Rethinking dependency theory

Image: Ylanite Koppens


Dependency theory should be the most international perspective produced by Latin American Social Sciences

The main political effect of the unequal capitalist development process on a world scale is the configuration of a dependent State in countries of the global South. For years we have sought to develop a reflection on the problem of the dependent State, arguing that its uniqueness comes, fundamentally, from the fact that foreign interests weigh in the elaboration of state policies, notably in economic policy.

One might object that states in dominant countries also have to consider external interests in their policy making. Certainly, but the State acts to defend the interests of its capitalists. For example, the French State must consider the internationalized financial interests, under the aegis of the financial capital of the USA, but to defend “its bankers”, insofar as the interests are internationally articulated, despite the competition in the world market.

A government in France would hardly consider selling a large public bank to North American groups, as was conjectured here to sell Banco do Brasil. Most likely, the State will act to prevent the acquisition of any relevant French bank, public and/or private, by foreign groups. Indeed, in the case of relations between powers, we could properly speak of interdependence.

It seems obvious, but it needs to be stated. As well as the idea that the base and superstructure scheme, in which the base would be the determinant, is insufficient to understand capitalism, even the dependent one. To overcome this starting point, it helps to read the book Capitalism in debate, by Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, as it consists of an instigating proposal for understanding capitalism as a complex social totality whose main target is the base-superstructure scheme.

At this point, we would like to note that at least twice opinions on our articles have accused a lack of understanding of dependency theory, on the grounds that the core of the theory would reside in the economic aspect, with political and financial dependence being a consequence. What we understand perfectly, we only propose that the dependency theory be rethought from the overcoming of this assumption.

As Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi argue, even if the “official history” of capitalism tries to hide it, the economic sphere depends on the political sphere to reproduce itself. Similarly, we would say that dependent capitalism depends on the state to reproduce itself.

Dependency theory should be the perspective with the greatest international reach produced by Latin American Social Sciences. Its two main currents are located in the Marxist or Marxist-friendly field, the strand related to the work of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, by prioritizing class relations in the analysis of dependency; and the Marxist Theory of Dependency (TMD) by emphasizing the effects of unequal international economic relations (imperialism).

In this century, TMD in particular has been retaken, accompanying the return of the problematic of imperialism to the critical theory of capitalism. However, some analysts accuse the inadequacy of dependency theory (generally referring to TMD) for understanding successful experiences of late capitalist development, especially in Asia, due to the weight attributed to external constraints. The emergence of China sharpened the criticism: the dependency theory would be buried by the successful cases of development in Asia, China at the forefront.

There is still the problem of the lack of a systematized theoretical body, which is why some prefer to talk about school/focus on addiction (we address the subject in Souza, 2021). For our part, we defend that the theory is productive even for understanding Asian successes and the existence of a “guiding thread” that authorizes the qualification of theory. In the case of China, its two main strands of theory would be productive to apprehend its success, as the experience combines national-popular revolution as a starting point and productive association with foreign capital in recent decades.

With regard to the “conductor thread” or common core of dependency theory, this concerns, first, the starting point: the theory of uneven and combined development of capitalism on a world scale (theory of imperialism). Correspondingly, there is a concern with periodization, since if it is possible to distinguish the regimes of accumulation in the history of capitalism (liberal-competitive, monopoly capitalism organized by the State; neoliberal capitalism), it is also necessary to differentiate the phases in the relations of dependency.

In turn, the greatest legacy of dependency theory resides in the proposed method of approach, which for us is what guarantees the relevance of the perspective. The two currents converge in the defense of integrated analysis, aimed at explaining the forms of articulation between internal and external factors, in which the internal dimension matters as much as the external constraints. However, it is not an easy method to practice, even in the two main streams of theory, there are differences of emphasis. The Cardosian strand values ​​domestic political life in modulating forms of dependency; TMD emphasizes external constraints.

With regard to the State, the societal (or sociocentric) approach predominates, centered on class relations internally (Cardosian strand) or on unequal international economic relations (TMD). However, the theme of the dependent state does not occupy a prominent position in the two main currents of dependency theory. In this aspect we find its main limitation.

