Flags in Tahrir Square, February 2012. (Credit: AK Rockefeller/Flickr)
Flags in Tahrir Square, February 2012. (Credit: AK Rockefeller/Flickr)

The Mediterranean world is not presently part of the new international division of labour, i.e., the advance of hitherto underdeveloped countries in manufacturing production and manufacturing exports, including exports of technically demanding products, especially microelectronic products.

Despite the riches of oil exporting countries, they have not become regional growth poles attracting imports from less favoured countries around them. They have become at best importers of labour from surrounding countries, but not of manufactured products.

Intraregional trade is minimal and the region compares unfavourably with East Asia, where regional trade, under the impact of specialised manufacturing, develops more rapidly than trade with the rest of the world.

The share of regional exports within total exports rose from 40% to 48% in Eastern, South Eastern and Southern Asia, the share of the region in manufacturing exports rose from 40% to 46%, and the share of manufacturing in total exports stabilised around 84% (all trade data from the UNCTAD Data Base).

Many Arab countries have known genuine democratisation movements, not only those where these movements led to mass mobilisation, mass rallies, and sometimes even to violence. Even the most successful case, Tunisia, has not become a stable and consolidated democracy.

The West had associated the Arab Spring with the hope that the (pro-Western) secular dictators would be replaced by the bridgeheads of the West’s local antennas, very often NGOs.

Because of their biased contacts with local society, the antennas of the West greatly underestimated the importance of the new cultural identitarian political movements, commonly called fundamentalists or Islamists, in amidst marginalised and restricted middle classes, small-scale and medium-scale entrepreneurs, labour (Elsenhans, 2015b, p. 143–146), but especially Arab youth (Ivekovic, 2011, p. 131; Khashan, 2012, p. 923).

Western politics but also Western academia has been surprised by these developments. The West welcomes any deviation from the long-term tendencies to non-sustaining manufacturing growth, identitarian modernisation, and restricted democratisation, as a sign of hope for the reversal of tendencies which appear unnatural in light of their own theoretical approaches. Money, even from rents, is seen as creating the possibility of investment and is ultimately therefore expected to push economic growth forwards.

The defeat of moralistic approaches, which Islamists want to impose on an otherwise modernist and consumerist youth, is what is hoped for. Commitment to extremist forces like ISIS must be combated with police measures if psychological approaches do not work. Islamists are predicted to ultimately fail. They can rally people, but they will disappoint their followers because they have no strategies or ideas about how to manage modern economies.

1. Rent against development and profit

This way of dealing with the obvious non-fulfilment of secular, modern, Western, socialist, and liberal hopes is the result of the dominance of neoliberal thinking which pervades mainstream Western theorising, especially with respect to underdeveloped countries. Neoliberal thinking makes no clear difference between profit and rent: The availability of surplus leads to investment provided that market competition is imposed on elites.

This belief in market competition finds a corresponding element in political theory with the assumption that basic social and political cleavages are evened out by the market so that class and class conflict over the distribution of assets and the empowerment of different classes of labour cannot be relevant if formal political democracy exists. They are at most the heritage of persisting pre-market regulation which unhappily continues to exist in some niches of the cultural fabric of non-dynamic societies in the global south.

Major foundations of capitalism go unaddressed: I cite the foundation of the emergence of profit in income distribution and negotiating power of the lower strata of society as an essential condition for capitalism (Kalecki, 1942), and the necessity of using state power in order to maintain the conditions of capitalist growth by checking the tendencies of capitalists to transform economic advantage into rent.

For an analysis of the transition to capitalism and maintaining capitalism, the difference between rent and profit is essential (Elsenhans, 2006, p. 8; 2018). Rent is the normal form of surplus. Rent can be appropriated in any economic and political situation provided that there is a dominant class capable of imposing its political will. It is sufficient that political power is allowed to appropriate surplus directly or to create market imperfections which allow the appropriation of surplus, seemingly as profit but in reality as rent, because of market imperfections created by political power.

