Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Primary Drivers of Underdevelopment

In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney examines the fundamental forces behind underdevelopment: the exploitation through trade and investment that essentially amounts to imperialism. In the context of trade, capitalist countries determine prices for minerals and agricultural products, causing harm to Africa’s economy and depriving it of revenue. On the other hand, imperialism involves Europeans owning land, mines, banks, and factories in Africa, leading to the outflow of revenue to foreign owners and the issuance of loans to African governments, resulting in a drain of wealth from the continent.

Trade, colonial domination, and capitalist investment influence Africa’s involvement in the capitalist market system. During this period, capitalist nations seized the wealth generated by African labor and resources in Europe and the United States, and Africa faced limitations in harnessing its economic potential. Many African political leaders have also been influenced by Western interests, resulting in corruption and other problems. Additionally, frequent military coups and ongoing political instability have adversely affected African development, similar to their impact in Latin America.

Rodney’s examination of Africa before the colonial era is enlightening and presents valuable insights. He assumes that most African societies before 1500 existed in a transitional state between communalism and feudalism, evolving primarily due to fundamental forces of production. These diverse societies, including pastoralists, cultivators, fishing communities, trading groups, raiders, and nomads, gradually became interconnected through the expansion of productive forces and distribution networks, ultimately leading to the emergence of full-fledged feudal states in some cases, as seen in Ethiopia and Egypt.

Agricultural Practices Before 1500

Before the year 1500, agricultural practices in Africa were less advanced than those in Europe and other regions primarily because no distinct social classes existed. In Europe, feudal landowners and later capitalist farmers significantly advanced agricultural techniques. In contrast, within the African communal system, every individual had access to sufficient land resources within their family or community. It reduced the pressure and incentives for making technical improvements that could boost productivity. In Asia, where much of the land was held in communal ownership, the state took the lead in introducing significant innovations in specific farming practices.

Before European colonization, manufacturing and trade in Africa were more rudimentary than commonly assumed. Many manufactured products from Africa were of higher quality than those from Europe. Even in less developed regions of sub-Saharan Africa, there were noticeable social hierarchies, with families possessing the largest herds enjoying significant social and political influence. Additionally, military conquests contributed to the establishment of dominant-subordinate relationships.

By 1500, certain regions, including the Maghreb, Western Sudan, Kongo, Benin, and Zimbabwe, had made substantial progress toward becoming fully developed feudal kingdoms. However, it is important to recognize that Europe played a role in Africa’s development, though it was proportional to Africa’s contribution to its underdevelopment. Europe’s technological superiority, particularly in weaponry and producing practical necessities rather than luxury items, played a decisive role in shaping these dynamics.

Trade with Africa and Europe’s Economic Growth

Engaging in trade with Africa played a significant role in fueling Europe’s economic development. It contributed to the expansion of the textile industry, the export of ivory, and the growth of the American economy. Additionally, the African slave trade played a pivotal role in opening up the New World and acting as a constant source of wealth. In England, the development of the Liverpool port through slave trading played a crucial role in the economic progress of Lancashire. Profits from the slave trade also propelled English banks into becoming substantial enterprises, with even James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, receiving financing from enslavers.

Nonetheless, the slave trade had detrimental consequences for Africa, aborting tens of millions of healthy young individuals and stifling industrial growth. Contact with Europe led to a transformation of the African economy, rendering it reliant on Europe and causing the previous integration of African markets to deteriorate. The market for manufactured goods within individual African countries remained too limited, with a need for more integration across expansive areas of Africa.

While trade with Africa boosted production in Europe and America, its focus on trade with external nations could have been more effective, neglecting opportunities within other African markets. It is crucial to acknowledge that until the 1880s, when Europe initiated military conquest and political dominance over Africa, African countries and communities were not mere colonies of Europe. Their politico-military structures generally operated independently, and many regions continued to evolve toward mature feudalism, characterized by social structures and ideologies resembling those of European and Japanese feudalism.

