American Power and the Philosophy of World-Systems Analysis

Immanuel Wallerstein, one of the pioneers of world-systems theory, has been arguing since the 1970s that the capitalist system, after some five centuries, is for the first time in a systemic crisis from which it will not recover, at least as currently organized. While such a thesis may appear at first to be little more than an echo of traditional (and typically over-optimistic) pronouncements from various quarters of the left, it is actually quite different. For Wallerstein’s thesis is based on what remains a surprisingly unfamiliar historical and sociological method that eschews both the left version of progress (inherited from the French Revolution and Marxism) and the nominalism of postmodern theorists of identity and agency.

His book The Decline of American Power, published in 2003 and composed of essays written or published almost entirely in a post-Seattle era, is an attempt to make this interpretation accessible to a broad public. I regret to see that it has apparently fallen into the rocky contemporary debates on the nature and future of American Empire as if onto a bed of feathers.1 There is a striking contrast between the almost total lack of critical and public notice this book has received, and the huge debate and subsequent publishing mill attendant on a similar book about transitions at the end of modernity: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire.2 The comparison is not at all spurious. Both books take the form of well-packaged commodities. Empire, remember, is a thick and intimidating tome published by Harvard University Press and reviewed in major national newspapers including the New York Times. Yet, for all the pomp that accompanied it, it is not really designed to be read by a wide audience. It is written quite technically and not especially well, and is probably inaccessible to most people not trained in contemporary postmodern and political philosophy. Though difficult, the book is not so long as it appears: the pages are unusually heavy bond, the print is large and spacious. I’ve always thought that Empire was really designed for coffee tables and bookshelves, but not for readers. Its cover is graced with a beautiful photo of the earth from space, a hint toward the global consciousness currently in vogue; its thick black spine reads simply “Empire” in letters thick and red.3

The Decline of American Power is also designed to sell, but in contrast to Empire, it is a reader-friendly book. The front cover offers a close-up of what appears to be a downed Apache helicopter, an allusion to the first chapter’s title: “The Eagle Has Crash Landed.” It appeared shortly after the seemingly successful US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, which culminated in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Wallerstein was maligned for his initial prediction that the Iraq War would be long and drawn out, and in the second of two “Afterwords” he admits to being wrong. However, he also points out that this merely substantiates his and others’ claim that the Iraqi regime posed no real threat to either its neighbors or the US. This admission, written in April 2003, also predated the emergence of a protracted Iraqi resistance force that has shown once again that American military technology is no guarantee of geo-political success. Thus, in an important sense, Wallerstein was correct all along. I find that this is more often than not the case—Wallerstein’s political predictions have borne out on numerous occasions, but such success has not made for any greater public prominence.

What, indeed, accounts for the fact that at pretty much any gathering of political theorists and social philosophers, Wallerstein — a key player in the underdevelopment debates of the 1960s, then the originator of an entire school of thought—is not only never mentioned, but a substantial number of participants are unlikely to have read even one of his books? The phrase that he introduced into the lexicon of political theorists—the “modern world-system”—is used indiscriminately as a general description without any awareness of its origins and use as a technical term. How indicative is it that his recent books are published by New Press, which by its own admission publishes books “deemed insufficiently profitable”? I believe that the reason for this is that Wallerstein—and world-systems analysis more generally—has been deemed “insufficiently theoretical”; while way too radical to make the standard policy rounds, it is simply too shy of a comprehensive philosophical background to capture the attention of today’s intellectual circles.4.

The Decline of American Power

In this essay I hope to provide a bit of insight into the central claims that form the basis of The Decline of American Power, in order to help understand — and evaluate — Wallerstein’s belief that, today, a global political movement from below has more potential to impact the future of human society than ever before, guiding it from the present chaos of a disintegrating world-system to a democratic future. First, Wallerstein argues that the United States has been fading as a global power since the 1970s. Second, this decline comes not as a consequence of any actions taken or not taken by the US, but because of its structural position within the capitalist world-economy. Third, the decline of US power, or hegemony, coincides not with the transfer of this power to other nation-states, but rather with the end of the 500-year-old modern world-system. Fourth, and finally, the end of this system is also the end of the universalist liberal geoculture to which it gave birth: a naïve perversion of the Enlightenment project of democratic participation, to be replaced—hopefully — by an ideology stemming from contemporary anti-systemic movements. This fourth claim is deeply philosophically laden, and unpacking it will, I hope, help to establish some of the philosophical credibility that Wallerstein deserves.

