What is a modern world system


Book authors
Immanuel Wallerstein
Book title
The modern world system I.
Book subtitles
The beginnings of capitalist agriculture
In the first volume of his four-part work, Immanuel Wallerstein deals with the transition from feudal to capitalist class rule and the appropriation of surplus value and the emergence of the capitalist world system, which initially developed as a European world economy between 1450 and 1640.

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Karl Marx divided the prehistory of the liberated society in "On the Critique of Political Economy" retrospectively into Asian, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production. He finally concentrated his intellectual powers on fathoming the capitalist organization of social work and presenting it in a logical and systematic way “in its ideal average” (MEW 25: p. 839).

In his four-part work, however, Immanuel Wallerstein, American Professor of Sociology and Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, researches and describes the historical course of the capitalist social formation with reference to the French historian school of Annales, which was largely inspired by Fernand Braudel. Because "if we want a world with more equality and more freedom, we have to understand the conditions under which these relationships can be realized" (p. 23). Such a company, according to Wallerstein, "first and foremost requires a clear representation of the character and the development of the modern world system up to today."

Together with Samir Amin and his colleagues André Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrighi, who have unfortunately passed away, Wallerstein developed what is known as the world system analysis as part of this demanding project. To this day, it forms the basic intellectual framework of one of the influential currents of Marxist thought, the representatives of which are still politically connected to the anti-imperialist movements in solidarity.

From feudalism to the capitalist world system

In the first volume Wallerstein traces the origin and the first phase of capitalism as a world system - initially existing as a European world economy. The prerequisite for its emergence is “the crisis of Western feudalism in the 14th and 15th centuries” (p. 42). It is the crystallization point of a “trend of the century”, which culminates in the exhaustion of the feudal mode of production - recognizable in the lack of productivity in agriculture and in peasant revolts - a cyclical economic crisis and a deterioration in the climate at the end of the Middle Ages.

On the ruins of the old feudal society a “historical novelty” (p. 27) emerged: between 1450 and 1640 “a European world economy” (p. 27) emerged “on the basis of the capitalist mode of production” (p. 99). As trade capitalism, capitalism becomes the “dominant social organization of the economy” (p. 109) and solves the crisis of feudalism. The new form of the appropriation of surplus value is no longer based on the direct appropriation of the agricultural surplus (tribute or feudal rents). What is now developing instead is an “appropriation of the surplus by means of a world market mechanism” - based on unequal development and an international division of labor in favor of the capitalist centers. This new form of exploitation is supported by "state apparatuses, none of which controls the world market in its entirety" (p. 46f.). The rising European world economy "was a social system unique of its kind, which is still the basic feature of the modern world system today." It is "an economic, not a political entity" (p. 27). Wallerstein speaks of one

worldsystem, not because it encompasses the whole world, but because it is larger than any juridically defined political unit. And that's why it's a worldeconomybecause the connection between the parts of the system is primarily an economic one - of course strengthened to a certain extent by cultural ties, sometimes also (...) by political arrangements and alliances ”(p. 27, ed. i. O.).

The world economy is thus an invention of the modern world and capitalism is only, if one follows Wallerstein, "possible within the framework of a world economy" (p. 59). Conversely, the capitalist mode of production is the decisive (if not the only) variable for the expansion of the European world economy. For since it was once established, "the survival of other 'modes of production' 'depends on" "how well they fit into the political and social framework resulting from capitalism" (p. 109). So it is not true that

“The two forms of social organization, capitalist and feudal, would have existed or could have existed side by side. The world economy has one form or the other. Once capitalist, relationships, which have certain formal similarities with feudal relationships, are redefined in the categories of ruling principles. This applied to both the encomienda in Hispano-America as to the so-called 'second feudalism' in Eastern Europe ”(p. 124, Herv. i. O.).

According to Wallerstein, three historical processes were decisive for the establishment of the capitalist world economy in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages: "An expansion of the geographical scope of the world in question" (p. 47), which began with the incorporation of America by Portugal and Spain into the European economy has succeeded; "Labor control methods that had to be very varied for different products and zones of the world economy" (p. 47), that is, an international division of labor, and "relatively strong state apparatuses in the areas that were to become the core states of this capitalist world economy" (p. 47), that is, in north-western Europe, the “economic heart” (p. 339) of the world system, namely initially Spain, then England, the Netherlands and “to a certain extent northern France” (p. 135) in the course of the 16th century.

