Development for whom? Beyond the developed/underdeveloped dichotomy

Abstract

The developed/underdeveloped dichotomy is the starting point of mainstream theories of development. Based on a theoretical framework inherited from modernisation theories, they represent development as the process through which productive structures in the Global South are transformed following the footsteps of the Global North. Dependency theories productively challenged this linear conception of development, but failed to provide a consistent alternative because of their incapacity to move beyond the developed/underdeveloped dichotomy. In this article, I claim that Trotsky’s concept of uneven and combined development finally indicates a way to think of development beyond the developed/underdeveloped dichotomy. Through analogies with the work of the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, I contrast the concept of uneven and combined development with competing views of development to show both that it makes better sense of particular development trajectories and that it offers a better theoretical base for political action. By stressing the necessarily perspectived character of development, the concept of uneven and combined development makes it possible to ask a crucial question often overlooked: development for whom?

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    By defining it as ‘theoretical-political’ problem, I take Kees Van der Pijl’s point that ‘the quest for a new society’ shall be recovered as ‘a criterion for relevance in social science’ (Van Der Pijl 2001, p. 380). De Sousa Santos (2007, p. xviii) also makes a similar claim.

  2. 2.

    For Boaventura de Sousa Santos (1988, p. 63), ‘the post-modern science is declaredly analogical, knowing the things it knows worst through the things it knows best’. According to that perspective, analogies are much more than mere illustrations. They have the power to illuminate our understanding of things that defy our capacity of representation. The power of analogies will become clear in the fifth section of this text, particularly regarding the concept of ‘pluriverse’.

  3. 3.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer at JIRD for calling my attention to the use of the term ‘take off’ in that context.

  4. 4.

    Under the label of dependency theories many different ideas are loosely reunited, therefore I prefer referring to them in the plural. For a comprehensive bibliography on dependency theories put together by one of its most important names, see dos Santos (1998).

  5. 5.

    The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean was established in 1948, under the leadership of the Argentine economist Raul Prebisch, soon becoming the home of Latin American Developmentalism. Key texts of different generations of ECLAC economists were republished in a two-volume collection organised by Bielschowsky (2000). For an overview of ECLAC and dependency theories, including the tense but fruitful relations between the two schools, see Kay (2010).

  6. 6.

    Marini’s argument relies on Marx’s distinction between relative and absolute surplus value. While the former is based on a reduction of the relative value of labour, by pushing down the value of the working class’ consumption goods (i.e. its reproduction cost), the latter is based on an increase in the absolute exploitation of labour, via increasing working hours, or intensification of work in regular working hours. In both cases, capitalists extract surplus value from the production process, but in the first case, the side effect is the creation of a dynamic mass consumption market for the working class, while the latter leads to a continued depression of internal markets in peripheral countries due to low salaries, sometimes below the cost of reproduction of labour itself (super-exploitation). Furthermore, these two forms of surplus extraction complement one another, as the extraction of relative surplus value in central economies requires the continued reduction of the value of consumption goods produced elsewhere.

  7. 7.

    ‘[T]oday, the new ideologists of the Brazilian bourgeoisie [Serra and Cardoso] find themselves obliged to retake this tradition [developmentalism] and try to give credibility to a Brazilian capitalist development in an American or European fashion. In a nutshell, we are facing a neodevelopmentalism, still ashamed of itself, but that will soon lose its inhibitions’ (Marini 1978, p. 102–103). This is the first academic use of the term ‘neodevelopmentalism’, which would become popular three decades later in reference to post-neoliberal governments in Latin America (Antunes de Oliveira 2018).

  8. 8.

    Cardoso’s final retreat to an unquestionably developmentalist theoretical position is clear in texts published in the 1990s, in which he dismisses the thesis that peripheral countries would necessarily develop in ‘distorted’ ways: ‘Today we know that it is not true. Countries which were able to manage their economies sensibly to the transformation of modes of production within capitalism, as well as to social issues, have had more favourable trajectories than others. The case of the Asian Tigers is well-known. What remained of “determinism” in the dependency theory, maybe a Marxist trait—and I always criticized determinism—certainly must be fundamentally reformulated’ (Cardoso 1995, p. 151). His practice as President actually reveals an even more drastic stepping back, including alliances with traditional oligarchies and the full-scale embrace of neoliberal policies. As summarised by Perry Anderson, ‘[i]n pursuit of office Cardoso had sacrificed not only his early convictions, which were Marxist and socialist, but over time his intellectual standards’ (Anderson 2016).

  9. 9.

    The lack of a consistent concept of development in Marx can be seen as a consequence of the lack of theorisation of ‘the international’ in classical sociology (Rosenberg 2006; Makki 2015). No consistent concept of development is possible without a proper theorisation of international relations, as the relational character of development is missed.

  10. 10.

    The concept of uneven and combined development—now under the acronym UCD—was revisited and reappropriated by Justin Rosenberg as the cornerstone of an alternative perspective to the neorealist paradigm in international relations. Neorealism, as it is widely accepted, confines geopolitical and sociological phenomena into two different and incommensurable realms, thereby divorcing international relations from other social sciences (Waltz 1979). Drawing on UCD, Rosenberg found a simple yet ingenious way around this theoretical problem. Avoiding the standard Marxist procedure of reducing inter-societal relations to simple expressions of the class struggle—which would represent not a real bridging between geopolitical and sociological phenomena but the subordination of the first to the second—the author finds in the principle of unevenness, understood as ‘the most general law of the historical process’, the sociological origin of political multiplicity. Hence, international relations can be understood sociologically as the uneven and combined development of multiple societies in permanent interaction. In Rosenberg’s words: ‘the international, quite simply, […] is nothing other than the highest expression of uneven and combined development. This is its sociological definition’ (Rosenberg 2006, p. 328). After Rosenberg’s pioneering work, a number of writers have been exploring the potentialities of UCD. Outstanding examples include Matin (2013a), Morton (2013), Anievas (2011), Anievas and Matin (2016).

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the participants of the Cornell-Sussex Development Workshop for comments on an early version of this paper. I offer my special thanks to Dr Louise Wise and Professors Justin Rosenberg, Ben Selwyn and Fouad Makki.

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Correspondence to Felipe Antunes de Oliveira.

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Antunes de Oliveira, F. Development for whom? Beyond the developed/underdeveloped dichotomy. J Int Relat Dev (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41268-019-00173-9

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Keywords

  • Dependency theory
  • Development studies
  • Escher
  • Trotsky
  • Uneven and combined development