Uneven Development Research Paper

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‘Uneven development’ refers to the systematic processes by which social and economic change in capitalist societies enhances the wealth of some places at the expense of others. The resulting geographical differentiation in types and levels of development is not arbitrary but a systematic spatial expression of the social differences, inequalities, and processes that lie at the heart of capitalist societies. According to theories of uneven development, unevenness in space and time does not result simply from an accidental or statistical lack of evenness, nor does it result from local failures to adopt politically correct models of ‘development’ as might be suggested by contemporary doctrines of ‘modernization’ or ‘globalization.’ Rather, uneven development is a hallmark of capitalist societies, their geographical signature, a direct spatial translation of the logic of capital accumulation. The results of uneven development are easily understood in such contrasts as First World (centered on Europe, North America and Japan) vs. Third World (Africa, Asia, South America), city vs. suburb, and developed vs. underdeveloped regions. But processes and patterns of uneven development are highly dynamic and transform themselves as an integral expression of the ever-changing and evolving social relations of capitalism.

1. Theories Of Uneven Development

Although a recognition of the unevenness of capitalist development can be found in various intellectual traditions, this notion is most fully developed in marxist and related critical traditions. For Marx, the social relations of production and reproduction defined the specificity of any mode of production and the uneven geography of capitalist development emanates from the same source; uneven development is the elemental spatial form taken by the geography of capital accumulation. ‘Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand because it has in another place been lost by many,’ Marx famously argued (1987, p. 586). Marx displayed an evident sensitivity to the spatiality of social and economic change, indicating that specific geographies both facilitate and are produced by the accumulation and reproduction of capital, but he did not pursue the geography of capitalist expansion per se in any systematic way.

In the hands of later theorists, uneven development took a more political complexion. From his analysis of emerging capitalism in Russian industry and agriculture and its effects on the peasantry to his theories of imperialism, Lenin’s work was infused with a sense of capitalism’s systematically uneven geography (Lenin 1967, 1975), but it was Leon Trotsky who more than anyone crystallized the notion of ‘uneven and combined development.’ His focus was less on the economic geographic differentiation within and between societies than on the ways that such differentiation were bound up with and helped shape the possibilities for political change (Trotsky 1969, Lowy 1981). More specifically, what were the chances, he asked, of a transition to socialism directly from feudal relations of production. Accordingly, theories of uneven and combined development played a crucial role in Trotsky’s rejection of Soviet aspirations for ‘socialism in one country’—an oxymoron, he believed—but with Stalin’s successful seizure of power and suppression of all opposition in the 1920s, any elaboration of the theory, now branded as counterrevolutionary, was blunted.

The question of uneven development re-emerged powerfully after the 1960s, this time in the West. Its recrudescence came with the need to develop critical analyses of the USSR and, in the context of the cold war, its relationship to global capitalism. Much more, however, it reflected a need to understand the intense geographical differentiations of global capitalism itself in the postwar world as Western social and political economies slouched toward crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Mandel 1975) and as ‘development’ became the central means of relating to so-called Third World countries. Decolonization, the Vietnam War, the precipitous decline of a previously hegemonic British economy, deindustrialization and the emergence of so-called newly industrializing countries, urban disinvestment and suburban expansion, and challenges by student, feminist, and civil rights movements, all put questions of uneven development on the political and economic agenda. In retrospect, this period from 1968 to 1991 initiated a significant transition from what some have called a Fordist to a post-Fordist regime of capital accumulation and regulation, but it simultaneously marked a crucial breakdown in established postwar geographies. Erstwhile differences between a First, Second, and Third World no longer made sense, deindustrialized regions retooled, and previously declining Western cities gentrified. Geographies that had previously been assumed as relatively fixed were now revealed as quite fluid and malleable, the products of social, political, and economic change, and this cried out for explanation.

If the marxist political tradition was often indifferent or even hostile to geographical questions, treating them as displacements from the central issues of class struggle and the contradictions of capitalism, Western academic geography in the first seven decades of the twentieth century was equally immune not just to marxism but to social theory in general. It took a rapprochement between these separate political and academic traditions to make manifest the theories of uneven development that the transformations after the 1960s called out for.

