Drawing upon the French historian Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein maintains that there have been many systems that form a world, or world-systems, which transcend political and cultural boundaries. They were not world systems in the sense of encompassing the entire planet, but in the sense that they were systems that formed a world defined by political-economic structures as well as ideologies. For this reason, Wallerstein uses the sometimes grammatically incorrect hyphenated world-system: “world” does not modify “system;” rather, two nouns are joined to convey the notion of a system that forms a world (Wallerstein 2004:87-89).
There have been two types of world-systems: world-empires and world-economies. Both are characterized by a dominating center that controls peripheral regions. In a world-economy, the center transforms the economic institutions of the peripheral regions, so that they function to promote the economic interests and provide for the productive needs of the center. In contrast, the empire represents a more limited form of domination, in that the economic systems of the peripheral regions are not restructured. The center has political authority and jurisdiction over the peripheral regions and requires them to pay a tax or a tribute, but it does not seek to transform economic activities of the periphery (Wallerstein 1974:15-16; 2004:89).
In empires, the tribute from the periphery functions to maintain a bureaucracy in the center that administers the empire. This works well at first, but as the empire expands, and as more tribute comes pouring in, the center tends to absorb much of the tribute in lavish lifestyles rather than maintaining effective administrative control. The over weighted and gluttonous center is unable to effectively control all of the peripheral regions, and some of the nations in the periphery are able to effectively assert their autonomy and break free of the empire. Thus empires have a historic tendency to expand until they become unable to control their peripheral regions, at which time they disintegrate. So the rise and fall of empires is common in human history (Wallerstein 1974:15-16).
Most of the great civilizations that we learn about in history courses are world-empires, although we tend to learn less about the empires in pre-conquest America (e.g., the Maya, Aztec and Inca civilizations) or in pre-colonial Africa (such as the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali). World-economies are less common and tend to be shorter in duration. The ancient Chinese civilizations were world-economies. Many of the pre-modern world-systems lasted several centuries, but all were confined to a single region of the world.
The modern world-system is the economic, political and social system that extends beyond the boundaries of societies and cultures and that today encompasses the entire world. It began to emerge in the sixteenth century, with the Spanish and Portuguese “discovery”and conquest of America. During the nineteenth century, as a result of the conquest of Africa and much of Asia by England, France and other European nations, the modern world-system became global in scope.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements emerged in the conquered regions, influencing the development of the system (Wallerstein 1974:5, 7, 10-11).
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. The Modern World System, Vol. I. New York: Academic Press.
__________. 2004. “The Itinerary of World-Systems Analysis, or How to Resist Becoming a Theory” in The Uncertainties of Knowledge, Pp. 83-108. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. [Originally published in J. Berger and M. Zelditch, Jr., Eds. New Directions in Contemporary Sociological Theory (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), Pp. 358-76.]
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, Wallerstein, world-system