Why the world needs Immanuel Wallerstein's radical vision more than ever

The late father of “world systems analysis” gave us new tools to analyse capitalism’s contradictions. 

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Shortly before his death last month, the radical intellectual Immanuel Wallerstein wrote a tentative prognosis of our current predicament. There is, he said, a “50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50.” 

“What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one,” he added in the commentary that was published on his personal blog.

Wallerstein died a few weeks later at the age of 88, in New York, the same city where he was born. The social theorist was perhaps best known for his account of society known as “world systems analysis”, a vision for how economic relations shape the development of legal, political and social institutions over time.

“I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense,” he explained in the commentary. Wallerstein dedicated his life to this idea of “class struggle”, both in theory – he taught sociology at Columbia University, then SUNY Binghamton and finally Yale – but also in practice. During his travels in Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, Wallerstein witnessed first-hand peoples’ struggles for decolonisation, and anticipated how these political events would shape the development of African countries long after they were granted formal independence.

These insights proved the flourishing of Wallerstein’s thought. Up until the fall of the Soviet Union, scholars had framed the global economy as an unfolding competition between a bloc of socialist countries to the east, and American-style free markets in the west. Instead, Wallerstein argued the capitalist system relied on something else, too: the exploitation of the global south, by countries in the global north.

And history proved him right. Though state socialism collapsed in 1989, debt dependency, unequal development and poverty continued, both in former colonies that were granted independence, and in newly capitalist states of the post-Soviet bloc. These tensions underpin contemporary problems today; from the flow of migration northwards and the brain drain to Western countries, to the exploitation of cheap labour in factories owned by Western companies. Today, western liberal states often treat their colonial history as an unfortunate stain on the past – one for which they bear no current responsibility. So long as capitalism endures, Wallerstein thought, that history isn’t over.

Wallerstein's “world systems analysis” was a protest against prevailing orthodoxies that isolate economics from politics, history, philosophy and sociology – and prevent us from interrogating liberalism’s legacy. Far from being just a semantic move, his account challenged the received wisdom that nation states should be our primary focus, and helped explain how economic relations shape political and social boundaries.

Capitalism is a system of paradoxes. Though it has promised to liberate people through the expansion of markets and development of new technologies, unrestrained capitalist economies have failed to meet these lofty ideals. Where markets have expanded across the world, the distribution of income has tipped, and the benefits of exchange and trade have flowed to a few, mostly Western, elites.

To explain this paradox, Wallerstein distinguished between a technologically developed, wealthy core of capitalist countries, and a less developed group of “periphery” countries they rely upon for accumulation. Capitalism, he thought, has been global from the start. It can’t erase the gap between rich and poor, or the North and the South, because it relies upon these divides for its very survival. Its inherently global nature also explains the emergence of authoritarian leaders like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro; their ascendance is both an expression of capitalism’s global crisis, and a reflection of how this crisis unfolds in different countries.

Today, as climate breakdown magnifies the division between North and South, and an exploited workforce is subject to every-more precarious conditions, Wallerstein’s ideas have gained renewed urgency. He indicated that the way forward is class struggle – where “class” stands for an integrated fight against capitalism, racism, paternalism and neo-colonialism.

The protests of 1968 reflected this aspiration. Wallerstein’s thinking was shaped by the emergence of radical movements across the world that seemed animated by a shared political purpose; the Black Panthers in the US, Czech resistance to Soviet invasion, the student protests in Western Europe and guerrilla tactics pitted against Brazil’s military regime. Their protagonists framed injustices as symptoms of a global system of domination, which benefited commercial and bureaucratic elites.

The contemporary world is every bit as capitalist as that of 1968, and struggles against exploitation, racism, sexism and homophobia are every bit as relevant now as they were then. But the left has languished since the fall of communism. Having weathered the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who presided over the expansion of markets into every area of social life, left-wing movements have become disillusioned, too weak to articulate a vision of transformation, and too inclined to embrace nostalgia for the past.

In contrast to the movements of 1968, today it seems only the far right has reaped the benefits of capitalism’s crisis. In lamenting this development, liberals fail to see how it was their own celebration of capitalism’s inexorable expansion – and their blindness to its inherent contradictions – that planted the seeds for the bigoted nationalism which flourishes today. The challenge for us is to take forward Wallerstein’s vision. As he foresaw, we may succeed, but the chances may be only 50-50.

Lea Ypi is professor of political theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship