Wallerstein’s essential analysis

Notes on Wallerstein’s “Historical Capitalism”

immanuel_wallerstein.jpg picture by adam_freedom

Why the hell do I find Wallerstein so interesting? To be honest, when close friends have told me that I’ve been stuck on him for the last year or so, they are absolutely right. So now I aim to explain to them and others why this is the case and why I think Wallerstein is nearly essential to any critical and revolutionary understanding of the world and how it works. I wish I could offer an outline of sorts, but below are choice quotes that I found most interesting.


All quotes from:

Immanuel Wallerstein, “Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization” (London: Verso, 2003). First published in 1983.

On imperialism



Commodity chains “…have tended to move from the peripheries of the capitalist world economy to the centres or core. It is hard to contest this as an empirical observation. The real question is why this has been so. To talk of commodity chains means to talk of an extended division of labour which, in the course of capitalism’s historical development, has become more and more functionally and geographically extensive, and simultaneously more and more hierarchical. This hierarchization of space in the structure of productive processes has led to an ever greater polarization between the core and peripheral zones of the world-economy, not only in terms of distributive criteria (real income levels, quality of life) but even more importantly in the loci of the accumulation of capital.

Initially, as this process began, the spatial differentials were rather small, and the degree of spatial specialization limited. Within the capitalist system, however, whatever differentials existed (whether for ecological reasons or historical reasons) were aggregated, reinforced, and encrusted. What was crucial in this process was the intrusion of force into the determination of process. To be sure, the use of force by one party in a market transaction in order to improve his price was no invention of capitalism. Unequal exchange is an ancient practice. What was remarkable about capitalism as a historical system was the way in which this unequal exchange could be hidden; indeed, hidden so well that it is only after five hundred years of the operation of this mechanism that even the avowed opponents of the system have begun to unveil it systematically.

The key to hiding this central mechanism lay in the very structure of the capitalism world-economy, the seemingly separation in the capitalist world-system of the economic arena a world-wide social division of labour with integrated production processes all operating for the endless accumulation of capital) and the political arena (consisting ostensibly of separate sovereign states, each with autonomous responsibility for political decisions within its jurisdiction, and each disposing of armed forces to sustain its authority). In the real world of historical capitalism, almost all commodity chains of any importance have traversed these state frontiers. This has been true form the very beginning of historical capitalism. Moreover, the transnationality of commodity chains is as descriptively true of the sixteenth-century capitalist world as of the twentieth-century.

How did this unequal exchange work? Starting with any real differential in the market, occurring because either the (temporary) scarcity of a complex production process, or artificial scarcities create manu militari, commodities moved between zones in such a way that the area with the less ‘scarce’ item ‘sold’ its items to the other area at a price that incarnated more real input (cost) than an equally-priced item moving in the opposite direction. What really happened is that there was a transfer of part of the total profit (or surplus) being produced from one zone to another. Such a relationship is that of coreness-peripherality. By extension, we can call the losing zone a ‘periphery’ and the gaining zone a ‘core.’ These names in fact reflect the geographical structure of the economic flows. …

The concentration of capital in core zones created both the fiscal base and the political motivation to create relatively strong state-machineries, among whose many capacities was that of ensuring that the state machineries of peripheral zones became or remained relatively weaker. They could thereby pressure these state-structures to accept, even promote, great specialization in their jurisdiction in tasks lower down the hierarchy of commodity chains, utilizing lower-paid work-forces and creating (reinforcing) the relevant household structures to permit such work-forces to survive. Thus did historical capitalism actually create the so-called historical level of wages which have become so dramatically divergent in different zones of the world-system.” (30-32)

On force and free exchange in the world market or an excellent rebuff to mainstream economics

“… actual prices always seemed to be negotiated in a world market on the basis of impersonal economic forces. The enormous apparatus of latent force (openly used sporadically in wars and colonization) has not had to be invoked with each separate transaction to ensure that the exchange was unequal. Rather, the apparatus of force came into play only when there were significant challenges to an existing level of unequal exchange. Once the acute political conflict was past, the world’s entrepreneurial classes could pretend that the economy was operated solely by the considerations of supply and demand, without acknowledging how the world-economy had historically arrived at a particular point of supply and demand, and what structures of force were sustaining at that very moment the ‘customary’ differentials in levels of wages and of the real quality of life of the world’s work-forces.” (33)

On the hegemony of states in the world-system

There are “three instances in which one of the strong states achieved temporarily a period of relative dominance over the other- a relative dominance that we may call hegemony. The three instances are the hegemony of the United Provinces (Netherlands) in the mid-seventeenth century, that of Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth, and that of the United States in the mid-twentieth.

