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New world-system?

A conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein

At some point, there is a tilt; there always is. Then we shall settle down into our new historical system. Wallerstein foresees one of two possibilities: more hierarchy, exploitation and polarization; or a system that has never yet existed, based on relative democracy and relative equality.

Almantas Samalavicius: Years ago when the countries of eastern Europe were struggling to "adjust" their political, social and economic mechanisms to those of Western capitalist economy and liberal democracy, you noted in Geopolitics and Geoculture that "False conclusions are being drawn in the (ex-)Communist world, where the magic of the market is supplanting the magic of planning, whereas the market will by and large be no more efficacious an instrument of economic welfare for these states that had been planning, since the primary economic difficulties of these states derived (and derive) not from their internal economic mechanisms but from their structural location in the capitalist world-economy." More than twenty years after the collapse of Communism and dependency, the "magic of the market" seems to be less glorious than local economists and large sections of society had imagined in the glorious years of 1989-90. However, would you still explain the limited success of post-Soviet economy by referring to eastern Europe's place in the structure of the world economy?

Immanuel Wallerstein: Yes, the fundamental explanation is their position in the structure of the world economy. Of course, in eastern Europe as anywhere else in the world, there are variations in how the government handles the situation. There are often countries that can maneuver better and improve their relative position. South Korea is a notable example. In the 1960s, their economic performance was no better, probably worse, than that of say Poland or even Lithuania in the 1990s. Yet today, as everyone has noticed, South Korea has a much, much stronger economic performance. No doubt in part this was due to many intelligent decisions on the part of the government. But it was also due to their geopolitical location and the interest of the United States in fortifying them (and therefore permitting them to do things against which the United States inveighed in other parts of the world). The crucial point is that, at any given time, there is room only for a few countries (out of a large list) to improve their world-economic position. Eastern Europe (and particularly the 1990s' trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) thought they could be this "few". They were wrong.

AS: In Anti-Systemic Movements, co-written with Arrighi and Hopkins, you argued that "there had been only two world revolutions. One took place in 1848. The second took place in 1968." However, in eastern Europe and to a certain extent in other parts of Europe as well, most people are inclined to believe that it was the "velvet revolution" of 1989 that was the most crucial historical event, at least in the twentieth century – since it ended the Cold War and bi-polar opposition that lasted since WWII and, last but not least – brought a large part of eastern Europe to the realm of market economy, liberal democracy, and eventually to the European Union. Why do you think these events do not qualify the revolt of 1968?

IW: Arrighi, Hopkins, and I wrote a last joint article that appeared just after the book Anti-Systemic Movements. It is entitled "1989: The Continuation of 1968."[1] After a careful analysis of the ways in which the situation in eastern Europe and the USSR, both before and immediately following 1989, showed strong parallels to that of 1968, we argued the continuing reality of the world revolution of 1968. Indeed, more recently, I have tried to show the ways in which the so-called Arab Spring continued the world revolution of 1968.[2] Nor is it over yet. Its most ferocious opponents, such as – for example – Nicolas Sarkozy, realize this, and struggle to wipe out its legacy. It is rather people on the world left and left-of-centre who tend to underestimate its importance.

As for your suggestion that 1989 "ended" the Cold War and the bipolar opposition since 1945, that is true up to a point. That is however precisely why it constituted a tragedy for the United States. The Cold War was intended to go on forever. Remember, it remained cold up until the end. That is, there never was a serious military confrontation between the two collusive partners, the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States has been struggling ever since to create an alternative "enemy." Without success, it must be said, which has hastened its now precipitous decline. [3] Finally, yes it has brought eastern Europe into a more market economy (not the market economy but a more market economy). And it has brought much of eastern Europe into the EU and a multi-party parliamentary system. We have yet to see how permanent all that is. The changes are being threatened on many fronts today. Take for example what is happening in Hungary, originally one of the star "liberal" post-1989 performers.

AS: Disillusionment with the prospects that a capitalist economy offered accompanied the economic crisis of the last few years. Ideas of the "New Economy" seem to win more and more supporters. What do you think are the lessons of this continuing international economic crisis? What conclusions can be drawn from the crisis going forward? Do you think the outcome of the crisis will in any way affect present arrangements in the contemporary world-system?

