How the West is Underdeveloping Itself

By Amal Samaha

“[I]f ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the USA, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder.” -Walter Rodney


The paradigm of “development” is the chief way through which western economists, international relations experts, and policy makers make pronouncements about the past, present, and future of the periphery. Through them we are told that “developing” nations are mired in problems that are simultaneously easily solved and insurmountable; the product of contradictions which are first economic, then social, then political, and which are simultaneously being solved through further investment and development, but seemingly never go away.

Throughout all of this, it is implicitly understood that this “developing” world is counterposed against a “developed” one, which has long since achieved those elusive qualities which the remainder strive towards. That the former cannot seem to achieve these qualities is met with frustration, apathy, and sometimes anger. Would it not be easier to simply force the qualities of the developed nations onto the underdeveloped—to intervene in their economies, political systems, and cultural lives? Can they be shown the essential qualities that will inevitably lead to development, like liberal democracy, free trade, and, fundamentally, respect for those institutions?

When such interventions inevitably fail, it only serves to confirm the essential nature of what it means to be “developing.” There must be some other variable, essential to either the people or their environment, which has constrained development. Perhaps it isn’t the fault of the people; it is some microbe in the waters, some tropical disease, or some bloodsucking insect. Or maybe it is a parasite of a different kind, some deeply-held tradition, or superstition, that prevents the efficient exploitation of this forest or that wetland. Maybe it is a cultural predisposition towards corrupt governance that breeds bureaucratic parasites. Only once the parasites are wiped out can development go ahead unhindered.

But what if all the parasites are eliminated, and underdevelopment persists? Perhaps we have missed another parasite contained in one of the many differences between their culture and ours. Maybe it is better to do away with the inferior culture entirely, and transplant onto that nation a culture with a proven history of achieving development.

The paradigm of development is presented as a neutral, dispassionate way of looking at global inequality, one only concerned with measurable outcomes that empirically improve the lives of all peoples. But when the diagnosis of the economic doctors fails to find the parasite at the root of the problems, cracks begin to appear. These economic doctors present themselves as performing a form of precise and delicate neurosurgery, but after a while, they begin to take the form of the medieval surgeon-barber, bleeding their patient with leeches in a vain attempt to balance humors.

The problems with the “development” paradigm have been well-known, and often commented upon. As we will see, whole schools of criticism have come and gone. Nonetheless, relatively unreconstructed “development” theories continue to crop up among international relations wonks, leading to, among other things, some increasingly derided headlines.[1]

More importantly though, perhaps the reason outmoded conceptions of development continue to dominate public discourse lies precisely in the fact that they engender frustration and condescension when it comes to the perceived failures of the periphery. After all, most western interventions have been justified through attempts to impose the kind of democratic institutions seen to best correlate with development. Development experts and the journalists who take them seriously may be the thin end of the wedge, where the thick portion is interventionist factions like the “foreign policy blob” dominating the US Federal Government.[2]

But what if the spotlight of “development” studies is instead shone on the core? Will we find, as studies of the periphery presume, the polar opposite of the “developing world?” Surely, in order for the intensely comparative study of development to make any sense, there must be a standardised set of rules about what constitutes a fully developed nation, be it a certain level of Gross Domestic Product Per Capita, a certain standard of human personal development and agency, or a certain level of productive forces. Certainly it cannot be a standard level of health security, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exploded any illusions of western superiority in terms of healthcare outcomes, such as existed on the eve of the outbreak. If there is ever a museum for artifacts of Western hubris, the 2019 Global Health Security Index[3] for pandemic preparedness will take up a whole wing.

Immediately we can see that many of the assumptions of the development paradigm no longer hold, and instead it must be inverted to make sense of the world. Turning the development paradigm on its head is no easy task, but precedent has been set by Guyanese theorist Walter Rodney in his seminal How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.[4] I will be examining how Rodney defined development and how he perceived differences between the developed and underdeveloped world. Crucially, I also examine how Rodney ultimately refused to reject development as a concept, but instead hoped to change our understanding by rejecting theories of a passively “developing” world, and instead positing underdevelopment as an active process undertaken by western oligarchies.

I further examine what has changed since Rodney’s assassination in 1980, what theories of development rose in his wake, and how the societies he described changed or did not change. In particular, I examine massive developmental changes that occurred in the core under neoliberal regimes, using the example of New Zealand. This includes the role of reflexive-unproductive workers in underdeveloping the core, which I began to uncover in my previous article for Peace, Land & Bread: “Innovators, Bullshitters and Aristocrats.”[5] Following Samir Amin, I explore the possibility of two different kinds of development: one rooted in domestic exploitation of workers, and another in the exploitation of trade relationships.

