
shocks.
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Dependency Theory
Dependency theory was developed in the sixties and seventies by Fernando
Henrique Cardoso, André Gunder Frank, Ruy Mauro Marini, Theotonio dos
Santos, Immanuel Wallerstein and others.
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They offered a radical critique of
capitalism in the periphery, in the context of the exhaustion of the post-war boom
in the centre, and the crisis of ISI, the collapse of populism and the theoretical
decline of structuralism in Latin America. Dependency theory is concerned
primarily with the exploitation of the periphery by the centre, including the
different forms of extraction of economic surplus, and the mechanisms of surplus
transfer to the centre. This approach rapidly became a leading paradigm in many
countries and, even today, dependency theory continues to be influential among
left-wing organisations and movements, for example, in the global justice, anti-
globalisation and anti-capitalist movements.
Intellectual Sources and Features
Dependency theory was inspired primarily by Latin American structuralism and
the US ‘monopoly capital’ school. The influence of structuralism hardly needs
mentioning. It includes the division of the world economy into centre and
periphery, the claim that polarisation is furthered by unequal exchange between
these areas (drawing inspiration, in part, from the Prebisch-Singer hypothesis), the
view that the existing distribution of assets (especially land) prevents the
expansion of the domestic market in the periphery, the argument that economic
development requires political autonomy, completion of the manufacturing base,
independent technological capacity, and so on.
Monopoly capital theory was developed by the American economists Paul
Sweezy and Paul Baran (see Baran 1957, Baran and Sweezy 1966) and their
associates in the journal Monthly Review. This interpretation of contemporary
capitalism is based on the theories of Marx, Keynes, Kalecki and Steindl. It
claims, first, that modern capitalism is dominated by large corporations
(monopolies). Concentration and centralisation of capital facilitates the increase of
prices relative to wages, concentrating income and reducing the intensity of
competition. The latter, in turn, slows down technical change and contributes to
the stagnating tendency of modern capitalism (see, especially, Steindl 1952).
Second, in developed capitalist economies, there is a problem of absorption of the
(growing) surplus produced by firms. The actual surplus is defined at the
macroeconomic level as the difference between actual output and essential
consumption (with wages fixed at the subsistence level) while, at the level of the
firm, surplus is the excess of revenue over costs, which includes profits and such
‘unnecessary’ costs as advertising and sales promotion expenditure. The surplus
tends to rise because of the relative decline of costs, including wages, which
creates a potential (macroeconomic) problem of lack of demand in developed
economies. Insufficient demand can be addressed in different ways, including
wasteful sales effort, state expenditure, militarism and imperialism (see Sawyer
1999).
Baran (1957) applied these insights to the relationship between centre and
periphery. For him, development and underdevelopment are inseparable because
the centre developed historically on the basis of colonialism, imperialism and
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plunder which, in turn, created underdevelopment in the periphery. Today, the
centre profits from the capture of surplus from the periphery through unequal
trading and financial relations, perpetuating the subordination of this area of the
world economy. These elements were combined into several dependency
approaches, whose core is summarised below.
First, dependency theory is historical and rejects dualism. It focuses,
instead, on an integrated world system based on a network of exchange relations
in which centre and periphery fulfil different, but inseparable roles. The periphery
was incorporated into the world system by the expansion of commercial
capitalism in the late fifteenth century and, since then, it has been subjected to
different types of dependence: mercantile during the colonial era, industrial-
financial from the late nineteenth century, and technological-industrial since the
mid-twentieth century. During these phases, colonialism, imperialism and unequal
trade and financial relations led to surplus transfers to the centre. There are no
sharp differences between ‘modern’ and ‘backward’ areas in the underdeveloped
economies peripheral countries are capitalist by virtue of their articulation with
the world market, even if (for functional or historical reasons) distinct modes of
labour exploitation can be found there. In sum, the backwardness of the periphery
is not due to the ‘lack’ of capitalist development, as argued by Cepal (and
neoclassical economists), but to prevailing international relations of capitalist
exploitation and subordination.
