World-systems in human history are like living organisms. They go through stages in their development.
The first stage in the development of the modern world-system was that of the origin of the world-system from 1492 to 1640, established on a foundation of the conquest by centralized European nation-states of vast regions of the Americas. The second stage from 1640 to 1815 was characterized by stagnation and cyclical patterns of expansion and contraction. It was a time of a "slowdown in the rate of development of the world-economy" (Wallerstein 1980: 33), a time in which the world-economy reached an economic plateau following a long period of conquest and geographical, economic and commercial expansion (Wallerstein 1980:8, 33).
Although it was a period of stagnation, the second stage in the development of the modern world-economy was not like the crisis that had marked the last stage of feudalism. As we have seen in previous posts, the crisis of feudalism was resolved by the creation of new political-economic structures that reflected the interests of the monarchs and an emerging urban commercial bourgeoisie, structures that made possible the conquest of America, thus establishing the foundation for the modern world-economy and the definitive end of feudalism. In contrast, the seventeenth century economic stagnation of the capitalist world-economy was overcome within the structures of the world-economy, resulting in their consolidation. Throughout this stage, both core and peripheral elites had an interest in preserving the core-peripheral relation. Peripheral elites found the relation profitable, and core manufacturers continued to need the raw materials flowing from the periphery to the core. So the modern world-economy passed through the period of stagnation with the basic core-peripheral relation intact. The boundaries of core, periphery and semi-periphery continued to be the same as they had been developed during the sixteenth century, although there were some modest and limited changes (Wallerstein 1980:18-19, 25-26, 129; Shannon 1996:61-71).
During the eighteenth century, the West Indies played an important role in sustaining the economic development of Western Europe. In his classic work, Capitalism & Slavery, originally published in 1944, Eric Williams* documents the role of the triangular slave trade and the direct British-West Indian trade in promoting the economic development of Great Britain. These trading relationships promoted the development of: British shipping and shipbuilding; British seaport towns; and British industry, including woolen manufacturing, cotton manufacturing, sugar refining, rum distillation, and the metallurgical industries (iron, brass, copper, and lead). They also made possible the development of banks and insurance companies. Williams notes that a similar core-peripheral relation with the French West Indies promoted the economic development of France during the eighteenth century (Williams 1966:51-107, 209).
In the next post, we begin to look at the third stage of the modern world-system, the period of 1815 to 1917, characterized by European colonial domination of vast regions of Africa and Asia, converting the world-system into a global world-system.
* - Eric Williams was born in 1911 in the Caribbean island of Trinidad, then a British colony. He was an excellent student, and with the support of scholarships and grants, he pursued undergraduate and graduate study at Oxford. His doctoral dissertation, completed in 1938, was the basis for his classic book, Capitalism and Slavery. He taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. from 1939 to 1948. In 1948, he returned to Trinidad in order to serve as Deputy Chairman of the Caribbean Research Council. He became well-known in Trinidad for a series of public lectures that he gave on world history, slavery, and Caribbean history. In 1956, he founded the People’s National Movement, the political party that would lead the nation to independence in 1962. From 1962 until his death in 1981, he served as the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
Shannon, Thomas Richard. 1996. An Introduction to the World-System Perspective, 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1980. The Modern World System, Vol. II. New York: Academic Press.
Williams, Eric. 1966 (1944). Capitalism & Slavery. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Capricorn Books.
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, capitalism, slavery, Eric Williams