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LUMPENPROLETARIATGONZO:  As Lumpenproletariat readers may recall, your author earned his Economics BA from the pluralistic/heterodox economics department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Those years of study included a course on the History of Economic Thought, for which your author’s thesis paper addressed “Theories of Capitalist Imperialism”.  And included therein were some of the more prominent theorists to address this topic, such as Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Hobson, et al., which included the world-systems approach to capitalist imperialism, or centre-periphery model, developed by sociologist Dr. Immanuel Wallerstein, for example, in The Modern World System (1974). [1]

Dr. Wallerstein, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is a name, of which many listeners of free speech radio (and TV) may be aware, especially on free speech radio’s Against the Grain, where he’s been a recurring guest over the years of the show’s existence.  On today’s edition of Against the Grain, Dr. Immanuel Wallerstein returned to discuss various aspects of the capitalist mode of production, including its global and cyclical dimensions, in an interesting discussion about the possible scenarios, whether emancipatory or enslaving, which might succeed the end of capitalism.  Listen (and/or download) here. [2]



[Working draft transcript by Messina for Against the Grain and Lumpenproletariat]

AGAINST THE GRAIN—[12 APR 2017]  [KPFA community announcement for a KPFA-sponsored book event for The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez hosted by Project Censored’s Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College educator)]

[KPFA station identification]

[Against the Grain theme music]

“Today on Against the Grain:  Our capitalist world seems mired in crisis, beset by low growth and instability.  Immanuel Wallerstein argues that the current malaise goes beyond the periodic fluctuations of the business cycle.  According to him, capitalism’s days are numbered.  In 20 to 40 years, it will be gone, he says.  What replaces it may be something better, or something worse.

“I’m Sasha Lilley.  Wallerstein will join me today to talk about the end of capitalism as well as resistance to [President] Donald Trump and the recent attack on Syria.  That’s after these [KPFA] News Headlines with Aileen Alfandary.”

[KPFA News Headlines (read by Aileen Alfandary) omitted by scribe]  (c. 5:35)

SASHA LILLEY:  “From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  I’m Sasha Lilley.

“Capitalism appears to be a permanent fixture in our world.  As chaotic and unequal as it is.  We are told that there is no alternative to it and any attempts to get rid of it will end badly.  But my guest today argues that in the next to two to four decades, capitalism will be gone.  What replaces it has everything to do with the strength of the forces of right and left.  To talk about the end of capitalism, I’m joined by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.  He’s the father of world-systems analysis and Senior Research Scholar at Yale University.  His many books include the multi-volume Modern World System [1974].  And he’s contributor to the recent work, Does Capitalism Have a Future? [2013].

“Immanuel, let’s talk about where we got to where we are now.  It’s so easy to focus on the particulars of [President] Trump in the American context.  But far-right, quasi-populist politics have found significant support elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe.  What were the forces, that took us to this place?  What has risen?  And what has been displaced?”  (c. 7:12)

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “We, all of us, have been operating within the framework of what I call the modern world system, which is a capitalist world economy and has been in existence for 400 to 500 years.  It was originally in a relatively small part of the world, west and northern Europe and parts of the Americas.  It expanded by its internal processes until it englobed the entire Earth.

“That structure is the structure, which was the basis of our lives and within which we operated.  It was a historical system, meaning—by system—that it’s something that is stable and repetitious and—historical—meaning it changes at every mini-second.  So, that’s a—it’s not a contradiction.  It’s a reality.  You have to take that reality and live with it.

“Now, like all systems, whether we’re talking of the universe as a whole or the most micro-system, that you can think of, it has a life.  It comes into existence.  It has a—what I think of as its—normal life.  And, because of its internal processes, it comes to a point where it can no longer operate and renew itself in its proper way.  And, then, we call that a structural crisis.  And a structural crisis is not a crisis of a second.  It’s a crisis of quite a long time.  (c. 9:10)

“And, when you’re in a structural crisis of the world-system, which is what we are in, there’s a bifurcation.  By a bifurcation, what, technically, physicists mean by a bifurcation is that there are two solutions to the same equation, something theoretically impossible, but in fact occurs.  And it makes it a fork.  You can move in one direction or the other direction.  And, while at one—you can’t know, which way the thing will end up going.  You can, in fact, affect it enormously.  So, that’s where we are.  We’re in a structural crisis of the modern world-system.

“A structural crisis of a modern world-system is, by definition, highly chaotic.  By chaotic, you mean that it swings wildly in all directions—alright?—at all times.  So, that’s extremely confusing.  And people don’t know how to handle it.  But they do, one way or the other. (c. 10:20)

“Now, people are talking about the neoliberal effects and the, shall we say, the, uh, right-wing populism, etcetera.  All that are responses, modes of responding, to this crisis, how people handle it in various ways.  And this crisis, however, poses itself as a struggle, as a struggle between people, who would like to move the hand, who would like to strengthen one prong of the outcome.

“So, what are the prongs?  And I created names for them.  But names are unimportant.  For me, one is the spirit of Davos.  And one is the spirit of Porto Alegre.  And what do I mean by that?  The spirit of Davos are those people, who have accepted the reality that capitalism no longer works for capitalists and want to replace it with another system, which has all the worst features of capitalism, and perhaps could be even worse than capitalism.  Right?  That’s the spirit of Davos.  And the spirit of Porto Alegre is the spirit of those people, who would like a system, that has never existed in the history of the world, which is one that is relatively egalitarian and relatively democratic.

“So, there we are.  We are pushing in two different directions [i.e., left and right].  Now, when people talk of what to do about it, what I say to them is, of course, you do those things, which will push you in many ways in the direction of the spirit of Port Alegre.

