According to Darwinism, species that adapt to their environment thrive; those that fail to evolve face extinction. The same is true for ideas. Marxism evolved from the primordial swamp of the Industrial Revolution but lies gasping for relevance after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Asian values -- fashionable when South Korea and Thailand were economic success stories and the West was mired in recession -- lost their luster following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Mutual assured destruction kept the two Cold War superpowers in check but offers little assurance to nations threatened by suicide terrorists. The Club of Rome's doomsday prophecies of global starvation are now starved for credibility. The threat of the military-industrial complex is taken seriously only in Hollywood films and on conspiracy newsgroups. Dependency theory thrived amidst a backlash against economic imperialism yet withered in a globalized era of free trade and foreign investment.
Are these ideas really doomed to oblivion? Or, for all their flaws, do they still have some relevance? Can they make a comeback? FOREIGN POLICY has invited six notable minds to sort through the dustbin of history and share what they found.
The scene is fresh in my mind. It was the early 1980s, and the Reagan administration's antics in Central America and Grenada were reviving the campus left. The crowd filling a Yale University common room sat in anticipation, fingering through dog-eared copies of Dependency and Development in Latin America, the magnum opus of dependency theory. One of its authors, Brazilian sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso (later president of his country), was about to arrive. His attire was the first shock. Cardoso, then a senator from São Paulo, showed up wearing an impeccable blue suit, not the fatigues half the attendees were expecting. After he gave a short speech on Brazilian political tactics, not the ills of imperialism, a woman in a poncho fired the first question: Did democracy mean anything in Brazil without socialism? Yes it did, replied Cardoso. And building socialism was no longer the issue; perfecting capitalism was. Students sitting at his feet stared in disbelief and soon began milling out.
Dependency was a theory of underdevelopment: Poor countries exiled to the periphery of the world economy could not develop as long as they remained enslaved by the rich nations of the center. Dependency was also a religion that shaped the cosmology of a generation of Latin American leftists in the 1960s and 1970s and of leaders from Chilean President Salvador Allende to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. As would happen again with other half-digested foreign theories -- deconstruction is the best example -- U.S. college campuses embraced dependency with evangelical fervor. Mixed with Vietnam-era rhetoric, dependency theory became a potent brew, which placed all blame for Third World problems on the hegemonic center, particularly the United States. Cardoso himself worried about this tendency. In a 1977 article published in the Latin American Research Review titled "The Consumption of Dependency Theory in the United States," he warned against oversimplifications and against assuming that all of Latin America's problems were foreign made.
Dependency came in two flavors: The radical one, cooked up by economists André Gunder Frank and Amir Samin, claimed that the center grew at the expense of the periphery. The only solution was to delink completely from the world economy. From the start, however, radical dependency faced its share of troubles. Armies of graduate students tried to find a positive correlation between expansion in the North and recession in the South, but failed. (Then, as now, a boom in the United States and Europe often meant growth for developing countries.) Much less did they manage to prove a causal relationship between Northern wealth and Southern poverty. Only Albania and North Korea tried the practical prescription of completely breaking away from the world economy, with predictable consequences. Gunder Frank himself, now a senior fellow at the World History Center at Northeastern University, recently admitted delinking "has not been a very viable or fruitful policy."
The milder version of dependency, pioneered by Cardoso and his co-author Enzo Faletto, and by others like Chile's Osvaldo Sunkel and Mexico's Pedro Paz, was more useful. It maintained that under capitalism both rich and poor could grow but would not benefit equally. The practical incarnation of this view fell far short of revolution. As preached from the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), it was a mixture of protectionism and Keynesianism that became known as import-substituting industrialization. Behind a tariff wall, with generous state subsidies, an active fiscal policy, and a drop of central planning here and there, poor countries could hope to lessen their dependency on the center and develop autonomously.