The World-System(s)

Dmytro Khutkyy and Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems,

University of California Riverside

Forthcoming in William Outhwaite and Stephen Turner (eds) Sage Handbook on Political Sociology

v. 9-20-16 7634 words

This is IROWS Working Paper #112 available at

The world-systems perspective is an integral social science approach that advocates the study of long-term, large-scale historical systems in their totality. Its evolutionary version includes comparisons between the modern Europe-centered system of the last six centuries with earlier regional whole interpolity networks. Relevant evidence comes from archaeology, ethnography and historical documents as well as demographic and economic estimates. Research by anthropologists, political scientists, historians, ecologists, geographers, economists and sociologists is often germane to studies of whole interaction systems. The general theoretical approach rests on institutional materialism with roots in the works of Marx and Weber (Chase-Dunn and Hall 2000).

Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Andre Gunder Frank and Giovanni Arrighi were the originators of the world-system perspective in the 1960s and the 1970s (Amin 1980a; Frank 1966, 1967,1969; Arrighi 2010[1994]; Wallerstein 2011a[1974]). They focused primarily on the modern world-system that had emerged with European predominance. Wallerstein (2000: 74) enounces:

we take the defining characteristic of a social system to be the existence within it of a division of labor, such that the various sectors or areas are dependent upon economic exchange with others for the smooth and continuous provisioning of the needs of the area.

In such a formulation human social systems are clusters of social life with recurrent social relations implying an established structure of interdependent parts. In complexity science terms this approach emphasizes the primacy of properties of the system as a whole over its components. Wallerstein’ s approach employs a typology of world-systems as follows: a mini-system is an entity with a complete division of labor and a single cultural framework; a world-economy is a unit with a single division of labor and multiple cultural and political entities; a world-empire is a division of labor with a single political authority (Wallerstein 2000: 75). Then, the modern global system is a world-economy with multiple sovereign states linked into a single economic division of labor. The “world” idea refers to a whole self-sufficient entity, which is not necessarily Earth-wide. In the past there were whole regional world-systems.

The comparative evolutionary[1] world-systems perspective emerged when some of the world-system scholars became interested in the long-term continuities as well as the qualitative transformations in the logic of development that only become evident when the modern world-system is compared with earlier world-systems (Frank and Gills 1993; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997).

The comparative and evolutionary world-systems perspective is a strategy that focuses on whole interpolity systems (world-systems) rather than single polities; its main insight is that important interaction networks (trade, information flows, alliances, and fighting) have woven polities together since the beginning of human sociocultural evolution (Chase-Dunn and Khutkyy 2016).

World-systems are defined as whole systems of interacting polities and settlements.[2] Systemness here means that these polities and settlements are interacting with one another in important ways – such interactions are two-way, necessary, structured, regularized and reproductive. These interactions impact human life and affect the resulting social continuity or social change.

Systemic Spatial Boundaries

Social groups are connected by information flows, luxury goods exchanges, bulk goods provisioning and trade, and political-military interactions. These interactions form networks that have different spatial scales, especially in older and smaller regional world-systems. In order to spatially bound whole interpolity interaction networks it is necessary to adopt a “place-centric” approach. This is because nearly all human polities interact with their immediate neighbors, and so if we count all indirect connections there has been a single global network since the humans migrated to all the continents. But such a diffuse global network is not really a single system because the consequences of interactions dissipate with distance. So it is necessary to focus on a single locale and to ask what is the world-system of which this locale is a part?

Bulk goods such as everyday foods and building materials tend to have been mostly obtained locally. Households and local kin groups provided most of the food, but feasts were occasionally held in which neighboring villages or more distant allies were invited to partake. The bulk goods provisioning network fell off quickly with distance. Nearly all autonomous polities engage in warfare and military alliances with other polities and so there is an interpolity[3] warfare/alliance web that Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) call the political/military network (PMN). This a network of fighting and allying polities that is analogous to the contemporary international system of states except that the polities may be bands, tribes, or chiefdoms as well as states and empires. The political/military network tends to be larger than the bulk goods network, as illustrated in Figure 1. An even larger network is based on the exchange of prestige (luxury) goods. Wallerstein claimed that luxury goods, which he called “preciosities” were not systemic and so they were exchanged between a world-system and its “external arena” (other world-systems). But many anthropologists contend that there have been prestige goods systems in which local social hierarchies are constructed around the monopoly that elites have over the importation of exotic goods that are required for important social rituals such as marriage. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) also posit the existence of a large information or communications network that can have systemic importance in some world-systems (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The spatial boundaries of interaction networks