Finally, I analyse more recent debates among Marxists on how we should think about development, especially in regard to the development of productive forces across the periphery, as well as ecosocialist “de-growth” arguments and Amin’s theory of de-linking. I come to a conclusion that 21st century socialism cannot afford to be purely productivist, nor anti-growth, our only choice is to radically redefine what development means rather than uncritically accepting, or rejecting wholesale, its aims.

Development and Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa may seem to be a strange place to start. As we will see, very few development theorists in the core, even Marxist ones, have substantially cited Rodney as a development theorist in his own right. Instead he is seen as having produced a serviceable analysis of African development, without innovating in terms of the definition, cause, or purpose of development. I wish to challenge this by showing that Rodney prefigured several later schools of development discourse, and in fact the seed for a new development paradigm can be found in his work. Rodney’s incredible prescience, and his pragmatism, are the reasons I base much of this essay in his work. I will start by examining the orthodoxies challenged by Rodney.

In Rodney’s time, development was defined in a purely economic manner as a certain level of national income.[6] This has changed considerably in the intervening years as more sophisticated bourgeois development theorists have come and gone, and we will return to this, but for the time being, Rodney’s work must be understood as counterposed against this rigid, economic definition of development as relatively linear growth in Gross Domestic Product.

Another orthodoxy Rodney thought necessary to combat was the then-progressive insistence that underdeveloped nations be called “developing.” This, he said, implies that nations in the periphery are capable of, and are in the process of, saving themselves entirely from conditions of underdevelopment, colonisation, and imperialism.[7] On this, Rodney can only be considered to be entirely correct, as the underdeveloped nations he describes continue to have the same level of development relative to the West to this day. No indicator of this could be more tragic than the fact that the caloric intakes of average Africans Rodney cites, (some 1,870 to 2,290 calories per day) are virtually unchanged, with sub-Saharan Africans receiving about 2,100 calories per capita per day,[8] some 900 below the recommended level.[9]

How then does Rodney define development, if not as a linear process of increasing incomes? Rodney begins by starting on a level of personal development: a many-sided process of increasing material and emotional wellbeing. Much of this, he says, is a purely subjective process of being able to achieve certain ideals determined by societal superstructures. The only universal statement one can make about personal development, across all historical epochs, is that its achievement depends entirely on environmental and social conditions.[10] Human agency, rather than any growth metric, lies at the root of Rodney’s work on development.

Next comes development on the level of social groups, which lies in the ability to negotiate conflicts between individuals, be it between people within the group, with other social groups, or with nature.[11] On the societal level, it lies in the ability to free whole social groups from the conditions imposed upon them by nature, which is done through understanding nature (science), developing tools (technology), and organising labour as part of a mode of production.[12]

Neither of these higher levels of development negate the need for improving conditions on the level of individual development. On the contrary, for Rodney all development, no matter the scale, serves to increase the basic capacity for individuals to exercise agency, to achieve their moral goals, and to construct new societies. As we will see, this definition stands apart from many others as it is transhistorical; put in the right terms, it would make as much sense to an Achaemenid satrap as a Bohemian burgher or Indonesian planter. Other definitions, such as those based in liberal freedom, often only hold true for the current era, and even then it is debatable.

This definition must be transhistorical because to Rodney, all societies have undergone development, indeed they must have in order to exist at all.[13] But this does not mean that all societies are undergoing development, indeed many are prevented from doing so by either the imperialist reallocation of surplus value away from the point of origin, or by their own outmoded superstructural arrangements which prevent the efficient utilisation of resources.[14] To be underdeveloped is therefore not a lack of development, but rather to possess a greater number of impediments than other societies which seek dominance.[15]

This brings us to Rodney’s final innovation in defining development: it is essentially, intensely comparative. To speak of the development of one nation makes no sense whatsoever unless it can be counterposed against the development of another.[16] Rodney’s analysis of Africa’s underdevelopment therefore rests entirely on his analysis of Western development, and the comparisons that can be made between the two.