The first three essays of The Decline of American Power — “The Eagle Has Crash Landed,” “The Twentieth Century: Darkness at Noon,” and “Globalization: A Long Term Trajectory of the World-System” — offer a basic primer in how to understand our present day and its history. The two world wars of the twentieth century are best understood as the brackets around a continuous “thirty years war” between the US and Germany for hegemonic successor (to Great Britain), that is, for the ability to determine and guarantee order to the capitalist world-economy and thus also to reap the profits that come from this position. The US victory resulted in the formal agreement at Yalta (dividing Soviet and Western troops along the Elbe River), signifying a more important informal agreement that the Soviet Union could maintain its dominance in the Eastern bloc countries so long as it did not seriously test the strength of the United States globally. The 1960s then saw the closing of the production gap between the US, Western Europe, and Japan. The onset of economic stagnation in the 1970s signaled the collapse of the most important ideological buttress of the US: developmentalism, or the belief that every nation can “catch up” if the state provides the right guidance. Its result for Third World nations was internal disorder, declining standards of living, and increasing debt dependency. Following on the heels of the ideological dislocation produced by the Vietnam War and the movements of 1968, the US’s only remaining card to play has been military supremacy, and even that is a mixed bag of virtual successes (Panama and Grenada), real losses (Lebanon, Somalia), and stalemates (the Balkans, Palestine). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the last remaining ideological pretext for US world-dominance disappeared, leaving the country’s ruling class face-to-face with its own inadequacy.

Ironically, it is conservative hawks who have best understood that American power cannot be maintained under the same conditions as held during the twentieth century. Instead, the US now acts (in Iraq, in Afghanistan) as an imperial as opposed to a hegemonic power. A hegemonic power (discussed further below) regulates a single economic system characterized by multiple political entities; an imperial power seeks to bring other entities under its immediate political governance. As has often been said since the collapse of communism in 1991, the US is no longer able to defer responsibility for the impact of global crises to a polarized world conflict. And so, unable to manage the world’s fiscal crises, the ruling elites logically turn to more direct forms of control. It is a method unlikely to succeed.

Up to this point, Wallerstein’s analysis mirrors what is being written today by dozens of commentators, left and right. The emergence of the Bush doctrine in international affairs, combined with the failure of neoliberal policies to revitalize the US economy, leaves few people sanguine about the opportunity for a second American century. What distinguishes Wallerstein’s analysis is that, even though he is highly critical of the Bush strategy, he attributes responsibility for US problems in the world not to the policy decisions of its leaders, but rather simply to the country’s structural position. The Iraq War, for instance, continues to intensify a weakened geopolitical position of the US. But even if Washington is able to recover from its mistakes, the course it has set — to demonstrate overwhelming military superiority and then expect the rest of the world to fall into line—cannot counter the larger forces at work. In my conclusion, I will return to this question of structure versus agency, a key element in the dialectic of the world-system. But first, let us look more closely at the structural causes of this American decline.

2. The Logic of Hegemonic Decline

At this point, a little background discussion is necessary. I’ll concentrate on two of Wallerstein’s earlier essays, separated by twenty years: “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System” (1974) and “Peace, Stability and Legitimacy, 1990-2025/2050” (1994). In the 1974 essay, he argues against two pseudo-problems that have guided much development literature but also much political theory: the “persistence of feudal forms” and the “creation of socialist systems.”5 Each of these pseudo-problems has led political theorists to deny the very idea of a world-system, since both feudal forms and socialism have appeared to be susceptible to analysis as independent systems. The first notion leads to thinking that nation-states in general follow similar evolutionary paths (leading to recommendations for the “development” of their states and/or cultures). This mistake is countered by understanding one of the principal truths of international capitalism: that national development is contingent on the underdevelopment of some other nations, typically disorganized colonies. (This idea was made famous in the revealing title of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.) The second notion leads to thinking that class struggle is altered in post-revolutionary states (leading to the belief that twentieth-century political economy can be analyzed in terms of East-West conflict rather than broad agreement on the division of spoils). This mistake… well, pretty much nobody makes this mistake anymore.

Instead, Wallerstein proposes that there are three structural positions in a world-economy: core, periphery, and semi-periphery. These structural positions are the keys to understanding not only unequal exchange and thus appropriation of surplus from the whole world-economy by core areas (analogous to the individual appropriation of surplus from a laborer by an owner), but also the problem of managing the stability of the system as a whole. National borders are porous vis-à-vis migration and commodity flows as directed by a given nation’s position in the world-economy. As Wallerstein explains:

[Capital] has never allowed its aspirations to be determined by national boundaries in a capitalist world-economy, and… the creation of “national” barriers — generally mercantilism — has historically been a defensive mechanism of capitalists located in states which are one level below the highpoint of strength in the system. Such was the case of England vis-à-vis the Netherlands in 1660-1715, France vis-à-vis England in 1715-1815, Germany vis-à-vis Britain in the nineteenth century, the Soviet Union vis-à-vis the U.S. in the twentieth.6