In each case, hegemony came after the defeat of a military pretender to conquest (the Hapsburgs, France, Germany). Each hegemony was sealed by a ‘world war’- a massive, land-centered, highly destructive, thirty-year-long, intermittent struggle involving all the major military powers of the time. These were respectively the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), and the twentieth century conflicts between 1914 and 1945 which should properly be conceived as a single long ‘world war.’ It is to be noted that, in each case, the victor had been primarily a maritime power prior to ‘world war,’ but had transformed itself into a land power in order to win this war against a historically strong land power which seemed to be trying to transform the world-economy into a world-empire.”

Each period of hegemony was brief and ended for economic reasons rather than politico-military ones. The factors that undermined them were 1) “factors that made for greater economic efficiency could always be copied by others;” 2) “the hegemonic power had every interest in maintaining uninterrupted economic activity and therefore tended to buy labour peace with internal redistribution” which led to reduced competitiveness; and 3) “with far-flung land and maritime military ‘responsibilities’ involved a growing economic burden on the hegemonic state, thus undoing its pre-‘world war’ low level expenditure on the military.” (58-60)

On the struggles between elites, reactionary vs. progressive factions of the bourgeoisie

“Entrepreneur against entrepreneur, economic sector against economic sector, the entrepreneurs of one state, or ethnic group, against those in another- the struggle has been ceaseless. And this ceaseless struggle has constantly taken a political form, precisely because of the central role of the states in the accumulation of capital. Sometimes these struggles within states have merely been over personnel in the state-machineries and short0run states policies. Sometimes, however, they have been over larger ‘constitutional’ issues which determine the rules governing the conduct of shorter-run struggles, and thus the likelihood of one faction or another prevailing. Whenever these struggles were ‘constitutional’ in nature, they required greater ideological mobilization. In these cases, we heard talk of ‘revolutions’ and ‘great reforms’ and the losing sides were often given opprobrious (but analytically inappropriate) labels. To the extent that the political struggles for, say ‘democracy’ or ‘liberty’ against ‘feudalism’ or ‘tradition’ have not been struggles of the working classes against capitalism, they have been essentially struggles among the accumulators of capital for the accumulation of capital. Such struggles were not the triumph of a ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie against reactionary strata but intra-bourgeoisie struggles.” (62-63)

“Many analysts, noticing that there are struggles other than class struggles which absorb much of the total political energy expended, have concluded that class analysis is of dubious relevance to the understanding of political struggle. This is a curious inference. It would seem more sensible to conclude that these non-class-based political struggles, that is, struggles among accumulators for political advantage, are evidence of a severe structural political weakness in the accumulator class in its ongoing worldwide class struggle.” (64)

On rebellion and anti-systemic movement in historic capitalism

“We must begin by looking at what we might mean by an anti-systemic movement. The word implies some collective thrust of a more than momentary nature. In fact, of course, somewhat spontaneous protests or uprisings of workforces have occurred in all known historical systems. They have served as safety valves for pent-up anger; or sometimes, somewhat more effectively, as mechanisms that have set minor limits to exploitative process. But generally speaking, rebellion as a technique has worked only at the margins of central authority, particularly when central bureaucracies were in phases of disintegration.

The structure of historical capitalism changed some of these givens. The fact that states were located in an interstate system meant that the repercussions of rebellions or uprisings were felt, often quite rapidly, beyond the confines of the immediate political jurisdiction within which they occurred. So-called ‘outside’ forces therefore had strong motives to come to the aid of assailed state-machineries. This made rebellions more difficult. One the other hand, the intrusion of the accumulators of capital, and hence of state-machineries, into the daily life of the work-forces was far more intensive in general under historical capitalism than under previous historical systems. The endless accumulation of capital led to repeated pressures to restructure the organization (and location) of work, to increase the amount of absolute labour, and to bring about the psycho-social reconstruction of the work-forces. In this sense, for most of the world’s work-forces, the disruption, the discombobulation, and the exploitation was even greater. At the same time, the social disruption undermined placatory modes of socialization. All in all, therefore, the motivations to rebel were strengthened, despite the fact that the possibilities of success were perhaps objectively lessened.” (65-66)