“The problem is even more confusing than that because, in each of these two prongs, there are two versions of what you do.  In the spirit of Davos, one version is the way powerful people could handle this challenge is to hit the others over the head and to hit them as hard as possible.  And they will quiet down. And we will have our way.  And there’s another group, who says: That won’t work because, when people are hit over the head, they resist even more. And what you have to do is you to follow the path of di Lampedusa in—what was the name of his book?”

SASHA LILLEY:  “The Leopard?”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Of course.  The protagonist says to his very conservative grandfather: We must change everything in order that nothing change.  Right?  So, you have to persuade people that they are changing when they are not really changing. [3]  So, there’s already there—they are split.

“And, on the side of the spirit of Porto Alegre, there are those, who say, what we have to do is create a situation, in which everybody does their own thing and tries to listen to each other.  It’s called horizontalism. [4]  Right?  And, because, if you have a vertical structure with control, you are in fact not going to change the system.  That’s the horizontalist.  And the verticalist says:  That’s very well. That’s all well and good. But, in fact, at that point, you’ll be hit over the head by those other guys. And you won’t get anywhere. [5]

“So, instead of two positions, we have four positions.  And that’s even more confusing.  And, then—”


DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “So, today, some people are saying: Well, what we should do is resist.  Now, I’m all for resistance.  But what does it mean to resist?  You see.” [6] (c. 14:48)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Indeed.  And I wanna ask you more about the conundrum.  And you’re describing it from above and from below.  So, getting into this moment of crisis and what comes out of the crisis and the contending ideas—let’s just say—on the left and on the right, for that moment.”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “I’m more than happy to say the left and the right.  I have no trouble with that.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “Alright. [chuckles]  But let me talk to you, before we get to those competing forces and questions.  Let’s talk about the nature of that crisis.  So, you’re not talking about a crisis, that developed over the last couple years.  You’re talking about something deeper.  And I wondered if you could tell us when you see the crisis of the modern world-system beginning.  And, what’s the nature of the crisis?  You alluded to it.  You said that the conditions for the renewal of the system have been impeded in some way.”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Well, the way that the system got renewed always is that, uh—how shall I say?—it operated in terms of cyclical rhythms, that went up and down, except that’s how we think of them.  But, in fact, if you look at it carefully, they went up and then level, and then up, and then level.  Okay?

“Well, if you do that, and you begin to measure what’s happening, at a certain point, you get pretty close to the top.  You go up and level, and up and level.  If the, uh, if the vertical axis is a percentage of something—for example, a percentage of people, who are earning wage labour, or so forth—and you go up and level, then, you get to a point where you can’t go up anymore because you’re approaching the asymptote.  And it seems the estimate of people, who do these analyses, is that when you reach about about the 80 percent point you begin to shake. [laughs]  And, when you begin to shake, instead of—how shall I say?—a big change resulting in very—a big thrust resulting in very little change, it becomes a little change results in very big change.  Okay?

“So, what basically happened is that the mechanisms, which enabled a capitalist to make their profits have reached this point of shaking.  And they aren’t guaranteed any longer the possibility of profits.  Or they’re not guaranteed the perspective of making more.  And, therefore, they—most people think that a crisis, like this, is only because the people on the bottom are unhappy.  The people on the bottom have always been unhappy—”

SASHA LILLEY[soft chuckle, like a sigh]

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “—so to speak.  What’s added to that is that the people on top are unhappy as well.  That’s new.  That’s the crisis.  That caused the crisis.  When did this—I date it from the, um, early 1970s onward, more or less, as this period in which we are in, in this—what I call in one of my books—hell on Earth because it’s so devastating. [7]  We don’t know what is going to happen in the short run, in the middle run, and so forth.  And we find ourselves extremely frustrated by the—how shall I say?—the wild swings, that occur?”

SASHA LILLEY:  “Now, is this unhappiness from top evenly distributed around the world-system?”


SASHA LILLEY:  “That is are the—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—conditions of reproduction in capitalism—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—equally a problem?”  (c. 19:05)

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “But capitalism has always been a world-system.  It’s never—the idea that capitalism exists in a [separate] country is a mad idea.  It has no reality whatsoever.  So, if I am a capitalist located in country X, my inputs and my potential sales are calculated in terms of the world-system as a whole.  Right?

“So, um, when you say: Is it all evenly distributed?  The negative effects may be greater or less in one part or another; but in terms of the system, as a whole, it’s the people on top, who are not able to make the kinds of, be assured of the kinds of, profits, that they look for and, therefore, look for alternatives, alternative ways of retaining the kind of unequal income, that they profited from for several hundred years.  And that’s where we are.”  (c. 20:15)

SASHA LILLEY:  “The programme is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.  My name is Sasha Lilley.  And, today, I’m speaking with renowned sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.

“So, in terms of thinking about how we got to this moment and the forces, that have produced this crisis—and I do wanna talk to you more about thinking ahead beyond this moment.  But, just staying with this moment, you were talking about different, um, cycles, that take place, and the intrinsic problems, that happen along the course of the cycle.  And I wanted to ask you more about that.

“How should we think of history moving in cycles?  What constitute these cycles?  And I know that you write about more than one kind of cycle.  How should someone, who hasn’t thought of any of this in cyclical terms, understand what may seem like a whole lot of economic chaos as being cyclical?”  (c. 21:12)

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Well, all of life is a series of cycles.  It’s just a question of which are the sort of most important ones, or that have the most effect on our lives.  But, you know, think of it as breathing.  You breathe in.  You breathe out.  You breathe in.  And you breathe out.  There’s no way of not having a cycle, in that sense.  The question is what happens when you breathe out, as opposed to when you breathe in, and so forth.  So, that’s the idea of having this [set(?)].

