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What's a poor sansculotte to do?

By Owen Paine on Saturday February 7, 2009 02:28 PM

I gotta face it -- playing Lord Keynes, junior, like I have recently, while sitting in a soft metropolitan chair here near the city of the bean and the cod -- ain't exactly rugged collectivism at its finest.

I like to scruple myself about this -- at least once a week -- every Saturday night after I've let the three Hun amigos out one last time to lift a hind leg or two, and maybe defecate somewhere obvious in the side yard. And after I've re-caged the little bastards and I'm back warmly tucked in my midnight bed, domestic partner closely beside me in a fragrant purring sleep, it is my habit -- no, it is my discipline to set myself this poser:

Okay, comrade, so your party has just seized power -- absolute power -- in -- wait for it -- Bangladesh! Okay, wise guy. So go make it happen, cap'n.

Not so easy there, eh? Scylla and Charybdis await me. One way spells the howling savagery of primitive accumulation, the other the pusillanimous oozy slope to red corporate comprador.

If the choice gets that stark, I opt for -- but soft. Let's delve a bit first.

* * * * *

I know no better starting place than -- well -- give a warm SMBIVA welcome to Pol Pot's Larry Summers, former puppet president of Democratic Kampuchea, presently, I believe, moldering in a jail cell awaiting the proceedings of yet another victors' tribunal -- man, we seem to have a lot of 'em these days, don't we? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Khieu Samphan, shown at left.

His fearless leader, Mr Pot here, armed with Khieu's "development model", took the Cambo people to places no radical makeover-type outfit dared to go since the early days of Thomas Munzer and the Anabaptists.

It might be claimed in hindsight that these Paris-educated boys from the jungles and court palaces of Cambodia took what we now call anti-globalization to its logical conclusion. Well, maybe that's a bit unfair. Maybe there are other logical conclusions.

* * * * *

But still: Khieu and Pot were indeed just pragmatizing lessons they as students learned from the likes of Samir Amin -- so-called "dependency theory", a radical theory of dissent from the one big market world vision of corporate earth, a theory which doubtless in several forms you've bumped into now and again on your anti-empire travels.

I like to think of "dependency theory" as a model, or better, a cluster of kissin'-cousin models of economic globalization, as viewed through the wrong end of the system's international sewer pipes.

Back in the 50's of the last century, our man Khieu was an Amin acolyte, during his university days spent up there at the Gallic metropole. In fact, Mr Samphan, Citizen Samphan, became Doctor Samphan, PhD, with a dissertaion entitled "Cambodia's Economy and Industrial Development."

Its thesis, strongly guided by Amirite wisdom, comes to this: Backward peoples of the world! Wanna develop your national economy a pro-people way? Then pull out all the trans-nat plugs -- and cold turkey, too, as it turned out, for when in the spring of 1975, after a few bombs and a scrap or two along the way, Mr Pol and Comrade Khieu and their posse of rouge bandits entered the bloated phantasm doing business at the times as Lon Nol's Phnom Penh, they did indeed set about pulling the plugs.

No more dependency.

No more crumb begging.

No more supine cargo culting.

No more -- well, my guess: Khieu back in Paris worked this all out very neatly. Just start from the top down, lopping off one layer after another of social hierarchy, until you arrive at some thing remarkably close to Billy Bryan's populist insight about the relative necessity of cities and countryside.

Once under the sway of Ankor, Cambodia would in effect start from Square One, go it all on its own.

Unfortunately, Square One, like all of Clio's legacies, was a nasty place indeed, including not just the antique parasite city of the Sihanouk years, but a Frankenstein's monster of massive aerial counterinsurgence, where roughly half the nation's population, fleeing devastation from bombing and civil war, now languished in utter useless idle beggary, cliency, and sycophancy in the back alleys of the royal city, having survived for years, not off the sweat of their brows, but off the kindness of a stranger named Uncle Sam.

Now Sam, quite understandably, given the utter defeat of his stooges, had also pulled a few plugs of his own just then, including the food plug of course Talk about dependency, not in theory but in fact!

