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Modernisation Theory vs Stratified Democracy

Updated: 10 January 2017

It’s rather astounding that, nearly 60 years after Walt Rostow (1960) published ‘The Stages of Economic Growth: a Non-Communist Manifesto’, how much Rostow’s ideas – Modernisation Theory – still shape Western foreign policy – and the United States’ attitudes in particular. In those nearly 60 years that have seen, first, the end of the European empires and, then, the demise of Communism as a political and economic alternative to Capitalism, Rostow’s ideas have almost universally failed to deliver the wealth and prosperity to the developing nations that they promised. Large parts of the world in which Rostow’s ideas have been applied – ‘Black Africa’, in particular – are mired in poverty and debt…and all too often internecine warfare – with the attempts to implement Modernisation Theory a major causal factor. Not only that but, astonishingly, Rostow’s ideas underpin the Americans’ lack of understanding and application of inappropriate intervention strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan and their wholly-misguided approach to the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, with all the bloody consequences that have entailed during the early years of the 21st Century.

Rostow’s ideas have been heavily criticised from Marxist perspectives, most notably Andre Gunder Frank’s Dependency Theory (1971) and Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory (1979) – though these criticisms are largely based on political and/or economic dogma. Interestingly, 2 of the emerging economic giants of the early 21st Century, India and China, are conspicuous by at least a considerable avoidance of Rostow’s ideas!

The aims of this feature are to critique Rostow from the perspectives of both Marxism and Integrated Sociopsychology and to consider the potential of an alternative pattern for social, economic and political development in Don Beck’s concept of Stratified Democracy (2000b), first presented in a lecture to Mikhail Gorbachev’s State of the World Forum in 2000.

Modernisation Theory
The post-Cold War global theorist Samuel Huntington (1993) describes Modernisation Theory as an evolutionary process that brings about revolutionary change.

Theoretically, it has 2 key aims:-

  1. To explain why poorer countries have failed to develop by focusing on the process of development and postulate how traditional societies could evolve into modern developed societies
  2. To put forward an explicitly non-Communist solution to poverty in the developing world by proposing that economic change (in the form of Capitalism) and cultural change could play a critical role in bringing about modernisation

It is perhaps ironic that Rostow essentially follows the view of Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (1848) that politics and social relations are driven by economics – ie: economic determinism. However, under Rostow’s agenda, adherence to the political principles of Democracy is tied in with and partly the result of developing a Capitalist economy to escape the socio-economic state of poverty. Stratified Democracy takes a  very different approach, seeing cultural mindsets as the key drivers for politics, economics and social relations.

Modernisation Theory has its roots in the period shortly after World War II. The old European empires were falling apart in Asia, Black Africa and the Middle East and the emergent new nations were often struggling in dire poverty. At the same time Soviet Communism became entrenched in Eastern Europe while Chinese-affiliated Communist movements were spreading aggressively across South-East Asia. While the Communist International as an organisation had been dissolved in 1943, a victim of the Soviet Union’s need to ally with the Capitalist West to defeat Nazi Germany, post-war the drive to spread Communism around the world resumed rapidly and with much greater force. This was facilitated by Communists having been key fighters in the resistance movements against the German and Japanese invaders. While Communists in Eastern Europe welcomed the Red Army into their cities, out in the colonies the Communists supported the ‘liberation movements’ in their efforts to free themselves from their European colonial masters. As the colonies became independent throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Communists gained ground in many of these new nations, partly through indigenous Communists having been heavily involved in the liberation movements and partly through aid intervention from the Soviet Union and Communist China. Aid intervention paved the way for political intervention. Thus, the international spread of Communism was perceived as an existential threat to Capitalism – especially by the United States. Consequentially, the world was increasingly a ‘cold war’ battleground between Western Capitalists and the Communist blocs – which sometimes spilled over into a ‘hot bush war’ – most notably, Korea and Vietnam.

