An A-Z of theory Samir Amin (Part 2)

In a new addition to his "A to Z of theory" series, political theorist Andrew Robinson introduces, in a two-part essay, the work of Samir Amin, one of the leading theorists of World Systems Analysis and dependency theory. In part two, Robinson introduces, and critically assesses, Amin's concept of "delinking".

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 3, 2011 0:00 - 1 Comment


By Andrew Robinson


Amin’s alternative to global capitalism is constructed around the concept of delinking. Amin calls for each country to delink from the world economy and subordinate global relations to domestic development priorities, creating ‘autocentric’ development. This does not necessarily mean refusing external contact, but insulating domestic policies from external economic power (It does not necessarily require autarky). It is meant to involve a national ‘law of value’ which is both ‘rational’ and has ‘popular relevance’, defined without reference to the global ‘law of value’ of the capitalist system. In other words, it involves creating a national economy with different rules from the global economy. Domestic economic priorities must be set without reference to global capitalist demands.

The argument for delinking links to a conjuncture where neo-colonialism has replaced classical colonialism. Independent states exist in the global South, with relative autonomy from the world-system. But the old pattern of ‘development’ causing ‘underdevelopment’ has continued. Delinking uses the autonomy won by peripheral countries as a lever against systemic power.

Amin believes that delinking could destroy the world-system from the outside in. He sees it as the only possible path to a different world order and a supersession of global capitalism. The possibility of global change is thus rooted, not at the heart of capitalism as Marx maintained, but in the peripheral countries. Amin believes that the need to question capitalism is felt most sharply in the periphery. The centre-periphery division is the primary, or most explosive, contradiction in the current world.

It also aims to expand the autonomy of nations, peoples and exploited classes. According to Amin, the decomposition of the existing world-system is necessary for a new world system to be created. It is illusory to seek rebuilding without first delinking. Delinking would involve abolishing dominant forms of private ownership, taking agriculture as central to the economy, and refusing land grabs for industrialisation.

Instead of defining value by dominant prices in the world – which result from productivity in the rich countries – Amin suggests that value in each country should be set so that agricultural and industrial workers are paid by their input into the society’s net output. The main effect of this move would be to raise wages in agriculture. Amin sees national states redistributing resources between sectors, and centralising and distributing a surplus. Full employment should be guaranteed, and the exodus from rural to urban areas discouraged.

Playing to ‘comparative advantage’ (the driving force of the global economy) would be reduced. Instead, attempts would be made to avoid deficits in basic goods. For instance, a country following this strategy would not usually become dependent on imported food. In contrast, many globalising countries have lost their ‘food sovereignty’ and become dependent on imported food.

Delinking could either lead to socialism, or to a more egalitarian capitalism. It is likely to occur through the power of the popular classes, rather than the bourgeoisie. Ultimately, it can only avoid a return to international values if it goes down a socialist path. Amin calls for a socialist delinking. He hopes that capitalism can be comprehensively overthrown. However, he seeks for an eventual return to a different kind of world-economy or world-system.

Amin still assumes a historical progression of stages. He is seeking a passage from one stage of the world to another, similar to the passage from tributary production to capitalism. Although he seeks respect for different paths to development, Amin denounces the ‘right to difference’ and maintains what he terms a ‘universalist ambition’, complete with modernist tropes such as progress, reason, law and justice. In relation to postcolonial and poststructuralist critiques, Amin’s approach looks decidedly continuous with capitalist modernity.

Delinking will be carried out by a new social subject: the popular liberation movement. This is defined against both traditional classes (which are too national to be of use) and nations (which are caught-up in the world-system). It is connected to the popular classes (poor peasants, marginal workers and the urban poor) who are affected by pauperisation. Delinking is thus a politics of the excluded, but of a type which goes by way of state power.

Preconditions for delinking include the development of a political will for egalitarian reform – the main reason delinking has not happened in countries like Brazil and India. Amin expects delinking to come from a strong national and popular component in state-formation. The main ‘losers’ in this arrangement would be the middle-class who sustain consumption based on global flows and models.

It also requires progress in the fields of democracy and collective rights, pan-Third World unity, and self-reliance of each nation. The achievement of a multipolar world is also a desirable means to the end of delinking. It also involves a strong form of non-alignment, though various tactical compromises are permitted.

Delinking is not the same as autarky. A country which delinks need not reject foreign technology, but at the same time, is more likely to seek to balance it with local technological development. It should pursue industrialisation at the service of agricultural development.

Amin rejects criticisms that delinking repeats older import-substitution models. The apparent failure of delinking in Africa and Asia is, according to Amin, illusory. The newly independent postcolonial regimes did not, Amin argues, delink. They increased imports of technology, capital imports and state debt. Nascent delinkings were actually cut short violently by the debt crisis.