IW: The phrase "new economy" is of course very vague. But the continuing world economic crisis is very real. Indeed I have been writing of it not for several years but for forty years. I believe that the historical system in which we live and have been living for some 500 years – the modern world-system that is a capitalist world-economy – is in its structural crisis. It will continue to be in it for another twenty to forty years. I have explained the details many times.[4]

The key point is that all systems (from the very largest, the universe as a whole, to the very smallest nano-systems), have three moments: their coming into existence, their "normal" life during which they are constructed and constrained by the institutions they have created, and the moment in which their secular trends move too far from equilibrium and bifurcate (their structural crisis). Structural crises cannot be overcome. The existing system cannot survive. The period is one of chaotic wild fluctuations in everything. There is a very fierce political battle over to which of two alternatives (the forks of the bifurcation) the world collectively will tilt.

The two alternatives can be broadly described. On the one side, there are those who wish to replace capitalism with a non-capitalist system that will retain all of capitalism's worst features – hierarchy, exploitation and polarization. And on the other side there are those who seek to create a historical system that has never yet existed, one based on relative democracy and relative equality.

There is no way we can predict which of the alternatives will prevail. They will be the result of an infinity of nano-actions by an infinity of nano-actors at an infinity of nano-moments. But at some point, there is a tilt; there always is. And we shall settle down into our new historical system or systems.

AS: One of the key figures in the making of EU – Jacques Delors – recently lamented that today's politicians are too preoccupied with technical matters and lack a long-term vision of the EU's future. He claimed that the future of Europe needs people who could be called "architects". How do you envision the future of Europe? Do you think the EU has any prospects of becoming a strong economic and political power?

IW: Delors is certainly right about the preoccupation of Europe's political leaders with short-term dilemmas. I think he is probably over-critical of those whose long-term vision is different from his. Will the EU be a strong economic and political power? It already is. Will it be stronger in the next decades? Possibly, but not at all surely. The EU's strength will depend on the geopolitical alliances it contracts – very much an open question today. But of course the EU, like all the other centres of geopolitical power, finds itself within the vortex of the structural crisis of the world-system as a whole. And if, as I suggested, we find ourselves in a new world-system twenty to forty years from now, we have no idea whether structures that now exist (the EU, its constituent states) will continue to exist at all and, if they do, what kinds of institutional roles they will play.

Whether Germany agrees to further de facto transfers to Greece or any other member country of the EU – or whether popular revolts in Portugal will or will not block the austerity measures of the government – these are indeed important, even vital, issues to everyone at present. Fifty years from now, they may turn out to be obscure footnotes in the books of professional historians.

AS: In a number of your books and articles you seem to suggest that the "American century" is over and that new, emerging superpowers will, in the long run, assume the role that the United States performed in the "long twentieth century" (as Arrighi calls it). How will the emergence of new world powers like China, India, Brazil and so on, and the continuing rearrangement of the world-system affect Europe – and, in particular, eastern Europe? Do you foresee any role for EU in an emerging world-system?

IW: The emergence of "new world powers" – you are referring to the so-called BRICS and some others – is a perfectly ordinary matter in terms of the constant slow rotating location of centres of capital accumulation in the structure of the capitalist world economy. It affects both the United States and the EU quite directly, in that it means there is a redirection of both wealth and capital from them to these "new" centres. On the other hand, it is easy to overstate what is happening. One basic problem is that these new centres are not resolving the structural problems of the world-system. They are in fact making it worse in one simple way. Their very size and their internal political pressures mean that they are allocating world surplus-value to a numerically larger percentage of the world's population than ever before. This means they are thinning the amount that can be skimmed off by those at the very top. And this makes the system less rewarding and therefore less interesting for them. That is why the mega-capitalists are part of the forces today for the replacement of capitalism by another system – of the kind they prefer, of course.