 These different types of interaction may also differ with regard to their importance for the reproduction or change in local social structures. The bulk goods and political/military networks are important in all systems, but the prestige and information networks are typically less important and may be not be systemic in some regions. The nature of these interactions may also differ across systems. Bulk goods may be obtained through sharing and reciprocity in small-scale world-systems, whereas in larger systems they may be mainly obtained as purchased commodities. Prestige goods systems may be of the kind mentioned above in which these goods serve as a mechanism for rewarding subalterns, but they may also operate as storable forms of wealth that can be used during times of shortage to obtain food from neighboring polities (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998).

Long-distance trade initially involved luxury goods because they are valuable enough to move long distances. At the beginning of the first millennium the Silk Road connected states and empires in China, South-East Asia, India, Central Asia, Western Asia, North Africa and Europe. Moreover, some states and empires were organically linked to major trade routes – like Sogdiana, Turgis Kaghanate, Arab Empire and the Byzantine Empire (Beckwith 2009). At first, long-distance trade was small scale, monopolized, and extremely profitable. Major wars were caused by efforts to control key trade routes. The Crusades of the eleventh-thirteenth centuries CE had a latent economic goal of seizing Palestinian cities in order to raise the Moslem blockade of the Silk Road trade. The Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa was financed by Genoese merchants who desired an alternative route to Southeast Asian spices in order to compete with Venice.

Immanuel Wallerstein's (1974) definition of the spatial boundaries of a world‑sy­stem focused on links in an interdependent network of the exchange of "fundamental commodities," by which he meant food and other necessities of everyday life (here called bulk goods). He excluded the exchange of "preciosities" (luxuries) that were alleged to not have important consequences for the exchanging parties or their societies. Wallerstein also emphasized the importance of mode of production (capitalism) as a feature of a whole world-system that could be used to distinguish between the modern Europe-centered system and the Ottoman Empire. And he used the idea of a core/periphery division of labor to distinguish between “external arenas” and the periphery within the modern system (Wallerstein 2011[1974]).

Some social scientists have claimed that there has been a single global world system extending back for thousands of years (e.g. Modelski 2003; Lenski 2005). Others focus exclusively on only one of the systems that eventually incorporated all the others into a global system (Frank and Gills 1993). The first of these positions is misleading because it does not concern itself with the strength of cultural, political and economic systemness across space. The second position is impoverished by its failure to seize the opportunity to compare what were separate regional world-systems with one another. Frank and Gills (1993) focused on the 5000-year history of what they saw as a system with great continuities that began with the rise of cities and states in Mesopotamia. They traced the expansion of this system and noted that it did not include the Americas before 1492 CE. They claimed that this system that began in Mesopotamia already displayed a “capital-imperial” mode of accumulation[4] and that this mode was continuous until the present, and so there was no “transition to capitalism” that occurred with the rise of the West. They also emphasized the centrality of China in the Eurasian world-system. But they failed to compare the expanding system they were studying with other world-systems that existed outside it.

            The most explicit and detailed approach to specifying systemic spatial boundaries in world history has been developed by David Wilkinson, a political scientist who focuses on networks of fighting and allying states (what Chase-Dunn and Hall call political/military networks (or PMNs). Wilkinson has mastered the historical literature on warfare and alliance-making in order to determine the times and places in which that interpolity network that emerged in Mesopotamia became systemically linked with other areas (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: Chronograph of the spatial boundaries of political/military networks (PMNs) showing the expansion of what David Wilkinson (1987) calls “Central Civilization”

Core/Periphery Hierarchies

Wallerstein’s definition of a world-system as a division of labor has in mind a hierarchical division of labor in which some polities exploit or dominate others. In world-systems parlance this kind of structure is often called a core/periphery hierarchy in which core, peripheral and semiperipheral polities are in systemic and asymmetric (hierarchical) interaction with one another.

