A Tribute to Samir Amin, Egyptian Economist
Samir Amin, who died last month in Paris at the age of 86, was one of contemporary Egypt’s great intellectual figures. As an economist he showed how wealth flowed from poor countries to rich ones, from the south to the north. His account of global economic systems had wide influence outside the field of academic economics, and informed policy makers as well as political activists and intellectuals.
He coined the term “eurocentrism”—a worldview focused on western civilization—which has entered the worldwide political lexicon.
Amin described himself as a “creative Marxist.” His view of global economics started with Marxian analysis, but did not end with the dogmatic solutions of Lenin or Mao. As a development economist, he showed how capital accumulation in the advanced capitalist countries—which he called the center—prevents development in underdeveloped countries—which he called the periphery.
His work represents one of the most prominent contributions to the School of Dependency, an approach to the understanding of capitalism in a post-colonial world. Although there is no single unified theory of dependency, its main question is how third world countries (that is, those not belonging to either of the two worlds of communism or western capitalism) have been integrated into the world’s political-economic system.
Part of the answer, Amin thought, is that not only are the prices of labor worldwide unevenly distributed, they will never rise to the level of their true value. Developing Marx’s theory of value, Amin showed how the theory worked at the global level to allow the extraction of value from the periphery to the benefit of the monopoly capital of the center.
Three of his works in particular remain relevant, and can be recommended to students and to anyone interested in global economics. These are the trio of books in which he elaborated his theory of center and periphery: Accumulation on a World Scale (1974), The Law of Worldwide Value (1973) and Unequal Development (1977).
His writings enriched the debate within the intellectual circles of the Egyptian left, whether they agreed or disagreed with his ideas. In Egypt, for example, the revolutionary socialists’ movement differed with Amin, and in particular with the political consequences of his ideas. They criticized Amin for reframing the class struggle between the bourgeoisie of the center against the proletariat of the periphery, and not between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in all the world. Amin’s work was also criticized for downplaying the role of class struggle in overcoming ‘underdevelopment’ in favour of adopting what he sees as the right state policies.
Samir Amin was born in Cairo in 1931. His father was Egyptian and his mother French; both parents were doctors. After a childhood in Port Said, he went to Paris to study political science and economics. As a student, he joined the French communist party. He completed a doctoral thesis in Paris, and in 1957 returned to Egypt, where he worked as a government economist for three years. Disillusioned with the economic program of Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Egypt’s president, Amin became an economic adviser to the government of Mali, then a newly independent African state.
His recent reflections on the Arab Spring generated considerable controversy among political activists and intellectuals in Egypt and Syria. Some Syrians criticised him for supporting the Assad regime after Islamist forces entered the Syrian uprising; some Egyptians criticised his support for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But in the end, his writings remain rich material for discussion and critical thinking about Egypt and the whole Arab region.
I completely agreed with Samir Amin’s view that the Egyptian uprising that began on January 25, 2011, was not aimed only at removing the regime of Hosni Mubarak, but also was an uprising against social inequality and Egypt’s dependence on the global economic system. The Egyptian revolution was not aimed solely at changing the rules of the political game in Egypt, but it had a socio-economic dimension that went beyond political reforms. This was clear from the first day of the uprising through slogans that emphasized the principle of social justice.
But I disagreed with him in his categorical rejection of the Islamic movement as a right-wing reaction backed by the United States. This vision disregards the deliberations within the Islamic camp and how the Islamic organizations themselves were influenced by the Arab spring. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt engaged after 2011 in a sharp debate about the shape of the movement and its future. They discussed controversial issues including the economic and social changes that were required after the revolution. Indeed, some members of the group have already split from the Muslim Brotherhood and established new political organizations, such as Abdel Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, who ran for president in 2012. After the election, he established the Strong Egypt Party that insists on adopting new socio-economic policies to ensure social justice.
Samir Amin believed that political Islam was just another face of untamed capitalism and that it was a reactionary force serving the interests of western capitalist powers, without understanding the different trends within the Islamist movement and their different positions toward socio-economic issues. This view led Amin to reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s elected administration in Egypt in 2012-3 and to welcome the military intervention to remove Muhammad Mursi as president of the republic. His views caused considerable controversy in the circles of the Egyptian left and among intellectuals.
While the Muslim Brotherhood leadership when in power indeed followed the same socio-economic policies of Mubarak, the free political environment after 2011 allowed for larger interaction between Islamist and leftist youth where socio-economic issues were deeply discussed. Amin neglected to examine this, and overlooked the effect the Arab spring had on the Islamic movement. He did not see the possibility of its evolving to meet the challenges that faced it.
Overall, though, his account of the inequalities built into the global economic system is as true as it ever was, fifty years after he first described it.
Georges Fahmi is an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and a research fellow at the Middle East Directions Program of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy.