Michael N. Escobar

PS 148A

Ruth B. Collier

Wendy Sinek

Dependency theory versus the critical junctures approach



"Man is born in bondage to his own history," said Oskar Werner in the film The Shoes of the Fisherman.The critical junctures framework helps us to understand the different trajectories of national development in Latin America by recognizing that actions have consequences and affirming the possibility of individual (or collective) agency. Dependency theory basically states that a country's option sets are prescribed and certain options are proscribed by a country's position in the world economy. They can be easily unified: dependency theory explains the options that were available to political actors within a country, and Shaping the Political Arena describes how the actors exercised their options.


As a result of the Mexican Revolution, Mexico in 1920 was a country with a certain balance of power and a certain momentum, which individuals and groups sought to manipulate or within which to maneuver. The actions taken by Lázaro Cárdenas left the political generations that followed him with a new range of options and a new set of imperatives from their constituencies. Any political actor will find some options available and others out of reach, and these option sets are inherited from the consequences of others' previous actions, as well as the structural system in which they take place.


Dependency theory would go too far to argue for a strict determinism, as any empirical study of Latin American nations can easily show that, while Latin American countries occupy a more or less generic position of subordination in the world economy, nevertheless their histories have been very divergent. However, dependency doesn't argue this; it does provide an apt explanation for the way in which Latin American economies developed, with a focus on the export of raw materials, since they were late developers. Those who choose policies that don't fit easily within the dependency system do so at their own peril, as the Peronist and Cuban revolutionary regimes discovered.


The Mexico of 1910 shows the total relevancy of the dependency model: it was dominated by a small elite, with most economic development concentrated in export sectors. It exported raw materials and imported capital goods and upmarket consumer goods. Porfirio Díaz' regime was totally geared to the service of the exporting elite and the interests of foreign capital who facilitated development. The massive power of the system which promoted dependency in development is shown by the massive revolution which it engendered. The "path of least resistance" would have involved getting along with the existing system; the fact that various actors in Mexican society rose up to overthrow the ancien régime does not contravene dependency theory, but in fact bears it out. Dependency describes the system, the set of options available to Carranza, Villa, and Calles; those who chose to rise up created a new political landscape, but this didn't magically create a heavy industry that could compete against Britain and the United States: Mexico was still dependent. The new constitution and the Cárdenas administration attempted to push Mexico in a new direction, but Cárdenas' policies did not outlive him. With Miguel Alemán and his successors, the constituencies which Cárdenas represented got what they needed institutionally but not what they wanted ideologically (land reform was slowed but not halted; the electricians of Mexico City got a daily siesta guaranteed in their contract, etc.), and the interests of the exporting elites (e.g. the Monterrey industrialists) were defended by the new PRI and the satellite parties.


Argentina's experience differs fundamentally from Mexico's. Paradoxically, the country which did not experience a massive social revolution found itself with a much more unstable political system. But let us examine this more closely: the industrial sector which grew up before and during the Perón regime concomitantly generated a large working class. Here, the intensity of the control established over the labor movement by Perón, and the later viciousness of the military dictatorship, bear out dependency theory, just as the revolution did for Mexico. Looking at the situation from a global perspective, we have a dependent economy whose most dynamic sector is the export one, and the working class and bourgeoisie which pertain to it fought each other intensely during the 20th century. The workers' demands were blocked by the political system, and ultimately by the military, the guardian of the interests of the elite, whose power sprang from their participation in the world economy and their exploitation of the workers.


An argument, let's call it "neo-dependency", might be made, to update dependency in light of its crisis and incorporate the critical junctures approach. Just as Betty Friedan argued in The Feminine Mystique that women cooperated in their own subjugation, we can compare the experiences of Japan, Russia, and Sweden with Latin America, and suggest that the elites of Latin America were instrumental in perpetuating their countries' dependency. Japan and Sweden industrialized late, but quickly, became competitive in the world market, and developed diverse industrial bases. This is singularly impressive in that Japan and Sweden are both relatively small countries, and Japan particularly lacks domestic petroleum (this was a main cause of World War II). Another late developer, Russia, opted out of the world capitalist system after 1917. The fall of communism in the USSR must be understood as partially a result of the arms race, and as a result of popular political rebellion against authoritarianism, and we cannot discount the massive damage inflicted on the system during World War II; in other words, communism as such was not solely responsible for its own demise. Before 1990, Russia developed a strong industry that was able to subsidize the development of Eastern Europe and Cuba (the center of the "evil empire" was actually poorer than its satellite countries). Thus, the path a country's development takes is not determined by structural factors, but can progress divergent to the dictates of the world capitalist system, if the political will can be found to do so. In spite of being late developers, Russia, Sweden, and Japan were able to industrialize and build strong industrial sectors. Latin America's particular history must, partially, be laid at the door of an intransigent oligarchy that jealously defended its priviledges, and an opportunistic middle class.


In Mexico and Argentina we see the same class structure, although Argentina had no mass peasantry, and although the classes' balances of power were not identical. The balance of power dictated how far the incorporation-period reformers were able to go, before they were stopped by the right-wing reaction. The classes originated in a dependent political economy. The representatives of these classes pursued their agenda in the political arena, shaping it as they went, choosing to play fair or play dirty according to how they thought their interests would best be served. The title of Shaping the Political Arena is a clue for us: the arena is not only the locus of political action, but has a particular shape, which has a particular origin: the actions of previous political actors, and the political-economic system in which they live. And more to the point, the arena's shape evolves over time as a result of the activities of actors in the present. In the pursuit of their goals, actors change the arena in which they work, both unwittingly and deliberately.