Immanuel Wallerstein on World Revolution and Shifting Alignments of Political Class

Keith Rankin, November 1997


Immanuel Wallerstein was the 1997 Robb Lecturer at the University of Auckland this year. He is a world leader in "world systems" theory, which is a modern blend of economic history, international political economy and Marxian sociology. Wallerstein is president of the International Sociological Association and director of the Fernand Braudel Centre. The Braudel Centre ("" on the Internet), named after the French historian and founder of the Annales School, is a leading centre for research into historically evolving socio-economic systems.

Wallerstein's presence in New Zealand was not well publicised outside of Auckland University, suggesting that the rumours that New Zealanders are an anti-intellectual people might well be true. Nevertheless, his lectures on the topic of "Utopistics" were well attended.

Wallerstein believes that the "capitalist world system" that has prevailed since the end of the fifteenth century has depended critically on the system of nation states. That is, the nation state is the most important institution of world capitalism. He believes that the power of governments is now in decline; the liberal world states system is coming to an end. As such, he believes that the world has entered into an unstable transitional phase from which either a better (ie democratic and more egalitarian) or a worse system (possible ruled by corrupt mafiosa lords) may evolve. Such a time of world transformation is one in which small events can have a big impact in determining the shape of the future world. On the other hand, past national revolutions such as those of France and Russia were big events that were largely unsuccessful in achieving their ideals. They took place in "stable" rather than "transitional" epochs.

To some extent, Wallerstein was inconsistent with respect to the time scales of his propositions. Thus he sees the years 1848 and 1968 as representing revolutions in the world system. On that basis, by 1997 we should be emerging from the transition ushered in by the 1968 revolution. Certainly it was around 1968 that many people on both the left and the right started to question "big government". While socialists were rejecting the Soviet model of big government, neoliberals were starting to reject the western social democratic model of government.

Having outlined this picture of two world revolutions 120 years apart, Wallerstein switched to millennial time. Thus he sees the epoch that we are entering into as being of the same significance as the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the 14th and 15th centuries. He sees neoliberalism as having had its day, emphasising that global business is not anti-state and never has been. We already see that today as Business Roundtable members lament what they see as a "lack of political leadership". But he also noted that global business was not above playing off different states against each other, and that some of the contradictions implicit in that strategy were acting to undermine the states-system. Thus, by taxes falling, worldwide, states are now much less able to support global business in its preferred state of "relative monopoly". Wallerstein's millennial analysis is very much in the spirit of Marxism, which sees capitalism collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

I certainly believe that Wallerstein's core message is useful, in that it places the "good" scenario for the next millennium as being one of real democracy, which means people behaving more as citizens of the world and less as subjects of states that are beholden to international capital. Thus, while his millennial analysis is perhaps more pessimistic than mine, the strategic message that I have been pushing - that of economic sovereignty, of the sovereign people claiming their proprietorial dues as well as their political rights - is very consistent with that of Wallerstein.

Nevertheless, I am more intrigued by the "century-time" analysis that underpinned his first lecture, than the "millennial-time" perspective of Wallerstein's subsequent lectures.

The general picture portrayed is one of political class shifts every 100-150 years. For example we can see the eighteenth century 'Enlightenment', a particularly strong intellectual force in France, Scotland and North America, as representing radical liberalism, the left wing of that time. In the centre were the Tory landed interests, while the right included the remnants of the medieval labour interest, as represented by the guild system.

For 100 years from the 1740s to the 1840s, liberalism was the radical force. In the middle of that time we get the French Revolution as an attempt to transform the dominant nation within the dominant continent. As a national revolution, the French Revolution disappointed. But, along with the far-reaching economic revolution in England, it became a sine qua non for the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848.

The radical force in and after 1848 was that of labour. The 1848 class shift pushed liberalism into the political centre. Labour launched its own national revolution in Russia in 1917, with disappointing results in Russia but an interesting impact on the pan-European world, making Keynesian policies for example acceptable to the liberal centre. Thus, a form of liberalism that discarded radical individualism for a proactive welfare state came to dominate the shape of politics for 120 years.

