Crisis of What: the end of capitalism or another systemic cycle of capitalist accumulation?

Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

Riverside, CA 92521

v. 6/7/13 8519 words

Paper to be presented at the Global Studies Association Conference onSurviving the Future: Owning the World or Sharing the Commons” June 7-9, 2013 at Marymount College: Palos Verdes Campus (Los Angeles). This is IROWS Working Paper #81 available at

Abstract: This paper discusses the nature of the current global systemic crisis in order to evaluate the likelihood of several possible futures in the next few decades. Employing a comparative world historical and evolutionary world-systems perspective, I consider the ways in which the contemporary crisis is similar to or different from earlier crisis periods in the evolution of global capitalism and how the constellation of antisystemic movements and challenging regimes are similar to, or different from, the challengers in earlier crisis periods. I designate alternative possible models and discuss contending proposed visions of the human future and use a structural analysis of social change to assign probabilities to the different outcomes, while acknowledging that the future, like the past, is somewhat open-ended and the somewhat unpredictable actions of individuals and groups can shift the probabilities that we are trying to estimate.

          The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective uses comparisons between small world-systems of foragers with expanding systems in the Bronze and Iron Ages as well as an evolutionary perspective on the modern world-system since the 13th century to comprehend the nature of the current world-historical period and the probabilities of different sorts of reorganization that could occur within the next several decades (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2013).  The focus is primarily on the forest rather than the trees. And different kinds of forests are compared with one another and ascertain how they have evolved over long periods of time.  One of the big ideas that has emerged from this comparative and evolutionary perspective is the notion of “semiperipheral development--  the idea that semiperipheral polities often contribute to systemic social change by implementing organizational and ideological forms that facilitate their own upward mobility and that sometimes transform the logics of social reproduction and development. This paper considers the question as to how contemporary semiperipheral national regimes and alliances of these with one another, as well as with transnational social movements -- might either mainly reproduce the existing institutional structures and logic of the capitalist world-economy while undergoing a shuffling of the predominant centers of accumulation or might transform the global system into a qualitatively different, more egalitarian world society in the next several decades. In order to intelligently comprehend the possibilities for the next several decades we need to compare the current world historical situation with earlier conjunctures that were somewhat similar, but also importantly different. Sorting out the differences as well as the similarities is a crucial task for these purposes.

            The evolution of the modern world-system has been composed of the expansion and deepening of commodified processes of production and accumulation, but also of the evolution of the institutions of global governance. The structures of authority have evolved from tributary empires to national states increasingly controlled by capitalists, and an interstate system that reproduces national sovereignty. Global governance in this system has mainly been organized by a series of hegemonic core states – the Dutch in the 17th century, the British in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th century. And the increasing size of the hegemons has resulted in a cyclical trend toward greater centralization of global governance. The decolonization of the great colonial empires of the European core states extended the system of theoretically sovereign nation-states to the non-core, creating an isomorphic global polity of national states. But international political organizations and super-national regional and global institutions have emerged over the tops of the states composing the interstate system over the past 200 years. And institutions of neo-colonialism such as foreign investment, aid regimes, and covert political manipulation of non-core states by the Great Powers, have reproduced the hierarchical nature of the global political economy.

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 contended with one another in a context in which they had to contain strong 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, Hopkins and Wallerstein 1989).[1] The Protestant Reformation in Europe was an early instance that played a huge role in the rise of the Dutch hegemony.  The French Revolution of 1789 was linked in time with the American and Haitian revolts. The 1848 rebellion in Europe was both synchronous with the Taiping Rebellion in China and was linked with it by the diffusion of ideas, as it was also linked with the emergent Christian Sects in the United States. 1917 was the year of the Bolsheviks in Russia, but also the Chinese Nationalist revolt, the Mexican revolution, the Arab Revolt and the General Strike in Seattle led by the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States. 1968 was a revolt of students in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Red Guards in China. 1989 was mainly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but important lessons about the value of civil rights beyond justification for capitalist democracy were learned by an emergent global civil society.  The current world revolution of 20xx (Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer 2009) is an important context for the questions about semiperipheral development and future likely outcomes that are the main topics of this article.

            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 U.S. hegemony and the post-World War II global institutions were importantly spurred on by the World Revolution of 1917 and the waves of decolonization. An important idea that comes out of this theoretical perspective is that transformational changes tend to be brought about 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.

