Lea Ypi outlines Immanuel Wallerstein’s analysis of capitalism as a global phenomenon, and explains how it informs the search for alternatives to overcome it.
Immanuel Wallerstein, the radical intellectual best known for pioneering an account of society known as ‘world systems analysis’, published a commentary aptly titled This is the end, this is the beginning shortly before his death in August 2019. In a tentative prognosis of our current predicament, Wallerstein wrote: ‘What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one. I still think that and therefore I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50’.
‘I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense’, he explained. The social theorist dedicated his life to this idea of ‘class struggle’, both in theory – he taught at Columbia University, then SUNY Binghamton and finally Yale – but also in practice. He witnessed first hand the struggles for decolonisation during his travels in Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania and anticipated that these experiences would shape the development of African countries well after formal independence.
The major insight he gained during these travels was that the exploitation of the South by the global North was as important for understanding global capitalism as the competition with the Eastern bloc of socialist countries. History proved him right. While state socialism eventually collapsed, problems of clientelism, debt dependency, unequal development, extreme poverty, continued to afflict former colonies even as they became formally sovereign. Up to this day, they are at the root of some of the most critical global problems, from brain drain to the exploitation of cheap labour by Western factories in the South, from the migration crisis to the civil wars that trigger it. Responding to these conflicts was at the heart of the counter-globalisation movement linked to the World Social Forum founded in Brazil in 2001, of which Wallerstein was one of the leading intellectuals.
Western liberal states often treat their colonial history as an unfortunate episode of the past for which they bear no responsibility. Wallerstein’s writings are key to understanding why, so long as capitalism endures, that history is not over. His long-term approach to the study of global societies, from the sixteenth century to the present, illustrated how economic relations shape the development of legal, political and social institutions over time. He insisted that his proposal of ‘world systems analysis’ should be understood not as a theory but as a protest against the way in which contemporary academia isolates the study of economics from that of politics, history, philosophy and sociology, preventing us from interrogating the legacy of liberalism. Far from being just a semantic move, his account challenged the received wisdom that nation states should be the primary focus of our analysis, and helped to explain how economic relations shape political and social boundaries, and how their past dynamic influences the present.
To develop world systems theory, Wallerstein was inspired by the French historian Fernand Braudel, by the Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi, by the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, and by generations of Marxist theorists of imperialism. He argued that the modern world-system is a capitalist world economy, whose development is based on the relation between capital and wage labour, but also on its integration of different models of production in different parts of the world.
Wallerstein criticised Marx for thinking about capitalism as an ever-expanding process of technological development that would eventually produce a world of conformity, allowing the working class to triumph worldwide. Instead, Wallerstein, alongside his collaborators Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, and Andre Gunder Frank, distinguished between a technologically developed, wealthy core of capitalist countries, and the less developed ‘periphery’ and ‘semi-periphery’ countries they rely upon for accumulation. This helps explain why despite the global expansion of markets, the benefits of exchange and trade remain concentrated in the hands of a few, mostly Western, elites.
Wallerstein’s analysis of capitalism as a global phenomenon enables us to reflect on the contemporary crisis of liberal political and economic institutions as a crisis of global proportion. On the one hand, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are products of contingent political developments in their respective states. On the other, the rise of authoritarian politics in several countries at once is an expression of a crisis of capitalism that has global roots but manifests itself differently in core capitalist countries and in the periphery and semi-periphery.
The analysis of capitalism as a global phenomenon informs the search for alternatives to overcome it. Walllerstein’s thinking was shaped by the protest movements of 1968: from the emergence of the Black Power movement in the USA to the resistance of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops; from student protests in Western Europe to the consolidation of guerrilla tactics against the military regime in Brazil. The protagonists of these movements framed their experiences of injustice (as workers, as women, as people of colour) with reference to a global system of domination that benefitted commercial or bureaucratic elites.
At the same time they illustrated the shortcomings of social democratic and revolutionary aspirations limited to the transformation of individual countries in isolation from international institutions. Wallerstein later suggested that one lesson learned from the movements of 1968 was that while these movements had often resisted electoral strategies for fear of being coopted in mainstream institutions, doing so had also made their defeat easier when the moment of heightened mobilisation had passed.
The contemporary world is every bit as capitalist as that of 1968. Yet, as Wallerstein’s studies so aptly show, the globalisation of capital is no recent phenomenon. Capitalism has been global from the start. From the start it has promised a liberation from needs through the expansion of market innovation and new technologies and failed to live up to these promises. Capitalism may expand the reach of technologies and with it uniformise market preferences but it can’t erase the gap between rich and poor and between North and South. Capitalism relies upon these divides for its own survival.
If capitalism is our ongoing predicament, the struggles against exploitation, racism, sexism and homophobia are every bit as relevant now as they were in the past. Yet the defeat of the socialist bloc and with it of the non-aligned movement of states in the global South have resulted in a disillusion of the radical left, too weak to articulate a positive vision for how to transform political and social institutions. Only the far right reaps the benefits of the crisis of capitalism. Centrist liberals may lament this development but they fail to see how it was their own celebration of the market while blaming underdevelopment on corrupt domestic elites that planted the seeds for the emergence of bigoted nationalism.
Today, ongoing conflicts between an exploited, precarious workforce and a billionaire elite who live off wealth; between those who will survive climate breakdown and those who will not; between the crisis of progressive liberalism and the rise of the right, all open up possibilities for resistance and spaces for alternatives. Wallerstein indicated that the way forward is class struggle, using class in a broad sense that incorporates the perspective of the global South and that integrates the struggle against capitalism with that against racism, paternalism and neo-colonial domination. The challenge is for us to take forward his vision. As he foresaw, we may succeed. But the chances are only 50-50.
Note: a shorter version of the above was first published in the New Statesman.
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