Second, dependence has created peculiar social structures in the periphery,
especially a parasitic comprador ruling class, or lumpenbourgeoisie. Typically,
this class manages the exploitation of the locals on behalf of the centre, exports
the products of their labour (and the corresponding surplus), and purchases from
abroad goods allowing it to live in luxury amidst the squalor of a despoiled land.
Their high living standards, and the transfers to the centre, are possible only
because of the extremely high rates of exploitation in the periphery; however, as a
result, this region lacks both resources and markets for autonomous development.
In sum, dependence is based on the coincidence of interests between the elites
based in the centre and the peripheral comprador class, and marginalizes and
impoverishes the masses.
Third, surplus is transferred to the centre by unequal exchange, profit
remittances by transnational companies and financial transactions, especially debt
repayment and capital flight. These transfers depress incomes, welfare standards
and investment in the periphery, and produce a distorted growth pattern favouring
the production of primary products for export and of luxury goods for domestic
consumption.
For Frank and other dependentistas, the relations binding the centre and
the periphery have generated a process of ‘development of underdevelopment’:
underdevelopment is not a transitional stage through which countries must pass
but, rather, a condition that plagues regions involved in the international economy
in a subordinate position. For them, dependent capitalism is not progressive
because it does not lead to the systematic development of labour productivity and
the satisfaction of wants in the periphery, while capitalism in the centre is no
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longer progressive because it is parasitical on the periphery. Therefore, the
periphery can develop only after radical political change including, for many
dependentistas, the elimination of relations of dependence (and the comprador
class) and the institution of socialism.
Critiques of Dependency Theory
Dependency theory has been criticised from several angles (see, for example,
Brenner 1977, Laclau 1971, Lall 1975). In what follows, two critically important
shortcomings of dependency theory are addressed.
Structuralism
The shortcomings of structuralist theory were reviewed above, and do not need to
be repeated here; only two implications for dependency will be pointed out. First,
dependency theory turns the evolutionist aspects of structuralism on their head.
Drawing upon structuralism (and modernisation theory more generally),
dependency writers often select certain supposedly progressive tendencies in
Western capitalist development. These tendencies are transformed into a general
model, and what is perceived to have taken place in the periphery is a distortion
from the model, due to the exploitation of the periphery by the developed centre.
Consequently, the usual conclusions are reversed: metropolitan policy and
technology exports are malevolent, rather than beneficial, the net balance of
payments’ impact of foreign direct investment is negative, the local elite is an
exploiting clique, rather than a modernising bourgeoisie, international trade
perpetuates underdevelopment, and attempts at capitalist development bring
stagnation and deepen the underdevelopment of the periphery.
Second, dependency theory is even more overtly functionalist than
structuralism. It subordinates agency to structure, and assumes that the historical
development and the social structure of the periphery can be explained by their
functionality to Western capitalism. Development is ultimately impossible under
capitalism because there is no scope for independent agency: dependent countries
tied to the world market cannot develop. The obvious alternative is to delink from
the capitalist world-system through a socialist revolution however, this
conclusion is never rendered compatible with the subordination of agency to
structure at every stage in the analysis. More generally, dependency theory
frequently fails to analyse how the social relations in the periphery change and
how human agency in the centre and the periphery shapes the relationship
between these regions.
3
Monopoly Capital
The monopoly capital school argues that the concentration and centralisation of
capital are defining features of modern capitalism, that they lead to monopoly,
loss of economic dynamism and create a tendency towards under-consumption,
and that these difficulties can be addressed only through wasteful expenditures
and militarism at home, and imperialism abroad.
