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The Postcolonial State

From Structural Functionalism To Marxist Structuralism

In the early days of independence, the individualistic approach of authors who singled out the performance of those in positions of power earned them the label of "leadership theorists." Leadership was essentially viewed as a means for achieving "order." Such writers shared much in common with the "nation-building" school of American structural functionalism, where "nation" was very often equated with "state." This literature was more concerned with the possibilities of statehood and the development of political institutions in the new states than with the constraints on institutional development, the latter being of greater interest to Marxists. The chief merit of leadership approaches is the emphasis on the created aspects of state formation and the efforts of individuals with a degree of control over their political life and environment. Critics (see Stark) point out, however, that the analysis tends to foster philosophical idealism and does not take enough account of the relationship between ideology and social action.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the underdevelopment paradigm became very influential in efforts to explain the economies and modes of rule that decolonizing nations were constructing. Underdevelopment theorists were concerned with the economic dependency of postcolonial states in the context of international capitalism as well as the relative autonomy of the postcolonial state from social classes. The theoretical model drew on the dichotomy between base and superstructure that characterized Marxist structuralism, but the focus was on trade rather than production. Several authors (see Ollawa) have pointed out that the developmental experiences of decolonizing countries highlight the centrality of the postcolonial state in structuring the necessary conditions for continued capital accumulation and regulating the allocation of surplus among different social categories.

In an influential essay on Pakistan and Bangladesh, "The State in Post-Colonial Societies—Pakistan and Bangladesh" (1972), Hamza Alavi posited that the postcolonial state was "over-developed" due to its foreign creation. It was consequently particularly powerful compared to the leading agrarian and industrial classes, the latter being "under-developed." The idea of the relative autonomy of the state was proposed because of the independent material base of the bureaucratic-military oligarchy and its relative autonomy from the other propertied classes. Critics of Alavi's position point to the idea of the state being reduced to a handful of bureaucrats and military officers in his analysis. Understanding the limitations placed on the state's responses to pressures from hegemonic interests requires a closer examination of the state, in relation to its constituent parts and in relation to the international environment, and a more comprehensive view of classes.

Alavi's 1972 essay sparked off considerable debate amongst Marxist Africanists. This included John Saul's emphasis on ideology, which he said was neglected in Alavi's analysis, but was necessary for the state's function of holding together the capitalist system. Colin Leys responded by reasserting the importance of class as the basis of analysis of the state, and others responded in a similar vein. Many Marxists are of the view that patterns of belief can bind the state together and, drawing on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), have attempted to conceptualize anew the role of elites and their ideologies, in the complex economic relationships of the postcolonial state.

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