R.I.P. Immanuel Wallerstein, Sociologist and “World Systems” Theorist

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Immanuel Wallerstein, author of The Modern World-System (Volume I, 1974[1]), Historical Capitalism (1983), The Decline of American Power (2003), and 30 other books, died on August 31 of this year. He was 89 years old. Oddly, or not, although he was a Senior Research Scholar at Yale, was head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilization at Binghamton University, and received the Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association, there has as yet been no obituary for him in any major[2] English, Five-Eyes newspaper that I can find (France; Spain; Italy; Brazil; Romania; Iran (English); Turkey[3]; and Turkey (English).

This will not be an obituary for Immanuel Wallerstein; I don’t have time to do the reading required to summarize his personal intellectual history. (I read his short and simple World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction years ago, before going on to his associate Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century, which is also a world systems book. I recommend both, and that’s really my object in this post: Getting some of you to read up on Wallerstein. So in this post, I’m going to share some long extracts from Wallerstein, less theoretical, and more focused on current events. Use the tools that come to hand!

Wallerstein on China

From Wallerstein’s site, “What About China?” (2017):

…A structural crisis is chaotic. This means that instead of the normal standard set of combinations or alliances that were previously used to maintain the stability of the system, they constantly shift these alliances in search of short-term gains. This only makes the situation worse. We notice here a paradox – the certainty of the end of the existing system and the intrinsic uncertainty of what will eventually replace it and create thereby a new system (or new systems) to stabilize realities….

Now, let us look at China’s role in what is going on. In terms of the present system, China seems to be gaining much advantage. To argue that this means the continuing functioning of capitalism as a system is basically to (re)assert the invalid point that systems are eternal and that China is replacing the United States in the same way as the United States replaced Great Britain as the hegemonic power. Were this true, in another 20-30 years China (or perhaps northeast Asia) would be able to set its rules for the capitalist world-system.

But is this really happening? First of all, China’s economic edge, while still greater than that of the North, has been declining significantly. And this decline may well amplify soon, as political resistance to China’s attempts to control neighboring countries and entice (that is, buy) the support of faraway countries grows, which seems to be occurring.

Can China then depend on widening internal demand to maintain its global edge? There are two reasons why not. The present authorities worry that a widening middle stratum could jeopardize their political control and seek to limit it.[a]

The second reason, more important, is that much of the internal demand is the result of reckless borrowing by regional banks, which are facing an inability to sustain their investments. If they collapse, even partially, this could end the entire economic edge[b] of China.

In addition, there have been, and will continue to be, wild swings in geopolitical alliances. In a sense, the key zones are not in the North, but in areas such as Russia, India, Iran, Turkey, and southeastern Europe, all of them pursuing their own roles by a game of swiftly and repeatedly changing sides. The bottom line is that, though China plays a very big role in the short run, it is not as big a role as China would wish and that some in the rest of the world-system fear. It is not possible for China to stop the disintegration of the capitalist system. It can only try to secure its place in a future world-system.

As far as Wallerstein’s bottom line: The proof is in the pudding. That said, there seems to be a tendency to regard Xi as all-powerful. IMNSHO, that’s by no means the case, not only because of China’s middle class, but because of whatever China’s equivalent of deplorables is. The “wild swings in geopolitical alliances” might play a role, too; oil, Africa’s minerals.

NOTES [a] I haven’t seen this point made elsewhere. [b] Crisis, certainly. “Ending the entire economic edge”? I’m not so sure.

Wallerstein on Brazil (and Lula)

From BrasilWire, “Immanuel Wallerstein On Lula’s Arrest & The Coup” (2018):

On April 7, 2018 in Brazil Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva was arrested and taken to prison in Curitiba to begin a twelve-year sentence. He was Brazil’s president from January 2003 to January 2011. He was so popular that when he left office in 2011, he had a 90% approval rate.

Soon afterwards, he was charged with corruption while in office. He denied the charge. He was however convicted of the charge, a conviction that was sustained by an Appeals Court. He is still appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court.

Lula was a trade-union leader who founded a workers’ party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). It was the party of the underclass and one that stood for fundamental change both in Brazil and in Latin America as a whole.

The internal redistributions and the geopolitical realignments displeased greatly both the United States and Brazil’s right-wing forces. One thing that made it difficult for them to counter Lula was the fact that the state of the world-economy in the first decade of the twenty-first century was very favorable to the so-called newly-emerging economies, also known as the BRICS (B for Brazil).

