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World Systems Theory (WST) is the intellectual descendant of Marxist theories about imperialism and of Latin American Dependency Theory. It uses a holistic methodology that claims to incorporate all the social sciences and to look at the entire globe as a unit. It is meant to overcome the narrow specialization by discipline and geographic area that has yielded much speciﬁc knowledge but few general theories to explain the extreme differences in wealth between various parts of the world. WST does this by saying that under capitalism poorer or ‘peripheral’ countries have been systematically underdeveloped by the rich and powerful ‘core’ countries, and as such, they stand little or no chance of escaping without some sort of world revolution. In between peripheral and core countries are ‘semiperipheral’ ones that act as a kind of global middle class stabilizing the world capitalist system. On the other hand, it is precisely in semiperipheral countries that the strains and contradictions of the world system are most evident, and therefore, that is where revolutions against the world system are most likely. Because of its ideological radicalism, WST has been somewhat marginalized, but if divorced from its ideological bias, it has the potential to become a valuable tool for the analysis of social change.
1. The Intellectual History Of The Theory
The theory was developed primarily by the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1979) in the 1970s, and it quickly became popular in sociology and anthropology, as well as among some historians and political scientists trying to explain both historical inequality between nations and the international situation of the 1970s, particularly the war the United States lost in Vietnam. But it has older antecedents.
The notion that capitalist growth and therefore successful industrialization can only occur through the ruthless exploitation of an impoverished working class was Marxist. Though Karl Marx himself concentrated primarily on the internal workings of class conﬂict within rather than between different societies, he also stressed the global nature of capitalist expansion and its effects on colonial or semicolonial societies. This became an important aspect of later Marxist theories of international relation. Rosa Luxemburg’s and V.I. Lenin’s work as well as that of many non-Marxist critics of late nineteenth and early twentieth century European imperialism stressed the internationally exploitative nature of capitalism and its seeming need to control ever growing markets and resources. Lenin’s theory of Imperialism (1939), written in 1916, claimed that World War I was the logical outgrowth of the competition between capitalist powers for colonies, because without dependencies, the internal contradictions of capitalism would produce growing worker immiseration and eventually, revolutions. The consequence of this theory, if it is to be believed, would be that revolutions outside the core capitalist societies can deprive the core of easily exploitable human and material resources, and therefore lead to worldwide revolution. This belief remains at the heart of Wallerstein’s ideas, except that whole societies act as members of a class. Class conﬂict within societies remains important, but its ultimate direction is determined by the global struggle between exploiting and exploiting societies. For Wallerstein, no revolutionary movement within a single society, or even several of them, can succeed in bringing down capitalism without a global revolution.
The theory’s other intellectual parent was early twentieth century right wing nationalism. Joseph Love’s work (1996) traces the development of nationalist economic theories of underdevelopment from the German Friedrich List in the nineteenth century, through the Romanian fascist-corporatist Mihail Manoilescu, and to the Latin American right in the 1930s. The relative backwardness of these societies (they were what Wallerstein would call ‘semiperipheral’ at the time they produced the relevant theorists) was explained mostly by the dominant market position of the most developed capitalist powers of those times, ﬁrst England, and later, the major West European powers and the United States. The implications were that in order to develop, the poorer societies had to shield themselves from the world market, to somehow exclude the world system. Nationalism justiﬁed such policies as essential in order to protect the self-interest and integrity of the less developed nations.
World War II discredited fascist-corporatist notions of development, but the theory retained its attractiveness, and it gradually migrated leftward. In Latin America, Raul Prebsich, Celso Furtado, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso became the chief spokesmen for what came to be called ‘Dependency Theory.’ The explanation of backwardness remained essentially the same, that the developed capitalist powers impeded the development of those who were more backward, but it no longer seemed necessary to carry out protectionist theories within the framework of an authoritarian, ultranationalist, fascist-corporatist state (Cardoso and Faletto 1979). It should be noted that Cardoso, who eventually became Brazil’s president, abandoned most of the implications of his theory long before achieving power in his own county. Meanwhile, the theory became increasingly popular within the revolutionary left.
The problem was that a high degree of protectionism in an increasingly powerful and advanced world economy required heavy state intervention to block market forces and popular demand for the consumer goods produced by the world capitalist system. Therefore, some sort of authoritarian, state centralizing mechanism was required to carry out such policies rigorously enough to permit escape from the world system. If the theorists were right, the capitalist core, now led by the United States, would use its economic, diplomatic, and even military power to force open recalcitrant nations. This was the theoretical explanation of American intervention in Vietnam and throughout the Third World. Thus, to motivate their people and mount a defense, the leaders of anticapitalist regimes would have to use nationalism as the glue binding their people together in struggle, because they would be unable to provide the kind of consumer rewards offered by world capitalism. For those hostile to right wing, authoritarian nationalism, this led inescapably to the conclusion reached by Wallerstein and his followers, that Leninism in its most autarkic, closed Stalinist or Maoist forms was the only way to protect antisystemic nations until the world revolution achieved its goal of destroying the world capitalist system and replacing it with a more equitable, redistributive world socialist system.
