Issue 2/2001 - Du bist die Welt

A double-edged sword

Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein

Workshop »Theory Unrealized« and »Imagining Democracy«

Immanuel Wallerstein became known mainly through his analysis of the world-system, which he has been developing since 1974 in a monumental project consisting of numerous published volumes. The hyphen in the term »world-system« is an integral part of its meaning: it is there to make it clear that it is not a system in the world that is meant, but a system that actually represents a world. In a world economy, all its constituent parts are linked by economic dependence within a system of capitalistic world trade and international division of labor, and influence one another. This causes a sharp polarization between north and south (or the center and the periphery) within which structural political and economic inequalities are not leveled out but, on the contrary, made more extreme. Here, Wallerstein's theories are allied to the »dependence theories,« which see underdevelopment in the global south as being a result of overdevelopment in the global north. Andre Gunder Frank's famous dictum about »the development of underdevelopment« is paradigmatic for this. Immanuel Wallerstein was a guest on Platform 1 at documenta 11 in Vienna. Members of the workshop »Theory Unrealized« and »Imagining Democracy« asked him about the present crisis in the world-system, theories of multiculturalism, and, not least, his refreshing confidence that the current form of global capitalism will soon be at an end.

[b]Workshop:[/b] Professor Wallerstein, in contrast to many of your colleagues you do not consider it at all certain that the present form of West-dominated global capitalism, together with the form of liberal democracy in which it manifests itself in the global north, is inescapable. After the end of the Cold War, the fact that Western models of liberal democracy would achieve ultimate victory has scarcely been called into question, and almost no one dares to develop, or even hope for, serious alternatives to the present world-system. You, on the contrary, are of the opinion that the present world-system will almost certainly be replaced by a completely different model within the next 50 years. You say that the present model of global integration within a system of capitalistically organized division of labor and unequal trading conditions between centers and peripheries is in crisis. What gives you the confidence to believe not only in the concept of a messianic moment, as Walter Benjamin does, but in the possibility of entire messianic decades?

[b]Immanuel Wallerstein:[/b] I´m not sure I like the term messianic - it has too much the flavor of a perfect society that will result; what I said is that every historical system has a life cycle - it comes into existence at some point and it goes on operating its normal way for a certain period and then things move too far from equilibrium and it turns into a structural crisis. The only thing you can be sure of in a structural crisis is that the system will come to an end, but it creates a situation of social chaos for 25 or 50 years and it also creates a situation of great struggle over what the successor system will be. I basically argue that we have entered into that situation and are living in it right now. And we don't know how it will come out, we cannot predict the future, but there is an uncertainty in which direction we will go but in the end, we can be certain that what we do will affect the direction where we move. So at one and at the same time, it is a very dangerous period in personal terms but a very interesting and exciting period because the possibilities of transformation in a better direction are great, although possibilities for transformation in a worse direction are also great.

[b]Workshop:[/b] When would you say that this period has started; and what are, at present, the main indicators of the structural crisis?

[b]Immanuel Wallerstein:[/b] Ist very difficult to put an exact date on it because there are different aspects. At one level, I would date it in 1968, with the world revolution in 68, which transformed the geo-culture in fundamental ways and which reflects the decline in legitimacy that people accord to state structrues and the existing system. On the other hand, if one wants to look at it from the point of view of capitalists, one cannot date it exactly. What we have is an accumulation of problems of accumulation which has gone on for a long time. One aspect of it is the deruralisation of the world which has reached a very acute point, practically we will move to an entirely urban world within 20 years or so. This is eliminating the reserve of labor which could be brought into the system at very low wages and therefore, the process of steadily increasing wages out of the total value created is growing - so that is one source of difficulty for the capitalists. The second source of difficulty is what people refer to as the ecological crisis. What is the ecological crisis from the point of view of the capitalist? Fact is that one of the ways they have kept down their costs is that they haven't paid their bills. A good deal of their bills are paid for by other people. If you throw toxic waste into a river, you are not paying the cost of recuperating and detoxifying and if you cut down trees and don't provide for resuscitating trees, then somebody else is. You can do this for a certain period of time and we have been doing this for 500 years. That's why we talk of an ecological crisis and that's why there is a green movement in the world. People didn't just decide to be greens in the last 30 years on top of their heads, there is a real issue here. But the only way you can resolve this issue is by either expending an incredible amount of money to repair the situation.

Somebody's got to pay for that - but who will be the one? - and secondly, there is no point in repairing the damage if it continues to be done, so the way you can handle that is to say: all the capitalist enterprises in the world - internalize your costs! And they will say: but this cuts into the profit margin and they are absolutely right! That is the second squeeze that they face and the third squeeze comes from what I call the democratization of the world. Fact is that there has been public pressure for over 200 years for more education, more health care, and more life time guarantees of income - allthat costs something and the bill is paid by taxation. Taxes have indeed been going up and people are quite correct when they complain about taxes going up because they are higher than they used to be and they will be even higher in the future because the demand level for what I call the threshold has been increasing. Once upon a time people wanted only primary education; then, they only wanted secondary education but now they want tertiary education and we have to pay for that. Same thing with health, same thing with pensions etc. So that is a third crunch on capital accumulation and the crunches are adding up and I guess that is what you mean with a system far from equilibrium. They are running into great difficulties. When you run into great difficulties on capital accumulation and the state structures are getting delegitimated you may begin to think of trying to find new ways to preserve your privileges which is what I think is going on.