These elements of dependency theory are vulnerable on four grounds (see
Bleaney 1976, Chattopadhyay 2000, Fine and Murfin 1984). First, dependency
theory and the monopoly capital school do not define monopoly power clearly or
13
consistently, and do not adequately explain how it arises and influences the
reproduction of industrial capital, the circulation of money and the distribution of
income. The theory of monopoly pricing is especially weak, being little more than
a collation of the ideas of the Austrian Marxist Rudolf Hilferding and the Polish
precursor of Keynes, Michał Kalecki. Monopoly capital and dependency tend to
underestimate the role of demand in the determination of prices, and to exaggerate
the importance of firm size, rather than focus on the (transnational) structure of
supply chains, in which case, size would become a secondary and possibly
unimportant issue. They also fail to consider the extent to which state regulation
and the potential entry of (domestic or foreign) competitors might compel even
large firms to follow competitive strategies, and to what extent monopoly power
makes stagnation and crises inevitable. Finally, they pay scant regard to the
counter-tendencies to the concentration and centralisation of capital, claiming that
monopolisation is not only a basic, but also a largely unavoidable tendency in
modern capitalism.
Second, the concept of surplus developed by Baran and Sweezy, and
adopted by dependency theory, is analytically unsatisfactory. It rests on an
arbitrary definition of ‘essential consumption’ on the part of the workers, whose
level is determined normatively by the analyst, and on an external distinction
between ‘necessary’ and ‘surplus’ elements of the social product (in which case,
even adornments in otherwise useful goods, such as automobiles, are part of the
surplus). This concept is, therefore, inevitably subjective.
Third, the monopoly capital and dependency approaches claim that all
countries involved in international trade are equally capitalist, and that
connections to the world trading system (and the ensuing surplus transfers) play a
determining role in the underdevelopment of the periphery leaving unexplained
the economic development of such countries as Canada, Ireland, Japan and South
Korea, and suggesting that relatively isolated countries in Latin America and sub-
Saharan Africa are more likely to grow ‘autonomously’ than wealthier countries
closely linked to international trade and financial flows.
Finally, dependency theory and the monopoly capital school make an
inconsistent case for socialism, because their claim that capitalist development is
impossible in the periphery is insufficient to support the case for revolution. At
best, the argument that the periphery is exploited by the centre implicitly makes a
case for nationalism for, if underdevelopment is due to international integration,
the logical solution is not socialism, but a (delinked) national development
strategy. Perception of this limitation in the dependency school is supported by the
fact that only exceptionally does it address directly the domestic relations of
exploitation. In practice, this approach leaves the state as the most important agent
of national emancipation, which, again, is incompatible with their purported
socialist strategic objectives.
Conclusion
Structuralism and dependency theory have shown the limitations of neoclassical
development economics. They also demolished old (self-serving) prejudices about
the periphery’s place in the world that claimed that its specialisation in primary
14
product exports was both ‘natural’ and ‘desirable’, and that these countries were
unsuited for the industrial development. Structuralism and dependency also
creatively explained the shifts in Latin America’s productive structure since the
colonial era, showed that comparative advantage is created, rather than divinely
ordained, and outlined a compelling case for national economic autonomy. These
approaches evolved over time and tended to become increasingly radical, in
response to the limitations of ISI, the perceived deterioration of the economic,
social and political conditions in the periphery since the sixties, and their
increasing awareness of the obstacles to the realisation of Latin America’s
potential. They were, however, essentially nationalist and developmentalist
theories, drawing upon Keynesian, Marxist and other insights, and focusing their
hopes of economic and social change on different agents: in one case, the
industrial bourgeoisie and, in the other, the state, as the vehicles for the realisation
of the economic aspirations of the urban and rural masses.
Several reasons explain why structuralism and dependency theory lost the
battle of ideas. They include, on the one hand, increasing political, ideological and
economic pressure emanating from the centre, combined with the onslaught of
local dictatorships against dissenting intellectuals, frequently leading to denial of
employment, imprisonment, exile and (for those unprotected by fame or powerful
connections) even execution. On the other hand, these schools of thought also
failed because of their own theoretical insufficiencies.
