Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis

I’ve been trying to move towards better understanding how things fit together at a global scale, and Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis has been coming up often. I seem to have so much less time these days for just blogging to better understand something, but trying to be better at working it in when I can. The scale at which Wallerstein is working is the level that I find hardest to understand while also connecting to the multiple variegations of particular histories and geographies as they are shaped locally. I just finished Beck’s Empire of Cotton which is tremendous and does this in a rather incredible way, but I like too this brief more theoretical laying-out of what is happening  at this scale. It is undoubtedly very introductory, an entry into a much more detailed body of work. I missed the details though. More to read I suppose, but anyway.

The proponents of world-systems analysis, which this book is about, have been talking about globalization since long before the word was invented not, however,  as something new but as something that has been basic to the modern world-system ever since it began in the sixteenth century. We have been arguing that the separate boxes of analysis-what in the universities are called the disciplines-are an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding the world. We have been arguing that the social reality within which we live and which determines what our options are has not been the multiple national states of which we are citizens but something larger, which we call a world-system. We have been saying that this world-system has had many institutions-states and the interstate system, productive firms, households, classes, identity groups of all sorts-and that these institutions form a matrix which permits the system to operate but at the same time stimulates both the conflicts and the contradictions which permeate the system. We have been arguing that this system is a social creation, with a history, whose origins need to be explained, whose ongoing mechanisms need to be delineated, and whose inevitable terminal crisis needs to be discerned.

In arguing this way, we have not only gone against much of the official wisdom of those in power, but also against much of the conventional knowledge put forth by social scientists for two centuries now. (x)

In a nutshell.

On science, knowledge and epistemologies

This work started in the early 1970s ‘as a new perspective on social reality’ (1). It was geared to bring back together philosophy and science, which it argues were broken apart and institutionalised by those promoting empirical methods as the only way to truth. Wallerstein thus outlines and problematises the ways that Western institutions and universities have constructed and constrained knowledge. The two sides of knowledge production became drawn:

The emphasis of the sciences was on empirical (even experimental) research and hypothesis testing. The emphasis of the humanities was on empathetic insight, what later was called hermeneutic understanding. (3)

History was restricted to studying the past, and insulated from economics, political science and sociology — matching the three social spheres of market, state and civil society belonging to liberal ideology — which studied the present. These became drawn into understanding how

these spheres of life-the market, the state, and the civil society-were governed by laws that could be discerned by empirical analysis and inductive generalization. This was exactly the same view as that which the pure scientists had about their objects of study. So we call these three disciplines nomothetic disciplines (that is, disciplines in search of scientific laws) as opposed to the idiographic discipline which history aspired to be-that is, a discipline that is predicated on the uniqueness of social phenomena (6).

Of course, these studies of the present only related to the ‘Western’ world, not the vast areas being brought under colonial control — thus we have anthropology and orientalism

The early anthropologists studied peoples who were under actual or virtual colonial rule. They worked on the premise that the groups they were studying did not enjoy modern technology, did not have writing systems of their own, and did not have religions that extended beyond their own group. They were generically called “tribes”: relatively small groups (in terms of population and the area they inhabited) , with a common set of customs, a common language, and in some cases a common political structure. In nineteenth-century language, they were considered “primitive” peoples.

Their methodology was

ethnography, based on “fieldwork”… It was assumed that the peoples had no “history:’ (7)

Some world yet remained, the  ‘large regions outside the
pan-European zone which had what was called in the nineteenth century a “high civilization”–for example, China, India, Persia, the Arab world… (8)’

This drove the rise of Oriental studies in all their problematic force.

1945 saw massive changes, WWI and II had shifted everything. The US became the hegemonic power, with its university systems also thus becoming hegemonic. The ‘Third World’ was rising up and demanding independence. And more and more people were becoming part of a new world academia as a growing economy and democratic structures opened up these institutions. Havoc was wreaked on neat bounded structures. The US solution was found in ‘area studies’, which worked to ‘train historians, economists, sociologists, and political scientists to study what was going on in these other parts of the world (10). These continued to hold, however, to a theory of development, in which societies and civilizations moved through a series of stages, all of which culminated more or less at the same place as US and European societies (not that this was new).