In addition to the European world system, at the end of the Middle Ages and at the beginning of modern times there were other systems that included a world of their own, such as in China. According to Wallerstein, these world empires or empires are not a worldeconomize. The European world economy is characterized by the fact that there is no coherent political system within an overarching economy, but rather a large number of states. This is also an essential reason for their stability. For empires, on the other hand, it is characteristic that only “a single political system prevails over the majority of the area” (p. 518) and the economy is subordinate to a strong central authority. The tribute-based, centralized bureaucracy exercising political power has functioned in China and has hardly provided any starting point for the development of a capitalist economy - unlike feudalized Europe. Until the middle of the 15th century, the stage for the creation of a capitalist world economy was only set up “in Europe, but nowhere else” (p. 71).

The inner workings of the world system: center, semi-periphery and periphery

Within the European world economy, not all political-economic formations have necessarily developed in the same way. The uneven development produces at least “three zones of the world economy” (p. 71): semi-periphery, center / core and periphery / “satellites”. This division is both functional (job-related) and geographical. In part, it is a consequence of “ecological considerations”. The decisive factor, however, is the function of the social organization of work, that is, “the range of economic tasks was not evenly distributed in the world system” (p. 519). Accordingly, various forms of economic and state organization generate an international hierarchy - relationships of exploitation are both the result and the condition of this unequal development. Spatially, the three zones are not necessarily congruent with states. Rather, there are states in them.

In the centers of the European world economy, work is predominantly “free” or “free” (p. 135) in a combination of pasture and arable farming as well as in the still comparatively small industry. Work relationships based on direct personal coercion are being replaced by forms of wage labor. The state machinery is strong. They have the ability to exploit "cheap" work opportunities that are far away and, on the basis of a class compromise between landlords and the rising bourgeoisie, serve to protect the "disparities that have arisen within the world system", to provide "the ideological masking and justification for maintaining these disparities" deliver and enforce interests “against individual social groups within the state” (p. 520). The state bureaucracies necessary for this were created for the first time in the centers in the early period of the world capitalist system.

In the areas of the periphery, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe, the majority did “forced sales-oriented agricultural work” (p. 123) in the 16th century, the farmers work part of their time on state or private domains or the people do slave labor. The states are weak in the periphery, "which can range from nonexistence to a small degree of autonomy" (p. 520). The decisive factor for the world system is: "The center dominates the periphery" (p. 153). According to Wallerstein, "the secret of the success of the central regions of a world economy" lies in the fact that "they exchange their industrial products for the raw materials of the peripheral regions [...]" (p. 285).

The semi-periphery occupies “a middle place on a continuum that extends from center to periphery” (p. 131), is a “necessary structural element” (p. 520) and not a residual ramp in a global economy. In the sixteenth century, the “share economy” (p. 131) took place in these central areas, to which the centers can descend and the periphery can ascend. Landlords give their land to farmers who pay a lease, sometimes in kind, to the landlords. Politically, the semi-peripheries are a kind of buffer between the center and the periphery. On the one hand, they derive political pressure from the periphery. On the other hand, they fail to bring their own interests to the centers. Wallerstein names, for example, southern France or northern Italy in the 16th century as parts of the semi-periphery.

In its early days, the European world system maintained numerous external trade relations, which “are mainly based on the exchange of valuables” (p. 450). The resulting profit is limited by trading. Wallerstein describes the political formations that are not part of the division of labor in the world system, for example Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Asia, as the “outer arena” (p. 450). The "borderline between the periphery and the outer arena" is fluid and flexible. So it is constantly shifting.

Start of a great story

The opulent introduction to the tetralogy of the modern world system is the prelude to a fascinating, grand narrative: the history of capitalism. Wallerstein is a gifted narrator with a razor-sharp eye for international political-economic structures and their evolution over long periods of time - a quality that left and left liberals are increasingly voluntarily renouncing. It's like any good series: you just have to read on. Only at the end can an overall judgment be made. Then it should also have turned out whether the logical prioritization of the world system over the capital ratio and the exploitation of wage labor in Wallerstein's presentation is really justified and to what extent the world system analysis promotes “a real understanding of the social dynamics of the present” (p. 22).

Immanuel Wallerstein 2004:
The modern world system I. The beginnings of capitalist agriculture.
Promedia Verlag, Vienna.
ISBN: 978-3-85371-142-2.
596 pages. 34.90 euros.
Quotation: Christin Bernhold and Christian Stache: The Birth of the Capitalist World System. Published in: Antifa do differently !. 37/2015, anti-imperialism global. 43 / 2017. URL: https://kritisch-lesen.de/c/1302. Retrieved on: May 19, 2021 16:23.

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