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

Author(s):Barkstrom, Jack
Reviewer(s):Baofu, Peter

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)

Jack Barkstrom, Poverty, Wealth, Dictatorship, Democracy: Resource Scarcity

and the Origins of Dictatorship. Golden, CO: Pericles Press, 2002. v + 535

pp. $21.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-9610224-0-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Peter Baofu, Political Science, Eastern New Mexico

University.

Introduction:

This book would have been much strengthened if the author had a solid scholarly

background. The author, Jack Barkstrom, who is licensed as a CPA (with a

master’s degree in accounting from the University of Colorado) and an attorney

(with a law degree from the University of Kansas), shows no deep understanding

of the literature in, say, economic theory, political theory, and social theory

– an understanding that would be vital in proving that, in his words, “the

amount of resources which a country has determines whether it will become a

democracy or a dictatorship” (p. 1).

The book’s scholarship is disappointing from both a historical-descriptive and

a theoretical perspective. In the end, the book is not a scholarly piece of

work and essentially degenerates into an ideological glorification of “the

market forces” to create “resource abundance” for “free society.”

From the Historical-Descriptive Perspective:

The book has its own strengths in providing a rather detailed account of the

descriptive history of dictatorships and democracies with seven case studies —

Athens, Sparta, and Rome in ancient times; and Revolutionary France, Nazi

Germany, the USSR, and the United States in modern and contemporary times.

Whether or not the descriptive account in the book is historically accurate is

relatively less important than the more serious problem of shallow scholarship,

in a three-fold way.

First, each chapter of the book is so heavily dependent on only a few sources

(e.g., the works by William Doyle and Simon Schama in Chapter 7, those by

Richard Pipes in Chapter 10, or those by Roy Medvedev and W. Bruce Lincoln in

Chapter 12) that one cannot help but wonder if the book is well-balanced in its

viewpoints.

Second, another consequence of this excessive scholarly dependency on a few

sources is the lack of originality in its historical description. While

Barkstrom does a good job in summarizing what previous scholars have written on

the subject, it is not clear what exactly he himself has contributed to the

historical scholarship (other than repetitively making the provocative claim as

stated above).

Finally, the historical account tends to be detailed and descriptive (but often

very disorganized and unsystematic), and it is often not clear how the myriad

factual data are even relevant to the larger thesis. It is all so easy to get

lost in the messy world of one historical description after another, with

little scholarly explanatory analysis.

But this is not the end of the matter.

From the Theoretical Perspective:

An even more serious problem lies at the theoretical level. After all, how

exactly can one prove the claim that resource scarcity (or conversely, resource

abundance) determines the origins of dictatorship (or conversely, democracy)?

The claim is of course as much interesting as provocative. Unfortunately,

Barkstrom provides no in-depth scholarly analysis of the literature in, say,

economic theory, political theory, or even social theory. The entire book is

almost exclusively devoted to its seemingly endless historical description, and

the only section which shows some sign of theoretical analysis is in the first

three short chapters (and there are twenty-four short chapters in total); even

here, Barkstrom shows no in-depth understanding of the literature as mentioned,

since both the analysis and the sources cited often have little to do with the

theoretical debate in question. Perhaps a good way to show this lack of

theoretical understanding is to reveal its five major (illustrative but not

exhaustive) weaknesses at the theoretical level.

First, if resource availability (be it about scarcity or abundance) is the

determining factor of a political system, what then are the origins of its

scarcity (unto dictatorship) or abundance (unto democracy)? Or in a different

parlance, what are the origins of the poverty, and wealth, of nations? The book

provides no answer to this important question. For instance, in the case of the

alleged resource abundance in the U.S., Barkstrom has this to say: “Production

figures provide the primary evidence. Yet, the market itself may serve as

additional evidence of resource abundance. For markets to exist, there must be

some minimal level of resources available. For markets to thrive, there must be

a correspondingly greater pool of resource available”(p. 455). The answer is

simply disappointing, with each chapter often providing ad hoc explanations

like this to account for a country in question which possesses either resource

abundance or resource scarcity.