Profit is appropriated on anonymous markets. It depends on net investment spending, export surpluses, and government deficit spending. Only net investment spending is sustainable over the long term, but it depends on increases in demand, ultimately mass demand (Elsenhans, 2015c, p. 14–24). Capitalism, therefore, depends on a social structure where labour is empowered, at least because of its scarcity in the wake of high levels of employment. The transition comprised of elements which compensate for inadequate mass incomes increases until scarcity of labour is achieved (Elsenhans, 2016a).

2. The political economy of export-led growth

The success in export-oriented industrialisation, especially of East Asian countries, but also of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, is not based on culture.

Buddhism in East Asia had long been used to explain poverty and backwardness. Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country, has been quite successful in increasing manufactured exports, in contrast to Pakistan or the Arab Muslim countries. Social conflict in Bangladesh largely depends on the mobilisation of rural women working in export factories. From this category of ‚culturally backward‘ people, standard modernisation theory does not expect change.

This success is also not due to palpable increases in labour productivity or technical competence. With the exception of some Latin American countries, all export-oriented industrialising countries started with extremely simple products, textiles, shoes, toys, and bags. The low level of importance of technical competence is shown by the fact that most of these products were and are produced in the global south by local small and medium-sized units and are connected to the international distributors of these products via quality-control purchasing agents who do not intervene in the organisation of production. Productivity increases occurred, but mainly when the process of export-oriented industrialisation was already underway, not before. Engaging in industrial production led to qualifications for the local labour force and the possibility of upgrading exports in terms of technical complexity.

The decisive instrument for international competition was devaluation (Elsenhans, 2002, p. 66–73). Devaluation became possible because new comparative advantages could be transformed into cheap prices as the shares of waged goods in export earnings shrank massively when the Green Revolution succeeded in increasing food availability from local sources.

Devaluation became mandatory when the West succeeded in removing all raw material rents after the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s had broken out. Only oil rents were and are still maintained in order to maintain the competitiveness of industrial countries’ expensive oil, especially non-Arab oil, which the United States deems decisive for its strategic independence from the politically dangerous Arab/Muslim world (Elsenhans, 1974, p. 211).

There are limits to devaluation-driven industrialisation: Full employment and the availability of local food surpluses. When reaching full employment, devaluation-driven exports will lead to scarcity of labour and inflationary pressures. Where the currency does not appreciate, there will be wage increases in the wake of inflation as in late-1950s Germany (Wiegreff, 2011, p. 52; Wallich, 1979, p. 486–489). South Korea and Taiwan approached this ‚turning point‘ in the 1980s, slightly more than 10 years after engaging in export-oriented industrialisation (Bai, 1982). Mainland China is in a similar situation today, slightly later in comparison to the turn to exports of these two relatively small countries (Hu, 2007, p. 37).

The other limit to devaluation-driven exports is the availability of a surplus of food. Devaluation does not affect the international price of imported inputs and machinery. In the case of devaluation below purchasing power parity, the share of export proceeds available for the remuneration of local factors of production decreases. The amount available for the remuneration of labour decreases more rapidly than export proceeds. Devaluation-driven exports are all the more possible, the smaller the share of labour remuneration in export proceeds, ultimately the higher the share of local production in caring for the needs of additional workers in export production.

At low levels of income, shares of food are high. Other important shares go to textiles and clothing, shelter, furniture and household utensils, various products like bus tickets and cigarettes, or more technically demanding products. In the major underdeveloped countries, such technically demanding products are also locally produced, such as refrigerators and TV sets, which are top of the list of mass demand for consumer durables.

There are no technical bottlenecks for expanding the production of non-agricultural products for additional households when they have access to incomes from jobs in the export-oriented manufacturing sector. Expanding the production of these home market-oriented industrial products depends, as does an increase in consumption from workers in export-oriented production, on a surplus available from agriculture.

The success of export-oriented industrialisation is ultimately due to the success of the Green Revolution. which multiplies yields per agriculturally-useful surface.

Export-oriented manufacturing is based on internal rent. Export sector workers receive wages from employment in export industries because their low price in international currency yields a surplus to their employers. From their wages, these export sector workers buy local food which, at devaluation below purchasing parity, is much cheaper than food on the world market. Local food producers receive lower prices than they would get on the world market.