This is because the study of the obstacles to development, engendered by the process of uneven and combined development of capitalism on a global scale, needs to elucidate the convergences and coalitions of interests between native capitalists and their foreign peers, the role of the State in organizing these convergences being crucial. and coalitions. It is in this role of the State that we must seek the main explanation for successes or failures in the industrialization process in countries of late capitalist development, from the perspective of conquering more advantageous positions in the world capitalist order.

As we said, the dependent State is distinguished by the fact that it takes foreign interests highly into account in the elaboration of its policies. It implies saying that these interests are part of the power bloc, and may be the hegemonic interests, defended by national dominant classes/fractions. A promising situation for the imposition of various constraints on the actions of the States, especially in the conduct of economic policy.

Even so, the dependent State should not be seen as the mere executive committee of the common affairs of foreign capitalists and local partners, although this description can serve in many cases, in general the relationships are more complex and it helps in their understanding the notion of relative autonomy of the State, which we will not return to here (see Souza, 2021).

What we would like to point out is that the absence of a dependent state (in a country in the global South) is striking in the Chinese experience. On the contrary, Chinese success can be attributed to the state's capacity to plan and coordinate the process of economic development, associated with foreign capital (Souza; Braga, 2023). In this process, the state not only created the Chinese capitalist class but kept (keeps) it in check.

Something possible because the revolutionary starting point provided the configuration of a non-dependent State, a factor without which it would be difficult to understand state autonomy in conducting the successful process of insertion of the Chinese economy in the world economy. Evidently this does not explain everything, revolutionary processes in other countries did not lead to a non-dependent State, nor did they result in development via association with foreign capital (inescapable).

China was favored by the globalization of production and resulting territorial rearrangements, in the midst of geopolitical and scientific-technological transformations since the end of the 1970s. The supply of abundant and cheap labor, the expectations of expanding markets (with consumption in China itself), and factors related to US geopolitical interests sponsored the insertion of China in the world economy as a factory of the world. In this process, foreign groups certainly imposed their conditions on the Chinese, but the State drew up plans and strategies to improve bargaining conditions and led to a surprising result.

Finally, it is worth mentioning more modest cases of non-dependent states. According to the definition of dependent State provided above, it is possible to state that the Venezuelan economy would be dependent (on exports of a primary product), but the State seeks to assert itself as non-dependent (and this statement does not imply defense of the political regime). A reality that, incidentally, reinforces the need to address dependency in a political dimension.

 We would also add Bolivia under the governments of Evo Morales and Argentina under the Kirchner governments as attempts to engender a non-dependent State. In the case of Argentina, the pendulum swung back to neoliberalism, with the election of Mauricio Macri, and in Bolivia the current situation is very complicated.

The Brazilian case is different due to the existence of a dependent State, which became excessively indebted in the 1970s, in a moment of liquidity in which international banks wanted to lend, and in the 1990s it obeyed in a subordinate manner the recommendations of the international financial institutions, in through the processes of renegotiation of the external debt. This was definitive for the retreat of the industrial economy since then.  

To conclude, a brief comment on the experience of development in South Korea, marked by state protagonism, such as Brazil. Two successful cases within the dependent and associated model of development that can be explained by the state's capacity to conduct this process. However, South Korea benefited much more from US geopolitics during the cold war.

In fact, the US allowed and sponsored South Korean development for geopolitical reasons. The result was the formation of large internationalized economic groups (from a robust internal bourgeoisie), which makes it difficult to reduce the South Korean State to the role of representative of bourgeoisies that prefer the gains arising from subordinated association to foreign interests.

In summary, we insist on the centrality of the State to rethink dependency and, equally, to understand Asian successes. We understand that dependency theory follows a fruitful approach to the analysis of the problem of development in late capitalist countries, provided that advances are made in the field of political theory or reflection on the dependent State.

*Angelita Matos Souza is a political scientist and professor at the Institute of Geosciences and Exact Sciences at Unesp.


FRASER, N.; JAEGGI, R. Debating capitalism. A Conversation in Critical Theory. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020 (

SOUZA, AM; BRAGA, S. Brazil-China relations from the perspective of the “dependency theory”. Working Paper Series (WPS) from REDCAEM, no. 34, May 2023.

SOUZA, AM Dependency and PT governments. Curitiba: Appris, 2021 (

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