However, the winds of the world-economy turned, and suddenly revenue for the Brazilian state (and of course many other states) became scarcer.

The right found a renewed opening in the financial squeeze that ensued. They blamed economic difficulties on corruption and fostered a judicial drive called lava jato (car wash), which evoked the issue of laundering money, something that was indeed widespread….

Once Lula was threatened with immediate imprisonment, Brazil’s two major popular forces expressed their strong opposition to what they asserted was a political coup d’état. One was the Central Ùnica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), which Lula had once led, and the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brazil’s largest rural organization.

The MST and CUT organized significant mobilizations against his imprisonment. But, faced with the threat of the armed forces to intervene (and possibly restore a military regime again), Lula decided to present himself for arrest. He has now been imprisoned.

The question today is whether this right-wing coup can succeed. This no longer depends on Lula personally. History may absolve him but the current struggle in Brazil and in Latin America as a whole depends on political organization at the base….

One of the principal characteristics of the structural crisis of the modern world-system in which we find ourselves is the high volatility of the world-economy.Should it run even further downward than it is at present, there may well be an upsurge of popular sentiment against the regime. If it began to include large parts of the professional strata, an alliance with the underclasses is quite possible.

Even then it will not be easy to change the political realities of Brazil. The army stands ready probably to prevent a left government from coming to power. Nonetheless one should not despair. The army was defeated once before and evicted from power. It could be again.

In short, the outlook for Brazil and for Latin America as a whole is highly uncertain. Brazil, given its size and its history, is a key zone of the middle-run struggle for a progressive outcome of the struggle between the global left and the global right for resolving the structural crisis in their favor.

Once again, the proof is in the pudding. But volatility? Yes, indeed. And blowback, too.

Wallerstein on Racism

From the London Review of Books, “The Albatross of Racism” (2000):

Since 1989, social science has thrown very little light on [such matters as the growth of extreme right in Austria]. Indeed, its failure has been lamentable. All anyone – whatever their politics – talks about is globalisation, as though that were anything more than current rhetoric for the continuing struggle within the capitalist world-economy over the degree to which transborder flows should be unimpeded It is dust in our eyes. So, too, is the endless litany about ethnic violence, and here human rights activists, as well as social scientists, are to blame. Ethnic violence, however horrifying, is not the preserve of some less fortunate, less wise, less civilised other. It follows from the deep and growing inequalities within our world-system, and cannot be addressed by moral exhortation, or by any meddling on the part of the pure and advanced in zones controlled by the impure and backward. World social science has offered us no useful tools to analyse what has been happening in the world-system since 1989, and therefore no useful tools to understand contemporary Austrian reality.

The reason everyone was so appalled by Nazism after 1945 is obvious. While almost everyone in the pan-European world had been openly and happily racist and anti-semitic before 1945, hardly anyone had intended it to lead where it did. Hitler’s Final Solution missed the entire point of racism within the capitalist world-economy. The object of racism is not to exclude people, much less exterminate them, but to keep them within the system as Untermenschen, to be exploited economically and used as political scapegoats. What happened with Nazism was what the French would call a dérapage – a blunder, a skid, a loss of control. Or perhaps it was the genie getting out of the bottle.

It was acceptable to be racist up to the point of a final solution, but no further. It had always been a delicate game, and no doubt there had been dérapages before – but never on such a large scale, never in so central an arena of the world-system, and never that visible. Collectively, the pan-European world came to terms with what had happened by banning public racism, primarily public anti-semitism. It became a taboo language….

One of the reasons the EU reacted so strongly to Haider is that Austria has refused to assume its share of guilt, insisting that it was primarily a victim. Perhaps a majority of Austrians had not wanted the Anschluss, although it is hard to believe it when you see newsreel clips of the cheering Viennese crowds. But, more to the point, no non-Jewish, non-Roma Austrian was considered anything other than German after the Anschluss, and the majority gloried in that fact.

The realisation that racism had been undone by going much too far had two major consequences in the post-1945 pan-European world. First, these countries sought to emphasise their internal virtues as integrative nations untroubled by racist oppression, ‘free countries’ facing an ‘evil empire’ whose racism, in its turn, became a regular theme of Western propaganda. All sorts of socio-political actions followed from this: the 1954 decision by the US Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation; the philo-Israel policies of the whole pan-European world; even the new emphasis on ecumenicism within Western Christianity (as well as the invention of the idea of a joint Judaeo-Christian heritage).