            The idea of the “semiperiphery” is a relational concept. Semiperipheral polities are in the middle of a core/periphery hierarchy, but what that means depends on the nature of existing organizations and institutions and the forms of interaction that exist within a particular world-system. Semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms are necessarily somewhat different from semiperipheral marcher states and semiperipheral modern nation-states.  The evolutionary world-systems perspective points to the similarities as the basis for the claim that studying whole world-systems is necessary in order to explain socio-cultural evolution. But this does not tell us what semiperipherality is in any particular world-system. For that we have to know the nature of those institutions that regulate interactions in the particular system. And successfully playing the game of upward mobility that involves challenging the core powers, moving up in the system and sometimes transforming the very nature of the whole system, is an even more complicated matter involving innovation and the implementation of new technologies, ideologies and forms of organization. It is important to mention that not all semiperipheral polities are agents of transformation. Some act to reproduce the institutions that are predominant. But a semiperipheral location is fertile ground for those who want to implement organizational, ideological or technological changes that are transformative.

            Some observers have claimed that the world is now flat because of globalization. But studies of global inequalities do not find a strong trend toward a flatter world. Even with the rapid economic growth of China and India in the past few decades, the global stratification system has not become significantly more equal (Bornschier 2010). The large international differences in levels of development and income that emerged during the industrial revolution in the 19th century continue to be an important feature of the global stratification system. Others have claimed that globalization and “the peripheralization of the core” evident in the migration of industrial production to semiperipheral countries has eliminated the core/periphery hierarchy. Deindustrialization of the core and the process of financialization have had important impacts on the structure of core/periphery relations, but it is surely an exaggeration to contend that the core/periphery hierarchy has disappeared. Certainly U.S. economic hegemony is in decline and there are newly arising challengers from the semiperiphery. But recent upward and downward mobility has not appreciably reduced the overall magnitude of inequalities in the world-system.

            The proponents of a global stage of capitalism have often focused on an allegedly recent emergence of a transnational capitalist class. William Carroll’s (2010) research shows how transnational interlocking directorates and political networks have changed over the past several decades to link wealthy and powerful families in Europe with those in North America and Japan. Though a few individuals from semiperipheral countries have managed to join the club, it remains mainly a network of big property owners from core countries. William Robinson (2008) has also focused attention on how the conditions of workers and peasants have been transformed by capitalist globalization, and he contends that a global class structure is emerging that will have consequences for the future of class relations and world politics.

            The concepts of a transnational capitalist class and the further transnationalization of workers and peasants are important ideas, and they may also be usefully employed to examine relations among elites and masses in earlier centuries as well. There has always been a world-system-wide class structure. Immanuel Wallerstein (1974:86-87) analyzed the class structure of the Europe-centered world-system of the long sixteenth century. Samir Amin (1980) explicitly studied the global class structure before globalization became an important focus of study.  In the centuries before the most recent wave of globalization there have been several important efforts by both capitalists and workers to coordinate their actions internationally. The global class system remains importantly impacted by the global North/South stratification system despite greater awareness of global interactions and the strengthening of transnational social movements.

            Semiperipheral development has sometimes, but not always, led to the attaining of core status and hegemony in a core/periphery hierarchy and at other times it has only contributed to the development and spreading of new forms of interaction that eventually led to systemic transformation. These successful semiperipheral marcher states that produced large empires by means of conquest were often also implementers of new “techniques of power” that made larger systems more sustainable. The semiperipheral capitalist city-states that accumulated wealth by means of production and trade diffused commodity production to wide regions, providing incentives for subsistence producers to also produce a surplus, and inventing writing and accounting systems and forms of property and organization that sometimes diffused to the commercializing tributary empires to which they were semiperipheral. Some semiperipheral polities innovate new technologies, ideologies or forms of organization, but new ideas also come from core areas where there are bigger information network nodes and sometimes from the periphery. But semiperipheral polities are more likely to take the risk of investing resources in new techniques, ideas or organizational forms regardless of their origins.  They implement new stuff, while older core polities get stuck in the old ways. What will be the systemic consequences of the actions and developments of contemporary semiperipheral peoples?

            With the emergent predominance of capitalism the relationship between core/periphery relations and class structure changed. Now core polities tended to have less inequality because a large middle class developed, producing a diamond-shaped class structure ♦.  Non-core polities tended to have more inequality because a small elite dominates and exploits a large mass of poor peasants and poor urban residents, producing a pyramid-shaped class structure ▲.  This stabilizes the system to some extent because now core powers have greater internal stability than non-core powers. But semiperipheral development continued because economic development was still uneven. The relationship between class structure and the core/periphery hierarchy continues to be important. Now the core/periphery hierarchy crosscuts the class structures within polities. In the core a relative harmony of classes is based on having a larger middle class and on the ability of core elites to reward subalterns with the returns to imperialism. In the periphery class conflict is also undercut by the core/periphery hierarchy to some extent, because some elites side with the masses against colonialism and neo-colonialism. But in the modern semiperiphery class conflict is not suppressed by the core/periphery hierarchy. On the contrary, class conflict is exacerbated because some elites have both the opportunity and the motive to adopt policies such as economic nationalism that are intended to move the national economy up the food chain of the global economy, while other elite factions prefer the status quo. Movements supported by workers and peasants can more often find allies among the elites. This explains why antisystemic movements were able to attain state power in semiperipheral Russia and China in the 20th century (Chase-Dunn 1998, Chapter 11).

