Continuities and transformations in the evolution of world-systems:
Terminal crisis or a new systemic cycle of accumulation?*
Institute for Research on World-Systems
University of California-Riverside
v. 8-5-11 10223 words
Keynote address to be presented at the Vth Brazilian Colloquium of PEWS, State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), August 8-9, 2011. Conference theme: “The Contemporary Capitalist World-Economy: Terminal Crisis or Hegemonic Transition?"
V Colóquio Brasileiro em Economia Política dos Sistemas-Mundo
A Economia-Mundo Contemporânea: crise estrutural ou transição hegemônica?
*I am grateful to Roy Kwon, Kirk Lawrence and Tom Hall for help with this paper.
This is IROWS Working Paper #70 at https://irows.ucr.edu/papers/irows70/irows70.htm
The Comparative Evolutionary World-Systems Perspective
This paper will employ three different time horizons in the discussion of continuities and transformations.
1. 50,000 years;
2. 5,000 years;
3. 500 years.
Hall and Chase-Dunn (2006; see also Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997)) have modified the concepts developed by the scholars of the modern world-system to construct a theoretical perspective for comparing the modern system with earlier regional world-systems. The main idea is that sociocultural evolution can only be explained if polities are seen to have been in important interaction with each other since the Paleolithic Age. Hall and Chase-Dunn propose a general model of the continuing causes of the evolution of technology and hierarchy within polities and in linked systems of polities (world-systems). This is called the iteration model and it is driven by population pressures interacting with environmental degradation and interpolity conflict. This iteration model depicts basic causal forces that were operating in the Stone Age and that continue to operate in the contemporary global system (see also Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 6; Fletcher et al 2011). These are the continuities.
The most important idea that comes out of this theoretical perspective is that transformational changes in institutions, social structures and developmental logics are brought about mainly by the actions of individuals and organizations within polities that are semiperipheral relative to the other polities in the same system. This is known as the hypothesis of semiperipheral development.
As regional world-systems became spatially larger and the polities within them grew and became more internally hierarchical, interpolity relations also became more hierarchical because new means of extracting resources from distant peoples were invented. Thus did core/periphery hierarchies emerge. Semiperipherality is the position of some of the polities in a core/periphery hierarchy. Some of the polities that are located in semiperipheral positions became the agents that formed larger chiefdoms, states and empires by means of conquest (semiperipheral marcher polities), and some specialized trading states in between the tributary empires promoted production for exchange in the regions in which they operated. So both the spatial and demographic scale of political organization and the spatial scale of trade networks were expanded by semiperipheral polities, eventually leading to the global system in which we now live.
The modern world-system came into being when a formerly
peripheral and then semiperipheral region (
Figure 1: Waves of Colonization and Decolonization Since 1400 - Number of colonies established and number of decolonizations (Source: Henige (1970))
between these periods of hegemony were periods of hegemonic rivalry in which
several contenders strove for global power. The core of the modern world-system
has remained multicentric, meaning that a number of sovereign states ally and
compete with one another. Earlier regional world-systems sometimes experienced
a period of core-wide empire in which a single empire became so large that
there were no serious contenders for predominance. This did not happen in the
modern world-system until the
The sequence of hegemonies can be understood as the evolution
of global governance in the modern system. The interstate system as
institutionalized at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1644 is still a fundamental
institutional structure of the polity of the modern system. The system of
theoretically sovereign states was expanded to include the peripheral regions
in two large waves of decolonization (see Figure 1), eventually resulting in a
situation in which the whole modern system became composed of sovereign
Each of the hegemonies was larger as a proportion of the
whole system than the earlier one had been. And each developed the institutions
of economic and political-military control by which it led the larger system
such that capitalism increasingly deepened its penetration of all the areas of
the Earth. And after the Napoleonic Wars in which
The political globalization evident in the trajectory of global governance evolved because the powers that be were in heavy contention with one another for geopolitical power and for economic resources, but also because resistance emerged within the polities of the core and in the regions of the non-core. The series of hegemonies, waves of colonial expansion and decolonization and the emergence of a proto-world-state occurred as the global elites tried to compete with one another and to contain resistance from below. We have already mentioned the waves of decolonization. Other important forces of resistance were slave revolts, the labor movement, the extension of citizenship to men of no property, the women’s movement, and other associated rebellions and social movements.
