Underdevelopment and Historicism: W.W. Rostow and Andre Gunder Frank

W.W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth (1960)
Andre Gunder Frank, “The Development of Underdevelopment” (1966)
In the late 1950s when W.W. Rostow set out to build an economic theory of modern history, the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and IMF had begun to expand their Europe-directed framework to incorporate so-called Third World development into their international system of financial aid and monetary management.  The coincidence of these two events—the 1960 publication of Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto and the integration of the non-West into the Bretton Woods regime—might be said to inaugurate what anthropologist Arturo Escobar later designates as the era of the development project.  Rostow’s work provided the epistemological framework for the Bretton Woods initiative, with the latter becoming the institutional realization of the former.  In fact, what appeared as decisive in the post-World War II world of development were, on the one hand, a theoretical scheme that could explain the persistence of poverty and underdevelopment around the globe, and, on the other, a persuasive defense of Western models of modernization to be directed at newly independent countries of the then fiercely decolonizing Third World.  It is within this intellectual and political context that we read Rostow’s Stages as supplying the legitimizing knowledge that was wanting in the era of the development project.
Rostow’s Stages is a strange text within the genre of economic sociology: an admixture of economic growth theory, world history, and political polemic, it had an enduring influence for a whole generation of economists and planners.  In this text, Rostow equates the concept of development with economic growth, and argues that the economic history of nations can be broken down into five discrete, analyzable stages.  These stages are not merely descriptive nor are they merely a way to generalize the sequence of modern history but, as Rostow argues, “have an inner logic and continuity…an analytic bone-structure rooted in a dynamic theory of production” (Stages, 12-13).  To core out this inner logic that binds the coherence of these stages together, Rostow seeks to identify the mechanisms by which traditional agrarian societies begin the process of modernization.  The schema against which Rostow measured comparative levels of industrialization was a decidedly linear model of growth that proceeded from what he classified as (1) traditional society; (2) preconditions for take-off; (3) the take-off; (4) the drive to maturity; and, finally, (5) the age of high mass-consumption.  Rostow explicitly opposes his stages-of-growth model with Marx’s model of historical development.  In particular, Rostow rejects the Marxian foresight which maintained the prognosis of revolutionary communism as the rational and inevitable outcomeof history.  Rostow performs his own inversion, so to speak, by arguing that the age of high mass-consumption is the “inner” tendency of modern history, while communism, as he describes it toward the book’s end, was merely a “kind of disease which can befall a transitional society if it fails to organize effectively those elements within it which are prepared to get on with the job of modernization” (Stages, 164).
In Rostow’s view, to abate the “disease” of communism so-called developing countries needed to integrate and maximize the preconditions of modernization that would lead to “take-off.”  For Rostow, these preconditions act like a force which help break down the “traditional” or “pre-modern” socio-cultural structures that encumber industrialization.  Importantly, this force, according to Rostow, is external: it is something that comes from the outside.  Rostow writes: “the stage of preconditions arise not endogenously but from some external intrusion by more advanced societies.  These invitations—literal or figurative—shocked the traditional society and began or hastened its undoing; but they also set in motion ideas and sentiments which initiated the process by which a modern alternative to the traditional society was constructed out of the old culture” (Stages, 6, my emphasis).  Here, the agent of change does not emerge from native to traditional societies but is given to them from an alien source which they then accept and experience as shock.  But it is a shock that must be endured if “the old blocks and resistances to steady growth are finally [to be] overcome” (Stages, 7).  Rostow identifies three necessary conditions that need to be present in order for a country to take-off: GDP growth rates must increase to at least 5-10% per annum; manufacture must be revolutionized from agrarian to industrial modes of production; and, finally, political institutions must be installed in order to channel these conditions for maximal output.  The combined effects of these three conditions produce the concrete situation in which a country’s productive energies reach such a critical level that they stimulate the take-off of “massive and progressive structural transformation” (Stages, 40).
The problem of underdevelopment is therefore explained in terms of a country’s inability to efficiently absorb and implement the external forces of modernization.  In Rostow’s scheme, at any given historical period, one can analyze the degree to which a society has harnessed the optimal conditions of production, which, in turn, can be summed up and emplotted at some point along the five stages-of-growth.  The persistence of poverty and underdevelopment around the globe was seen as an effect either of countries lagging behind and simply needing to catch up or of countries being obstinate about letting their national economy become exposed to capitalist forces.  Just as the concept of development became equated with economic growth, so progress would be linked to economic performance, such that whatever differences each national economy exhibited they could be explained with reference to a single measure and timeline of economic development.  This, we might say, is the modernism of Rostow, whose stages-of-growth, like a cubist painter, visually collapses historical time: diachronic differences (uneven development) become flattened by a synchronic representation of modernization (linear development).
