He came to my attention via local left-wing thinkers such as Ico Maly, Stephen Bouquin, Mark Saey and Jan Blommaert.
Wallerstein is famous for his world systems theory, a grand narrative-type historiography.
I like grand narratives, so that’s not the problem.
But I have three objections. 1) Wallerstein appears to be an political activist just as much as a scientist, 2) Wallerstein suggests that imperialism is a purely European and capitalist phenomenon and 3) I do not believe that the pre-eminence of Europe and the west (the so-called “European miracle” or the “great divergence“) is only due to the exploitation of its colonies.
1) Wallerstein literally states:”I do not believe there exists any social science that is not committed.” —The Modern World-System, volume 1, 1974
Hmmm … I can imagine social sciences as purely descriptive without resorting to human rights activism.
2) On imperialism as a typically western ailment. I cite David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998):
To note that empires go back to the dawn of history may seem a truism, but in fact it is no trivial assertion. Some insist, for example, that “imperialism, which peaked around the end of the nineteenth century, is somehow an invention or by-product of modern capitalism—in Lenin’s words, “the highest stage of capitalism.” Building on this, they argue that empire was necessary (indispensable) to the prosperity and survival of modern capitalism. The tenacity of this belief can be measured by a copious literature averring that imperialism aimed above all at material gain, even where it manifestly cost and lost.History belies such intrinsic links to capitalism. Consider the ancient empires of Egypt, China, Assyria, Persia, Rome, etc.; or, in modern times, the late, unlamented Communist-Socialist empire of the Soviet Union. That so much ink has been spilled on this issue reflects the need to discredit the imperialists and capitalists by way of encouraging resistance and revolution. They’re in it for the money—what can be worse? Meanwhile bad definitions and explanations lead to bad conclusions.”
“Clearly, the common view of imperialism as a Western invention and monopoly visited on non-European peoples is wrong.”
3) While I do believe that colonization contributed to Europe’s wealth (and the “European miracle” or the “great divergence”), I doubt that it is the only reason for its wealth.
First a summary from Wallerstein’s world-system:
Immanuel Wallerstein characterised the world system as a set of mechanisms, which redistributes surplus value from the periphery to the core. In his terminology, the core is the developed, industrialized part of the world, and the periphery is the “underdeveloped”, typically raw materials-exporting, poor part of the world; the market being the means by which the core exploits the periphery.
To paraphrase: the world-system (the first world and the other countries) redistributes wealth from the periphery (the third world) to the core countries (the first world).
“The historians debate these matters [concerned with the “European miracle”], the questions “why” and “when,” but not the question “whether” — whether a miracle happened at all. Or, to be more precise, they do not even consider the possibility that the rise of Europe above other civilizations did not begin until 1492, that it resulted not from any European superiority of mind, culture, or environment, but rather from the riches and spoils obtained in the conquest and colonial exploitation of America and, later, Africa and Asia. This possibility is not debated at all, nor is it even discussed, although a very few historians (notably Janet Abu-Lughod, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank, and Immanuel Wallerstein) have come close to doing so in very recent years.”
So “European superiority” results from “the riches and spoils obtained in conquest and colonial exploitation of American and, later, Africa and Asia?” I doubt it. I follow Landes and Jones in these matters, but not totally.
I sympathize with an in-between-model as proposed by Pomeranz in The Great Divergence (2000) as described by (P. H. H. Vries, 2001):
“that [The Great Divergence] pays more attention to connections than Landes almost goes without saying. Landes, in his magnum opus tends to completely neglect the role of “the rest” in the rise of the West. Pomeranz regards the part played by Europe’s periphery as crucial, without, however, simply rehearsing the kind of analysis that has become stock in trade of the world-systems school.”
While I do agree with critics of the West such as Wallerstein who state that we must not lose ourselves in self-aggrandizing theories of European superiority, we must also not do the reverse and wallow in oikophobia and conclude that Europe is a horrible place and eurocentrism is just as bad as racism (or its imaginary offspring cultural racism).
Another point I wish to make is that the limit of Wallerstein’s world-systems theory lies in its neglect of the cultural component. Like Marxism, it only factors in the economic components.
In fact, when I googled “Wallerstein” and “Huntington” I found this citation from Wallerstein’s The Decline of American Power (2003) which is not very consistent with his own world-system theory:
“We tend to think and to speak of Christianity as the “West” and Islam as the “East.” … Why? … We have had some answers recently that are well known to you. Samuel Huntington sees the West and Islam as two antithetical “civilizations” that are in long term political conflict. Edward Said sees Orientalism as a false construct erected for ideological reasons by the Western world, one both pervasive and pernicious in its effect. I prefer to approach the question another way and ask the question, why is it that the Christian world seems to have singled out the Islamic world as its particular demon, and not merely recently but ever since the emergence of Islam? Actually the reverse has probably also been true, that Islam has regarded Christianity as its particular demon.”
So, while Wallerstein says that he wants to approach the question answered by Samuel “clash of civilizations” Huntington in a different way, one would expect that he denies that there is a clash of civilizations. Yet, he simply says that the Christian world has singled out the Islamic world as its “demon” and that the Islamic world has chosen the west as its enemy. Is that not the same as saying that there is a clash of civilizations?
I want to conclude with an apocryphal dictum attributed to Leo Strauss who once suggested that if all cultures are relative, then cannibalism is a matter of taste.”