This created an intellectual quandary recognized by many of WST’s early followers who did not relish the ideological conclusions reached by Wallerstein and those who remained with him. Could something be saved from the comparative, holistic methodological approach advocated by Wallerstein without having to accept the extreme leftism he and his closest followers, such as Christopher Chase-Dunn (1989) were also promoting? The problem became all the more acute in the late 1980s and 1990s as communism collapsed and Marxism–Leninism was largely discredited throughout the world.
2. The Uses Of World Systems Theory
Despite its shortcomings a world systemic approach to the study of social change remains a powerful antidote to narrow specialization. It also addresses problems that will remain with us far into the future, and it offers insights absent in other theoretical models.
2.1 World Systems Theory Is Not A Substitute For But A Supplement To Economics
First, we are obliged to admit that WST cannot claim to be a substitute for sound economics. While many development economists recognize that perfectly free trade policies by poorer economies may indeed have detrimental effects, few if any accept the notion that autarky is a reasonable development policy, whatever the type of political regime. The import-substitution policies followed by many Latin American countries from World War II until the 1980s, as well as by India and many other countries, slowed economic growth, led to entrenched, corrupt domestic interest groups that blocked innovation and reform, and ultimately provoked economic and ﬁnancial crises that threatened economic catastrophe. On the other hand, trade protectionism and developmental policies that fostered export-led industrialization in East Asia produced robust economic growth (Ray 1998). But beyond this, the truly extreme forms of withdrawal from the world capitalist system, that is the autarkic communist states, have all produced economic disasters. Furthermore, economic historians have shown that in the nineteenth century, as least, if not before, capitalist development did not rely on colonial markets, so that the economic argument in favor of imperialism turned out to be largely specious (Bairoch 1993). Yet, no matter what their strengths, there remains something unsatisfying about purely economic models of economic development.
In the hands of comparativists who place the societies they analyze in a global context and understand capitalism’s transformative power, but who also recognize the importance of domestic social structures and the variations caused by speciﬁc historical experiences, world systemic ideas help account for some of the differences in rates of economic modernization. Peter Evans (1995) has done this in explaining the success of certain state led industrialization projects. Though somewhat suspicious of core power, especially American hegemony in the contemporary world capitalist system, Evans recognizes that development within that system remains possible for those who know how to combine effective bureaucratic leadership with local entrepreneurial talent, and who remain oriented to succeeding within the world system and using its advanced technology and market opportunities rather than revolting against capitalism.
Historical studies such as the one by Resat Kasaba (1988) also show how WST can provide important insights as long as it is not used dogmatically. He proves that in the mid-nineteenth century local merchants within the Ottoman Empire were able to use growing trade relations with the capitalist world to strengthen their own position against both the Ottoman state and the interests of the hegemonic core powers. But later, the Ottoman bureaucracy, helped by some powerful foreign, core ﬁnancial institutions regained its strength, and this reduced the economic power of the domestic merchant class. Far from being ‘compradors,’ that is, subservient tools of the capitalist core (which is what conventional WST and most Marxists contemptuously call them), these local entrepreneurs might have spearheaded an economic and social modernization that would have made Ottoman society more open, tolerant, and progressive. The world capitalist system did indeed play an important role in peripheralizing late Ottoman society, but not in the expected way, and only because it was successfully manipulated by an increasingly nationalistic, Turkish, anticommercial state elite.
2.2 World Systems And Premodern Social Formations
Wallerstein believes that the capitalist world system began in the sixteenth century, with the European explorations and expansion around Africa to Asia and across the Atlantic to the Americas. But some of those inspired by WST have extended his model to precapitalist social and economic formations, arguing that notions of core and periphery based on economic and cultural exchanges explain social dynamics in a much wider array of societies than merely modern ones.
Janet Abu-Lughod (1989) argues that there was a large pre-European world system in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, linking China, India, and the Middle East, and that it was only bad luck that subsequently weakened this particular system and allowed Europe to become dominant. Her book, while historically somewhat at odds with Wallerstein, is faithful to his general world view.
Thomas Hall (1989) has used his research on the Southwestern United States from the fourteenth to the late nineteenth centuries to show that its many societies were interconnected in ways analogous to those speciﬁed by Wallerstein long before the arrival of Europeans, and such links continued in modiﬁed form under Spanish and Mexican rule. Looking at the shifting geographical distribution of ancient cores and peripheries has led Hall and others to reinterpret archeological data to better understand prehistorical social change.
