Loading up sacks of cocoa for export from San-Pédro, Ivory Coast. Photo by Pascal Maitre/Panos


Beyond Eurocentrism

If you really want decolonisation, go beyond cultural criticism to the deep structural insights of economist Samir Amin

by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven + BIO

Loading up sacks of cocoa for export from San-Pédro, Ivory Coast. Photo by Pascal Maitre/Panos

With the publication of Orientalism in 1978, Edward Said would become one of the most influential scholars of our era. The book transformed the study of the history of the modern world, as it offered insights into how racist discourses created and maintained European empires. As much for his political activities, Said and his work attracted a number of Right-wing critics, most notably perhaps Bernard Lewis. Less well known in the West is Samir Amin, the Egyptian economist who coined the term ‘Eurocentrism’. The term comes from Amin’s book Eurocentrism (1988), which criticised Said’s view of empire from the Left and offered an alternative view, one based not on culture or discourse, but on a materialist understanding of capitalism and imperialism.

Said spent most of his career in the Global North, in New York City, while Amin spent his mostly in Africa, attempting to build African academic and political institutions to challenge the dependencies created through imperialism. When I met Amin for an interview back in 2016, he was 85 and still vigorously involved in building alternative institutions and challenging Eurocentric social theory. Although he died in 2018, his legacy remains acutely relevant.

Samir Amin in 2009. Photo courtesy Skill Lab/Flickr

In Eurocentrism, Amin exposed claims of how capitalism developed in Europe as flawed. He argued that this story of capitalism emerging from endogenous European characteristics of rationality and triumph – which continues to dominate social theory – is distorting. It disguises the true nature of the capitalist system, including the role of imperialism and racism in its history. Rather than representing an objective scientific explanation, Amin saw Eurocentric ideology. For him, assuming that capitalism can develop in the periphery in the way that it allegedly did in Europe is a logical impossibility. Amin also points out that the foundation of European cultural unity is racist, given that it creates a false opposition between languages and false historical dichotomies (eg, Greece is considered ‘European’ and not connected to the Orient; Christianity, too, is considered European). As such, Amin was an early and sophisticated critic of culturalist explanations in the social sciences.

Amin’s critique of Eurocentrism differs from that of Said, who was more focused on how cultural portrayals of the non-Western are racist and harmful. Indeed, Said and Amin in many ways represent the contrast between postcolonial and Marxist views of imperialism in the social sciences – Orientalism for one, and Eurocentrism for the other. Amin, a neo-Marxist, was less interested in attitudes and culture, which preoccupy postcolonialists, and more interested in Eurocentrism as a polarising and ideological global project that reinforced imperialism and systemic inequalities by legitimising a global system that expropriated resources and exploited people in the Global South. For example, Amin demonstrated how Eurocentric social sciences contributed to legitimising the unrestricted predations of capital, which had real material impacts. While for Said challenging attitudes and culture might be enough to challenge imperialism, for Amin opposing imperialism always returned to the matter of capitalism.

Amin thought that Said’s critique was too general and transhistorical, given that it did not distinguish between different European visions of the Islamic Orient. This lesson from Said compelled Amin to warn of the danger of applying the concept of Eurocentrism too freely. For Amin, Eurocentrism was a concept developed at a specific historical moment. He was also critical of Said for only denouncing European prejudice – or Orientalism without ‘positively proposing another system of explanation for facts which must be accounted for’. This is indeed precisely what Amin set out to do in his work. By exposing a more complete view of the development of capitalism without Eurocentric biases, Amin proposes to pursue a universal project free from European particularism, a ‘modernity critical of modernity’. Such a claim can, of course, also be critiqued from a critical social science lens, given that it is arguably impossible for any social science theory to fully capture reality in an unbiased manner.

Amin’s Eurocentrism, originally published in French in 1988, was among other things a response to postcolonial critiques that dismissed Marxist analyses, almost a priori, for being Eurocentric. Amin agreed that aspects of Marxism were Eurocentric – such as the teleological presumption that developing countries are simply at an earlier ‘stage’ of capitalist development and will, with time, catch up with Europe. But he also made the case for how Marxist concepts and historical materialism could provide strong critiques of Eurocentrism.

So, what was his alternative to Eurocentric science? From the vantage point of the periphery, Amin provided a framework to uncover unequal structures of the global economy – which Eurocentric theories cannot provide.

There are two ways of thinking about Amin’s contribution to the field of development economics. One is the specific concepts that he put forward and how they have been extended in various ways to interpret the world. The other is his way of approaching social science, which holds the most potential for restructuring development economics as a field (as elaborated in my recent joint paper for the Review of African Political Economy). Let’s begin with his approach to political economy.