It meant that the “most developed” state could offer itself as a model for the “less developed” states, urging the latter to engage in a sort of mimicry, and promising a higher standard of living and a more liberal governmental structure (“political development”) at the end of the rainbow. (10)

There is an ongoing struggle over these many different boundaries, theories and ways of knowing.

Background and nature of world-systems theory:

Wallerstein names four debates between 1945-70 that ‘set the scene for the emergence of world-systems analysis:

  1. the concept of core-periphery developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) and the subsequent elaboration of “dependency theory”;
  2. the utility of Marx’s concept of the “Asiatic mode of production;’ a debate that took place among communist scholars;
  3. the discussion among historians of western Europe about the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”;
  4. the debate about “total history” and the triumph of the Annales school of historiography in France  (11)

The standard at this time was the national state, so above all this new way of thinking forced a move to the scale of world-systems.

Instead of national states as the object of study, they substituted “historical systems” which, it was argued, had existed up to now in only three variants: mini-systems; and “world -systems” of two kinds– world-economies and world-empires. Note the hyphen in world-system and its two subcategories, world-economies and world-empires. Putting in the hyphen was intended to underline that we are talking not about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe). This is a key initial concept to grasp. It says that in “world-systems” we are dealing with a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules (16-17).

This shifted the unit of analysis from the state, insisted on the importance of a historic view, and insisted on multidisplinary study. You can imagine it was not popular with the institutions of learning and all those who had invested their careers in them. It is an unceasing effort to grapple with complexity.

World-systems analysts insist that rather than reduce complex situations to simpler variables, the effort should be to complexify and contextualize all so-called simpler variables in order to understand real social situations (19).

This means that both time and space are also understood as socially constructed, and part of the social reality we are trying to analyse. Some key concepts (there is so much packed into this little volume):

World economy:

What we mean by a world-economy (Braudel’s economie -monde) is a large geographic zone within which there is a division of labor and hence significant internal exchange of basic or essential goods as well as flows of capital and labor. A defining feature of a world-economy is that it is not bounded by a unitary political structure. Rather, there are many political units inside the world-economy, loosely tied together in our modern world-system in an interstate system (23).

Geoculture:

And a world-economy contains many cultures and groups-practicing many religions, speaking many languages, differing in their everyday patterns. This does not mean that they do not evolve some common cultural patterns, what we shall be calling a geoculture. It does mean that neither political nor cultural homogeneity is to be expected or found in a world-economy. What unifies the structure most is the division of labor which is constituted within it. (23)

Capitalist system:

Wage-labor has also been known for thousands of years. We are in a capitalist system only when the system gives priority to the endless accumulation of capital. Using such a definition, only the modern world-system has been a capitalist system. (24)

Conversely, a capitalist system cannot exist within any framework except that of a world-economy. We shall see that a capitalist system requires a very special relationship between economic producers and the holders of political power. If the latter are too strong, as in a world-empire, their interests will override those of the economic producers, and the endless accumulation of capital will cease to be a priority. Capitalists need a large market (hence mini-systems are too narrow for them) but they also need a multiplicity of states, so that they can gain the advantages of working with states but also can circumvent states hostile to their interests in favor of states friendly to their interests. Only the existence of a multiplicity of states within the overall division of labor assures this possibility. (24)

Core, periphery and semi-periphery states:

The axial division of labor of a capitalist world-economy divides production into core-like products and peripheral products. Core-periphery is a relational concept. What we mean by core-periphery is the degree of profitability of the production processes. Since profitability is directly related to the degree of monopolization, what we essentially mean by core-like production processes is those that are controlled by quasi-monopolies. Peripheral processes are then those that are truly competitive. When exchange occurs, competitive products are in a weak position and quasi-monopolized products are in a strong position. As a result, there is a constant flow of surplus-value from the producers of peripheral products to the producers of core-like products. This has been called unequal exchange.