So what was to be done? Send em all to the countryside to fend for themselves -- create a system of volkish communes -- and under the guardianship of Ankor, let the people themselves, with only the means and skills at hand, discover or rediscover the limits and the present possibilities of living directly off our motherland!

Anybody else hearing the ghostly smug voice of old Neddie Burke in your mind's ear?

Okay, score one for half-measures. Indeed, there was a dark destructive Jacobin oversoul at work here.

Let's move on. Returning to the present, with its komforting Klintonian kompromises, recently I suggested here that development economist Dani Rodrik, unlike such dancing death heads as Doc Sachs, might well be one of Clio's goodly social agents.

I must add it's not because he's a stout battler against the Yankee empire. No, it's just because his heart and his brain are solidly on the side of the emerging world, as evidenced in his three wishes for a reformation of our planetary market order.

Regrettably, Dani has not, and probably never will declare jihad against the rule of the transnat corporations, nor the essence of their joint program to make the whole earth sustainably safe for their type of free range limited liability adventures in private profit.

Instead he presents his trilemma. You can't have all three of these goodies, brothers and sisters:

  • An open world market
  • National self-determination
  • Democracy
You can have any two, but not all three.

Owen's lemma: sometimes you can end up with none.

We will return to Bangladesh in a later installment.

Comments (16)

I wouldn't blame dependency theory for the Khmer Rouge. I think that Spalding Gray explained it better in "Swimming to Cambodia" when he remarked that social scientists have observed a correlation between pathological behavior and bombing. A typically high pathology/bombing quotient might be something like 10 but in Cambodia it was around 50. See the movie to get Gray's presentation that I can hardly do justice to.

To my eye, this calls in Stiglitz' trainee, Mr. Ha-Joon Chang, who, while being no dependency theorist, demonstrates that each and every case -- no exceptions -- of success in the GlobEcon has featured strong and early strategic integration based on strategic protection (non-integration) of key industries. So, partial, not complete, unplugging.

That's something different than going Pol Pot or even Fidelismo. For us lefties, maybe it's more like Scandinismo or Venez-Bolivarianism.

But, then, isn't ecological peaking going to take this game out of the national arena in the not-too-distant future anyway?


"You can't have all three of these goodies, brothers and sisters: an open world market; national self-determination; democracy."

The first two do seem antithetical based on recent history. But the "open market" of those years was definitely tilted in favor of the dominant economic powers. An open market with protections for labor and the environment, and with different degrees of openness depending on the development level of the country, is certainly conceivable, even if none of the G-7 cared to conceive of it at the time.

As for democracy, this seems to be the biggest non-starter. Rousseau said the ideal size for a democracy was 60,000 citizens. So for me that leaves socialist dictatorship.

Peter Ward:

I think there's a fundamental confusion being expressed here do to a failure to imagine a form of global political organization more than marginally different than what we have at present combined with illusions about the reality of the present order. I think that socialism (as it was meant classical formulation, a concept so far from what is meant when the word is typically used now it might be wise to abandon the term altogether) is impossible without democracy and that neither is possible as long as the world is arbitrarily carved into nation-states.* And at any rate, I can't see a society worthy of leftist aims being anything short of democratic, participatory and designed to meets the needs of the general population, psychological as well as economic in the crude sense.**

As long as powerful states exists, at present the principle culprit being the US, there's little prospect for a decent society coming into existence on any scale (Cuba and more recently several South American, especially Bolivia, countries represent miraculous achievements in this light). The US will do (and in fact does) everything it can to prevent such a society surviving.

As to Rousseau's figure of 60k, almost certainly this is a number he pulled out of his arse. At any rate, his conception of democracy is profoundly naive, conceiving human action as something that takes place in isolation. Since no attempt has yet been made at globalized democracy no one can honestly say whether it would work or not, though intuitively there's no obvious monolithic reason against it that I can see.


*As Bakunin points out, "The State is not society, it is only an historical form of it, as brutal as it is abstract. It was born historically in all countries of the marriage of violence, rapine, pillage, in a word, war and conquest, with the gods successively created by the theological fantasy of nations. It has been from its origin, and it remains still at present, the divine sanction of brutal force and triumphant inequality."