“So, there are some things in which we put a great deal of effort.  Uh, we have cycles, that have to do with the economy.  They have a name, too.  They’re called Kondratiev cycles.  Right?  And what seems to happen is that the economy expands steadily for, roughly, 25, 30 years.  And, then, it can’t expand anymore.  [8]  Why?  Because the way the economy expands in a capitalist system is you have relative monopolies.  You can’t make money, if you don’t have a relative monopoly. [9]  But relative monopolies are self-liquidating for a whole series of reasons.  One reason is: If you have a good thing going, then other people wanna get in on it.  And there are various ways of getting in on it.  And, if enough of them get in on it, [laughs] then, they’re no longer as profitable as they once were.  And that’s when you have to pull back.  And all I’m saying is that when you pull back for various reasons you don’t pull all the way back because it’s—the resistance to pulling back also exists.  So, the compromise is to be more or less stable for another 25, 30, 40—these numbers are arbitrary.  But they’re real.  I mean we can measure Kondratievs over 500 years and see that the A phase and B phase, the expansion and the contraction phase have been, on the whole, 50 to 60 years combined—okay?—until they reach the point that they can no longer operate.  So, that’s one major cycle.

And a second major cycle is the geopolitical cycle.  One of the important things about capitalism as a system is you need a kind of relative stability in the geopolitics of the world system in order that people can create those monopolies. [10]  So, in order to create a monopoly in the economic sphere, you have to create a monopoly of geopolitical power.  Those are even harder to create.  But we’ve had, in my view, three of them, historically, which I can name in terms of the zone that was on top of the system at a given point was, first, the United Provinces, which is what we now call the Kingdom of the Netherlands or the Netherlands, plus Belgium. And, then, there’s the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  And, then, there was the United States—always United.  But that’s a small point.  (c. 25:23)

“And what happened is, after the Second World War, after 1945, we entered into the most extensive monopoly Kondratiev cycle, that we had ever had, so that it went further up and more extensively than prior to that.  And, at the same time, it was the high point of the geopolitical cycle with the U.S. as the dominant power.  Now, what happens is, therefore, that we have the biggest of each of these.  And they both begin their downturn circa the 1970s.  So, it’s the biggest.  And, then, it’s the biggest difficulty.

“And that’s how we enter in this situation in which we are today and which we don’t know the outcome—intrinsically impossible to predict the outcome because it is a function of an infinity of many micro-actions, um, and micro-moments at micro-levels.  Right?  But we can’t predict.  But because it’s, uh—how shall I say?—so chaotic, we can affect it because during the normal previous couple hundred years is what would happen is we would put in enormous social energy into changing things.  And very little would happen.  I usually use, as my examples, both, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution.

“The French Revolution was an incredible input of effort to change the system.  And, if you just look at it, in terms of where we are, not in 1789, but in 1850 or 1873, we had basically moved back considerably, so that the change, the real change was very little—the same with the Russian Revolution, an immense input.  And, when you look at it, in 1970 or so, and you say: How much has really changed?  It turns out that very little has actually changed.”   (c. 28:04)

SASHA LILLEY:  “So, what you are suggesting, if I understand you correctly, is that although there are these cycles, that we can see over periods of time, that these don’t necessarily, then, predetermine the kinds of changes, that happen at these junctures.”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Absolutely.  They don’t predetermine it at all.  They just predetermine the fact that we are in a crisis where every mini-action affects us.  And that’s what brings us, then, to resist.  Right?

“The concept of resist is a concept, that says: Oh, goodness, these right-wing forces are basically strong everywhere, in my country and in other countries and so forth. And they are reinforcing one another. What can we do about it?  And the answer is: Resist!

“But resistance—also, there’s a problem with resist.

“It’s a question of temporality.  There’s what I call a short-run and a middle-run.  It turns out that people think, live in the short-run.  We have to eat every day.  We have to sleep every day.  Right?  We have to survive every day.  So, we’re very concerned with what happens today.  And today is, maybe, a maximum of three years.

“A capitalist entrepreneur who tries to—who invests his money, he has a perspective.  His perspective is: Can I make my basic money back within three years? Otherwise, who knows? I can’t predict further than that. If I can’t expect to make it back in three years, I’m not gonna invest.  Okay?

“So, what is happening is that people have to worry about the short term.  And a movement, that attempts to move them, cannot ignore these things.  So, they have to do things, that will help people in the short-run.  I call that minimising the pain. [11]  You can try to pass a bill through a legislature.  You  can try.  There are all kinds of ways, in which you can try to move things in the short-run.  And you can succeed, perhaps.  You can minimise the pain by increasing the amount of [income] redistribution here or there.  But minimising the pain is not transforming the system.  That’s the point to remember.  Minimising the pain is minimising the pain.  And it’s a good thing to do.  But it isn’t changing the system.  And changing the system requires a kind of—minimising the pain requires compromises with all sorts of people—a lesser evil kind of idea.  (c. 31:28)

“But the medium term, when transforming the system, requires quite the opposite.  It requires saying: You’ve got to move in this direction. There’s no compromise with the other direction.

“So, that’s again the problem of the movements, of resisting.  Are they thinking about the short-term?  Or are they thinking about the middle term?  Or do they know how to think about them, both, simultaneously?  Well, it ain’t easy.  That’s the real point.

“None of this is easy.  Right?  And we all make mistakes all over the place.  Looking back on what we’ve done a hundred years from now, people will look and say: My god, why did they do X? That was so stupid. We should’ve done Y.  Yeah.  But that’s a hundred years from now, looking back.  And we’re in the middle of it.  So, we can make mistakes all over the place.  And all I can say is: Try your best. Do what you can. Resist by minimising the pain. Resist by not compromising with the other side whatsoever. And hope.