Figure 3: A core/periphery hierarchy

Core/periphery relations are one of the most important foci of world-systems analysis (see Figure 3.[5] Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) took the position that world-systems could exist in the absence of core/periphery relations. Chase-Dunn and Mann (1998) studied such a system in precontact Northern California but it did not fit Wallerstein’s definition of a “mini-system” (single culture and a division of labor) because the interacting (trading, allying and fighting) polities spoke very different languages and had different cultures. This was a small-scale world-system composed of sedentary foragers (hunter-gatherers) in which there was little or no interpolity exploitation or domination. Core/periphery hierarchies emerged and became institutionalized as some polities invented methods for extracting resources from, and dominating, distant other polities. The question of the spatial scale of interaction discussed above is prior to the issue of core/periphery relations. Unconnected polities cannot have core/periphery relations with one another.

The first cities and states emerged in Mesopotamia (a region in which chiefdoms and irrigated agriculture already existed) around 3,000 BCE. Uruk was the first of these theocracies, and similar city-states soon emerged on the floodplain of the Tigris and the Euphrates to form an intercity-state system of allying and war-making states that were also interacting with adjacent horticultural chiefdoms and nomadic pastoralists.

 After a period of several centuries in which hegemonic city-states rose and fell, Sargon’s Akkadian Empire conquered all the Mesopotamian city-states as well some adjacent areas to form the first conquest empire. This pattern of rise and fall of the largest settlements and polities was repeated in several world regions with some interesting and important differences: Egypt, the Indus River valley, the valley of the Huáng (Yellow) River, the Andes, and Mesoamerica. These are important instances of parallel sociocultural evolution in which similar social structures and institutions emerged under similar conditions in areas that were unconnected or only weakly connected with one another. This, and the independent emergence of horticulture in eight world regions, is strong evidence in favor of the existence of sociocultural evolution.[6]

There were long-term upward trends in the sizes of largest cities and largest polities that corresponded with the increasing complexity and hierarchy of human polities. These long-term trends in spatial scale and complexity of have been constituted by upsweeps – events in which the sizes of cities and polities increased significantly over what they had been in the past (Inoue et al 2012; Inoue et al 2015). A study of twenty-one upsweeps in the territorial sizes of states and empires in five world regions since the Bronze Age found that to thirteen of them involved the actions of non-core polities, mostly semiperipheral marcher states ((see also Inoue et al 2016). This is strong evidence for the importance of interpolity competition in processes of state expansion.  And it demonstrates that core/periphery relations need to be taken into account in explanations of sociocultural evolution.

 Figure 4 does not depict what has happened in any single regional system but rather what has happened when the totality of all the systems are considered.

Figure 4: The rise-and-fall polities with occasional upward sweeps in polity size and complexity

The Modern World-System and Definitions of Capitalism

Fernand Braudel (1992) performed an encompassing study of material life in medieval Europe that portrayed the links between simple household and village production (the first level of the local economy) with market exchange (the second level of economy), manufacturing, long-distance trade, banking, and monopolies (the third level of economy) marking the last level as the realm of capitalist accumulation. Braudel noted that market exchange is usually beneficial for all parties and is substantially fair. He contrasts this with capitalist accumulation which is usually based on unequal exchange, exploitation and monopolization that employs military, political, religious, and ideological means to extract surplus. Among the many definitions of capitalism, one of the most laconic is that capitalism is a system that is organized around the endless accumulation of capital (Arrighi 2010[1994]: 33). Of course, there can be different sources of capital accumulation. Profits can be made from long-distance trade, banking, agricultural or industrial production or services. This provides capitalism with its outstanding flexibility (Arrighi 2010[1994]: 5). In modern times profitable commercial deployment of new leading technologies (alternative energy, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence, cloud computing etc.) endow both corporations and states with considerable advantages.