For example, structuralism was unable to outline viable short-term
stabilisation policies addressing the disequilibria induced by ISI, or consistent
development policies after the exhaustion of ISI had taken hold in the late fifties
and early sixties. The latter was especially problematic given the lack of interest
of domestic capitalists in the structuralist strategy of market expansion through
land reform, higher wages and regional economic integration. Structuralism also
signally failed to evaluate in a timely manner the implications of the changes in
the international financial system, which eliminated the scarcity of dollars
plaguing the early post-war economy, and the evolution of the international
division of labour, that created integrated production chains spanning the world.
The collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, and the international debt
crisis from 1982, posed challenges that structuralism was simply unable to
address. Its telling denunciation of the costs of structural adjustment could not
mask the fact that structuralists had nothing new to offer. Many followers became
disillusioned and adhered to the mainstream, or simply abandoned attempts to
offer alternatives to the Washington Consensus. Cepal still produces insightful
reports that must be read by anyone interested in Latin America, and its dataset
remains indispensable, but its influence in academic and political circles has
declined significantly, and it has been unable to provide a much-needed counter-
weight to the hegemony of neo-liberalism in the region.
4
In turn, dependency theory collapsed because of the theoretical
inconsistencies explained above, and because of its inability to provide a
convincing explanation of the changes in the world economy in the eighties and
nineties, including the accelerated transnationalisation of productive capital and
finance, the rapid development of many East Asian countries, and the continuing
15
stagnation of other regions. Elements of dependency theory can still be found in
several critical approaches, and left-wing NGOs and activist movements can
readily incorporate dependency views, but they continue to lack consistent
foundations.
The claim, made by structuralism and dependency theory, that
subordination to the world market seals the fate of nations is wrong. Inequality,
poverty, low productivity and sluggish growth in the periphery, their propensity to
import luxury goods and transfer profits to the centre, and the lack of co-
ordination of economic activity in many countries, are due primarily to the social
structures prevailing in the periphery, rather than their international trade
relations. One the most significant implications of this conclusion is that Latin
American ISI was limited by an elite pact with two key features, that were
perceived clearly only retrospectively. First, property rights were untouchable.
Consequently, no significant land reform could be achieved (except through
revolutionary processes), which limited the capitalist transformation of the region
to the relatively undemocratic ‘Prussian’ path.
5
For the same reason, the
reorganisation of the financial system for the adequate funding of rapid
industrialisation was also impossible in Latin America. Second, the elite pact
sheltered the agro-export interests and maximised their influence upon the state, to
the detriment of the rising industrial capitalists and the urban middle and working
classes (who were not party to the elite pact). While the industrial capitalists
defended their interests through negotiations, brokered by the state, with other
elite segments, the other urban actors found it difficult to be heard. Their attempt
to bypass strongly conservative state institutions (especially the legislature and the
judiciary) through populism was, however, limited and essentially conservative.
The promotion of economic change and the management of social conflicts by a
powerful populist executive hindered the consolidation of democratic
representative institutions in most of Latin America, at least until the eighties.
In Latin America and other parts of the world, income, wealth and power
remain concentrated in the hands of powerful elites. Limited democracy, weak
states and stunted growth have also contributed to the perpetuation of the features
of underdevelopment that originally motivated structuralism and dependency
theory. Their concerns remain valid in the early twenty-first century, and there is
scope for the development of alternatives to the mainstream, responding to old as
well as other concerns, such as environmental sustainability, gender equality, the
coexistence of underemployment, personal debt and overwork, and other urgent
problems of rich and poor nations.
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Notes
1
The most comprehensive left-wing critiques of ISI and structuralism are provided by Cardoso
and Falleto (1979) and Tavares (1978).
18
2
See, among others, Cardoso and Falleto (1979), Frank (1966, 1972), Marini (1973), dos Santos
(1970) and Wallerstein (1974, 1980, 1989).
3
Cardoso and Faletto (1979) sought to analyse concrete situations of dependence in Latin
America, but with only limited success; see Weeks and Dore (1979).
4
For a sample of recent work, see the Cepal website (www.cepal.org) and Ocampo (2002).
5
For a detailed contrast between the ‘Prussian’ and ‘American’ paths of agrarian transformation
and capitalist accumulation, see Byres (1996).
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