There is also plunder, often used extensively during the early days of incorporating new regions into the world-economy (consider, for example, the conquistadores and gold in the Americas) …. Still, since the consequences are middle-term and the advantages short-term, there still exists much plunder
in the modern world-system…

Thus, for shorthand purposes we can talk of core states and peripheral states, so long as we remember that we are really talking of a relationship between production processes. Some states have a near even mix of core-like and peripheral products. We may call them semi peripheral states. (28)

Class, family, identity:

Classes however are not the only groups within which households locate themselves. They are also members of status-groups or identities. (If one calls them status-groups, one is emphasizing how they are perceived by others, a sort of objective criterion. If one calls them identities, one is emphasizing how they perceive themselves, a sort of subjective criterion. But, under one name or the other, they are an institutional reality of the modern world- system. Status-groups or identities are ascribed labels, since we are born into them, or at least we usually think we are born into them. It is on the whole rather difficult to join such groups voluntarily, although not impossible. (36)

Of course, the powers that be in a social system always hope that socialization results in the acceptance of the very real hierarchies that are the product of the system. They also hope that socialization results in the internalization of the myths, the rhetoric, and the theorizing of the system. This does happen in part but never in full. Households also socialize members into rebellion, withdrawal, and deviance. To be sure, up to a point even such antisystemic socialization can be useful to the system by offering an outlet for restless spirits, provided that the overall system is in relative equilibrium. In that case, one can anticipate that the negative socializations may have at most a limited impact on the functioning of the system. But when the historical system comes into structural crisis, suddenly such antisystemic socializations can play a profoundly unsettling role for the system. (37)

Universalism | Racism & Sexism

Universalism is a theme prominently associated with the modern world-system. It is in many ways one of its boasts. Universalism means in general the priority to general rules applying equally to all persons, and therefore the rejection of particularistic preferences in most spheres. The only rules that are considered permissible within the framework of universalism are those which can be shown to apply directly to the narrowly defined proper functioning of the world-system. (38)

(but universalism has always been racialised! I have to think more about this, it seems too abstracted from the concrete realities of colonial and imperial expansion)

Let us look at what we mean by racism and sexism. Actually these are terms that came into widespread use only in the second half of the twentieth century. Racism and sexism are instances of a far wider phenomenon that has no convenient name, but that might be thought of as antiuniversalism, or the active institutional discrimination against all the persons in a given status-group or identity. For each kind of identity, there is a social ranking. It can be a crude ranking, with two categories, or elaborate, with a whole ladder. But there is always a group on top in the ranking, and one or several groups at the bottom. These rankings are both worldwide and more local, and both kinds of ranking have enormous consequences in the lives of people and in the operation of the capitalist world-economy (39)

The bottom line is that the modern world-system has made as a central, basic feature of its structure the simultaneous existence, propagation, and practice of both universalism and anti- universalism. This antinomic duo is as fundamental to the system as is the core-peripheral axial division of labor. (41)

The Rise of the States-System

The modern state is a sovereign state. Sovereignty is a concept that was: invented in the modern world-system. Its prima facie meaning is totally autonomous state power (42).

But of course, modern states, most of them, don’t actually wield totally autonomous state power given that they are part of a world system.Despite the many arguments in geography to the contrary, the state hasn’t quite withered away. Wallerstein writes:

The relationship of states to firms is a key to understanding the functioning of the capitalist world-economy. The official ideology of most capitalists is laissez-faire, the doctrine that governments should not interfere with the working of entrepreneurs in the market. It is important to understand that as a general rule, entrepreneurs assert this ideology loudly but do not really want it to be implemented, or at least not fully, and certainly do not usually act as though they believed it was sound doctrine. (46)

There are a number of roles the state plays in supporting the market, one of the key ones is control over labour and the boundaries that contain labour:

The trans-boundary movement of persons has always been the most closely controlled, and of course concerns firms in that it concerns workers.(46)

Wallerstein cares for liberals as much as I do…particularly their slow enfranchisement of various groups of people after they had proved they were worthy — many would probably object to this understanding of liberalism but not I:

They argued that all others should slowly be admitted to full
citizens’ rights when their education had become sufficient to enable them to make balanced choices. By embracing progress, the liberals sought to frame its definition in such a way that the “dangerous classes” would become less dangerous and those with “merit” would play the key roles in political, economic, and social institutions. There was of course a third group, the radicals, who would associate themselves with the anti systemic movements, indeed lead them for the most part. (52)

They also often leave unchallenged the ways that nations are invented, and the role of the state in that social creation. These states with their carefully constructed histories and key characteristics, form part of the world-system, and do not exist independent of each other. There have also been attempts to construct world-empires, defined by Wallerstein as:

a structure in which there is a single political authority for the whole world-system.