2. Sources Of Uneven Development

Uneven development is at root an expression of the contradictory tendencies toward differentiation and equalization of levels and conditions of social production (Smith 1991). On the one hand the stimulus toward differentiation stems directly from the creation and continual reproduction of the social division of labor. The logic of continued divisions of labor, whether at the scale of individual workplaces or transcontinental ‘worlds’ (First World, Third World), is inherently geographical. Thus Samir Amin (1976) distinguishes between a developed world which enjoys a balanced, self-centered mode of capital accumulation based on the preponderance of the world’s industrial production and mass consumption, and an ‘underdeveloped’ world which specializes in the supply of raw materials and cheap labor and therefore experiences ‘dependent development.’

Marx was equally explicit about the historic geographical importance of the division of labor, albeit at a different scale: ‘The foundation of every division of labour that is well developed, and brought about by the exchange of commodities, is the separation between town and country. It may be said, he continued rather enigmatically, ‘that the whole economic history of society is summed up in the movement of this antithesis’ (1987, p. 333). The development of the division of labor and attendant questions of social reproduction, consumption, and the differential power of nation-states and other political entities stimulates continuous social differentiation which is simultaneously spatial. The division of labor is the product of the competition between capitals which lies at the definitional heart of the capitalist mode of production, and it perpetually divides places as much as enterprises and people on the basis of their ability to differentiate their systems of production from those of neighbors and competitors.

But this powerful catalyst of social and spatial differentiation, enkindled by competition, does not go uncontested. There are powerful forces leading in the opposite direction, toward the equalization of conditions and levels of production, and these too emanate from the competitive impulse. ‘Capital is by nature a leveller,’ Marx once commented, exacting ‘in every sphere of production equality in the conditions of the exploitation of labour’ (1987, p. 375). Whatever its origins, this equalizing impulse is most intensely conveyed via the financial system where capital is most fluid, most mobile, and competition over decimal point differences in interest rates is most intense. It is precisely because the pressure of equalization is so intense in the financial sector that ideologies of ‘globalization’ and the ‘end of geography’ sprang from here in the later years of the twentieth century (Omae 1990, 1995, O’Brien 1992). Much writing about globalization at the end of the twentieth century captured very well the effects of this equalizing tendency in capitalist development while ignoring the equally profound counter-tendency toward differentiation.

These contradictory economic tendencies toward social differentiation and equalization find resolution in geographical space: a social problem is resolved, however temporarily, by fixing certain differences geographically in the form of discrete nation states, counties, regions, cities, and neighborhoods in such a way that the fluidity of commerce can continue with the least impediment. Uneven geographical development therefore represents a certain spatial fix (Harvey 1981) for the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production. Far from being an ephemeral spatial result of capitalist growth and change, uneven development is integral to its constitution. Underdevelopment, therefore, is neither accidental nor simply a question of slower development along a pre-existing path. Rather, underdevelopment is an integral result of capitalist development.

At the same time, however much it represents a momentary fixing of social relations into specific spatial forms, uneven development is itself highly dynamic. The spatial fix is only ever temporary, and specific geographies that facilitate capital expansion and reproduction in one place in one period can become barriers to future development. To take an obvious example, the urban structure suitable for decentralized commercial and small-scale industrial activity in the seventeenth century is not only obsolete but was also an economic and political hindrance to the larger-scale industrial production of the nineteenth century. This might lead to wholesale urban ‘renewal’ as for example in Haussmann’s Paris, or it may lead to a continued respecialization of activity leaving the old spaces largely intact, as for example in Venice where tourism is now the major industry.

A similar dynamism characterizes other spatial scales. Industrial regions owing their growth to nineteenth and twentieth century industrial expansion, such as New England or central Scotland, experienced economic decline in the second half of the twentieth century as capital moved in search of cheaper and more pliant labor. But the very fact of disinvestment in those regions, the increase in unemployment, the cheapening of labor, and the breaking of previously powerful unions, also eventually made them attractive again for capital investment. There is a spatial correlate, therefore, to the classic characterization of capitalism as a system that lurches through cycles of expansion and crisis. Indeed, there is a powerful tendency for the cycles of investment and disinvestment inherent in capital accumulation to translate into a ‘seesaw’ geography of uneven development (Smith 1991). Capital concentrates in specific places but the fact of that investment continually erodes the attractiveness of these same places (higher labor costs, urban congestion, technological obsolescence, etc.) leading to disinvestment. Yet disinvestment itself creates the conditions and opportunities for new rounds of investment once sufficient devaluation has taken place. Over the long term, therefore, there is a powerful tendency toward a geographical seesaw.

