Walter Rodney and the Racial Underpinnings of Global Inequality

While inequality has become a topic of increased popularity and politicization in recent years, most of the attention has focused on how 1% own an increasingly large share of the world’s wealth, rather than on inequalities between nations. In a global context in which national borders and citizenship pose few barriers to the mobility of capital, the reality is also a story of the world’s richest nations continuing to reap a disproportionate amount of the globe’s profits.
Tianna Paschel
December 20, 2016

“The reality of the world’s richest individuals getting even richer is also a story of the world’s richest nations continuing to reap a disproportionate amount of the globe’s profits.

The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands has been at the center of increased political contestation and media attention in recent years. In this period, massive protests have erupted in the global North and South against neoliberal reforms, the solidification of flexible labor regimes, and austerity policies. The current moment, in the global North and South, is also one where these new forms and sentiments of precariousness in economic life have come alongside a reconfiguration of the relationship between the state and the economy, unsustainable practices of extraction, and various kinds of displacements, from land dispossession to gentrification in urban centers to unprecedented migration within and between countries. What is more, rather than globalization bringing about economic stability, development, and a sense of a global community, in recent years it seems it has brought about greater instability and the further congealing of racism and other social boundaries.

In this context, scholars, politicians, and ordinary people alike have found themselves asking age-old questions about inequality, and more deeply about the nature of capitalism. Among them are the extent to which extreme inequalities and financial crises, like the disastrous one that happened in 2008, are aberrations of, or inherent to, capitalist development. Yet while inequality has become a topic of increased popularity and politicization in recent years, most of the attention has focused on how 1 percent, or even 0.1 percent, of individuals own an increasingly large share of the world’s wealth, rather than on inequalities between nations. Indeed, in a global context in which national borders and citizenship pose few barriers to the mobility of capital, the reality of the world’s richest individuals getting even richer is also a story of the world’s richest nations continuing to reap a disproportionate amount of the globe’s profits.

Some analysts have turned their attention to this question, with headlines like the one published earlier this year by CNN entitled “Why the Wealth of Africa Does Not Make Africans Wealthy.” Like similar articles in other news sources, most of the story focused on the corruption of African leaders, weak state institutions, and the lack of a separation between the economic and political class in African countries as the main explanations for the consistent pillaging of the natural resources of African nations. Less emphasized, though still cited, was the “straight line from colonial exploitation to modern exploitation,” in which multinational corporations and individuals located outside of the continent reap disproportionate benefits of the continent’s natural resources. Classic works on dependency in Latin America have also pointed out the ways in which this same division of labor happens within countries, and equally around racial lines.1

In his rare attention to Africa in the popular tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century, French economist Thomas Piketty notes that even with development aid flooding into countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the outflow of capital has always been much greater than the inflow of capital.2 In order to understand this, he suggests that “foreign companies and stockholders of all nationalities are at least as guilty as unscrupulous African elites” in the extraction of natural resources and profit from that continent.3

Such contemporary analyses of global inequality, capitalism, and development would benefit from the lessons of earlier works concerned with similar questions decades before. One example is the classic work written by Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.4 While some contemporary accounts recognize that the problems of African countries do not lie exclusively in Africa, they do not go far enough. Piketty’s discussion of the extraction of wealth from the African continent, for example, is largely independent from his analysis of the accumulation of wealth in other parts of the globe. For Rodney, it was impossible to explain development and the accumulation of wealth in one region without deeply understanding its relations to other regions of underdevelopment and the extraction of wealth. This relation, he argued was not accidental; it was endemic to capitalism itself.

Rodney, race, and underdevelopment

Guyanese-born historian and activist Walter Rodney wrote his now classic book amidst great political contention around the globe. As the United States saw a rise of contentious politics from Black Power to the anti-war movement, the African continent was experiencing movements aimed at bringing about decolonization from European powers. The geopolitical and ideological struggle between capitalist and socialist economic and political systems was also particularly acute. It was in this context that Rodney joined a number of Latin American scholars in analyzing the history of capitalist development from the perspective of countries in the global South.

Read Jeremy Adelman and Margarita Fajardo’s essay on this very topic here.

This group of scholars—later termed the Dependency School—aimed to critique dominant modernization theories that argued that all countries developed relatively independently along linear stages of development that followed the development of Europe. According to these accounts, countries in Latin America and Africa existed in an earlier or more primitive stage of development than their European counterparts. Rodney and other dependency theorists debunked a number of the assumptions embedded in such theories.

“Rodney joined a number of Latin American scholars in analyzing the history of capitalist development from the perspective of countries in the global South.”

They first challenged the very idea that developing countries were on the same path as European nations, arguing instead that for (once) colonized countries, there was no clear linear development that mimicked Europe. Second, and most important, Rodney and others also contended that a country’s development depended heavily on the nature of its relationships with other countries, what they called dependent development, or underdevelopment. In this view, the world was made up of countries in the core and periphery of the global economy, whose development was intrinsically bound together. Peripheral economies tended to provide the raw materials for countries in the core or metropole. Even when they moved beyond this function that characterized the international division of labor under imperialist rule for centuries, they still remained dependent. The accumulation and expansion of capital could not find its essential components inside of these countries, including the means of production. Their capital-goods sectors were not strong enough to ensure continuous advancement in financial as well as in technological and organizational terms. Thus, rather than see development as a question of independent countries developing or not, Rodney and others highlighted how colonial relations of economic and political power shaped the nature of, and conditions of possibility for, development around the world.

