Resource Scarcity and Dictatorship

Review: Baofu on Barkstrom

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 (January 2003).


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.


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.

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