A longer list of capitalism’s defining characteristics should include: (1) generalized commodity production in which the “fictitious commodities” of land, labor, and wealth are substantially commodified, (2) ownership and/or control of the means of production, exercised by individuals, organizations and states, (3) accumulation of capital based on a mix of competitive production of commodities and political-military power, (4) exploitation of commodified labor, and (5) a combination of class exploitation and core/periphery exploitation (Chase-Dunn 1998: 43).

The world-systems perspective views capitalism as a logic of development that combines Marx’s definition of capital accumulation based on wage labor with an equally necessary component of accumulation based on coerced labor that occurs in the non-core. It is emphasized that capitalist slavery and capitalist serfdom were very important to the development of the capitalist world-system and that extra-economic coercion remains a significant aspect of even the 21st century capitalism.

Capitalism first became a predominant logic of accumulation in a whole world-system six hundred years ago, when Genoa and Portugal combined forces to rewire the emerging Europe-centered world-system (Arrighi 2010[1994]).  And then in the seventeenth century the United Provinces of the Netherlands rose as a fore-reaching capitalist state that combined features of earlier city-states with a federal structure that supported the emergence of joint stock companies, a stock exchange and a colonial empire built around profit-taking rather than taxation (Wallerstein 2000).

A capitalist state is one in which those gaining most of their wealth from commodity production and market trade hold predominant control over the state apparatus. Capitalist city-states had existed since the Bronze Age, but they were usually located in the semiperiphery of larger world-systems in which tributary states (that used state power itself as the main institutional basis of accumulation) were predominant. The rise of the capitalist city-states of Italy and then the capitalist nation-state of the Dutch signified a move from the semiperiphery to the core and the rise of a world-system in which capitalism was increasingly becoming the predominant mode of accumulation.

But even in the capitalist world-system economic agents still rely on states to promote their interests by military and political means and to deal with social unrest. At the same time, the existence of multiple competing states – the international system – provides maneuvering space for capitalists who can bargain better conditions for profit making by pitting competing states against one another. This is why many capitalists are wary of the emergence of a world state (Chase-Dunn 1998).

New lead industries and generative sectors have played important roles in the unequal distribution of surplus within different parts of the modern world-economy (Modelski and Thompson 1996; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005). The emergence of new technologies and sectors allows those who control them to earn technological rents because they hold a monopoly until these innovations spread to the competitive sector. The large accumulators flexibly move their capital to new leading industries in new regions, creating quasi-monopolies that facilitate capitalist accumulation (Wallerstein 2004: 27). But there is also an important degree of uneven development in the competition among core states and the emergence of challengers from the none-core zones.

An important debate about the nature of socialist states occurred among political sociologists in the 1970s. Albert Szymanski (1979) claimed that "state socialism" did exist in the Soviet Union and that the existing socialist states constituted a separate socialist world-system. On the other hand,  Tony Cliff (1974) contended that the Soviet political economy was “state capitalism" while Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim (1975) argued that that the Soviet Union and China were transitional forms between socialism and capitalism. Alternatively, Christopher Chase-Dunn (1980) claimed that the existing socialist states in which communist parties held state power had become functional parts of the larger capitalist world-economy that played an important supportive role in the reproduction of the global system. He argued that the semiperipheral Soviet Union had mobilized autarchic national development, industrializing the national economy and attempting to be upwardly mobile within the global system. Chase-Dunn contended that this was a version of semiperipheral development not entirely dissimilar to the developmental path that had been taken by earlier semiperipheral challengers. But did the communist states constitute a separate socialist world-system as argued by Szymanski?  Indeed, there had been a substantial political-economic interaction within the communist bloc and relatively autonomous centrally planned industrialization. But the heavy geopolitical and military competition within the global system of states was an important constraint on the Soviet efforts to construct socialism, and in the end it was the huge expenditures on arms at the expense of consumer goods that brought the Soviet regime down.

