More attentive Troppo readers may have noticed occasional laudatory references (by Mark Bahnisch and others) to the writings of Immanuel Wallerstein, a lefty sociologist/political theorist whose work is currently all the rage with former Marxists who remain convinced that capitalism is rooted and needs to be overthrown, but can’t even fool themselves any more that Karl or Lenin or Stalin really would have had all the answers for a Good Society if only the evil capitalist imperialists hadn’t sabotaged the revolution and suborned the lumpen proletariat with visions of Maccas, Coke and Pamela Anderson’s tits. Not that I’m suggesting Mark B is a closet lapsed Commie or anything, but it’s certainly true of most of the people I’ve heard quoting Wallerstein.
The advantage of citing Wallerstein with an air of mystery combined with sagacity is that almost no-one outside the ranks of the humanities academy has the faintest idea who he is or what his ideas are about. This reasonably succinct 1999 article by Wallerstein gives at least a brief overview of his thinking. My immediate reaction is that it all sounds like complete codswallop, but I’d be very interested in what some of our economist readers might make of Wallerstein’s ideas (I suspect they’re both economically illiterate and counter-factual).
I also located this 2004 review by Axel van den Berg of Wallerstein’s book The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century in the Canadian Journal of Sociology. I located it via one of CDU’s subscription databases, but it doesn’t seem to be password-protected so you may be able to access it using the hyperlink above. Just in case you can’t, I’ve reproduced it over the fold:
For those who haven’t followed Immanuel Wallerstein’s recent work very closely, this collection of speeches and major addresses delivered during the 1990s to academic audiences around the globe probably offers a handy, if rather repetitive, summary. Wallerstein certainly has not lost his taste for sweeping generalization: the title of the book is meant quite literally, without irony or hyperbole. According to Wallerstein, the end is nigh, not only for capitalism, but also for the very structure of scientific knowledge as we have known it for the past several hundred years. Their joint demise is scheduled to take place within the next 50 years or so.
The book is divided in two parts. Part I, “The World of Capitalism” is mainly devoted to the claim that, contrary to most current reports, “[w]e are living not the final triumph of world capitalism but its first and only true crisis” (30). The main causes of this terminal crisis are the following: 1) world-wide deruralization is robbing capitalism of its last reserves armies of cheap and compliant labour without which it is effectively doomed; 2) the ecological crisis is forcing the internalization of the environmental costs of capitalist production which is impossible without fatal cuts in profitability; 3) the democratization of the world is producing world-wide demands for decent and secure income, education and health care none of which capitalism can afford to provide on a global scale without unsustainable profit loss; 4) the retreat of state power, crucial for propping up capitalist profits as well as the capitalist world-system, because of a massive, world-wide loss of faith in its ability to solve the problems caused by world capitalism. Consequently, the “disintegration of the modern world-system, of capitalism as a civilization” (33) is finally really upon us.
What strikes me most in this account is the degree to which it rests on cultural and political rather than the old materialist arguments. The greatest and ultimately fatal threat to capitalism does not come, in Wallerstein’s view, from an impoverished proletariat or economic crises but from the democratic “geoculture” spawned by the French Revolution. Its revolutionary ideal of sovereignty of “the people” posed a continuous challenge to the elites of the capitalist world-system who have been busy ever since trying to contain its potentially dangerous implications.
For a long period of time, from 1848 to 1968 to be exact, the dominant containment strategy of the liberals enjoyed a remarkable degree of success. It consisted of three limited concessions: universal suffrage, the welfare state, and a racist, exclusionary nationalism. During the 20th century, this strategy was expanded to include national self-determination and the promise of economic development for the “underdeveloped” countries as well. In addition, the liberals were careful to counter the potentially dangerous implications of popular suffrage by a variety of restrictions, most important among which was the effective limitation of the options to be considered by “the people” to those offered by “competent experts,” those sufficiently rational and educated to rule out anything “extreme.” In this way, liberals succeeded in restricting public debate to “technical” questions of formal rationality while keeping the ultimate goals served, the underlying substantive rationality, off the political agenda. Social scientists enthusiastically collaborated in this overall strategy as they were offered a key role as policy “experts.” All this, of course, under the cloak of “value freedom” according to which matters of ultimate ends are inherently “irrational” and thus not decidable by rational argument. Finally, and perhaps most perniciously, the liberals were able to co-opt the Old Left, that is, virtually all anti-systemic movements from the socialists of the North to the liberation movements in the South, into their pacification program with the reformist promise of fundamental change “in the long run.” Thus, “[b]y the twentieth century, it could be said that the only thing that effectively stood in the way of real revolutions were the revolutionary movements themselves” (152), keeping the exploited masses of both the North and the South quiescent with “the opiate of hope” (70).
But the entire clever strategy finally came unravelled as a result of what Wallerstein refers to as “the worldwide revolution of 1968.” This revolution, which did not reach its climax until the fall of the Soviet system in 1989, consisted of a dramatic world-wide loss of faith by the popular masses in the entire reformist program, as well as in its Old Left proponents and in the state with its armies of “experts.” As a result the capitalist world-system is now fast approaching “a point of bifurcation,” as every system does at the inevitable “moment when it has or will have exhausted the ways in which it can contain its contradictions” (124). What comes after we cannot know because points of bifurcation open up into a genuinely indeterminate future, a whole range of possibilities.