Andre Gunder Frank presents a radically different account of underdevelopment.  In his essay, “The Development of Underdevelopment,” published just six years after Rostow’s Stages, Frank presents a theory of modernization that is based on a global relation of economic domination and exploitation, or what he calls “metropolis-satellite relations.”  Frank’s primary points of reference are Latin American countries, which occupy a satellite position in relation to their Iberian colonial metropoles.  Frank argues that underdevelopment arises out of this metropolis-satellite relation because it is essentially a hierarchical relation of extraction and expropriation which then becomes generalized on a global scale.  Frank renders this relation through the metaphor of vampirism:  the metropolis “suck[s] capital or economic surplus out of its own satellites and …channel[s] part of this surplus to the world metropolis of which all are satellites” (“Underdevelopment,” 7).  Frank echoes here not only Marx’s vampiric metaphor in Capital but also Fanon’s depiction of European civilization as being created out of “the sweat and dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races” (The Wretched of the Earth, 96).  Frank’s metropolis-satellite model, or what world-system theory will later translate as “core and periphery,” debunks the Rostowian view of underdevelopment that sees it as the result of both a country’s relative isolation from capitalist relations and the residual existence of “traditional” socio-cultural practices that act as fetters to forces of modernization.  Underdevelopment is not an effect of isolation and inertia, but rather, as Frank argues, “was and still is generated by the very same historical process which also generated economic development: the development of capitalism itself” (“Underdevelopment,” 9).  Frank’s critique of Rostow’s stages-of-growth model is at least threefold.  Firstly, Rostow’s theory betrays a Eurocentrism whereby the historical experiences of North American and European capitalist nations are used as the normative frame of reference for measuring levels of economic growth.  Secondly, the stages-of-growth assumes a linear framework which posits underdevelopment as a prior or original stage, on the one hand, and capitalist development as the later or mature stage, on the other; this has the consequence of naturalizing socio-economic differences rather than analyzing them historically.  Thirdly, it ignores the ways in which underdevelopment is in fact not a result of a country’s remove from the capitalist system but, on the contrary, is a consequence of its imbrication with it.  What Frank presents therefore in his critique is not the Kantian Bild of universal humanity but rather a world-picture of deeply divided yet structurally linked nations competing under the heteronomy of global capital.  We might say, then, that what we saw as the modernism of Rostow’s stages-of-growth is countered here by Frank’s realist representation of underdevelopment as the uneven spatialization of a single historical time.
At stake in the opposing theories of economic development is how to reconcile the idea of progress with the reality of underdevelopment.  This question foregrounds uneven development as a kind of aporia, a non-passage.  Rostow sought to overcome it by attributing unevenness to the condition of latency that causes the productive forces of traditional societies to lie fallow.  Frank, by contrast, argued that unevenness is not a secondary effect but is rather the structural and universal feature of the development of capital.  Both Rostow and Frank use spatial metaphors to account for unevenness: stages in the one, satellite-metropole in the other.  Their accounts are characterized by a tendency to view development as primarily a spatial rather than a temporal phenomenon.  In other words, they leave uninterrogated the temporal determinations underlying economic development.  Rostow’s stages-of-growth model took for granted an idea of history as proceeding in a homogeneous continuum against which national economies could be differentially and comparatively charted.  Frank, in spite of his profound critique of uneven development, left intact the orthodoxy that equated historical time with the time of capital: everything, as he argued, is subsumed under the “same historical process” that is “the development of capitalism itself” (“Underdevelopment,” 9).  Neither Rostow nor Frank point us to a time or space outside of capital—its dispensation is presented as total and everywhere.
In Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty argues that this view of capital as total and totalizing is an inheritance of historicism.  Historicism is a mode of thought that views history as a singular phenomenon unified by a universal meaning.  Chakrabarty inflects this definition of historicism with an idea of history as determined by the imperatives of capitalist modernity.  Thus by historicism Chakrabarty means a concept of capital as not only an historical event but as an historicizing force.  Capital historicizes insofar as it incorporates non-capitalist societies into its modes and structures of thought.  It arises out of one part of the globe and expands, subsuming difference into its identity.  Chakrabarty argues that this leads to a view of history as a “waiting room,” to which non-Western societies are consigned.  There are many variations of this theme: from Hegel’s world history, Marx’s teleology, to Rostow’s stages-of-growth model, and so on.   Indeed, historicism overlaps with theories of uneven development insofar as it produces a similar view concerning “historical time [a]s the period of waiting that the Third World has to go through for capital’s logic to be fulfilled” (Provincializing Europe, 49).  From the standpoint of historicism, the non-West, as the Other of the West, occupies the space of lack, the condition of the “not-yet.”  In this way, the historical consciousness of modernity of which historicism is its most general expression refuses the actuality of the non-West.  In a word, the subaltern becomes a necessary but impossible subject of modernity.
Against historicism, Chakrabarty splits this dominant paradigm of historical thought into two—History 1 and History 2.  Here Chakrabarty draws from Marx’s distinction in Theories of Surplus Value between history as posited by capital and histories that are anterior to capital’s structure.  Chakrabarty extends Marx’s formulation to suggest that the historical forces that belong under History 2 are in fact not extraneous to capital but co-belong in its formation and development.    They are the life-forces that constitute the non-Western world, which colonialism merely expropriates as its productive substrate.  In recovering the critical meanings of History 2, Chakrabarty suggests that they are “ways of being in the world” that are subsumed by but do not necessarily align with the logic and objectives of capital.  In other words, they are both the “non-yet” forms which capital has not taken or cannot take, as well as the irreducible remainder of capital’s actualization.  In a word, they point to a space that is of potential to capital but are not reducible to it.  Methodologically, the distinction between History 1 and 2 expands the historical scope of research to include not only the effects of capitalist industrialization in Europe but also the consequences of imperialism and colonialism in the non-West.  More profoundly, however, it refers to a space of critique.  For if, as Achille Mbembe suggests, modernity names the history of Western rationalism, a narrative charting “the way the individual in the West has gradually freed her/himself from the sway of traditions and attained an autonomous capacity to conceive, in the here and now” (On the Postcolony, 10), History 2 shows how this narrative is never final. It deconstructs this narrative inasmuch as it points to forms of consciousness and habits of being that interrupt and haunt such a narrative of self-actualization.  It is to sense what Mbembe calls the “time of existence” that remains illegible to the linear time of capital.  Such illegible times constitute the invisible makings of the postcolony, times which do not add to a series but are the “interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures that retain their depths of other presents, pasts, and futures” (On the Postcolony, 16).
— P.N.
Image: detail of Tiffany Chung’s, “Edo Tokyo” (2011).
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This entry was published on June 18, 2012 at 7:17 AM. It’s filed under Development, Reading Notes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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