These movements affected the evolution of global
governance in part because the rebellions often clustered together in time,
forming what have been called “world
revolutions” (Arrighi et al.,
1989). The Protestant Reformation in
The current world revolution of 20xx (Chase-Dunn and
Niemeyer, 2009) will be discussed as the global countermovement in this paper.
The big idea here is that the evolution of capitalism and of global governance
is importantly a response to resistance
and rebellions from below. This has been true in the past and is likely to
continue to be true in the future. Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) contend that
capitalism and socialism have dialectically interacted with one another in a positive
feedback loop similar to a spiral. Labor and socialist movements were obviously
a reaction to capitalist industrialization, but also the
So what does the comparative and evolutionary world-systems perspective tell us about continuities and transformations of system logic? And what can be said about the most recent financial meltdown and the contemporary global countermovement from the long-run perspectives? Are recent developments just another bout of financial expansion and collapse and hegemonic decline? Or do they constitute or portend a deep structural crisis in the capitalist mode of accumulation. What do recent events signify about the evolution of capitalism and its possible transformation into a different mode of accumulation?
From the perspective of the last 50,000 years the big news is demographic and ecological. After slowly expanding, with cyclical ups and downs in particular regions, for millennia the human population went into a steep upward surge in the last two centuries. Humans have been degrading the environment locally and regionally since they began the intensive use of natural resources. But in the last 200 years of industrial production ecological degradation by means of resource depletion and pollution has become global in scope, with global warming as the biggest consequence. A demographic transition to an equilibrium population size began in the industrialized core countries in the nineteenth century and has spread unevenly to the non-core in the twentieth century. Public health measures have lowered the mortality rate and the education and employment of women outside of the home is lowering the fertility rate. But the total number of humans is likely to keep increasing for several more decades. In the year 2000 there were about six billion humans on Earth. But the time the population stops climbing it will be 8, 10 or 12 billion.
This population big bang was made possible by
industrialization and the vastly expanded use of non-renewable fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels are captured ancient sunlight that took millions of years to
accrete as plants and forests grew, died and were compressed into oil and coal.
The arrival of peak oil production is near and energy prices will almost surely
rise again after a long fall. The recent financial meltdown is related to these
long-run changes in the sense that it was brought on partly by sectors of the
global elite trying to protect their privileges and wealth by seeking greater
control over natural resources and by over-expanding the financial sector. But
non-elites are also implicated. The housing expansion, suburbanization, and
larger houses with fewer people in them have been important mechanisms,
especially in the
The main significance of
the 5,000-year time horizon is to point us to the rise and decline of modes of
accumulation. The story here is that small-scale human polities were integrated
primarily by normative structures institutionalized as kinship relations—the so-called kinship-based
modes of accumulation. The family was the economy and the polity, and the
family was organized as a moral order of obligations that allowed social labor
to be mobilized and coordinated, and that regulated distribution. Kin-based
accumulation was based on shared languages and meaning systems,
consensus-building through oral communication, and institutionalized
reciprocity in sharing and exchange. As kin-based polities got larger they
increasingly fought with one another and polities that developed
institutionalized inequalities had selection advantages over those that did
not. Kinship itself became hierarchical within chiefdoms, taking the form of
ranked lineages or conical clans. Social movements using religious discourses
have been important forces of social change for millennia. Kin-based societies
often responded to population pressures on resources by “hiving-off” -- a
subgroup would emigrate, usually after formulating grievances in terms of
violations of the moral order. Migrations were mainly responses to local
resource stress caused by population growth and competition for resources. When
new unoccupied or only lightly occupied but resource-rich lands were reachable
the humans moved on, eventually populating all the continents except
Around five thousand years ago the first early states and
cities emerged in
A tributary mode became predominant in the Mesopotamian
world-system in the early Bronze Age (around 3000 BCE). The East Asian regional
world-system was still predominantly tributary in the nineteenth century CE.
