A historical bifurcation: the two possible world systems

We shall settle down into our new historical system. 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.

From a conversation between Almantas Samalavicius and Immanuel Wallerstein:

“Immanuel Wallertstein: 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. They will be the result of an infinity of nano-actions by an infinity of nano-actors at an infinity of nano-moments. But at some point, there is a tilt; there always is. And we shall settle down into our new historical system or systems.

AS: One of the key figures in the making of EU – Jacques Delors – recently lamented that today’s politicians are too preoccupied with technical matters and lack a long-term vision of the EU’s future. He claimed that the future of Europe needs people who could be called “architects”. How do you envision the future of Europe? Do you think the EU has any prospects of becoming a strong economic and political power?

IW: Delors is certainly right about the preoccupation of Europe’s political leaders with short-term dilemmas. I think he is probably over-critical of those whose long-term vision is different from his. Will the EU be a strong economic and political power? It already is. Will it be stronger in the next decades? Possibly, but not at all surely. The EU’s strength will depend on the geopolitical alliances it contracts – very much an open question today. But of course the EU, like all the other centres of geopolitical power, finds itself within the vortex of the structural crisis of the world-system as a whole. And if, as I suggested, we find ourselves in a new world-system twenty to forty years from now, we have no idea whether structures that now exist (the EU, its constituent states) will continue to exist at all and, if they do, what kinds of institutional roles they will play.

Whether Germany agrees to further de facto transfers to Greece or any other member country of the EU – or whether popular revolts in Portugal will or will not block the austerity measures of the government – these are indeed important, even vital, issues to everyone at present. Fifty years from now, they may turn out to be obscure footnotes in the books of professional historians.

AS: In a number of your books and articles you seem to suggest that the “American century” is over and that new, emerging superpowers will, in the long run, assume the role that the United States performed in the “long twentieth century” (as Arrighi calls it). How will the emergence of new world powers like China, India, Brazil and so on, and the continuing rearrangement of the world-system affect Europe – and, in particular, eastern Europe? Do you foresee any role for EU in an emerging world-system?

IW: The emergence of “new world powers” – you are referring to the so-called BRICS and some others – is a perfectly ordinary matter in terms of the constant slow rotating location of centres of capital accumulation in the structure of the capitalist world economy. It affects both the United States and the EU quite directly, in that it means there is a redirection of both wealth and capital from them to these “new” centres. On the other hand, it is easy to overstate what is happening. One basic problem is that these new centres are not resolving the structural problems of the world-system. They are in fact making it worse in one simple way. Their very size and their internal political pressures mean that they are allocating world surplus-value to a numerically larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before. This means they are thinning the amount that can be skimmed off by those at the very top. And this makes the system less rewarding and therefore less interesting for them. That is why the mega-capitalists are part of the forces today for the replacement of capitalism by another system – of the kind they prefer, of course.

You ask how this will affect eastern Europe? Very directly, I think, and in ways that many will not like. I project that, over the next decade, there will be a Northeast Asian rapprochement bringing together in a loose confederal structure a reunited China, a reunited Korea, and Japan. I further project that this northeast Asian entity and the United States will enter into a de facto alliance. In response, both Western Europe and Russia will feel the need to move closer, over the protests (which will be largely ignored) of eastern Europe (or most of it). Can deeply-felt historical angers, such as those between Japan and China or those between Poland and Russia, be overcome? Of course they can, under the right circumstances. It was not so very long ago that France and Germany (or further back in time England and Spain) were bitter enemies. Are they today?

AS: In one of your articles on modernization you argue that the future system of world government will be based on a socialist mode of production. As we well know the fall of Communism has largely compromised the idea of socialism – no matter how sound this idea might be, global capitalism has, thus far, predominated. What are the prospects of this new economic paradigm emerging? Can reflections on current economic crisis pave way for a new paradigm to emerge – whether it is described as “socialist” or by any other name?

IW: You must be referring to an article of long ago. I no longer use that language. I don’t think the idea of socialism has been compromised. I think the term (as well as the terms communism and social-democracy) have become unusable, largely because they both have no clear meaning today and they have so many linkages to unhappy regimes. But, as I said before, one of the outcomes of the bifurcation is a regime that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian. I emphasize that, in my view, such a system has never, anywhere, existed before. We don’t know exactly what kinds of institutions will be constructed in such a framework. If you want to call this a new paradigm, why not?”

1 Comment A historical bifurcation: the two possible world systems

  1. AvatarBulkzooi

    The solution presented is governance. Society needs a system and a system needs governance. And the elite makes the rule. So what’s new? The best solution is to give citizens the feeling of being inspired, involved with shared and common goals.

    This paradigm is also a pain for NGO’s, Open Source projects and officers of the system.

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