John Weeks and Uneven Development

John Weeks died late last year. He was a Marxist economist and Emeritus Professor at SOAS. His Capital and Exploitation is a wonderfully clear exposition of major issues in Marxist economics. He will be greatly missed. For a geographer, one of his more valuable papers was one on uneven development that appeared in Capital and Class twenty years ago.[1]

Focusing on uneven development between countries, he identified two distinct sorts: what he called primary and secondary. Primary uneven development separates the more purely capitalist countries from those where capitalism, in virtue of the persistence of pre-capitalist production relations, struggles to take off. Secondary unevenness is that occurring between the capitalist countries. His conception of uneven development of the primary sort is extremely important, because in discussions of development there is a tendency to assume that it is possible everywhere; which in turn means either that the connection between capitalism and development has not registered; or that we live in a world that is now one in which capitalism commands production everywhere. Both these assumptions need scrutiny.

First, it bears reminding that capitalism has proved to be the motor of development: development, that is, in terms of piling up the wealth and regardless of how it gets shared out.  Given the markets in labor power and means of production subsequent to what Marx ironically called ‘the double freedom of labor power’, it seems, in retrospect, inevitable. Through the emancipation of the serfs, immediate producers were free to sell their labor power; but as a result of the second ‘freedom’ from the means of production as they were expelled from the land to which they had enjoyed access, henceforth they would have to. Owners of that wealth through which immediate producers and the means of production could once more be re-united would now confront the dispossessed. This class relation would be the basis for capitalist development, and this because of its implications for competition, firstly and most fundamentally, in terms of cost; and second in terms of product innovation. Once owners of wealth laid out money for labor power and means of production they would want it back, but with no guarantee that their products would find buyers. The result would be an exploitation of the immediate producers that went far beyond the physical maintenance of the capitalist: money to weather downturns, and money to develop the ability of the workers to produce and steal a march on the competition. This would be innovation with a bias towards reducing the need for pesky workers, but workers who might then be taken on by those producing entirely new products. Historically, this meant that agrarian revolution would be the necessary precursor for industrial revolution. It released workers for industry, provided the necessary food, and as farmers’ incomes rose, a home market for industrial products. 

Over much of the world, this transition has been stymied by production relations that have blocked transformation of the productive forces on the land. This is because, while much of the world is indeed ‘capitalist’ in its production relations, and even more so since the collapse of socialism as we knew it, the residues of a pre-capitalist world still, and remarkably, endure. The outstanding instance is sub-Saharan Africa where, out of concerns about urbanization and the emergence of antagonistic nationalist and labor movements, the imperial powers chose to leave customary forms of land tenure largely in place; ‘largely’ since they also fortified the power of tribal chiefs as a co-opting move. What you still have over much of the sub-continent, and with notable exceptions, like most – not all – of South Africa, is a system of tenure in which every adult male is, on marriage, entitled to some land. In short, land is not privately owned. There has clearly been farming for the market, induced originally by the need to pay state taxes; but since land cannot be purchased, there are clear limits to expanding production and to a differentiation of the peasantry. This has not stopped more informal arrangements but there are severe limits to growth of the capitalist sort. The most obvious of these is that the immediate producers have trouble securing credit to develop their production since land, as not appropriable privately, cannot be offered as collateral. Less obvious is the way in which tribal tenure is by definition, inimical to the formation of a class that has no alternative but to seek wage employment. Capitalist logics of exploitation and accumulation have therefore been inhibited.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the outstanding case of production relations not conducive to agrarian development and an unleashing of the forces of capitalist development. Some variant of large estates and a dependent workforce has been common and continues over much of the world, including Central America, parts of Latin America and the Indian sub-continent. Workers are attached through an allocation of a small holding in exchange for labor services, or through share cropping: ‘attached’ partly because they are not going to get up and go when crops are maturing and partly because of debt relations with the landlord, generating forms of bonded labor. The mix has varied: notably small holdings in some cases rather than allocations of land. The pressures to develop the productive forces are extremely limited: a subdued and subordinated workforce, land that is owned outright, and hence a very limited entanglement with loan capital that might provide an incentive. Workers are not exercising upward pressure on wages since they do not get one: so limited incentive to improve productivity.

