Dependency and Other Intellectual Histories from the Global South

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Intellectual; Politics


During the Cold War, expositors of modernization theory worked toward a universalizable, non-Marxist model of development which, they believed, would allow the United States and its allies to drag the nations of the underdeveloped world into ‘modern’ liberal capitalism. The primary alternative paradigm embraced by radical economists was Dependency Theory, whose proponents argued that the economic underdevelopment of the ‘Third World’ was the product of the siphoning of resources from the nations of the periphery by those of the capitalist core. Contrary to modernization’s contention that integration into supranational networks of global capitalism would end the relative poverty of Third World nations, Dependistas argued that it was precisely their relationship with the global North which had distorted the economic growth of the nations of the global South, and which kept them in a state of perpetual underdevelopment.

Rooting dependency theory in the commodity price surge triggered by the Korean War, Tim Barker’s paper looks at how Argentine economist Raul Prebisch’s articulation of dependency theory was guided by his study of this major postwar boom and bust. Drawing on the intellectual histories of Andre Gunder Frank and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Margarita Fajardo pushes back against the notion that dependency can be wholly understood as a critique of modernization, arguing that dependency theory developed out of critiques of the economic orthodoxies of the global South. Writing on the transnational network of radical economists and sociologists affiliated with Chile’s Centro de Estudios Socioeconomics (CESO) between 1968 and 1973, Cody Stephens illustrates that dependency’s appeal was due to its epistemological and moral challenge to Washington-led modernization, rather than to rigorous empirical research. Benjamin Feldman looks at counternarratives to the micro-economic assumptions which undergirded modernization’s naturalizing of consumer capitalism, engaging with radical economists who travelled from the United States to investigate moral and other forms of non-material incentives employed in Maoist China and Castroite Cuba.

In tracing the contours of Dependency theory and related alternative paths to economic development, this panel weaves together a series of overlapping intellectual histories which approach Dependency as an active project of research and discovery, rather than simply a reaction to currents in modernization theory. In so doing, these papers challenge dominant narratives of both the political-economic thought of the Third World Left and of the history of Cold War social science.

Papers Presented

The Metaphysics of Underdevelopment: Paul Baran, CESO, and the Epistemological Challenge to Modernization Theory

This paper examines the research papers, bulletins and internal documents from the University of Chile’s Centro de Estudios Socioeconomicos (CESO) from 1968 to 1973 and the personal papers of a transnational network of radical economists and sociologists affiliated with the center. CESO housed the most influential Latin American dependentistas throughout the period overlapping with the Salvador Allende administration. Viewing their political orientation toward Allende helps us understand the brief but broad international appeal of dependency theory, which rested on its epistemological and moral challenge to Washington’s Third World modernization programs more than rigorous empirical research.

Presented By
Christopher Cody Stephens, University of Utah

Raul Prebisch and the Economic Consequences of the Korean War Boom

The entry of the United States into the Korean War kicked off what one contemporary observer called “the wildest and most perplexing boom in international commodity history.” This episode is an understudied but seminal source of dependency theory, which my paper will argue emerged from the experience of commodity price volatility during the early Cold War. My protagonist is Raul Prebisch, who became head of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) the year the war began, and whose early work at ECLA documented the effects of the boom on commodity-exporting nations.

Presented By
Tim Barker, Harvard University

Dependency and Development: Latin America and the Global Social Sciences

In the postwar era, Latin America produced what has been considered the most important contribution of the region to the global social sciences. Dependency theory renewed discussion about the impact of the relations between the global North and South on the region’s economic development. A term so evocative of imperialism circulated widely as the product of radical intellectuals and a region boiling in revolutionary ferment. As such, dependency became the challenge and counterpart of what has been the Cold War social science par excellence, modernization theory. Although different and sometimes competing ideas were incorporated in the umbrella term dependency theory, they were, the paper argues, not a product but a critique of the regional Left and the result of a vibrant intellectual challenge of the development of the orthodoxies of the global South not the North. Based on archival material, published papers, and as a part of a broader project on the history of dependendistas and Latin American development experts, this paper addresses the entwined histories of German-born but Chicago trained economist Andre Gunder Frank and Brazilian sociologist and future president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the two main exponents of dependency ideas. By focusing on the local origins of these two intellectual projects, the paper challenges the notion of Cold War social science that has dominated the discussion about Latin AmericaU.S. relations in the twentieth century.

Presented By
Margarita Fajardo, Sarah Lawrence College

In Search of the Socialist Subject: Radical Political Economy and the Study of Moral Incentives in the Third World

In 1972 a delegation of radical American economists traveled to Maoist China to study “the incentive mechanisms that operate in the economy.” Drawing on research in multiple archives, my paper explores efforts to apply the lessons of Chinese (and Cuban) experiments in moral incentives to the building of socialism in the United States. Long marginalized due to their political associations, these investigations serve as an example of “solidarity in circulation,” and illustrate that attempts to keep social science research free of political contamination serve to reify disciplinary norms that are themselves the product of the political culture in which they were formed.

Presented By
Benjamin Feldman, Georgetown University

Session Participants

Presenter: Tim Barker, Harvard University
Tim Barker is a graduate student at Harvard studying intellectual history and historical political economy. He is currently writing a dissertation on the macroeconomics of American involvement in the Cold War.

Presenter: Margarita Fajardo, Sarah Lawrence College
Margarita Fajardo, is a historian of modern Latin America and an assistant professor at Sarah Lawrence College. She received her BA in History and Economics from the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, followed by her MA and PhD from Princeton University. Her scholarly work includes: “Between Capitalism and Democracy: The Political Economy of Social Science in Latin America, 1968-1980,” which she co-authored with Jeremy Adelman; “The Arc of Development: Economists and Sociologists’ Quest for the State,” in the edited volume, The “Rise and Fall of the Developmental State in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2018); and “Circumventing Imperialism: The Global Economy in Latin American Social Sciences,” in Jeremy Adelman (eds) Empire and the Global Social Sciences (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). She is finishing a book manuscript on the intellectual and policymaking debates about global capitalism in Latin America titled The World that Latin America Created.

Presenter: Benjamin Feldman, Georgetown University
Ben Feldman is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University. His dissertation, titled "Liberation From the Affluent Society," explores the role of the Third World in post-war American political thought. His research has been supported by fellowships from Georgetown, the Hoover Institution, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harvard's Houghton Library, and the Cold War Center at New York University. He is currently a Royden B. Davis Fellow at Georgetown University.

Presenter: Christopher Cody Stephens, University of Utah
Cody Stephens is currently a lecturer of US and World History at UCSB, where he also completed his PhD in Spring of 2018. His research focuses on the history of economic thought in relation to foreign policy, triangulated through social movements exerting pressure on policy-makers. His book manuscript explores a transnational network of intellectuals in the United States and Lain America that insinuated rhetoric of imperialism into social scientific debates over the causes of and solutions to Third World underdevelopment in the 1950s and 1960s. A chapter of the manuscript was published in Modern Intellectual History under the title “The Accidental Marxist: Andre Gunder Frank and the ‘Neo-Marxist’ Theory of Underdevelopment, 1958-1967.”