Structural Crisis in the World-System: Where Do We Go from Here?
by Immanuel Wallerstein
A second major cyclical rhythm of the capitalist world-economy is that involving the interstate system. All states within the world-system are theoretically sovereign but actually highly constrained by the processes of the interstate system. Some states are, however, stronger than others, meaning that they have greater control over internal fragmentation and outside intrusion. No state, nonetheless, is wholly sovereign.
In a system of multiple states, there are rather long cycles in which one state manages to become for a relatively brief time the hegemonic power. To be a hegemonic power is to achieve a quasi-monopoly of geopolitical power, in which the state in question is able to impose its rules, its order, on the system as a whole, in ways that favor the maximization of accumulation of capital to enterprises located within its borders.
Achieving the position of being the hegemonic power is not easy, and has only been truly achieved three times in the five-hundred-year history of the modern world-system—the United Provinces in the mid-seventeenth century, the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century, and the United States in the mid-twentieth century.4
True hegemony has lasted, on average, only twenty-five years. Like quasi-monopolies of leading industries, quasi-monopolies of geopolitical power are self-liquidating. Other states improve their economic, and then their political and cultural, positions and become less willing to accept the “leadership” of the erstwhile hegemonic power.
Premise No. 3 is a reading of what has happened in the modern world-system from 1945 to 2010. I divide this into two periods: 1945 to circa 1970; circa 1970-2010. Once again, I summarize what I have argued at length previously. The period 1945-circa 1970 was one of great economic expansion in the world-economy, indeed by far the most expansive Kondratieff A-period in the history of the capitalist world-economy. When the quasi-monopolies were breached, the world-system entered a Kondratieff B-downturn in which it still finds itself. Predictably, capitalists since the 1970s have shifted their focus from the production arena to the financial arena. The world-system then entered the most extensive continuous series of speculative bubbles in the history of the modern world-system, with the greatest level of multiple indebtednesses.
The period 1945 to circa 1970 was also the period of full U.S. hegemony in the world-system. Once the United States had made a deal with the only other militarily strong state, the Soviet Union (a deal rhetorically called “Yalta”), U.S. hegemony was essentially unchallenged. But then once the geopolitical quasi-monopoly was breached, the United States entered into a period of hegemonic decline, which has escalated from a slow decline into a precipitate one during the presidency of George W. Bush.5 U.S. hegemony was far more extensive and total than those of previous hegemonic powers, and its full decline promises to be the swiftest and most total.
There is one other element to put into the picture—the world-revolution of 1968, which occurred essentially between 1966 and 1970, and took place in all three major geopolitical zones of the world-system of the time: the pan-European world (the “West”), the Socialist bloc (the “East”), and the third world (the “South”).6
There were two common elements to these local political uprisings. The first was the condemnation not only of U.S. hegemony but also of Soviet “collusion” with the United States. The second was the rejection not only of dominant “centrist liberalism” but also of the fact that the traditional antisystemic movements (the “Old Left”) had essentially become avatars of centrist liberalism (as had mainstream conservative movements).7
While the actual uprisings of 1968 did not last very long, there were two main consequences in the political-ideological sphere. The first was that centrist liberalism ended its long reign (1848-1968) as the only legitimate ideological position, and both the radical left and the conservative right resumed their roles as autonomous ideological contestants in the world-system.
The second consequence, for the left, was the end of the legitimacy of the Old Left’s claim to be the prime national political actor on behalf of the left, to which all other movements had to subordinate themselves. The so-called forgotten peoples (women, ethnic/racial/religious “minorities,” “indigenous” nations, persons of non-heterosexual sexual orientations), as well as those concerned with ecological or peace issues, asserted their right to be considered prime actors on an equal level with the historical subjects of the traditional antisystemic movements. They rejected definitively the claim of the traditional movements to control their political activities and were successful in their new demand for autonomy. After 1968, the Old Left movements acceded to their political claim to equal current status for their demands, in place of deferring these demands to a post-revolutionary future.
Politically, what happened in the twenty-five years succeeding 1968 is that the reinvigorated world right asserted itself more effectively than the more fragmented world left. The world right, led by the Reagan Republicans and the Thatcher Conservatives, transformed world discourse and political priorities.
The buzzword “globalization” replaced the previous buzzword “development.” The so-called Washington Consensus preached privatization of state productive enterprises, reduction of state expenditures, opening of the frontiers to uncontrolled entry of commodities and capital, and the orientation to production for export. The prime objectives were to reverse all the gains of the lower strata during the Kondratieff A-period. The world right sought to reduce all the major costs of production, to destroy the welfare state in all its versions, and to slow down the decline of U.S. power in the world-system.
Mrs. Thatcher coined the slogan, “There is no alternative” or TINA. To ensure that, in fact, there would be no alternative, the International Monetary Fund, backed by the U.S. Treasury, made as a condition of all financial assistance to countries with budgetary crises adherence to its strict neoliberal conditions.
These draconian tactics worked for about twenty years, bringing about the collapse of regimes led by the Old Left or the conversion of Old Left parties to adherence to the doctrine of the primacy of the market. But by the mid-1990s, there surfaced a significant degree of popular resistance to the Washington Consensus, whose three main moments were the neo-Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on January 1, 1994; the demonstrations at the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, which scuttled the attempt to enact worldwide constraints on intellectual property rights; and the founding of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001.
The Asian debt crisis in 1997 and the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble in 2008 brought us to our current public discussion of the so-called financial crisis in the world-system, which is, in fact, nothing but the next-to-last bubble in the cascading series of debt crises since the 1970s.
Premise No. 4 is the description of what happens in a structural crisis, which the world-system is in at the present time, has been in at least since the 1970s, and shall continue to be in until probably circa 2050. The primary characteristic of a structural crisis is chaos. Chaos is not a situation of totally random happenings. It is a situation of rapid and constant fluctuations in all the parameters of the historical system. This includes not only the world-economy, the interstate system, and cultural-ideological currents, but also the availability of life resources, climatic conditions, and pandemics.
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