Why are the countries of Latin America “underdeveloped?” The commonest answer today seems to be that their societies have failed to be completely modernized in some sense; they remain “traditional,” or “feudal.” This description suggests that the escape from poverty is a unilinear process in time, with some countries on one side of a historical watershed and some on the other, but all headed in the same direction. Frank wholly rejects this conception in favor of another. He believes that the Latin American countries are and always have been functioning parts of the European-centered system of world capitalist trade. Whatever “feudal” traces are to be found there are marginal phenomena, mere disguises for an underlying, fully developed market economy.
In support of this thesis, Frank presents historical and institutional analyses of the Chilean and Brazilian economies. Although the evidence is not systematically presented and is obviously being marshalled for what is at times a quasi-polemical debate, it is extensive and varied. The reader may well come to concede the point. He may not be pleased, however, with the further thoughts that such a reorientation inspires. As the author points out, it has been convenient for both bourgeois and Marxist analysts to label Latin America “feudal.” The former is absolved of blame for the unpromising present; the latter is relieved of the need for revolutionary action.
If Latin America is part of the world system of trade, if its economic organization is capitalistic, why then has it not duplicated the experience of Europe and the United States? Why is it not “developed,” industrialized, rich? The author’s reply is emphatic: it is because it is capitalist. The capitalist system, as viewed by Frank, employs many devices for extracting surpluses from peripheral areas and applying them at the center. It is possible for a São Paulo or a Santiago to make a middleman’s commission, and thus share in the prosperity, but the system as a whole is exploitative and monopolistic. The rural areas will never receive a fair proportion of its returns, and only a breakdown in world trade or a turn toward autarky will enable the national metropolis to attain the affluence of London or New York. The centers of finance and manufacturing have employed their disproportionate economic and political power to their own advantage. The “periphery” can never catch up; the system that bestows wealth on the industrialized countries simultaneously produces “underdeveloped development” everywhere else.
So far Frank is saying what many bourgeois critics of capitalism living on the periphery have already said (vide Walter Prescott Webb’s slashing attack on Wall Street, Divided We Stand, a work insufficiently esteemed outside of Texas). Their response to the impositions of European bankers and exporters has always been Listian. But Frank’s point of view is Marxist. A disengagement from the pattern of international capitalist trade does not resolve the class struggle or the exploitation of rural areas. His message is directed, therefore, to the Latin American Communist parties which he feels have used the concept of feudalism to argue that their countries are not ripe for revolution. He berates them for their easy assumption that the “national bourgeoisie” will make an economic declaration of independence. In Frank’s opinion this bourgeoisie is too much the accomplice of the metropolis to think of taking such a risk.
Even if the reader does not accept the policy recommendations of the author, his “model” is as worthy of consideration as the one which he attacks, and his book deserves to be read. Frank’s rhetoric, however, is at times excessive, and will put many off—see, for example, the phrase “underdevelopment-generating monopolistic metropolis-satellite structure of the contemporary capitalist system.” In places he seems too anxious to make a point and falls into errors. On page 196, for example, he draws conclusions from the alleged fact that since 1930 São Paulo has had an import balance in coastwise trade, whereas it actually had an export balance until 1953. The chapters on peasant and capitalist agricultural systems are admirable and well-founded. It seems strange, considering Frank’s frame of reference, that he does not cite Lenin’s classic, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, whose conceptions and purposes are very similar to those of this book.