At this crucial juncture, Wallerstein believes, social science has an especially important role to play. It “must … re-create itself … It must finally accept that rationality involves the choice of a moral politics and that the role of the intellectual class is to illuminate the historical choices we collectively have” (155). He calls for a “utopistics,” “the analysis of possible utopias, their limitations, and the constraints on achieving them” (217). But this will, Wallerstein believes, require a complete transformation of the social sciences and of “the entire thought-system of the capitalist world-economy” (198), starting with the abolition of its baneful division between the “two cultures” of (social) science and the humanities. Instead, we must return to the unity of the search for truth, goodness and beauty.
These latter claims are the main focus of the pieces gathered in Part II, “The World of Knowledge.” Wallerstein’s warrant for arguing that all (social) systems must eventually succumb to their own contradictions does not derive from a historical materialist theory of successive modes of production, for he rejects any such progressivist certainty. Rather it derives from a whole new way of looking at the natural and the social world which is on the verge of revolutionizing the very way we conceive of “knowledge’: the “science of complexity” as promulgated by Ilya Prigogine, the 1977 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, and supported by “a large group of natural scientists” (189). The main tenets of “complexity studies” for Wallerstein’s purposes include: that the future is intrinsically indeterminate; that systems tend to move away from equilibria to the point where they reach “bifurcations” that bring new, intrinsically unpredictable forms of order out of chaos; that the “arrow of time” governs all natural processes making them intrinsically historical; and that science should explain complexity instead of striving for simplicity. On this basis, “Prigogine has reunited social science and natural science, not on the nineteenth-century assumption that human activity can be seen as simply a variant of other physical activity, but on the inverted basis that physical activity can be seen as a process of creativity and innovation” (237). Matter, like humans, has a history that presents it with alternatives between which it “chooses” throughout its existence. This new way of looking at the world holds the promise of “a reunited single world of knowledge that knows no division between humans and nature, no divorce between philosophy and science, no separation of the search for the true and the search for the good” (167), we are told repeatedly.
Since we know that social systems are the most complex in the universe and since “[w]e can only do what the natural scientists can only do” (214), we must embrace this intrinsic uncertainty “as an incredible opportunity to imagine, to create, to search … a cornucopia of possibilities for a better universe” (245), Wallerstein insists. As a result of the terminal crisis of capitalism and the new ways of thinking pioneered by Prigogine et al., “we are all offered the possibility of reintegrating the knowledge of what is true and what is good. The probabilities of our futures are constructed by us within the framework of the structures that limit us. The good is the same as the true in the long run, for the true is the choice of the optimally rational, substantively rational, alternatives that present themselves to us” (191).
While these are certainly stirring sentiments, the reasons why Wallerstein thinks we should adopt Prigogine’s revolutionary new approach, or why its extrapolation to social systems is justified, are not entirely obvious. As a quick perusal of the reviews of Prigogine’s books in journals like Nature will show, his is hardly the majority or conventional view among natural scientists. And even if it were, would that in itself constitute sufficient grounds for importing it into social science? Wallerstein appears to be particularly enamoured by the notion of the radical indeterminacy of all natural systems–albeit only at certain critical junctures called “bifurcations.” Like so many other self-styled social theorists these days, he seems to think this somehow implies that we are free to choose from “a cornucopia of possibilities.” For some reason, there currently is a particularly strong need out there for the apparent comfort of being able to celebrate human “agency.” But this is not in itself sufficient reason to adopt Pirogine’s or anyone else’s scheme of things, of course–quite apart from the patent non sequitur involved in jumping from indeterminacy to willful “agency.’
As for his announcement of the imminent death of capitalism, you have to give it to Wallerstein, if only for his sheer contrarian chutzpah, at a time when capitalism seems to be more triumphant than ever and without even the slightest sign of a viable alternative on the horizon. In fact, Wallerstein does not present even a shred of evidence for this bold thesis, while at times conceding, however grudgingly, the rather massive evidence to the contrary, including the popularity of the likes of Thatcher, Reagan and Le Pen among those very disaffected “popular masses” who have turned away from the incrementalism of the liberals and the Old Left. Nor does he even give a hint of the kinds of wondrous alternatives that the “utopistics” and “substantive rationality” he calls for might uncover. “Formal rationality is problem-solving but lacks a soul, and is therefore ultimately self-destructive. Substantive rationality is extraordinarily difficult to define, lends itself to much arbitrary distortion, but is ultimately what the good society is all about,” he tells us (101). This sounds remarkably like the old Frankfurt School lamenting the evils of “instrumental rationality,” complete with the studied evasiveness about the “substantive rationality” on which the critique is supposed to be based and the complete begging of the obvious question as to why it has been so devilishly difficult to agree on its content thus far.
Finally, calls for the “reunification” of the search for truth, goodness and beauty may sound noble and open-minded, but at the abstract level at which Wallerstein pitches them they remain quite vacuous whereas, as we know all too well, they tend to become fiercely contentious as soon as anyone dates to give them any concrete content at all. Now, there are ways of reconciling the true and the good, of course. One way is to insist with Hegel that “the good is the same as the true in the long run” (191). But again, either that “long run” never comes or, when forcibly applied to the here and now, such insistence notoriously has a way of producing only massive human suffering and bloodshed. And then there is that other way of reconciling what things are like and what we would like them to be, which, as we know at least since Hume, is called “wishful thinking.” If this collection is any indication, there appears to be more than a hint of both of these in Wallerstein’s recent work.