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"Chaos is a Sign for the System's Fall"

by Immanuel Wallerstein Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007 at 7:11 PM

Bush is an absolute disaster. Instead of withdrawing and adjusting to the changed geopolitical situation, he leaped suddenly into the abyss. Capitlaism is in crisis because endless capital accumulation can no longer be guaranteed to capitalists. Speculation reaps bitter fruits.


Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein on the limits of capitalism, the character of the epoch and the breakdown of neoliberalism

[Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930) is an emeritus professor of sociology at Yale. Originally an expert on Africa, he is well known worldwide as an historian and theoretician of capitalism. His main work “The Modern World System” appeared in three volumes between 1974 and 1989. Wallerstein’s works are translated in more than 20 languages. This interview published in: Junge Welt, 10/27/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Junge Welt: In your opinion, we are in a time of chaos seizing the whole capitalist world economy. The “world as we knew it” comes to its end.

Immanuel Wallerstein: Yes, but chaos is only a symptom or sign for the fall of a concrete historical system that existed for 500 years and was very successful – in a certain sense – in conforming to its own principles. However this system reaches its limits and can no longer use its mechanisms to maintain its balance. We live in a phase of great stormy fluctuations that have an economic, political, cultural and intellectual character. People are racking their brains over this. They are depressed. This is normal; people do not understand the processes occurring around them. None of the things on which we relied, none of the truths surrounding us seem the same any more. For that reason, people become wild, frustrated and obviously uncertain or alarmed. This is true both for ordinary citizens and elites at the summit of power. We live in a very bad time regarding personal security and the possibility of predicting anything. However it is also a good time since human creativity has more room. In normal periods, we have very little space for authentic changes. The epoch of chaos helps these changes breakthrough. The smallest action has an influence on the course of the game. Thus ours is a very interesting epoch. As an ancient Chinese proverb says, “We have the great happiness of living in interesting times.”

Junge Welt: If we assume an answer inheres in every crisis, what is the solution and answer of our “interesting times”?

Wallerstein: They do not give any answer. One thing is certain: the present system cannot survive. It has struck the most different limits on development making impossible its further reproduction as never-ending capital accumulation. Thus something must change. This is called a bifurcation. The situation can develop in at least two different directions though we cannot say which will ultimately prevail. I can only describe this very generally. Today’s world is very polarized and hierarchical with a privileged group at the top and the rest who suffer more and more at the bottom. We could create a totally new world in which everything stays the same, just as hierarchical and polarized – perhaps even more – as the world in which we live. But we could also advance toward a relatively more democratic and egalitarian world system. There is struggle in the world over this bifurcation. This battle has already been waged for 10 or 15 years and will continue for 20, 30 or 40 years. The category “transitional epoch” seems appropriate.

Junge Welt: Still we do not know how this transitional epoch will end or whether this “other possible world” will be better.

Wallerstein: Yes. I am a resolute opponent of a theory of enlightenment that claims progress is inevitable. I adhere to a theory of possible progress. Progress is possible but certainly not inevitable. Progress is not certain; history is not on any side. At this moment, everything depends on us. If you would come to me again in 50 years which you will not since I will not be living, I could tell you it was a catastrophe. But I could also say: How wonderful, we are now living in a better world. I cannot imagine that now; no one can. That is because of the impossibility of predicting the results of this transition, not from the limitation of my knowledge.

Junge Welt: Did the reelection of George Bush as US president accelerate the fall of the present world system and shorten the transition = perhaps from 50 to 30 years?

Wallerstein: I don’t seek any escape with these statements. I think Bush’s reelection accelerated the fall of the United States as a superpower within the world system. From a purely American perspective, Bush is an absolute disaster – through the effect of his actions on the position of the US in the world, not by what he does in domestic policy. Instead of withdrawing and adjusting to the changed geo-political situation, he leaped suddenly into the abyss. I think that will be history’s judgment. Bush thought what he did would strengthen the United States. That was the logic of his actions. As a consequence, the United States has been totally weakened. The US obviously has influence on the whole world. The US is still the most powerful state in the world in military, economic and political regards and all of its actions have global consequences. President Bush’s policy causes a worldwide confusion and also opens up new possibilities. Latin America is an example. Bush weakened the US ability to influence this region largely because he focused all the attention and political energy of the United States on the Middle East and Europe and had no time for Latin America. In the end, this encouraged the slow emancipation of the countries of this region. In a very spectacular way, this was clear in the election of the General Secretary of the Organization of American States when the candidate supported by the US was defeated for the first time.

Junge Welt: In your view, command socialism was actually a part of the capitalist world economy. In your analyses, you always emphasized the many “certainties” and new definitions of worn-out terms. Shouldn’t we redefine capitalism?

