Walllerstein and World System (I)

Wallerstein is identical with theory of world system. He elaborates the theory in his classic work, The Modern World System; Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century where he develops a theoretical framework to understand the historical changes involved in the rise of the modern world.

How to understand modern world?

First, we need to understand his main theory in this work where he proposed the theory of world system. By “world system” he means “a social system, one that has boundaries, structure, member groups, rules of legitimacy, and coherence.” Social system is like living organism that change in some aspects and remains stable in others. Its special character is self contained and internal dynamic. According to him, there are only two “types” of social system. One lives in such remote areas, untouched by “the world”, i.e., the small and subsistence communities; and the other one is “the world” itself.

He suggest that the world system has two different types: world empire and world economy. The differences between world empire and world economy lie in that the world empire has single centralized political control. It is a political entity, and “… primitive means of economic domination” (p. 15). While world economy has no such single control, it encompasses political boundaries.

The Structure of Argument

Wallerstain builds his argument on three level of analysis:
- Organization of production
- State machienery
- Social groups relation

Finishing those three level of analysis, he gives a special discussion the the origin European economic and political crisis. He said that many would feel the “crisis” of fourteenth century and the expansion of the sixteenth could be account for climate, epidemiology, and soil condition. He himself chooses to explain that the crisis can be explained in three main ways:

1. That it was the product of cyclical economic trends. The optimal point of expansion given the technology having been reached, there followed a contraction.
2. That it was the product essentially of a secular trend. After a thousand years of surplus, appropriation under the feudal mode, a point of diminishing return had been reached. While productivity remained stable (or decline as a result of soil exhaustion) because the absence of technology, the burden to be born by the producers of the surplus had been constantly expanding because of the growing size and level of expenditure of the ruling classes. There was no more to be squeezed out
3. Climatological change that lowered soil productivity and increased epidemics simultaneously.
According to Wallerstein Europe begun their the establishment of a capitalist world economy to ensure their economic growth. This effort includes the expansion of the geographical size of the world in question, the development of different modes of labor control and the creation of relatively strong state machineries in the states of Western Europe.

In response to the feudal crisis, by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the world economic system emerged. This was the first time that an economic system encompassed much of the world with links that superseded national or other political boundaries. Prior to the modern era, it was true that there many world-economy. But, unlike the modern one, they were highly unstable structure which tended either to be converted into empires or to disintegrate. The “new” world economy, as I describe above, differed from earlier empire systems because it was not a single political unit. Empires depended upon a system of government which, through commercial monopolies combined with the use of force, directed the flow of economic goods from the periphery to the center. Empires maintained specific political boundaries, within which they maintained control through an extensive bureaucracy and a standing army.

It is peculiarity of the modern world system that a world economy has survived for 500 years and yet has not come to be transformed into a world empire — peculiarity that is the secret of its strength. This peculiarity is the political side of the form of economic organization called capitalism. Capitalism has been able to flourish precisely because the world economy has had within its bound not one but multiplicity of political system. Different with classic theory of capitalism, Wallerstein defined capitalism as a system based on the constant absorption of economic loss by political entities, while economic gain is distributed to “private” hand.

The new capitalist world system was based on an international division of labor that determined relationships between different regions as well as the types of labor conditions within each region. In this model, the type of political system was also directly related to each region's placement within the world economy. As a basis for comparison, Wallerstein proposes four different categories, core, semi-periphery, periphery, and external, into which all regions of the world can be placed. The categories describe each region's relative position within the world economy as well as certain internal political and economic characteristics.

Comparasion with Diamond

Diamond’s book is the first work I read on international studies subject. I was amazed by his words and argument. However, reading this book of Wallerstein, I find a more comprehensive and “socially scientific” work than Diamond’s is. Here I can find how Diamond as a biologist writes the history human society no more than biological being. When he did emphasize on the gun, germ, and steel, it imply that he discuss about human instinct to pass the law of survival of the fittest, using gun and steel technology to kill or conquer their competitor, and it is the fittest who survive from germ.

Here, without referring to the pre-historic human’s history, Wallerstien gives more comprehensive understanding about what happened in the modern world. We can not understand recent global world without understanding capitalism, and Wellerstein help us to do this.

However, with the same couriosity to Diamond’s neglecting religion, I still have question about the way he compare what happen in Europe with China. Why China and not Islamic world? He said, “the apt comparison is of Europe and China, which had approximately the same total population from thirteen to sixteen centuries.” Only for this population related reason?

In fact, when he maintain the importance of Portugal as the pioneer of expansion, he did refer to the fact that “it was ironically that it was least absorbed in the zone that would become the European world economy, but rather tied in a significant degree to Islamic Mediterranean zone.” But why he did not continue this by comparing what Islamic world had been achieving at that time with Europe? Isn’t it interesting to question why Europe that is modernized and not Islamic world—the one that, at that time, had been more advanced and monetized?

From SIS 500 class

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