The Nancho Consultations

Immanual Wallerstein

Nancho Lite
Dr.Immanual Wallerstein

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: Long before systems theory became academically trendy, you were analyzing history in terms of dynamic international relationships. What is the "world system" as you conceive it and how does this perspective give us a new understanding of the world?

Immanual Wallerstein: Well, there have been many world systems - the modern world system got started in the 16th century, largely in Europe and the Americas. It took the form of what I call a capitalist world economy. It was a single, integrated division of labor across a wide stretch of territory based on capitalist principles, that is, putting as the primary objective the unending accumulation of capital. Within that structure or that space emerged an interstate system composed of so-called sovereign states, which were not in fact truly sovereign, but largely so. And the structure was basically a hierarchical one in which the states had uneven amounts of power, and was based on a core/periphery relationship of exchange of products, of high profit products versus low profit products which enabled a flow of surplus to go from peripheral areas to the core.

Now that system came into existence in the 16th century, was relatively successful, and by its internal dynamic expanded to cover the entire world, managing to achieve that by the end of the 19th century. That is the system in which we still live today.

You have also analyzed political evolution in terms of three modern periods. What does this analysis signify for our immediate future?

IW: Well, I, I think the important the thing to see about the succession of periods within the history of the world system was an early period when the system was beginning for the first three centuries in which it laid in place all the major structures except what one might call the over-arching cultural structure of the system - or what I call its geo-culture - which only comes into existence following the French Revolution. The French Revolution is very important, not so much for France actually, for France it made relatively little difference - but for the world system as a whole because it set in place a new set of beliefs which gained widespread currency - and two, in particular: one, that political change was a normal and not an exceptional phenomenon and should be so regarded by everyone. And two, that sovereignty lay in something called "the people" rather than in a sovereign. Now these were very dangerous ideas because they implied essentially a fully democratic system - and the capitalist world economy, far from being fully democratic, was not democratic at all, because it was a system based on inequality and hierarchy.

So for two centuries, we've been trying - the powers-that-be within the system - have been trying to reconcile this popular demand for democracy with the maintenance of this unequal system. This has taken a number of forms including the sort of dominant ideology of liberalism which was based on the idea of rational reform - holding out the promise to people that eventually, over time, the situation would equalize. This was an unfulfillable promise, but it was a promise that held the structure in place for a long, long time. In the last 10 to 20 years the belief in the likelihood that further action at the level of each state by the coming to power of movements that were basically reformist - sometimes calling themselves revolutionary, but basically reformist - would in fact transform the system slowly has been lost. And the system today is in a critical period because it has lost this fundamental political base which kept popular discontent within check.

So how do you see this discontent manifesting itself on the world stage in the immediate future?

IW: Well, one of the major manifestations will of course be -- and in fact already is -- the loss or the decline in the legitimacy of the separate states. Actually, the states have been growing stronger over the past five hundred years quite steadily as they've gained more and more power through more and more efficacious bureaucracy and more and more public support, as people felt that the states were the mechanism for the reform of their lives. But as the states begin to fall apart because they lose this faith, people get frightened. Security is unsure, their futures are unsure. People are turning to alternatives. They are turning to groups of various kinds - ethnic and religious and other groups of all kinds.

This has some positive aspects, but it also has some negative aspects as each group pulls in within its own frontiers and fights strongly with state-like means against other groups for what they see as turf and receding economic possibilities. This takes the form of crime, disorders - it also takes worse forms. But this is very dangerous to the stability of the system. In addition, the system has accumulated enormous problems over the last five hundred years and let me just illustrate two of them.

A system based on the unending accumulation of capital needs to provide the possibility, in some industries at least, of enormous profit levels. These enormous profit levels have historically been based on the possibility of getting cheap labor and on the possibility of what the economists call externalizing costs. Cheap labor is a recurring difficulty for the system because laborers tend over time to organize themselves in various ways, make demands on capital, and achieve some of those demands. So the way the system has operated to keep an eternal supply of cheap labor has been to expand constantly the pool of laborers, reaching into new areas to pull people into the system as the old laborers have increased their price, their wage levels. This pool has basically been the rural populations of the world. And we are moving quite rapidly to the de-ruralization of the world. We are moving to the exhaustion of that pool. That's one problem.

The second problem is that large enterprises have never paid the entire costs of their production. They have externalized costs, meaning that governments have paid for part of the costs through infrastructure that the governments have built on their behalf and thus many taxpayers have in effect paid for it. But more importantly, governments have not forced enterprises to bear the costs of, generically, waste and pollution and the use of natural resources. Now that's all very well and good as long there is a seemingly unending supply of space into which waste can be dumped in one form or another, and resources that can be utilized. But in fact that is the ecological problem of our age. We have come to the exhaustion point for a number of natural resources. We have used up a lot of the space for waste and pollution. This is all renewable. It's not a technological problem. We can renew our resources, we can clean up the waste and pollution. But the cost of that is absolutely enormous, and the question is going to be who is going to bear the costs? And that is the major problem of governments and corporations today, and either the one or the other has to bear the costs. And if the corporations bear the costs, they won't make their profits and there will be an enormous profit squeeze. And if the governments try to bear the costs, they'll find they can't meet the other demands of the population for health, education, welfare, etc. and will lose their entire legitimacy. So this is not a really very soluble problem.

So this is the basis of the upcoming struggle you foresee?

IW: I think so, yes. I think the issue is that the system as a system has worked very well for 500 years, but some of the bases on which it has worked have disappeared, and it will no longer be able to work as before. We will have to create a new kind of system. The question is what new kind of system is the world going to create. That will be a big battle because generically - and I have to leave it there - generically there are two possibilities. We can create another kind of inegalitarian system, quite different from capitalism, but nonetheless as inegalitarian - and I don't exactly know what form that would take. Or we can create a relatively egalitarian system, and I am not sure what form that would take, but that is, in fact, the crucial political, cultural, social battle of the next 25 to 50 years.

What role do you foresee or would you like to see Japan playing in the system in the near to mid-term future?

IW: Well, Japan of course is one of the powerful nations of the world today, and it is one of the leading centers of capital accumulation. Anything that goes on in Japan will have a big impact on this collective decision-making of the world. But I don't think Japan has a role different than the one I would attribute to the United States or to Western Europe. These are the powerful countries. These are the privileged countries. These are the countries that have to be aware that the system is crumbling around them, and the people within that country have to decide in some sense whether they are going to come to terms with a more egalitarian world or whether they are going to struggle for another inegalitarian one, and hope that they'll still be on top.

Lastly how would you advise young people who are preparing themselves to enter this world to best gird their loins for the coming age?

IW: Well, what they will need is both clarity and intellectual courage more than anything else, and that's all I can advise - clarity and intellectual courage.

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