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  • Eric Williams and the Moral Rhetoric of Dependency Theory
  • Gerald R. Bosch Jr. (bio)

How do scholars discuss “capitalism”? How do their stories have the power to persuade? There are, of course, numerous economic theories and historical schools that concern themselves with the phenomenon of capitalism, and many do not even agree as to what that term means. Here, we will examine one particular theory of capitalism and the moral appeal that lies behind that theory’s continuing power. The theory in question was first assembled by the Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams and is presently incarnate in a school of economic and historical thought known variously as the “structuralist” school, the “world-economy” school, and the “dependency” school (amongst Africanists another common name is the “underdevelopment” school), and whose most prominent members include Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, and Samir Amin. For the sake of ease I will simply call this the dependency school or dependency theory.

The dependency school has a well-developed body of theory and literature that deals with the interaction of the West and the rest of the world, both historically and in the present. The key concept in this theory is the idea that the modern capitalist system (defined here as western industrial capitalism in the Marxist sense) has developed and continues to flourish because of its ability to command the resources of the non-industrialized world, through both formal colonialism and through a form of market domination that is usually termed “neo-colonialism.” In their historical analyses, these scholars are very much concerned with the idea of the “original accumulation of capital,” Marx’s concept of a build-up of capital that allowed for the growth of the industrial system. These scholars argue that this “primitive accumulation” was made possible by Europe’s expansion overseas. While this was not spelled out in Marx’s historical writing, there are some passages that can be used in support of such a theory:

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East Indian and Chinese markets, the colonization of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known . . . 1

This theory, however, is more than a scientific way of analyzing economics; it is a moral critique of capitalism, one strand of the larger critiques of that system that are [End Page 817] part of both Marxism and modern anti-colonialism. Moreover, without the moral critique this theory would lose much of its persuasive power.

The most easily identified point of origin for this body of scholarship is the publication of Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, 2 but, of course, any such theory can be traced back almost infinitely. It is Williams, however, that most of the dependency theorists point to as their inspiration. Williams argues three major points in Capitalism and Slavery. His first point, made in the first two chapters, is that slavery is an economic rather than a racial phenomenon. In Chapters Three through Five, he argues that the “triangular trade” was of great economic importance to Britain, and that it provided the “original accumulation of capital” which financed the Industrial Revolution. The second half of the book, Chapters Six through Thirteen, details the fall of the mercantilist Atlantic trade system in the face of rising capitalism (a transition symbolized here by the American Revolution). The abolition of slavery is presented as resulting from these developments.

In his preface, Williams calls the book “an attempt to place in historical perspective the relationship between early capitalism as exemplified by Great Britain and the Negro slave trade, Negro slavery and the general colonial trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” and later in the preface he says that the book is “an economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England. . . .” In the text this argument is laid out in two parts. Chapter Three argues that the “triangular trade,” based in the trade of slaves and slave-produced goods, provided extraordinary profits...

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