On the failure of the state centered strategy

“The strategy [of making the seizure of the state the key goal of the movement] had two fundamental consequences. In the phase of mobilization, it pushed each movement towards entering into tactical alliances with groups that were in no way ‘anti-systemic’ in order to reach its strategic objective. These alliances modified the structure of the anti-systemic movements themselves, even in the mobilization stage. Even more importantly, the strategy eventually succeeded in many cases. Many of the movements achieved partial or even total state power. These successful movements were then confronted with the realities of the limitations of state power within the capitalist world-economy. They found that they were constrained by the functioning of the interstate system to exercise their power in ways that muted the ‘anti-systemic’ objectives that were their raison d’etre.” (69)

On the crisis of capitalism and the commodification of everything

“Historical systems are just that- historical. They come into existence and eventually go out of existence, the consequence of internal processes in which the exacerbation of the internal contradictions lead to a structural crisis. Structural crises are massive, not momentary. They take time to play themselves out. Historical capitalism entered into its structural crisis in the early twentieth century and will probably see its demise as a historical system sometime in the next century. What will follow is hazardous to predict. What we can do now is analyze the dimensions of the structural crisis itself and try to perceive the directions in which the systemic crisis is taking us.

The first and probably most fundamental aspects of this crisis is that we are now close to the commodification of everything. That is, historical capitalism is in crises precisely because, in pursuing the endless accumulation of capital, it is beginning to approximate that state of being Adam Smith asserted was ‘natural’ to man but which has never historically existed. The ‘propensity [of humanity] to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’ has entered into domains and zones previously untouched, and the pressure to expand commodification is relatively unchecked. … Insofar as more and more labour is commodified and householding becomes more and more a nexus of commodity relations, the flow of surplus becomes more and more visible. The political counterpressures thereby become more and more mobilized, and the structure of the economy more and more a direct target of mobilization.” (90-91)

On future directions, disintegration vs. revolution

“We need first to distinguish between change through disintegration and controlled change, what Samir AMin has called the distinction between ‘decadence’ and ‘revolution,’ between the kind of ‘decadence’ which he asserts occurred with the fall of Rome (and is, he says, occurring now) and that more controlled change which occurred when going from feudalism to capitalism. …

Progress is not inevitable. We are struggling for it. And the form the struggle is taking is not that of socialism versus capitalism, but that of a transition to a relatively classless society versus a transition to some new class-based mode of production (different frmo historical capitalism but not necessarily better).

The choice for the world bourgeoisie is not between maintaining historical capitalism and suicide. It is between on the one hand a ‘conservative’ stance, which would result in the continued disintegration of the system and its resultant transformation into an uncertain but probably more egalitarian world order; and, on the other hand, a bold attempt to seize control of the process of transition, in which the bourgeoisie itself would assume ‘socialist’ clothing, and seek to create thereby an alternative historical system which would leave intact the process of exploitation of the world’s word-force, to the benefit of a minority.” (106-107)


Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Decline of American Power” (New York: The New Press, 2003)

On capitalism as a historical system and the relationship of structure to agency in a shift to a new system

“Our existing historical system is the modern world-system, which is a capitalist world-economy. It has been in existing since the long sixteenth century. This system has expanded geographically to cover the entire globe, having squeezed out and incorporated all other historical systems on the earth by the last third of the nineteenth century. Like all historical systems, once having come into existence it has operated by certain rules, which are possible to make explicit and which are reflected in its cyclical rythms and trends. Like all systems, the linear projections of its trends reach certain limits, whereupon the system finds itself far from equilibrium and begins to bifurcate. At this point, we can say the system is in crisis and passes through a chaotic period in which it seeks to stabilize a new and different order, that is make the transition from one system to another. What this new order is and when it will stabilize is impossible to predict, but the choice are [sic] strongly affected by the actions of all actors during the transition. And that is where we are today.” (185)

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for that. “Thirty Years’ War 1818-48” is maybe a typo for 1618-48.

  2. Corrected, thanks!

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