A History of Uneven Development

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This review by NL was originally published in the November issue of the Socialist Voice.

Book Review: Maurice Coakley, Ireland in the World Order: A History of Uneven Development (London: Pluto Press, 2012; ISBN 978-0-7453-3125-6; £17.50)

“We are not a young people with an innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of the wealth and traffic of the world. We have got all we want from a territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”—Winston Churchill (1914).

This remark by Churchill to his government colleagues on the outbreak of the First World illustrates part of what Marxists understand as the law of uneven development. Not all countries in the capitalist global system developed at the same pace or with the same freedom and control. Colonialism sped the development of capitalism in the colonial powers and left them in a dominant position in relation to colonies, with control over the resources required for developing capitalist production relations and technology and with a subject market for their commodities.

Even where some colonies gained independence politically, the uneven relationship remained, in both material and ideological ways, and consequently many former colonies are trapped in a neo-colonial and subservient relationship, resulting in the global capitalist order having a centre-periphery division. Not all countries are equal. But uneven development also occurred where colonialism didn’t exist, as Coakley points out; so these two situations cannot be reduced to a single one.

Slower capitalist development also occurred as a result of internal contradictions. Where an area was poor in resources or delayed in the commercialisation of agriculture or the use of technological innovation, this left it in a disadvantaged position in production and global trade.

Coakley’s contribution regarding Ireland’s development economically, politically and culturally is a unique analysis of Irish history. Many histories have been printed in recent years that emphasise the role of economic and productive forces in our development, but none has so acutely emphasised the role that our colonial past—in its effect on class, culture, and ultimately the two states that were imposed at the beginning of the last century—has had on our position in the global order.

In his introduction Coakley refers to Immanuel Wallerstein’s “world-systems theory”. He writes: For Wallerstein, the huge inequalities of the contemporary world had their roots in Western domination of trade. By monopolising the global circuits of trade from the Renaissance era, the Western powers were able to establish an international division of labour which favoured their own economies, and to siphon on surplus profits from elsewhere. Uneven industrialisation and uneven prosperity were not so much the source of Western power as a product of that power. Coakley returns to Wallerstein in the concluding chapter, where he sees Ireland’s development very much in line with world-systems theorists and those, like Samir Amin, who see uneven development as a consequence of power relations and the manner in which capitalism developed in the world.

For Marxists, the law of uneven development sees the world dominated and divided up at the beginning of the last century and with the dominance of finance capital.

With the whole world then brought into the system, this left uneven relations between the dominant powers, mostly former colonial powers and based on their colonial exploits, and those subject nations and areas of the planet.

The exploitative relationship in trade, market control, ownership etc. made it extremely difficult for any countries of the periphery to overcome their subject position and become global participants.

China, with its planned and controlled development, stands out today as the exception; but even China has a specific position in the global order, as a cheap production area for many Western monopolies.

As George Novack in Understanding History (2002) describes it, as capitalism absorbed one country after another into its orbit, it increased their dependence upon one another. But this growing interdependence did not mean that they followed identical paths or possessed the same characteristics. As they drew closer together economically, profound differences asserted themselves and separated them. Their national development in many respects did not proceed along parallel lines but at angles to each other, and sometimes even at right angles. They acquired not identical but complementary traits.

So, Coakley begins with the Anglo-Norman conquest, which divided Ireland into two distinct social and political formations: manorial Anglo-French and clan-based Irish society. The feudal crisis in the fourteenth century greatly weakened the manorial system in Ireland and led ultimately to the Tudor reforms, which more firmly placed Ireland under English rule and introduced a third social formation—one that would profoundly shape its future development.

The Tudor reform was not a continuation or extension of the Anglo-Normans’ rule, according to Coakley, but sought to curb their power and bring them under the English system as much as it also sought to feudalise the Irish clan system in granting “surrendered” clan land that had been collectively owned back to the tribal chief. These reforms had the effect of solidifying Irish resistance and in many ways promoted the development of an Irish identity—a national identify—that is reflected in the nine years’ war towards the end of the sixteenth century.

But the English social system was placed on a firmer footing only through the violent genocidal imposition of property and ownership rights by the Cromwellian conquest half a century later, which represented what James Connolly described as the complete conquest of Ireland.
While this established the roots of capitalist development in Ireland, it did so in a way that complemented rather than copied its development in England; and in imposing restrictions on production and trade it prevented industrialisation and the commercialisation of agricultural production—hallmarks of a developed capitalist system.

The concluding chapter, for this reader anyway, is the most important. Coakley deals succinctly with the present crisis and Ireland’s position in its global context, not merely reducing it to the failure of Irish politics, as some commentators do. Not letting Ireland on the hook, Coakley traces the roots of the crisis to our secondary or peripheral position within the system, particularly in the European Union, and shows our ruling elite as the gatekeepers that they are. The closer integration of North Atlantic capitalisms in the second half of the twentieth century seemed to o?er the Irish elite an escape . . . Further development was now to be achieved through subordinating Irish sovereignty to the requirements of North American and European capital . . . The willingness of the Irish State to transfer the losses of British, German and French banks onto the Irish citizenry is a telling testimony to the Irish state’s more general position of subordination to North Atlantic capital.

Insofar as the state has had any development strategy, it involved inserting itself as intermediaries in the circuits of North Atlantic capital. The upper echelons of the Irish elite have become fabulously rich by establishing themselves as brokers in these circuits; many more have become moderately rich in the process. In this description lies what makes sense of the state’s actions over recent years. Whether Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and Labour, they act as a conduit for capital, securing capital’s interests.

Though this book is not always a page-turner and at times does not flow as well as it could, it is a valuable contribution to an understanding of Ireland’s history and contemporary events in a way that is not often expressed in complete histories. Definitely worth reading (and available from Connolly Books).

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