A similar politics is possible in rich countries. For the North, delinking is defined by models of alternative development, anti-globalisation, and pacifism. Northern countries can only delink if they break with capitalism entirely. Europe also faces a cultural battle to preserve its distinctiveness against an American cultural onslaught. This onslaught is viewed as attempting to reproduce America’s aggressive nationalism and rejection of welfare states within Europe.

In the North, the dominant project since the 1980s has been insertion in the world market. This has gone in line with restructuring in accordance with dominant capitalist priorities. A Keynesian response is not possible because it prevents capitalist restructuring. Furthermore, any global redistribution requires reduced consumption in the core countries. The social-democrats have failed, because they lack space for their traditional responses. Hence, they tend to fall into Third Way conformity, barely different from neoliberals.

Amin suggests that the only viable responses in the North move beyond the commodity economy – for instance, Green proposals for economic decentralisation, moves towards industrial policies disconnected from financial profitability, autocentric development within European countries, or the broadening of non-commodity opportunities.

Amin believes there is a stark choice between an alternative trajectory based on delinking, and the continuation of a barbaric world-system which is a mortal threat to the global poor. As long as the system is not overthrown, it will keep reproducing itself through genocide and dispossession. Amin sees the issue as a very sharp choice between two poles: socialism (through delinking) or barbarism, including the self-destruction of humanity.


Amin is sometimes criticised (by authors such as Sheila Smith and Ira Gerstein) for overemphasising exploitation through uneven exchange, to the exclusion of exploitation at the level of production and exploitation at the national level. While it is untrue that he neglects class divisions within society, and while production certainly has a place in his theory, it is true that he places an overwhelming emphasis on exchange and on the global level. Delinking would address problems in exchange, without necessarily redressing those in production. It is also questionable whether it would redress power-asymmetries within ‘nations’ in which it occurs.

Another question which could be raised is whether the rapid growth of countries such as China, India, Singapore and Korea, or the growing importance of global cities in some peripheral countries, has destroyed the old centre-periphery division. These are common reasons why theories such as Amin’s are unfashionable today.

I would respond that dependency theory has already handled such obejctions. Firstly, growth in countries such as India and China has been highly uneven. Tiny pockets of ‘advanced’ production exist alongside massive ‘underdeveloped’ regions. Secondly, growth has continued to be premised on low wages. Thirdly, while global cities in East Asia and China rival those of Europe and America in the density of trade flows, command and control functions remain centralised in the old core countries. Fourthly, there are geopolitical reasons why certain East Asian countries (especially small ones like Singapore and Hong Kong) have been allowed to raise wages above those typical of the South. Fifthly, these growth ‘miracles’ are deeply unstable, dependent on footloose global financial flows – as the 1999 East Asian crisis, and similar events in Mexico, Russia and Argentina have shown.

The general pattern of globalisation confirms Amin’s account: average incomes have increased, but this increase is concentrated in the middle-class. Further, it mainly consists of increased availability of imported consumer goods. The poor are either getting poorer or staying where they are. If the ‘social wage’, income security, subsistence, and cost of living are considered, there can be little question that most people in poor countries are becoming worse-off, in spite of economic growth.

In China for instance, major coastal cities have undergone rapid enrichment, but unskilled workers have seen only small income rises. On the other hand, people have lost jobs-for-life, access to land, free housing, and state welfare provision. Growth is still stagnant in rural areas. Millions have been displaced from rural areas by land grabs and pollution. China has gone from self-sufficiency in food production to importing food.

Although China entered into globalisation to build up state power, and remained determined to protect its independence, the actual effect has been the opposite. Its ability to set an independent foreign policy line has been undermined by dependence on oil imports and foreign investors.

A more significant problem is Amin’s rejection of many of the developments in critical theory of the last 50 years. Amin is an unrecalcitrant modernist. Although he opposes dominant developmentalist narratives, he is ultimately in favour of developmentalism. He also believes in eventual progress towards a world-system which is fully inclusive and socialist. In other words, he remains within a framework of concentrated power, even while criticising existing power-distributions.

The future sought by states which delink is assumed to be a future of economic development along lines similar to those of the North, though more egalitarian. For critics with a deeper sense of the problems with capitalism – its instrumentalism, its alienation of social life its subordination to objects, its hostility to subjective knowledge and ecology – the link has only partially been broken. There is a need to abolish the law of value far more deeply than Amin suggests. In many respects, Amin’s approach is followed through and radicalised by ecologically-oriented authors such as Maria Mies.