Uneven development is every bit as fluid and dynamic as the logics of capital accumulation of which it is the spatial expression. A central theoretical issue here concerns the ways in which places come to be defined as discrete places vis-a-vis other places. Henri Lefebvre (1974) brilliantly taught us to see the world as a certain ‘production of space’ but there is little sense in his work of the specific social mechanisms and processes by which places and spaces become differentiated one from the other. This raises the question of geographical scale for not only is space ‘produced’ as an integral dimension of social change but the scaling of social activities is equally produced. Geographical scale, in fact, can be conceived as a metric—a vital sociospatial infrastructure—that organizes geographical differences into a coherence of different places. There is nothing in any way natural about the separation of different spatial scales: the scale of the global, the nation-state, regions and cities, the home and the body, all represent the ever-temporary spatial resolution of competing social forces.

This is easily illustrated with reference to the origin and functions of nation-states. Although nations and states separately preceded the flowering of nationstates in the eighteenth century, a good case can be made that the scale of nation-states emerged in response to contradictory impulses toward competition and cooperation that surfaced powerfully with the fruition of capitalism (Smith 1991). On the one hand, separate private capitals were driven by the necessity of competition, yet on the other it was imperative for them to find ways of cooperating in order to provide vital social and physical conditions for profit-making; the control of labor, a transportation infrastructure, the defense of private property, the provision of legal and financial institutions, systems of ideological mandate, all required a state apparatus—a structure of governance—to establish and regulate a modicum of self-interested cooperation among competing enterprises.

The territorial expression of this requirement was far from inevitable. From West Africa to South Asia to the Mediterranean, city states had previously performed this function, but the rapid expansion of capital accumulation in Europe by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries now took place on a geographic scale that was less and less controllable from city states (Smith 1991, Arrighi 1994). The nationstate represented a very specific geographical compromise between capitalist competition and cooperation. Separate capitals cooperated within the nation-state over the provision of the vital collective conditions of production and reproduction while intensifying their competition in the market. Nor, of course, was this new territorial scale of governance uncontested or easily evinced (Tilly 1990). Rather it involved a dramatic mobilization of political as well as economic power, ideological persuasion establishing and expanding national identities, and military conflicts. The result was a system of national states and national economies which, while never entirely stable, represented a rescaling of the world such that national states for the first time became the basic building blocks of the global system.

3. Recent History Of Uneven Development

The unevenness of the geographical landscape can therefore be read as a kind of palimpsest in which old social inscriptions are still quite evident in the landscape, albeit written in quite different registers—a kind of invisible socio-economic and political ink perceptible to the discerning geographical eye amidst later inscriptions. The decades spanning from postwar expansion (1950s and 1960s) to economic crisis (late 1960s to early 1980s) and the expansion of a restructured capitalism (1980s and 1990s) have witnessed a significant evolution in the patterns and processes of uneven development and although the tendency toward a seesaw motion of capital is far from complete, there are clear signs of it especially at lower scales.

At the urban scale, for example, the sustained disinvestment in many central cities throughout the Western world represented the geographical corollary of suburban expansion. Uneven urban development for most of the twentieth century was precisely about this differentiation of suburb from city, an expression of class as well as race and gender differences inscribed dramatically in the landscape. However, by the later decades of the century two new processes led a further evolution of urban unevenness. In the first place, suburbs became much more integrated functionally, adding retail, recreational, cultural, and service activities to existing residential and industrial land uses, giving rise to what one commentator has called ‘edge cities’ (Garreau 1991). On the other hand, the widespread gentrification of central and inner city areas was spearheaded by reinvestment in previously disinvested neighborhoods, the seesaw of uneven development at the urban scale (Smith 1996). This reworking of the differences between suburb and city is driven by the continued geographical expansion of metropolitan areas and is mediated by the structure of ground rent within what is, effectively, a single (territorial) labor market.

At the regional scale we have already indicated a quite different if commensurate set of processes. Many major industrial regions that had been the economic backbone of national economies in Europe and North America—from the Midwest to the Rhine-Ruhr to the English Midlands—experienced disinvestment and deindustrialization after the 1950s as declining profit rates in traditional industrial sectors were matched by the expansion of new sectors. New regional agglomerations such as Silicon Valley, the Third Italy, or the high tech concentration around Taipei, emerged as the leading edge of regional change while by the 1980s some of the older deindustrialized regions (New England, central Scotland) experienced considerable reinvestment at the behest of the ‘new economies.’