Another radical force emerged after the 1970s. The simplistic view would be that the new radical force was neoliberalism, but I suggest that the emerging New Left represents proprietorial interests opposed to international capital. One clue might be to look into the debates about sovereignty, monarchy, and commonwealth that dominated western European thought in the late seventeenth century. At that time the radical agenda was the assertion of sovereignty, the guild system was at its height, and the adventurer-privateers (the liberal 'entrepreneurs' of an earlier era) were on the wane.

To generalise, the political model suggested is one of class shift within a century-long time scale. The classes are "proprietorial" (emphasising ownership and the economic payments due to proprietors), "labour" emphasising both the political and economic rights of the working class and the work ethic in general, and "liberal" representing the bourgeoisie, merchants, dealers, entrepreneurs, inventors, industrialists, technocrats, risk-takers, free markets. (The first economist sect, the physiocrats of the mid-18th century, who spoke for the proprietorial interest within an agricultural worldview used the term "cultivators" for "labour" and the "sterile" classes for merchants and manufacturers.)

None of the three classes should be seen as a united force. Rather they represent battlegrounds. The labour interest has been a contest between socialist and neoconservative forces, with both groups sanctifying work. Liberalism has been a battleground over different concepts of freedom, enterprise and growth. Each century or so, the class on the left moves to the centre, the class in the centre is shunted to the right (into a kind of conservative ghetto from where it clings to is past values), and the political class formerly on the right reactivates itself in two ways: (i) by fusing with the former radical class to form the new centre, and (ii) by forming the basis of a new radical movement.

I would argue that the centre at present is dominated by deregulated labour and the labour ethic. It is an emasculated working class that now occupies the centre-ground; made complacent by its success in winning many battles in the early 20th century, and emasculated in the 1980s by both neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Liberal / Social Democratic political groupings such as the NZ Labour party have been shifted to the comfort zones of the right. Liberals have become technocrats, who don't really stand for anything any more. Such parties may often become governments (united in their lack of ideals) which, as NZ National did in the mid-20th century, can govern by expediently co-opting ideas from both the new centre and the new left.

Proprietorial radicals in the late 17th and early 18th centuries did not draw a huge distinction between public and private property. For example, to the physiocrats, the rights and obligations of the sovereign were not much different from those of the landlord. I see similarities in the emerging New Left, and that the coalition of interests that formally or informally identify with the Alliance fit well as a coalition of proprietorial interests. I see three major radical movements, all seeking forms of economic sovereignty.

First, there is the Maori interest seeking Maori sovereignty through Treaty settlements. The winners from this process will be obvious candidates to lose their radicalism quite soon. The contest within Maoridom has already emerged as an interesting feature of 1990s' politics in New Zealand.

Second is the Green interest which wants humankind to take 'ownership' of the world in the way that the word 'ownership' is increasingly used: namely to take responsibility rather than to assert control. This view is not unlike pre-capitalist views of ownership, and is quite unlike the liberal idea which emphasises exclusive property rights.

The third proprietorial interest, represented by the Alliance through its emphasis on a universal social wage, includes all of those people whose principle source of income is a benefit. Beneficiaries' principal stake in society is exercised through their citizenship, which makes them equal proprietors of the public domain.

In his first lecture, Immanuel Wallerstein presented the outline of a model of political class shift on a century time scale. In each century, a radical force emerges on the left that represents in new ways interests formerly associated with the right. In the 21st century, the radical buzzwords are emerging as 'ownership', 'stakeholder', "sovereignty'. They are all associated with property, in contradistinction to the liberal buzzwords of 'enterprise' and 'market' and the labourist concepts such as 'workfare' and 'teamwork' that see wage work as the basis of effective citizenship. The most recent class shift has brought wage workers to the centre, a coalition of pro-sovereignty interests on the left, and, on the right, a salaried technocracy that lacks its former liberal idealism.


© 1997 New Zealand Political Review

Keith Rankin:  NZPR | Rankin File | UBI