Workers are empowered: Producing a surplus, hence being able to be exploited, confers negotiating power on a worker. If he refuses to work, the surplus in the hands of the employer decreases. If workers in the export sector are able to unite, they acquire negotiating power. They can unite on the basis of relatively simple issues which are related to their working conditions, hours of work, wages, and security in the workplace.

Despite large differences in their cultures and their worldviews, workers become more homogeneous with respect to such issues with the capacity of uniting in action in such limited fields. With increasing employment, scarcity of labour may emerge with the result of negotiating power for labour outside export sectors. Sectorally, limited wage increases are replaced by general wage increases as can be observed in the eastern provinces of mainland China. Labour wage struggles increase (Goodman, 2014, p. 126; Lüthje, 2012, p. 3–6). When workers become conscious of their own negotiating power on the basis of the experience of continued labour scarcity for about 10 years, they will create powerful organisations comparable to the European labour movement of the 19th Century (Gray, 2008, p. 111; Kim, 1998, p. 1152).

The Arab world has not been able to participate in such developments. This is due to cultural reasons, but also because of specific characteristics of the political economy of Arab states.

3. The Arab predicament

The Arab world cannot aspire to self-sufficiency in food because of the natural conditions for agriculture on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and the demographic explosion which has occurred there over the last 70 years.[1] Any increase in mass incomes will increase the import of food disproportionately and therefore contribute to balance of trade deficits. Food dependence in the Arab world is between 50% and 80% of total consumption (except in Saudi-Arabia). Therefore, Arab countries cannot imitate East Asian countries.

Arab countries, because of their food dependence, have the choice of starving or appropriating rents, i.e., earning high monopoly incomes from a limited array of products where high prices are paid by consumers, like oil. This has maintained the political structures which had emerged from the period of higher raw material rents after decolonisation in the early 1960s. These structures are dominated by state classes which centralised rent appropriation in order to maximise surpluses available for investment within import-substituting industrialisation strategies organised by market-planning states (Elsenhans, 1996b, p. 59–76), preferably in the form of big push investment (Murphy, Shleifer, & Vishny, 1989; Rosenstein-Rodan, 1943).

These state classes survived their economic projects. They had failed because their political discipline was insufficient to fulfill the political, administrative, and moral requirements of their economic project, but they were able to combine high incomes from rent with the extension of repressive state apparatuses and Western support which protected their access to rents (Abdoun, 1995, p. 99–102; Ayoubi, 1982, p. 89).

The state classes followed the equally Marxist and neoliberal error that capitalist growth depends on capital accumulation. However, it was only in centrally planned economies that capital output-ratios increased after 1945 (Ark, 1995, p. 89; Bergson, 1971, p. 602), whereas they remained stable or even decreased slightly in developed capitalist countries (Helmstädter, 1969, p. 48-91; Kendrick, 1961, p. 166 ff.). This allowed for the tremendous productivity increase which centrally planned economies were not able to cope with (Elsenhans, 2000b).

In order to maximise rents, their appropriation by central institutions was necessary. In order to usefully promote economic growth through diversification, investment in the rent-generating sector had to be limited in order to avoid overproduction with declining prices. The profit rate could not orient investment. The mechanism for orienting investment had to be a bureaucratic one. Trying to follow late-colonial development planning, bureaucrats were investing money for projects for which the economic value depended on their integration into a view of the future structure of the economy, in case the ‚big push‘ parallel investments had been realised (Elsenhans, 2000a, p. 645–648).

This model of managing the economy had to be abandoned because of high capital-output ratios, low capacity utilisation and lack of increases in production. Investments, however, still could not follow the short-term profitability which was highest in the rent-generating sectors which had to be kept from overproduction. Rent-based segments of the former state classes and their allies in private business went for investment in political relations and market failures, i.e., monopolies. Investment was not oriented to increasing competitiveness but aimed at connections, coalitions, and market imperfections. In the case of a country making serious efforts to manage rents, Algeria, the surplus appropriated as profit in manufacturing is less than 4 % of total surplus.[2]

Social peace is therefore not based on the socialisation of the citizens via the market from which they expect job opportunities at salaries from which they can satisfy their needs and hope for future better incomes. Socialisation is based on political voice in a zero-sum contest over available rent. In a market-regulated society, individuals socialise with each other on the basis of their position in the labour market and ultimately the perception of their own scarcity as workers.

