From Tue Apr 1 14:28:46 2003
Date: Tue, 1 Apr 2003 14:28:46 -0500
From: Haines Brown <>
Subject: Re: IW: End of Beginning

End of Beginning—a comment

By Haines Brown, 1 April 2003

Becky Dunlop asks us to reflect upon Wallerstein's remarks, and I will comply.

While I generally respect Wallerstein's views, I sometimes feel he is too much caught within a conceptual box. I'd like to use this opportunity to support that assessment.

> >In 1945, the United States. . .quickly established itself as the
> >hegemonic power of the world-system and imposed a series of
> >structures on the world-system to ensure that it functioned
> >according to the wishes of the United States.

I believe a weakness of world system theorists is their tendency to exaggerate the systemic character of the world at almost any time in history. While there's some truth in Wallerstein's remark, it needs qualification. He employs the word “hegemony,” but we need to remember that it properly means only that the U.S. was in a position to shape the course of events, not that it was the sole power and that the system it dominated engages everything. The U.S. was not only constrained by circumstance, but alternative projects and powers did exist.

For example, the political atmosphere after WWI and WWII was such that there was a strong committment to the rule of law to prevent further wars. The U.S. was generally constrained to give international law a degree of obeisance even if it were contrary to U.S. national objectives.

Also, there were contrary powers. For example, USSR acting to counter U.S. imperialism (for whatever reason) even before the war. There were other national powers which were not engaged in U.S. ambitions, but could and did act independently, sometimes against the interests of the U.S. Also there was a the global masses, which were then not united, but could act locally as a significant break upon U.S. ambitions.

There is a danger that if we look at the world in narrowly systemic terms that we underestimate the actual diversity and complexity of affairs, and in particular any systemic contradictions. There's a danger in world systems theory of a dangerous reductionism that lends support to a functionalism.

Wallerstein says this system worked well at first, most of the time, which is true, but the problem is that he represents the world as a functional whole, and then admits exceptions, rather than seeing the whole in terms of its inherent contradictions. Often world systems theory fixates on the sphere of circulation and neglects the sphere of production, which is the sphere in which economic exploitation takes place. As a result, the hegemony of one power, such as the U.S. after WWII, appears fortuitous (the predictable outcome of a set of accidental factors) rather than havng arisen from the nature of the system itself.

I'm sure Wallerstein would object and say that the ability of the mighty to take advantage of the weak is the essence of exploitation. However, there's a big difference between saying that exploitation requires a power differential and saying that a power differential defines exploitation. The latter approach is functionalist, while the former represents systems in terms of its contradictions. My my own family, my wife has the greater power, but I don't for that reason think she exploits me.

> >This system worked very well at first. And the U.S. got what it
> >wanted 95% of the time, 95% of the way. The only hitch was the
> >resistance of those Third World countries not included in the
> >benefits.
> >
> >An even greater blow to U.S. hegemony was the fact that, after
> >twenty years, both western Europe and Japan had made such strides
> >economically that they became roughly the economic equals of the
> >United States,

This illustrates my point. The world after WWII starts in Wallerstein's view as a functioning whole, but eventually other powers arose to challenge U.S. hegemony (a la Thomas Kuhn). The fact is that there were always differences and tensions, and they simply became more serious as the contradictions of U.S. imperialism deepened. Note that Wallerstein's explanation looks to externalities, while the alternative approach lays emphasis on internal development. This is not just a theoretical fine point, for it profoundly colors our understanding of what happens as a consequence and of the options that lay before us.

> >which launched a long and continuing competition for capital
> >accumulation between these three loci of world production and
> >finance.

Wallerstein here refers to the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. His analysis is fixated on capitalist states and marginalizes socialist states (esp. the USSR) because they are not primary participants in global trade relations, and he marginalizes the “third world” which was primarily suppliers of raw materials, and marginalizes the working-class majority because it lacks the means of production to engage in trade. Everything is subsumed under capitalist commercial relations and gains significance only in terms of those relations.

> >And then came the world revolution of 1968, which fundamentally
> >undermined the U.S. ideological position (as well as the
> >spuriously oppositional Soviet ideological position).

Here Wallerstein looses me, for I don't know to what this world revolution of 1968 refers (the year McDonalds began? Parisian students?). 1968 may be a year of significance for leading capitalist powers, but for most people in the world? Also I don't know how we slipped from a discussion of real power relations to ideological hegemony. Soviet opposition only becomes “spurious” if things are reduced to political power relations within a universal and inescapable capitalist system; because the USSR engaged in global trade, it becomes intrinsically capitalist, it would seem.

> >The triple shock. . .ended the period of easy (and automatic)
> >U.S. hegemony in the world-system. U.S. decline began. The United
> >States reacted to this change in the geopolitical situation by an
> >attempt to slow down this decline as much as possible.

Wallerstein goes on to define the new situation in terms of an alliance of leading capitalist states, building a dominant military position, playing games to keep China and the USSR off balance.

From a functionalist viewpoint, such maneuvres might work almost indefinitely, for a state in power can always coopt or coerce others to maintain its own power. From a functionalist viewpoint, there is no reason for things to change except for fortuitous accidents. However, in terms of contradictions, structural change becomes a necessary because of the prior development of the system. I think it would be more realisitic to admit that the countervailing powers and tendencies Wallerstein cites existed well before 1968 and then only became more significant, rather than have a deus ex machina show up for some reason.

> >This policy was moderately successful until the collapse of the
> >Soviet Union, which pulled the rug from under the key first
> >objective.