Core nations as a whole are able to assert strong state apparatuses in an inverse proportion to the weakness of states in peripheral countries, who are utterly dependent on an open economy to maximize profit from world-market trade (though of course this profit is entirely assumed by capitalist landowners); hence, “intervention of outsiders via war, subversion, and diplomacy is the lot of peripheral states.”7 Overall stability in the system is maintained by the presence of the semi-periphery, which prevents a unified political and military opposition from the weakest regions by serving as both exploited and exploiter. The analogy here is to the middle stratum within a state, whose well-being is wrapped up in the survival of the system and its leaders. But perhaps most important, the economically determinant role of the hegemonic power does not require the same mercantilist measures required by other core nations (to compete for the role of hegemon) nor those of the semi-peripheral nations (which, through mercantilism, struggle to enter into the core). As a side note, then, Wallerstein argues that the polarization of the Cold War was nothing more than a “mercantilist semiwithdrawal” of the Soviet Union seeking to develop and protect nascent industrialization.8

Obviously, so many questions, both theoretical and empirical, are raised by this general analysis that they have taken Wallerstein nearly thirty years to work out in detail, with the assistance and influence of notable figures such as Giovanni Arrighi. They include, but are not limited to, the specific geographical, ethnonational, and local conditions that determined the present structure of the world-system; the ecological constraints on surplus appropriation; the significance of antisystemic movements in creating pressures on the core state apparatuses; the emergence of liberalism as the defining geoculture of the modern world-system; the role of Kondratieff cycles (roughly sixty-year cycles of economic expansion and contraction); and more. Wallerstein’s initial demarcation of these issues required the fifteen-year, three-volume work The Modern World-System, and half a dozen collected volumes.9

The most important point to pursue for an understanding of his recent work, in any case, is the question of why hegemonic power cannot maintain itself over the long run. For this, we turn to his 1994 essay, “Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy.” Hegemony in the world-system, Wallerstein argues, is defined as the ability “to impose a stable concatenation of the social distribution of power.”10 This requires the absence of major military conflict between great powers, and the reduction of legitimacy crises within those great powers. It correspondingly may mean, but does not have to mean, stability within peripheral and semi-peripheral nations. Their wars, discontent, and possible resource-base changes must be managed by the great powers but do not need to be wholly eliminated.

However, Wallerstein also makes it clear that, given the three-position balance in the world-system, hegemonic nations are subject to the same cyclical rhythms as any system process. Furthermore, the same mechanism that leads a particular nation to assume hegemonic status also leads to its eventual decline. “Once a new hegemony is instituted,” he argues, “its maintenance requires heavy financing, which eventually and inevitably leads to a relative decline.” He continues:

The rise and decline of great powers has been more or less the same kind of process as the rise and decline of enterprises: The monopolies hold for a long while, but they are ultimately undermined by the very measures taken to sustain them. The subsequent “bankruptcies” have been cleansing mechanisms, ridding the system of those powers whose dynamism is spent and replacing them with fresher blood.11

Elsewhere, Wallerstein has described the various factors that inevitably increase the strength of competitors vis-à-vis the hegemonic power. Mostly, they center around the various claims on the state made by middle and lower classes. Supporting the lifestyles “appropriate” to the world’s leading power is an expense that leads to lower profits and a declining hold on the global economic market. When a slowdown in productive growth happens, with corresponding shifts to gains from purely financial manipulations, the need for military expenditures will rise as an attempt to create countercyclical demand. But military strength cannot command authority on world financial markets, and non-recoverable fiscal crises within the hegemonic state will occur.12

3. The End of the Modern World-System

In normal periods, the decline of one hegemonic power will result either in the immediate assumption of the role by another power, or a protracted struggle to determine the next hegemon (for example, the aforementioned thirty years war between the US and Germany). However, in the current case of the US, Wallerstein believes we are witnessing not only a cyclical rhythm within the world capitalist system, but a secular trend. Secular trends do not re-orient the system in its original shape, but lead ultimately to qualitative shifts for the system as a whole. The normal pattern of recovery for a hegemonic shift requires shakedown of waste (e.g., luxury consumerism and ecological carelessness) and inefficiencies (e.g., bureaucratic rigidities) and then the rise of “new monopolized industries and newly created segments of world purchasers to augment the total effective demand.”13 Four trends (at least) will inhibit this normal pattern: 1) the depletion in the world pool of available cheap labor due to deruralization and thus a sharp rise in the worldwide cost of production; 2) the demands of the middle strata against the rollback of the welfare state, and thus a rise in political disaffection; 3) the “ecological crunch,” in which the ability of corporations to externalize costs due to waste and toxicity has overburdened the world’s resource pool, and thus necessitates a heavy investment in cleanup operations, a lower rate of usage, and thus again a substantially lower rate of profit; and 4) the strong pressures for South-to-North migratory movements and the corresponding political reactions in the North leading to acute social conflict. Each of these trends can be easily confirmed by a quick review of headlines in any major newspaper. Wallerstein simply echoes the fears of many who find the present mode of capital accumulation unsustainable; he exceeds their fears in creating a tightly woven net that integrates constraints of capital, labor, and the environment to indicate that we are already in an age of transition.14

So, if our present world is fast disappearing beneath our feet, what do we have to expect? The best discussion in Decline comes in the essay “Geopolitical Cleavages of the Twenty-First Century: What Future for the World?” Here, Wallerstein indicates three primary cleavages to determine the shape of the world to come, and further defends the claim that America’s role is unlikely to be especially strong. The three cleavages are: 1) the struggle between the US, Japan, and the European Union to be the locus of capital accumulation; 2) the North-South struggle, or the struggle between core and periphery and semi-periphery; and 3) the struggle between “the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre.15 In the remainder of this section, I will discuss the first two, and leave the third for the final section of this essay.

