The idea of persistent poverty is a pervasive one, and its context in the plantation economy is important to understand if these aspects are to be applied to one’s own concept of the economy. In George Beckford’s 1972 book Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World, he presents a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the plantation states in the West Indies, while expanding the scope of these appraisals to other third world countries.
The book begins by showcasing the main characteristics of plantation societies, demonstrating the political, economic and social patterns that develop. These patterns are compared to several different nations in order to determine what similarities and differences arise. There are two primary themes that Beckford explores in this book – first, he discusses how the plantation method of production developed and evolved in these third world countries and why; he showcases the varying features of the organizations and institutions that comprise these systems, putting into detail their makeup. The second theme involves assessing which aspects of plantation systems are both good and bad for the potential economic development of these countries. The overall goal of this analysis is to see the effect of this type of economy, and learn what to avoid in order to prevent underdevelopment.
Beckford’s basic argument is that “the net development impact [of the plantation system] was large enough to bring about a transformation from a condition of undevelopment to one of underdevelopment”; that being said, “plantation economy never gets beyond the stage of underdevelopment”1. In short, while there were some improvements made in the short-term by the development of the plantation economy, it does not have the change to expand further than that, effectively stunting the future economic development of these third world countries. The plantation economy did these countries more harm than good.
According to Beckford, plantations were set up in these countries to solve the problem of labor scarcity; however, since these jobs are so labor intensive, they had to be compulsively created2. The market did not demand an increase in labor, and so only so many jobs were created. Since unemployment remained high, markets could keep wages low, as people were willing to work for less just to have a job. Also, since plantations were such a strong economic force in these countries, they often stole land that was fruitful and ready for cultivation, leaving little reason to set up any alternative methods of agricultural production. This effectively set up a monopoly of these plantations, cutting out any possibility for a more well-rounded economy to increase skill sets and provide more diverse employment.
There are many ways in which Beckford claims the plantation economy leaves countries in a perpetual state of underdevelopment; first off, plantations have the ability to take away land and resources from the peasant sector, which is thought to be more dynamic than the limited scope of plantations3. While they manage to mitigate the detriments of a plantation economy to the other country in the transaction, there is little benefit that the host country receives either4. Resources that are already rare are not being used to their greatest effect5. Racial conflicts within the country are used rampantly to further the plantation economy, exploiting hatred and violence for profit6. More so than all of this, the national elite is effectively given lordship over the rest of the country, creating a substantial class war that prohibits any sort of economic cooperation. For these reasons and more, it is thought that plantation economies hurt underdeveloped nations in the long-term.
One of the most important concerns of the plantation economy is the misallocation of resources – “How resources are used in any society will influence the welfare of people who live in it in important ways”7. While resource shortages have not been a huge problem in the Third World, what has been a large problem is the way in which those resources are allocated and utilized. Plantation owners and managers are very lax at actually meeting their goals, and manage to hoard resources to the level where the economy as a whole suffers; “efficient resource allocation on individual plantations unites coexists with inefficient resource allocation within plantation economies”8.
However, he also admits that, in Third World countries such as the West Indies and elsewhere, there was a large positive impact with the advent of the plantation system – land was opened up, productive and overhead capital was brought into the economy, which led to income and output being produced by the countries9. New technology was brought in and developed in order to facilitate these plantations, and new production methods were created. Not only that, peasants received new ways to consume, thus stimulating the economy in a way they could not before. Despite the overall negative effect that Beckford portrays in his book, the mitigating advantages should still be recognized.
One interesting aspect of the plantation economy that Beckford approaches is its status as a community. This inserts aspects of sociology in this economic context, explaining further the total effects that this type of system can have on a country. For one thing, plantations are geographically isolated, reducing “the extend to which those who live and work in it can have intercourse with other people outside its boundaries”10. As a result, members of a plantation community have no choice but to interrelate and interbreed, in many cases. This is a shining example of the long-reaching effects of plantations in Beckford’s eyes; since these people are so isolated, they form small city-states around the plantation, contextualizing their entire social structure among who lives and works in that area. These kinds of observations enrich Beckford’s analysis of this economic system, looking beyond mere numbers to show how the individual is affected by this particular type of system.
