No Colonial Working Class, No Post-Colonial Development: a Comparative-Historical Analysis of Two Oil-Rich Countries

Abstract

Development sociologists generally agree that states play a critical role in promoting, as well as in impeding, development. However, far less scholarly consensus exists on the precise historical processes that lead either to strong or to weak states. This paper investigates the factors that shape varied state capacities through a comparative-historical analysis of two similar countries with divergent development outcomes—Trinidad and Tobago and Gabon. In the 1960s, both countries had comparably large amounts of oil wealth, minimal state involvement in the economy, and low levels of development. In the 1970s, state capacity in Trinidad and Tobago dramatically increased and the country went on to achieve high levels of development. The Gabonese state, on the other hand, remained weak resulting in persistent low levels of development. This paper traces the divergence in state capacity to variations in working class mobilization, specifically the particular type of working class movements in each country and the political opportunity contexts. In doing so, this paper reveals new agents and contingencies producing state capacity that are not predominantly discussed in the contemporary development literature, and the meso-level mechanics by which these agents are successful or constrained in doing so.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Both countries pursued very limited import-substitution policies to increase manufacturing (GOG 1963:39; GOG 1966:298–300; GOG 1971:64; GOTT 1958:15–16; Yebe 1993:48). Still, manufacturing (% of GDP) remained very small throughout the 1960–1972 period (see Table 1).

  2. 2.

    Although Gabon was an OPEC member and T&T was not (see McGuire (1981:200–202) for details about T&T’s OPEC application), both nations experienced comparable increase in oil prices and production (Table 3 Appendix).

  3. 3.

    In 1960, whites as a proportion of the total population were approximately 1.9% in T&T (MacDonald 1986:146), and 0.9% in Gabon (McNamara 1989:138).

  4. 4.

    Some who distinguish between direct and indirect colonial rule (Lange 2009; Mamdani 1996) may argue that T&T outperformed Gabon because it experienced direct rule where the British established strong, centralized state institutions favorable to long-term development. Conversely, indirect rule in Gabon meant that French colonial officials collaborated with indigenous actors, which created a decentralized, weak, despotic state that impeded long-run development. While the direct/indirect distinction may accurately capture variations of rule within the British Empire where this difference was codified (Lange 2009), applying these categories to other European colonies proves difficult. Many argue that French rule in Africa was more direct because chiefs were more tightly integrated into the administrative apparatus (Crowder 1964) and still others find that Gabon experienced an entirely different form of rule that conformed to neither category (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1972). Even in T&T, the line between direct and indirect rule was blurred. The colonial state was nepotistic rather than meritocratic and many state structures were severely understaffed and under-resourced (Titus 2009; Trotman 1986). Moreover, unlike other directly ruled colonies (e.g., Mauritius), T&T inhabitants were not allowed to elect persons to legislative bodies (Ledgister 1998).

  5. 5.

    By 1921, Indians comprised 33% of the T&T population. The other largest group was people of African descent, and the rest came from Europe, China, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Indians and Africans were 35 and 47% of the population in 1947, respectively (Harewood 1975; Ryan 1972). Of Gabon’s present-day 52 ethnic groups, the Fang were the largest proportion of the population (about one third) (Jean-Baptiste 2014).

  6. 6.

    A two-party system emerged in both countries in the post-war 1946–1962 period: the People’s National Movement (PNM)—a middle-class nationalist party led by Eric Williams, with the unions’ support, became the first government of independent T&T (Bolland 2001:457–461), and the Comité mixte gabonaise (CMG) party led by Leon Mba formed the first government of Gabon (Yates 1996:103–105).

  7. 7.

    See Palmer (2006) for details.

  8. 8.

    See Barnes (1992) and Yates (1996) for details.

  9. 9.

    By the mid-1980s, both Gabon and T&T succumbed to severe debt crises and underwent IMF-imposed structural adjustment. See Yates (1996) and Keily (1996) for details of each government’s response to the subsequent public discontent, protests, and even attempted coup d’états.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Michael Biggs, Kara Cebulko, Samuel Cohn, Orly Clerge, Cedric de Leon, Susan Eckstein, Julian Go, Kim Scipes, James Mahoney, Sigrun Olafsdottir, Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi, Trina Vithayathil, and the reviewers for their critical feedback and helpful comments on various drafts of the article.

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Correspondence to Zophia Edwards.

Appendix

Appendix

This study also provokes other questions related to the emergence of a strong/weak working class movement in T&T/Gabon, respectively, and direction of causality. First, one may wonder why a strong working class with these particular features developed in T&T in the first place, and why labor was weak in Gabon. While this is beyond the purview of this particular paper, some of these contextual factors shaping working class strength, such as extent of labor repression and timing of the oil industry’s emergence, have been discussed.

The possibility of reverse causality in this study is another important question. After all, Rueschemeyer et al.’s (1992) study of the emergence of democracy (not development) argues that capitalist development—marked by increases in wealth, urbanization, communication and transport, and literacy—increases working class power (which, in turn, brings about democracy). Along these dimensions of capitalist development, it is difficult to assert definitively that T&T or Gabon was “more developed” than the other: both had similar levels of wealth, Gabon was more urbanized, and T&T had higher literacy. In addition, as many have shown, highly capitalistic economies do not always produce development in the sense of enhancing human capabilities (Sen 1999). This study is able to decisively show that the state, in T&T for instance, explicitly cited working class mobilization as the impetus and rationale for developmental state reforms.

Table 3 Increases in oil prices and oil production in T&T and Gabon

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Edwards, Z. No Colonial Working Class, No Post-Colonial Development: a Comparative-Historical Analysis of Two Oil-Rich Countries. St Comp Int Dev 53, 477–499 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12116-017-9255-9

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Keywords

  • Development
  • State capacity
  • Working class
  • Resource curse
  • Colonialism