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

Scandinavian Economic History Review

Vol XLVIII, no. 3, 2000
Reviewed by Jari Eloranta

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

The book has several fine qualities: the breadth of coverage, across different time periods and cultures, gives it a uniquely strong, comparative edge. One might argue that the geographical-resource emphasis, of a deterministic kind, is somewhat reminiscent of Braudel's ideas on the different layers of historical processes.

The strength of an immediate resource scarcity in explaining outbreaks of violence cannot be easily disputed. But Barkstrom's 'theory' of resource scarcity is too simplistic to be entirely convincing, especially given his narrow interpretation of resources. One could argue that, for example, human capital - not just as available labour - could be 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 a simplification of the actual, complex historical processes. One does not need to look further than the contribution 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 so 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 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, the 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 of the book is definitely its weakest point: although at times 'historical accidents' are acknowledged, such as the case of the 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 needs to be questioned. Different kinds of dictatorships (such as Salazar's Portugal) and democracies (differences between the political systems and the citizens' ability to participate in the system) have experienced different kinds of phases of political and economic development, not easily explained away by resource scarcity. Finally, one is tempted to ask why the author does not refer to the more specific studies on this subject, often incorporating different theoretical premises, in economics, economic history and political science. For example, the project on the Correlates of War and the studies which originated from its data, as well as "The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes," edited by Juan J. Lintz and Alfred Stepan (Baltimore 1979), which offer many observations on the complex relationships between economic development and political systems. These contributions appear to stress that the structural characteristics of societies provide a dynamic space of opportunities and constraints for the actors within these systems, and, similar to the institutional economists, they can be termed as probabilistic not deterministic.

Despite such criticism this book provides captivating reading, ranging as it does over different time periods and economic epochs. Similarities between systems do indeed emerge from this study, although not quite as comprehensively as the author would have wished. Its focus on the beginnings of repression and violence arising from resource scarcity is quite convincing, yet as an overall explanation it is not credible. Nevertheless, the book can certainly be recommended as an interesting contribution on this rich topic.

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