A.G. Frank, Dependency Theory and Canadian Capitalism

By Albo, Gregory | Canadian Dimension, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview
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A.G. Frank, Dependency Theory and Canadian Capitalism

Albo, Gregory, Canadian Dimension

The theory of dependency that formed in the 1960s played a more crucial role than any other conceptual framework in developing a critique of the world market supportive of liberation and anti-capitalist movements in Africa and Latin America. The general theme of dependency theory can be captured by the idea (first stated by Paul Baran in the late 1950s) that the economic surplus generated in post-colonial societies is appropriated by foreign interests and domestic elites in a way that reinforces a pattern of economic backwardness. In its starkest formulation, development in the North and underdevelopment of the South are not opposites, but a common process.



Andre Gunder Frank, who was born in 1929 in Germany and passed away in May of this year, was one dependency theory's foremost proponents. Frank did much to develop and translate the radical dependencia analysis being developed in Latin America through the 1960s to a wider audience, particularly in the English-speaking world. This was of no small irony. The argument of dependency theory was that capitalist markets produce inherent structural inequalities. But Frank had completed his doctoral work in economics at the University of Chicago, working with Milton Friedman and others who championed above all else the thesis that capitalist markets are self-regulating, produce maximum economic efficiency and provide the most fertile ground for democracy. The irony turned into dark tragedy when Frank and his wife, Marta Fuentes, had to escape from Chile in 1973 with the overthrow of the democratic government of Salvador Allende, to whom Frank was both friend and advisor. With the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the "Chicago Boys," including Frank's former teachers, also came in to begin the first radical experiments in neoliberal austerity.

Blocked in this period from re-entering the U.S. for his political views (although raised in the U.S. since 1941, after his family fled the Nazis), Frank became an academic vagabond, with fleeting appointments in Britain, Mexico, Germany, the Netherlands and many other places. In some ways, this was a perfect match for his personal iconoclasm and for being a key contributor to "world-systems theory," along with Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin and Giovanni Arrighi. World-systems theory became well known, of course, for its contention that the capitalist market must be conceived as a whole on a world scale, and for its pessimism that any nation-based developmentalism dependent on global exchange could be successful.

Frank's writings, in particular, emphasized how the powerful metropolitan countries of Europe and North America that came to dominate the world market imposed export-oriented capitalist development in basic commodity production. Such a place in the world system actively produced underdevelopment in satellite countries. The former colonial economies in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere were explicitly created for cheap export production back to the centre. Imbalanced development for these countries persisted from declining terms of trade in primary commodities, debt burdens, bankrupt comprador elites and liberal economic policies enforced by international economic institutions. These themes cut across Frank's most significant books: Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America (1969); Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution (1970); World Accumulation, 1492-1789 (1978); and Crisis in the World Economy (1980). These texts still bear reading for their ferocity of argument against mainstream development theory that dominates policy-making even today.


Dependency theory (and Frank himself, with his frequent visits to Canada, his teaching post in Montreal in the late 1960s and his long stay in Toronto later in his life) came to play a not-insignificant role in Canada, and Quebec, as well.

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