New world-system? A conversation with Immanuel Wallerstein

Wallerstein foresees one of two possibilities: more hierarchy, exploitation and polarization; or a system that has never yet existed, based on relative democracy and relative equality.

The privatization (for profit) of universities is simply part of the commodification of everything, which has been from the beginning the objective of capitalists. What is happening in eastern Europe is happening absolutely everywhere in the world. I think I have already indicated how this is related to so-called globalization. It is however a fragile structure. Students pay far too much to these for-profit structures. They do so in the expectation that it will get them well-paid jobs. But it won't. For most persons, it simply gets them enormous lifelong debts. They will begin to abandon these structures, many of which are already going bankrupt.

Almantas Samalavicius: Years ago when the countries of eastern Europe were struggling to "adjust" their political, social and economic mechanisms to those of Western capitalist economy and liberal democracy, you noted inGeopolitics and Geoculture that "False conclusions are being drawn in the (ex-)Communist world, where the magic of the market is supplanting the magic of planning, whereas the market will by and large be no more efficacious an instrument of economic welfare for these states that had been planning, since the primary economic difficulties of these states derived (and derive) not from their internal economic mechanisms but from their structural location in the capitalist world-economy." More than twenty years after the collapse of Communism and dependency, the "magic of the market" seems to be less glorious than local economists and large sections of society had imagined in the glorious years of 1989-90. However, would you still explain the limited success of post-Soviet economy by referring to eastern Europe's place in the structure of the world economy?

Immanuel Wallerstein: Yes, the fundamental explanation is their position in the structure of the world economy. Of course, in eastern Europe as anywhere else in the world, there are variations in how the government handles the situation. There are often countries that can maneuver better and improve their relative position. South Korea is a notable example. In the 1960s, their economic performance was no better, probably worse, than that of say Poland or even Lithuania in the 1990s. Yet today, as everyone has noticed, South Korea has a much, much stronger economic performance. No doubt in part this was due to many intelligent decisions on the part of the government. But it was also due to their geopolitical location and the interest of the United States in fortifying them (and therefore permitting them to do things against which the United States inveighed in other parts of the world). The crucial point is that, at any given time, there is room only for a few countries (out of a large list) to improve their world-economic position. Eastern Europe (and particularly the 1990s' trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) thought they could be this "few". They were wrong.


AS: In Anti-Systemic Movements, co-written with Arrighi and Hopkins, you argued that "there had been only two world revolutions. One took place in 1848. The second took place in 1968." However, in eastern Europe and to a certain extent in other parts of Europe as well, most people are inclined to believe that it was the "velvet revolution" of 1989 that was the most crucial historical event, at least in the twentieth century – since it ended the Cold War and bi-polar opposition that lasted since WWII and, last but not least – brought a large part of eastern Europe to the realm of market economy, liberal democracy, and eventually to the European Union. Why do you think these events do not qualify the revolt of 1968?

IW: Arrighi, Hopkins, and I wrote a last joint article that appeared just after the book Anti-Systemic Movements. It is entitled "1989: The Continuation of 1968."[1] After a careful analysis of the ways in which the situation in eastern Europe and the USSR, both before and immediately following 1989, showed strong parallels to that of 1968, we argued the continuing reality of the world revolution of 1968. Indeed, more recently, I have tried to show the ways in which the so-called Arab Spring continued the world revolution of 1968.[2] Nor is it over yet. Its most ferocious opponents, such as – for example – Nicolas Sarkozy, realize this, and struggle to wipe out its legacy. It is rather people on the world left and left-of-centre who tend to underestimate its importance.

As for your suggestion that 1989 "ended" the Cold War and the bipolar opposition since 1945, that is true up to a point. That is however precisely why it constituted a tragedy for the United States. The Cold War was intended to go on forever. Remember, it remained cold up until the end. That is, there never was a serious military confrontation between the two collusive partners, the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States has been struggling ever since to create an alternative "enemy." Without success, it must be said, which has hastened its now precipitous decline. [3] Finally, yes it has brought eastern Europe into a more market economy (not the market economy but amore market economy). And it has brought much of eastern Europe into the EU and a multi-party parliamentary system. We have yet to see how permanent all that is. The changes are being threatened on many fronts today. Take for example what is happening in Hungary, originally one of the star "liberal" post-1989 performers.

AS: Disillusionment with the prospects that a capitalist economy offered accompanied the economic crisis of the last few years. Ideas of the "New Economy" seem to win more and more supporters. What do you think are the lessons of this continuing international economic crisis? What conclusions can be drawn from the crisis going forward? Do you think the outcome of the crisis will in any way affect present arrangements in the contemporary world-system?

IW: The phrase "new economy" is of course very vague. But the continuing world economic crisis is very real. Indeed I have been writing of it not for several years but for forty years. I believe that the historical system in which we live and have been living for some 500 years – the modern world-system that is a capitalist world-economy – is in its structural crisis. It will continue to be in it for another twenty to forty years. I have explained the details many times.[4]

The key point is that all systems (from the very largest, the universe as a whole, to the very smallest nano-systems), have three moments: their coming into existence, their "normal" life during which they are constructed and constrained by the institutions they have created, and the moment in which their secular trends move too far from equilibrium and bifurcate (their structural crisis). Structural crises cannot be overcome. The existing system cannot survive. The period is one of chaotic wild fluctuations in everything. There is a very fierce political battle over to which of two alternatives (the forks of the bifurcation) the world collectively will tilt.

The two alternatives can be broadly described. On the one side, there are those who wish to replace capitalism with a non-capitalist system that will retain all of capitalism's worst features – hierarchy, exploitation and polarization. And on the other side there are those who seek to create a historical system that has never yet existed, one based on relative democracy and relative equality.

There is no way we can predict which of the alternatives will prevail... Read more:

http://www.eurozine.com/articles/article_2013-02-08-wallerstein-en.html

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