National Security Adviser Walt Rostow showing President Lyndon B Johnson a model of a battle near Khe Sanh in Vietnam (Photo copyright ©1968 US Archive)

Walt Rostow was a staunch anti-Communist, a sometime White House adviser and a strong supporter of the American military involvement in Vietnam. As noted by Philip McMichael (2011), he saw the United States’ trade interests, economic growth and political domination being threatened by the ‘disease’ of Communism spreading throughout the ‘developing world’. His thinking, like much of the leadership of the Western world at the time, appears to have been dominated by a BLUE/orange vMEME harmonic, with the simplistic memetic presumption that Capitalism was ‘right’ and Communism was ‘wrong’

Rostow suggested that the emergent nations could, through a 5-stage process, become wealthy consumerist societies in the mould of ‘First World’ Capitalist countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. John McKay (2004) called this a ‘beguiling promise’ because this path to wealth was supposedly flawless, no matter how poor the developing nation’s starting point.

The idea of societies developing  predictably from one simplistic stage, Pre-Modernity, to a more complex stage, Modernity, had first been proposed by Émile Durkheim (1893) who saw traditional societies as organised around ‘mechanical solidarity’ (shared beliefs, common occupational roles and a strong sense of community) evolving into more complex societies organised around ‘organic solidarity’ (beliefs less likely to be shared, more specialist roles and individuation replacing community.) In this Durkheim was reflecting Ferdinand Tonnies (1887) who distinguished between two types of social groupings. Gemeinschaft often  translated as ‘community’ – refers to groupings based on feelings of togetherness and on mutual bonds, which are felt as a goal to be kept up, their members being the means for this goal. Gesellschaft often translated as ‘society’ – on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by the group being instrumental for their members’ individual aims and goals.

Rostow’s 5 stages
Rostow argued that developments should be seen as an evolutionary process in which ‘less developed countries’ progress up a ‘development ladder’ through 5 stages.

Graphic copyright © 2001 Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd

The economies of traditional societies are dominated by subsistence farming: they grow crops to survive, with little concept of selling to others to make ‘profit’. They have little to invest and, therefore, have limited access to science and technology. These are societies which have pre-Newtonian, pre-scientific understandings of the world and believe that gods or spirits facilitate the growth of crops and the successful making of buildings and goods, rather than man and his own ingenuity. Consequently industrialisation is basic or non-existent. The norms of economic growth are completely absent from these societies.

Rostow’s model states that countries may need to depend on a few raw material exports to finance the development of manufacturing sectors which are not yet of superior competitiveness in the early stages of ‘take-off’.

The Transitional Stage sees the preconditions for take-off develop which are, according to Rostow, that the society:-

  • begins committing itself to secular education
  • enables a degree of capital mobilisation, especially through the establishment of banks and currency
  • facilitates the formation of an entrepreneurial class
  • allows the development of  a secular concept of manufacturing – though usually with only a few sectors developing at this point – and a growing division of labour
  • undertakes revolutionary developments in agriculture that allow the growing urban population to be fed without the usual cycle of famine

A number of Modernisation theorists, including Rostow, have argued that traditional societies need to encourage Western companies to invest in building factories and infrastructure and training the local population in technical skills. Additionally, official aid programmes could supplement this process by paying for Western technical expertise and specialist equipment, as could borrowing from the World Bank and commercial banks. The Modernists argue that the wages paid to the local labour force would ‘trickle down’ and stimulate the local economy by creating a demand for manufactured goods as living standards start to rise. It should be noted here that Péter Tamás Bauer (1981) counters this assertion by pointing out that aid – when not siphoned off by the elites – often brings down local prices, making it difficult for local producers to get a fair price for their products.

Take-off then occurs when sector-led growth becomes common and society is driven more by economic processes than traditions. At this point, the norms of economic growth become well established. Eg: profit is reinvested in new technology and infrastructure and an entrepreneurial urbanised middle class emerges. A key factor in this take-off is the emergence of the ORANGE vMEME in the cultural mindset with enough future-oriented thinking to see the benefits of investing in or starting businesses. In discussing the take-off, Rostow is a noted early adopter of the term ‘transition’, used to describe the passage of a traditional to a modern economy. After take-off, a country will take as long as 50 to 100 years to reach maturity. (In the West, this stage occurred during the Industrial Revolution.)