Despite his critique of nationalism, Amin continues to rely on national forces as the source of delinking. Questions can be asked regarding his theory of the state. If each state is formed as a colonial entity, forcibly integrating territories in hierarchical ways, it makes sense that states also link into the world-system externally. In Amin’s model, states remain determinant, for instance, of the value of activities through national wage-setting. Peasants are rewarded for contributing to ‘national’ output. This is still in many respects a capitalist society, but one where the state takes a greater role in production.

On the level of power, the problem would be how to ensure that states actually favour development and equality, instead of falling into the neo-patrimonial patterns which are all too common both in imperialist and anti-imperialist states. In other words, how to prevent power-holders in the state from grabbing resources for their own enrichment. It would seem that, for this to be prevented, popular movements would have to exercise considerable power over and against the state. Yet it is difficult to see how this could occur with economic power held so firmly by the state.

Amin tends to assume that theories fall into one of three camps: Marxist, bourgeois (such as mainstream economics), or fundamentalist (meaning reactionary, and seeking a return to tributary production, and/or nostalgic and essentialist about culture). I would suggest the actual theoretical field is far more diverse, particularly in relation to poststructuralism, postcolonialism, anarchisms of various kinds, indigenous worldviews, and theories connected to social movements.

It is possible to reject the Marxist baggage of stages, progress, economic advancement and residual statism without replacing these with essentialised cultures or earlier forms of oppression. The key point is, rather, to carry out a more systematic delinking which also covers the field of state power (replacing concentrated power with diffuse power), alienation (replacing repressed life with intensity), and epistemology (replacing arborescent thought with nomad thought).

The problem is that Amin has not delinked enough: he remains linked to key aspects of the modernist project, such as universalism, national integration and economic growth. A delinking which breaks with capitalist logic might also require decomposing the localised loci of hierarchical power. Local autonomy ultimately leads to the prioritisation of subsistence over commodity production, and hence of situated local belongings over states and nations. It would require forms of diffuse power which override the centralised power of the state and world-system, allowing local scales to predominate over the global scale.

This said, Amin’s work has been a huge inspiration to theorists seeking to move beyond modernist conceptions, particularly in the subsistence perspective. It is a necessary counterbalance to the emphasis on orthodox Marxism on the core countries. It provides a clear sense of how global inequalities emerge and are maintained.

Another qualification should be added. Today’s world is not only characterised by exploitation of peripheries, but increasingly, by phenomena of ‘forcible delinking’. Certain poor countries, especially in Africa, are excluded from the formal world economy almost entirely. So are many of the urban and rural poor. Usually, forcible delinking correlates with widespread impoverishment, as global connections are cut off with nothing to take their place (Though not always. The fact that Somalia performed better on most human development criteria after the collapse of the state – and corresponding disappearance of externally-focused economics, structural adjustment, and debt repayments – is highly indicative for dependency theory).

Forcible delinking is admittedly very different from what Amin has in mind. Yet it is a sign of how capitalism tends to give its opponents what they want, but in distorted form. Forcible delinking tends to produce a scramble for systemic inclusion and a fear of delinking which acts to reinforce the denkverbot against questioning global capitalism and international competitiveness.

This is a predictable effect, echoing Frank’s discussions of Guatemala fifty years ago. When an economy is organised towards external extraction, the sudden withdrawal of such extraction leaves the economy ill-suited for anything else. Exploitation comes to seem better than exclusion, but only because of the ‘distortions’ introduced by exploitation, and the lack of an alternative vision.

Forcible delinking also provides zones of marginality in which capitalist power is weak, which can become sites of resistance and of alternative formations. This is clear for instance in the case of Chiapas, in movements in the Andes, Manipur and West Papua, and in a more ambiguous way in Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakhtunkhwa.

Mainstream security theory is awash with fears that the ‘black holes’ created by forcible delinking will become sites of anti-systemic resistance. These fears are exacerbated by the fact that these sites are connected into the world by new communications technologies. While it has most often been used by reactive movements, the potential of ‘black holes’ is also a potential site for a politics of delinking.

I would suggest that forcible delinking alters the series of steps through which anti-systemic delinking can occur. Whereas Amin expects a popular movement to form around a counter-project, take power, then institute delinking, today we are faced with a situation of building popular movements in areas which have already been delinked. We need, so to speak, to make a virtue out of the necessity of forced delinking by turning it into a basis for constructing autonomous zones.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.


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In Conversation: Samir Amin | Ceasefire Magazine
Dec 5, 2011 16:20

[...] Robinson’s two-part introduction to the work of Samir Amin can be read here and here. __spr_config = { pid: '4ea978c1396cef4d6f0001fa', title: 'In Conversation: Samir Amin', ckw: '', [...]

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