Book Review: "The End of the World as We Know It" by Immanuel Wallerstein

The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century, by Immanuel Wallerstein

"Furthermore, it is precisely in periods of transition from one historical system to another one (whose nature we cannot know in advance) that human struggle takes on the most meaning."

In this volume, Immanuel Wallerstein makes the assertion that the current world system (global capitalism) is at a point of bifurcation (a splitting). He theorizes that this rupture will occur in the next fifty years. Of course, he doesn't try and play Nostradamus and attempt to forecast the future. Instead he insists that we are headed for shaky and interesting times, leaving the future in the hands of those in the present.

He begins by outlining four fundamental crises of global capitalism. Four that are only avoidable by altering the most basic nature of the system:

CRISIS ONE: Global De-ruralization - The main impulse of capitalism is to produce surplus and ideally retain the surplus value for the capitalist class. However, concessions must be made to workers in order to stabilize the system. We've seen what happens when capital refuses to concede. The orthodox method has been to allow the better-paid workers to supply the market by consumption and then draw those who are more politically vulnerable and willing to work for lower wages into the fold. For the most part, these workers are located in rural areas, drawn into the system as urban proletarians. These workers only work for a while under such conditions, until they too are drawn into the labor supply and replaced by others. Here's the rub: the world is rapidly becoming de-ruralized. This stands to disrupt this necessary process.

CRISIS TWO: The Ecological Crisis - Wallerstein doesn't touch much on this...I can at a later time. This problem alone requires a rethinking of everything from the monetary system to the copyright system, and on and on...but Wallerstein only really needs to touch on one fundamental point. For the whole life of the system, capital has been able to externalize most ecological costs. Usually, the brunt of the repair work is doled out to the taxpayer and the capitalist continues production unperturbed. With the growth of the system and the massive scale of industrial impact, they are being forced to internalize these former externalities. This is not cost-efficient at all and cuts deeply into profit margins.

CRISIS THREE: The Democratization of the World - The French Revolution brought a very dangerous idea into the whole of human consciousness- Authority does not rest in Monarchs, authority rests in the hands of the people. Though institutional authority has used the idea to spread capitalism, it has also spread the seeds of its demise. In order to stem the tide and stabilize the system, liberalism came into being. We now find three fundamental driving forces- Conservatism, Radicalism/Socialism, and Liberalism. The conservatives, true to the name believe in preservation of the status quo, but the radicals and socialists push to transform society completely. In order to curb this, reformist liberalism was created. The promise of incremental reform, the idea that even if your needs aren't being met, one can rest assured that we are gradually making steps towards an egalitarian society. This reform is mediated and administered by "experts". However, liberal reformism only works if the demands of society are being met in at least piecemeal fashion. Democracy requires concessions. At the very least it requires social wages, money for children and the aged, education, and health facilities. With the growth of capitalism and the increasing polarization in the distribution of wealth these calls are getting louder. They of course can't be met without endangering profit margins. This leads us to crisis four.

CRISIS FOUR: The Reversal of the Trend in State Power as the Adjustment Mechanism of the World System. - I'll be lazy and quote Wallerstein
directly on this one: "World democratization and the ecological crisis have put impossible demands on the state structure -- putting them in a state of "fiscal crisis" -- reducing their ability to adjust the system. The capitalists relied ever-increasingly on (social) movements to perform on their behalf in legitimating state structures." The capitalist system is stabilized by alternating between two primary tactics- making concessions to global social movements and then lauding the concessions to generate general approval -- and engaging themselves in wars to raise nationalist sentiment. For a lucid illustration of this, read The Twentieth Century by Howard Zinn. There was all-out class war in the United States and Socialist entities were becoming too formidable. World Wars I and II and the New Deal served the dual purpose of giving an excuse to imprison movement leaders, generate nationalist sentiment, and make the necessary economic concessions to re-stabilize the economic and social system.

Old movements have collapsed, and concessions are no longer being made. Right now, most are slumbering in the ether of apathy. Wallerstein is optimistic, though, and believes that the apathy is only a brief way-station. So, he then gives us a job: "The task of liberation movements, no longer necessarily national liberation movements, is to take serious stock of the crisis of the system, the impasse of their past strategy, and force the genie of world popular discontent that has been unleashed precisely by the collapse of the old movements. It is a movement for utopistics, for intensive, rigorous analysis of historical alternatives." (Utopistics is a term he coined. I'll explain it in a later note summarizing the book "Utopistics.")

