Cover Story

Samir Amin and Decolonising Economics

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020
Samir Amin and Decolonising Economics Apocalypse by inSOLense.

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. 

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