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  Print view: Immanuel Wallerstein's Worldview

Immanuel Wallerstein's Worldview

by Stephen Lendman
Friday, 22 October 2010

Wallerstein sees change ahead in one of two forms, either more progressive or repressively hard right. So far, the latter's prevailing despite voters culturally against lost social benefits.

Wallerstein is a Yale University Senior Research Scholar, former President of the International Sociological Associatiion (1994 - 1998), and chair of the international Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the the Social Sciences (1993 - 1995). His writing focuses on three domains of world systems analysis, the historical development of the modern world system, the structures of knowledge, and the contemporary crisis of the capitalist world economy.

His many books include "The Capitalist World-Economy (Studies in Modern Capitalism)," "After Liberalism," "The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century," and "The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World," in which he wrote:

America "has been a fading global power since the 1970s, and the US response to the (9/11) terrorist attacks has accelerated this decline....the economic, political and military factors that contributed to US hegemony are the same factors that will inexorably produce the coming US decline."

Chalmers Johnson shares that view, notably in his books, "The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic" and "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (The American Empire Project)," saying America is plagued by the same dynamic that doomed past empires - "isolation, overstretch, the uniting of local and global forces opposed to imperialism, and in the end bankruptcy," combined with growing authoritarianism and loss of personal freedom.

Hence, the title "Nemesis," the goddess of vengeance and punisher of hubris and arrogance in Greek mythology. She's here among us, says Johnson, unseen and patiently stalking our way of life, awaiting her chosen moment to make her presence known. Johnson compares her to Wagner's Brunnhilde in Der Ring des Nibelungen, saying unlike Nemesis, she collects heros, not fools and hypocrites.

They both, however, announce themselves the same way, saying "Only the doomed see me," even though Nemesis' presence will have a profound real world effect.

Destructive policies aren't sustainable. Former Nixon Council of Economic Advisors chairman Herb Stein meant it by his "Herbert Stein's Law", saying "if something cannot go on forever, it will stop," or simply put, things that can't go on forever won't, especially ill-conceived overreaching ones.

America's chaotic "capitalist world system" is one, says Wallerstein. A different future lies ahead in one of two forms - more progressive or hard line opposite, what neither Wallerstein nor anyone can know or time precisely. However, disruptive change is coming, ending America's global dominance. One or more other powers will supplant it under a new system, not today's.

Wallerstein believes the Soviet Union sustained US hegemony for a quarter century post-WW II by scaring Western Europe and other countries to America's side, and during the war diluting Hitler's power by his futile invasion. Afterwards, both countries struck a deal for sustainable world order, America controlling two-thirds, Moscow the rest, besides the specter of mutually assured destruction (MAD) deterring either side from declaring war on the other.

Plans often don't turn out as intended, the US/Soviet pact breaking down in East Asia with Mao's independence and Vietnam resisting colonial occupation. It bogged America down in an unwinnable war, much like Iraq and Afghanistan today, accelerating America's decline by thinking otherwise.

In the 1970s, it began, says Wallerstein, at first slowly, faster after the Soviet Union's dissolution, then further accelerated by post-9/11 events. Hard line neo-cons were empowered, believing brute force could solidify US dominance, when, in fact, it's done the opposite. Alliances opposed to US belligerence formed, including China and other rising powers strengthening their economies over America stressing military strength as a fist to maintain global hegemony whether or not other nations concur.

Still the world's dominant economic power, Wallerstein believes capitalism's demise will doom it, citing three negative long term trends weakening the ability to accumulate profits:

  1. Rising wages that began declining around 1970, then accelerated during the current economic crisis, a trend likely to continue, not reverse quickly, but will longer term. It's anyone's guess when, but for now, lower pay, fewer benefits and high unemployment are deeply embedded in a sick global economy.
  2. Rising taxes that always squeeze profits, though again in today's economy, they're fixed or declining until conditions improve, besides not knowing the full impact of America's healthcare reform cost, an indirect tax. Most likely, workers will bear the main burden, not employers easily able to offload most of it.
  3. Higher input costs are ahead. Externalizing them by environmental contamination continues, but that ecological limit approaches, perhaps destructively enough to endanger human life.

Overall, governments aren't improving conditions, especially in America and Europe with growing numbers suffering through hard times because bad public policies help business at the expense of workers, an unsustainable secular trend.

A better world is possible, and Wallerstein proposes one through:

  • public demands for long term change;
  • defensive electoral strategies backing a left-leaning coalition;
  • holding it accountable if empowered;
  • making anti-racism the defining measure of democracy;
  • creating a decommodified society favoring non-profits stressing performance over corporate conglomerates based on profits; and
  • recognizing that today's condition is transition toward a better or worse world system.
"The Imminent End of Capitalism"

In an April 2008 talk on "World-Systems, The Imminent End of Capitalism and Unifying Social Science," Wallerstein argued that we're "in a chaotic situation, which we will be in for twenty to forty years to come. This crisis has to do with the lack of sufficient surplus-value available and thus with the possible profit one can make."

Long term it's shrinking. A new world-system lies ahead that will "replicate certain basic features of the existing" one, but it won't be capitalism as we know it. It'll be one of two alternatives - either still "hierarchical and exploitative" or "relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian." No knows which one. The only sure thing is that today's system won't survive. In its place, we'll create "order out of chaos" if we haven't self-destructed altogether, a real possibility militarily and/or environmentally.

Wallerstein also argues that "neoliberalism is absolutely at an end, (and) globalization as a term and a concept will be forgotten ten years from now because it no longer has the impact it was meant to have...." Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics were wrong. There IS an alternative. It's coming and won't be like today's system. It'll either be better or worse. What can't go on forever, won't "because no system goes on forever."

They're all historical, starting at a certain point, surviving by established rules, then veering from equilibrium and dying. "Our system has moved far from equilibrium" over the past 500 years. Now chaotic, it won't last more than 40 or 50 more, unpleasant ones Wallerstein believes. So stay tuned, or at least understand that tomorrow's world won't be your grandfather's, but it may be worse.

More Recent Articles

On February 15, Wallerstein headlined, "Chaos as an Everyday Thing," saying:

You know conditions are chaotic when media pundits "are constantly surprised, short-term predictions....go in radically different directions, establishment figures say previously taboo things," and ordinary people are scared and "very unsure what to do."

As a result, governments face impossible choices, individuals even tougher ones when no one's sure what's right or coming. Are other parts of the world more stable than America? Some yes, others no, "but there are no guarantees" at a time of uncertainty and instability. "When the giant teeters, many things can (and nearly always) come down with it." It's a situation "in which the economic, political, and cultural fluctuations are large and rapid. And that is frightening for most people," especially the most vulnerable.

On May 15, he headlined "The Anatomy of Fear," calling it "the most pervasive public emotion in most of the world today," following the May 6 1,000 point intraday "flash crash," Greece's vulnerability to bankruptcy, and its disruptive street riots, a combination creating global angst that could erupt anywhere unexpectedly any time, given the fragility of world economies.

As a result, government responses have been "to buy time with paper money that is borrowed or printed," hoping "renewed economic growth (will) restore confidence," and ease fears of more panic. However, short-term fixes can't heal systemic problems, ones exacerbated by band-aid economics, putting off a greater problem for tomorrow that should be addressed today, pain and all.

On June 15, he headlined, "Impossible Choices in a World Depression," saying:

"The financial speculators have created a disastrous fall in the world-economy." Solutions proposed amount to "damned if you do, and damned if you don't," damning ordinary people most. Moreover, imposed austerity measures are counterproductive, excluding military ones, the most obvious place to reduce, especially the bloated US budget, untouched and growing.

"The way out of this is not some small adjustment here or there - whether of the monetarist or the Keynesian variety," says Wallerstein. Extraction from the economic box "requires a fundamental overhaul of the world-system." It's coming, "but how soon?"

On August 1, he headlined "Ponzi Solitaire," asking:

Have "US industries (and ones elsewhere in the world) found the magic expand (future) profits?" So far, it's working by selling less, firing workers, making others work harder for less pay, raising productivity, and bottom line performance with it. But for how long? With fewer customers and less demand, "very soon the profits will dry up," and serious deflation may follow, the specter all economies face, "then they'll crash."

Do they know it? Sure they do, but "they are operating on the hedonistic principle of eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die." It might be called "Ponzi solitaire (PS)." Conventional ones bilk customers built on an unsustainable house of cards. In PS, "you bilk yourself until you crash," hoping to keep gains and get out before the whole economy collapses, sinking all boats with it.

On September 1, he headlined "Xenophobia All Over the Place?" saying:

Today's global crisis is defined by "fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign. (It) infects large numbers of people only sometimes. This is one of those times," xenophobic nationalism erupting because people feel or fear state decline, a malady present in tough, everyone for themselves, economic times.

In America, Tea Party protests reflect it, wanting to "take back the country (and) restore America and....her honor." It's erupted elsewhere as well. In Japan, the Zaitokukai (a new group) surrounded a Kyoto elementary school, saying "expel the barbarians."

Throughout Europe also, nearly all countries have parties wanting foreigners evicted, returning them to their "rightful citizens," whatever that's supposed to mean given how many have had roots elsewhere at one time or other.

Even Latin America, Africa, and other parts of Asia are affected. It's everywhere, the "real question" being "what, if anything can be done to counter its pernicious consequences." Fascist party histories are "replete with numbers of 'left' leaders" who turned right, Benito Mussolini, in fact, the man who "invented the word, fascism" and practiced it destructively with his Axis partners.

When world economies are in turmoil, embracing egalitarian values are politically hard "to define (and) sustain. But it is probably the only (way) that offers any long-term hope for humanity's survival," no matter how hard that is to understand when everything around us is chaotic and uncertain.

On September 15, he headlined "Democracy - Everywhere? Nowhere?" saying:

Despite most countries claiming democratic credentials, few agree on what they mean. In fact, "The idea that the 'people' might actually 'rule' " horrified "respectable people as a political nightmare...." Authority had to be "left in the hands of people who had interests in preserving" the status quo, or how they want it.

In other words, those with wealth and power wish to keep it, undeterred by popular interests harming them. Perhaps another way to think of democracy is as an unrealized hope anywhere. Some nations are more democratic than others, but "are any," in fact, "demonstrably more democratic than others?" Perhaps not enough to matter when even the best show disturbing erosion.

On October 1, he headlined, "Does Social-Democracy Have a Future?" saying:

In September, Sweden's social-democratic party lost badly, its worst showing since 1914. A center-right party won, and a far right, anti-immigrant one won seats for the first time. It matters because Sweden's "virtuous middle way (straddled) the two extremes" of capitalist America and Soviet Union communism. It was, but is no longer, "a country that effectively combined egalitarian redistribution with internal democratic politics."

Until now, it's been "the world poster child of Social-Democracy, its true success story." No longer. Meanwhile in Britain, Blair/Brown extremists rebranded the left "the new Labour." They argued for a middle way, mimicking America's Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the Democrat party's far-to-the-right-of center organization Ralph Nader calls "corporatist (and soulless." Ideologically they're like Republicans and just as belligerent, favoring anti-populism, anti-labor, anti-welfare, pro-business, pro-war for world dominance, and let-em-eat-cake social policies.

In other words, Britain's "middle way" favored "unbridled dominance of the market" allied with America's global hegemony project. So what do Sweden and the UK "tell us about the future of social-democracy?"

Post-1970, neoliberal globalization prevailed, eroding social democratic notions, sinking all boats together, some faster than others, market primacy overriding popular interests. "This was what (Blair/Brown's) 'new Labour' was all about." Sweden resisted longer, "but it, too, finally succumbed."

As a result, social democracy as a movement eroded. "It became an electoral machine that lacked the passion of yesteryear." Even so, it's "a cultural preference." Voters still want "the fading benefits of a welfare state," and protest vigorously when they're taken, a common happening today most everywhere. So, "Does social-democracy have a future?" For now, only as a cultural preference, not a movement, barring a reversal nowhere in sight.

On October 15, he headlined, "Afghanistan: Does Anyone Want the Burden," saying:

History has shown Afghans less than hospitable to invaders. Sooner or later they discovered the imbalance between rewards and burdens so left, wishing they never came in the first place. In the 1980s, the Soviets learned painfully. Now it's America's turn and its "coalition" allies. "The question 'should we continue to be involved?' is on the agenda everywhere."

For America, "withdrawal presents an internal political question," the considered equation whether staying or leaving draws more support. Public opinion "see(s) an unwinnable war in a faraway country. My prediction is that the isolationist thrust is winning over the interventionist thrust in US politics."

Pakistan and India also have interests in the outcome, Islamabad backing the Taliban as "a bulwark against India," while New Delhi favors the Karzai regime "as a way to defang Pakistani influence in the country, and, over the long run, help create the infrastructure needed to obtain energy resources from Iran and Russia."

Other factors also matter, getting both countries to rethink their options, some in India believing a Taliban government "feed(s) Pakistan a poison pill." Pakistan, in turn, worries about a homegrown Taliban.

"So, one possible (conflict) outcome (is that eventually) everyone may (tire) of the burden....and just leave the Afghans alone...."

What then? "It's very hard to know. It could look ugly (or) may surprise....with (a) relative live-and-let-live ambiance" that's existed there before. Moreover, with years more economic and political turmoil everywhere, "There may be no time or energy to worry about Afghanistan." Perhaps no money either.

A Final Comment

As explained above, Wallerstein sees change ahead in one of two forms, either more progressive or repressively hard right. So far, the latter's prevailing despite voters culturally against lost social benefits.

Where to now is the question? How will things look when we get there, and what can be done to avoid the worst outcome? It's always the same, centered on grassroots activism erupting to stop bad things from happening or change direction when they do.

So far, they're unfolding in real time. Perhaps little of it remains to reverse things. If it comes, the harsh world-system Wallerstein fears won't be pleasant, so coalescing to prevent it is crucial. Otherwise, we've only got ourselves to blame.

Stephen Lendman

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at His blog is

Listen to Lendman's cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.

Mr. Lendman's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.

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This story was published on October 22, 2010.

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