As to the first cleavage, Wallerstein argues that the struggle will not be won by a productivity advantage, but by two crucial measures: “first, the priorities of the states concerning research and development, and therefore investments in innovations; and second, the ability of the upper strata (broadly defined) to command access to consumable wealth.”16 The focus of the US on investments in military hardware produces some small side benefits, but is not at all conducive to long-range economic advantage, a fact well known by Japan and the EU, who are content to minimize their military investments in favor of strictly economic innovations. As to the distribution of profits, the much-touted US wage gap will have long-term deleterious consequences:

the real pay of CEOs, the real pay of the cadres, and the real income of those in the nonprofit sector or free professionals is simply much, much higher than what is realized in western Europe or Japan… The recent well-publicized scandals in US corporate enterprises are but the tip of a very large iceberg, whose effects over time cannot but be felt in a more serious decline in the profit rates of US-based enterprises… The only way that the United States can reduce this gap is by reducing the outflow to the top 10 to 20 percent of the population [which] seems politically virtually impossible.17

Here, I think Wallerstein correctly gauges the fears of the American corporate elite, who are trapped in a cycle which has tremendous short-term rewards, while raiding the coffers of future investment.

As to the second cleavage, the continuing economic polarization between North (core states) and South (including both strong semi-peripheral states and the weakest, often virtually destitute states) cannot be overcome by the outmoded tactic of developmentalism. As I noted above, this belief that nations follow similar evolutionary paths has been used to justify free market policies that favor core nations by preventing mercantilist protection by weaker ones. With the collapse of developmentalism as an ideology (although under the rubric of globalization it continues to serve the Washington Consensus), the options for the South are three. First, they can develop “modernist movements of radical alterity,”18 including fundamentalist movements that reject the Northern geoculture while providing both material and spiritual comfort to disenfranchised populations. Second, they can choose to engage in direct confrontation with the North, as in the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990. Here, Wallerstein argues that Saddam Hussein actually won this early gamble, which ended, in his view, with a “truce at the line of departure.”19 The stalemate continued to rankle hawks for more than a decade, leading to the 2003 invasion. But, and here is the important part, the likely consequences of this invasion are no better now than they were in 1991, when the US decided not to march on Baghdad: destabilizing regimes in the Middle East, the need for long-term occupation, considerable loss of life, and thus major political defeat (a defeat which, in 2006, is beginning to manifest in the rapid unraveling of the Republican Party and embarrassing administrative failures, not to mention the waning support for the ongoing occupation of Iraq20).

The third strategy for the South, however, is the strongest: to fill the growing need in the North for “a sufficiently large working-age population to sustain the programs of economic transfers (social security and medical care primarily).”21 Resistance from the existing population, and the consequent hot and cold policies of the governments, encourages the use of illegal channels of immigration. As Wallerstein concludes: “What this means over time is that the North is creating a large stratum of persons resident in the country who have less than full political, economic, or social rights.… We can expect this to be a great source of political tension internal to the North, one that will affect not only the stability of countries of the North but their ability to pursue their interests in the North-South struggle.”22 The US, already hobbled by its failures regarding the first two cleavages, is unlikely to fare well in this third.

4. The End of Democracy and the Rise of Historical Agency

Wallerstein sees in the anti-globalization movement and the World Social Forum the new forms of democratic and participatory governance that can bring on a more truly democratic future. The future, Wallerstein argues, is inherently uncertain, and thus precisely at the moment that the system is in genuine historical crisis, anything is possible and “‘free will’ more or less reigns supreme, unfettered (as it normally is) by the straightjacket of custom and structural constraints.”23 The reactions in this period of the powerful upper strata are relatively easy to predict: they will try to ensure that their powerful position is maintained, even if this means changing the system drastically (as we very well may be seeing already with the emergence of a totalitarian security state in the US). The less powerful—those represented, Wallerstein thinks, by the world left—remain weak, uncertain, and even depressed. Yet it is the latter who have, for the first time, a real chance for impacting the world in egalitarian and democratic ways.  This shift from structure to agency within the world left needs to be further interrogated.

