About dependency theories

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Marxism and the study of the new post-war Latin American reality

Sub-imperialism and national bourgeoisie

Rui Mauro Marini did not limit himself to resuming the old denunciations about the oppressive role of the United States. He introduced the controversial concept of sub-imperialism to portray the new strategy of the Brazilian ruling class. He described the expansionist tendencies of large companies affected by the narrowness of the domestic market and noted their promotion of aggressive state policies to make inroads into neighboring economies.

This interpretation was based on reasoning similar to that developed by Luxemburg to characterize the imperialist tendencies of Germany, France or England. This view emphasized that such guidelines were implemented to counterbalance the reduced local purchasing power (Marini 2005).

But the Latin American Marxist attributed a geopolitical dimension to the concept that was very different from the classic register. He did not postulate that Brazil was joining the club of powers vying for world domination. Instead, he stressed that country's subordination to US strategy. That's why he spoke of sub-imperialism and portrayed the role of regional anti-communist gendarme played by the Brazilian dictatorship during the Cold War against the USSR.

The dependency theorist later complemented this sense of sub-imperialism by introducing other notions such as the “counterinsurgency state”. He used this concept to describe the role of repressive guardianship exercised by the military in the transition to constitutional regimes (Martins, 2011a; Mendonça 2011).

Marini spoke of sub-imperialism to emphasize that the main South American bourgeoisie was a partner and not a puppet of Washington. He especially emphasized the autonomous geopolitical role of a ruling class that sought to project itself as an economic and military power on a regional scale (Marini, 1985).

With this vision, he resumed the perceptions of classical Marxists on the role of smaller imperialisms and incorporated new analyzes on the role of the United States in the post-war period. His thesis was in line with Amin's idea of ​​collective imperialism on three levels: the growing worldwide association of capitals, the protective capitalist function exercised by the Pentagon, and the new role of regional guardians associated with Washington.

While sub-imperialism was a theme specifically addressed by Marini, the changing national bourgeoisie was addressed by the three Marxist dependency theorists. They indicated the shift from an industrial class with independent development projects to a segment associated with foreign companies. Bourgeois support for the 1964 coup was presented as a strong indication of this renunciation of autonomous processes of accumulation (Chilcote, 1983).

Dependency thinkers stressed links with foreign capital and not simply its subordination. They highlighted the new profile of the more internationalized industrial bourgeoisies, specifying the differences with the old landowning oligarchy and with the preceding national capitalism. Theotonio dos Santos pointed out that this turn created a conflict with sectors of the bureaucracy attached to classic developmentalism (Dos Santos, 1978: 34, López Segrera, 2009).

The Brazilian theorist also deepened the political dimension of this process by defining the status of a subordinate situation. He considered that dependence occurs when a certain group of countries conditions the development of others (Dos Santos, 1978: 305). He demonstrated this situation for the Latin American case, using an analysis similar to that proposed by Samir Amin.

In both cases, the political dimension of dependency was differentiated from economic polarization, clarifying the links between processes that do not (necessarily) develop simultaneously. Both thinkers explored the specificity of political subordination to imperial power, which was previously equated with economic subjection. But, in a context of absorbing primacy of socialist strategies, such characterizations were only sketched.

Theories and singularities

Rui Mauro Marini, Vânia Bambirra and Theotonio dos Santos tried to mold Marxism to the study of the new post-war Latin American reality. For that reason, they embarked on the same search for specific notions that Baran-Sweezy tackled with surplus, Amin with world value, and Mandel with Long Wave. This question followed, in turn, the path opened by Lenin with uneven development, by Luxemburg with the revision of primitive accumulation, and by Trotsky with uneven and combined development.

But the status of dependency as a theory has sparked strong debate. It was discussed whether it constituted a conception, a paradigm or an approach, according to the different interpretations of social laws in vogue.

Dos Santos argued that dependency theory had already reached a scientific level, by defining the laws that govern the development of peripheral countries. He indicated that these principles clarified the evolution of dependent capitalism, with reasoning equivalent to those used by Lenin to explain imperialism.

The Brazilian economist considered that the rules of dependency explained how commercial, financial or technological-industrial subjection generated obstacles to accumulation in Latin America (Dos Santos, 1978: 300, 360-366). Marini worked in the same direction and attributed scientific legality to the mechanisms that generate added value in the dependent regions.