Despite a significant cooperation within the bloc, socialist states were affected by global geopolitics and their economies were influenced by the world market. They remained functional parts of the global capitalist system. The Yalta agreements after World War II cemented the post-war borders and implied ideological condemnation, so the struggle between the so-called Communist and Free Worlds permitted a tight internal control within each camp (Wallerstein 1992). In 1970s and the 1980s scholars observed that the socialist states were becoming reintegrated into the capitalist world economy by growing East-West trade and efforts to keep up with the West with regard to consumer products (Derluguian 2005, Frank 1980). The these trends were subsequently confirmed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the entrance of the Eastern European states into the European Union and NATO, Chinese neoliberal reforms, as well as diplomatic and touristic openings.

Some have claimed that the world-system perspective overemphasizes political economy and structure over agency. Wallerstein has responded to this criticism by focusing his most recent work on “geoculture”, by which he means the evolution of the political ideology of liberalism in the 19th century (Wallerstein 2011b). Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011[1989]) have also focused on “world revolutions” – constellations of rebellions and transnational social movements – that have driven the evolution of global governance institutions for centuries.

World-System Structures

Fernand Braudel viewed the ascendance of world cities as constitutive centers of capitalist world-economies (1992: 26-35). Later, Saskia Sassen (2000: 1-4) explicated the interconnectedness and hierarchy of global cities, and their central role in the contemporary world economy. They serve as central locations for international transactions – containers of industry and physical infrastructure and highly concentrated business districts and banking centers).

The political dimension of the modern world-system has been constituted as a system of states are connected by trade, alliances and completion within a coherent interstate system. The interstate system is composed of unequally powerful nation states that compete for resources by supporting profitable commodity production and by engaging in geopolitical and military competition (Chase-Dunn 1998: 49).  Nevertheless geopolitics is not just an anarchic competition for power.  A semblance of global order has been provided by the sequential rise and fall of hegemonic core powers. This governance by hegemony and continues to be the strongest institutional element in the contemporary world-system though it has become imbricated within a dense matric of international organizations.

Hegemony is one of the central concepts of the world-system perspective.  Chase-Dunn (1998:50) explicates the idea of the hegemonic sequence as follows “The hegemonic sequence… refers to a fluctuation of hegemony versus multicentricity in the distribution of military power and economic competitive advantage in production among core states. ” Hegemony in the interstate system occurs during  a time period, “in which the ongoing rivalry between the so-called "great powers" is so unbalanced that one power can largely impose its rules and its wishes… in the economic, political, military, diplomatic, and even cultural arenas” (Wallerstein 2000: 255). While Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony refers to ideological class domination within national societies, Immanuel Wallerstein’s concept of hegemony refers to the concentration of power in the world-system. According to Wallerstein, the United Provinces of the Netherlands was the first hegemon during the 17th century, and it was followed by the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the 19th century which was followed by the United States of America in the 20th century. [7] According to Immanuel Wallerstein, hegemony is based on advantages in three critical economic domains: agro-industrial, commercial, and financial (2000: 256). For instance, Great Britain first intensified its agricultural production, then developed its industry, followed by extensive overseas trade and financial operations, establishing pound sterling as world money, dominated militarily, and only later enjoyed language, educational, tourist and other cultural benefits. Elaborating on Wallerstein’s conception of hegemony, we would suggest a more comprehensive list of its aspects: technological-economic (technological, production, commercial, and financial), military-political (military, political, and diplomatic), socio-cultural (institutional, normative, and cultural).

Both Wallerstein and Arrighi note that each hegemony (or what Arrighi calls “systemic cycles of accumulation”) develops in a sequence of similar stages. The first stage is based on the successful production and export of consumer goods. The second stage is based on capital goods. And the third stage is based on the advantages that the hegemon has accrued as a center of global trade and finance. Financial services and control of world money are the key to the last stage. As leading technologies spread out, production and other economic advantages are lost. Eventually military capability is reduced as well as remaining socio-cultural benefits. According to Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver (1999: 29, the hegemonic crisis is marked by an increase of competition, social conflicts and the emergence of systemic chaos. States and elites group around the contenders for a new round of hegemony. The system systems heads back into an inter-regnum in which interimperial rivalry heightens the probably of world war (Bornschier and Chase-Dunn 2012; Klare 2016).