The last third of Decline includes a series of articles addressing this chance: “The Left, I: Theory and Praxis Once Again”; “The Left, II: An Age of Transition”; and “What Does it Mean to Be an Antisystemic Movement Today?” The key to avoiding depression and a misguided fatalism is to expand the spirit of Porto Alegre (in contrast to the spirit of Davos). This is “the coming together in a nonhierarchical fashion of the world family of antisystemic movements to push for (a) intellectual clarity, (b) militant actions based on popular mobilization that can be seen as immediately useful in people’s lives, (c) attempts to argue for longer-run, more fundamental changes.”25 Wallerstein recommends defensive electoral strategies, attempts to co-opt the liberal center and force it to live up to its unfulfilled promises, pressing antiracist measures at every turn, and moving toward “decommodification.” He argues that it is possible to reclaim the modernity of liberation back from the modernity of technology.26

Once again, then, it is “us against them”; only this time, “we” have a real chance to affect the world future. One can liken this to a pendulum: a lateral push on a pendulum at its lowest point can set it only marginally off course, while at its highest, when it is nearly stationary and its kinetic energy is all transformed into gravitational (or potential) energy, even a small push will set it off kilter and determine an entirely new course. This is a lovely image, but it is not obvious that such optimism, where the weakest transform into the strongest, is especially convincing. Even more so, when in the last few years I have attempted to communicate Wallerstein’s approach at various conferences on themes around Empire, Utopia, and the Future, including this chance to genuinely impact, for the very first time, the development of a new world-system, people typically ended the session looking glazed and defeated.27 It is clear that there is something about a structural, historical analysis that sucks the life out of hearty optimists, rather than invigorating the pessimists.

What reason is there, after all, for us to think that historical agency has, for the first time in hundreds of years, genuinely begun to assert itself? On the face of it, there is little to Wallerstein’s account that would demonstrate such a thing—the end of the modern world-system is out of the control of anyone, friend or foe. Yet it is here, I think, that a more considered philosophical accounting and location from Wallerstein would be appreciated—and is available via comparisons with other twentieth-century thinkers. I’ll address three possible issues that could be developed within Wallerstein’s political account: the return of the dangerous memory, the dialectic of structure and agency, and, more briefly, the question of the subject.  Each of these is deeply embedded within complex historical debates within philosophy, and my account here can only scratch the surface of each; nonetheless, it should at least serve to help us see the contribution that Wallerstein makes to the thinking of political philosophy more specifically.

As a frame of reference, then, compare his account to some of the insights and arguments of Frankfurt theorists such as Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Adorno. For these witnesses to the Second World War, enlightenment in its political manifestation — democratic sovereignty — is always already inherently repressive.28 Nonetheless, it is also the container for the dangerous memories of freedom and liberation that comprise the “essential kernel” of modernity. This kernel provides the impetus toward a genuinely non-repressive and non-alienating civilization. Frankfurt theorists were unable to conceive of the decline of the apparatus of domination, but nonetheless imagined what could guide a future beyond capitalist barbarism. During the high point of US hegemony the horizon offered nothing but more of the same (ever-increasing commodification), and the future was an insubstantial specter offering little hope and threatening to disappear entirely, subsumed by the capitalist logic of identity.

Should we not see Wallerstein as a theorist of the actual return of a dangerous memory, and thus the true inheritor of the Frankfurt School of critical theory? (We should not be misled by Habermas’s abortive attempts to carry this project through in a formalistic fashion.) A dangerous memory is the ineradicable drive toward freedom that can only be found in myth and image, and not in the structure of history itself. In artistic imagination and performance, we can return to the claims for freedom that were offered at the origins of modernity; these performances delimit the betrayed promises, promises that were never meant to be kept.28 Agency, self-determination, and freedom have been the mantras of modernity, but Wallerstein is correct in pointing out that five hundred years of world history has had very little to do with any of these except as inspirational slogans.  They become possible when the sloganeering has run its proper course, and become exhausted.

Marcuse, for one, did a magnificent job of showing just how the slogans of modernity were contemporaneous with the compromising of real human possibilities.  He theorized political change on the basis of deeply set instinctual structures that had been transformed, first, through the process of civilization (which instituted “necessary repression”) and second, through the development of alienated labor under the conditions of capitalist production (“surplus-repression”). Freedom was never really available as a substantive feature of the individual; both freedom and the individual would have to be created in the process of radical social change. In Eros and Civilization, he explained,

In the contemporary period, psychological categories become political categories to the degree to which the private, individual psyche becomes the more or less willing receptacle of socially necessary aspirations, feelings, drives, and satisfactions. The individual, and with him the rights and liberties of the individual, is something that has still to be created, and that can be created only through the development of qualitatively different societal relations and institutions.29

Agency, then, is not something that can be identified independently of the structural forces that overdetermine individual actions, and freedom is an accomplishment possible only in conjunction with a real change in social conditions. What this means, in effect, is that we should not conflate the role of agency in creating social change with the genuine emergence of the possibility of freedom and (as Marcuse would have it) real satisfaction. The point is that it is social change that makes agency possible, and not vice-versa—hence, structure continues to precede and make possible agency.

