Facing the Facts: Is Phillip Berryman Losing Faith in Liberation Theology?

Partisans of liberation theology have accepted Phillip Berryman’s Liberation Theology (Pantheon, 1987) as a strong statement of their own beliefs. Yet in that book Berryman makes a crucial admission. He writes of liberation theologians: “If their social theory is fundamentally wrong, their whole enterprise is in jeopardy.”

The liberation theologians did not develop this social theory themselves, Berryman says, and they “spend little time defending” it. They more or less accept uncritically the conventional views “widely accepted by Latin American intellectuals.” They view their task as theologians, he says, as merely developing “the theological and pastoral implications of this position.”

But in this tack they run a great risk. “Theological and pastoral implications” drawn from erroneous assumptions are likely to defeat their own ends. Liberation theologians say they want to liberate the poor, but flawed understandings of economic and political realities may injure the poor most of all.

Those who seek a just view of liberation theology must scrutinize its basic premise, the “social theory” it borrows without examination. The weaknesses of that theory have become apparent even to defenders of liberation theology. Berryman, for example, makes many concessions to libation theology’s critics. And on the points where he struggles not to give ground, Berryman is usually reduced to vague abstractions with little or no empirical evidence. (In his brief, vigorous defense of Cuba, he does finally attempt an empirical refutation of socialism’s critics. The weaknesses in this defense — not least, Berryman’s credulous reliance on official Cuban statistics — require a separate article.) Berryman’s book, now celebrated by many as a grand affirmation, may in retrospect come to be seen as a landmark in the retreat from socialism. This retreat is nowhere more evident today than in countries such as China and the Soviet Union, where socialist experiments have languished for decades.

Berryman first brings up a crucial charge against liberation theologians, i.e., that they err “when they assume that the wealth of others is the result of their own poverty.” In a stunning concession, he replies:

There is an element of truth in this critique. One sometimes has the impression that Latin Americans believe that North American and European prosperity rests primarily on their exploitation of the Third World — as though the United States had developed nuclear weapons out of Central American bananas or space programs out of Peruvian fish meal. The prosperity of the advanced capitalist countries is due primarily to their own innovation and ever growing productivity since the onset of the industrial revolution in the middle of the eighteenth century.

In these strong words Berryman lays to rest the claim that originally inspired liberation theology. The rich nations did not grow rich by impoverishing the poor nations.

Berryman implicitly makes further concessions when he tries to lighten this blow to liberation theology’s social theory. While speaking of the harmful effects of colonialism on Latin America, he omits the fact that Canada and the United States were also colonies, for virtually as long a time. Berryman thus suggests the significance of the cultural role of Spain and Portugal in the economic history of Latin America.

As Berryman describes how this specific colonialism “misshaped” Latin American economies, he quietly adopts two distinctions crucial to the critics of liberation theology. Before and after gaining independence, Latin American economies were based on the export of raw materials. “The [colonial] United States, by contrast, was a society of small farmers, craft workers, and tradespeople — except in the South, where a similar plantation system was destroyed only by the Civil War.”

The prosperous United States, in other words, was capitalist (except for the South), while Latin America was feudal, or pre-capitalist. This distinction contradicts the liberation theologians’ charge that Latin American nations suffered because they were, and are, “capitalist.” Berryman clearly recognizes that they are not. Note also that Berryman explicitly accepts the point first made by Joseph Ramos, that the antebellum South, with its large plantations, closely resembled Latin America in its feudal order.

Berryman’s account also distinguishes between capitalist wealth production and pre-capitalist stagnation. According to Berryman, under small-scale capitalism, wealth in the United States did not “trickle down,” it bubbled up from intense economic activism at the bottom. Latin America’s mercantile feudalism, on the other hand, produced stagnation and impoverishment from the top down. Berryman makes only a feeble attempt to defend the Latin American habit of blaming others for one’s own failures. “Latin Americans argue that [their] underdevelopment is structural,” he writes. The ” ‘international division of labor’ maintained by corporations of the capitalist world and their governments and elites” distorts Latin American economies and prevents Latin Americans from organizing “their economies to meet the basic needs of the people.”

This is a prodigious assertion. Lenin invented it in an attempt to explain the Western world’s failure to deteriorate as Marx predicted. Berryman advances none of the hard evidence such a sweeping charge requires, perhaps because he has difficulty maintaining his faith in it. He is reduced to admitting flatly that, on the one hand, Latin America’s “dependence” is not “the primary factory explaining the prosperity of the industrialized nations.”

On the other hand, he still wishes to maintain that expanded trade with “capitalist” countries has somehow caused “structural” dependency in Latin America. But why, then, has expanded trade with the “capitalist center” by other developing nations — such as Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and South Korea — not prevented their dramatic development? Berryman explicitly notes this objection. It weighs heavily on him, for he feels compelled to offer several brief points in refutation. In the light of his earlier concessions, his arguments appear especially weak.

