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Wallerstein on World History

wallersteinMaking sense of the world-system since 1945 is no small task. When Immanuel Wallerstein – acclaimed American sociologist and social scientist – spoke before a standing-room-only Luce Hall audience on November 18, he joked “I would tell you my story of the world-system since 1500, but, frankly, I just don’t have the time.”

When Professor Christopher Udry, Henry Heinz II Professor of Economics and Chair of the Council of African Studies, introduced Wallerstein, he stood in well-warranted reverie. “[Mr. Wallerstein] is the author of a few theories that have revolutionized the world,” Udry remarked. “Any person would be honored to have just one to their name.”

Wallerstein is Senior Research Scholar at Yale University and the former President of the International Sociological Association. In 2003 he received the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association. His highly influential, multivolume opus, The Modern World-System, is considered one of this century’s greatest works of social science.

“Making sense of world history depends on the stories that we tell and in which we believe,”  remarked Wallerstein as he embarked on his story of world history since 1945. He focused on analyzing the flourishing of U.S. hegemony and its steady, irreversible decline, as well as the structural crisis of the world-system in the form of its capitalist world economy.

What does it mean to be a hegemony? “A hegemony does not mean that you are just a strong power,” Wallerstein explained, “a hegemony means that you set the rules by which everyone else must act. It means that you get your way 95% of the time, in 95% of the cases.”

Following World War II, the United States was that hegemony. After an extremely destructive global war, the United States was the only country to emerge relatively unscathed in terms of existing industry. The dollar had become the de facto currency of the world-system and, through this monopoly of the American capital system, Wallerstein argued, the U.S. could build a political and cultural dominance, which enabled it to be a hegemonic power.

Conversely, Wallerstein attributed the entropy of the American hegemony to a number of factors. Economic expansion in Europe and Japan meant the end of the American capitalist monopoly. Global nuclear proliferation meant an existential threat to the clout of American authority.

Most controversially, Wallerstein asserted, “The United States lost the Cold War. The point of the Cold War was not to win but to keep it going. Its benefit meant that there was an invisible menace through which to keep Western Europe in check, as well as an actual presence to keep the Soviet sphere in check.”

“The macho militarism of the Bush neocons was an attempt to intimidate the world. It was an attempt at restoring American hegemony by overthrowing Saddam. What happened was a blowback. Western Europe became more independent, not less. The United States was humiliated in the Security Council. Neither the DPRK nor Iran were intimidated, and it certainly did not instill awe among moderate Arab countries…the United States decline turned into a precipitous drop.”

Pivoting to China, Wallerstein noted, “Since Nixon went to China, the so-called antagonism between the United States and China is pretense. Nothing at all remotely points to a potential clash between these two nations.” However, as the United States is in decline, China continues to grow, and its influence in Africa becomes increasingly palpable.

Wallerstein talked about the future of the world-system. “We are in the midst of chaos,” he commented. “There is becoming a system of eight to ten world powers with geopolitical autonomy, and this is terrible. There is no stability and they are playing games. Oscillation in world powers means enormous insecurity in the short run.”

Out of all of this, Wallerstein hit home with his final, controversial remark. “The most unstable country in the entire world-system today is the United States. The United States at the moment is a failed state, and I hate to anticipate what may happen in the next ten years.”

It is not just the United States that is in jeopardy. Wallerstein concluded, “The entire world system today is in question. We are living amidst this period of great uncertainty. In 20 or 30 years, the world-system will have shifted dramatically…. It takes 75-100 years for another world hegemonic power to emerge, if the system can survive for that long. Frankly, I don’t think it will.”

Wallerstein’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Council on African Studies, the Yale Office of International Affairs and the Social Science Research Council, in connection with the conference “Making Sense of the China-Africa Relationship: Theoretical Approaches and the Politics of Knowledge.”