The requirements of take-off are the following 2 related but necessary conditions:-

  1. A rise in the rate of productive investment from approximately 5% or less to over 10% of national income or net national product
  2. The development of one or more substantial manufacturing sectors with a high rate of growth – Rostow regards the development of leading sectors as the ‘analytical bone structure’ of the stages of economic growth.

McKay comments on the terminology: “…the image of take-off is particularly evocative, full of power and hope as the nation is able to launch itself into a bright new future.”

After take-off there follows a long interval of sustained, if fluctuating, progress as the now regularly-growing economy drives to extend modern technology over the whole front of its economic activity. Some 10-20% of the national income is steadily invested, permitting output regularly to outstrip the increase in population. The make-up of the economy changes unceasingly as techniques improve, new industries accelerate and older industries level off. The economy finds its place in the international economy: goods formerly imported are produced at home; new import requirements develop and commodities are exported to match them. The society makes such terms as it will with the requirements of modern efficient production, balancing off the new against the older institutions, or revising the latter in such ways as to support rather than to retard the growth process. This Drive to Maturity refers to the need for the economy itself to diversify. This diversity leads to greatly reduced rates of poverty and rising standards of living, as the society no longer needs to sacrifice its comfort in order to strengthen certain sectors. Birth control is common and education widespread, in part at least financed by export earnings. The mass media – news papers, radio, television – become accessible to the majority and the means of disseminating information quickly goes hand-in-hand with rising literacy rates.

The Age of High Mass Consumption refers to the period of contemporary comfort afforded many Western nations, wherein consumers concentrate on durable goods and barely remember the subsistence concerns of previous stages. In the Age of High Mass Consumption, the majority of people live in urban rather than rural areas and work in offices or have skilled factory jobs. Life expectancy is high and citizens enjoy a comfortable lifestyle based on conspicuous consumption. Such a society is able to choose between concentrating on military and security issues, on equality and welfare issues, or on developing greater luxuries for its upper classes and middle classes. Each country in this position chooses its own balance between these 3 goals.

Cultural obstacles to Modernisation
For all that American aid was distributed on the principles of Modernisation Theory in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the developing word remained in real poverty, especially Africa and South Asia. Many of these societies failed to progress beyond the traditional stage, in spite of huge injections of Western aid.

Talcott Parsons (1964) identified that the kind of values inherent in traditional societies was the greatest obstacle to development as envisaged by Rostow. People with such values were perceived to be committed to customs, rituals and practices based on the past and, consequently, were often fatalistic about the future – What will be will be. Alex Inkeles (1969) noted that such people are resistant to social change and unwilling to adjust to ‘modern’ ideas and practices. Parsons was especially critical of the extended kinship systems found in many traditional societies, arguing that these hinder geographical mobility which he saw as essential if a society was to industrialise quickly and effectively. Such societies also encourage ascription, particularism, patriarchyfatalism and collectivism, all of which undermine Modernity by discouraging individual initiative, achievement and, therefore, social change. Thus, despite being exposed to Capitalism and rational/scientific ways of thinking – not least through colonialism – there is an in-built resistance to change in the traditional society.

For the Modernisation theorists, values such as universalism, individualism, competition, achievement and meritocracy, measured by examinations and qualifications, are seen as essential to the development of an efficient, motivated and geographically mobile factory workforce and ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. Parsons argued that political systems based on tribe/clan, caste or religion should be replaced by democratic political systems.

Parsons is, of course, entirely correct in targeting traditional values which are rooted in PURPLE. This vMEME finds safety in belonging to its tribe and the tribal (or village) territory assumes a semi-sacred character. It is deeply conservative and resistant to change. Looking at the problem from 4Q/8L, what the modernisers are trying to do is develop a Lower Right structure based on BLUE and ORANGE ways of thinking but the culture (Lower Left) of the traditional society is rooted in PURPLE. Thus, there is a complete values mismatch between the modernisers and the traditionalists, with the traditionalists finding little, if any, value in the BLUE/ORANGE structures being created in the Lower Right.