You ask how this will affect eastern Europe? Very directly, I think, and in ways that many will not like. I project that, over the next decade, there will be a Northeast Asian rapprochement bringing together in a loose confederal structure a reunited China, a reunited Korea, and Japan. I further project that this northeast Asian entity and the United States will enter into a de facto alliance. In response, both Western Europe and Russia will feel the need to move closer, over the protests (which will be largely ignored) of eastern Europe (or most of it). Can deeply-felt historical angers, such as those between Japan and China or those between Poland and Russia, be overcome? Of course they can, under the right circumstances. It was not so very long ago that France and Germany (or further back in time England and Spain) were bitter enemies. Are they today?

AS: In one of your articles on modernization you argue that the future system of world government will be based on a socialist mode of production. As we well know the fall of Communism has largely compromised the idea of socialism – no matter how sound this idea might be, global capitalism has, thus far, predominated. What are the prospects of this new economic paradigm emerging? Can reflections on current economic crisis pave way for a new paradigm to emerge – whether it is described as "socialist" or by any other name?

IW: You must be referring to an article of long ago. I no longer use that language. I don't think the idea of socialism has been compromised. I think the term (as well as the terms communism and social-democracy) have become unusable, largely because they both have no clear meaning today and they have so many linkages to unhappy regimes. But, as I said before, one of the outcomes of the bifurcation is a regime that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. I emphasize that, in my view, such a system has never, anywhere, existed before. We don't know exactly what kinds of institutions will be constructed in such a framework. If you want to call this a new paradigm, why not?

AS: My next question is associated with your work on the prospects for social sciences and higher education. Some years ago you chaired the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. The work of this Commission was eventually published and has not passed unnoticed in different countries. After your report was published, did you notice any significant changes in the field of social sciences? How successful have they been in overcoming the legacies of specialization as well as other inherited ills.

IW: The report was indeed translated into almost 30 languages, including almost all European languages (Lithuanian among them). It has certainly been discussed, at least in university circles. Have changes resulted? I don't think the report itself has been directly responsible for changes. But the changing world situation has had a major impact on the social sciences as a concept and the universities as institutions. This is in fact what we predicted. The crisis in the structures of knowledge is part and parcel of the structural crisis of the modern world-system. Its fate is both determined by the fate of the larger structural crisis and in turn helps to determine the outcome of the larger structural crisis.

The general economic squeeze that has given rise to "austerity" has of course been felt severely by the universities, which have reacted by commodifying more and more aspects of the university system. This may in fact lead to its destruction as a university system, something I have called the "high-schoolization" of the university, leading to the exit of intellectual production and reproduction from the university system.

Meanwhile, the fundamental epistemological issue, the putative reunification of the "two cultures" into a single epistemological framework, is proceeding apace, if in a very confused manner. The key change is that, whereas in the period 1850-1950, the social sciences were torn apart by the battle between science and the humanities, both science and the humanities are turning in the same direction as each other: towards what I am calling the "social-scientization" of all knowledge. This is far from decided yet. But it is encouraging as far as it has gone.

AS: Recent years saw the rise of policy in Europe directed toward the privatization of higher education. This tendency has been met with strong opposition in many European countries, as well as student unrest. What are the forces behind this urge to privatize universities and higher education in Europe? Moreover, attempts of this kind have been visible in eastern Europe as well. Are these tendencies related to the logic and tendencies of economic globalization?

IW: The privatization (for profit) of universities is simply part of the commodification of everything, which has been from the beginning the objective of capitalists. What is happening in eastern Europe is happening absolutely everywhere in the world. I think I have already indicated how this is related to so-called globalization. It is however a fragile structure.

Students pay far too much to these for-profit structures. They do so in the expectation that it will get them well-paid jobs. But it won't. For most persons, it simply gets them enormous lifelong debts. They will begin to abandon these structures, many of which are already going bankrupt.


  • [1] Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 2, Spring 1992, 221-42.
  • [2] See "Contradictions of the Arab Spring", Al-Jazeera, 14 November 2011.
  • [3] See Immanuel Wallerstein, Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World, New Press, 2003.
  • [4] A good summary of Wallerstein's analysis can be found in "Structural Crises", New Left Review 62 (March/April 2010): 133-42.

Published 2013-02-08

Original in English
First published in Kulturos Barai 1/2013

Contributed by Kulturos barai
© Almantas Samalavicius, Immanuel Wallerstein / Kulturos Barai
© Eurozine

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