Samir Amin and Decolonising Economics

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020

By Salimah Valiani

Beginning over 50 years ago, Samir Amin did pioneering work on a question still relevant today:  understanding the world as an interconnected whole.

In the 21st century, the notion, or question, has arisen through experiences of ‘globalisation’, labour migration and borderless ecological destruction, among others.

With trade and financial liberalisation popularised in the two words ‘structural adjustment’ , and three letters ‘WTO’, the dynamics of North-South domination and class division within Africa, Asia and Latin America started becoming apparent to the majority.

But such phenomena follow from what has long been an interconnected and unequal world economy. From as early as 1957, Samir Amin traced the dynamics of what he called in his doctoral thesis, ‘accumulation on a world scale.’

Bringing-in concepts of class, surplus, conquering, and profit to the economics of ‘underdevelopment’, Amin emphasised the history of impoverishment as a process extending over several centuries, beginning with the arrival of Europeans in the Americas in 1492. Through this historical process, a minority of nations ‘developed’ while the majority could not, even after achieving political independence. 

Broadly, Amin contended that historical capitalism created underdevelopment rather than cultural backwardness, corruption or/and the persistence of tradition — explanations that are still quite common. The separation of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ in discussing economies of the South today is one example of the latter.

Rather, for Amin and co-conspirators, it is the 17th century formation of a world market integrating goods produced in different social systems that created capitalist relations of different characteristics in various parts of the world. Through these relations, which were both political and economic, came a ‘structure’ of inequality from which we have not been able to liberate ourselves to this day.

As Amin emphasised in his 1970 volume Laccumulation à l’échelle mondiale, published in English as Accumulation on a World Scale in 1974, his notion of ‘structure’ differs from the plural, ‘structures’ of mainstream economics. ‘Structures’ in mainstream economics and social science generally are descriptive and concrete; denoted as ‘technical’, ’demographic’, ‘intra-enterprise’ and so on. Amin’s ‘structure’ is a set of social relations which reproduces itself, with some change in shape. The reorganisation of economies in indebted countries of the global South in the 1980s and 90s, for instance, comes from the same essential relation as the organisation of production to provide exports to nascent industries in Europe in the formal colonial period.

Since the 17th century, there has been a deepening of these unequal relations in many respects. The balance of payments issues experienced in so many countries today are a compounded version of balance of payments problems experienced by most of the same countries in the early 20th century. Both are the outcome of national economies focused on producing goods for consumption in other nations rather than producing goods for local consumption as well as export. 

At the heart of this is what Amin conceived of as ‘disarticulation’ in the post colony economy. Disarticulation is when different areas of production in a single country speak little or not at all to each other. Agricultural production is either cash crops or for subsistence of the immediate producers (or a bit of both) — but rarely for mass consumption in another part of the country. Raw materials are either not, or only partly, processed in the post colony; and then sent elsewhere to be made into finished goods. And manufactured goods, if produced within the post colony, consist mainly of imported inputs or technology. This contrasts with economies in the ‘rich’ or ‘core’ countries, where various parts of production are more linked. Industrialisation therefore has a ‘mobilising effect’ in the core — mobilising various areas of production — that is absent in the post colony.

Another major difference between post colony economies and core economies, and following from disarticulation, is the pattern of investment of profits by the elite, including both national and multinational elites. Whereas profits are re-invested largely within core economies by the elite of the core, elites (both national and multinational) re-invest very little in the post colony.

Amin calculated this for Egypt between 1939 and 1953, demonstrating that though profits amounted to one third of national income in the colonial period, only 14 per cent of this was re-invested productively (in family businesses, public shares and stocks in other companies and so on). The rest was used for luxury consumption (38 per cent), to buy real estate (34 per cent), and to buy gold and other liquid capital (15 per cent). This political economic structure during colonial times set the tone for further capitalist development after Independence. Consumption of luxuries (largely imports), real estate and liquid capital creates few jobs, hence the historic problem of high unemployment and underemployment in countries of the South.

Of course some of this has changed since 1980, with trade and financial liberalisation, including in rich countries. This is why Amin stressed the importance of tracing things historically. Lacking a dynamic, historical methodology, much of the above becomes mere platitudes that do not explain specifics and cannot be related to the lived realities of people. Samir Amin traced such histories for a series of countries in Africa, including Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea, and comparing and contrasting these with Nigeria and Ghana. The task remains for us all in our national spaces to adopt this methodology and in turn, better imagine both radical reforms and transformative collective action.

To close on a more personal note, Samin Amin was generous and down-to-earth, exemplifying another lesson for those identifying as proponents of radical change.

After three decades of reading Samir Amin’s academic writing, popular books, and articles published in Monthly Review, I reached out to Samir Amin personally in 2011. On completing my research monograph, Rethinking Unequal Exchange - The Global Integration of Nursing Labour Markets, a friend of Ethiopian origin suggested I approach Samir Amin to write a foreword for the book. I initially wrote to Amin at an address I found online, gingerly evoking the world historical approach of my work and my background of studies with some of his good friends, Anibal Quijano, Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi. Not receiving a response, I wrote a second time, this time in French, having obtained Amin’s actual e-address through two contacts on either end of the world — Firoze Manji in Kenya and Claude Misukiewicz in New York City — a reflection of Samir Amin’s reach. My Ethiopian friend had assured that he was open to such requests and in line with this, Amin’s email response was brief, sweet and somewhat old school: ‘Friend, I will do it; send the manuscript in hard copy to my address in Paris.’

We finally met in person in 2012, at a closed workshop in Nottingham on the subject of the historic inability to forge solidarity among workers’ unions of the global North and global South. I was taken aback by the concurrent larger-than-life magnitude and down-to-earth essence of this great Mwalimu, Samir Amin. Virtually the first thing we did together after greeting each other was smoke some cigarettes. When I saw him pull out a box of matches from a pocket after dinner I ventured to ask, hoping to crack a smile, ‘Est-ce que c’est pour fumer des cigarettes [Is this for smoking cigarettes]?’ With a hearty laugh, Mwalimu Samir exclaimed ‘Oui!’ and we left the room immediately.

The next morning at the workshop we sat side by side. When I brought out some bags of dates and almonds which I had carried from home in anticipation of England’s bland food, I gestured to Mwalimu that he help himself. By noon the bags were near empty, Amin having partaken with the familiarity of a long lost friend.

For those who have not encountered him, even in death, Samir Amin is a friend who has left insights and tools that are vital. For those who have, it is crucial to revisit his works, trace the shifts in thought over time, and impart further reflection on Samir Amin’s humble wisdom and spirit.

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