Amin’s concept of political economy pushes us to think structurally, temporally, politically and creatively about global economic problems. It defies disciplinary boundaries. Let us first consider his attention to structure. At a time when much of economics has come to rely on either methodological individualism or methodological nationalism – approaches that centre the individual or the nation as the most relevant unit of analysis – Amin begins with the insistence that we think structurally. He directs attention to the global structures that underpin an international system of exploitation. Thinking about the structure of the global economy was in fact what led Amin to make important contributions to dependency theory, which is a South-centred tradition that takes the polarising tendency of capitalism and the constraints it places on the postcolonial world as its starting point. Amin explored how unequal exchange – the inequalities embedded in international trade – was a crucial feature of the global capitalist economy, which was a legacy of colonialism and that continued to put countries in the Global South at a structural disadvantage.

Amin also insisted on the need to think temporally. He identified himself as being part of the school of global historical materialism, in which the historical spread of global capitalism is the key to understanding the polarisation between the core and the periphery. Amin’s approach was also fundamentally political. He never denied that his ultimate goal was to change the world for the better. This distinguishes him from economists working in the Eurocentric tradition of claiming that social science is neutral, apolitical.

Finally, in his use of concepts developed in the metropolitan core to understand the world from the margins, Amin was a creative thinker. He called himself a ‘creative Marxist’ and emphasised that he would start from, rather than stop at, Karl Marx. Starting from Marx prioritises class struggle, exploitation and uneven capitalist development; Amin extended these concepts to analyse imperialism, unequal exchange, and polarising tendencies between core and periphery.

The Global North appropriated around $62 trillion from the Global South between 1960 and 2018

Given this historical approach to political economy, it was logical for Amin to extend Marx’s theory of value to better understand imperialism. In Accumulation on a World Scale (1974), he showed that the mechanisms through which value continued to flow from the periphery to the core, reproducing an international division of labour and geographically uneven distribution of wealth, came from colonisation and its structures. Amin drew on the neo-Marxist economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s seminal book Monopoly Capital (1966) in his conceptualisation of ‘imperialist rent’. Imperialist rent, for Amin, derived from extra surplus value. In other words, more value could be extracted from the workers through production in the periphery – generating an additional rent for the capitalist, when compared with workers in the centre doing similar jobs. Amin argued that, while low-paid workers in the periphery are no less productive than their counterparts in the centre, the value they create is less rewarded – and this is what creates such an (imperialist) rent. Andy Higginbottom and other scholars have since extended Amin’s insight, applying the concept to demonstrate how British and Spanish multinationals were able to take advantage of the commodity boom; see also Maria Dyveke Styve’s work on ‘The Informal Empire of London’ (2017).

Colonialism shaped postcolonial economies such that the accumulation took place in especially uneven – or unequal – ways. In Unequal Development (1976), Amin distinguished between two different kinds of accumulation, one he called ‘autocentric accumulation’, which took place in the core and promoted the expanded reproduction of capital. The periphery, in contrast, was characterised by what he called ‘extraverted accumulation’, a type that did not lend itself to capital reproduction. He argued that uneven development evolved historically creating exploitative structures, which manifested themselves in contemporary times as unequal exchange. This in turn led to continued polarisation and increased inequality.

‘Unequal exchange’ in Amin was an attempt to explain factor price non-equalisation globally, where factor price refers to the remuneration to labour or other primary non-produced factors. This means that labour, raw materials and land are cheaper in the periphery. He called the undervaluation of labour in the periphery ‘super-exploitation’. For Amin, unequal exchange was the outcome of monopoly capital’s extension to the periphery to search for super-profits (or imperialist rent).

Amin changed the terms of the debates on unequal exchange. Until his work, the orthodoxy among economists was that workers in the periphery are simply less productive than those in the centre. It is important to note that the idea of unequal exchange and of ‘super’-exploitation remains controversial among Marxists. In Das Kapital (1867), Marx himself discusses the futility of comparisons between different degrees of exploitation in different nations, and the significant methodological problems that arise. Many Marxists argue that the neo-Marxists such as Amin focused excessively on market relations at the expense of exploitation of labour.

In addition to participating in these theoretical debates, Amin was among the first to attempt to measure unequal exchange empirically. Many have followed in his footsteps since, such as Jason Hickel, Dylan Sullivan and Huzaifa Zoomkawala, whose research in 2021 found that the Global North appropriated around $62 trillion from the Global South between 1960 and 2018 (constant 2011 US dollars). Exploring a range of different methods for calculating unequal exchange, Hickel et al find that, regardless of the method, the intensity of exploitation and the scale of unequal exchange has been increasing significantly since the 1980s and ’90s.

Amin also devoted a significant amount of time to thinking about ways to change an unjust system. He was heavily involved in activism, and developed some theoretical concepts to effect political change. The most well known is Amin’s idea of ‘delinking’ – on which he published a book. Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World (1990) provides an assessment of possible ways forward for a sovereign state in the periphery. In Delinking, Amin argues that the specific conditions that allowed for the advancement of capitalism in Western Europe in the 19th century are not possible to reproduce elsewhere. So, he proposed a new model of industrialisation shaped by the renewal of non-capitalist forms of peasant agriculture, which he thought would imply delinking from the imperatives of globalised capitalism.