The Modern Core/Periphery Hierarchy

Based on historical studies of medieval Europe Fernand Braudel outlined a pattern of the concentration of wealth and resources in particular sites of accumulation at the expense of other regions (1992: 35-38). As we have said, a fundamental organizing principle of the modern world-system is the structural hierarchy composed of the core, the semiperiphery and the periphery. Core areas specialize in core production – relatively capital intensive production utilizing skilled, high wage labor. Peripheral areas contain mostly peripheral production – labor intensive, low wage and unskilled labor (Chase-Dunn 1998: 49). The core/periphery relationship was brought into existence by extraeconomic plunder, conquest, and colonialism, and is sustained by the normal operation of political-military and economic competition in the capitalist world-economy (Chase-Dunn 1998: 39). Core production is controlled by quasi-monopolies and is thus more profitable, whereas peripheral production is truly competitive and hence less profitable. In the process of global trade monopolized products from the core are in a stronger position than competitive products from periphery. This results in a flow of surplus-value from the periphery to the core – unequal exchange (Wallerstein 2004: 28).

The semiperiphery is characterized by a rough balance of core and peripheral production. The semiperiphery mediates the surplus extraction from periphery to the core, and serves as a buffer zone between the two hierarchical components of the world-system, providing an ideological fig leaf by holding out the possibility of “development” for the non-core.

Salvatore Babones (2005) has conducted a vivid quantitative estimation of the structural positions of nation-states in the modern world-system. Applying GDP per capita measurements to the 1975-2002 cross national data panel, he concluded that 25 countries (33.8%) were organic to the core, 14 counties (18.1%) – were organic to the semiperiphery, and 35 countries (48.1%) – were organic to the periphery. Eighteen countries (24.3%) demonstrated inter-zonal mobility, but exactly half of them moved downward and half moved upward. The main finding is that the three zones are strikingly stable over time (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: The contemporary global core/periphery hierarchy

The “global capitalism” school has emphasized the interconnectedness of elites into a global  network (Carroll 2010, Robinson 2014). Leslie Sklair (1995: 71) argues that there is a transnational capitalist class comprised of corporate executives, state bureaucrats, neoliberal politicians and professionals from many countries. William Robinson (2014: 8) explains the mechanisms by which the transnational capitalist class can influence governments – competition among national states to attract transnationally mobile capital provides structural power of capitalists over states. Robinson also theorizes an emerging global class structure in which transnationalized segments of different classes exist in within countries in the emerging global society (see Figure 6). And he contends that a transnational state has emerged in which existing state structures act as agents of the transnational capitalist class.

The world-system scholars have noted that there has long been a global class structure in the sense of objective class membership. Samir Amin (1980b) analyzed the global class structure prior to the emergence of the global capitalism school. Guy Standing’s designation of the emergence of a

global precariat acknowledges that the class situation of most workers in the non-core has always been precarious (Standing 2011).












Figure 6: The global class structure with transnational segments (based on Robinson 2014).

There has been a great debate among social scientists regarding trends in global wealth and income inequality. Many contend that, due to the rising household incomes in China and India, global inequality has decreased, while others contend that global economic inequality has increased during recent decades. Both within-county and between-country inequality trends need to be taken into account in order to know the true overall trend in income distribution for the whole population of the Earth. And there are difficult issues regarding the conversion of national currencies into a single global metric (usually U.S. dollars). A conservative estimate based on the contentious quantitative literature on trends in global income inequality is that global inequality increased greatly during the 19th century and it has remained at about the same high level or possibly decreased slightly since then (Bornschier 2010). Though the magnitude of global income inequality expanded in the 19th century, there were already important amounts of political inequality that had emerged between the core and the periphery as a result of European colonialism. And these structures were both outcomes of, and causes of, resistance and rebellions that occurred within the European core and in the colonized regions.

