Immanuel Wallerstein maintains that the world-system has entered a terminal crisis (1999:1, 55, 74-75, 81-83; 2006:52-53; 1982:11, 51-53).
In arriving at this conclusion, he draws upon complexity theory, and in particular the work of the chemist and Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003). Prigogine maintains that physical reality is for the most part characterized by non-equilibrium processes, in which order exists for a while, but then there inevitably occurs a point of “bifurcation,” in which two directions are equally possible. Furthermore, there is indeterminacy in physical reality, for it cannot be known in advance which option will be taken (2004:102-3; Cf. Prigagone 1997).
Applying Prigogine’s insights to social processes, Wallerstein maintains that all historical systems have a period of normal development, in which the structures and patterns of the system prevail. As the system evolves, it is characterized by “cyclical rhythms” that are modified as the system adjusts to new internal and external developments, but the system maintains equilibrium. However, this period of normal development must be distinguished from moments of structural crisis, at which point the system has moved far from equilibrium and is approaching bifurcation, in which the system resolves the disequilibrium in a form that establishes a different equilibrium or a different system. As the system approaches bifurcation, the world-systems analyst can know that the system is approaching its end, but the analyst cannot know which option will be taken. The world-systems analyst can only identify possibilities (2004:104).
Wallerstein has identified a number of “secular trends” that indicate that the modern world-system is approaching bifurcation and has entered a terminal crisis. First is “deruralization.” Historically, in the conflict of interests between capitalists and workers, capitalists could respond to the increasing demands of workers by relocating to zones of cheaper labor, which often were new areas beyond the reach of the world-system. But now that the system has reached the geographical limits of the earth, there are no new zones of cheaper labor supply, and capitalists must respond to the demands of increasingly organized workers, thus increasing labor costs. Secondly, the ecological costs of production are increasing, also as a result of the fact that the system has reached the geographical limits of the earth. These dynamics mean that states can no longer effectively respond to the increasing demands of the people, leading to a decline in the legitimacy of states, a phenomenon that is made evident by the rise of religious fundamentalism and ethnic separatism, and by the increasing use of private security forces. At the same time, the epistemological consensus of the twentieth century, characterized by a faith in scientific knowledge and liberal democratic values, has been undermined, but an alternative epistemological consensus has not emerged (Wallerstein 1982:11-12, 19-23; 1995:40-45, 169-70, 268-69; 1999:1,33, 44-48, 55-56, 71-86, 130-34; 2001:23-37; 2003:57-68, 170-71, 223-33; Hopkins and Wallerstein 1996:221-28).
Wallerstein maintains that as a result of these dynamics, it is unlikely that the world-system will be able to restore equilibrium, and thus it has entered a terminal structural crisis, out of which something else will emerge. Different possibilities can be identified: an alternative structure of domination; an alternative socialist project based on the democratic values of the various social movements of the twentieth century; or chaos (1982:51-53).
In future posts, I again will address the issue of the terminal structural crisis of the world-system. I share with Wallerstein the belief that the world-system has entered a terminal crisis, but I will express it in a somewhat different way. And I will address in subsequent posts the possibility of a just and democratic world-system. Whereas Wallerstein tends to see it as a theoretical possibility, I maintain that it is in fact emerging in theory and practice from below. The peoples of Latin America and the Third World have begun to construct an alternative world-system. They are doing what Wallerstein has imagined as a possibility. They are attempting to make real the dreams of the various social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, precisely at the historic moment in which the unsustainability of the world-system is made evident.
I concur with Wallerstein that the outcome cannot be known in advance. But I also maintain that we social scientists, historians, and philosophers of the North should be aware that the transformation from below is occurring, and it therefore is a real emerging possibility for the future. And I believe that we cannot wait until the outcome is secure before giving our sanction to the movements from below. We must cast our lot with the more just and democratic world-system emerging from below, as against a new form of domination imposed from above, because between the two options, it is the choice that is consistent with human knowledge and with progressive human values. And we must participate in this process of change, even as the outcome remains in doubt. It is precisely because the outcome is in doubt that we are called in this historic moment to fulfill our responsibility, which is to do intellectual work that clarifies the choices that humanity confronts and to take an unambiguous political and moral stand. This will require that we liberate ourselves from the assumptions of the academic disciplines and from the priorities imposed by the academic bureaucracy.
Hopkins, Terence K., and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1996. The Age of Transition: Trajectory of the World System, 1945-2025. New Jersey: Zed Books.
Prigogine, Ilya. 1997. The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature. New York: The Free Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1982. “Crisis as Transition” in Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, Dynamics of Global Crisis. New York: Monthly Review Press.
__________. 1995. After Liberalism. New York: The New Press.
__________. 1999. The End of the World as We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
__________. 2001. Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms, 2nd Edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
__________. 2003. The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. New York: The New Press.
__________. 2004. The Uncertainties of Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
__________. 2006. European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. New York: The New Press.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Wallerstein, world-systems analysis, terminal crisis