With such a view, it may make sense, as Wallerstein and other left activists of a counter-globalization movement typically do, to encourage the disadvantaged and dispossessed to surge forward in pursuit of their freedom, without falling back onto a belief that positive social change is generated and directed by this surge. Such change will depend rather on a constellation of factors that are not only independent of the actors, but also and necessarily incompletely understood by social sciences.30 Today’s activist-theorist cannot escape this paradox, which goes well beyond left, Marxian, and early critical theory positions on the role of class consciousness and worker-based movements.  It is also a position that is only incompletely faced by Hardt & Negri in their more recent work Multitude, in which they cede to the impulse to offer a new sense of radical, or what they would call communist, agency to today’s masses, or multitude.31 What we should seek, instead, is to be able to respond creatively to new dynamics when they are in fact challenges to the stability of the existing system, but as theorists, we should expect these “responses” to be understood not as acts of freedom, but as predictable outcomes of structural forces. Early in his development of world-systems analysis, Wallerstein indicated that his work depends on a notion of “a posteriori necessity”: the necessity of events can be identified only after the fact, or, as he wrote, “we cannot predict the future concretely, but we can predict the past.”32

Still, I can see how this unresolved paradox — that one must struggle against Empire, against commodification, and against capitalist identity-logic while also believing, as a theorist, that such free and considered actions of individuals or groups as social subjects are not what creates social change — makes critics of US hegemony uncomfortable. To entwine agency with structure so closely does seem to have a limiting effect on the level of hope that most such critics think is necessary to growing social movements. The same criticism, in fact, was constantly posed against philosopher/historian Michel Foucault, whose genealogies interpreted the organization and changes in social systems without reference to the actions of participants in those systems. 

Actions and intentions of participants provide powerful lessons and moral strength to continue struggle, but I think they are less helpful in explaining the course of historical change. Foucault understood this as well, though his critics tend not to give him such credit. In a 1982 interview, for instance, he said this:

My role — and that is too emphatic a word — is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed… [All my analyses] show which space of freedom we may still enjoy and how many changes can still be made… I believe in the freedom of people.33

A belief in the freedom of people, I think, is no obstacle to analyses that give primacy to structure over agency. Our political understandings need not conform to our conception of the metaphysics of human subjectivity, a point often lost on critics of so-called postmodern thinkers. The postmodern “erasure” of the free Cartesian subject of modernity doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a free subject emerging in some future world, though presumably our conception of that subject and its freedom will be different than the ones with which we are familiar. In the end, just what one sees as the fate of the modern world-system need not conform to what one wishes to impress upon people regarding how to act.

These considerations, I think, go beyond what Wallerstein himself has enunciated, and they might not all be to his liking.  I doubt that their inclusion in The Decline of American Power would have made it a better-selling or more widely appreciated book.  But they are important nonetheless. After all, the global capitalist economy is highly resilient, having suffered numerous setbacks without crumbling, and the end of American power need not indicate the end of this 500-year way of life. Articulating a reasonable background for Wallerstein’s position allows us to look beyond such possibly contingent setbacks and to keep the broader contours in focus.

Placing Wallerstein in dialogue with more philosophical thinkers has other benefits as well. One the one hand, introducing his arguments to philosophers provides a deeper social-scientific and empirical basis to their often abstract critique of capitalism; on the other, providing a better theoretical understanding of the relationship between capital, history, and freedom is useful for more analytically-minded theorists and activists. Alone, neither is very likely to have a complete framework for understanding the present or the future. To return to the comparison with Hardt & Negri, who fall on the side of an abstract (if highly original) critique, we learn from Wallerstein to properly qualify our claims about the yet-undecided future. Hardt & Negri claim to know much about the future world — “Empire” — forming under our very feet.  But Wallerstein tends to be a better predictor than they, of events unfolding here at the end of our modern world-system.34 Whether one finds his analysis a spur to hope or a foreshortening of it, he offers a wealth of understanding and rigor not achieved by more popular, flashy, and philosophical-seeming works.

Notes1. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New York: New Press, 2003).

2. Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

3. In my essay entitled “Rethinking the End of Modernity,” I contrast the theses of Hardt & Negri with those of Wallerstein, noting that “the best way to understand Empire is to call it a work of philosophical science-fiction, a dystopic picture of the trajectory of the world based on current, if competing, trends. This is a world of private security, eternal war by corporate states, new forms of slavery, technological apartheid, mass-produced identities, artificially and chemically produced mental states, and cyborg bodies. It is the world portrayed by ‘cyberpunk’ authors such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, popularized theatrically by Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997), and described philosophically by Jean Baudrillard and Donna Haraway.” See Jeffrey Paris, “Rethinking the End of Modernity: Empire, Hyper-capitalism, and Cyberpunk Dystopias,” Social Philosophy Today 21 (2005), 173-189. Hardt and Negri describe a potential successor philosophy to modern and postmodern political philosophies alike. Whether that philosophy ultimately describes our future world effectively is yet to be seen, and depends on the unforeseeable end result of the current stage of transition. In arguing this, I therefore reject the claim (in Empire) that “Empire” describes the post-imperialist source and organization of power today, and its complement (in Multitude) that the multitude is a counter-power to Empire.