“It’s, in effect, you hope that all of this adds up because what happens with the bifurcation is, at one point or another, enough forces are on one side rather than the other, so that it tilts.  And that side becomes the new system.”  (c. 33:00)

SASHA LILLEY:  “That’s the voice of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.  We’ll take a music break and be back with him.”

[Music break: vintage musical recording of 1940s-ish cabaret music in non-English language]

SASHA LILLEY:  “You’re listening to Against the Grain.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  And, today, I am speaking with sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.  His many books include the multi-volume Modern World-System. He’s Senior Research Scholar at Yale University.  And my name is Sasha Lilley.

“So, we were talking about—you’ve been talking about your prediction that in 20 to 40 years, approximately, from now the crisis, that we’re already in, the crisis that the modern system is going to come to a head in some way.  And, in a sense, echoing Rosa Luxemburg‘s notion of socialism or barbarism, it could either go in a positive anti-capitalist direction or a very negative direction, that would be not capitalism, but potentially something worse. [12]  What does that bleakest option, how might you envisage that looking?  The worst-case scenario.” (c. 35:06)

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “The worst-case scenario.  I think the worst-case scenario is we have a new system, which is inegalitarian and undemocratic, but which is—how shall I say?—solidly based, begins ts own process of whatever rules they set up.  The normal period of a system is the system operating by the rules they invent.  Right?  And you can’t know what all the rules are.  You can’t predict what all the rules are, that they will invent.  For example, I often say: Look, suppose we were sitting around a table in the year 1500 and we said to each other: Boy, this feudal system in western Europe is coming to an end for X, Y, and Z reasons. So, let’s create a new one. We’ll call it capitalism. And here are the kinds of institutions, which we’ll need to set up.

“Do you really think that anybody sitting in 1450 or 1500 could imagine all the structures, that would get created.  And the answer is, of course, obviously not because these structures come into existence in the process of the operation of the system.  So, if you ask me what the system will look like, I can’t tell you.  I can only tell you whether it tends to be inegalitarian, hierarchical, polarising—that’s what we now have or we’re coming out of—or whether it’s relatively egalitarian and relatively democratic.  Again, I say relatively because nothing is perfectly anything.  But we can do a lot better than we’ve ever done before.

“And I wanna emphasise that there’s never been a case; none of these so-called past socialist, or blah blah, systems of various kinds were in fact relatively egalitarian or relatively democratic.  So, it isn’t a question of sort of trying to revive one of those systems.  It’s trying to create a system, which the world has never known, but is theoretically possible.”  (c. 37:40)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Would you think of the worst-case scenario and, perhaps, not the worst-case scenario—I’m not sure—as both being forms of class society?  Would it be fair to say the bleakest option of all would be some form of class society?  Just not this one?  And the other form would be—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—would transcend that?”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “They would be a class society, of course, but in the sense that they would be hierarchical—right?—and they would be exploitative.  And they would be polarising, so they would get worse and worse as time goes on.  So, you wanna call that a class society, I’m perfectly happy with the language.  But, as long as we know what we’re talking about.

“The problem with all our languages is they’re all so laden over with historical usages that almost always I have to wonder, when somebody says something to me, what they mean by it.  And I have to try to read into, or—how shall I say?—figure out what people mean by using a word like class society.  But I have no objection to it.  I would call that a class society.  Sure.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “So, what would be crucially different, then, just staying with the most sort of odious possibility for how society might go coming out of this crisis, how the world-system might go?  What would not continue?  I mean you talked about hierarchy and polarisation and exploitation, which are all hallmarks of capitalism.  But there, obviously, have been societies, that have been hierarchical and exploitative, that haven’t been capitalist, obviously.  And you’ve written that you see capitalism as a system of accumulation without end.  Is that what would be fundamentally changed in a society, that was—let’s just say—highly reactionary, but not capitalist?”  (c. 39:39)

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “That’s an interesting question.  I’m not sure I know the answer to that.

“The endless accumulation of capital is my defining feature of a capitalist system. [13]  So, if you had a non-capitalist system, that was nonetheless exploitative and so forth, would they center around the endless accumulation of capital?  They might not.  They might not.

“I can’t know exactly how they would organise things, except that they would organise it, such that the outcome was exploitation; the outcome was hierarchy.  But, structurally, whether—I would doubt it, as a matter of fact because I think that’s a defining feature of the capitalist system.  It would not necessarily be the defining feature of another kind of awful system.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “But you’re, of course, also arguing that this is not the only way things could go, and that there is an opening, a possibility, of moving beyond capitalism in a more—”


SASHA LILLEY:  “—egalitarian way.  Now, I know that you’ve just said we can’t look into a crystal ball and picture a society, that goes entirely beyond whatever we’ve experienced.  But do you have—when you suggest that there’s this sort of Porto Alegre avenue—let’s just say.  At its base, are there things, that you imagine would be essential in terms of getting beyond capitalism?”  (c. 41:28)

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Well, you know, I kind of believe in the human imagination.  And what that kind of situation would do would be to release the human imagination to thinking about how they could maintain a system, maintain it as relatively egalitarian and relatively democratic because there would always be people within it, who would try to undo that.  And [pause]—you know, they speak in, especially in Latin America, they speak of buen vivir, which is itself a translation of an Amara word and of a Quechua word.  And it means to live well.  But what does that mean in English?  It doesn’t mean anything per se.  But what they try to mean by it is that there would be some kind of human interaction of people, that would try to see what way we could choose something, that would end up being more egalitarian or more democratic, so that it would require a constant kind of discussion, that would not rule out possibilities.