Wallerstein: First, if you use that argument, then you must ask whether capitalism still exists. The answer is obviously no. I think capitalism was a system that existed for 500 years. Second, no system is never-ending. Here I refer to a whole school in contemporary natural sciences, the “science of “complexity” that assumes that ineffective systems end. Certain processes occur in them. Systems inevitably lose their balance. When this happens, they break down. This is true in the physical sciences and also a priori in social systems. No system lives for ever. We can discuss whether the capitalist system is in a state of structural crisis or not. Objections can be raised. Still no system lives for ever.

Junge Welt: You say capitalism is dying before our eyes.

Wallerstein: I say capitalism is in crisis because endless capital accumulation can no longer be guaranteed to capitalists. They have problems with “solid profitability.” These problems did not vex them in the first 500 years of its existence. They were always able to overcome intermittent crises with a series of mechanisms to keep the whole process going. These mechanisms have reached their limit and cannot be used any more. The capitalist faces a momentous problem that he cannot solve. The capitalist is forced to find ways to realize profits beyond the goods-producing sphere through speculation. That has been the case for some time. Speculation is a mechanism of moneymaking that emerged in the history of the capitalist world economy whenever that economy was in crisis. For a long time, earning a living in production was the only way of gaining hard money. This became increasingly difficult and perhaps has already become history.

Junge Welt: In your opinion, has capitalism collapsed on account of its enormous success and not its defeat?

Wallerstein: Yes. In this sense, I am a follower of Joseph Schumpeter. The success of capitalism leads it to the edge of ruin. Considerable parts of the world’s population have been proletarianized. For a long time, capitalists had access to cheap workers. Today these reserves are nearly exhausted. Up to now, costs were constantly shifted to keep the share of capital resources as low as possible. Today’s ecological crisis precludes these practices. For example, when all rivers are polluted or all trees are cut, nothing will be left. In the past, the ruling classes could neutralize social discontent by means of diverse mechanisms of the welfare state that brought us public education, the health care system and social security. This was possible for 200 years. The costs of these solutions continually rise. The problem arises of growing tax liability lowering the chances for long-term profits. Thus capitalism exhausts itself.

Its development has reached the maximum limit in reproducing itself in a peaceful way. At this moment, the intelligent capitalist says: “There must be better possibilities because existing possibilities are miserable.” He begins seeking methods “to make things better.” This is one of the manifestations of our bifurcation. Another would be seeking for a general alternative.

Junge Welt: Could searching for “another world” be a method of “making things better”?

Wallerstein: I don’t know. The problem is the details of such a system cannot be predicted. This is as though someone had said around 1500: “Feudalism in Europe cannot function any more; let us invent capitalism” and you – as a journalist – would ask: What would that look like?” Something like this is unknown because it results from praxis. One only knows the desired direction. I do not know what an egalitarian or relatively egalitarian and democratic world would look like structurally. I only know I must go this direction because otherwise I would fall into a tragic development only intensifying the present inequalities and hierarchies.

Junge Welt: Can one say neoliberalism cannot save capitalism?

Wallerstein: Obviously. Neoliberalism is an attempt to lover labor costs globally, externalizing labor costs by means of constitutional and budgetary changes and reducing the benefits of the welfare state. With a limited horizon, one could speak of a limited success of this strategy. The threat was delayed. However that only succeeded for a short time – from a perspective that goes back to 1970. If we consider the period from 1945 to 2005, it is clear we have returned to the point where we were in 1945. Our situation is illustrated by the figure of speech “two steps forward and one step back.” Under pressure, we take two steps forward. Afterwards the reaction presses us to take a step back while continuously taking a step forward. Neoliberalism cannot solve this problem but reduces the problem in a limited way. Capitalists are not so politically strong that they could entirely abolish the income tax, wreck education or totally ignore the ecological crisis. This is obvious when one analyzes global phenomena. Thus the success of neoliberalism was limited and short-term.

Junge Welt: Look at present events in Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico where neoliberal reforms deepened the social differences and disrupted the democratic institutions of the state. Doesn’t democracy need to be saved from neoliberalism?

Wallerstein: There is no doubt about what is happening in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina and so on. There is resistance against the effects of neoliberal doctrine forced on the people of these countries. Resistance is a reaction to the whole neoliberal campaign. Will it save democracy? Yes. In a certain sense, this is an expression of the public spirit shared by the majority of the citizens of these countries that was not reflected in earlier political hierarchies of power. Can this establish democracy? No. True democracy cannot be established in today’s global hierarchy of power. Still it is a good sign that things are developing in the right direction.

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