The objective of this Reading Guide is to provide recommendations on individual topics, all related to the study of unequal exchange. The assumption is that the reader has little or no prior knowledge of the subject. The best effort is made to list the material in order of difficulty that implies that subsequent entries benefit from the knowledge obtained in the previous ones.

This list is by no means complete and it will be continuously updated. In other words, this page is a work in progress, so if a work is missing, it does not imply we deem it irrelevant. Rather, it means we didn’t have the time or the opportunity to process it.

 We welcome contributions and feedback to this page. If you would like to see something added, we kindly ask you to consider the following:

  • this list is a reading guide, and not a list of favourite books or authors; the objective is to provide a self-study guide for activists;
  • all works listed are related to the subject of unequal exchange in the general sense.

If you want us to add a particular work, please think about how it relates to unequal exchange, what level of knowledge is required to understand it (and determine where in the list it should fit accordingly), and provide a short description about why you think it is important.

Theory of Unequal Exchange

Unequal exchange is a theory which attempts to explain why wage increases in a small group of nations is dependent on the existence of low wage nations with which to trade with. It argues that imperialism, ie the reproduction of a small group of high-wage nations at the cost of the poverty of the rest, functions primarily through free trade, not ‘monopolies’ and military intervention (although the latter can help to reinforce the imperialist system). 

“Why is the World Divided into Rich and Poor Nations?

This 2021 essay is a summary of Arghiri Emmanuel’s theory of unequal exchange using contemporary data. It is made for readers with no prior knowledge in economics. 

We recommend checking out the following texts for historical context to the concepts and debates that feature heavily in modern works on unequal exchange.

David Ricardo – “On Foreign Trade”, in On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation

This chapter of Ricardo’s book is an extremely influential presentation of the advantages of free trade. Several things are important in understanding modern work on unequal exchange:

  • the presentation in terms of comparative, rather than absolute advantages supposedly resulting from free trade;
  • Ricardo’s argument that his cost-based theory of price operates quite differently in international trade;
  • the assumption that capital has global mobility, and that the price of labour is everywhere close to the subsistence minimum. For more on Ricardo’s theory of wages, see the chapter ‘of wages’ in this book.

Karl Marx – “Conversion of Profit Into Average Profit”, in Capital Volume III

The 20th century and modern theory of unequal exchange mainly draws on this section of Marx’s work. The main important idea is that the price towards which a commodity tends is not determined directly by the amount of socially necessary labor time expended on its production, but by its monetary cost of production combined with the society-wide average rate of profit.  

The works of Eli Heckscher and Bertil Ohlin

These two 20th century liberal economists were influential in rebranding Ricardo’s theory of the advantages of free trade. Their main importance for Emmanuel’s argument is their hypothesis that international wage differentials are equalized by the free movement of capital towards low-wage nations. 

  • Bertil OhlinInterregional and international trade.

This is a long, repetitive book which we do not recommend reading in full. It suffices to take a look at the introduction and conclusion.

  • Bertil Ohlin and Eli Heckscher, edited by Flam and FlandersHeckscher-Ohlin Trade Theory

This is a much shorter book which contains influential essays by both authors on their theory of international trade. 

Communist Working Group ‘Unequal exchange and the prospects for socialism

A relatively short and very concise summary of the Emmanuelian approach to the theory of imperialism and the division of the world into rich and poor nations. We recommend this as the first book to read on the unequal exchange, especially for those with relatively little background in political economy.

Brolin, John, The Bias of the World: A History of Theories of Unequal Exchange from Mercantilism to Ecology

A detailed history of various theoretical approaches to unequal exchange preceding, including, and succeeding Emmanuel’s work, from the 16th century mercantilists to modern ecological theory of unequal exchange. Includes the most detailed and objective presentation in existence of Emmanuel’s economic theory, as developed throughout his books and articles. Includes valuable discussion and citation of some Emmanuel articles which have not been translated and are difficult to find. One of, if not the only detailed exposition of Emmanuel’s theory of capitalist crisis and its relation to the drive for trade surplus by imperialist nations given in his book ‘Profit and Crises’. This book is quite detailed and extensive, we do not recommend reading all of it if you are new to the theory of unequal exchange. Reading the section dedicated to Emmanuel’s theory is recommended however, it is the best secondary literature on Emmanuel’s work. These sections are:

Chapter 15. Marxian unequal exchange reversing assumptions of Heckscher-Ohlin

The most important idea here is to reframe unequal exchange, following Emmanuel’s own preference, as a historical and dynamic process. Most analyses of UE approach it in terms of a static ‘value transfer’ from poor to rich nations of x amount of resources which can be calculated on a yearly basis. Brolin (and Emmanuel in the 1970s) instead emphasize it as a historical, dynamic process – as wages grow in a given country, the potential for such wage rises to cut into profit rates and thereby discourage investment, leading to unemployment, is neutralized by importing more cheapened goods from low-wage nations. The ‘size’ of the unequal exchange is therefore defined by a comparison between the prices of production in a hypothetical situation where wages are everywhere equal, and the real situation where they are unequal. 

Chapter 19. Emmanuel’s unequal exchange in a world of its own.

Raffer, Kunibert, Unequal Exchange and the Evolution of the World System

“Unequal Exchange and the Evolution of the World System” is one of the most referenced surveys of theories of unequal exchange. It covers Emmanuel, Braun, Amin, and Raffer’s own approach based on Sraffian economics. Each chapter also includes critical perspectives for each approach. This book requires advanced knowledge of economics.