He objects to comparisons of Asian Rim and Latin American countries on several grounds. First, Japan closed its borders to the West “until its own industrialization was under way. By early in this century it was an industrialized country….” Berryman here ignores an important point. “Made in Japan” once meant inferior goods; only as the Japanese mastered invention and high-tech workmanship did Japan conquer new markets, once closed to it. Moreover, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the other countries mentioned earlier have only recently become industrialized. Clearly, the East Asians have learned two secrets the Latin Americans have not: the importance of an order consciously designed to encourage economic activism, wedded to a culture that honors invention. Earlier Berryman noted that cultural factors play an important role in development, but in order to defend liberation theology he now ignores these factors.

Japan’s postwar recovery, Berryman complains, “was similar to that of Europe’s and is not directly applicable to the Third World.” Berryman offers no elaboration of this mystifying point. Japan and Western Europe did recover from physical destruction and social upheaval far graver than anything Latin America has suffered, and both quickly rivaled the United States in economic prowess. What could possibly account for this astonishing rebound other than a traditional cultural respect for economic activism, for “human capital,” and for the “capitalist” ordering of postwar regimes set in place by such far-sighted, practical statesmen as Ludwig Erhard of West Germany? The same sort of economic order in other Asian countries, culturally reinforced, has produced similarly rapid development. Why shouldn’t Latin America experiment with such an order?

Since South Korea and others have adapted the “Japanese way with considerable success, it is not at all clear what could justify Berryman’s opinion that Asia’s postwar success stories are “not directly applicable to the Third World.” Why not? No country in Latin America was as poor in 1945 as South Korea or Taiwan. Berryman protests that “in Japan and Taiwan, moreover, an imposed land reform sped up capitalist industrialization.” This is yet another concession to the democratic capitalist argument. Respect for property ownership, especially among the poor, is essential to democratic capitalism. Again Berryman has tacitly assumed that production from the bottom up is the key to development under capitalism. Democratic capitalists advocate similar land reforms in Latin America for that very reason.

Berryman’s third objection to the Asian Rim model is a mixture of admiration and resignation:

Without gainsaying the entrepreneurial ability, ingenuity, and thrift in … [these countries], the fact is that all these are cases of enclave economies, primarily export platforms that supply cheap labor at particular stages of internationalized production processes. In some cases local entrepreneurs have extended the process — e.g., in Korea, which now has its own automobile industry. Nevertheless, such a model is of very limited applicability. In the mid-1980s there is little evidence that the world economy has room for many more Taiwans.

Berryman offers no further argument to justify these lines, though billions of the poor around the world lack electric lights, and other basic goods such as stoves, refrigerators, and pharmaceuticals. The world’s poor have an immense need for inexpensive manufactured goods — and for the jobs such manufacturing entails. His abstract talk of “enclave economies” and “internationalized production processes” only partly obscures what Berryman himself must admit: not only is Taiwan developing, but Korea and others are, too, while “local entrepreneurs” daily “extend the process” into the future. Given the vast needs of the world, every nation ought to be developing its own entrepreneurs, inventors, and industrialists, from the bottom up.

Though Berryman doubts there is evidence the world has room for many more Taiwans, in fact Taiwan is itself “another Japan,” while Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea are “other Taiwans.” When these countries began exporting goods, their citizens worked for wages low by comparison to those of Western Europe or the United States. But they were high wages compared to, say, Bangladesh, and they have continued to rise. Yet despite these manifest examples of economic growth, Berryman still pictures “the world economy” as a zero-sum game. He seems to suggest that developing nations must lower their sights. Can their poor not be liberated?

The $360 billion foreign debt of Latin America serves as Berryman’s final objection to the hope of economic growth. Debt, of course, has burdened Latin American economies, but South Korea also has large debts (roughly $50 billion). Its economy is so productive, however, that it earns more than enough from the principal it has borrowed, not only to pay back principal and interest, but also to generate domestic profits and sustained economic growth. Debt is not a problem, but the unproductive use of borrowed funds certainly is. Had Latin American governments invested their loans in productive ventures, they, too, would have improved their nations’ economies and been able to repay their loans.

At this point, Berryman abruptly concludes, “These and other indicators reinforce the basic thrust of the dependency critique, that Latin American poverty is structural and can be overcome only by basic structural changes.”

Berryman does not say what these changes ought to be. He merely reverts to where the debate began: Latin America is poor; its economic order is defective; something must be done. Indeed. But where are we, and the poor of Latin America, to turn in order to discover what must be done? Berryman and the liberation theologians display much zeal in exhorting us to liberate the poor, are somewhat half-hearted in response to sound models of how it can be done — has been done in even poorer countries — and become silent when the question arises, How in practice can the poor be liberated?

After conceding virtually all the main points in contention, while making only weak and unconvincing arguments on the remaining points, Berryman seems not to recognize that he has cut the foundation out from under liberation theologians. Even in the hands of a sympathetic writer, their basic social theory breaks down.

“If their social theory is fundamentally wrong,” he began, “their whole enterprise is in jeopardy.” Berryman now joins the others who have said so.


  • Scott Walter

    Scott Walter is executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He also heads Campion Consulting, which provides philanthropic consulting for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged; and customized writing for nonprofits and businesses. A graduate of Georgetown University, Scott lives with his wife, Erica, and their four children in Maryland.

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