4. There are, of course, exceptions: Monthly Review and New Left Review have consistently engaged Wallerstein’s thought. See Immanuel Wallerstein, “Left Politics in an Age of Transition,” Monthly Review 53, 8 (January 2002): 17- 21; “New Revolts Against the System,” New Left Review 18 (2002): 29-39; and “Entering Global Anarchy,” New Left Review 22 (2003): 27-35.

5. Immanuel Wallerstein, “The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: C oncepts for comparative analysis,” in The Capitalist World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979 [1974]), 6.

6. Ibid., 19-20.

7. Ibid., 21.

8. Ibid., 31.

9. Recently, Wallerstein has published his first “primer” entitled World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), a more comprehensive description of the fundamentals of his theory. The works of other world-systems theorists have been collected in two marvelous books: Immanuel Wallerstein, ed., The Modern World-System in the Longue Duree (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004); and Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver, eds., Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

10. Immanuel Wallerstein, “Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy: 1990-2025/2050,” in After Liberalism (New York: The New Press, 1994), 25.

11. Ibid., 27.

12. While what we might call “the logic of hegemonic decline” is, I think, the most important thesis to be garnered from Wallerstein’s work, I should also point out that structures of the inter-state system also have huge consequences in the arenas of cultural and religious conflict. Wallerstein is an acute and insightful critic not only of geo-politics and economies, but also of the complex world-historical movements and attitudes that have driven the entire history of modernity. Much of The Decline of American Power is devoted to detailing and analyzing the social struggles that have occurred throughout the twentieth century. These include: globalization (nothing more than a “passing rhetorical device in the continuing struggle … over the degree to which transborder flows should be impeded”; see note 13 below); right -wing racism, as in Austria (the sanitized production of “Untermenschen” yet failing to deal with the “chronic, constitutive racism of the pan-European world [as] deeply encrusted [in] western Europe’s universalist values”); the rise of Islamists (“purveyors of an alternative form of modernity” as a consequence of the ill performance of other antisystemic movements); and the shift in the role of democracy (from “a term to express the demands of the understrata in a national class struggle [to one] that justified the policies of the dominant forces in a world struggle between the so-called civilized and the noncivilized, between the West and the rest”). See Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power , 77, 81, 116-117, 161.

13. Wallerstein, “Peace, Stability, and Legitimacy ” (note 10), 30. Note that this thesis disputes a radical difference between early industrial capitalism, Fordism, and post-Fordism or what has been called “globalization.” Of course, capital accumulation is accomplished through varying mechanisms in each case, yet the impact of these on the relationships that comprise the modern world-system is minimal and does not affect the rise and decline of hegemonic powers. Hardt & Negri, and many others, criticize Wallerstein for retaining an analysis that understands uneven development according to a nation’s role as core, periphery, or semi-periphery. As they write, “the geography of uneven development and the lines of division and hierarchy will no longer be found along stable national and international boundaries, but in fluid infra-and supranational borders”; see Hardt & Negri, Empire , 335 . But remember that in his rejection of developmentalism, Wallerstein has always emphasized the porosity of national boundaries within a single system, and thus “Empire” is not, as Hardt & Negri would have it, a recent phenomenon dependent on the emergence of global governance institutions (political or financial). Globalization, as the title of a chapter of The Decline of American Power has it, is a long-term trajectory of the world-system whose processes have been in place for 500 years.

14. See Immanuel Wallerstein and Terence K. Hopkins, eds., The Age of Transition: Trajectory of the World System, 1945-2025 (London: Zed Books, 1996).

15. Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power , 273.

16. Ibid., 276.

17. Ibid., 278-279.

18. Ibid., 282.

19. Ibid., 286. Although the US continued to engage Iraq for the following decade, Hussein retained territorial integrity for the most part unchanged, and US celebrations of its superiority were quietly mocked by most of the world.

20. In a recent two-part essay called “Hegemony Unravelling” (New Left Review 32 [March/April 2005]: 23-80 & New Left Review 33 [May/June 2005]: 83-116), Giovanni Arrighi updates this position, noting the “reluctance of even its most faithful clients to provide the US with the resources it needed to extract itself from the Iraqi Quagmire. … In marked contrast with the first Iraq war, this time the United States was left holding the bag. … This sharp decline in the capacity of the United States to extract protection payments from clients can be traced to a perception that its protection has become counterproductive… This belief has been far more widespread than the ritualistic respect still paid to US power might indicate” (114). As Gonzalo Santos has observed, “Beyond a certain point, past the peak of hegemonic power, the more a declining hegemon acts to shore up its hegemony, the more it contributes to systemic chaos and accelerates its demise.” Gonzalo Santos, “Busting Track in the Americas: How U.S. Hegemonic Derailments Are Wrecking the Neighborhood,” paper presented at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Peace & Justice Studies Association (

21. Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power , 287.