Second, and just as important, there was a need to restore a sanitised racism to its original function: that of keeping people within the system, but as Untermenschen. If Jews could no longer be treated thus, or Catholics in Protestant countries, it was necessary to look further afield. In the pan-European world the post-1945 period was, at least at first, a time of incredible economic expansion accompanied by a radically reduced rate of reproduction. More workers were needed and fewer were being produced than ever before. So began the era of what the Germans gingerly called the Gastarbeiter.

Who were these Gastarbeiter? Mediterranean peoples in non-Mediterranean Europe, Latin Americans and Asians in North America, West Indians in North America and Western Europe, Black Africans and South Asians in Europe. And, since 1989, citizens of the former socialist bloc. They have come in large numbers because they wanted to come and because they could find jobs: indeed, were desperately needed to make the pan-European countries flourish. But they came, almost universally, as persons at the bottom of the heap – economically, socially and politically

The rhymes with immigration policy debates in this country are obvious. And I love the irony of dérapage.

Wallerstein on His Legacy

From commentary #500 on Wallersteins site, “This is the end; this is the beginning” (2019):

My first commentary appeared on October 1, 1998. It was published by the Fernand Braudel Center (FBC) at Binghamton University. I have produced commentaries on the first and the fifteenth of every month since then without exception. This is the 500th such commentary. This will be the last commentary ever.

I have devoted myself to writing these commentaries with complete regularity. But no one lives forever, and there is no way I can continue doing these commentaries much longer.

So, sometime ago I said to myself I will try to make it to number 500 and then call it quits. I have made it to 500 and I am calling it quits

The post is dated July 1, 2019, two months before his death. Thats the way to do it. More:

There is only one language in which all 500 commentaries have been translated. This language is Mandarin Chinese.


It is the future that is more important and more interesting, but also inherently unknowable. Because of the structural crisis of the modern-world system, it is possible, possible but not absolutely certain, that a transformatory use of a 1968 complex will be achieved by someone or some group. It will probably take much time and will continue on past the point of the end of commentaries. What form this new activity will take is hard to predict.

So, the world might go down further by-paths. Or it may not. I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense. What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one. I still think that and therefore I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50.

Some might find that optimistic, but personally I find it heartening.


I don’t have much to say — the extracts are far too long! — but surely Wallerstein’s life was a life well lived.


[1] Review from Christopher Chase-Dunn, Sociology, University of California-Riverside, “The emergence of predominant capitalism: the long 16th century“:

The new edition of Immanuel Wallerstein’s Volume 1 of The Modern World-System, originally published in 1974, is more beautiful than the original both because of its cover, and because 37 years of subsequent scholarship and world historical events have demonstrated the scientific and practical utility of the theoretical approach developed in this seminal work….

The world-systems perspective is a strategy for explaining institutional change that focuses on whole interpolity systems rather than single polities. The tendency in sociological theory has been to think of single national societies as whole systems. This has led to many errors, because the idea of a system usually implies closure and that the most important processes are endogenous. National societies (both their states and their nations) have emerged over the last few centuries to become the strongest socially constructed identities and organizations in the modern world, but they have never been whole systems. They have always existed in a larger context of important interaction networks (trade, warfare, long-distance communication) that have greatly shaped events and social change.

Wallerstein’s new Prologue responds to several of the major criticisms that have been made of Volume 1. Critics said that the book was too economistic, ignoring politics and culture. Marxists said that Wallerstein ignored class relations. Wallerstein’s approach to world history is evolutionary, though he does not use that word. He compares regions and national societies with each other within the same time periods, but he also compares them with earlier and later instances in order to comprehend the long-term trajectories of social change and to explain the qualitative transformation in systemic logic that began to emerge in Europe in the long 16th century (1450-1640 CE). His theoretical framework contemplates a “whole system” and how that system has changed or remained the same over time while expanding to become a single Earth-wide integrated network.

(Here, Wallerstein explains his relation to Marxism before going on to a shorter explanation of world systems: Comparative Studies in Society and History (1974), “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System: Concepts for Comparative Analysis.”)

[2] The English venue hit that does come up is from ROAR, “an activist-run journal of the radical imagination.”

[3] Fascinatingly, this story is attributed to “BBC News | Türkçe,” but the BBC English returns nothing in English on “Immanuel Wallerstein.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.