AmWest Post #6: The West as (Latin) America

In his first chapter of Colony and Empire, William Robbins references the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s controversial West as America exhibition from 1991. As I read the book, however, I couldn’t help but to think that he was arguing for the U.S. West not as America (meaning the United States) but, in some ways, as Latin America.

The reason: I had flashbacks to a year ago, when I took my minor field readings on “Latin America and the World” with Dr. Joan C. Bristol. As the course progressed (blog posts here), we kept discussing world systems theory and dependency theory, both of which–whether in agreement, disagreement, or qualification–were present in some form or another through the set of readings. For me to gain a better understanding, we agreed that I should also read origin works: a basic primer by Immanuel Wallerstein on world systems theory (blog post here), and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (later president of Brazil) and Enzo Faletto on dependency theory (blog post here).

So based on this experience, it was really fascinating for me to read Colony and Empire. This book convincingly applies these modes of analysis to the history of the U.S. West–and, more than any other work we’ve read so far, not only places the U.S. West in the wider sweep of U.S. history but even in global history.

The origins of world systems theory and its later Latin America-specific variant, dependency theory, correlate to trends in U.S. West historiography–specifically the turn away from Frederick Jackson Turner.

Both world systems theory and dependency theory emerged as counterpoints to modernization theory, which was dominant in the years after World War II. This argued, at its simplest, that societies move through various stages of economic development in a particular, evolutionary manner. One could argue that this mode of thinking underlays much international development work today, and is even prevalent in, for example, analysis of the rise of countries like China–showing them going through the same phases of industrialization that the West did.

By contrast, to over-simplify two extremely complex and tough to decipher modes of analysis, world systems theory and, specifically, dependency theory counter that development and underdevelopment take place simultaneously and, in fact, depend on each other. Core areas–to use the term that Robbins borrows from world systems theory–depend on the underdevelopment of the peripheries from which they extract resources. Thus, areas within particular world-systems aren’t underdeveloped and poor because they are at an earlier stage of evolution. They are underdeveloped and poor because of the roles they serve in the wider economy, whether it be regional, national, or global.

Like about anyone else we’ve read in this class, Robbins takes on Turner, showing both the continuity of change in the U.S. West and the artificiality of his 1890 breaking point (echoing Limerick), and refuting Turner’s notion of independent people, not so tied to the broader country and the world, moving West and being transformed by that experience into individualistic-yet-communal yeomen.

For this post, I’d like to take the critique of Turner a step further and suggest that, for Robbins, Turner represents what modernization theory did for world systems and dependency theorists: an idea of sequential progress and stages.

Turnerian Western history has often focused on the idea of stages of development of the frontier; one book that encapsulates and best demonstrates this notion is William C. Davis’s Three Roads to the Alamo, which argues that David Crockett (frontiersman), James Bowie (unscrupulous merchant), and William B. Travis (town-dwelling attorney) represented three stages of frontier development.

By contrast, Robbins argues that U.S. industrial development in large measure occurred because of Western expansion, with the opening and incorporation of resource bases, new hinterlands (to follow along, as Robbins does, with Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, this week’s other reading) to development.

So, in this way, Robbins brings the U.S. West not just into the mainstream of U.S. history but global history. Essentially, he argues that the U.S. West served a role in the U.S. economy that Latin America served in the global economy: as a producer of commodities to be extracted for the profit of core areas.

I’ll buy that, with qualifications. One of the critiques of dependency and world-systems theories is that they leave little room for individual agency (a counter to that would be Gramsci’s notions of hegemony, arguing that people acted within specific bounds, even mental bounds, set by the wider system). World systems and dependency theories attempt to get at the overall picture, but often leave little room for individual motivations without a material basis.

Also, some of Robbins’s analysis of what capitalism is and isn’t might be (I’m not versed enough to say more definitively) outdated in light of other recent historiography on two regions he includes: the U.S. South and the Mexican North/U.S. Southwest. Recent historiography on the U.S. South has argued that region was much more entwined with the wider U.S. and global economies than Robbins’s chapter 8 suggests. Indeed, my understanding of U.S. South historiography (I’m not a Southern historian, so please correct me if I’m wrong) is saying that plantations were not feudal but rather industrial arrangements. Similarly, recent work, most notably by John Tutino, suggests that an early form of capitalism–with its own differences–existed in Spanish North America, a region that includes the present-day U.S. Southwest. Thus, the U.S. conquest in 1848 did not so much bring capitalism, as Robbins suggests in chapter 2, as continue a form that already existed (and incorporate it into the broader U.S. economy).

Those qualifications aside, though, I found this book overall convincing, at least in its broad analysis–perhaps more so because of what I read in the Latin America and the World minor field readings. Yes, world systems and dependency theories do leave out a lot and certainly can’t explain everything. As Robbins acknowledges, certain places can be core and periphery, and those categories are far from neat. But all in all, this book helps to place the U.S. West in the wider sweep of both U.S. and global history, and for that, we should applaud it.


This week I commented on Nick’s primary source blog post.

2 Thoughts to “AmWest Post #6: The West as (Latin) America”

  1. Benjamin

    I am actually taking HIST616 with Prof. Bristol this semester. This is a commodities course with a focus on Latin America. I, too, noticed parallels between what we have been discussing in that course and the theme of Robbins’ book.

    For instance, in the lifespan of several of the commodities we’ve looked at–for example sugar (Mintz), Chocolate (Coe), cochineal dye (Greenfield), et al.–some commonalities emerge in how societies respond politically and economically to the rise of these commodities. Something that happens pretty much across the board is the sanctioning and protection of monopolies that deal in the acquisition and sale of these commodities. I noticed that in Robbins’ West, he talks about a similar phenomenon taking place with the formation and rise of GL&I and Anaconda around mining interests.

  2. […] first concept is “world-system.” As we discussed in relation to Robbins’s Colony and Empire, Immanuel Wallerstein gave us the concept of […]

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