That is nearly a 5,000-year run. The kin-based mode lasted even longer. All
human groups were organized around different versions of the kin-based modes in
the Paleolithic, and indeed since human culture first emerged with language. If
we date the beginning of the end of the kin-based modes at the coming to
predominance of the tributary mode in
This brings us to the capitalist mode, here defined as
based on the accumulation of profits returning to commodity production rather
than taxation or tribute. As we have already said, early forms of capitalism
emerged in the Bronze Age in the form of small semiperipheral states that
specialized in trade and the production of commodities. But it was not until
the fifteenth century that this form of accumulation became predominant in a
regional world-system (
Thus, in comparison with the earlier modes, capitalism is yet young. It has been around for millennia, but it has been predominate in a world-system for less than a millennium. On the other hand, many have observed that social change in general has speeded up. The rise of tribute-taking based on institutionalized coercion took more than 100,000 years. Capitalism itself speeds up social change because it revolutionizes technology so quickly that other institutions are brought along, and people have become adjusted to more rapid reconfigurations of culture and institutions. So it is plausible that the contradictions of capitalism may lead it to reach its limits much faster than the kin-based and tributary modes did.
Transformations Between Modes
For Immanuel Wallerstein (2011 ), capitalism started in the long sixteenth century (1450- 1640), grew larger in a series of cycles and upward trends, and is now nearing “asymptotes” (ceilings) as some of its trends create problems that it cannot solve. Thus, for Wallerstein the world-system became capitalist and then it expanded until it became completely global, and now it is coming to face a big crisis because certain long-term trends cannot be accommodated within the logic of capitalism (Wallerstein, 2003). Wallerstein’s evolutionary transformations come at the beginning and at the end. In there is a focus on expansion and deepening as well as cycles and trends, but no periodization of world-system evolutionary stages of capitalism (Chase-Dunn 1998: Chapter 3). . This is very different from both Arrighi’s depiction of successive (and overlapping) systemic cycles of accumulation and from the older Marxist stage theories of national development. Wallerstein’s emphasis is on the emergence and demise of “historical systems” with capitalism defined as “ceaseless accumulation.” Some of the actors change positions but the system is basically the same as it gets larger. Its internal contradictions will eventually reach limits, and these limits are thought to be approaching within the next five decades.
According to Wallerstein (2003) the three long-term upward trends (ceiling effects) that capitalism cannot manage are:
1. the long-term rise of real wages;
2. the long-term costs of material inputs; and
3. rising taxes.
All three upward trends cause the average rate of profit to fall. Capitalists devise strategies for combating these trends (automation, capital flight, job blackmail, attacks on the welfare state and unions), but they cannot really stop them in the long run. Deindustrialization in one place leads to industrialization and the emergence of labor movements somewhere else (Silver, 2003). The falling rate of profit means that capitalism as a logic of accumulation will face an irreconcilable structural crisis during the next 50 years, and some other system will emerge. Wallerstein calls the next five decades “The Age of Transition.”
Wallerstein sees recent losses by labor unions and the poor as temporary. He assumes that workers will eventually figure out how to protect themselves against globalized market forces and the “race to the bottom”. This may underestimate somewhat the difficulties of mobilizing effective labor organization in the era of globalized capitalism, but he is probably right in the long run. Global unions and political parties could give workers effective instruments for protecting their wages and working conditions from exploitation by global corporations if the North/South issues that divide workers could be overcome.
is intentionally vague about the organizational nature new system that will
replace capitalism (as was Marx) except that he is certain that it will no
longer be capitalism. He sees the declining hegemony of the
Stages of World Capitalist Development: Systemic Cycles of Accumulation
Giovanni Arrighi’s (1994) evolutionary account of “systemic cycles of accumulation” has solved some of the problems of Wallerstein’s notion that world capitalism started in the long sixteenth century and then went through repetitive cycles and trends. Arrighi’s account is explicitly evolutionary, but rather than positing “stages of capitalism” and looking for each country to go through them (as most of the older Marxists did), he posits somewhat overlapping global cycles of accumulation in which finance capital and state power take on new forms and increasingly penetrate the whole system. This was a big improvement over both Wallerstein’s world cycles and trends and the traditional Marxist national stages of capitalism approach.