There are other factors to complicate things further for global capital, and American capitalism specifically -- that would be our current position in the two most important cyclical rhythms of the capitalist mode of production. Those are Kondratieff cycles and hegemonic cycles.

We are at the end of the American hegemonic cycle. We are no longer the sole superpowers, no matter how much many of us would delude ourselves to believe. We are now seeing a triad: The United States, East Asia (being led by China and Japan) and Europe...and the United states is slipping. Europe has a more stable mode of production and east Asia has vast technological resources and distinct lack of labor laws.

We are on the downswing of a hegemonic cycle and we are also in a Kondratieff B-phase. Kondratieff cycles are 50/60 year cycles where the primary sources alternate between the sphere of production and the financial arena. During the A -phase, production expands and demand is at a high. A-phases occur when production exceeds real effective demand. This leads to a downturn in the system where the primary source of profit becomes speculation and financial manipulation. There are four different methods to return to an A-phase. Two are only short-term fixes and only create wider cyclical fluctuations, endangering the system in the long run and two are more effective middle-term fixes and can serve to bring the cycles closer to equilibrium. Of course, the second set runs against the logic of capitalism and they are discarded.

FIX NUMBER ONE: Slow production until supply meets demand. But as Wallerstein says, nobody wants to be a sacrificial lamb in capitalism.

FIX NUMBER TWO: This of course is the road taken as far as production goes in this paradigm: increase the production of goods. This increase may lower the actual amount of profit, but because more units are being pumped out, overall profit levels are maintained. This creates a problem: how are you to produce so much and still keep the labor costs down? This leads us to commonly taken road number two...and fix number three on our list.....

FIX NUMBER THREE: Relocate productive forces to a region where cost of labor can be minimized and ecological costs can be externalized, relocate to the global south. And then there's:

FIX NUMBER FOUR: This, too, is the road less taken -- raise wage rates to increase consumption. Or, bring the bottom up to raise the rest. This could never happen in our "trickle-down" world.

So we need to start intensively rethinking the way things are and the way that they could be. The rest of Wallerstein's book is a call to social scientists to reform their systems of analysis and begin working in a new way. Bastardizing and modifying the words of Kenneth M. Stokes: As the scale of society and its economic and social interactions increase, the scope of analysis paradoxically decreases. Here are a few of the difficulties created in our contemporary system that need to be overcome in order create new modes of existence.

The split between science and the humanities: before the Enlightenment period, intellectual authority rested in the Church. Theologians were the moral compass. But then came the rise in science, and the intellectual authority of the religious caste was cast aside. Philosophers were to be the ones to contemplate the "good" and "beautiful" and scientists were the ones to analyze what is and only what is, without qualitative judgment. Science shunned philosophers as the new theologians and there was then a rift between the sciences and the humanities. Why can we not work at building a good society based on solid empirical truth?

There were other rifts created, such as the Civilized/Other rift, the split between past/present, and state/market/society. All of these are inextricable parts of a whole and need to be mended to truly address our current situation.

Physics and thermodynamics in social systems is something that I'm going to passionately study in the years to come, because at the end of the current paradigm we need to create new structures. For example, it is going to take a lot of work to challenge the educational and political institutions about the idea that the economy is not a closed system eventually capable of equilibrium. This belief will be our demise. We live in an open metabolic system capable of only quasi-equilibrium. Entropy, or the arrow of time challenges our belief in Newtonian Determinism which has social, economic, and even religious ramifications- see the following link for an intriguing example: http://www.stjohnadulted.org/sc_trueb.htm

Sorry, it's hard not to swing onto tiny tangents. Back to the task: Wallerstein believes that social science will be the theater in which the battle is won or lost and throughout the rest of the book, he talks about the structural and practical problems with contemporary social science. I won't go into this, because I've read it and can re-reference this. And if you had the patience to read this and if you were even remotely intrigued, you should read the durned book.

Conrad told me about the Chinese curse as I rode by him yesterday "May you always live in interesting times." We are indeed living in one of the most interesting and uncertain and frightening and beautiful times in human history, and as Wallerstein quotes Wordsworth "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven."


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