About world-systems theory



Critical commentary on a book by Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Wallerstein's textbook titled World-systems analysis: an introduction contains a broad and intelligent presentation of the so-called “world system theory”. The work, however, is not limited to the introductory purpose, the author manages to go further by establishing a rich mosaic due to the scope, vitality and syntheses of problems that involve this theoretical contribution.

Knowing this eclectic but coherent interpretation is important for us to maintain dialogues between formulations that, in a comprehensive way, seek to dialogue with systemic constructions and rupture with capitalism. The brief review that we will make is a dialogue with the author, from our own perception, both critical and based on properly Marxian formulations, without failing to appreciate the rich elements that must be apprehended from the theory of the world-system.

This introductory work was developed by Immanuel Wallerstein based on a series of seminars at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo de Santander, in Spain. The seminar entitled “world-systems analysis” provides an important didactic exercise so that we can not only deal with the aforementioned theoretical contribution, but understand its weaknesses and critically dialogue with the work.

The book is organized into five brief chapters: (1) Historical origins of world-systems analyses; (2) The modern world-system as a capitalist world economy; (3) The rise of national state systems; (4) The creation of a geoculture and; (5) The modern world-system in crisis.[1] In addition, it presents an interesting glossary of terms, very useful for those who are beginning to study. Initially, it is worth a brief methodological and historical contextualization regarding the origin of the world-system theory.

Considering that this is an eclectic theoretical contribution, Wallerstein identifies the sources of support for the theoretical development of the world-system, in the format of four historical debates that the author considers central in the second half of the 1950th century (1970/XNUMX): (the ) the debate around the roots of non-convergent development expressed in ECLAC's center-periphery analysis and critically deepened by dependency theories; (b) the debate enunciated by Marx and only addressed in the second half of the XNUMXth century on the so-called “Asian mode of production”; (c) the debate between European and American Marxists about the transition from feudalism to capitalism; (d) finally, the theses presented by Fernand Braudel, in continuity with the “School of Analles”, in the format of criticism of conventional historiography and the isolation of the social sciences, called “nomothetic sciences”, that is, “sciences in search of perennial laws”, and that, following Braudel, the author considered the need for completeness and integration between them, he explicitly refers to economics, sociology, political science, anthropology and geography, which would compose a broader social science called “sciences”. historical social”.

Methodologically, a formulation is established where the system – as a totality integrated by localized state forms – exists as a complementary set and under constant geopolitical dispute and pressure to expand capital accumulation. The author defines capitalism as a system based on the “incessant accumulation of capital”, that is, “it means that people and companies accumulate capital in order to accumulate more capital, in a continuous and incessant process” (p. 40-41). This definition contains elements present in the one already established by Marx who, using Aristotle, observed that capital accumulation would be a “chrematistic art”, that is, something that “has no limits to its purpose”, with the movement of capital being something “unmeasured”.

The interpretation of this methodological mutuality based on the “historical continent”, as Althusser baptizes Marx's contributions in The capital, the elements of historical totality developed by Fernand Braudel are added, especially the notion of “long-term history” (far durée), as well as the interpretive influence of capitalism as a system of accumulation in unequal and amorphous structures, where the center-periphery relationship has as its essence the transfer of surpluses from the periphery to the center (unequal exchange) and the continuous “development of underdevelopment”. This broad theoretical perception consolidated an interpretation of capitalist logic based on four systemic and structural characteristics:

(i) Capitalism constitutes the first economic form that makes possible the development of a complex world-system and of continued existence in the long historical term, its totality being a world-economy; (ii) this world-economy is established in cycles of predominance and hegemony of an ambiguous relationship between monopoly companies and the state system, where three cycles would have already been established, with different hegemonic powers of capital states (Holland, England and USA) ; (iii) the existence of a gradation center, periphery, semiperiphery, established both in the form of states with strong and fragile sovereignty, and by the continuous transfer of wealth from one pole to another; (iv) finally, the long cycles of rise and crisis (Kondratieff) would determine, based on specific conditions of decline in the profitability of capital and economic fragility, the transition to a new cycle of power with a new hegemonic center.

The world-system is defined by Wallerstein (p. 42-43) as “a wide space-time region that crosses innumerable political and cultural units, integrated by economic and institutional activities obeying systemic rules”. This definition is objectively the extensiveness of the capitalist world-economy. It is worth noting that Marx had already established capitalism as a systemic and worldwide expansive totality, something that the theoretical version of the world-system seems to follow.

Wallerstein notes that the international division of labor resulting from the standardization of production is commanded by multinational companies, converted into central actors in the new world economic order. The main features of the current order show a world economy dominated by productive processes of flexible regulation that accompany the revolution in information and communication technologies. This international division of labor maintains the characteristics of technological concentration, which remains centered in some parts of the planet; observing a certain dispersion of the production base of natural resources destined for the center and new capitalist semi-periphery. Perhaps the biggest change is the enlargement of these semiperipheries, both with the participation of economies and societies that, until the 1990s, formed part of the former socialist bloc, and, and mainly, the great capitalist expansion in the Asian continent, with the integration of more from a billion people to the industrial army of workforce.

Braudel's idea of ​​long-term history presents a critical double interaction that is important for contemporary interpretation: on the one hand, historical analysis would have to consider long cycles of capitalist development, both in terms of their cultural and sociological forms, and in terms of economic and social aspects. of appropriation of wealth that would take place in accordance with a center-periphery pattern, composing the permanent social dispute between social classes, but also a configuration of central, peripheral and semi-peripheral forms of capitalism.

On the other hand, the crises would be cyclical or systemic, the first in the sense that capitalism exists with the permanent causality of cyclical crises, whose solution develops internally to the system, but the second form of systemic crisis implies the impossibility of a solution within the framework of the system itself, in Wallerstein's terms (p. 105-106): “they are those that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system, they can only be resolved beyond the current historical system”. Thus, in the current context, the capitalist world-economy would already be facing a systemic crisis whose solution is not on the horizon and which would last for periods of around “25 to 50 years”, producing “sudden oscillations of all the structures and processes that know inherent in the current world-system”.

The contributions of the work, apart from the theoretical problems they may have, and the criticisms of this contribution are many, as the author himself recognizes and which should be analyzed separately. His formulations, however, are fundamental for us to think about the current transition in which capitalism finds itself, including due to the enormous civilizing risks posed.

As noted at the end of this excellent introductory treatise a “period of transition from one historical system to another is a period of great struggles and uncertainties (...)”, during which we need to “clearly understand what is happening”, establish “the direction that we want the world to move” and, finally, we act so that “things move in the direction we prefer”. Here again Wallerstein approaches Marx and Engels who had already considered that “philosophers” not only have to interpret the world, “but what matters is to transform it”.

*Jose Raimundo Trinidad He is a professor at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at UFPA. Author, among other books, of Criticism of the Political Economy of the Public Debt and the Capitalist Credit System: a Marxist approach (CRV).



Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein. World-systems analysis: an introduction. Mexico: Siglo XXI, 2005.



[1] 1. Historical origins of world-systems analysis: from social science disciplines to historical social sciences; 2. The modern world-system as a capitalist world-economy: production, plusvalía and polarization; 3. The emergence of state-systems: sovereign nation-states, colonies and the interstate system; 4. The creation of a geoculture: ideologies, social movements, social sciences; 5. The modern world-system in crisis: bifurcation, chaos and options.


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