The dependency theory: 50 years later

El Lissitzky, Merz-Matinéen, 1923


Commentary on the recently published book by Cláudio Katz

Cláudio Katz is a prestigious Argentine Marxist economist. He has a vast body of work, with books and articles published in several languages. The future of socialism (2004) The disjunctures of La izquierda en América Latina (2008) Under the Empire of the Capital (2011) and Neoliberalism, neodevelopmentalism, socialism (Popular Expression, 2016), are some good examples of his production, which has always been identified with the ideals of “Pátria Grande” and the socialist perspective.

Winner of the Liberator of Critical Thinking Award, The dependency theory: 50 years later brings together a series of articles and essays in order to present an original interpretation of dependency within the Marxist tradition. In Brazil, especially in some academic and political circles, the Marxist theory of dependency (MDT) and the dissemination of the work of Ruy Mauro Marini, Vânia Bambirra and Theotônio dos Santos have, rightly, been acquiring more audience and followers in the last decade. In addition to carrying out a mere epistemological balance of the subject, the Argentine economist manages to produce an original interpretation of dependence in order to update it in the face of the new contemporary challenges imposed by capitalism and imperialism.

The book has a suggestive, provocative and well-crafted structure. Despite being accessible, it should be read calmly and carefully, as in each chapter Katz faces some important past or present controversy. By facing the controversies, without prevaricating, the author creates his own path for his investigations and interpretations of the phenomena. Undoubtedly, it will be very difficult for the attentive reader not to question part of Katz's criticisms or conclusions. However, its merit lies precisely in this rebellious and questioning characteristic, without giving up theoretical rigor and political consequences in the class struggle.

The first part of the book is devoted to the debate on the center-periphery relationship in the Marxist tradition prior to the Marxist dependency theory. Starting with Marxian thought, Katz follows the interpretation of Kevin Anderson and Nestor Kohan regarding the maturation of the German revolutionary in relation to the capitalist periphery and the overcoming of mistaken and Eurocentric views that Marx had in the past.

Although the denunciation of colonialism and a multilinear conception of history has been present since Marx's youth, he assumed that the periphery would repeat the industrialization of the center, just as capitalism would expand on a world scale, creating an interdependent system that would facilitate the accelerated transition to the socialism. He believed that the expropriation of artisans and peasants would lead to further expropriation of their exploiters. China was portrayed as a barbaric society, India described as a stagnant country due to the predominance of rural communities, Latin America hardly aroused major interests of the founders of Marxism.

It was the “discovery” of the law of value, the unequal character of capitalist development (the issue of classicity) and the more symptomatic study of peripheral and colonial countries such as India, Ireland, Russia, Mexico and others that enabled a more accurate perspective of Marx in relation to capitalist development in the periphery. Katz, quoting Nestor Kohan, states that Marx's revision of the national-colonial question precipitated a shift towards the construction of a multilinear perspective that highlighted the transforming role of subjects in history.

According to Katz, the resumption of Marx is important because his thinking laid the foundations for explaining how capitalism generates underdevelopment. Although he neither formulated a theory of colonialism nor expounded a core-periphery thesis, Marx's observations on the positive impact of national struggles on the consciousness of workers in the center provided the basis for contemporary anti-imperialism. Although Katz emphasizes this methodological turn and Marx's political maturation, it is also worth highlighting the importance of the development of his critique of political economy: that is, the discovery of the law of value and the analysis of intercapitalist competition as core elements for us to identify the tendency to the uneven development of capitalism.

It is precisely these issues linked to the field of criticism of political economy that the Argentine author best emphasizes when analyzing the contributions of three other classics of Marxism: Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. Katz incorporates elements and categories about imperialism and dependency from these three revolutionary theorists. From Lenin, the Argentine economist claims the notion of uneven development and the richness of his analyzes on the non-classical paths of development of capitalism. The obstruction to the industrialization of the periphery, for the Russian author, would be an economic suffocation by endogenous and exogenous factors of the peripheral social formations. On the issue of Leninist imperialism, Katz considers a non-dogmatic reading, especially on the “last capitalist stage”. As for Rosa Luxemburgo, the Argentine author emphasizes the pioneering spirit of the Polish theorist in interpreting the center-periphery relationship as a necessity of expanding world capitalism.

For Katz, the germ of the proposition of “development of underdevelopment” would be in Luxemburg's studies on capitalist accumulation and modern imperialism. The difficulty of realizing capital only through the internal markets of the imperialist countries imposed the need to extract profits from the colonies and semi-colonies, through the control of such markets, colonial plunder or higher rates of labor exploitation in these regions. Despite not agreeing with Luxemburg's underconsumer diagnosis, Katz values ​​his contributions, especially the notion of accumulation by dispossession or dispossession so claimed by several contemporary economists and geographers, such as David Harvey.