This is commonly argued. Certainly in some significant ways the USSR represented a counterforce that constrained the major capitalist powers. But this is largely in terms of state-level politics and the USSR's inspiration of anti-captitalist ideology, which is the plane where Wallerstein's functionalist world systems approach is drawn. It is a narrow, capitalist and statist, view of the world. It is not so much false as one-sided and impoverished.

> >There is one other element to put into this analysis, which is the
> >structural crisis of the world capitalist system. I have no space
> >here to argue the case. . .. Because the system we have known for
> >500 years is no longer able to guarantee long-term prospects of
> >capital accumulation. . .

Although his argument is not presented here, there is nevertheless a point or two that can be made. First, who is this “we” who have known the system? The system to which he refers is a Western trade network (which is only “capitalist” because of world system theory's indifference to the sphere of production). So why does “we” refer to Westerners? Today, with the development of globalization and mass communications, our presumed readership is surely the world, which would resent being associated with U.S. ambitions. Perhaps Wallerstein fears that if he opens a dialog with the real world, it will put capitalism to question.

Further, most Westerners did not much participate in such a “system” until modern times. Even when they were affected by trade relations, for some time the primary determinants of their lives had other sources. World Systems theory tends to reduce pre-modern life to capitalist commercial relations and thus the “we” becomes merchants (more generally, rational optimal choice-makers). I've even seen iron-age Europe refered to as capitalist because a few lived from trading chunks of bronze from settlement to settlement!

Also, just who “has known” the system for 500 years? If I were an African-American, I would know the system only by virtue of my citizenship, but not in terms of my own personal roots. So Wallerstein implicitly reduces me to my political existence, even though he argues that national politic is being dissolved. Further, my social and economic existence is marginalized. He almost talks the real me out of existence!

I belabor this point because I think it illustrates how our choice of words can bias an argument so that it seems more plausible to those who share our axioms and less plausible for those who do not.

> >we have entered a period of world chaos—wild (and largely
> >uncontrollable) swings in the economic, political, and military
> >situations—which are leading to a systemic bifurcation—that is,
> >essentially a world collective choice about the kind of new system
> >the world will construct over the next fifty years. The new system
> >will not be a capitalist system, but it could be one of two kinds:
> >a different system that would be equally or more hierarchical and
> >inegalitarian; or one that will be substantially democratic and
> >egalitarian.

Wallerstein is making heavy use here of a certain school of thought in which system equilibrium falls subject to perturbations that throw it into an unstable or chaotic state, which will presumably settle into one of several new possible equilibrium states. This is not the place to argue chaos theory beyond nothing that it is not the source of general laws that can be presumed to be applicable to specific situations. We need to be realistic. For example, in empirical terms, did the world suffer greater economic chaos after 1989 due to the Soviet demise than it did, say, after 1929? Wallerstein's conceptual framework is clouding his empirical eyesight.

He assumes there were two possible outcomes: greater inequality or greater equality. Is he seeing equality in terms of politics, of power, or economics? His presumption of chaos leading to a new order precludes the possibilities of a) continued chaos, b) a continuation of the same inequality. He does not mention that there's a well-trod path suggesting that fascism is a symptom of deepening capitalist contradictions, for that would challenge his assumption that capitalism is ultimately compatible with democracy. Further, the alternative, if it is at once democratic and egalitarian, would have to be social or economic democracy, better known as socialism. Wallerstein may be sympathetic to democratic socialism, but somehow wants it within the embrace of capitalism. The literature challenging this naivte is enormous.

True, he is not making the argument here, but if his assumption is correct and there is indeed a bifurcation at this historical juncture that requires us to define our options, it is important to know what those options are. Is capitalism itself at stake. Is mature capitalism compatible with real (social, economic, egalitarian) democracy? He says we must make a “world collective choice.” Is it a choice between a fascist or democratic capitalism, or is it between capitalism and socialism? This is not something we can fudge.

> >One cannot understand the politics of the U.S. hawks if one does
> >not understand that they are not trying to save capitalism but to
> >replace it with some other, even worse, system.

This is a very important point. Wallerstein sees the hawks as betraying capitalism and replacing it with policies leading to catastrophe (destroying the capitalist world system necessarily results in chaos). I suspect the hawks are indeed overthrowing the old order, but what order? Most people would say that it is the multilateral balance of nations, as represented by treaties, the U.N., and the rule of law. So it seems, but this political organization of states is by no means the same as capitalism itself, unless one reduces the world to the political hegemony of one or more capitalist states. The hawks may be implicit fascists (as is commonly argued; Hitler himself, and Mousolini too, represented captitalism, not the enemies of capitalism). It is vital to decide whether capitalism's survival requires its separation from the cocoon of the nation state or if capitalism is intrinsically embedded in national institutions. We can't let this question slip by.

> >The U.S. hawks believe that the U.S. world policy pursued from
> >Nixon to Clinton is today unviable and can only lead to
> >catastrophe.

A narrow question I'm not able to explore, but people seem inclined to dump on Bush, while Clinton certainly anticipated the new direction being taken in U.S. policy. That is, is the move toward fascism at home and the New World Order abroad (that goes back many years) the fruit of a Washington cabal, or it is an inevitale manifestation of capitalism in decay? Again, I'm not arguing one side or the other here, but merely suggesting that Wallerstein's conclusions tend to arise from the way he conceptualizes the problematic in the first place.

> >Where do we go from here? That depends in part on how the Iraq war
> >plays itself out.

Again, just who is “we”? The first question before deciding on what course should be taken is what power do “we” have to change things? I get the feeling Wallerstein thinks of himself as someone determining U.S. policy and thus part of the capitalist ruling class. But most of use are not be in that position. If our power is a function of working class solidarity, then our options will be quite different than those of the capitalists.

Haines (prolix as usual) Brown