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Book notes: World Systems Analysis

The author Immanuel Wallerstein is a Yale professor and leading exponent of world-systems analysis (WSA). This book is a short, dense introduction to WSA's development and approach to understanding history and current events.

My notes by chapter are below.

To Start: Understanding the World in Which We Live

  • The current concerns are globalization, and terrorism; but they're not root forces.
  • Root forces:
    1. 16th century emergence of capitalist world economy.
    2. French Revolution of 1789 and ascending of centrist liberalism dominating world geoculture.
    3. World revolution of 1968, which presaged the "long terminal phase" of our modern world-system, and undermined centrist liberal geoculture that bound the world-system.
  • University division of social sciences hinders complete understanding.
  • World systems analysis bucks traditional academic boundaries, and also protests deep inequalities of modern times.

1. Historical Origins of World Systems Analysis: From Social Science Disciplines to Historical Social Sciences

  • In the past up to the late 1700's, it was all philosophy; division of knowledge nothing like today's.
    • Science and philosophy split then, empiricism driving the former, and the modern university came about at that time: full-time paid professors, grouped in departments.
    • Medieval university had four faculties: theology, medicine, law, philosophy.
    • 19th century: split into sciences, humanities.
    • "The only legacy we have today of their erstwhile unity is that all the the arts and sciences in the university offer as their highest degree the PhD, doctor of philosophy."
    • The search for beauty, truth, and goodness: science took truth, humanities took the others.
  • But what about study of social reality?
    • French Revolution's two ideas: political change is normal/constant; second, the people legitimate a regime, not a monarch nor legislature.
    • History - how to make it more objective, scientific? Leopold Ranke: history should be written as it really did happen.
      • Use official documents. But what else was worth looking at??
      • This kind of history located overwhelmingly in just 5 countries: France, UK, USA, Germany, Italy.
        • Took a geopolitical/cultural slant as a result.
      • Avoided commentary on current events, but there was a need for that.
    • So sociology, economics, and political science were born. Why? Liberal ideology had three social spheres: the market, the state, and civil society.
      • These three were nomothetic - in search of scientific laws.
      • But those fields didn't quite cover the rest of the world: thus, anthropology (primitive people, no history or states) and orientalism (non-western states, no longer as powerful) were started.
        • Both assumed other cultures needed to move towards "modernity" of the West.
  • The university system above replicated itself everywhere, until post WWII, when US became dominant power, 3rd World really started to assert itself, and need for higher education exploded everywhere.
    • US invented "area studies" to understand what was going on abroad.
    • Both US and Soviets tried to export their "models of development" on other nations/people.
    • At the same time, knowledge became more and more specialized, PhD "originality" became narrower and narrower.
  • "Core-periphery" model by Raul Prebisch observed/pushed awareness of how unequal trade between nations was/is, enabling strong countries to pull more surplus value from weaker ones.
  • World systems analysis
    • Fernand Braudel: distinguished capitalism from free-markets, which most thinkers (including Marx) conflated: instead, he identified capitalism with monopolies and oligopolies.
      • Second, he insisted on multiplicity of time scales, and structures of time, relatively longer than human lifespans, focusing on duration of particular world historical systems - avoiding the nomothetic search for eternal truths in social science.
    • To summarize world systems analysis: focus on world-systems rather than states; focus on structural time; take a uni-disciplinary approach and abolish lines between social studies.
      • Critiques: all comes down to who does the acting; positivists think of the individual rational man; Marxists think it's the industrial proletariat; state-autonomists think it's the nation-state; cultural particularists think it's each of us interacting with everyone else.