Already from Trotsky, the Argentine economist incorporates the notion of uneven and combined development of capitalism. According to the author, Trotsky not only recorded the asymmetries, but also the mixture of advanced and backward forms in the formations incorporated into the world market. That is, by adding the principle of combination to uneven development, Trotsky well illustrated the diversity of development rhythms and the mix between archaic and modern.

In a rare contemporary effort, Katz also revisits socioeconomic debates about post-World War II capitalism and imperialism. In this sense, the Argentine economist tried to make a dialogical synthesis between three great “schools” of interpretation of the phenomenon of contemporary imperialism.

The first would be that of the Monthly Review; Led by Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, the traditional American Marxist magazine has monopoly capitalism and contemporary imperialism as one of its main objects of study. Unfolding Lenin's argument that monopoly capitalism had developed a new tendency, that of stagnation, the "School of Monthly Review” locates imperialism as a kind of countertendency to stagnation alongside unproductive spending, luxury consumption, military, etc. Baran and Sweezy emphasize the theory of the “imperialist drain”, that is, how a large part of the economic surplus of the peripheries is transferred to the imperialist countries. Magdoff materializes this argument through his empirical studies of US foreign policy and its new mechanisms for extracting surpluses.

The second school revisited by Katz is linked to the Egyptian thinker Samir Amin. Amin, unfortunately, is little known and widespread in Brazil, but he has an expressive and extensive economic, political and philosophical work. He was one of the most notable third-world Marxists, an attentive analyst of the economic, social and geopolitical transformations of capitalism and imperialism. In this sense, Katz claims, in particular, two summary arguments of Amin. The first is that, especially after the 1970s, the imperialist system would have adapted economic rivalries to a political-military management shared by the great powers: collective imperialism.

With this thesis, at the time, Amin differentiated himself from the thesis of hegemonic successions that postulated the necessary replacement of US supremacy by another dominant power. Amin's other central argument, highlighted by Katz, is the updating of Marx's law of value, that is, its “globalisation”. The notorious process of “productive and financial globalization” broke with the national limits of the law of value. The economic base of contemporary imperialism, for Amin, would be the validity of different rates in the degree of exploitation of the labor force and the expropriation of natural and social riches of the periphery.

The last author reviewed was Franco-Belgian economist Ernest Mandel. For Katz, the Mandelian interpretation of “late capitalism” also brought important contributions to the reflection on the center-periphery relationship. Unlike Baran and Sweezy where the drain theory emphasizes more the exogenous elements of imperialist domination, in Mandel the uneven and combined development was updated. For the Franco-Belgian economist, the post-War period was marked by a contradictory period of obstructed development in the periphery. If, on the one hand, a group of peripheral countries perpetuated agromining primarization to meet the new demand for input, on the other hand, some peripheral countries achieved some industrial development with the process of import substitution.

Thus, the transfer of surplus value and profits to imperialist countries would be expanded through various endogenous and exogenous mechanisms to capitalist accumulation in dependent or peripheral countries. For Mandel, in addition to the deterioration of the terms of trade, dependence is also expressed in the different degrees of exploitation and labor productivity, including in peripheral regions within the imperialist countries, something that Mandel called “internal colonies”.

The second part of the book is intended to present, in general lines, the formulations of the Marxist theory of dependency, its critics, differences and proximity with the theory of the world-system of Immanuel Wallerstein and a brief critical balance of the work of the German André Gunder Frank . Katz gives special emphasis to Ruy Mauro Marini's propositions regarding a specific legality of Latin American dependent capitalism.

Marini conceptualizes dependent capitalism based on his observations on the financing, production and commercialization cycle of these economies in comparison with the central countries and the lower private investment in the former colonies. He also found that foreign capital drained resources through royalties, surpluses or purchase of machinery. However, the core to understanding the extraction of extraordinary profits from the great monopolies would be in the overexploitation of labor, especially due to the surplus population of workers in several Latin American regions.

In a way, Marini proposes developments of Marx's law of value based on Latin American specificities. Overexploitation of labor and sub-imperialism, due to the atrophies of the internal market and the “development of dependent capitalism”, are part of an arsenal of categories developed not only by Marini, but also by Vania Bambirra, Theotônio dos Santos and other intellectuals. However, perhaps the high point of this second part is the attempt at synthesis and rapprochement between two divergent Latin American Marxist authors: Agustín Cueva and Marini.

Cueva, between the 1960s and 1980s, was one of the great critics of the Marxist theory of dependency, especially its preliminary version crystallized in André Gunder Frank. For Cueva, in a reading closer to the tradition of communist parties, although there were historical particularities in Latin American capitalism, there would not be a legality proper to this capitalism. The Ecuadorian contested theoretically and empirically the notions of super-exploitation, such as absolute pauperism of workers, and sub-imperialism based on empirical analyzes of the Argentine and Brazilian economy, for example. His propositions became known as endogenist Marxism.