Non-capitalist production relations have then factored into state form.[2] (Cox and Negi 2010.) The states over most of sub-Saharan Africa can be barely identified as ‘capitalist’: without a strong labor movement, democracy lacks a social base; there is only a limited capitalism to regulate and promote; patrimonialism is the name of the game as factions compete for what limited spoils the state has to offer. They are called ‘failed states’ but the concrete conditions for ‘failure’ vary; in Central America the landed classes have always ruled the roost, pre-empting democratic rule when it served their purpose.

This is a view of development that has been challenged, most notably by Henry Bernstein.[3] The assumption always was that industrialization required an agrarian revolution. He claims that this no longer applies. The multinational corporation and the growth of trade in foodstuffs has severed what might have been a necessary connection. Regardless of the dominant land rights regime, industrialization can occur regardless.

We should be skeptical. An obvious issue is the problem of the home market. How can there be a home market for capital if the countryside remains backward and production relations there stagnant? An obvious response to this is the way in which the Newly Industrializing Countries, most particularly those of East Asia, developed on the basis of external rather than internal markets, and this through deliberate policies of demand suppression. These, though, are the exceptions that prove the rule because they are all instances of what are called ‘developmental states’ in which the state played a major role in orchestrating development: policies of land reform, allocation of business loans, and plans for industrial learning and upgrading. In short, state form becomes an important part of the puzzle and one has to ask whether one can reasonably expect the states of Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa or the Indian sub-continent, to be developmental states of that sort?

The other point against Bernstein is the idea that multinationals can be the standard bearers of development. The fact that developmental states either discourage them, as in the case of South Korea, or have the sheer market power to co-opt them to their own developmental agenda, as in China, should give pause. Multinationals have their own agendas and promoting a wider development process is not one of them. Rather they prefer to incorporate less developed countries into their own global divisions of labor, and typically in a subordinate role: an old story.

Nevertheless, the debate about capitalism in areas, like sub-Saharan Africa, continues, echoing a wider one about capitalist development provoked in particular by the work of Jarius Banaji.[4] Banaji has made some provocative claims about how one might interpret the co-existence of what might appear to be pre-capitalist production relations with the clearly capitalist. Just as wage labor occurred under feudalism, so what might seem pre-capitalist sorts of relation can be present under capitalism: Southern slavery and its extraordinary exploitation makes no sense except in a world that is otherwise dominantly capitalist in its production relations. It is this sort of consideration that has led some to revisit the ostensibly pre-capitalist in the contemporary world. According to this view, peasant producers on land that is held courtesy of a tribal chief in sub-Saharan African are exploited for capitalist purposes: this is because of the way in which so little of the money actually generated by the sale of cash crops eventually makes is way back to the producer, but is siphoned off by all manner of intermediaries through relations of unequal exchange: perhaps through government marketing boards but more obviously through the final processors in North America and Europe who have not only buying power, but also the brand names.

The point is though, what while one might claim that sub-Saharan Africa is, in consequence, capitalist, it has little or nothing to do with development. Rather the money is appropriated elsewhere in the world and the possibility that it will fuel a development process back in Africa, highly unlikely; and simply because the production relations remain unpropitious. In short, John Weeks was fundamentally correct in his claims about uneven development, even if one might demur about calling production relations in, say, Andean Latin America or Africa, non- or pre-capitalist.

[1] Weeks J (2001) The expansion of capital and uneven development on a world scale.  Capital and Class No.74, 9-31.

[2] Cox K R and Negi R (2010) The state and the question of development in sub-Saharan Africa. Review of African Political Economy 37, 71-85.

[3] Bernstein H (2006) Is there an agrarian question in the 21st century? Canadian Journal of Development Studies 27, 449-460,

[4] Banaji J (2010) Theory as History. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

2 thoughts on “John Weeks and Uneven Development

  1. Thought-provoking thanks. At a broad level this makes sense. The great variations within south America and sub-Saharan Africa still need to be explained though, and these seem to me to have quite a lot to do with contingent variations in state form.


  2. This is interesting. Thanks. Botswana seems to have thrived, regardless, so what happened there? In Chile, it has been partly a matter of land reform. So states are significant, but that then refers us back to the balance of social forces in particular countries.


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