Rodney’s view of what constitutes a developed nation is then particularly important to us in understanding the shifting standards of development through the years. To him, the European and North American nations of the “developed world” are typified by a few shared factors: “the developed countries are all industrialised,” and “most of their wealth comes from mines, factories and other industries [...] They have a high output of labour per man in industry, because of their advanced technology and skills [...] Their agriculture has become an industry, and the agricultural part of the economy produces more even though it is small.”[17]

What is so striking about this description is how the West has utterly reversed course, or at least stagnated, in each of the points described. The core has rapidly de-industrialised in the years since Rodney’s death, with some countries such as the USA seeing the proportion of industrial employment shrink to levels unseen since the early 19th century.[18] The core’s output of labour per man in industry has also shrunk down through a process of ‘bullshitisation’, or the proliferation of non-productive jobs, a concept to which I will return. The tendency towards automation of agriculture has also stagnated, if not exactly reversed, as agricultural capitalists across the West have turned either to outsourcing or to greater reliance on imported labour rather than costly capital intensification.[19]

None of this is to say that Rodney was somehow wrong, these were indeed the shared characteristics of “developed” nations in 1972, even if the overall trend towards deindustrialisation was already emerging. But if Rodney’s theory of development no longer holds true for the developed world, then what of the theories of development that emerged after his untimely death at the hands of a Guyanese government assassin?[20]

Modern Theories of Development

As Rodney identified, on some levels development is largely subjective, defined by individual moral goals and the limitations of societal superstructures.[21] This is the reason development is so amorphous, and so easily distorted to advocate for purely ideological goals.

A quick overview of the history of development studies allows us to identify a few dominant tendencies among development theorists, as this will help us differentiate between the manifold definitions of development and the values underpinning each.

  1. Economist Approaches: In the mid-20th century, all states measured their level of economic development against past levels through the use of unitary national accounting methods. Between the 1944 Bretton Woods conference[22] and 1993,[23] Gross Domestic Product (the total value of final goods and services) gradually overtook both Gross National Income (the total value of citizens’ income regardless of location) and the Material-Balance planning of socialist states (measurement of all non-labour inputs vs. outputs). Economistic methods have always been criticised as lacking any direct link to quality of life, even by those who helped formulate them[24]; however, these methods are still used as shorthand for development in many circles.

  2. Holistic Approaches: By the 1960s and 70s, many economists had become increasingly aware of the failures of economistic methods in measuring development. These included many loosely progressive figures like the social democrat Gunnar Myrdal.[25] These methods were in part inspired by calls from underdeveloped nations at the UN to develop a “unified” theory of development that could account for the problems of diverse nations,[26] and thus these methods share a transhistorical, and sometimes decolonial emphasis.

  3. Radical Approaches: Around the same time many Marxist authors began writing on the subject of development theory, criticising the liberal notion of permanent progressive development, instead treating it as more of a zero-sum game wherein one nation’s loss is another’s gain. Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and other writers of the Monthly Review magazine contributed to this trend, which was later enriched with Arghiri Emmanuel, Charles Bettleheims, and Samir Amin’s contributions to the study of unequal exchange and wage theories of development blockage.[27] Such theories lost influence for many years but have been revived somewhat by Zak Cope, to whom I will refer later.

  4. Diagnostic Approaches: Methods which rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s share a common emphasis upon combining the quantifiable, data-driven models of the economistic methods, with the concern for human wellbeing and agency of the holistic methods. In doing so, they often settle upon a single metric which best correlates with development in the broadest sense. Such approaches have been championed by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen whose work led to the UN’s Human Development Index (which combines health, education, and income into a standardised “score”)[28] and later to the “development as freedom” thesis. These methods, and particularly Sen’s “capability approach” are by far the most influential among modern NGOs,[29] rights groups, and the UN. The popularity of such theories in US academic and policy making circles has led some to call these problem-solution oriented theories “American development discourse.”[30]

  5. Critical Development Approaches: Gaining popularity in the mid 1990s to 2000s, several European theorists have questioned the development paradigm entirely. Typically these theorists seek to interrogate how development “works” or its rationality, following thinkers like Cornelius Castoriadis, Alan Touraine, or Zygmunt Bauman.[31] Such thinkers have, naturally, gained little influence over policy, but they have influenced modern development discourse considerably, and some of their critiques of development discourse will be helpful later.

The Diagnosticians

Of the above, it is the diagnostic approaches which have come to dominate modern discourse around development. Each is centred around a preferred metric for development, or their preferred method for deriving aggregate scores from a number of different datasets. Like the UNHDI these scores typically rely on the idea that social factors like education, political freedom, or healthcare correlate directly with human development.

