The Bias of the World : Theories of Unequal Exchange in History
Abstract: This is a history of theories and theorists of unequal exchange. Starting with mercantilists and Richard Cantillon's theory based on land values, it briefly covers the early Classical economists and Gerald Fitzhugh. Among early 20th century Marxist economists, unequal exchange appeared in Otto Bauer's explanation of nationalist antagonism, and in Henryk Grossmann as countering the breakdown of capitalism. It is argued that the addition to Marxist economic theory of international capital mobility and transfers of value was prompted in part by the confusion regarding national boundaries in the Habsburg Empire. As to Harold A. Innis, it is argued that theories of unequal exchange could make more use of him as the historian of the bias of communication than as the originator of the ?staple thesis?. The role of Raúl Prebisch as the originator of the debate on unequal exchange is questioned and his many similarities with mercantilist theorists underlined. It is shown how the debate on the Prebisch-Singer theorem on the terms of trade soon demonstrated that it was not so much specialisation on raw materials or manufactures that determined the terms of trade as underdevelopment or development per se. Building on the Classical economic paradigm and trying in the cold-war context to understand the British industrial revolution, W. Arthur Lewis's model focused on unequal wage-levels due to productivity differences and their non-equalisation due to political restrictions on migration, thereby making the ?commodity? terms of trade determined by the ?factoral? terms. Arghiri Emmanuel became the historical catalyst for the idea of unequal exchange, integrating mercantilist, Classical, and Marxist perspectives. Distinct from the ?monopoly? interpretation, his theory is presented in its Marxist, Sraffian and ecological versions. The specific historical function of unequal exchange in his perspective is linked to the no less original argument on the disequilibrium between the value of output and the purchasing power of income. Ecological theories of unequal exchange are also examined: Howard T. Odum's ?emergy? theory, Georg Borgström's ghost acreages, Hartvig Sætra's three-tense imperialism, ecological footprints as adopted by Jan Otto Andersson, and ecological dependency in Stephen Bunker and Joan Martinez-Alier. Instead of the transfer of ?labour? or ?ecological values? dominating much Marxist and ecological writings, a conception of unequal exchange is advocated focusing on ?horizontally? antagonistic social relations ? retaining a difference in levels of consumption, or appropriation of total societal/ecological output of goods and services, between large masses of populations ? and their reverberation on relative prices, or the terms of trade. More strict than common usage would allow, this delimitation retains what is most useful and original in the concept's history as makes it distinct from other traditions.
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