Arrighi’s (1994, 2006) “systemic cycles of accumulation”
are more different from one another than are Wallerstein’s cycles of expansion
and contraction and upward secular trends. And Arrighi (2006) has made more out
of the differences between the current period of
Arrighi sees the development of market society in
Arrighi also provides a more explicit analysis of how the current world situation is similar to and different from the period of declining British hegemonic power before World War I ( see summary in Chase-Dunn and Lawrence 2011:147-151).
Wallerstein’s version is more apocalyptic and more millenarian. The old world is ending. The new world is beginning. In the coming systemic bifurcation what people do may be prefigurative and causal of the world to come. Wallerstein agrees with the analysis proposed by the students of the New Left in 1968 (and large numbers of activists in the current global justice movement) that the tactic of taking state power has been shown to be futile because of the disappointing outcomes of the World Revolution of 1917 and the decolonization movements (but see below).
Regarding the issue of whether or not the recent meltdown is itself a structural crisis or the beginning of a long process of transformation, it is relevant to examine recent trends in economic globalization. Is there yet any sign that the world economy has entered a new period of deglobalization of the kind that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century?
Immanuel Wallerstein contends that globalization has been occurring for five hundred years, and so there is little that is importantly new about the so-called stage of global capitalism that is alleged to have emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century. Well before the emergence of globalization in the popular consciousness, the world-systems perspective focused on the world economy and the system of interacting polities, rather than on single national societies. Globalization, in the sense of the expansion and intensification of larger and larger economic, political, military and information networks, has been increasing for millennia, albeit unevenly and in waves. And globalization is as much a cycle as a trend (see Figure 5). The wave of global integration that has swept the world in the decades since World War II is best understood by studying its similarities and differences with the waves of international trade and foreign investment expansion that have occurred in earlier centuries, especially the last half of the nineteenth century.
has insisted that
Figure 2: Trade Globalization 1820–2009: World Imports as a Percentage of World GDP (Sources: Chase-Dunn et al. (2000); World Bank (2011))
Figure 2 is an updated version of the trade globalization series published in Chase-Dunn et al., (2000). It shows the great nineteenth century wave of global trade integration, a short and volatile wave between 1900 and 1929, and the post-1945 upswing that is characterized as the “stage of global capitalism.” The figure indicates that globalization is both a cycle and a bumpy trend. There have been significant periods of deglobalization in the late nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century. Note the steep decline in the level of global trade integration in 2009.
The long-term upward trend has been bumpy, with occasional downturns such as the one shown in the 1970s. But the downturns since 1945 have all been followed by upturns that restored the overall upward trend of trade globalization. The large decrease of trade globalization in the wake of the global financial meltdown of 2008 represents a 21% decrease from the previous year, the largest reversal in trade globalization since World War II. The question is whether or not this sharp decrease represents a reversal in the long upward trend observed over the past half century. Is this the beginning of another period of deglobalization?
The Financial Meltdown of 2007-2008
The recent financial crisis has generated a huge scholarly literature and immense popular reflection about its causes and its meaning for the past and for the future of world society. This contribution is intended to place the current crisis, and the contemporary network of transnational social movements and progressive national regimes, in world historical and evolutionary perspective. The main point is to accurately determine the similarities and differences between the current crisis and responses with earlier periods of dislocation and breakdown in the modern world-system and in earlier world-systems.
This analysis is reported
in Chase-Dunn and Kwon (2011). The conclusions are that financial crises are
business as usual for the capitalist world-economy. The theories of a “new
economy” and “network society” were mainly justifications for financialization.
