World Systems Theory Research Paper

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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.

3.1    Limitations

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.

Bibliography:

  1. Abu-Lughod J L 1989 Before European Hegemony: The World System  D. 1250–1350. Oxford University Press, New York
  2. Bairoch P  1993  Economics  and  World  History:   Myths   and Paradoxes. University  of Chicago Press, Chicago
  3. Cardoso F H, Faletto E 1979 Dependency and Development in Latin America. University  of California  Press, Berkeley, CA
  4. Chase-Dunn C K  1989  Global  Formation:  Structures  of  the World-Economy.  Basil Blackwell, Cambridge,  MA
  5. Evans P B  1995  Embedded  Autonomy:   States  and  Industrial Transformation.  Princeton  University  Press, Princeton  NJ
  6. Hall T D  1989  Social  Change  in  the  Southwest,   1350–1880. University  Press of Kansas,  Lawrence,  KS
  7. Jowitt K  1992 New  World  Disorder: The  Leninist  University  of California  Press, Berkeley, CA
  8. Kasaba R 1988 The Ottoman  Empire and the World Economy: The Nineteenth Century. State University of New York Press, Albany,  NY
  9. Lenin V I 1939 Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism: a Popular Outline. International Publishers, New York
  10. Love J L  1996 Crafting  the  Third  World:  Theorizing  Under-Development in Romania and Brazil. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  11. Ray D 1998 Development Economics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  12. Reid A  1988/1993 Southeast  Asia  in the  Age  of  Commerce, 1450–1680. Yale University  Press, New Haven, CT, 2 Vols.
  13. Smelser N J, Swedberg R (eds.) 1994 The Handbook of Economic Sociology. Princeton University  Press, Princeton,  NJ
  14. Taylor P  J  (ed.)  1993  Political  Geography  of  the  Twentieth Century: A Global Analysis. Belhaven Press, London
  15. Wallerstein I M  1974 The  Modern  World     Academic Press, New York
  16. Wallerstein I M  1979 The  Capitalist  World  Economy:  Cambridge  University  Press, Cambridge,  UK
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