The world is currently undergoing an upheaval with a very uncertain future. To understand the origins of the crisis, I believe it is useful to take the world-systems framework that I developed over a half-century of work and look backward.
The well-balanced world-system that prevailed in the middle of the 20th century, led by “centrist liberalism” with the US as the unquestioned hegemonic power, has become unbalanced as all systems do before collapsing, torn asunder by contending forces. To understand the deeper roots, we have to turn our gaze to earlier times.
The just-published fourth volume of The Modern World-System: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914 provides the historical context. It covers the long 19th century, a period that most scholars recount as defined by the industrial revolution in England and the bourgeois revolution in France. I don't agree. Volume III already argued that the so-called industrial revolution in England was a mere blip in a continuing cyclical process of increased mechanization of production in the world-system, one that had begun in the late 15th century. I also argued that there couldn't have been a bourgeois revolution in France because France had already been part and parcel of the capitalist world-economy for three centuries.
So what did happen in the 19th century? Volume IV’s subtitle outlines a different story. That liberalism as an ideology was influential in the 19th century is commonplace. The crux of my argument is located in the adjective, centrist, with conservatism to its right and radicalism to its left. The liberalism of the time was not only resolutely centrist but triumphant, dominating what I call the "geoculture" of the world-system, the underlying assumptions of social action that evolved as the principal impact of the French Revolution on the whole world-system. Centrist liberalism wildly succeeded in reducing the conservative right and the radical left into advocating mere avatars of liberalism’s program.
Centrist liberalism won out on three crucial fronts. First, it installed the liberal state in the two key countries – the new hegemonic power, Great Britain, and its junior partner, France. The liberal state was not the night watchman state it claimed to be. Quite the contrary! Not only centrist liberalism but its two avatars, enlightened conservatism and pragmatic radicalism, all talked an anti-state language, but they all were in practice devoted to expanding state powers.
The second crucial front was that of "citizenship." The geoculture proclaimed the legitimacy of popular sovereignty. But, in fact, all the powers that be were terrified by the prospect of the exercise of real popular sovereignty. To limit its impact, the powers-that-be divided "equal" citizens into two categories – "active" and "passive" citizens. The former could participate in decision-making. The latter – those without property, women, “minorities” – had natural and civil rights, but were said to be incapable of exercising political rights. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries "passive" citizens fought to be given political rights. It was a difficult, never fully-completed process, in which centrist liberals did their best to slow it down.
The third pillar was the creation of the social sciences as ways of understanding the real world – the better to control it in the interests of centrist liberals. The restructuring of the universities, the separation of knowledge into the "two cultures," and inventing a limited number of "disciplines" were all part of this process.
This mode of viewing the 19th century is of great relevance to us today in the light of four principal trends.
First, the world-revolution of 1968 ended the unquestioned dominance of the geoculture by centrist liberalism. In the post-1968 period, both conservatism and radicalism freed themselves from the role of avatar of centrist liberalism and resumed an independent existence. See, for example, the remarkable transformation of Milton Friedman and his associates from a scorned fringe in the 1950s and 1960s to the new economist Establishment in the 1980s.
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," as Yeats foresaw in 1919. But the dominance of centrist liberalism had been the main stabilizing element in an ever-more heterogeneous world-system.
Secondly, the repeated cyclical increase in mechanization of production had its biggest upsurge in the world-economy from 1945 to circa 1970. This resulted in a significant deruralization of the world-system. It also expanded strain of the world's ecological system. And, given the economic expansion, there were great popular demands for increased expenditures on education, health and lifetime guarantees of income – the so-called welfare state. This was quite expensive, but affordable at the time.
When the inevitable downturn in the world-economy began circa 1970, the system began to feel the effects of the overload on its underlying resources – the nearly universal strain on government resources and the heavy indebtedness under which governments, corporations and families labor. The result is ever-growing difficulties for capitalists to realize a high level of capital accumulation, the raison d'être of the whole system.
Thirdly, when the United States finally achieved its role as the hegemonic power in the world-system, again 1945 to circa 1970, it found too that the demands on its citizenry were vastly greater than those placed on its predecessors, the United Kingdom and the United Provinces. After the 1970s, analysts began to speak of the "Vietnam syndrome” – a continuing, growing constraint on the United States. When the neo-cons sought to restore US hegemony via unilateral macho militarism under George W. Bush, the effort backfired spectacularly and turned what had been a gradual decline into precipitate decline. The presumed incredible power of the United States after the Soviet collapse has seemed to vanish, as not only unfriendly powers but its closest allies seem openly to disregard the views of the United States today, or at least no longer give it the automatic credence they once did,
We can understand the combined impact of these triple challenges to the functioning of the system only if we bring in another premise of world-systems analysis, that all systems – physical, biological, and social – have lives. They come into existence, function according to certain rules, and eventually move too far from equilibrium and enter into structural crisis.
After 1968/1970, the glorious and well-equilibrated world-system of the long 19th century began to bifurcate. We are living today amid a chaotic world-system, as we all struggle to push the world in the direction of another world-system, one that we prefer. The now almost daily wild fluctuations in the stock market and the exchange rates of major currencies, along with the rapidly shifting geopolitical stances of centres of global power, have virtually paralysed decision-making by the states, the mega-corporations and banks, and individual consumers, all of whom face a situation in which even short-term stability seems absent.
This chaotic situation will no doubt come to an end at some point and a new relatively stable world order will emerge. What we cannot predict, however, is its outcome, except to be sure that it will differ from our present system – possibly much better, but possibly much worse.
We cannot understand what is happening unless we understand what really happened in the 19th-century world-system.
Immanuel Wallerstein, senior research scholar at Yale University, is the author of many books, the most recent is The Modern World-System IV: Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789-1914, published by the University of California Press. Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online