However, in particular, in the phase of redemocratization of Latin American political systems, the foreign debt crisis and the neoliberal rise, Katz highlights a greater proximity in the positions between Marini and Agustín Cueva. Despite maintaining important differences, for Katz, the meeting between Marini and Cueva provides important syntheses to unravel Latin American dependency, undoubtedly a fundamental non-sectarian and dialogical path for Latin American Marxism in this century: “On the economic level, the region is underdeveloped in comparison with advanced countries. In the international division of labor, Latin America occupies a peripheral position, in opposition to the privileged position of the central powers. In the political aspect, it suffers dependence, that is, narrow margins of autonomy and opposed to the dominant role played by the empire”. [KATZ, 2020, p. 137]

The third and last part of the book brings together articles by Katz about his proposal to update dependence in the XNUMXst century – which is why it is also the most controversial and thought-provoking part of his work. These articles animated the Marxist debate inside and outside Latin America. In summary, Katz agrees that the problem of the “two crises” of the industrialized periphery investigated by Marini would intensify in that century, that is, on the one hand there would be a drain of foreign exchange caused by the payment of interest, patents and royalties to the big international monopolies and, on the other hand, there would be a crisis of realization due to the atrophy of the internal markets. Another legacy from the founders of TMD that Katz claims is the relevance of transfers of value and surplus value through global production chains led by large corporations headquartered in imperialist countries.

However, the Argentine economist questions the validity of the category of overexploitation as the socioeconomic basis of dependency and contemporary imperialism. For him, the internationalization of the law of value due to the “globalization” process was notable for a hierarchization of the prices of the value of the labor force based on historical elements, such as the correlation of forces in the class struggle, and structural elements, such as the insertion of each country in global value chains. According to Katz, dependency is not based on violation, but on fulfillment of the law of value. This criterion would be decisive in characterizing the workforce and would also provide a guide to solve old enigmas of Marxist theory, such as the transformation of values ​​into prices (KATZ, 2020, p. 280).

About “sub-imperialism”, Katz states that the economic bases of this phenomenon described by Marini, in particular the internal market restrictions, do not hold. Furthermore, among the “intermediate countries” there are also important differences: the central point for the Argentine intellectual would be the role of each country in the global value chains and the respective military power. In addition, the author also points out important differences in the cycle of contemporary dependency and the redesign of the international division of labor after the emergence of neoliberalism.

The extractive predominance in Latin America, the de-industrialization of countries like Brazil and Argentina, the Asian industrial growth and the new mechanisms of financial and technological dominance of the imperialist countries, especially the USA, are some of the transformations pointed out. For him, the classical Marxist theory of dependency would not be able to interpret these new phenomena by itself, although the author does not offer great alternatives, for example, in a still vague interpretation of Chinese development. The Argentine economist goes so far as to claim the contemporaneity of an imperialist income, that is, the appropriation of natural and social wealth by large imperialist companies protected by their states.

Finally, in view of Katz's propositions, it is worth noting the high-level debate among Marxists. References from the Marxist theory of dependency such as Jamie Osório (2018), Adrián Sotelo Valencia (2018) and Carlos Eduardo Martins (2018) produced interesting responses defending the relevance of the category of overexploitation to define the particularity of Latin American dependency. Osório and Valencia, in particular, suggest that super-exploitation would be a third form of exploitation within the expanded theory of value in the world market. Martins analyzes the contemporary transformations of capitalism and a possible renewal of TMD without giving up the main categories of its founders.

This is a debate that has even transcended Latin American borders. British researchers of contemporary imperialism, such as John Smith (2015) and Andy Higginbottom (2009), based on investigations of global value chains, maintain that super-exploitation is the economic-social basis of imperialism in the XNUMXst century. They are even moving towards a definition of this category having as a starting point the calculation of the different exploitation rates in the production chains. The Tricontinental Institute recently presented an interesting study regarding exploitation rates in peripheral countries from the production chain of iPhone. Therefore, more than a definition linked to pauperism, super-exploitation, in contemporary capitalism, would be something more “relative” in the face of the different social, economic and cultural conditions of the working classes.

In this sense, without a doubt, the work of Cláudio Katz deserves to be read by all intellectuals and activists committed to structural transformations in societies. The effort to update theories of dependency and imperialism is also an effort to reinvigorate Marxist thought as the revolutionary theory for the XNUMXst century.

*Luis Eduardo Fernandes Professor of History, doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Social Work at UFRJ and member of the central committee of the PCB.


Claudio Katz. The Dependency Theory: 50 years later. Translation: Maria Almeida. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2020.

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