2. The Modern World System as a Capitalist World-Economy: Production, Surplus Value, and Polarization

  • Capitalist world economy: large/global area with division of labor, flows of labor, capital, internally and externally to/between nations and cultures
  • Capitalist system: not defined by individuals/firms selling, nor wage-labor (both of which have been around for as long as recorded history), but the priority given to endless accumulation of capital - if you seek that too, the system works for you, otherwise no.
    • Requires a global economy, for division of labor, and ensuring no one state takes priority (as an empire would or has) over the capitalist priority of accumulating capital.
    • Institutions: market, firms, states, households, classes, identities
    • Capitalists prefer a semi-free market: a truly free market has too-low profit margins to be worthwhile. Oligopolies are much better - and easily observable in our world.
      • Inherently, quasi-monopolies will dissolve themselves as new firms enter and profit margins decline, but they last long enough (e.g. 30 years) to enrich capitalists, before it winds down and another industry/game opens up.
        • This process gives rise to economic cycles of expansion and contraction: new quasi-monopoly boosts core economy where it exists, then competition grows, economy of core states contracts.
          • e.g. Konradtieff cycles
      • Quasi-monopolies also depend on strong states, and that's where they tend to be located, thus also where "core processes and production" takes place (e.g. pharma, high-tech vs. agriculture, textiles).
      • A core-like process today is a peripheral-process tomorrow, e.g. textiles, automobiles, even computers; today's core processes include aerospace, genetic engineering.
      • Core states tend to dictate terms to peripheral states; semi-peripheral states are constantly trying to move towards the core, e.g. South Korea, Brazil, India
  • Households: a more useful and accurate concept/description than workers.
    • 3-10 persons, pooling resources for collective survival.
    • 5 types of income: wage, subsistence activity (e.g. cooking), petty commodity production, rent, transfers (gifts, welfare, etc.).
    • It is households that are in a class more than individuals; households (try to) maintain class and status-group identity; that's vital for the system to socialize its members, and also accept status-quo hierarchical structures.
    • Household identities are strengthening, not diminishing, as the current world system enters its late stages. e.g. rise of sexual preference.
    • Influences/identities: state, religion, ethnic organizations, etc.
  • Universalism vs. racism+sexism
    • Universalism: meritocracy, marriage for love (not money, ethnicity), universal suffrage and equality before the law.
    • Anti-universalism: racism and sexism.
    • Why universalism? the most convenient belief structure for skilled and competent work (by the "middle class") and the goals of accumulating capital; also provides justification/comfort to current beneficiaries of the system.
    • Why anti-universalism? justify inequality and polarization, build norms effectively, provide mode of inclusion but at a lower rank.
  • Ultimately, the capitalist world system needs division of labor (core vs. periphery) and also universalism vs. anti-universalism to work best.

3. The Rise of the States System: Sovereign Nation-States, Colonies, and the Interstate System

  • Peace of Westphalia, 1648, codified interstate relations, set limits and guarantees of relative autonomy.
  • Monarchs build and consolidated power with bureaucracies.
    • Sell offices to boost both immediate revenue and bureaucrats, who would collect taxes and fees.
  • "Sovereignty is more than anything else a matter of legitimacy." and its recognition is what states trade with one another.
    • e.g. US and Cuba, did not challenge each other's statehood.
    • e.g. PRC vs. Republic of China - unresolved ambiguity until UN 1970's recognition.
    • e.g. Turkish Republic of Cyprus - recognized only by Turkey, and dependent on its military support.
  • Sovereignty effect on capitalists - each area is important and has large-scale consequences:
    1. States set the rules on border crossings of capital, labor, and materials, e.g. immigration rules.
    2. States create the rules of property rights within the states - essential to accumulating capital.
    3. States set rules concerning employment and compensation, e.g. education policies, worker rights.
    4. States decide which costs that firm must internalize, e.g. environmental policies. Producers almost never actually assume all costs; exhaustion of materials, e.g. forests. Or transport and infrastructure costs.
    5. States decide what kind of economic processes may be monopolized, and to what degree, e.g. IP laws.
    6. States set taxation policy.
    7. They may act to promote/protect the interests of their own firms w.r.t. other states., e.g. US auto, aerospace, war firms.
  • While capitalists promote laissez-faire, few truly want that. Without some state-guaranteed protections, capital cannot accumulate and capitalism cannot function.
  • Constant battle over where the surplus value goes: firms/capitalists, workers (they must be able to buy firms' goods/services!), or state.
    • State machinery becomes the prime focus of wealth accumulation: controlling it, bending it.
  • French Revolution: from subjects to citizens; citizen => equality.
    • Conservatives, liberals, radicals: the liberals won out for the past two centuries, along with their meritocratic ideas.
  • Nationalism => nation-state, strongest form because the citizens will believe in it: devices of control are state school system, armed forces service, public ceremonies.
  • States are of course unequal, and strong states have many means of bending weaker states to their will.
    • Weakest states: colonies
    • Semi-peripheral states: have to work hard to maintain their position, may get chosen to take on a declining former-leading industry.
  • While no state has yet succeeded in creating a world-empire (Charles V, Napoleon, Hitler all failed), several have had hegemonic status: United Provinces (the Netherlands today) in the mid-17th century; UK, mid 19th century; US, mid 20th century.
    • Hegemon: set rules of the interstate game, dominate the world economy (production, commerce, and finance), influence without military intervention (which they still had in abundance as a credible threat), and cultural dominance.
    • Why did world-empire never succeed, but world-hegemony did? Capitalists would not allow another global priority (power) to replace theirs (wealth). Hegemony is also useful for at least some semblance of short-term order - but competition ensures it does not last. The hegemonic power eventually needs to use military force, which is a sign of weakness, and accelerates its decline.
    • Concluding paragraph:

      Hence hegemony is crucial, repeated, and always relatively brief. The capitalist world economy needs the states, needs the interstate system, and needs the periodic appearance of hegemonic powers. But the priority of capitalists is never the maintenance, much less the glorification, of any of these structures. The priority remains always the endless accumulation of capital, and this is best achieved by an ever-shifting set of political and cultural dominances within which capitalist firms maneuver, obtaining their support from the states but seeking to escape their dominance.

