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Immanuel Wallerstein's Seductive Fiction
by Dr. Gerry Coulter
2010-09-29 08:04:39
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Immanuel Wallerstein, who turns 80 this week, is the author of one of the grand theories  of the twentieth century. What set Wallerstein apart as a thinker was his macro-historical approach to the present. Not long after Walter Rostow’s “Non-Communist Manifesto” Wallerstein drew on a democratic neo-Marxist paradigm to the understanding of the emergence of an entity we today call “global capitalism”. To understand such a vast yet interconnected series of sub-entities Wallerstein played the central role in devising World Systems Theory. It is a somewhat more precise extension and elaboration on Fernand Braudel’s approach to the globalization of the European economy from the early 15th through the early 19th centuries. Like Braudel, Wallerstein believed that liberalism could never be a way out of the machineries of globalization for which it had paved the ideological way. In his view America was not exceptional but merely the current and temporary global hegemon.

 Wallerstein’s approach did away with terms like “first” and “third world” replacing them with the concepts of “core”, “semi-periphery” and “periphery” – each an integral part of one world system or global economy. The world system replaced the nation state as the key element of investigation. His model focuses on division of labour at the global level and shed light on vital relationships between elites in the core and periphery of the world economy which other models (Lerner’s Dependency Theory for example) had failed to do. According to Wallerstein the world system we know today emerged in the 16th century after European feudalism had morphed into an agrarian capitalist economy. Included here is the insight that feudalism did not fail, but that its deep and prolonged crises succeeded into proto-capitalism. Since the 16th century a series of deeply unequal relationships have evolved between core and periphery countries as European (core area) industrial capitalism emerged and globalized largely at the expense of a similar development in periphery nations who supplied people (slaves) and vital natural resources to the core that could well have been used to build capitalist economies at home. The emergence of elites whose wealth depends on resource exportation in the periphery, and their deep connections to core area capitalist elites, is vital to this model (think, for example, of England and its colonies). By 1850 almost everyone on earth was part of the world system just as almost everything had, by then, been commodified. Even intellectual approaches to economic problem solving are mainly “Eurocentric” according to this approach. An interesting aspect of World Systems Theory is that the location of hegemonic power in the core can and does shift (as it has from Holland, to Britain, and then to the United States). Today the United States is understood to be a “hegemon in decline” according to Wallerstein. The next half century he argues, is very likely to be one of incredible uncertainty and instability as U.S. economic hegemony continues to disintegrate while its technological and military power remain.

While World Systems Theory focussed too much on the core of the system and on economics to the detriment of cultural analysis, it is one of the more beautiful theory fictions of our time. But alas for humans as surely as the world is a game it is not predestined for knowledge as many, including Wallerstein, believe. The world appears to us from behind a veil of appearances and even our best theories merely arrange and rearrange discourse. The best of theory, like Wallerstein or Hawking or Einstein, rises to the status of fiction and fable. In poststructuralist times like ours, theoretically speaking, the audience for grand theory is in decline.

In this world theory will continue to operate for each individual along our local and restricted horizons, as a partial object because this too is where “truth”, “meaning”, and the “real” are now to be found. Theory, as it always has, best serves each of us as a challenge to the real than as an advocate of any system. Still, models such as Wallerstein’s continue to be brilliant and seductive as it was when it informed my own Master’s and Ph. D. theses almost three decades ago.

Reversion is the key concept he so dearly needed and continues to miss. Wallerstein has never understood that his own grand theory sits squarely inside of the theory of inevitable reversion. Reversibility works to undermine all systems so that, through the proper functioning of what is, its reversal is produced. All great empires fall, and within the very success of every system lay its undoing. In the strength and success of the digital network which computing requires to thrive – the computer virus also proliferates. The antibiotics devised to keep us healthy also allow viruses to grow strong and resistant to drug treatments.  We have known for a long time that inside the very networks any hegemon or system requires to thrive are the seeds that will grow into its undoing. Long before our world capitalist economy mighty powers rose and fell: “For those that were great long ago, the majority of them have become small, and those that are in my time great were small before… human happiness never remains long in the same place” (Herodotus, Book I, Section 5). Wallerstein, like many global analysts, did not seem to understand that it is the globe which resists globalization – as China will soon discover (as have the Dutch, British and the Americans in their turn): “…you must realize that there is a cycle of human experience: as it goes around it does not allow the same men always to succeed” (Herodotus, Book I, Section 207).

Wallerstein’s theory never made it to poetry but it did present us with an interesting fiction, as all great theorists do, while the world continued on in complete indifference to human affairs. Perhaps the ultimate theory fiction will one day find a way to match the indifference of the world to us with an equally powerful indifference to the world. Unfortunately for Wallerstein and all those who will theorize it – the world resembles nothing as much as it does a game of indifference and reversion. The better use of theory is one that believes in nothing and challenges everything. Wallerstein understood challenge but subverted it to another system of belief and like all grand theories this is where it fails.

Perhaps Wallerstein has missed reversion because his theory is so steeped in it. Maybe expecting Wallerstein to speak of reversion is akin to expecting a fish to theorize water.


Jean Baudrillard (2000).  The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press.

Herodotus. (1998)  The Histories (Translated by Robin Waterfield), Oxford University Press.

Immanuel Wallerstein (1974).  The Modern World System. New York and London:  Academic Press.

Immanuel Wallerstein (1979). The Capitalist World Economy (1979). London:  Cambridge University Press.


Dr. Gerry Coulter, Bishop’s University, Canada

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pamelajones2010-09-29 21:37:26

Emanuel Paparella2010-09-29 22:33:12
Intriguing theory worth pondering! To be sure, there has never been a dearth of grand historical and sociological theories throughout Western history, in and out of academia, often concocted while discussing social economic problems over a cup of coffee in the philosopher’s armchair. Before Wallerstein's theory there was the historical dialectical materialism of Marx (who had contempt for armchair philosophers), and before that we had the historical dialectical spiritualism of Hegel moving toward “geist” (which Marx and Fauerbach turn up-side-down in their materialistic theory), and the evolutionary theory of Darwin, and the sociological-historical theory of Comte, and the social Darwinism of Spencer, and the cyclical historical theory of Vico, and we could go on and on.

What is intriguing about these theories is that they all seem to claim to be scientific and to give us a glimpse at ultimate absolute reality; all consequently are deterministic. Enter the existentialists Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky who proclaim that if one places man in a completely deterministic universe, he/she is capable of blowing it up, to the chagrin of armchair academic philosophers, simply to prove that he is free. Ah, freedom! Could it be, could it just be, that the only non deterministic historical theory is that of St. Augustine of The City of God? It does not claim to be scientific but it leaves open the possibility of creating hell on earth by blowing up the paradise on earth of the social theorists, as a reflection of the one to come, thus preserving moral human freedom. Moreover, while not being, strictly speaking, historical, for this city does not reside in time and space, not unlike Plato’s forms, it has paradoxically affected the very telos of Western history. As I said, intriguing stuff.

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