Coming from a BLUE/orange vMEME harmonic, Bert Hoselitz (1964) argued for the introduction of meritocratic education, paid for by Western aid and borrowing, as a way of inculcating the upcoming generations with the Western values necessary for Modernisation Theory to work. Inkeles championed the mass media as a critical agent in disseminating ideas about the need for geographical mobility, nuclear-family units, family planning, secular beliefs and practices, and the adoption of the democratic process. From a slightly different angle, Daniel Lerner (1958), many of whose concepts Rostow borrowed in building Modernisation Theory, supports the notion of the children of political elites in developing countries being educated in Western schools, universities and military academies so that they could disseminate Western values to their populations when they became leaders.

Hoselitz also argued that urbanisation should be encouraged in the developing world because:-

  • It is easier to spread Western ideas amongst a concentrated city population than a thinly dispersed rural population
  • In the city the individual is free from the tradition-derived obligations and constraints found in rural areas
  • Cities have a cultural effect on the rest of society – Malcolm Cross (1979) states “…the city is the key entry point for Western values and ideas to undeveloped societies; the city is the nucleus for the cultural penetration of the modernising society.”

David McClelland (1961) suggests some absorption of Western Capitalist values will come about anyway, simply through trade, cultural exchange and commerce. Modernisation theorists argue that such factors will lead to the emergence of an entrepreneurial middle class who believe in change and taking risks in order to progress. There is evidence that this is happening slowly as a key effect of globalisation. There is also evidence of a growing trend towards individualism – see: Is Collectivism being overtaken by Individualism?

Nonetheless, progress in this direction is hampered by the values mismatch 4/8L identifies. As J Timmons Roberts & Amy Hite (2000) point out: “In a traditional society the entrepreneur is a social deviant because he is doing new and different; in a modern society change is routine, innovation is valued, and the entrepreneur esteemed.”

This values mismatch, according to Arturo Escobar (2008), leads Western societies to be dismissive of the importance of ancient philosophies that have influenced the lives of two-thirds of the world’s population for thousands of years. The BLUE/ORANGE scientific rationalism of Modernity treats the Pre-Modernity of traditional societies as nonsense and justifies undermining them. One unfortunate application of this, McKay argues, is that modernisation strategists often don’t consult local people and downgrade their local knowledge, skills and initatives.

The role of Western  actors in development – from transnational corporations to banks to the World Trade Organisation to aid agencies like Oxfam – is highly controversial; but, as Stan Burkey (1993) argues: “…the poor are seldom able to initiate a self-reliant development programme without outside stimulation. An external agent must therefore be the catalyst.”

It should be noted that the very idea that culture is at the root of the failure of traditional societies to engage with the modernisation process has been challenged by Ronald Inglehart & Wayne Baker (2000) who studied 61 pre-industrial societies. They found all the cultural characteristics in place that Parsons objected to but their data suggested these might be the result of economic insecurity and low material well-being, rather than the cause  of it. Since PURPLE is motivated to belong by fear, the kind of insecurities Inglehart & Baker point to, will only strengthen PURPLE’s resolve to find security by belonging even more intensely to the tribe (village) and adhering to traditional values. If PURPLE safety needs continue not to be met, then RED may well come to dominate in the cultural vMEME stack – but in a rather unhealthy way producing instability, chaos and making the ‘sufferers’ vulnerable to radicalisation of whatever kind that can promise certainty.

For Jeffrey Sachs (2005), the failure of many countries to ‘develop’ is because a billion people in the developing world are too malnourished, hungry, diseased or young. Their primary motivation is driven by BEIGE: simple survival. Maggie Black (2002) credits Modernisation Theory and the difficulties in implementing it with raising public awareness in the West of great poverty in the developing world and stimulating GREEN compassion, resulting in the emergence of popular movements like Make Poverty History.

Dependency Theory
Marxists argue that the application of Modernisation Theory traps ‘Third World’ countries into a kind of economic servitude to the core of North American and Western European Capitalist nations, producing key cash crops cheaply for the benefit of Western consumers and being exploited by having to import lower grade Western technology at high prices. The huge amount of Western finance pumped into developing nations as a requirement of Stages 2 and 3 – some of it as aid but a lot of it the form of loans – is blamed for the massive debt crises crippling the Third World, particularly Black Africa. McKay  notes that the rules of global trade are rigged in favour of Western businesses and banks. The governments of developed countries have the power to erect trade barriers, by imposing tariffs and quotas, to prevent developing countries competing with their own industries. Wolfgang Sachs, Reinhard Loske & Manfred Linz (1998) assert that the rules favouring of the Western economies in the agreements created via the World Trade Organisation are structurally embedded.