4. The Creation of a Geoculture: Ideologies, Social Movements, Social Science

  • Recap: French Revolution made two ideas global: political change as normal and inevitable; sovereignty vested in people and their citizenship (sometimes narrowly defined).
  • Political history of 19th, 20th century: debate about who was included or excluded, with the overarching assumption that it's best to include everyone. Debate/struggle in three areas: ideologies, anti-systemic movements, and the social sciences.
  • Ideologies
    • Conservatism: skeptical about malleability and perfectibility of man; reactionaries against revolution (counter-revolutionaries). Overriding faith in hierarchy to maintain order. Reign of Terror in France sparked conservative thought.
    • Liberalism: change is natural and needed to evolve society, for progress. Meritocracy; opposed inherited hierarchies (support natural hierarchies). Believe in specialists - not aristocrats, and not the mob. Promoted science over theology or philosophy.
    • Radicals: revolution in 1848, very brief workers movements - scared/changed both conservatives and liberals.
      • Liberals in core countries decided to promote nation-state, expanding citizenship and rights, and access to education: "liberty, equality, fraternity" as policy. Both conservatives and radicals aligned themselves with this approach.
        • Nationalism emerged with state schooling, state military, and national celebrations.
  • Anti-systemic movements: funneled energy into trying to expand citizenship to their members, take political power. But much splintering on how, e.g. workers' suffrage movements and women's suffrage movements.
    • By late 20th century, all these groups had gained their primary goal of citizenship, but none had gained the next (often forgotten?) goal of transforming society.
  • Social science
    • Nomothetic: economics, political science, sociology
    • Humanistic/idiographic: history, anthropology, Oriental studies
    • Divisions of studies based on premise of Western dominance.
    • Provided intellectual and moral justifications for world system, at least up to 1968.

5. The Modern World System in Crisis: Bifurcation, Chaos, and Choices

  • Systems have lifespans; when internal contradictions mount and trends reach their asymptotic limit, the system can enter a terminal crisis.
  • Modern world system in crisis already, may continue for several decades longer.
  • Genesis of crisis? He proposes 1968 world revolution(s).
  • At the same time, there has been a growing worldwide squeeze on profits:
    • Three main costs: personnel, inputs, taxes; all three have been rising for a long time.
      • Personnel: cheaper overseas, but transaction costs higher, and sooner or later, overseas workers want higher wages; the world is running out of cheap labor as the entire world is becoming more urban.
      • Inputs: waste disposal costs, raw materials, and infrastructure - running out of ways to avoid paying these costs. Either these are paid for collectively, or by producers.
      • Taxes also rising; besides bureaucracies, entitlement programs expanded greatly.
    • So while costs rise, oligopolies in most areas are eroding with more competition.
  • 1968: two major happenings: people realized US and USSR were colluding to maintain the world system; secondly, the revolutionaries who came to power showed themselves just as rotten as the system they overthrew. Optimism of the oppressed - critical to the legitimacy of the system - crumbled quickly.
    • Reactions against: centrist and right tried to roll back wages, inputs, and taxes, forcing open all markets except labor.
      • Reagan, Thatcher policies.
      • Not quite successful - with declining profit margins, capitalists focused more on speculation/finance than production.
  • World Social Forum, an example of global groups converging and trying to formulate a new world system.
  • Liberty/freedom: Increasing confusion and opacity helps those who wish to limit liberty, as the system becomes critically stressed.
  • Hierarchy, or egalitarianism going forward?
    • Closing paragraph:

      We need first of all to try to understand clearly what is going on. We need then to make our choices about the direction in which we want the world to go. And we must finally figure out how we can act in the present so that it is likely to go in the direction we prefer. We can think of these three tasks as the intellectual, moral, and the political tasks. None of us can opt out of any of these task…But they offer us, individually and collectively, the possibility of creation, or at least contributing to the creation of something that might fulfill better our collective possibilities.

  • Glossary and Bibliography are both good, worth copying/scanning.
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