Poverty, Wealth
Dictatorship, Democracy:
Resource Scarcity and the Origins of Dictatorship
by Jack Barkstrom

Business History

Vol 43, Number 2, April 2001
European University Institute, Florence

Jack Barkstrom's book is aimed at accomplishing a theory of resource scarcity with political and systemic implications. He asserts that the resources within a country's disposal determine the form of its political system: countries with ample resources will become democracies, and a scarcity of resources will lead to dictatorship. Violence, economic unrest, and unemployment are the key elements arising from this scarcity, leading to repression and dictatorship. The countries covered in this study were ancient Athens, Sparta, and Rome, as well as France and the different phases of the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and, finally, the United States.

This book has several fine qualities to it. For example, the breadth of coverage, across different time periods and cultures, gives it a uniquely strong, comparative edge.  Also, one could argue that the geographical resource emphasis, in a deterministic manner, is somewhat reminiscent of Braudel's ideas on the different layers of historical processes.  Respectively, the strength of an immediate resource scarcity in explaining outbreaks of violence can not be easily disputed.

However, some of these aspects represent the weaknesses of the study as well. For example, Barkstrom's 'theory' of resource scarcity is too simplistic to be entirely convincing, especially due to his narrow interpretation of resources.  One could argue that for example human capital - not just as available labour - is an important asset for a country, especially from the nineteenth and twentieth century mass production perspective.  The theory outlined in the book is also too straightforward simplification of the actual complex historical processes: one need not look further than the contributions of, for example, business history and institutional as well as evolutionary economics to emphasize the role of formal and informal rules, technology, and firms as both actors in the economy and as transmitters of technology and knowledge, resulting in changes in the production possibilities barrier, to dispute the validity of a 'pure' resource-based explanation.  Following the path-breaking observations of Edith Penrose in 1959, for example, the development of firms could now indeed be seen through a resource-based development perspective, although it would surely focus on concepts left out of Barkstrom's study: firms and networks, dynamic processes, management of resources, knowledge and learning.

One could also challenge Barkstrom's findings by looking at the economic ascendancy of twentieth-century Japan, which was conveniently left out of the scope of the study.  The deterministic emphasis in the book is definitely its weakest point - although at times ' historical accidents' are acknowledged, such as in the case of Bolshevik success in the power struggle of the Russian Revolution of 1917, they are not presented as having a decisive impact on the political system and its repression levels.  Equally, the concept of a political system should be questioned: different kinds of dictatorships (such as Salazar's Portugal) and democracies (differences between the political systems and the ability of citizens to participate in the system) have experienced different kinds of phases of political and economic development, not easily explained away with resource scarcity.  Finally, one is tempted to ask why the author does not make references to the more specific studies, often incorporating different theoretical premises, on the subject among economics, economic history, as well as political sciences.  For example, the Correlates of War project and the studies originating from its data, as well as (one text among many) The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, edited by Juan J. Lintz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore, 1979), offer many specific observations on the complex relationships between economic development and political systems.  These contributions seem to stress that the structural characteristics of societies provide a dynamic space of opportunities and constraints for the actors within these systems, quite similar to the institutional economists, that can be coined as probabilistic, not deterministic.

Despite certain points of criticism presented above, this book does prove captivating reading, stemming through different time periods and economic epochs.  Similarities between the systems do indeed arise out of this study, although not quite as comprehensively as the author would have wanted.  Its focus on the beginnings of repression and violence through resource scarcity is quite convincing, yet as an overall explanation it is not credible.  Thus, one can certainly recommend this book as an interesting contribution to this rich topic.

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