The cycle of world war severity has had a 40- to 60-year period (Chase-Dunn 1998: 51). Hegemony and resistance have co-evolved and this tension has been a major factor in structuring world historical social change. Resistance and rebellions by subordinate classes and in the non-core have tended to cluster together in time as the contradictions of power, domination and exploitation have produced somewhat similar conditions in regions that are distant from one another (Chase-Dunn and Khutkyy 2016). Even though the non-core rebellions and resistance movements were not very directly connected with one another in earlier centuries, their synchronous consequences converged on the core states, and especially on the hegemon. This phenomenon of widespread synchronous resistance and rebellion is termed “world revolution.” World revolutions have become much more directly interconnected as social movements have become increasingly transnational, and popular groups and global parties have emerged to engage in politics on a global scale. Wars and revolutions periodically reset the rules of international politics and the global economy resulting in a spiral of capitalism and socialism (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000).

One important long term trend has been the increased size of the hegemons: from the Italian city-states to the United Provinces of the Netherlands to the United Kingdom of Great Britain to the continent-wide United States. In order for this trend of increasing scale to continue the next hegemon would need to be either an alliance of states or a federal world state.

Structural Continuities and Possible Futures

In 1970s the world-system entered another period of economic stagnation: core states witnessed a decline of profits in manufacturing as Germany and Japan caught up with the U.S., producing global overcapacity relative to effective demand. Many industries began relocating to the noncore where there were lower wages and fewer regulations. Economic growth slowed down and there was a shift of investments from production to financial speculation. The United States lost a major war against Vietnam and economic challengers emerged from the non-core (Wallerstein 2006). This was the beginning of the end of U.S. hegemony. But since United States domestic economy was such a large portion of the global economy and the U.S. global military apparatus was so huge, the decline of the U.S. has been gradual.

The U.S. domestic economy was 35% of world GDP in 1945 and there were 737 U.S. military bases all over the world in 2011 (Chase-Dunn et al 2011: 7). The United States has lost much of its predominance in manufacturing and in world trade to China. But its continued predominance in global financial services and its ability to print world money (what Michael Mann 2002; 2006) has called dollar seigniorage) cannot last forever. Global financial centrality and dollar seigniorage have allowed the U.S. to engage in unilateral military engagements without having to raise taxes. Another global financial debacle along the lines of what happened in 2008 may bring the bubble down.

An alternative to U.S. hegemonic decline would be a second round of U.S. hegemony. Recall that Modelski and Thompson (1996) contended that Great Britain enjoyed two “power cycles.” The United States still has, despite the depredations of neoliberal austerity, comparative advantages in higher education and research. It continues to lead in technological innovations in biotechnology, green technology and nanotechnology and to have a relatively flexible institutional structure. These features suggest that another round of hegemony for the U.S. is a possibility. But iIn order for this to happen there would have to be a serious and sustained effort by the federal government and state governments that was supported by a significant contingent of the U.S. capitalist class. This seems unlikely. And so the 21st century world is moving toward multipolarity with intensified political and economic rivalry among strong contenders. Military rivalry is also likely to emerge as the U.S. loses its advantages in the global financial system and so has to tax its own citizens in order to fund the global military apparatus.[8] Michael Klare’s (2016) report that big wars are back on the drawing boards of military strategists because of Russian intransigence reveals more about the institutional resilience of the war machine than it does about the current geomilitary situation. Russia is in no position to challenge NATO or the U.S. militarily at present. But that situation is likely to change as the costs of the U.S. monopoly on military capability can no longer be sustained by dollar seignorage.

Wallerstein (2011: 35) contends that the capitalist world-system has been experiencing a systemic crisis since 1970s. This crisis is characterized chaotic fluctuations that will lead to either systemic revival or to collapse. Wallerstein argues that the world revolution of 1968 was a decisive turning point that marked the end of the supremacy of centrist liberal ideology, disassembling the global geoculture that fused the political institutions of the world-system (Wallerstein 2004: 77). Student, civil rights and anti-war protests in the big cities of the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and China shook both capitalist and socialist states. They indicated mass discontent with social inequalities and political coercion and manifested demands for a more just social order. Though these movements were repressed and did not transform the world-system, they initiated processes that brought more civil rights to some segments of population. The protests of 1989-1991 in the USSR were based on socio-economic demands from blue-collar and white-collar proletarians that, faced with weakness and unresponsiveness of central authorities, sought expression on movements for civil rights (Derluguian 2005). The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were a similar incarnation of civil rights demands. The latest major protests of 2010-2012, commonly called “the Arab Spring”, occurred in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Western Sahara,and Yemen. These were constellations of local, national, and transnational protest movements that were united by similar agendas and signified opposition to oppressive national and global governance.