“This is if the spirit of Porto Alegre wins.  So, I see it as an open society, as one, that permits you to think of new possibilities all the time, present them to others, amend them, uh, and release your imagination.  I think that’s very important as an idea, which you find very strongly argued by somebody like Ilya Prigogine [pronounced: eel-yuh preego-zheen], in terms of the structure of the world, that could be made, could be created.”  (c. 43:56)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Well, I realise, then, sort of pushing you to take the very long view with some of these questions.  But you have mentioned, and have written, that capitalism is a system and, hence, has a beginning but also an end.  But, thinking about life beyond capitalism, and thinking about the more egalitarian path beyond capitalism, should we also think about whatever comes next as also having a life cycle?”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Well, you know, it’s quite—in a sense, any system has a life cycle, by definition.  Right?  Any system has a life cycle.  But, um, I do know someone, who argues that we are going to move into a roughly egalitarian one.  And that, after about 500 years, we will move—he sees a cycle of moving between these two, back and forth.  I’m not ready to say that.  I’m not ready to say that.  I don’t know that.  That’s—how shall I say?—he has a cyclical process beyond my cyclical process.  Okay?  And, um, he may be right.  He may be right.  Or he may be wrong. [laughs]”  (c. 45:25)

SASHA LILLEY:  “[soft chuckle]

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “I, I’m not trying to be evasive.  I’m trying to give people a realistic idea of what their options are and what their best choices are in a difficult situation.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “Immanuel Wallerstein is my guest.  He is the noted sociologist.  Amongst his many books, he is a contributor to Does Capitalism Have a Future?  I’m Sasha Lilley.  And you’re listening to Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.

“I was wondering if you think there lies any danger in making grand predictions about the future, including that capitalism will be replaced by something worse or better in 20 to 40 years. [14]  Are there pitfalls in doing so, especially if the prediction doesn’t, you know, end up coming to pass?”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “There is a danger.  The danger is that people will think it’s hopeless.  And they will retreat into a shell, in a sense; and they will not be active.  And, by not being active and not resisting, either in the short-run or the middle-run, they more or less guarantee, in a sense, that the other side will win.

“So, I do worry that anything, that I say will persuade people that they will reduce their willingness to push in the right direction.  And, um, well, you know, it’s—there’s also the danger, um, that—how shall I say?—my arguments can be used against me by people, who are not on my side.

“Um, and, uh, I’ve been told: They are now quoting you to say, we are right and so forth.

“So, yes, it’s a danger.  And, yes, I worry about it.  And, yes, I do what I can.  In the end, I do what I can.  And I’m urging everybody to do what they can.”  (c. 48:02)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Well, um, in the time, that we have remaining, let’s talk about that struggle to fight, in essence, the good fight to influence things in one direction, rather than another in the midst of crisis.

“To what degree does how we understand the world, to what degree is that the terrain of struggle?

“In thinking about particularly the forces of the left, if you wanna call it that, or radicalism, there has been in many quarters a real rejection of the universalisms of the left of the past and, in many ways, a focus on the particular against such a thing.  And I wonder if that turn leaves us in any way in any kind of quandary and, particularly, in terms of the kind of struggle, that you’re talking about.  To influence the direction that things go in in the future, obviously, is a tremendous struggle.”


SASHA LILLEY:  “And does that need some kind of way of unifying people beyond the particular?”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “Well, you know, I respond to that kind of question the way I respond to a lot of other questions, which is the impossible is the most possible.

“The impossible is to be simultaneously universalist and particularist, as it’s—the impossible is to be, both, structural and historic.  And we have to learn how to do that, as that is not easy.  Uh, [pause] I can only again say: Of course, you have to be—the simplistic universalisms were part of the dominant intellectual structure of the capitalist world-system, the binary splits, that all sorts of people in the last 20, 30 years have been denouncing.  They’re right.

“To go to the other extreme and say, therefore, always be particularist.  There’s no end to that.  If you’re a particularist, your particularisms are within the particularisms within the particularisms.  And, at the end, you’re left with absolutely nothing.  If you follow particularism to the end of the stream, everything is disintegrated.  And, so, it’s helpless.  And, then, the other side can just walk in.

“So, how can you be, both, universalist—that is to say analytic; okay?; which I’m trying to be—and take into account particularisms, which I’m trying to do, both, in the short-run and in the middle-run?  Right?

“And, uh, again, let me say it’s not easy. [chuckles softly]”  (c. 51:21)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Let me end by asking you about this particular moment, that we happen to be in.

“You’ve been stressing a much longer view and the culmination of forces over a longer span of time.  But we do find ourselves in a moment, where the far-right is in power in this country.  And much has been discredited, yet, in terms of what replaces what’s been discredited, it’s still very up in the air.

“Do you see that there are openings right now, both, in terms of domestic politics in the United States and, then, also the question of U.S. imperial ambitions, which were sort of on display recently with Trump’s attack on Syria, which was sort of a fascinating moment because, over course, some people have held on to the hope of a silver lining with far-right populist, kind of, isolationism against the hawkishness of Clinton.

“And it seems like we now—”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “I, I wouldn’t give up the silver lining yet.”

SASHA LILLEY:  “—have the worst of all possible worlds.

“You don’t think so?”

DR. IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN:  “No.  I think we have a [unintelligible]—look, we have a man in power named Donald G. Trump—or G.  Is it G?  I’ve forgotten.  J. Trump.  Anyway, Donald Trump, who had the astuteness to combine being the head of a social movement and being the candidate of a political party.  Basically, his power has resided in combining the two, which no one ever did before, or never successfully.

“Now, that he is the President of the United States, with all the technical power that that gives him meant control of various things, like armies and so forth.  He still wants to be the head of a social movement because his power in the United States comes not from being President of the United States or the head of the Republican Party.  His power comes from the fact that he has a movement, which is behind him, which follows him, or seems to follow him for the time being no matter what he does.  I mean he, himself, said I could shoot somebody on Broadway—or what was it? I forgot—I could shoot somebody in the middle of the street and they still would follow me.  Right?  And, in a sense, he was absolutely right.