No development theorist is as widely cited as Amartya Sen, on whose work most modern development scholarship is based. Underpinning Sen’s work was his effort, begun in the late 1970s, to synthesise different theories of equality common in welfare economics into a unified approach to equality that could inform further studies into development. Sen posited that rather than pure equality of opportunity (Benthamite equality), or a min-maxed approach to welfare in which only the worst off benefit (Rawlsian equality), welfare should be understood based on “basic capability equality,” the real ability for people to undertake basic actions in the interests of themselves and their community.[32]

Thus the American, diagnostic approach is based, like the holistic approaches, in human agency. Later, Sen re-framed development as a question of freedom,[33] an idea with a long pedigree in American development discourse.[34] While Sen’s definition of freedom is relatively sophisticated, the “development as freedom” thesis sometimes translated into little more than support for a very American “liberal dogmatism,” already common in policy circles.[35]

Had Walter Rodney been alive to see it, I imagine he would have levied many of the same criticisms he had of the economistic approach against the American diagnosticians. These are:

  1. Diagnostic approaches mistake consequences for causes: Rodney criticises Western “experts” (those who are not openly racist at least) for “giving as causes of underdevelopment the things which really are consequences.”[36] When groups such as the UN development programme list the educational, economic, and health outcomes of underdeveloped countries, these factors are essentially given as causes of underdevelopment when they are the long-standing consequences of imperialism.

  2. Underdevelopment is seen as self-perpetuating: If the consequences of underdevelopment are also their cause, the problem becomes a closed loop in which no development is possible. Rodney criticises this as an ahistorical claim which can serve to imply that underdevelopment is a consequence of the innate inferiority of underdeveloped peoples.[37]

  3. The effects of Imperialism are hidden: If underdevelopment is its own consequence, then the widening gap between the underdeveloped and developed nations is seen as entirely unrelated to the problem of underdevelopment. As Rodney says: “Mistaken interpretations of the causes of underdevelopment usually stem...from the error of believing that one can learn the answers by looking inside the underdeveloped country.”[38] In modern development theories this is often accidental rather than malicious, as can be seen in Sen’s work on the Bengal famine wherein his narrow scope fails to take into account the actively genocidal policies of Churchill.[39] Similarly, dependency and exploitation is often erased in the modern vogue for “interdependent” theories of development.[40]

In addition to Rodney’s salient criticisms of such theories I would add one other: The overriding focus on problems within the underdeveloped countries has masked not only imperialism, but the ongoing underdevelopment of the so-called developed countries. No longer can it be said that the world is neatly divided into camps, one of which unquestionably meets any and all definitions of development. Instead the question of “who is developing?” has become considerably more complicated.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the complexity of whether the West is “developed” is to divide the question into a matter of whether the West meets the many different quantitative criteria for development used over the years. I will begin with the ways in which the “developed” nations are superior.

When it comes to industrial output, a strong distinction between developed and underdeveloped nations is clear, but shrinking. Developed nations (here meaning the US, Europe, and Japan) are typified by shrinking industrial employment, rising productivity, and a (seemingly)[41] high proportion of machinery to labour.[42]

Developed nations also have extremely high average incomes, and high median incomes compared to other nations.[43] Many workers are employed in the “FIRE economy” of Finance, Insurance and Real-Estate, and employment is shrinking in other sectors.

Finally, developed nations score much higher on the Human Development Index of the UN Development Programme. This is calculated using GDP, Education,[44] and Health scores. While “underdeveloped” nations sometimes have a very high GDP, for the most part the developed nations have better education and health outcomes, and thus a HDI score much higher than their GDP would indicate.[45]

However there are some ways in which the developed nations are inferior, or the results are quite mixed.

Developed nations tend to score very highly in metrics designed by development experts, but they often perform poorly in measures of a country’s success which depend on speaking to the people living there. Sometimes these results are often written off as byproducts of poor education systems, but I do not believe this can be true of every one of these supposed anomalies. Developed nations often have the most unpopular governments,[46] leading populations who believe things are only going to get worse, in stark contrast to several underdeveloped nations.[47] These populations have next to no political say, as hollowed-out democracies in which mass participation is obsolete are increasingly the norm.[48] Whether or not the response is logical, relative deprivation dominates the psychic landscape of the developed world, and some of the most developed regions suffer the highest suicide rates, especially those countries which have only recently become high-income information economies.[49]