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Egypt Combined and uneven development

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Egypt Combined and uneven development

Brecht De Smet obtained his Masters in History and Arabic at Ghent University, Belgium. As a researcher of the Middle East and North African Research Group of Ghent University, he is working on a PhD in Political Science with regard to working class subjectivities in contemporary Egypt. [email protected] Jelle Versieren obtained his Master in History at Ghent University and is doing a PhD in Philosophy on labour concepts, theory of value and the ideology of the common good in medieval economic thought. He also published on the history of economic theory, value theory, Marxist philosophy and the history of the Belgian labour movement. [email protected]

Contradictions of Accumulation and Development in Egypt

Brecht De Smet Ghent University [email protected] Jelle Versieren Ghent University [email protected]



In this essay Egypts continued halted transition to a Western-style freemarket economy is explained from a broad historical perspective of frustrated capitalist development. Avoiding the reductionism of stage and dependency theories, the impact of imperialism, internationalisation of capital, and pre-capitalist structures in retarding economic development are taken equally into consideration. It is argued that the concept of uneven and combined development offers the best framework to understand the particular nature of capitalism in Egypt. In the first phase of integration of Egypt in the capitalist world market, which lasted until the first half of the nineteenth century, Western advanced production methods and relations were absorbed by the absolutist state, without affecting the social formation. Only through the era of imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, which lasted from the second half of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century, did capitalist structures alter Egypts social formation. Capitalism existed in

combination with pre-capitalist structures, and this articulation effectively blocked economic development. During the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century Nasserite state capitalism was able to break the deadlock and stimulate development. Attention is paid in detail to both the transformative character of Nasserism and its contradictions which led to its stagnation and dissolution. During the 1970s and 1980s the lifeform of state capitalism was superficially extended through a rentier state2

in collaboration with international and domestic capital groups hostile to industrialism. From the 1990s onwards, the dismantling of the rentier economy and its state capitalist shell under the guise of neoliberal reform revealed its crony-monopolistic substance.


Egypt, Nasser, underdevelopment, Trotsky, imperialism, pre-capitalism, unequal exchange, mode of production, colonialism, uneven and combined development, state capitalism, capital accumulation

Object and frame of analysis

Capitalism and underdevelopment

In this essay we explain Egypts continued halted transition to a Western-style free-market economy from a broad historical perspective of frustrated capitalist development.1 The history of modern Egypt


Economic development is defined as the development of the productive forces, encompassing the means of production and human labor power. The systemic relation between the productive forces and the social relations of production, especially ownership, constitutes a mode of production.


presents itself as an interesting case study of the obstruction of development through historical interaction between pre-capitalist and capitalist structures and agents. Avoiding the reductionism of stage and dependency theories, the impact of imperialism, internationalisation of capital, and pre-capitalist structures in retarding economic development are taken equally into consideration. The asynchronous historicalgeographical emergence of the capitalist mode of production and the world market posed the problem of how pre-capitalist societies and modes of production related to their capitalist counterparts and to the world economy as a whole. In the Marxist and radical economic tradition, roughly three approaches to this question emerged. Marxists of the Second and Third International considered the nation state as the primary unit of analysis. In order to reach socialism, countries should develop their forces of production. Non-capitalist countries should experience a transition identical to the West, consisting of a bourgeois revolution, which would destroy feudalism, establish a parliamentary democracy, promote free trade and markets, defend private property and civil rights, and protect the nations sovereignty. 2 A superficial reading of Marx seemed to confirm this concept of development and transition: TheCapitalism is the historical expansion and dominance of a mode of production which is based on capital accumulation through generalized commodity-production for the market, the commoditization of labor, the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a class, consisting of only a minor section of society, and the consequential emergence of a propertyless class for whom the sale of their labor-power was their only source of livelihood (Dobb 1976, p. 7). Capitalist accumulation brought about a revolution in the development of productive forces. 2 Attewel 1984, pp. 21516, and Townshend 1996, p. 143.


country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future One nation can and should learn from others society can neither leap over the natural phases of its development nor remove them by decree.3 Later, with regard to the Third World, imperialism was recognized as a factor which impeded the transition to Western-style capitalism.4 Others pointed to the inhibiting role of domestic merchant capitalists who were unwilling and/or unable to industrialize their economies.5 In both accounts the problem of underdevelopment was too little capitalism, either through the

intervention of imperialist or pre-capitalist forces. After the Second World War adherents of the dependency-school initiated a paradigm-shift by conceiving of the world capitalist system as the primary unit of analysis. Peripheral nations suffer underdevelopment through unequal exchange and their structural location within the world system. Underdevelopment was perceived as a result of the worldwide development of capitalism.6 While dependency theory and world-system analysis paid attention to the dynamics of capitalism as a totality, this tradition suffered from functionalism and reductionism, neglecting the role of class struggle, modes of production, labour exploitation, and pre-capitalist structures in

3 4

Marx 1990, pp. 912. Warren 1973. 5 Kay 1975. 6 Amin 1976; Frank 1969; Wallerstein 1974.


defining capitalist reality.7 In their paradigm, the self-motion of capitalism structures the totality according to its own needs.8 One of the main theoretical obstacles remained ... to internally relate the modern state system and geopolitical competition to capitalism without reducing the former to an effect of the later.9 Trotskys concept of uneven and combined development,10 elaborated upon by Mandel11 and more recently by Rosenberg,12 might be the key to an understanding of (under)development based on the dialectic between totality and locality, capitalist and pre-capitalist forms.

Uneven and combined development

Trotsky sees history as a progressive sequence of modes of production, but with the arrival of capitalism the development of productive forces acquires a systemic uneven and combined character. The qualitative difference between the productive forces which capitalism unleashes and their pre-capitalist counterparts creates a deep dichotomy between advanced and backward forms. The introduction of the capitalist mode of production leads to unevenness with prior, non-capitalist modes.

7 8

Chilcote 1981, pp. 45. Chevalier 1982. 9 Allison and Anievas 2010, pp. 478. 10 Trotsky 2001. 11 Mandel 1976. 12 Rosenberg 2009 and Rosenberg 2010.


However, nations, institutions and people, do not exist in isolation from each other; on the contrary, through the world market capitalism universalizes itself, connecting different countries, social spaces and human life worlds with each other. Advanced and backward social forms and modes of production are found in combination; they become part of the same totality without losing their separate identity. Development is perceived as an organic process of both the whole (the world market and the logic of capital) and its parts (states, regions, and modes of production). Through their relation with the world market, backward nations can directly appropriate advanced economic forms without emulating the whole historical trajectory of the Western industrial countries. This privilege of backwardness is only a potentiality; sometimes more advanced forms are debased when they are embedded in a backward context, which paradoxically leads to a strengthening of these backwards conditions rather than revolutionizing them.13 Trotsky would have been in agreement with dependency theory and world-system analysis that, while the integration of non-capitalist spaces into the capitalist totality furthered the development of the whole the accumulation of capital on a world level it did not automatically develop the parts evenly. However, he would have pointed out that the trajectories of the periphery are not merely blocked by its structural13

Trotsky 2001, pp. 2537 and van der Linden 2007.


relations with the core capitalist countries. Instead, the concept of capitalist transition and development encompasses the inte

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