Both theorists studied the peculiarity of Latin America compared to other dependent societies and observed that their research was different from that prevailing in Asia or Africa. In the main countries of these continents, questions revolved around the historical reasons that allowed Europe to overcome ancient civilizations to subject them to colonial (India) or semi-colonial (Egypt, China) degradation (Amin, 2005).

In Latin America, the enigmas of dependency arose from the renewal of a subordinate status, after a century and a half of political independence unparalleled in other regions of the Third World. This vision stimulated research on the peculiarities of the Caribbean, Central America, Brazil, the Andean region and the Southern Cone (Dos Santos, 1998).

These studies were approached with a view “from the periphery”, which Marini adopted in opposition to the elitist paternalism of Latin American studies located in the United States, England or France. He proposed reversing this anomaly, generating knowledge from the region (Marini, 1991: 9-10, 42). With the same approach, Dos Santos tried to correct the classic authors of imperialism, who, in his opinion, did not address this issue from the perspective of dependent countries (Dos Santos 1978: 301-303, 340-345).

With these characterizations of the theoretical status of dependency, the three Brazilian Marxists completed the presentation of an approach that disturbed the agenda of Latin American social sciences. The concepts introduced by Marini, the political characterizations by Dos Santos, and Bambirra's views on uneven underdevelopment created enduring analytical references for thinkers of this period.

The metropolis-satellite view

André Gunder Frank actively participated in the emergence of the Marxist theory of dependency and his theses had an immediate impact greater than that of other authors. But his vision was different and his approach to the satellite metropolis was only the first of the three conceptions he maintained throughout his life. The initial period was curiously the shortest and most famous of this trajectory.

He began his work under the strong impact of the Cuban Revolution, adopted left-wing criticism of the communist strategy in stages and questioned the policy of supporting the national bourgeoisie. He highlighted the inexistence of spaces to repeat the classic development of capitalism, highlighted the unfeasibility of developmentalism and postulated the need for socialism (Frank, 1970: 211-213).

Frank assumed this attitude, radicalizing liberal political ideas and abandoning an evolutionary scheme, which identified overcoming underdevelopment with the eradication of pre-capitalist institutions. By assimilating the Marxist theoretical debates that other authors of dependency incorporated, he did not mature his vision.

The thinker based in the United States did not define this corollary by identifying the mechanisms of dependent reproduction. Nor did he frame his characterization in the global functioning of capitalism, nor did he relate his theory to any diagnosis of value, underconsumption or the downward trend of the rate of profit.

Frank simply postulated that capitalism generated underdevelopment on the periphery of the world system. He indicated that this subordinate insertion determined the appropriation of the surplus of the backward economies by the advanced ones.

The German author presented the metropolis-satellite polarization as two faces of the same worldwide trajectory. He emphasized the complementarity of these processes and highlighted the exceptional character of the interruption of this fracture. He recalled that, in contemporary times, no subject economy reached the status of central power and considered that the weakening of a metropolis did not alter the lasting status of dependence (Frank, 1970: 8-24).

The Germanic theorist applied this reasoning to Latin American history. He traced the origin of the core-periphery relationship to the region's subordinate integration into world capitalism in the sixteenth century. He emphasized that, in this link to global accumulation, a metropolitan center (Europe) subordinates peripheral satellites (Latin America), through the mediation of certain countries (Spain, Portugal), which, in turn, become satellites of the dominant power (Great -Britain).

Within Latin America, this same circuit connects the peripheral satellite (Chile) to the main colonial satellite (Peru), which, in turn, is managed by the extraregional metropolis (Spain or England). This chain of submission is recreated along with the hierarchical confiscation of surpluses (Frank, 1970: 1-7).

Frank gave two examples of this connection. He illustrated how Chile has been subject to this subordination since the colonial period, through a local ruling class linked to the demands of a handful of foreign companies. In the case of Brazil, he highlighted the dependent insertion through main satellites (São Paulo), which ensured the subordination of secondary satellites (Recife) to the metropolises (first Portugal, then the United States). He did not observe significant differences between the two countries (Frank, 1970: 119-123, 149-154).

Two different approaches

But the affinity with this approach was pointed out by Marini, who highlighted the accuracy of the formula used by Frank to portray Latin American backwardness. He considered that the “development of underdevelopment” illustrated how the consolidation of the advanced economies took place at the expense of the backward ones (Marini, 1993).