Second, what is the underlying linkage between resource scarcity (or

conversely, abundance) and repression in dictatorship (or conversely, freedom

in democracy)? Barkstrom’s answer is to appeal to the resource mechanism of

scarcity leading to societal violence (or even the mere threat of it) due to

“the failure of delivery” at the group level (i.e., economic collapse) and “the

failure of participation” at the individual level (i.e., unemployment), with

subsequent governmental repression (pp. 34-35). But this is question-begging,

since it only raises two even more complicated questions of (a) what exactly

the underlying linkage between the two failures and societal violence is and

(b) why some governments respond with repression and others do not. Barkstrom’s

answer, again, is disappointing, with no apparent understanding of the massive

literature in, say, social theory and political theory. For instance, social

theorists have long debated the very issue of whether or not, and to what

extent, frustration (deprivation) leads to social aggression (violence). And

political scientists have no clear consensus on why some governments are

inherently more violent than others and when they can be predicted to behave

so. When hard pressed, Barkstrom only offers this apologetic reply: “Drawing

conclusions about a direct link between repression and violence then is

difficult for several reasons…. What these…suggest is, not so much that the

theory is wrong, but rather that it is difficult to prove” (p. 31). Who in his

clear mind could accept this kind of answer as persuasive, let alone

convincing?

Third, Barkstrom narrowly defines the term “violence” in the physical sense, to

the effect that it favorably portrays liberal democracy as less repressive

(“free society”), without including non-physical forms of repression pervasive

in democratic regimes. The works by Foucault on normalization of power and

Chomsky on the manufacturing of consent in democratic societies are two good

cases in point.

Fourth, even worse, the author tries to downgrade the long history of

repression (both physical and non-physical) against minorities and the lower

class in a liberal democracy like the United States as “glaring exceptions”

(e.g., the enslavement of Africans, the encampment of Japanese-Americans during

WWII, the Civil War, the almost complete extermination of Native Indians, the

systemic discrimination against women, and the inhumane laissez-faire treatment

of the lower class) (p. 435). He even goes so far as to unwarrantedly claim

that “the United States has been a country free of violence”(p. 434). His

ideological bias is obvious enough.

And finally, Barkstrom fails to exercise any good command of economic theory,

often at the superficial level. For instance, in his simplistic explanation of

“unemployment in terms of the impact of resource costs on market demand” (which

is crucial in a major way to understand his superficial idea of resource

scarcity and its impact), by contrast to his questionable interpretation of the

conventional “growth theory” which suggests that “unemployment is a ‘function’

of the business cycle, i.e., is caused by it” (p. 41), Barkstrom shows no

understanding of the complexity and sophistication of different growth

theories, numerous exogenous and endogenous business cycle theories, and, for

that matter, various types of unemployment in relation to different

macroeconomic policies — all of which have been worked out over the years by

many professional economists.

Conclusion:

All things considered, this book is not a scholarly piece of work and,

worse, becomes explicitly ideological in glorifying the magic of “the market

forces” in creating “resource abundance” for “free society,” as Barkstrom even

concludes in the end that “the future is likely to be dominated by the

market…. Market forces have an existence of their own, … resistant to

change” (p. 489).

The book is often so descriptive in historical account and so superficial in

theoretical understanding that it fails to prove in any persuasive (let alone

convincing) way the central thesis of the book, that is, whether or not, and to

what extent, “the amount of resources which a country has determines whether it

will become a democracy or a dictatorship.” This book should have been written

by someone else who possesses solid scholarly qualifications and, in the end,

constitutes a good example of the tragedy of shallow scholarship driven by an

ideological bent.

Dr. Peter Baofu is the author of The Future of Capitalism and Democracy

(University Press of America, 2002) and the two-volume work of The Future of

Human Civilization (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000). He has served as an

associate professor in the Department of International Affairs at the Eastern

Mediterranean University (Northern Cyprus), as a visiting professor of

international relations at Bocconi University (Milan, Italy), and as an

instructor in economics and statistics at USDA Graduate School.

Subject(s):Education and Human Resource Development
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative