Samir AMIN, a dissenting economist

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Samir was born in Cairo in 1931 and was educated at the Lycée Français there. He gained a Ph.D. degree in Political Economy in Paris (1957) as well as degrees from the Institut de Statistiques and from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques. He then returned home where he was attached to the Planning bodies of Nasser's regime. He left Egypt in 1960 to work with the Ministry of Planning of the newly independent Mali (1960-63) and following this commenced an academic career. He has held the position of full Professor in France since 1966 and was for ten years (1970-80) the director of the UN African Institute for Economic Development and Planning (in Dakar). Since 1980 he has been directing the African Office of the Third World Forum, an international non-governmental association for research and debate. He is currently the President of the World Forum for Alternatives.


The main contributions of Samir Amin can be classified under four headings : (i) a critique of the theory and expériences of development ; (ii) an alternative proposal for the analysis of the global system which he calls really existing capitalism (iii) a re-reading of the history of social formations, and (iv) a reinterpretation of what he describes as post capitalist societies.


Amin's critique of the theory of development goes back to his Ph.D. dissertation (1957) published later under the title Accumulation on a World Scale. Conventional theory presents a general view of the problem that might be summed up in the simple proposition that « underdevelopment » is nothing more than delayed development. The emerging conclusions advocate « development policies » focused on more thorough participation in the international division of labour. Accumulation was among the first texts to challenge this conventional wisdom. Bourgeois economics finds attractive only the study of contingent interconnections resulting from the play of such strictly economic phenomena as prices and incomes. Moreover, in this exercise it invariably posits a hypothetical system close to the « ideal type » of capitalism. For that reason, an examination of bourgeois economic statements on « underdevelopment » throws into exceedingly sharp relief the inadequacies and the narrow range of the conventional « science » of economics. The limitations are most clearly visible in three areas of economic analysis : monetary problems, the conjunctural state of the economy, and international relations. That is hardly an accident. The ebb and flow of economic tides indicate that in proffering its hypothèses of spontaneous, inéluctable balance, bourgeois economics turns a blind eye to the contradictory dynamics inherent in capitalist accumulation. As for the theories it propounds on international exchanges, notably those of comparative advantage and the self-equilibrating balance of external payments, they rise no higher than a vapid ideology of universel harmony between nations operating as partners in the world capitalist system.


Such was the critical thrust developed in Accumulation. However, bourgeois economics aspires to the formulation of a social philosophy asserting a broader idea : that in its spread, the market of commodities and « production factors » creates maximal conditions for the satisfaction of all, thus constituting a rational process transcending history. This claim stands on shaky ground. For the discipline of « economics » itself is nothing more than a pseudo-science, a consequence of the economic alienation peculiar to capitalism. « Economics » is the result of that peculiarly capitalist trait whereby phenomena generated by society seem to confront that same society as if they were natural laws external to it. Thus linked to the illusion of a rationality beyond history, bourgeois socioeconomic philosophy is unable to deal with the real history of societies.


Beyond this critique Amin offers an alternative methodology to deal with the analysis of global capitalism in two books, Imperialism and Unequal Development and The Law of Value and Historical Materialism. According to him there are two ways of looking at the social reality of our modern world. The first stresses the fundamental relationship which defines the capitalist mode of production at its most abstract level and, from there, focuses on the allegedly fundamental class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The second stresses the other dimension of capitalist reality, its unequal development worldwide, and hence focuses its analysis on the consequences that polarisation involves at every level, thus defining other issues in the political and social struggles that occupy the forefront of the historical stage. In this analytical framework, the development of the periphery has always been the history of a never-ending « adjustment » to the demands and constraints of dominant capital. The centres « restructure » themselves and the peripheries are « adjusted » to these restructurings. Delinking is precisely reversing this relation; that is, subordinating external relations to the logic of internal development.


Polarization on a global level is thus the immanent product of the expansion of really existing capitalism. On the scale of the world capitalist system, the law of value operates on the basis of a truncated market which integrates the commerce of products and the movements of capital but excludes labour power from it. The worldwide law of value then tends to standardise the prices of merchandises but not the remunerations of labour since its range of world distribution is infinitely more open than that of the distribution of productivities. Even beyond the law of worldwide value, unequal access to natural resources, technological monopolies, extra-economic mechanisms of political and military domination - as well as the effects of the domination of life-styles, organisation and consumption - have vastly increased this polarization in every dimension.


In fact, the polarisation of wealth and power within the world capitalist system has passed through three stages. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thanks to the colonisation of America and its effects on the acceleration of the mercantilist proto-capitalism of Atlantic Europe, that part of the world acquired for the first time a decisive superiority over the old civilisations of the Orient which it prepared to attack, thus bringing a halt to their own proto-capitalist evolution (and sometimes even precipitating régressive involution). In the 19th century the industrial revolution and then imperialism (in the classical Leninist sense of the term) accentuated this polarisation of wealth and power which became expressed in the contrast between industrialized and non-industrialized countries. Amin proposes the thesis that the structural crisis of our own epoch, starting in 1970, begins a new stage in world domination, (marked by new technologies, new forms of worldwide finance capital and so on) which results not in a réduction but an aggravation of polarisation. The peripheral industrialization of one part and the « fourth-worldization » of another part constitute the new forms corresponding to this last stage of polarisation.


This polarisation has postponed the question of the eventual socialist transformation in the developed capitalist societies, while in the periphery it bas required objectively envisaging a « different development » from the one that would result - in these conditions - from its integration into the world capitalist system.


In this conceptual frame Amin has re-evaluated the various radical attempts at development which occurred throughout the 1960s and 1970s in the Third World (what he calls the « Bandung Era 1955-1975 »). The Bandung project was defined by the following features : (i) a détermination to develop productive forces and diversify production (notably to industrialise) ; (ii) a détermination to ensure that the national state should lead and control the process ; (iii) the belief that « technical » models are « neutral » and can simply be reproduced ; (iv) the belief that this process does not involve a popular initiative as a starting point but simply popular support for state actions ; (v) the belief that this process is not fundamentally in contradiction with participation in the international division of labour even if it involves temporary conflicts with the developed capitalist countries. Realization of this national bourgeois project involved the hegemonic national bourgeois class, through its state, acquiring control in a number of areas, at least of the following processes : (i) control of the reproduction of the labour force, which implies a relatively complete and balanced development so that local agriculture can be, inter alia, in a position to provide the basic ingrédients of that reproduction in reasonable quantities and at reasonable prices to ensure the valorisation of capital ; (ii) control of national resources ; (iii) control of local markets and the capacity to break through into the world market in competitive conditions ; (iv) control of the financial circuits making it possible to centralise the surplus and direct it to productive uses; and (v) control of the technologies in use at the level of development of productive forces reached.


History has exposed the inadequacies and the fragility of the dream of the bourgeois nation-state in today's Third World. For after the initial period of post-war prosperity, the world economy slid into crisis in the early 1970s. Immediately the capitalist camp went on the offensive again and imposed the hard-nosed demands of the transnationalization process on Third World societies. It turned their shattered state machinery into simple transmission belts, and over the grave of the aborted bourgeois national-state, it erected the object of its own desire: the comprador state (1990b).


Amin also developed a reading of history consistent with his concept of unequal development (1980). In his opinion what separates capitalism from all the advanced societies preceding it is not only a quantitative difference of the degree of development of productive forces. The différence is also qualitative. In capitalism, surplus value is obtained through the economic mechanism of the law of value whereas in all earlier societies the extraction of the surplus took the form of a tribute imposed by non-economic means. The contrast between, on the one hand, the transparency of economic phenomena in pre-capitalist societies and, on the other, its opaqueness through the law of value in capitalism leads to a reversal of the hierarchy of authority. Whereas the economy directly commands the capitalist dynamic (which is then expressed through the play of economic laws which seem to impose themselves on society as laws of nature), a politico-ideological authority was dominant in earlier societies. Amin believes that Marx emphasized precisely this reversal of relations between structure and superstructure and therefore emphasized the essentiel character common to all advanced pre-capitalist forms (which Amin calls, for that reason, the « tributary mode of production ») in contrast to capitalism. Unfortunately, the dominant currents of Marxism refused to consider the superstructural dynamics (contenting themselves with a vague theory of the superstructure as a « reflection » of the exigencies of the economic base), just as they refused to analyse the systems of pre-capitalist societies closely bound by multiple relations - political, cultural (religious among others) and economic. This reduction of Marxism did not predispose it to understand the transition to capitalism, while it inspired research in a false direction, namely that of the possible « succession » of modes of production such as that of slavery-feudalism. Or by default, Marxism became trapped in the mythological contrast of the « two roads » : the open Occidental way (slavery-feudalism-capitalism) and the cul-de-sac of the « Asiatic mode of production ». Amin has rejected these theses and has tried to demonstrate their Eurocentric character.


According to Amin, pre-capitalist societies are characterized by differentiation of the principal source or authority because of what he has called the « central » or « peripheral » nature of the tributary society under considération. The « central » or « peripheral » character in pre-capitalism can be found in the area of the dominant authority, that is to say in the State (power) and in ideology (cultures, religions), whereas the « central » or « peripheral » character of a capitalist formation is located in the area of the economy. In this sense, Amin has defined feudalism not as a specific mode of production but as a specific - peripheral - form of tributary society. It was peripheral simply because the centralisation of state power which defines central tributary society was embryonic: the absolute monarchies (close to the advanced tributary model) appeared relatively late in Europe, precisely in the proto-capitalist phase of the mercantilist transition. Amin has explained this peripheral character of feudalism by the proximity of the communal phase among the barbarians from which medieval Europe developed. But this lag in Europe less advanced than the Oriental tributaries - did not seem to have been a handicap in the acceleration of later development, but on the contrary was an advantage because of the greater flexibility of the society which it encompassed.


Amin later developed his reflections on culture through a critique of Eurocentrism which he qualified as « culturalism », meaning that it is based on the hypothesis that « the different cultures » (European, Oriental) are characterized by transhistorical invariants which determine developments ; these are not subject to the laws of general evolution. There he tried to show the mythological character of these invariants, artificially constructed both to legitimize the specific dynamic opened by European history (by the myths of Greek ancestry, by « Christianophilia », by racism) and to legitimize by contrast the supposed impasse of other societies.


It is also in this overall framework that Amin discusses the issues of socialism (1983, 1989b, 1990a). In his opinion, Marx underestimated the centre-periphery polarisation in the worldwide process of capitalist expansion. Marx thought that following industrial revolution, the capitalist system would take very little time to accomplish its universalizing mission. Reality worked out differently.


According to Amin, the challenging of the capitalist order from revolts in its periphery compels a rethink of the whole question of « socialist transition » towards the abolition of classes. The Marxist tradition remains handicapped by its initial theoretical vision of « workers revolutions » opening up (on the basis of advanced productive forces) a rapid transition marked by popular democratic rule which should be considerably more democratic than the most democratic of bourgeois states. Nevertheless, all the revolutions of our time (Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia and so on) that were unmistakably socialist in intent have been the result of the unequal development in capitalist expansion. Global polarisation has thus been the historical force behind these types of revolutions by the peoples of the periphery. They have been anti-capitalist in the sense of opposing existing capitalist development which has proved intolerable for the people. But that does not mean that these anti-capitalist revolutions are purely socialist. By the force of circumstance, they have a complex nature. The expression of their specific and new contradictions which had not been imagined in the classical perspective of the socialist transition as conceived by Marx, gives post-capitalist regimes their real content, which is that of a popular national construction in which the socialist and capitalist forces and projects combine and conflict. This objective contradiction should be managed through political democracy and a mixed economy. Instead it bas been managed through statism which negated its very existence, thus reflecting the reconstruction of privileged class interests.


Today all societies are integrated into a global capitalist system ruled by the liberal utopia and therefore facing three main similar challenges albeit in the frame of different concrete conditions. First the democratic issue : beyond political democracy, will the social struggles succeed in giving it a progressive content and thus move towards the social management of the economy ? Second the market issue : will societies simply accept the law of market or will they succeed in regulating it through non bureaucratie social planning ? Third the globalisation issue : will each society integrate the world economy simply on the basis of the rules of so called competitivity and therefore accept eventually the peripherization of the majority of the nations, or will they succeed in mastering the opening of the economics? Amin argues that the answers to these questions will depend on the outcome of the ongoing social struggles (1997).


For Amin, the unilateral market solution can never put right unbearable social, political and international contrasts. Critical thought is concerned precisely with identifying alternative social alliances which can provide escape routes from the vicious circles of the market. Different routes are required by the various regions of the world, specific individual policies cannot be derived from the unilateral rationality of the market. The imperatives of our time therefore imply, the rebuilding of the world system on the basis of polycentrism. The various regions and countries should coordinate their visions and subordinate their external relations to the constraints of their internal development. They must not be tempted to adjust their internal development to the global expansion of capitalism.


The social alliances which define the content of the strategies for the various regions are necessarily different. Yet these specific strategies should converge gradually towards a global socialist vision through a process which Amin analyses as a long historical transition from global capitalism to global socialism, therefore different from the historical Marxist concepts of the short transition and the building of socialism in separated countries. In that long transition the fundamental tendencies associated with the globalized expansion of capitalism - that is, growing market alienation, growing destruction of the natural basis for life and growing polarisation between centres and peripheries - should be stopped. The positive transition to socialism will have started when the direction of the trends in these three areas will have been reversed (1997, 1998).


Amin suffers no illusions as to whether Marxism is going through a crisis. For him whoever approaches historical materialism as a method (not as a definitive theory forever scaled and delivered at the death of Marx, Lenin or Mao) knows that the changing realities of life present a dynamic Marxism with a continuing series of challenges to creative innovation. To renew its vitality Marxism has to meet these challenges. The penalty for failure is atrophy. Only religious dogmatism, which is impervious to reality, is capable of seeing in an intellectual crisis nothing but threats to its own certainties.

Amin's Major Writings

(1974), Accumulation on a World Scale, two volumes, New York: Monthly Review Press.

(1976), Unequal Development, New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1977), Imperialism and Unequal Development, New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1978a), The Arab Nation, London : Zed.

(1978b), The Law of Value and Historical Materialism, New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1980), Class and Nation. Historically and in the Current Crisis, New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1983), The Future of Marxism, New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1989), Eurocentrism, London : Zed ; New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1990a), Delinking, London : Zed.

(1990b), Maldevelopment in Africa and in the Third World, London : Zed.

(1994), Re-reading the Post War Period, an Intellectual Itinerary, New York : Monthly Review Press.

(1997), Capitalism in the Age of Globalization, London : Zed.

(1998), Spectres of Capitalism, a Critique of Current Intellectual Fashions, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Amin writes mainly in French and Arabic : A bibliography up to 1980 with commentary is available in The Arab Economy Today (London : Zed) written by Aidan Foster-Carter, « The Empirical Samir Amin : A Notice and Appreciation ».

From Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists, ed. Prof Malcolm Sawyer, published by Edward Elgar Ltd, U.K.