The big difference is the size of the bubble and the greater dependence of the
rest of the world on the huge
The World Revolution of 20xx
The contemporary world revolution is similar to earlier
ones, but also different. Our conceptualization of the New Global Left includes
civil society entities: individuals, social movement organizations, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), but also political parties and progressive national
regimes. In this chapter we will focus mainly on the relationships among the
movements and the progressive populist regimes that have emerged in Latin
America in the last decade and on the Arab Spring that began in
The boundaries of the progressive forces that have come
together in the New Global Left are fuzzy and the process of inclusion and
exclusion is ongoing (
The New Global Left has emerged as resistance to, and a critique of, global capitalism (Lindholm and Zuquete, 2010). It is a coalition of social movements that includes recent incarnations of the old social movements that emerged in the nineteenth century (labor, anarchism, socialism, communism, feminism, environmentalism, peace, human rights) and movements that emerged in the world revolutions of 1968 and 1989 (queer rights, anti-corporate, fair trade, indigenous) and even more recent movements such as the slow food/food rights, global justice/alterglobalization, antiglobalization, health-HIV and alternative media (Reese et al., 2008). The explicit focus on the Global South and global justice is somewhat similar to some earlier instances of the Global Left, especially the Communist International, the Bandung Conference and the anticolonial movements. The New Global Left contains remnants and reconfigured elements of earlier Global Lefts, but it is a qualitatively different constellation of forces because:
1. there are new elements,
2. the old movements have been reshaped, and
3. a new technology (the Internet) is being used to mobilize protests in real time and to try to resolve North/South issues within movements and contradictions among movements.
There has also been a learning process in which the earlier successes and failures of the Global Left are being taken into account in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Many social movements have reacted to the neoliberal globalization project by going transnational to meet the challenges that are obviously not local or national (Reitan, 2007). But some movements, especially those composing the Arab Spring, are focused mainly on regime change at home. The relations within the family of antisystemic movements and among the Latin American Pink Tide populist regimes are both cooperative and competitive. The issues that divide potential allies need to be brought out into the open and analyzed in order that cooperative efforts may be enhanced and progressive global collective action may become more effective.
The Pink Tide
The World Social Forum (WSF) is not the only political force that demonstrates the rise of the New Global Left. The WSF is embedded within a larger socio-historical context that is challenging the hegemony of global capital. It was this larger context that facilitated the founding of the WSF in 2001. The anti-IMF protests of the 1980s and the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 were early harbingers of the current world revolution that challenged the neoliberal capitalist order. And the World Social Forum was founded explicitly as a counter-hegemonic project vis-à-vis the World Economic Forum (an annual gathering of global elites founded in 1971).
World history has proceeded in a series of waves.
Capitalist expansions have ebbed and flowed, and egalitarian and humanistic
countermovements have emerged in a cyclical dialectical struggle. Polanyi
(1944) called this the double-movement, while others have termed it a “spiral
of capitalism and socialism.” This spiral of capitalism and socialism describes
the undulations of the global economy that have alternated between expansive
commodification throughout the global economy, followed by resistance movements
on behalf of workers and other oppressed groups (Boswell and Chase-Dunn, 2000).
The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal capitalist globalization project extended the
power of transnational capital. This project has reached its ideological and
material limits. It has increased inequality within some countries, exacerbated
rapid urbanization in the Global South (so-called Planet of Slums [
A global network of countermovements has arisen to
challenge neoliberalism, neoconservatism and corporate capitalism in general.
This progressive network is composed of increasingly transnational social
movements as well as a growing number of populist governments in
An important difference between these and many earlier Leftist regimes in the non-core is that they have come to head up governments by means of popular elections rather than by violent revolutions. This signifies an important difference from earlier world revolutions. The spread of electoral democracy to the non-core has been part of a larger political incorporation of former colonies into the European interstate system. This evolutionary development of the global political system has mainly been caused by the industrialization of the non-core and the growing size of the urban working class in non-core countries (Silver, 2003). While much of the “democratization” of the Global South has consisted mainly of the emergence of “polyarchy” in which elites manipulate elections in order to stay in control of the state (Robinson, 1996), in some countries the Pink Tide Leftist regimes have been voted into power. This is a very different form of regime formation than the road taken by earlier Leftist regimes in the non-core. With a few exceptions earlier Left regimes came to state power by means of civil war or military coup.