[b]Workshop:[/b] What is the role of racism and sexism in maintaining these privileges? Isn't it the case that in principle , anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles cannot be successful unless they target the fundamental structures of the system itself?

[b]Immanuel Wallerstein:[/b] In a sense, that is of course true. Racism and sexism are two of the fundamental structuring principles of the capitalist world economy - they are inherent to its functioning, it couldn't function without them and as long as it exists they will exist. You can minimize the damage around the edges, but you cannot transform the situation fundamentally. But of course that's a double egded sword - on the one hand, that's the way they hold the system together - one of the ways to hold the system together. On the other hand, that's also one of the things that has aroused anti-systemic feelings on the part of many people. Again, we have a situation in which the things that sustain the capitalist system are also the things that undo the capitalist system. So the fact that there is a much deeper anti-racist struggle than there was 50 or 100 years ago (and that's true around the world) is the result of increasing opposition, increasing pressure and increasing tension And this is part of the current situation, so I don't think this is going to disappear, it is not going to be solved in any way, but I think that is going to be one of the dissolving elements of the system.

[b]Workshop:[/b] We were absolutely delighted that you did neither mention the words identity nor culture in your lecture - how would you describe the function of culture in the current global system?

[b]Immanuel Wallerstein:[/b] Culture is a very curious concept. Because on the one hand, we use the word culture to describe something very fundamental and deep which survives the passing changes in the political and economic system. On the other hand, we all know that almost every single aspect of culture is an extraordinarily rapidly changing phenomenon. One has to think of culture not as something that is - how shall I say - just THERE but as a phenomenon of the present which lays claim to its legitimacy by saying it is of the past. And that is sort of the political stance of the word culture: it is something that is created at this moment and that says it should be defended because it has been there for hundreds of thousands of years which is of course not objectively true but people do believe that and that is part of the strenght of the concept. So culture is extremely malleable but you also asked me about identity. That is what we feel - that our position in the larger social system is connected with who we call ourselves and what other people call us. That too changes enormously and very fast. Take something like ethnicity. You think you know what ethnic groups are but anyone who studies them historically could show how names come into and out of existence over 50 to 75 years. Names emerge and they disappear. So why did they emerge and why did they disappear? That has to be explained with the political reality at this given moment. Culture and identity are political claims of the present. Now they may be good claims, bad claims or in-between claims, but we have to know them as what they are - they are attempts by some group of people to say: we have rights, or we don't have enough rights, or we would like to do something in another way and we are being kept from doing this. One has to break out of the mould of thinking that these are primordial. All that of course is rhetoric and we have to recognize that it is rhetoric and at a certain point in time it is important for certain people to use their language rather than some other language.

Why for instance should people speak German rather than Slovenian? I mean there are arguments. One could say that German is a language in Austria that more people speak and therefore, it makes more sense for the state operations to be done in German. Somebody in the corners of Austria may intend to speak Slovenian because they may think they are second rate persons when it comes to go to the local post office or to the police station and they cannot express themselves in their own language. This is a serious immediate political issue, that has to be negotiated and resolved. There is no definitive automatic way of saying it should be German or it should be German and Slovenian. You have to look at the situation.

[b]Workshop:[/b] On the other hand, Jörg Haider is boasting of his minority poltics in Carinthia. This politics of recognition of mere cultural rights can also be the basis of racist apartheid models insofar as culturla difference of the other is used to keep them as distant and isolated as possible.

[b]Immanuel Wallerstein:[/b] If you look at subordinate groups anywhere in the world and their politics over a 50 to 75 year period, they almost always move in a zigzag in which for some time they demand to be more integrated, and then they demand to be less integrated and assert their autonomous rights. On the other hand, the dominant group also zigzags and says you must integrate or you are not allowed to integrate. This is a no-win situation - that's the problem - because of deep inequalities, so the best you can do is try to improve the immediate situation without having the illusion that this transforms that situation fundamentally. This will always remain a patchwork.



Writings by Immanuel Wallerstein:

The Modern World-System. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York 1974

The Modern World System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy. New York 1980

The Politics of the World-Economy. The States, the Movements, and the Civilizations. Cambridge 1984

The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840. San Diego 1988

Unthinking Social Science. Cambridge1991

Utopistics. Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century. New York 1998

Writings on Immanuel Wallerstein:

Andre Gunder Frank, Barry K. Gills (Eds.): The World System. Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? London 1996.

Thomas R. Shannon: An Introduction to the World-System Perspective. Boulder 1996.