Modernisation Theory has been heavily criticised as a mask for Western propaganda and American economic and cultural imperialism. Cross points out that Inkeles’ ‘modern man’ is essentially an individualised version of the ‘American Dream’. Modernisation Theory ignores any argument that development needs to be culture-specific – in other words, it should be adapted to the particular needs of the particular society.  Raff Carmen (1996) posits that Modernisation is a ‘Trojan horse’ because acculturation – taking over the indigenous culture – is “at the heart of the development business”. Blaming the failure of Modernisation Theory on the culture and values of the developing world leads those peoples to internalise the view that they are the problem – incapable and incompetent. Carmen considers this demeaning and dehumanising. Thomas Sankara (1988) sees this memetic infection as ‘colonisation of the mind’, leading to these countries seeing direction from the West as essential if they want to escape poverty. Eduardo Galeano (1992) sums it up as: “They train you to be paralysed, then they sell you crutches.”

As discussed in connection with Inglehart & Baker’s findings, becoming ‘unsafe’ in your own collectivistic PURPLE values is more likely to produce a retrenchment into tribalism…and, if that doesn’t work, dysfunctional RED is likely to emerge. Which may explain in part why regions like Black Africa and South America have been so vulnerable to revolutionary movements (whether hard left or hard right) and, latterly, Islamist extremism.

Andre Gunder Frank (1971) created Dependency Theory as a specific theoretical critique of Modernisation Theory. He argued that developing countries cannot develop as Modernisation Theory states they should , not because of their own inadequacies but because the developed West has deliberately and systematically ‘underdeveloped’ them, leaving them in a state of dependency.

Frank picked up on work that had been going on by a number of Marxists and neo-Marxists studying Latin America since the 1930s and came to the conclusion that, while these countries were politically independent, they were economically dependent on the industrial societies of the West. However, in using the phrase ‘the development of underdeveleopment’, Frank went much further than his predecessors. For there to be rich nations, poor nations had to be kept poor. He saw Walt Rostow’s 5-stage theory of modernisation as ‘academic fog’ behind which a process of domination and exploitation took place, as rigid and destructive as that of the 19th Century under imperial and colonial expansion.

Frank argued that, since the 16th Century, there has grown a ‘world capitalist system’, an interlocking chain consisting of the ‘metropolis’ or ‘core’ of the developed world which benefits from the economic surplus of the ‘satellite’ or ‘peripheral’ countries. The latter “…have low wages, enforced by coercive regimes that undermine independent labour unions and social movements. The metropolis exploit them for cheap labour, cheap minerals and fertile tropical soils” (Frank, 1971, p12).

In Frank’s view, development of the core (Western cities) is at the expense of the underdevelopment of the rural periphery. Frank’s views are often portrayed over-simplistically as dividing the world simply into core and periphery; but, in fact, he actually saw it as more complex than that, with the cities of the peripheral countries part of a gigantic supply chain of exploitation, sucking in men and raw materials from the desperately poor rural areas. Frank’s typical supply chain of exploitation is represented in the schematic below….

Aidan Foster-Carter (1985) describes the ultimate satellite is a landless rural labourer who has nothing and no one to exploit and is probably female.

The concept of ‘dependency’ has been criticised as imprecise and, therefore,  difficult to operationalise and measure. Gunnar Myrdal (1968) did attempt to balance the amount of investment put into the developing world and the amount of profit taken out. However, most global sociologists accept that this too crude a method to accurately measure dependency, exploitation and subordination.

Similarly Frank’s criteria for categorising particular societies as ‘core’ or ‘periphery’ are not always clear. Plus, it has been suggested he was being over-simplistic. Eg: Canada and Tawain are satellites of the USA in that they are heavily dependent on American trade. However, the relationships are not usually considered exploitative. The American economy needs positive trading relationships with both Canada and Taiwan.