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The modernity of backwardness

Freeman, Alan (2007): The modernity of backwardness.

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This paper revisits one of the classic debates on world capitalist development – the ‘transition to capitalism’ debate framed in Robert Brenner’s classic critique of World Systems and Dependency Theory.

It was originally presented to the July 2007 conference of the International Confederation for Pluralism in Economics (ICAPE) and in a slightly modified form, to the September 2007 conference of the UK Political Studies Association. The paper argues that the 1970s discussion was founded on an deeply flawed understanding of the mechanisms by which modern capitalist production relations produce what is termed ‘backwardness’.

Economics has failed to develop an adequate explanation for the most persistent phenomenon of the modern world – the polarisation of the world’s national economies, grouped within two great and remarkably geographically stable blocs. The reason, I argue in this paper, is the general equilibrium paradigm which predicts that modern capitalist production, left to its own devices, must necessarily even out national differences in productivity, wages, and profits over time. However the reverse happens, and development theory is deprived of an adequate explanation for national differentiation in terms of the ordinary mechanisms of the capitalist market.

This loss is compounded by parallel failure within Marxist value theory. The paper locates the origin of this failure within the systematic replacement of this theory by an equilibrium re-interpretation of it, converting it into a variant of the very orthodoxy to which it was supposed to offer an alternative.

The paper assesses the skewed character which results, in contemporary accounts (both within and outside economics) of development, dependency, inequality and imperialism. These are driven to assign inappropriate weight to ‘political and ‘cultural’ mechanisms or to classify the economic circumstances of the poor nations as in some sense exceptional or abnormal for capitalism. The idea that underdevelopment – ‘backwardness’ – is a failure to catch up or an absence of modernity, has thus become the conceptual framework for discussing the national difference produced by modernity.

This is particularly clear in the evidently symbiotic and mutually conditioned development of slavery in the USA and the Industrial Revolution (with Cotton at its centre) in the UK. Antebellum slavery, once the economic mechanisms are clarified, can be understood not as a backward survival from a precapitalist era, but a product of modern capitalism itself.

This principle is a general one. ‘Backwardness’, I argue, is a disguised outcome of the most modern of all economic processes – the constant technical revolutions that characterise industrial capitalism.

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