“Now, he hasn’t given that up.  And Syria is a good example.  What has happened?  Well, he’s been under pressure from all sorts of sides to bomb somebody. [chuckles]  Okay?  At a certain moment not too long ago he gave the order: Bomb.  Okay?  And, since he’s the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, they bombed.  Um, and then what?  Well, everybody says: Well, what next?  Okay?

“So, has all sorts of people, who are presumably in his cabinet, in his inner circle, and in this, making statements about what our policy is, not what it should be, what it is.  It turns out they’re making different statements.  And everybody’s making a statement, except one person.  That one person is Donald Trump.

“So, he is making a statement: We don’t know what’s next.  What we do know is he will decide what next.  But on what basis?  And we don’t know.

“And, in fact, this uncertainty is part of his power.  So, I don’t know.  You don’t know, whether he’s going to send more troops in, or not send more troops in.  He loses whatever he does.  That’s the reality of the situation.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t do something terribly stupid or stupid.  So, something, which will have consequences so negative, uh, that the world will bemoan it.  Right?  Because he could do that.  I give him a lot of credit for—how shall I say?—I don’t think he’s stupid.  I don’t think he’s, um, ignorant.  I think he’s very astute.  And I think he’s—how shall I say?—feeling out the world and trying to figure out what he could do, that would be the least harmful to him, in his power and the United States, as its power.

“Well, okay.  Fine.  But I don’t know what that is, by the way.  And I don’t know that he’s going to find out what that is.  So, he may do nothing.  That will not be good for him, either.  He’s got a lose-lose situation.  Um, and, uh, the one thing I’m not sure of is if he recognises that he’s in a lose-lose situation, or he thinks somehow that he can still get on top of it.”  (c. 57:06)

SASHA LILLEY:  “Well, on that cheery note, Immanuel Wallerstein, it’s been a real pleasure.”


SASHA LILLEY:  “I’ve been speaking with the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.  He is Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, author of scores of books, including Decline of American Power and Uncertain Worlds.

“You’ve been listening to Against the Grain.  I’m Sasha Lilley.  Thanks so much for listening.  And tune in again next time.”

[Against the Grain theme music] 

Against the Grain is produced by Sasha Lilley and C.S. Soong.  Please visit us online at AgainstTheGrain.org, where you’ll find on-demand and downloadable audio and a way to sign up for our podcast.  And you can check us out on Facebook at Against the Grain Radio, or follow us on Twitter at RadioAgainst.  (c. 58:09)

[Against the Grain theme music] 

[CART:  Bob Baldock presents Ibram X. Kendi book event, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, First Congregational Church, 2501 Harrison on Third, Oakland, CA, Thursday, 4 MAY 2017, 19:30 PST, see Brown Paper Tickets and other indie outlets.]

[KFPA station identification]  (c. 59:59)

Learn more at AGAINST THE GRAIN.


[1]  The world-systems approach to capitalist imperialism, or centre-periphery model, developed by sociologist Dr. Immanuel Wallerstein in The Modern World System (1974) is also known as the centre-periphery model.  The centre-periphery model is often found in studies of economic underdevelopment and economic dependency.  According to A Dictionary of Sociology (1988, originally published by Oxford University Press):

The centre–periphery (or core–periphery) model is a spatial metaphor which describes and attempts to explain the structural relationship between the advanced or metropolitan ‘centre’ and a less developed ‘periphery’, either within a particular country, or (more commonly) as applied to the relationship between capitalist and developing societies.  The former usage is common in political geography, political sociology, and studies of labour-markets.

In sociology, however, centre–periphery models are most likely to be encountered in studies of economic underdevelopment and dependency and tend to draw on the Marxist tradition of analysis.  The use of the centre–periphery model in this context assumes that the world system of production and distribution is the unit of analysis.  It also assumes that underdevelopment is not a simple descriptive term that refers to a backward, traditional economy, but rather a concept rooted in a general theory of imperialism.

According to the centre–periphery model, underdevelopment is not the result of tradition, but is produced as part of the process necessary for the development of capitalism in the central capitalist countries—and its continued reproduction on a world scale.  The theory assumes a central core of capitalist countries, in which the economy is determined by market forces, there is a high organic composition of capital, and wage-levels are relatively high.  In the peripheral countries, on the other hand, there is a low organic composition of capital and wage-levels do not meet the cost of reproduction of labour.  Indeed, the cost of reproduction of the labour-force may be subsidized by non-capitalist economies, particularly rural subsistence production.  Likewise, in peripheral economies, production and distribution may be determined largely by non-market forces such as kinship or patron-client relations.

The centre–periphery model thus suggests that the global economy is characterized by a structured relationship between economic centres which, by using military, political, and trade power, extract an economic surplus from the subordinate peripheral countries.  One major factor in this is the inequality between wage-levels between core and periphery, which make it profitable for capitalist enterprises to locate part or all of their production in underdeveloped regions.  The extraction of profit depends on that part of the cost of the reproduction of the labour-force that is not met by wages being met in the non-capitalist sector.  Thus, according to proponents of the core–periphery model, the appearance that capitalism is developing traditional and backward societies by locating enterprises in underdeveloped regions masks the structural relationship by which capital develops and prospers at the expense (or progressive underdevelopment) of non-capitalist economies.

The centre–periphery model has led to two main debates.  The first concerns the elaboration of a theory of modes of production, which attempts to conceptualize different economic forms in terms of the relationship between production and distribution in each mode.  The other tries to tease out the exact links between particular areas of the centre and periphery through examining the articulation of different modes of production.  Both debates may often appear to be excessively theoretical—or at least of little practical significance.  The centre-periphery model is also implicated in various types of world-system theories (see, for example, A. G. Frank, Dependent Accumulation, 1978, and S. Amin, Unequal Development, 1976).

