Plantation Economy Model

views updated

Plantation Economy Model


The theory of plantation economy and society has been developed to explain the experience and evolution of societies subjected to European-controlled sugarcane production by an enslaved African labor force and later by indentured Asian laborers (mostly Indians). As the historian Philip Curtin observes, The plantation complex ultimately stretched from Rio Grande do Sul in south eastern Brazil to the Mason-Dixon line and it had outliers in the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion and Mauritius (Curtin 1998, p. xii).

The plantation economy model posits that plantation slavery and specialization in export of primary commodities has marked the evolution of the societies in which it existed. The plantation economy theorist Lloyd Best hypothesizes, The legacy of institutions, structures and behaviour patterns of the plantation system are so deeply entrenched that adjustment tends to take place as an adaptation within the bounds of the established framework (Best 1968, p. 32). The Caribbean economist Norman Girvan contends that the transnational corporation (TNC) is an institution that exists within the rules of the game of the plantation economy. He points out that the historic continuity of foreign ownership, terminal stage of production, limited domestic linkages, repatriation of profits, and persistence of the incal-culability of value flows with transfer pricing by TNCs are similar to slave plantationmetropole flows.

The plantation school is not fatalistic but perceives the need to understand the grip of the founding institution of the plantation in order to remove its stranglehold on the dynamic for change within the interstices of the system. The role of the Maroon, or runaway slave, culture of resistance and non-plantation production by the peasantry, for example, is central to transformation of the plantation economy. Plantation economies continue to reflect the historic legacy with plantation-type enterprises operating in primary, natural resource sectors, such as oil, gas, bauxite, bananas, sugar, and tourism. Nontraditional producing sectors compete with these export sectors and with import sectors. Fiscal, monetary, exchange rate, and industrial policy do not favor such nontraditional, residentiary-type activities. The term residentiary sector was developed by the plantation economy theorists to describe non-plantation production that sprang up after the end of slavery.

A subtext is the contribution of plantation economies to the industrial transformation of the slave-owning metropolitan countries themselves. Curtin notes that the Europeans who ran the (plantation) complex learned a great deal from the experiencein ocean shipping, tropical agriculture and economic management at a distance. All this is a part of the background of the industrial age (Curtin 1998, p. 204).

Plantation economy theory has become diffused in a range of courses offered at the University of the West Indies, including economics, sociology, and political science. Many economists incorporate plantation economy theory in an evolving theory of Caribbean economy and society. These economists include Michael Witter, Mark Figueroa, Claremont Kirton, Vanus James, and Dennis Pantin of the University of the West Indies and Eric St. Cyr. The plantation economy model differs from the Arthur Lewis model of transformation by its focus on the potential within residentiary sector peasant production. Lewis emphasizes dismantling the traditional sector and replacing it with a modern sector. Some adherents of the plantation economy share the Guyanese historian Walter Rodneys concept of the underdevelopment of both Africa and the Caribbean, while others, notably Lloyd Best, argue that Rodneys view is static and mechanistic in nature.

Critics of the plantation model include Adlith Brown and Havelock Brewster, who contend that the school has not produced a theory but rather a recounting of the history of the Caribbean. Trevor Sudama questions the historic accuracy of the model when applied to Trinidad and Tobago. Denis Benn, Thomas, and Pantin raise questions on the models method and theory.

SEE ALSO Lewis, W. Arthur


Beckford, George. 1972. Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Benn, Denis. 1974. The Theory of Plantation Economy and Society: A Methodological Critique. Journal Of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 12 (3): 249260.

Best, Lloyd. 1968. Outlines of a Model of the Pure Plantation Economy. Social and Economic Studies 17 (3): 283323.

Best, Lloyd, and Kari Levitt. 1968. Externally Propelled Industrialisation and Growth in the Caribbean. 4 vols. Mimeo. Montreal: McGill Centre for Developing Area Studies.

Brown, Adlith, and Havelock Brewster. 1974. A Review of the Study of Economics in the English-Speaking Caribbean. Social and Economic Studies 23 (1): 4868.

Curtin, Philip D. 1998. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Girvan, Norman. 1971. Making the Rules of the Game: Country-Company Agreements in the Bauxite Industry. Social and Economic Studies 20 (4): 378419.

Pantin, Dennis. 1980. The Plantation Economy Model and the Caribbean. IDS Bulletin 12 (1): 1980: 1723.

Williams, Eric. 1964. Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.

Dennis A. Pantin