The ideologies of the Latin American Pink Tide regimes
have been both socialist and indigenist, with different mixes in different
countries. The acknowledged leader of the Pink Tide as a distinctive brand of
leftist populism is the Bolivarian Revolution led by Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez. But various other forms of progressive political ideologies are also
heading up states in
of these regimes are supported by the mobilization of historically subordinate
populations including the indigenous, poor, and women. The rise of the
voiceless and the challenge to neoliberal capitalism seemed to have its
The rise of the left has engulfed nearly all of South
America and a considerable portion of Central America and the
President Hugo Chavez of
The early Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the
International Monetary Fund in Latin America in the 1980s were instances of
“shock therapy” that emboldened domestic neoliberals to attack the “welfare
state,” unions and workers parties. In many countries these attacks resulted in
downsizing and streamlining of urban industries, and workers in the formal
sector lost their jobs and were forced into the informal economy, swelling the
“planet of slums” (
The very existence of the World Social Forum owes much to
the Pink Tide regime in
The relations between the progressive transnational
social movements and the regimes of the Pink Tide have been both collaborative and
contentious. We have already noted the important role played by the Brazilian
Workers’ Party in the creation of the World Social Forum. But many of the
activists in the movements see involvement in struggles to gain and maintain
power in existing states as a trap that is likely to simply reproduce the
injustices of the past. These kinds of concerns have been raised by anarchists
since the nineteenth century, but autonomists from
The older Leftist organizations and movements are often
depicted as hopelessly Eurocentric and undemocratic by the neo-anarchists and
autonomists, who instead prefer participatory and horizontalist network forms
of democracy and eschew leadership by prominent intellectuals as well as by
existing heads of state. Thus when Lula, Chavez and Morales have tried to
participate in the WSF, crowds have gathered to protest their presence. The
organizers of the WSF have found various compromises, such as locating the
speeches of Pink Tide politicians at adjacent, but separate, venues. An
exception to this kind of contention is the support that European autonomists
and anarchists have provided to Evo Morales’s regime in
The Meltdown and the Countermovements
What have been the effects of the global financial
meltdown on the countermovements and the progressive national regimes? The
World Social Forum slogan that “Another World Is Possible” seems far more
appealing now than when the capitalist globalization project was booming. Critical
discourse has been taken more seriously by a broader audience. Marxist
geographer, David Harvey, has been interviewed on the BBC. The millenarian
discourses of the Pink Tide regimes and the radical social movements seem to be
at least partly confirmed. The “end of history” triumphalism and theories of
the “new economy” seem to have been swept into the dustbin. The world-systems
perspective has found greater support, at least among earlier critics such as
the more traditional Marxists. The insistence of Wallerstein, Arrighi, and
On a more practical level, most of the social movement
organizations and NGOs have had more difficulty raising money, but this has
been counterbalanced by increased participation (Allison et al., 2011). The
environmental movement has received some setbacks because the issue of high
unemployment has come to the fore. The
The Arab Spring
movements that have swept the Arab world since December of 2010 are also part
of the world revolution of 20xx and they may play a role in the New Global
Left. As in earlier world revolutions, contagion and new technologies of
communication have been important elements. And as in earlier world
revolutions, rather different movements stimulated by different local
conditions converge in time to challenge the powers that be. The Arab Spring
movements have been rather different from the global justice movements. Their
targets have mainly been authoritarian national regimes rather than global
capitalism. Youthful demonstrators have used Facebook to organize mainly peaceful protests that have succeeded
in causing several old entrenched regimes to step down. The countries in which
these movements have succeeded are not the poorest countries in Africa and the
issues raised by the Arab Spring movements have mainly been about national
democracy, not global justice. But the example of masses of young people
rallying against unpopular regimes now seems to be spreading to the second-tier
core states of
So do recent developments constitute the beginning of the terminal crisis of capitalism or another systemic cycle of accumulation. As mentioned above, predominant capitalism has not been around very long from the point of view of the succession of qualitatively different logics of social reproduction. But capitalism itself has speeded up social change and its contradictions do seem to be reaching levels that cannot be fixed. Declarations of imminent transformation may be useful for mobilizing social movements, but the real problem is the clearly specify what is really wrong with capitalism and how these deficiencies can be fixed. Whether or not we are in the midst of a qualitative transformation this task will need to be accomplished.
Regarding a new systemic cycle of
accumulation, Arrighi’s bet on the significance of the rise of
things are more interesting in the semiperiphery and the Global South. So far
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 The NATO intervention in Libya mainly illustrates the illegitimacy of both Khadafy and of the nascent global state that is seeking to depose him.