3. Theoretical Limitations And Methodological Promises
WST’s methodological approach reaffirms an old but often neglected concept. All societies have operated within larger systems, and without placing them in that context, our understanding of how they work is severely limited. There can be no general laws of social behavior that do not take this into account.
Beyond this, WST has shed light on the nature of modernization, even though that is a term it avoids in order to show it rejects the functionalist theories proposed by ‘Modernization Theory’ in the 1950s and 1960s. WST has shown that there is indeed a capitalist world system, and its rules, largely determined by the core powers, affect everyone. Furthermore, this capitalist world is itself an evolving, changing structure. It is subject to periodic waves of prosperity followed by economic downturns. Even economists need to take such large systemic factors into account in order to perfect their models. So do the other social scientists who, by and large, limit comparisons to discrete cases rather than incorporating system wide variables.
A world systemic approach to social science, however, must admit the limitations of the theory as it now stands. Aside from its tendency to neglect economic theory, mentioned above, WST has also relegated technology and science to an almost insigniﬁcant role. Thus, Wallerstein, Abu-Lughod, and most others refuse to admit that Western European capitalism’s early dynamism depended on the religious and scientiﬁc transformations that occurred during the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. Max Weber remains a better guide to this process of change than any of the contemporary practitioners of WST, and by neglecting him, and the cultural issues he raised, they have weakened their paradigm.
Ideas generated by the core, from science and technology to various political ideologies such as nationalism and Marxism, have affected the rest of the world as much if not more than the economic and military power of the core. These ideas have been transformed in many ways within the periphery, and have stirred up particularly disruptive ideological currents of resentment and antimodernism in what Wallerstein has called the semiperiphery. There is no theoretical reason why WST could not use its model to expand our understanding of how this has worked. There is no need to continue to adhere to the simplistic materialism so many of its practitioners now follow.
It is precisely because the core, still led by the United States, retains its cultural vitality and historically unusual ability to innovate that the world capitalist system is still thriving. The repeated assertions that world capitalism is or will soon be in some sort of terminal ‘crisis’ has marred WST’s ability to understand the present, just as the failure to take into account the cultural speciﬁcity of Western Europe has weakened its explanation of the rise of the modern world. But these theoretical deﬁciencies should not obscure the merit of using a world systemic approach.
3.2 Methodological Promises
When he ﬁrst presented his theories, Wallerstein declared himself to be a disciple of Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school. Indeed, Braudel’s vast comparative sweep in which entire regions, and ultimately the globe, are studied as a system of interdependent parts, is entirely compatible with WST.
Many more recent ﬁrst-rate social scientists have adopted a similar, world systemic approach, though usually without acknowledging their methodological kinship with it. For example, the historian Anthony Reid (1988 1993) has presented a daringly new vision of Southeast Asian economic, cultural, and political history by putting it into the kind of comparative and global perspective that WST has always championed.
Ken Jowitt’s analysis of the failed attempt to create a Leninist world system (1992) also adopts a world systemic approach without admitting it. He points out that the communists actually were more successful at creating a cultural and ideological world system of their own, with a powerful core struggling to keep its peripheries under control, than at creating a system based on economic links. He then predicts that the collapse of Leninism will have a globally destabilizing effect because it will leave the resentful losers in the world capitalist system without any constructive or predictable revolutionary alternative.
Sociological theories about the spatial distribution of cities, or trade, or global networks could all beneﬁt from adopting a world systemic perspective. So far, judging from the literature in the articles on these subjects assembled by Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg in The Handbook of Economic Sociology (1994) this has not happened. But if it did, it could yield important results. On the other hand, some geographers interested in these issues as well as by problems posed by environmental degradation already have used a WST in a fruitful way (see Taylor 1993).
Other examples and promising avenues could be spelled out, but the important point is that WST’s potential is far from exhausted. Flexibly used, it still has lot of new insights to offer, and it is likely that in the early twenty-ﬁrst century, in response to increasing globalization, continuing inequality, and uneven prosperity, it will undergo a creative rebirth that will take it beyond its sectarian origins.
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- Bairoch P 1993 Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
- Cardoso F H, Faletto E 1979 Dependency and Development in Latin America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
- Chase-Dunn C K 1989 Global Formation: Structures of the World-Economy. Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, MA
- Evans P B 1995 Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ
- Hall T D 1989 Social Change in the Southwest, 1350–1880. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
- Jowitt K 1992 New World Disorder: The Leninist University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
- Kasaba R 1988 The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy: The Nineteenth Century. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY
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