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.