Further elaborating this idea of dependency, Rodney showed how African countries were systematically being underdeveloped by European colonial powers. What is more, he suggested that understanding the relationship between Europe and Africa is essential not only for understanding the lack of development on the African continent, but was also critical to understanding the accumulation of wealth in Europe. In this, African countries had been locked in what might be called a colonial division of labor, whereby natural resources are extracted, and act as the raw materials for industrialization in the North. This arrangement, he argued, brought about a specific form of underdevelopment whose logic was built on serving the needs of the metropole or core countries. For example, rather than developing agricultural production that could ensure food security within African countries, Rodney argued that colonial authorities had systematically developed the agricultural sector to serve the specific demands of Europeans. Among other things this meant the development of large-scale industrialized agricultural production of single crops, rather than the more sustainable crop rotation that was more common to subsistence farming throughout the continent. Even after centuries of development, the means of production were still largely held in the hands of elites in Europe, rather than in Africa, making the extraction of wealth from the continent inevitable. Moreover, Rodney saw this exploitation of the African continent as necessary for and endemic to the accumulation of wealth in Europe.

Rodney’s study of the underdevelopment of Africa was extremely influential to generations of scholars and activists on the African continent and around the globe. That did not mean it was without its problems. Like other Marxist social scientists of that era, Rodney was accused of being too ideological, his analysis of the political economic relationships between Europe and Africa too generalized. What is more, he was also critiqued for not paying enough attention to internal political and economic factors that undoubtedly played some role in the underdevelopment of African countries. Nevertheless, his work still offers invaluable lessons today.

Rodney’s relevance today

In some ways, the world today would be unrecognizable to Walter Rodney. In 1980, he was assassinated amidst the growing popularity of his work in his native Guyana and around the world. Today, the epicenter of capital accumulation has shifted, even if ever so slightly. What is more, whereas the capitalist development he observed in the 1970s was still primarily in manufacturing and concentrated in the industrialized North, today, financial capital, which relies deeply on speculation, makes up a great share of capital accumulation. There are also fewer barriers to the flow of capital across borders than ever before.

“All of Africa’s 54 countries combined make up only 4 percent of the world’s wealth.”

In other ways, things strikingly resemble how they looked nearly four decades before. While the locus of manufacturing has certainly shifted, other configurations look remarkably similar to how they did when Rodney wrote his groundbreaking work. Today, global wealth is still highly concentrated in the global North; all of Africa’s 54 countries combined make up only 4 percent of the world’s wealth. Africa continues to be the poorest continent, despite providing much of the natural resources required to generate growth around the world. Indeed, the same colonial division of labor, whereby certain parts of the world supplied the raw materials, and sometimes the labor, for the rest of the world, remains. Today, African countries still supply a large share of the inputs necessary for the accumulation of wealth elsewhere, from coltan to iron to gold and diamonds. In the specific case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a UN committee found that the country lost nearly 1.5 billion dollars of potential revenues from mining to offshore companies from 2010 to 2012. At the core of Rodney’s intellectual and political project was an analysis of these patterns in historically grounded and relational terms. He emphasized these dimensions rather than reaching for the more readily available explanations for poverty than national culture, “prejudiced thinking,” or internal economic endowments.

Using Rodney as a lens to understand the world in the twenty-first century is a fruitful endeavor, even if it requires some adjustments. As capital today is more mobile than ever, the holders of the means of production and of the lion’s share of global wealth are in some ways nation-less actors. Even so, geography still patterns the accumulation of wealth in the world today. Still, one of the main differences between 1972 and today is that a greater share of the accumulated wealth—both from the extraction of natural resources and from labor exploitation—is going to political and economic elites within countries in the global South than to those located in the old imperial capitals. Thus, a contemporary analysis of underdevelopment in the global South would have to pay more attention to the reconfiguration of capital in recent decades. This includes going beyond Europe to a growing list of countries, including the United States and China, that profit not only from the natural resources on the continent, but that also benefit immensely from the corruption of African leaders. Updating Rodney would also mean examining the role of African elites in the perpetuation of these relationships of underdevelopment, something that critics argued was marginalized in Rodney’s original analysis. The number of millionaires in Africa has nearly doubled over the last two decades, even if about 30 percent of that wealth is held offshore, as Oxfam reports.5 In this sense, African elites have largely chosen what Fanon called the “national bourgeoisie” path post-independence, replacing European capitalists with African ones and leaving intact the broader relations of exploitation that Rodney sought to question and undermine.

Walter Rodney would also not be surprised by the persistent patterns of racial inequality within and between nations. Even if racism was not the cause of slavery and colonialism, Rodney saw it as central to the workings of capital accumulation over time. As he noted, “It can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production.”6 This included ideologies that linked certain races with the capacity for development, which continue to pervade the globe. These racialized understandings not only seep into analyses of global inequalities, they also help to naturalize them and justify dispossession. In recent months, it has also become clear how race has figured into the backlash to the most devastating effects of neoliberal reforms, including the shrinking of social welfare, financial crises, deindustrialization, and the rise of precarious labor regimes. If Rodney’s work taught us anything, it is the need to look at capitalist development with both a racial and relational lens.

Tianna Paschel is assistant professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work can be found in the American Journal of Sociology, the Du Bois Review, SOULS: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, and Ethnic and Racial Studies. She is the author of Becoming Black Political Subjects: Movements and Ethno-Racial Rights in Colombia and Brazil (Princeton University Press, 2016), which draws on ethnographic and archival methods to explore the shift in the 1990s from ideas of unmarked universal citizenship to multicultural citizenship regimes and the recognition of specific rights for black populations by Latin American states. Paschel is also Ford Fellow, a member of the American Political Science Association Task Force on Race and Class Inequality, and a member of Network of Anti-Racist Research and Action Steering Committee.


December 25, 2016