With all of these factors in mind, Beckford proposes a few items for change. His overall scheme is rather extreme; “To put the matter rather bluntly, the plantation system must be destroyed if the people of plantation society are to secure economic, social, political, and psychological advancement”11. This is no small feat; it would involve overcoming all of the problems that stem from the plantation system, including having unskilled and underpaid workers, distortions of usage of resources, income distribution inequalities and so forth. The community structure would also have to be strengthened, finding a way to overcome racial and class tensions and facilitate factor mobility in these societies. He cites specific obstacles in overcoming these goals, like the lack of acknowledgement by policy makers that many of these problems exist.12
Beckford works hard to provide workable theories, at least, for the possible change of these economic systems from a plantation system to something more equitable. He cites World War II as “the most significant historical experience of change in all the plantation economies of the world,” as the lack of imported goods meant that these economies were forced to undergo diversification in order to survive13. Beckford acknowledges that another war would be counterproductive to the world at large, but he cites this example as an interesting method of forcing potential change in policy for these economies.
Beckford provides a very detailed, comprehensive appraisal of these types of economies, as well as how to improve the conditions of third world countries who participate in this economic system. He does not really try to create a substantially new perspective on the subject, but instead wants to create a complete, summarized account of the factors that contribute to the plantation state14. A lot of Lloyd Best’s theories are used as the basis of the book (like the structure of the slave plantation economy, and the concept of incalculability), but there is some deviation in his expansion of the context of the plantation economy outside the West Indies and into the American South, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa15. This makes the theories much more universal, to the book’s (and the reader’s) advantage.
One of Beckford’s primary concerns in the book is plantation America, the stretch between the Southern United States all the way down to Brazil. Basically, he fears that this same type of underdevelopment will continue and spread all the way to America, and seeks to find out the disadvantages and warning signs now, rather than let this type of economy stunt the development of the United States. Already, plantation sub-economies in America lag behind the metropolitan centers that exist within the same country in poverty and economic development levels. They have “limited connection with the larger national community apart from revenue payments to the national government,” effectively cutting them off from the rest of the country16.
The fact that many different disciplines and factors (not just economic) are appraised in the creation of the plantation system is a testament to just how complete and detailed Beckford’s work is. He seeks to create a better picture of just what leads a country to have this economy, not just what the economy does for the country. At the same time, it is interesting that his overall message seems to be that Third World economies should be studied more in depth, while this same absence leads Beckford to rely a lot on North American economic theories and aspects of developed countries’ society and anthropology. While it may seem that this is hypocritical of him, it only serves to underline the importance of a broader scope of knowledge, and it helps to contribute to his interdisciplinary and widely-drawn appraisal of the economic system itself.
There are some things that Beckford could do better in this book, and a few things are missing from his analysis. First of all, it seems that there is a lack of criticism of capitalism in general, as the book comes from the perspective of a type of flawed capitalist system (plantation economies). One would think that critiquing this system would involve critiques of capitalism itself, but Beckford summarily dismisses any pertinence that socialist critiques would have on his research. However, the very problems that are inherent in the plantation system (excess capacity, income maldistribution, mass underconsumption, resource misallocation etc.) could be explored form a more objective point of view. These kinds of problems also exist in capitalist systems; they are just worse in plantation systems – an acknowledgement of these similarities would go a long way toward widening the perspective of the book.
In conclusion, despite some minor gaps in his critique of plantation systems that stop it from being truly comprehensive, and his lack of many concrete solutions for the problems he delineates, Beckford’s appraisal of persistent poverty in Third World countries is detailed, interesting, and interdisciplinary. Of particular note is his insertion of social and political attributes of these countries into the analysis, showing how they affect the establishment and maintenance of a plantation economy and vice versa. While he has no specific solutions that must be implemented in order to improve development in these economies, he does have a detailed list of factors that contribute to it. According to Beckford, further study is needed in these factors before any steps or plans can be proposed to make these changes; however, his summarization of the problem leaves a good start for the solution.
Beckford, George L.. Persistent poverty; underdevelopment in plantation economies of the Third World. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.
"Persistent Poverty (Review)." The Economic Journal 83, no. 332 (1973): 1321.
"Persistent Poverty (Book Review)." Social and Economic Studies 21, no. 4 (1972): 481.