22. Ibid., 288.

23. Ibid., 231.

24. Ibid., 252.

25. Wallerstein at one point used the infelicitous term ‘utopistics’ to describe this position, but appears to have dropped the term without dropping the idea; see his otherwise excellent set of lectures entitled Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century (New York: The New Press, 1998).

26. See Jeffrey Paris, “The End of Utopia,” Peace Review: A Transnational Quarterly 14/2 (Summer 2002): 175-182; see also Jeffrey Paris, “Rethinking the End of Modernity: Empire, Hypercapitalism and Cyberpunk Dystopias” (note 3 ).

27. See Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum Publishers, 1969 [1944]), especially the famous quote, “[T]he Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant” (3). Twenty years later, Marcuse coined the notion of “one-dimensional society” and its “repressive ideology of freedom, according to which human liberty can blossom forth in a life of toil, poverty, and stupidity.” As he reminds us in the very first lines of One-Dimensional Man, in advanced industrial civilization, “A comfortable, smooth, democratic unfreedom prevails.” Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 1.

28. For more on the notion of a dangerous memory, see the chapter on “Phantasy and Utopia” in Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 127-143.

29. Ibid., viii.

30. Typical left views, I think, still fall back on a (naïve) “Sartrean” view that presupposes the creative surge of freedom or the existence of an individual apart from social circumstance. (Whether Sartre, who always placed an individual “in situation,” actually held this view is doubtful. See Jeffrey Paris, “From Authenticity to Reification: Extension du domaine de la lutte,” Brock Review [forthcoming 2006].) In his remarks on Being and Nothingness (Herbert Marcuse, “Existentialism: Remarks on Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 8 [1948]: 309-336), Marcuse indicated that Sartre “insists that the revolutionary solution presupposes man’s freedom to seize this solution, in other words, that man must be free ‘prior’ to his liberation” (330).

31. In Socialism and Democracy 20/1 (March 2006), Marcella Bencivenni writes that, according to Hardt & Negri, “Today, the multitude represents the potential force to create an alternative society.” In their own words, the multitude constitutes actually “the only social subject capable of realizing democracy”; see Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 100.

32. Wallerstein, “The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system” (note 5 ), 3.

33. I nterview with Rux Martin, “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with M. Foucault, October 25th, 1982,” in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar With Michel Foucault, edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), pp. 10, 11, 14.

34. A list of bi-weekly commentaries by Wallerstein on current events is available at; the commentaries on the build-up and commencement of the Iraq War specifically have been collected and published as Alternatives: The United States Confronts the World (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004). Hardt & Negri’s confidence in the emergent successor system they call “Empire,” as Georgy Katsiaficas points out in his essay in Socialism and Democracy 20/1 (March 2006), is based in part on their rejection of dialectical thinking in favor of a rigid producti vist Marxism. Wallerstein is very far from this position, as world-systems analysis is “circulationist”; that is, rather than concerning itself with what happens at the point of production, it focuses all attention on the movement of commodities, balance of trade and investment, and their consequences for populations within and across national borders. While in my opinion this is a far better means for prediction and analysis, it is not especially dialectical, in Katsiaficas’s sense, though I hope my analysis herein has provided a somewhat richer philosophical basis for the thinking of history than Wallerstein himself has offered, and one that is perfectly consistent with his account.

A list of bi-weekly commentaries by Wallerstein on current events is available at; the commentaries on the build-up and commencement of the Iraq War specifically have been collected and published as Alternatives: The United States Confronts the World (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004).  Hardt & Negri’s confidence in the emergent successor system they call “Empire,” as Georgy Katsiaficas points out in his essay in this issue of Socialism & Democracy, is based in part on their rejection of dialectical thinking in favor of a rigid productionist “Marxism.” Wallerstein is very far from this position, as world-systems analysis is “circulationist”; that is, rather than professing any interest in what happens at the point of production, it focuses all attention on the movement of commodities, balance of trade and investment, and their consequences for populations within and between national borders. While in my opinion this is a far better means for prediction and analysis, it is not especially dialectical, in Katsiaficas’s sense, though I hope my analysis herein has provided a somewhat richer philosophical basis for the thinking of history than Wallerstein himself has offered, and one that is perfectly consistent with his account.

In a 1982 interview, Foucault said that “My role—and that is too emphatic a word—is to show people that they are much freer than they feel, that people accept as truth, as evidence, some themes which have been built up at a certain moment during history, and that this so-called evidence can be criticized and destroyed … [All my analyses] show which space of freedom we may still enjoy and how many changes can still be made … I believe in the freedom of people.” Rux Martin, “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with M. Foucault, October 25th, 1982,” in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar With Michel Foucault, edited by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), pp. 10, 11, 14.

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