I recently attended an excellent lecture at Cabrillo College, located in central California, by an International Relations scholar who focused on the effects of colonialism. We took a solid look at the ‘World Systems Theory’ of why the developing world is, well, developing, and it was great to go over this school of thought’s main arguments.
For those of you who don’t know, World Systems Theory is a Marxian analysis that basically states that poor countries are poor because of the effects of colonialism, and the evidence supporting their claims is pretty damn solid. Basically, the World Systems theorists argue that when the various European powers gained outright control of non-European lands (this process in itself took centuries, by the way, and I deplore the historical narrative that argues Europeans set out to conquer foreign lands and divide up the spoils of war for reasons outlined in the link provided), the European powers set up states that were designed specifically to export raw agricultural materials to European factories, to be produced by European workers, and to be consumed by European (and elite non-European) consumers.
This is pretty much what happened, and explains why most of the developing world is dependent upon raw commodity exports (that are shipped to European markets) for most of their well-being. Unfortunately, the very solutions that the World Systems theorists propose to dismantle the structural inequalities that exist in this world will (and have) actually led to more of the same structural inequality.
Allow me to explain.
Like I stated, the nature of Third World states is essentially extractive thanks to the colonial policies enacted by various European governments. In order to go about extracting raw commodities from foreign lands, the Europeans set up political structures that imbued a central capital with vast amounts of power to oversee a colonial economy. The World System theorists are right about this, but they somehow attribute the colonial system to Europe’s sudden surge of wealth and prosperity that occurred in the mid-to-later part of the 19th century, which is an egregious error that must be dealt with if we are to strive for a more equitable and prosperous world.
Europe’s rise to prominence after the Napoleonic Wars had to do with the decentralized nature of their political systems and the increased opening up of their domestic economies to international trade (the more I study history, the more I reach the conclusion that most, if not all, societies have or wish to have decentralized political institutions, and that centralized power structures are usually imposed after conquest or conspiracy). This one-two combination is what enabled European societies to flourish after Napoleon’s devastating wars for the glory of the state. In the places where decentralization and self-government were prohibited by law in Europe, one could find resentment, poverty, and an unhealthy tolerance for violence.
Below is a map of Europe in 1815, just after the Napoleonic Wars had ended. I must note that even within the boundaries of the states shown below there was a lot more political control regionally than is detailed here, but you can gauge the generally decentralized political nature of Europe as a whole anyway:
Now let us shift back to the colonial spheres of the European empires in Africa and South Asia. I argue, contrary to the World System theorists, that colonialism was actually more of a burden than a boon to the societies of Europe. I’m not going to dig up any statistics for this claim, but I will use the modern-day example of the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to bolster my argument that colonialism is far more costly to societies than beneficial. I don’t see how this would have been any different for the people living in 19th-century Europe.
Prior to the full-fledged colonization of South Asia and Africa in the last half of the 19th century, the political makeup of these regions was much like that of Europe; there were kingdoms large and small, federal republics, prosperous city-states, and ancient, decadent empires that dotted the landscape of what is today referred to as the developing world. In addition to the political similarities with Europe, the economies of many of the regions were actually on par with those of their European brethren, so the issue of the effects of colonialism are extremely pertinent to any discussion on improving the plight of the developing world. Check out this chart of GDP per capita (I couldn’t find a chart for GDP [PPP] per capita, my preferred method for looking at comparative wealth) from the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert E Lucas:
Notice how Regions I and III (the English-speaking world and imperial Northwest Europe) only begin to take off around 1815?
Now have a look at this map of India in 1785: The yellow territory was controlled by the Mahratta states, a – get this! – loose confederation of independent states that cooperated with each other on matters of trade and diplomacy a la the Confederation of the Rhine in the European map posted above. If you take a closer gander at the map, you will see that there a number of other states, outlined in blue, that represent various independent actors within the regional sphere known today as India and Pakistan (Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are there too!). These blue states can easily be compared to the less influential (but no less important) states of Europe like Switzerland and the small Italian republics.
Here is a deplorable political map of the Gulf of Guinea circa 1600-1800, and we can see that the general makeup of the political entities in this region is just as decentralized as that of Europe and India: This map also shows the modern-day borders of the states that European imperialists drew up to support their burdensome, inefficient, ofttimes brutal, and wholly pompous colonial apparatuses, which brings me to the policy prescriptions of the World Systems theorists. But first, a bit more historical background.
