ICAPE 2007: The Concept of Transition (The Modernity of Backwardness)

My first paper to the ICAPE conference, originally entitled ‘the modernity of backwardness’ assessed three classic debates: the Brenner- Wallerstein debate on the transition to feudalism of 1974, the debate on dependency theory in that exchange, and the early 20th Century debate on the origins of the European Empires of the late 19th Century.

The paper notes that the same question recurs in all three debates, namely, why do things which each age calls ‘backward’ coincide with, and indeed outstrip in extent, the things it calls ‘modern’? What was responsible for the slave trade? Why is poverty not history? What leads supposedly liberal nations to construct despotic empires? Why is every war more barbaric than the last? Where did the Holocaust come from? Such events call into question such basic enlightenment ideas as progress and modernity.

One answer – without which ‘underdevelopment’ loses any real meaning – is that backwardness is a survival, arising from the absence or late arrival of modernity. Another idea is that backwardness is a product or feature of modernity, something it brings in its wake or indeed, constructs in order to survive.

I will address this by the economic mechanisms inherent to capitalism which ‘produce’ backwardness as an outcome of growth and innovation – ignored by both sides in the 1970s debate. I will argue that both sides neglected the impact of classical imperialism in shaping the modern world. The question which then arises is: which bears the greater responsibility for backwardness – the inherent tendencies of capitalism or its institutional and political framework?

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