[2]  Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving:  Against the Grain, this one-hour broadcast hosted by co-host Sasha Lilley, Wednesday, 12 APR 2017, 12:00 PST.

Programme summary posted by Against the Grain on KPFA’s archive page:

Our capitalist world seems mired in crisis, beset by low growth and instability.  Immanuel Wallerstein, the father of world-systems theory, argues that the current malaise goes beyond the periodic fluctuations of the business cycle.  According to him, capitalism’s days are numbered: in 20 to 40 years it will be gone.  What replaces it may be something better or something worse.  Wallerstein discusses the end of capitalism, as well as resistance to Donald Trump and the recent attack on Syria.

[3]  This point, which Dr. Wallerstein makes, about liberals, progressives, and radicals operating under an illusion of social change or socioeconomic progress is articulated brilliantly by Dr. Jane F. McAlevey on Against the Grain when she discussed class politics, how to organise working class power, and other themes relevant to working class emancipation, which she wrote about in her recent book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (2016).  Dr. McAlevey is also author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (2012), which The Nation called “the most valuable book of the year [for 2012]”.

Dr. McAlevey offered critical and empowering advice to left organisers (actual and potential) in the working class spheres of the workplace, the union, and the political party form, beyond the constraints of temporal mobilisations and defanged advocacy.  A key case study addressed was that of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which largely operated under the apparent illusion of change, whilst no concrete goals were set nor was any enduring political grouping formed, such as a grassroots opposition party, which could galvanise political power.  Much of the political energy of the 99% against the 1% was vented through the ruling class’ political safety valve of the Democratic Party (USA), which persuades many liberals and progressives (and even some left-wing radicals), that their political needs can be met through their political modus operandi.

Thus, mass mobilisations without any mechanism for embodying and sustaining enduring political power and the corporate Democratic Party (USA), both, function as safety valves by which political frustration with the status quo is vented but never galvanised into meaningful political power or political change.

[4]  Dr. Wallerstein brought up the concept of horizontalism (not to be confused with the monetary concept), which is also known as horizontalidad.  This concept was central to the Occupy Wall Street, as your author discussed with Alexa O’Brien in an interview originally published at Media Roots.  Alexa O’Brien was one of the founders of US Day of Rage, which was one of the four or five groups, alongside We Are the 99%, Take Back the Square, and others as well as the Adbusters magazine, which initially organised and launched the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s interesting that, in a post-Occupy Movement world, the left is now discussing the limitations of horizontalism.

[5]  Dr. Wallerstein noted one critique of horizontalism (or horizontalidad), which is interesting because the concern verticalists offer, in Dr. Wallerstein’s analysis, is precisely what happened to the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  It was not so much that the lack of clearly defined goals or leadership of the Occupy Movement caused them to fail in their aspirations against income inequality and socioeconomic injustice.  But it’s much more to the point that the Occupy Movement, literally, got hit in the head, to use Dr. Wallerstein’s words, as a coordinated nationwide crackdown against the Occupy Movement left many, such as military veteran Scott Olsen and others who were left bloodied across the nation.  Many of the nation’s mayors even coordinated with the Obama administration via teleconference to ensure that police forces across the nation acted swiftly, uniformly, and effectively in their efforts to break up the Occupy Movement encampments.  So, it wasn’t the case that the Occupy Movement failed in terms of sustaining itself.  But it failed to endure the police state repression brought down by the Obama administration, which being a Democratic Party administration, highlights how the Democratic Party only offers an illusion of change.  But, what’s most perplexing, is how most of those people, who contributed their energies to the Occupy Movement in 2011 and 2012, then went back to their default position and threw their electoral support behind a second term for President Obama in the 2012 Presidential Election.  It’s as if they’d already forgotten about the brutal beatings, raids, and anti-democratic police state destruction of the Occupy Movement encampments.

[6]  Again, the pitfalls for the left, which Dr. Wallerstein here alludes to are similar concerns addressed by Dr. Jane F. McAlevey, which concern shallow and temporal mobilising versus deeper, enduring, and more meaningful organising.

[7]  Listeners of free speech radio, or readers of economics, generally, will note that dating the origins of our most recent cyclical economic downturn to about the early 1970s, as Dr. Wallerstein does here is consistent with other economists and observers of the economy.  For example, we recall Dr. Richard Wolff, Dr. Dean Baker, Dr. Sylvia Allegretto, and others, as well as many other observers in the general economic literature.

Dr. Richard Wolff has described this crisis from a labour perspective.  As he notes, wages have stagnated since the early 1970s, as prices and the cost of living has risen, which means depressed purchasing power, or, effectively, a wage cut.  Meanwhile, during that same time, worker productivity has increased, which means further profits to capitalist owners of the means of production, or increased wage theft (depending on one’s perspective).

Dr. Richard Wolff has attributed the source of the wage stagnation as a function of supply and demand.  Since the early 1970s, he has argued, our labour shortage in the United States has ended, which means there are no longer enough jobs for everyone.  As Americans have lost many manufacturing jobs, the bulk of the economy has become a service sector economy.  This shrinking and emaciation of the pool of American jobs has been further compounded by the capitalist’s wage labour race to the bottom, as companies and corporations outsource and off-shore more and more of their production and operations on foreign soil in pursuit of the lowest and most exploitative wages to boost their profits.

[8]  The cyclical nature of two to three decades between economic booms and busts, or peaks and lows, has been analysed with great accuracy and insight by Dr. Hyman Minsky.  Recall Minsky’s financial instabilty hypothesis.