**I.e., that our role in society be a meaningful one. Or, as Humboldt aptly puts it in "Limits of State Action", "it seems as if all the peasants and craftsmen might be elevated into artists; that is, into men who love their labor for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their enjoyments."


i like the bombing => loony tune politics meme

though a study of the leading cadre
seems to find an inner cause
can be located
more determinative
uncle Bomb Drop's
infernal "boom boom booming "

as to rousseau wel he can be blamed for anything and everything
he is the very quintessence
of the depraved soul of us petty burger

ward's planetdemsoc
deserves at least a fly by
no that's being harsh and dismissive
an orbital observer
even a roving robot lander
but man-ed missions

i'd advise against them

mother earth's the place we oughta be

home cookin and qualified country livin'


uh-oh OP, don't look now, but:



u iz on to my next step
in the episodic journey of discovery
hence near by bengla stan

to be honest
i thought amin
was up there
with the prophets by now


Peter: I can believe in "the Multitude" to a certain degree, but I take it that's just the resistance phase. Who's that articulate British writer (often writes in the Guardian), apostle of sustainable economy, and a couple years ago, wrote a book on Global Democracy? He tried to work out a formula for representation, how many people could be represented by each member of some elected world body, and I think he came up with a number like 60,000.

If democracy is meaningful, it must involve meeting and hearing out your neighbor's views on things, and transmitting some consensus to the level above.

Oh well, let's see where OP gets with all this. A better maxim might be: participatory democracy and macroeconomics don't go together.

Al Schumann:

Delegative democracy would satisfy those conditions, Seneca. There'd still be some problems with entrenching and wild hair moral hygiene, i.e. efforts by the councils to "elect" a better people, but it would make the concept of republicanism much more meaningfully republican.

Fully participatory, direct democracy is a lot of work. Never mind the possible outcomes, for good, for ill, for absurd or any combination. I believe that it could work mostly for the good, most of the time, but the prospect of all that work spent on being a good, informed, responsible citizen is appalling.


no OP, fortunately he's still here among us:

i'll always be an admirer of the dependency theorists: amin, gunder and wallerstein. despite his later predilection for great power theories, i remain very sympathetic to the dearly departed Frank and secretly adore his book Reorient (and his last major essay, the Centrality of Central Asia).

I agree with dermo, as usual. Dependency theory was/is basically right.

The problem is that, probably due to the nature of the capitalist arrangement, it's right only in the negative sense. Delinking willy-nilly (if that's actually possible) is a cure as bad as the disease.

Successful delinking has always involved either a state with enough pre-accumulated wealth/force to wall its industry off, or a state that happened to live next-door to a hot imperial conflict, creating the space and need for a demonstration of "success."

Lenin was quite right to worry about socialism in one country, especially a poor one. To me, that raises a deep Gandhian question: Was/is it the right thing to do to try to attain good ends via wrong/impossible/immature means?


I can't put this off any longer -- what is dependency theory? (In a paragraph or less.)


"Lenin was quite right to worry about socialism in one country, especially a poor one."

wasn't the soviet union something of an anomaly in this regard though? it was able to industrialize itself - albeit at an extraordinary price - quite rapidly. granted that probably owed to its massive size and unusually large resource base. in light of WWII though, the soviets were probably justified in their breakneck industrialization campaign (losing 30 million people and suffering massive infrastructural destruction during that war likewise did not help with their development problems), but i think you're right that many of their problems stemmed from being such a poor, isolated and underdeveloped country from the get-go.



"the soviets were probably justified in their breakneck industrialization campaign "
i am no longer of that opinion
i contrast the strategy used by the red chinese in the anti japanesse war
out of necessity of course
but --long story much too abridged--
using a low tech resisttence strategy
to counter the inevitable on coming fascist onslaught
would have served as well
and reduced the absurd hyper accumulation
with all its grotesque human
--if not "class" --- consequences

rely on the contradictions between the great powers

to the exact contrary
generalissimo stalin had
great power pretensions
for "workers' russia "


Derm and OP: slightly off topic, but you might enjoy "Burnt by the Sun", about the sinking of patriotic, traditional, rural Russia under Stalin's crude boot.

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