At the national scale, however, something rather different has been taking place. By the end of the postwar expansion in the early 1970s, the scale of capital accumulation had increasingly superceded the system of national states and economies that had, for two centuries, nurtured it. The pursuant ‘globalization,’ as it is misleadingly labeled, has eroded the rationale for discrete national economies and many systems of national state governance have, as a result, restructured themselves, significantly withdrawing from the support of social reproduction (the dismantling and/or privatization of social welfare and social services) while hewing more closely to the market logics of capital accumulation. If this ‘hollowing out’ of the state is only partial, it none the less has had the geographical effect of eroding the importance of national boundaries in economic terms. In general, both capital and laborers move more freely at the beginning of the twenty-first century than they did three decades earlier. There is a crucial caveat here, however. The increasing economic porosity of national boundaries does not in any way imply the end of the nation-state, and in fact the cultural and political responses to ‘globalization’ can equally lead to quite dramatic, even violent reassertions of national identity and difference (e.g., Serbia, Rwanda, various ex-Soviet states, or, in a softer vein, Scotland).

While previously hegemonic national powers— especially, perhaps, the UK—have clearly experienced comparative economic decline there is no real evidence of national economies undergoing a full ‘seesaw’ from developed to underdeveloped and back to developed economic status. The power of national boundaries over the last two centuries has entrenched highly resilient forms of inequality via colonialism, imperialism, and underdevelopment. Amidst the fluidity of capital and commodities in the global economy, a certain geographical fixity has prevailed at the national scale, accentuating patterns of unequal development. This brings us to the global scale, where indeed we see that some regions and economies that were long underdeveloped have suddenly become major centers of global economic production. In other words, a ‘new international division of labor’ emerged in the wake of postwar reconstruction (Frobel et al. 1980 ). Since the 1960s, the economies of South, South-east, and East Asia have experienced the most intense industrial revolution of all time, culminating in the momentous economic crisis between 1997 and 1999. Economies like South Korea, Singapore, or Taiwan, which in the 1960s were definitively consigned to Third World status, are now significant powers in the global economy. Together with the financial integration of European, North American, and Japanese economies after 1971, it was the inclusion of the industrial economies of Asia that spawned what is now known as globalization. Globalization is at root a recalibration of political economic power between transnational capital and national states. For apologists of globalization, it ushers in an equalization of conditions across the globe, while for critics it accentuates the differences. The theory of uneven development suggests that both visions are partially correct and that the contradiction between equalization and differentiation is resolved geographically. While much of Asia, even including China, which only nominally remains a socialist state, is drawn toward the capitalist core, Sub-Saharan Africa is increasingly distanced from any benefits of a new globalism. To borrow a language from the urban scale, Sub-Saharan Africa has, since the 1970s, been increasingly ‘redlined’ by global capital: a red line has been drawn around the region and international banks, governments, and aid organizations have minimized investments there, accentuating social poverty (see for example Bond 1998).

We have stressed that the geographical unevenness of capitalist development emanates from the structured social relations of capitalism itself, but this too is a historical result. Not until far flung economies were significantly interlinked through labor, finance, and commodity markets could uneven development evolve into the systematic expression of the inequalities at the heart of capitalism. While this was inevitably a gradual process, the years from the 1880s to 1919 marked a period of most intense transition. Radically divergent levels and types of economic development prior to this period may still have owed as much to divergent political economies, colonialism and imperialism notwithstanding. For the remainder of the twentieth century, however, such differentials in development were largely internal to a global capitalism that was increasingly organized around US market dominance rather than around systems of European colonialism (Smith 1991).

Viewed this way, globalization after the 1980s represents not so much a wholly new phase of capitalist expansion but an accentuation of existing processes and patterns of uneven development. In this light it is important to stress that specific patterns of uneven development, while driven by powerful processes endemic to capital accumulation, also express the results of political struggles, social and cultural differences, and relict features and processes that have adapted to channel capitalist social and economic processes. Just as capitalism is a historically discrete mode of production, therefore, there is nothing inevitable about uneven development either in its broad outlines or specific details. Different modes of production make different kinds of social geographies.


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