It is important to note that delinking is often widely misunderstood to mean autarky, or a system of self-sufficiency and limited trade. But this is a misrepresentation. Delinking does not require cutting all ties to the rest of the global economy, but rather the refusal to submit national-development strategies to the imperatives of globalisation. It aims to compel a political economy suited to its needs, rather than simply going along with having to unilaterally adjust to the needs of the global system. To this goal of greater sovereignty, a county would develop its own productive systems and prioritise the needs of the people rather than the demands on international capital.

As the world grows more interconnected, possibilities for delinking become more challenging

In my interview with him before he died, Amin emphasised the importance of the specific political economic reality of any given country to understand and situate the possibilities for delinking. At that time, with an odd amount of precision, Amin estimated that ‘if you can reach 70 per cent delinking, you’ll have done a great job’. He pointed out that a strong country that is, for historical reasons, relatively stable and with a certain amount of military and economic power will have more leverage to delink. So, while China may be able to achieve 70 per cent delinking, a small country such as Senegal will struggle to achieve the same amount of independence.

Delinking entails rejecting calls to adjust to a country’s comparative advantage and other forms of catering to foreign interests. This is, of course, easier said than done. Amin noted that it would both require strong domestic support for such a national project and strong South-South cooperation as an alternative to the exploitative economic relations between the core and the periphery. Other aspects of delinking would involve investments in long-term projects, such as infrastructure, with the goal of improving the quality of living for most people in the country, rather than maximising short-term consumption or profit.

Several scholars have more recently studied historical development trajectories in relation to the question of delinking. For example, in 2020 Francesco Macheda and Roberto Nadalini applied the considerations to try to understand China’s development trajectory, while in 2021 Francisco Pérez applied it to understand economic development in East Asia. However, as the world grows more interconnected, possibilities for delinking become more challenging.

We are at a moment now that it has become fashionable for universities in the Global North to express a desire to ‘decolonise the university’. While many scholars are rushing to Said’s Orientalism to understand how to do so, Amin’s work and commitment to a South-centric social science may offer a more radical approach. Following Said, much of the commitment to decolonise the social sciences has been limited to challenging racist tropes and Eurocentric portrayals in the curriculum and in academic discourse. This is important in a moment where curricula have become increasingly narrow, Eurocentric and with a severe lack of diversity, especially in economics. So, what would an Aminian perspective add to the debates about decolonising economics beyond Said’s contribution?

First, Amin’s attention to how colonial legacies have shaped the economic and social structures of the world economy in a variety of ways opened the door for a wealth of scholarship on colonial legacies, imperialism and unequal exchange. In the perspective of decolonising the universities, then, Amin might bring in the need to promote South-centric understandings of the world, as well as alternative understandings of capitalism. This matters because scholarship that takes a critical approach to capitalism has largely been marginalised from economics curricula worldwide.

When Amin defended his PhD thesis at Sciences Po in Paris in 1957, it was a time when it was possible to obtain a doctorate in economics by extending Marxist concepts at elite institutions. Just a few years earlier, in 1951, Baran, a Marxist economist, had been promoted to full professor at Stanford University in California, shortly after Sweezy, another Marxist economist, retired from Harvard University in Massachusetts in 1947. In that moment, radical scholars across the world were putting forward new and competing explanations for the polarising tendencies of capitalism. There was a particular interest in re-interpreting Marx from a perspective of the postcolonial world, from scholars in India to Brazil. It was also a time when the Bandung conference – a gathering in Indonesia in 1955 of representatives from 29 newly independent Asian and African countries to build alliances around economic development and decolonisation – offered optimism for those who opposed colonialism and neocolonialism.

Amin can help us see the ideological foundations of mainstream economics

The mid-20th-century debates about Eurocentrism evolved from real material struggles against colonial and neocolonial relations, which stand in contrast to the contemporary field of economics, where analysis has been reduced to what can be studied within the framework of neoclassical economics and with certain accepted econometric methods. From an Aminian perspective, decolonising the university would need to make space for the kinds of radical scholarship – which critically scrutinises the role of the capitalist system itself in producing global inequalities and injustices – that was possible in the mid-20th century.

Second, Amin can help us see the ideological foundations of mainstream economics, as well as social science theorising at large. In this, he gives us the necessary starting point to challenge a field that remains Eurocentric. Third, we may also learn important lessons from Amin when it comes to strategy. He did not engage much with elite universities in the core. He was a pan-Africanist and a citizen of the developing world, and he focused his life on building up political and intellectual institutions in Africa. This contrasts with many initiatives from universities in the core that try to incorporate scholars from the periphery into their (often Eurocentric) institutions, rather than supporting Southern institutions and epistemologies.

Finally, Amin always tied his work to real material struggles – the need to oppose Eurocentric social science was important because it would expose the colonial dimension of the global economic system. This is important in the context of calls to decolonise the university often being carried out in isolation from broader social struggles related to decolonisation. Amin’s work, thus, serves as a crucial reminder that colonisation was about material resources, and decolonisation, thus, cannot be accomplished through changes in epistemology alone.