Within larger groups in identical economic situations, individual interests are parallel and compatible. Social classes emerge and with them a simplified pattern of conflict as characteristic of capitalist societies: A camp of profit, which pretends that the number of jobs increases with the strengthening of profit; and a camp of labour, which argues that increasing consumption supports high levels of employment and even profitability of investment.

The fine tuning between these positions constitutes the peaceful class struggle characteristic of the contest between the left and the right in bourgeois democracy. In rent-based societies, this simplification of conflict does not occur. Interests are mutually exclusive because the amount of rent is limited and does not increase profit in the wake of social struggle.

Large class coalitions cannot emerge so that the mode of operation of social conflict is the riot, as seen during the Arab spring.

4. A bold alternative

Capitalist growth depends on a restructuring of the whole social set up, which is triggered by the accession of labour to permanent negotiating power. Highlighting some improvement with respect to growth rates, life expectancy, etc., recalls the late 19th-Century discourses on the spread of capitalism to the not-yet-capitalist modes of production of Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Despite undeniable improvements, until 1945 the only breakthrough occurred in Japan, where the ruling class was foolish enough to make arrangements through which ultimately taxes on farmers were reduced in real terms by inflationary tendencies (Grabowski, 1991, p. 11; Nakamura, 1966, p. 429; Tussing, 1966, p. 81). In the so-called third wave of democratisation, only those countries which solved the problem of the empowerment of the poor were able to establish democracies (Zinecker, 2009).

Creating a similar access for the Arab world to development and democracy necessitates providing it with the capacity to devalue its currency and the international price of its labour with simultaneously increasing mass incomes (Elsenhans, 2017a). As the mechanism of increasing agricultural surpluses is absent, the resources to do so will have to come from elsewhere.

For a relatively long period I have intervened in the Arab country which I know best and to which I am most attached, Algeria, with the proposal to make devaluation of the currency possible on the basis of close cooperation between Europe and the countries of the southern shore of the Mediterranean (Elsenhans, 1996a, p. 289; 1999, p. 233; 2013, p. 30–32). The solution I propose consists of giving the Arab world access to European agricultural surpluses at concessional prices, perhaps covering only the cost of transport from European ports to the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

There are two arguments for the Europeans: If the Arab world develops and becomes a mass consumer society, Europe will become the granary of the Arab world as the natural conditions for production of basic food, especially grains, are far superior in Europe. Given the natural endowment of Europe, it is not reasonable to excessively reduce the productive potential of European agriculture. Markets will grow in the future if the developing world increases its overall consumption. Much of this agriculture depends on the maintenance of long-term infrastructure which is better preserved if production is not run down too much.

There will be a loss in the productivity advances of Europe in many branches but employment is less dependent on productivity advances than on the overall size of the market. Europe has no periphery, comparable to mainland East Asia, on which the United States and Japan will base their future growth. Europe has an eastern periphery which is relatively sparsely populated. Its southern periphery north of the Sahara, but also south of the Sahara, presents much more promising perspectives, and a long-term commitment to the development of the Arab world would allow Europe to benefit from it.

Such perspectives are politically difficult to realise. The Arab world is increasingly under the influence of cultural nationalists, or new cultural identitarian political movements (Elsenhans 2012). There is much distrust on the side of the cultural nationalists, whom we often call Islamists and fundamentalists. There is also distrust on the northern shore of the Mediterranean which associates Islam with terror and revives anxieties born centuries ago.

Academia cannot remove these anxieties but can demonstrate that there are more promising perspectives, the realisation of which are not impossible but made possible if they are perceived as realistic (an example: Elsenhans, 2015a). In that sense, my admittedly bold alternative could be a point of crystallisation capable of contributing to reciprocal de-escalation.

Hartmut Elsenhans

Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Leipzig




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[1] Data on Arab food dependency in wheat are presented in Elsenhans 2017b, 29.

[2] Elsenhans, 2016b, 400–404. More detailed tables are on my website: http://www.sozphil.unileipzig.de/crn/powi/prof-dr-hartmut-elsenhans


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