Wallerstein (2004) notes that capitalism is reaching assymtotes based on the costs of labor, taxation and raw materials. Capitalists are experiencing pressures to internalize previously externalized costs. Wages are going up as global proletarianization labor movements in the non-core continue to emerge (Silver 2003).  Capitalist who employ the “spatial fix” by outsourcing,  moving production from the core to the periphery find that there are fewer and fewer places with cheap, disciplined and skilled labor, low ecological standards, cheap raw materials, low taxation levels and modest welfare expectations. Formerly profitable production in China, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan is becoming more expensive, as local workers demand higher wages.

We agree with Michael Mann’s (2013) point that the global capitalism school, which he calls “hyperglobalists”, often overemphasizes the extent to which the nation-state has been transcended or repurposed by global capitalism. But we do not agree with Mann’s contention that contingency and the loose coupling of political, ideological, military and economic trajectories of development mean that there is no such thing as a single global system. While human history is undoubtedly somewhat open ended because social change is a complex and contingent outcome of accidents and contentious intentions, this does not mean that there is no global system. Nor does it mean that the future is completely unpredictable. Demographic trends are relatively certain. And some of the possible 21st century futures are far more probable than others.

Mann and those world historians who emphasize contingency and open-endedness are protagonists of a hyperhumanism, in which both individuals and organizations are deemed capable of, and are expected to, author themselves and their destinies. While we also value the human species, individual lives and collective freedoms, these values do not blind us to the existence of structural and institutional forces that condition the possible human futures of the 21st century. And as social scientists we are duty bound to report upon and dissect the predominant cultural values of our own global society as well as the moral orders of the past. We are not determinists, but we agree with Marx that the institutions that past humans have created strongly act upon and condition the possibilities for the humans of the present and the future. Understanding these constraints is a strong medicine that will be of great use to the struggle for a better future.


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[1] In using the term ‘evolution’, we mean long-term patterned change in social structures, especially the development of complex divisions of labor and hierarchy. We do not mean biological evolution, which is a very different topic, and neither do we mean “progress.” Whether or not simplicity, complexity, equality or hierarchy are good or bad are value questions that are not necessary to the scientific prehension of social change (Sanderson 1990).

[2]Settlement” is a general term that includes camps, hamlets, villages, towns, cities and the great megacity urban regions that compose the contemporary global urban system.

[3] An interpolity system is a set of polities that engage in regularized trade, communication and warfare with one another.

The term polity is a general covering term for political organizations that have substantial autonomous authority over a particular territory or a particular group of people. Included are nomadic bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states and empires. We agree with Michael Mann (1986) that the term “society” does not usually designate a bounded territorial entity.

[4] The idea of a capital-imperial mode of accumulation that oscillates back and forth between periods in which states are more important and periods in which markets are more important was developed by Ekholm and Friedman (1982).

[5] The modern core/periphery hierarchy is now commonly referred to as the Global North (the core) and the Global South (the semiperiphery and the periphery).

[6] Michael Mann’s (2016) careful critical review of evidence for and against the notion of sociocultural evolution admits as much. Mann’s contention that the cutting edge of development has moved and his awareness of cycles and periods of rapid social change (revolutions) are valuable insights that contribute to the effort to develop causal explanations of sociocultural evolution.  

[7] George Modelski and William Thompson (1988) measured sea power and found that world leadership was headed by Portugal in the fifteenth century, the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, Great Britain twice – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and finally by the United States in the twentieth century. Michael Mann (2013: 275) pointed out a important feature of the current hegemon: unlike previous ones the United States has not sought a direct empire of overseas colonies, but rather over an informal empire of client states


[8] Donald Trump’s threats to make Japan and the European NATO powers pay a larger share of the costs of the global military apparatus are an early warning pointing to the contradiction caused by the increasing disjuncture between the structures of global economic and military power.