He gives Charles V in the 16th century, Napoleon and Hitler as examples of failed attempts at such a structure. There are three examples of powers that

achieved hegemony, albeit for only relatively brief periods. The first was the United Provinces (today called the Netherlands) in the mid-seventeenth century. The second was the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century. And the third was the United States in the mid -twentieth century. What allows us to call them hegemonic (57) is that for a certain period they were able to establish the rules of the game in the interstate system, to dominate the world-economy (in production, commerce, and finance), to get their way politically with a minimal use of military force (which however they had in goodly strength), and to formulate the cultural language with which one discussed the world. (58)

The Creation of a Geoculture

This section might be a bit too Western for me, a bit too focused on European understandings as hegemonic, but given colonialism there is perhaps a level of justice in such a claim. He sees the French Revolution as the turning point and basis for:

the geoculture of the modern world-system: the normality of political change and the refashioning of the concept of sovereignty, now vested in the people who were “citizens.” And this concept, as we have said, although meant to include, in practice excluded very many.

This is a rather interesting definition of ideology as well, I am still thinking it through:

An ideology is more than a set of ideas or theories. It is more than a moral commitment or a worldview. It is a coherent strategy in the social arena from which one can draw quite specific political conclusions. In this sense, one did not need ideologies in previous world-systems, or indeed even in the modern world-system before the concept of the normality of change, and that of the citizen who was ultimately responsible for such change, were adopted as basic structural principles of political institutions. (60)

He sees such ideology at play in liberalism, and the concept of the liberal state developed between 1848 and WWI.

states based on the concept of citizenship, a range of guarantees against arbitrary authority, and a certain openness in public life. The program that the liberals developed had three main elements: gradual extension of the suffrage and, concomitant with this and essential to it, the expansion of access to education; expanding the role of the state in protecting citizens against harm in the workplace, expanding health facilities and access to them, and ironing out fluctuations in income in the life cycle; forging citizens of a state into a “nation.” If one looks closely, these three elements turn out to be a way of translating the slogan of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” into public policy.

Interestingly, he sees liberals backpedaling after the failed uprisings and repression of 1848 and it actually being conservatives who saw it as a sensible compromise to stem revolutionary tendencies, Disraeli among them. The radical struggle became centered on the state and the use of formal rights of citizens to take state power and thus implement change under the slogan of  liberty, equality, and fraternity. As he writes it, they succeeded in full integration and achievement of the vote, yet failed to use this power to transform society. Wallerstein describes the growing proletariat as remaining essentially outside of this dynamic however.

The Modern World-System in Crisis

First to define a crisis — that word is used a lot. This narrows it down a bit:

But whenever the difficulty can be resolved in some way, then there is not a true crisis but simply a difficulty built into the system. True crises are those difficulties that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system, but instead can be overcome only by going outside of and beyond the historical system of which the difficulties are a part. (76)

We are in such a crisis, but it is a long-term kind of crisis (I am not so sure of this use of crisis, which can go on for ‘another twenty-five to fifty years’ (77). He continues:

Since one central feature of such a transitional period is that we face wild oscillations of all those structures and processes we have come to know as an inherent part of the existing world-system, we find that our short-term expectations are necessarily quite unstable. This instability can lead to considerable anxiety and therefore violence as people try to preserve acquired privileges and hierarchical rank in a very unstable situation. In general, this process can lead to social conflicts that take a quite unpleasant form. (77)

There is a reference to the Kondratieff B-phase — I really need to get my head around that, but not today. It describes the rise of neoliberalism and this is essentially where it ends. Our current conjuncture is indeed unpleasant — such a funny polite word. This is quite a polite, measured, abstract book quite different from Walter Rodney or Eric Williams, but  useful in starting to see how things connect and fit together at the global scale. I am itching to leave the abstraction though, and examine the detail of racialisation, imperialism, struggle.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2005) World-systems analysis: an introduction. Durham: Duke University Press.

 

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