[9]  In addressing why economic growth peaks and falls in a society, Dr. Wallerstein seems to revert to standard neoclassical microeconomic analysis, or the theory of the firm.  In neoclassical economic theory, when a firm is making economic profits in a given industry, this signals to other capitalists to put their capital, their financial power, their productive capacity into that particular industry.  Then, as more participants enter a particular market, the profits are diffused amongst more participants, diluting or reducing the profitability of each participant, or firm, in that industry.  This continues until economic profits are eliminated and there is no longer any incentive for capitalist actors to enter that industry and/or capitalists begin to leave that industry altogether.

For an example of such a neoclassical microeconomic analysis, on monopolistic competition, perfect competition, non-price competition and product differentiation, see here.

[10]  Dr. Wallerstein notes the importance of “relative stability in the geopolitics of the world system in order that people can create those monopolies”, which generate economic profits.  As economics, or political economy, is an interdisciplinary social science, we draw our attention to the field of Law & Economics.  At the Law School at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the course has been taught by Dr. William K. Black, who emphasises in his course the importance of the rule of law—in a historical sense in terms of the development of capitalism and in a contemporary sense—in creating the conditions by which economic actors can enter into contracts with one another in the pursuit of profits.  If we think of times and places where societies were relatively lawless, the uncertainty was too great for anyone to consider investing, or risking, large amounts of resources into capitalist profit ventures or projects, which could generate jobs or stimulate economic activity or develop technologies, which could improve the general standard of living in the society.  This point about the rule of law may seem to be a trivial one, or one, which we take for granted.  But the rule of law is crucial to healthy economic activity in any society, or among societies.

[11]  In Jonathan Kozol‘s 1991 book, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, he decried as amelioration those half-measures of the sort, which Dr. Wallerstein refers to as a means of minimising the pain.

Typically, as a society, when confronted with inequality and poverty, we view the right-wing of the political spectrum as less sympathetic claiming everyone is getting equal opportunities to education and prosperity.  As explained by Dr. George Laikoff, there’s a different moral system at play, which ascribes socioeconomic misery as the result of one’s own moral terpitude.  The right-wing strict father model, or moral system, conversely views wealth as a sign of moral virtue.  Relevantly, Stephen Kruse has described how capitalists have co-opted, cherry-picked, and distorted biblical scriptures to rationalise individuality and self-interested capitalist logic.

So, on the right, we see the weaponisation of Christianity in the employ of capital; and we see a strict father figure model of morality.  On the left, especially liberal or centrist politics, represented by the Democratic Party in the United States, we tend to see the politics of amelioration, as Jonathan Kozol put it back in 1991, or minimising the pain, as Dr. Wallerstein puts it today.  The result is the same, liberals tend to pursue half-measures, which preserve the capitalist mode of production and, thereby, the origins of the social ills, which they ostensibly seek to remedy.

[12]  Socialism or Barbarism is a concept frequently used in Marxist theory and literature.  Attributed to Friedrich Engels, it became widely known through Rosa Luxemburg‘s “Junius Pamphlet” of 1916, where she wrote, “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.”

In Rosa Luxemburg’s original use of the term, socialism or barbarism,

In her “Junius Pamphlet” of 1916, strongly denouncing the then raging First World War, Rosa Luxemburg wrote: Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.

Luxemburg attributed it to Friedrich Engels, though—as shown by Dr. Michael Löwy—Engels had not used the term “Barbarism” but a less resounding formulation: If the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place.

Luxemburg went on to explain what she meant by “Regression into Barbarism”: “A look around us at this moment [i.e., 1916 Europe] shows what the regression of bourgeois society into Barbarism means.  This World War is a regression into Barbarism.  The triumph of Imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization.  At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences.  Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of Imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration—a great cemetery.  Or the victory of Socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the International Proletariat against Imperialism and its method of war.”

“Socialism or Barbarism” became, and remains, an often quoted and influential concept in Marxist literature.  “Barbarism” is variously interpreted as meaning either a technologically advanced but extremely exploitative and oppressive society (e.g. a victory and world domination by Nazi Germany and its Fascist allies); a collapse of technological civilization due to Capitalism causing a Nuclear War or ecological disaster; or the one form of barbarism bringing on the other.

The Internationalist Communist Tendency considers “Socialism or Barbarism” to be a variant of the earlier “Liberty or Death“, used by revolutionaries of different stripes since the late 18th century.

[13]  Dr. Wallerstein says that the endless accumulation of capital is his defining feature of capitalism.  Indeed, capitalism is a mode of production, which is predicated upon capitalist wage labour, or capitalist labour relations.  Capital is a social relation.  So, capitalism, or the capitalist mode of production, is a set of social relations, which favour the capitalist owners of the means of production over the workers, which produce the value of the commodity (or goods or services) produced.  As Dr. Karl Marx has laid out, and Marxian economics elaborates, capital is the constant extraction of surplus value from living labour.

[14]  Interviewer Sasha Lilley asked Dr. Wallerstein if he thought there was “any danger in making grand predictions about the future”.  Indeed, as we listen to (or read the transcript of) this interview, we may be wondering what might possibly be the benefit or purpose of all of these apparently predictive pursuits.  Indeed, we recall that Dr. Karl Marx, for his part, eschewed utopian predictions in favour of a comprehensive description of the nature, origins, and dynamics of capital.

Admittedly, Dr. Wallerstein admits: “There is a danger.”


[Image of sociologist Dr. Immanuel Wallerstein giving a talk at a seminar at the European University at St Petersburg on May 24, 2008 by Alexei Kouprianov (own work), used via Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0]

[12 APR 2017]

[Last modified at 13:27 PST on 19 APR 2017]