Share on Delicious
Share on Digg
Share on Facebook
Share on Stumble Upon
Share on Twitter
Share on Google Bookmarks

If you have enjoyed these pages or found them useful, you may like to donate. Even the smallest donation helps with the site’s running costs.

Stratified Democracy
Modernisation Theory

Updated: 20 June 2014

It’s rather astounding that, more than 50 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 more than 50 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. Not only that but, astonishingly, Rostow’s ideas underpin the Americans’ lack of understanding and application of inappropriate strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the bloody consequences that have entailed during the early years of the 21st Century.


Rostow’s ideas have been heavily criticised from a Marxist perspective, most notably Andre Gunder Frank’s Dependency Theory (1971) and Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory (1979) - though these criticisms are largely political and/or economic in nature. (Interestingly, 2 of the emerging economic giants of the early 21st Century, India and China, are conspicuous by at least a partial 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:-

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 was entrenched in Eastern Europe while Chinese-affiliated Communist movements were spreading aggressively across South-East Asia. 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). The Communists supported the ‘liberation movements’ in those colonies still to free themselves from the Europeans and, through political and sometimes aid interventions, gained much ground in many of the new nations.

Graphic copyright © 2001 Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd

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. Addtionally, 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 class emerges. In discussing the take-off, Rostow is a noted early adopter of the term ‘transition’, which is 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:-


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 technique improves, 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. The sectors of the economy which lead initially begin to level off, while other sectors begin to take off. 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 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 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, patriarchy, fatalism 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 basis, 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 and political elites of 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:-

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.”

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.

National Security Adviser Walt Rostow showing  President Lyndon 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. 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 through predictable stages to Modernity had first been proposed by Émile Durkheim(1893) who saw traditional societies organised around ‘mechanical solidarity’ (shared beliefs, 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 means for this goal. Gesellschaft - often translated as ‘society’ - on the other hand, refers to groups that are sustained by it 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.

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 economies of traditional societies are dominated by subsistence farming. 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 gadgets and believe that gods or spirits facilitate the procurement of 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.

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