European Capitalism’s Expansion in the Late Nineteenth Century

During the late nineteenth century, European capitalism experienced increased dynamism, leading to a need for investments beyond its domestic borders. This shift resulted in higher profits through foreign investments, control over the supply of raw materials, and the exploration of new markets. Africa’s primary significance to Europe during the early imperialist era lay in its role as a source of raw materials, including palm products, groundnuts, cotton, and rubber.

However, Egypt’s development conflicted with the requirements of European capitalism. British and French industrialists aimed for Egypt to become a producer of raw cotton for export and an importer of European manufactured goods. European financiers sought to make Egypt a source of investment. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, they subjected the Egyptian sultan to international dependency by mortgaging the entire country to international monopoly financiers.

European politicians envisioned Egyptian territory as a base for exploiting India and Arabia. Consequently, the Suez Canal was excavated from Egyptian soil by Egyptians but came under the ownership of Britain and France. They extended their political dominance over Egypt and Sudan as well. In contrast to some regions, like Latin America and Eastern Europe, where political sovereignty remained with the local population even during the imperialist era, Africa experienced direct colonization, as European capitalists decided.

There is evidence indicating that this course of action was not entirely premeditated. Until the 1850s and 1860s, Britain and France preferred establishing informal “spheres of influence” in Africa, such as Nigeria and Senegal. However, disagreements over which parts of Africa should be exploited and the imposition of tariffs against European traders compelled rivals to establish colonies and implement discriminatory tariffs.

Racism played a significant role in motivating Europeans to seek political control over Africa. The central theme of colonialism revolved around extracting surplus wealth produced by Africans and transferring it to Europe. The exploitation of African laborers was often harsher than that of their European counterparts, with mining companies reaping enormous profits from African labor.

Under colonial rule, the African working class remained relatively small, with most individuals being independent peasants cultivating crops like cocoa, coffee, cotton, and palm oil, which they sold to local business people. During colonization, Africa’s trade conditions worsened as the exchange rates for raw material exports and manufactured goods imports deteriorated. This decline resulted from the unfair trade practices enforced on Africa due to the political and military supremacy of the colonial powers.

The Complex Nature of African Colonialism

Colonialism in Africa was multifaceted and intricate, encompassing private exploitation, taxation, public infrastructure projects, technological advancements, skills, and organizational methods. It injected fresh vigor into capitalism and prolonged its presence in Western Europe. The international division-of-labor system catalyzed the development of technology, skills, and organizational methods within capitalist enterprises.

Exploiting colonies helped mitigate the inherent contradictions of capitalism in Europe, particularly the tension between capitalists and workers. Profits generated from Africa were partly channeled to provide extra benefits to European workers, serving as an inducement to quell potential unrest. The benefits of colonialism permeated European society through various channels.

It is essential for capitalists not to overly romanticize investment or perceive themselves as altruistic benefactors when investing in projects with constructive purposes. The capital available for investment stemmed from the past exploitation of workers and peasants in Europe and globally. In the case of Africa, the capital invested in nineteenth-century commerce was partly a result of the slave trade.

Some defenders of colonialism argue that it at least contributed to modernizing Africa. However, this assertion needs to be more accurate. Colonialism failed to revolutionize agricultural production techniques and did not significantly drive African industrialization. When native industries did emerge, governments frequently suppressed them on behalf of industrialists from the colonial powers. Africa predominantly served as a source of raw materials for the colonial metropoles, with limited development of skilled labor.

One glaring illustration of colonialism’s adverse impact on Africa was the prevalence of “monoculture,” where entire economies revolved around a single crop. Liberia relied on rubber, the Gold Coast on cocoa, Dahomey and southeast Nigeria on palm products, Sudan on cotton, Tanganyika on sisal, and Uganda on cotton. In Senegal and Gambia, groundnuts accounted for 85 to 90 percent of earnings.

The disadvantages of monoculture, occasionally resulting in the suffering of millions, are evident. Other negative consequences of colonialism in Africa encompassed heightened dependency on the colonial powers, the vulnerability to disease outbreaks associated with reliance on a single crop, price fluctuations that left farmers in precarious positions, and a lack of agricultural diversification, leading to malnutrition and disease. Dependency permeated all facets of colonial life and was pivotal in perpetuating the colonial relationship into the era known as neo-colonialism.


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