Frank prioritized the analysis of the drains suffered by the periphery, in line with the approaches of absolute polarization between the center and the periphery of the periphery. In contrast, Marini, Dos Santos and Bambirra incorporated a record of the existing bifurcations between agro-exporting (Chile) and partially industrialized (Brazil) economies.

This difference determined different approaches. While the US-based thinker observed the Latin American economy as a uniform totality, his Brazilian colleagues studied specific national contradictions. They drew distinctions in what Frank saw as equivalent subordinations.

Furthermore, Brazilian theorists started from general characterizations of postwar capitalism that Frank did not take into account. His approach does not incorporate the valuations of multinational companies, the technological transformations or the changes in investment highlighted by Dos Santos.

Because of this omission, Frank only observed that, in moments of crisis in the center, spaces for the development of the periphery are expanded. But, with this observation, he only explained the beginning of Latin American industrialization, without clarifying what happened afterwards.

The thinker based in the United States left aside all the elaborations of the center-periphery fracture developed by Marxist economists and assimilated by Brazilian authors. For this reason, he only studied the dynamics of exaction, while Marini captured the articulations with advanced capitalism and Dos Santos perceived the adaptations with globalization. This record allowed them to avoid simplifications and understand new forms of dependency.

Dos Santos questioned Frank's omission in relation to the internal transformations of underdeveloped countries very early on. He rejected its static view and the consequent suggestion of the immutability of Latin American society. He attributed this one-sidedness to the attachment to a structural-functionalist methodology (Dos Santos, 1978: 304-305, 350-352, 346).

This error was verified in the presentation of the linkages of the center with its satellites, as if they were simple pieces of a chessboard directed by the great powers. In this view, social subjects are absent or play a mechanical role, arising from the place they occupy in the global device. Antagonisms between social classes, conflicts between capitalist segments and state mediations have no place in this approach.

On the contrary, in Marini's reasoning, the preeminence of dependent cycles, forms of overexploitation or value transfers does not nullify the protagonist centrality of oppressors and oppressed in the dynamics of dependency.

The economic mechanisms that recreate the center-periphery polarity in Frank are just the starting point for Marini, Bambirra or Dos Santos. For this reason, Brazilian theorists have not used the term satellite to describe dependent economies. This metaphor alludes to a body that invariably revolves around a certain center, without any autonomy or internal development.

Frank certainly provided several useful insights, but the development of these insights was obliterated by his omission of social subjects. His record of tripolar relationships is an example of correct observations that are not based on adequate conceptualizations.

Frank noted that the global hierarchy goes beyond the core-periphery duality, but at the same time he ignored the specificity of intermediate formations. That's why he used the same reasoning to investigate the evolution of Chile and Brazil.

This reductionism was even greater in his vision of the national bourgeoisies. Unlike Marini and Dos Santos, he limited himself to noting the resignation of this sector, without analyzing the contradictions that this change inaugurated. Furthermore, he identified the association with foreign companies with a degradation of the local ruling classes to the condition of “lumpen-bourgeoisies” (Frank, 1979).

This notion implies a decomposition of the ruling groups that would make it impossible for them to lead the state. Marini and Dos Santos never lost sight of the fact that the Latin American bourgeoisies combine the enjoyment of agromining income with the added value extracted from workers. They are governing groups and not simple tributary layers of foreign capital.

The dominators of the region are subject to capitalist patterns of competition, investment and exploitation. Such rules differ from pure plunder implemented by a “lumpen-bourgeoisie”. This term can be applied, for example, to drug trafficking mafias that launder their fortunes in financial or productive activities. They are marginalized capitalists from the stable club of dominators (Katz, 2015: 41-42).

Frank also did not incorporate the distinctions between economic polarization and political dependence conceived by Brazilian theorists. This omission was not alien to his limited political participation in the processes that marked the trajectory of Marini, Dos Santos and Bambirra.

These three authors were directly involved in the Cuba, Chile or guerrilla disputes. Frank, on the other hand, only enthusiastically embraced the banners of the Cuban Revolution, without contributing significant reflections on the political dilemmas of the left. He was not part of the militant universe that defined the work of Marxist dependency theorists. This distance influenced the later turn of his works.

*Claudio Katz is professor of economics at Universidad Buenos Aires. Author, among other books, of Neoliberalism, neodevelopmentalism, socialism (Popular Expression).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

To read the first part of this article click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-surgimento-das-teorias-da-dependencia/

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin Latin America.


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