Köhler, Gernot, “The Structure of Global Money”, “Unequal Exchange 1965-1995”, and “Surplus Value and Value Transfer”

While most of the scholars of unequal exchange are Marxists, Köhler follows Keynesian tradition. His approach to UE analyses the differentials between PPP$ value of currency and its market exchange rate. The Structure of Global Money outlines the method, and Unequal Exchange 1965-1995 applies it to come up with the volume of value transfer. Theoretical elaboration of “surplus value” and “value transfer” is to be found in the third article listed in the title.

Other contemporary theorists of unequal exchange or relevant to this topic:

World-Systems Analysis

Introduction to WSA

The World-Systems Analysis considers Unequal Exchange to be one of the fundamental concepts to understand the mechanism of reproduction of the Modern World-System. In this section, we list the recommended literature to understand World-Systems Analysis itself, and not necessarily in strict relationship with UE.

Dunaway, Wilma A., Book: History of Development Theory

Survey of theories of development from a scholar following radical world-system analysis. Major theories included in the survey are: modernisation, neo-institutionalist, orthodox Marxism, neo-Marxism, ECLA’s school of thought, dependency, articulation of modes of production, theory of dependent development, and World-Systems Analysis. Essential textbook to provide basic knowledge of competing paradigms and how they relate to each other.

Shannon, Thomas, An Introduction to the World-System Perspective

Shannon’s book provides the most elementary and basic overview of concepts, as well as criticisms of World-Systems Analysis for undergraduate and graduate students. As such, it is a good starting point for those with no prior knowledge, that establishes a solid basis for further study.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher, Global Formation: Structures of World-Economy

As the title implies, “Global Formation” is a structural approach to Modern World-System. This work compiles the research and debates within the paradigm of World-Systems Analysis (at least to the date of its first manuscript, in 1987), and represents them as a structure of world-economy consisting of:

  • constants: capitalist mode of production, interstate system, and core-periphery hierarchy);
  • cycles: K-wave, war severity, hegemonic sequence, and core-periphery trade control;
  • trends: system expansion, commodification, state formation, increasing size of enterprises, transnationalisation of capital, increasing intensity of capital, and proletarianisation.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher, Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present

This book should be considered optional to accompany the previous one. By the grade of difficulty and required prior knowledge, this book requires less than Global Formation, but at the same time, it does provide much less depth and empirical research. Being released in 2013 it contains additional research especially in the field of pre-capitalist world-systems.

Surplus and Commodity Chains

Here we recommend the literature related to Unequal Exchange and its mechanisms within WSA paradigm.

Wallerstein, Immanuel and Hopkins, Terrence, Commodity Chains in the World-Economy prior to 1800

Global Commodity Chains is a concept first proposed by Wallerstein and Hopkins as a production network consisting of interconnected nodes, each having commodity input and output. Each node also incorporates different social relations connected to commodity production. This paper elaborates on this concept and sets the goals for further investigation.

Gereffi, Gary and Korzeniewicz, Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism

Decades after the initial proposal by Wallerstein and Hopkins, Gereffi and Korzeniewicz published a collection of essays including the research of commodity chains prior to 1800 (involving shipbuilding and wheat trade), and the evolution of GCC in the modern world-system. However, they focused only on the aspect of international trade and did not include the investigation of the social relations within each node that would clarify how the value is created, transferred, and captured. See the next entry for the criticism.

Dunaway, Wilma and Clelland, Donald, Book review of Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism

The book review addresses the main shortcomings of the collected essays from the standpoint of World-Systems Analysis such as the relation of commodity chains with global inequality, and exploitation. The authors of the review rectified those issues in their own works. See below.

Clelland, Donald. Surplus Drain and Dark Value in the Modern World-System

As per Donald Clelland’s words, his concept of the surplus drain is often used as a synonym for unequal exchange, although the originator of the term and subsequent analysts have intended a more narrow usage. Surplus drain uses the neo-Marxist concept of surplus (as theorised by Baran and Sweezy) within the world-systems analysis, and expands it with notions of “bright” and “dark” value, arguing that the value accounted for via capitalist accounting methods (“bright” value) constitutes a minor part of the value transferred from the periphery to the core. “Dark” value being an invisible part of it.


Dunaway, Wilma, Gendered Commodity Chains

Dunaway takes the concept of GCC further and incorporates the gendered discrimination and exploitation in it. Gendered relations are analysed through the prism of the concept of a semi-proletarian household. This work also includes a theoretical framework that elaborates on the structure of commodity chains and their mechanisms of value transfer. Apart from that, it includes essays with individual case studies.

Recommended chapters:

Ecologically Unequal Exchange

Gellert, Paul; Frey, Scott, and Dahms, Harry, Introduction to Ecologically Unequal Exchange in Comparative Perspective

Brief introduction of the concept of Ecologically Unequal Exchange and the existing body of research within World-Systems Analysis. The idea of EUE builds on the concept of unequal exchange as proposed by Emmanuel. This article was published in the special issue of Journal of World-Systems Research dedicated to EUE and as a case study, we recommend: Kelly Austin’s “Brewing Unequal Exchanges in Coffee: A Qualitative Investigation into the Consequences of the Java Trade in Rural Uganda”

Clelland, Donald, The Core of the Apple: Dark Value and Degrees of Monopoly in Global Commodity Chains

This article builds on the theory exposed in the Surplus Drain and Dark Value in Modern World-System, and Unpaid Labour as Dark Value in Global Commodity Chains mentioned above. Although the focus of all three articles is to elaborate on different mechanisms of value transfers, a significant part is dedicated to externalisation of costs for environmental damage. The case study of Apple applies this idea and calculates the portion of the costs of its products that would otherwise significantly increase the final price.

Ajl, Max, People’s Green New Deal

People’s GND builds on the legacy of radical WSA tradition to develop a criticism of the mainstream and hegemonic GND proposals while opening the road towards anti-systemic solutions that would eliminate rather than perpetuate EUE.