In the introduction of his book The Constitution of Liberty, the Nobel Prize-winning economic and legal theorist Friedrich A. Hayek wrote about the decline of liberal thought (in the classical sense) in the West and what it would mean for the non-European states that were about to throw off the shackles of formal colonial rule and declare independence (his book was published in 1960):
A large part of the people of the world borrowed from Western civilization and adopted Western ideals at a time when the West had become unsure of itself and had largely lost faith in the traditions that have made it what it is. This was a time when the intellectuals of the West had to a great extent abandoned the very belief in freedom which, by enabling the West to make full use of those forces that are responsible for the growth of all civilization, had made its unprecedented quick growth possible. In consequence, those men from the less advanced nations who became purveyors of ideas to their own people learned, during their Western training, not how the West had built up its civilization, but mostly those dreams of alternatives which its very success has engendered. This development is especially tragic because, though the beliefs on which these disciples of the West are acting may enable their countries to copy more quickly a few of the achievements of the West, they will also prevent them from making their own distinct contributions. Not all that is the result of the historical development of the West can or should be transplanted to other cultural foundations; and whatever kind of civilization will emerge in those parts under Western influence may sooner take appropriate forms if allowed to grow rather than if it is imposed from above. If it is true […] that the necessary condition for a free evolution – the spirit of individual initiative – is lacking, then surely without that spirit no civilization can grow anywhere.
The adopted Western ideals that the West was itself unsure about and the alternative dreams that Hayek writes of are, as you may have guessed, the various strains of Marxist thought that had at that time completely permeated the universities of Europe and the United States (where the sons of African elites went to study). Now that we have a proper understanding of the intellectual climate surrounding the process of decolonization, I want to focus on a particular point that I believe was made by most, if not all, of the leaders of the various decolonization movements.
The acknowledgement that the colonial states were made up of a great many types of nationalities (here it is important to remember the decentralized nature of the pre-colonial world) due to European imperialism was made repeatedly by the victors of the anti-colonial revolutions (this was due largely to the demands of the people within these colonial boundaries for more political, legal, and economic control over their traditional territories, which many of the socialist-inspired revolutionaries had promised to them once independence was achieved) was just that: a mere acknowledgement.
An excerpt from Julius Nyerere, leader of Tanzania’s revolution and socialist dictator for 24 years:
In Tanzania, it was more than one hundred tribal units which lost their freedom; it was one nation that regained it.
And from Kwame Nkruma, socialist revolutionary and one-time dictator of Ghana:
Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation. The notion that in order to have a nation it is necessary for there to be a common language, a common territory and common culture has failed to stand the test of time […] The community of economic life is the major feature within a nation, and it is the economy which holds together the people living in a territory. It is on this basis that the new Africans recognise themselves as potentially one nation, whose dominion is the entire African continent.
From Sukarno, unceremoniously ousted dictator of Indonesia:
Projects such as […] the National Monument, Independence Mosque, the Jakarta By-pass, and so on, are examples of “National Building” and “Character Building” […] of the whole Indonesian people striving to recover out national identity. […] Do you remember that a great leader of a foreign country told me that monuments are an absolute necessity to develop the people’s spirit, as necessary as pants for somebody naked, pants and not a tie?
And so on and so forth. What I wish for you to glean from these examples is that the inherent appeal by the socialist-inspired dictators to an artificial nationalism is, somewhat ironically, the exact same appeal made by the European imperialists to the subjugated peoples of their colonies. Although independence from Europe was desired by almost all peoples (some of the elite benefited greatly from European colonialism) living under foreign occupation, the belief systems of all individuals by no means fell in line with the those of the European-educated elite. I would wager that the majority of the colonies’ subjects got behind the revolutionaries because of their common desire for freedom and the right to govern their traditional territories as their ancestors did.
Instead, what the subjugated people of the developing world got after independence from the European imperialists was more of the same centralized power structure, only this time the master was not a foreign occupier but rather one of their own. Ideas matter.
The critiques that the World Systems theorists have of the global economic order are by no means limited to the effects that colonialism had upon the economic, cultural, and political institutions of the developing world. Unfortunately, their critiques of, say, international banking establishments such as the IMF and the World Bank are extremely weak and based upon long-disproved economic theories. Yes, the IMF and World Bank bear some semblance of the old colonial order, but the World Systems theorists largely complain, rather than argue, that the money lent by the banks to the post-colonial states is tied to structural readjustment programs rather than spent on social welfare programs. Therefore, the Marxists don’t advocate abolishing the current system; rather, they want control of these lending institutions because they could use them to ensure that stringent labor and environmental regulations are implemented, protectionist tariffs are thrown up to promote “national self-sufficiency,” and to ensure that policies like free health care and education for everyone in a given post-colonial state are undertaken.
Unfortunately, the World Systems theorists fail to see that their prescriptions are exactly the same ones that have been implemented over and over again, to no avail, by the dictators that continue to seize the centralized power structures of the developing world’s artificial states. The ugly truth of the matter is that the stringent labor regulations, protectionist tariffs for the developing world’s economies, “free” education for everyone within the artificial state’s borders, and a health care system based on long-disproved (in theory and in practice) state-run models are themselves based upon imperial pretenses.
Better to heed the remarks of Hayek and recognize that freedom can never be imposed from above.