The Contemporary Core/Periphery Hierarchy

The social science literature on measuring the relative positions of national societies in the larger core/periphery hierarchy continues to be contentious. Is there really a single dimension that captures most of important distinctions between national societies with regard to economic, political, military and cultural power, or is the core/periphery hierarchy multidimensional, and if so what are the most important dimensions?[2] Arrighi and Drangel (1986) argued that the semiperiphery is a discrete economic stratum that is separated by empirical gaps from core and peripheral zones.  They contend that GNP per capita is by itself an adequate measure of position in the world-system, and they find empirical gaps in the distribution of national GNP per capita that are said to be the boundaries between the core and the semiperiphery and the semiperiphery and the periphery. Salvatore Babones (2005) also found these gaps in the international distribution of levels of economic development (GNP per capita). 

But another way to look at the core/periphery hierarchy is as a multidimensional set of power hierarchies, that includes economic, political and military power forming a continuous hierarchy that is a relatively stable stratification hierarchy in the sense that most of national societies stay in the same position over time, but that also experiences occasional instances of upward and downward mobility? From this perspective the labels of core, periphery and semiperiphery are just convenient signifiers of relative overall position in a continuous hierarchy rather than truly discrete categories. Semiperipherality is just a rough appellation for those that are rather more in the middle of a continuous distribution of positions.  There are likely to be important different ways to be semiperipheral depending on where a national society is on the different hierarchical dimensions. And these differences may be related to how a national society, or the movements that are based in these national societies, behave in world politics. I contend that the question of cutting points between allegedly discrete core, peripheral and semiperipheral zones is largely a matter of convenience in what is, in the long run, a continuous set of distributions of different kinds of power. In order to produce a map that shows where the semiperipheral countries are it is necessary to adopt cutting points, but it is not necessary to claim that there are empirically discrete positions within the global hierarchy.

            Jeffrey Kentor’s (2000, 2008) quantitative measure of the position of national societies in the world-system remains the best continuous measure because it includes GNP per capita, military capability, and economic dominance/dependence (Kentor 2008). One may trichotomize Kentor’s continuous indicator of world-system position into core, periphery and semiperipheral categories in order to do research and to produce the kind of map shown in Figure 3 below. The core category is nearly equivalent to the World Bank’s “high income” classification, and is what most people mean by the term “Global North.” The “Global South” is divided into two categories: the semiperiphery and the periphery. The contemporary semiperiphery includes large countries (e.g. Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, India, China) and smaller countries with middle levels of GNP per capita (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa, Israel, etc.). 

Figure 1: The contemporary global hierarchy of national societies: core, semiperiphery and periphery (Bond 2013).

            Figure 1 depicts the contemporary global hierarchy of national societies divided into the three world-system zones. The core countries are in red, the peripheral countries are yellow, and the semiperipheral countries in the middle of the global hierarchy are orange.  Several terms have been used in recent popular and social science literatures that are approximately equivalent to what we mean by the semiperiphery:  Newly Industrializing Countries (NICS), “emerging markets,” and most recently BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). In Figure 1 it is visually obvious that North America and Europe are mostly core, Latin America is mostly semiperipheral, Africa is mostly peripheral and Asia is a mix of the three zones.

            As we have said above, the evolutionary world-systems perspective contends that semiperipheral regions have been unusually fertile locations where social organizational forms that transformed the scale and logic of world-systems have been implemented. The hypothesis of semiperipheral development suggests that close attention should be paid to events and developments within the semiperiphery, especially the emergence of social movements and new kinds of national regimes.

            The World Social Forum (WSF) process is conceptually global in extent, but its entry upon the world stage as an instrument of the New Global Left has come primarily from semiperipheral Brazil and India. The “Pink Tide” process in Latin America, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has been constituted by the emergence of both reformist and antisystemic national regimes in fourteen out of twenty-three Latin American countries since the Cuban Revolution (Chase-Dunn and Morosin 2013). We want to pay special attention to these kinds of phenomena and to their interaction with one another because of the hypothesis of semiperipheral development.

            Wallerstein’s development of the concept of the semiperiphery has often implied that the main function of having a stratum in the middle is to somewhat depolarize the larger system analogously to a large middle class within a national society (e.g  Wallerstein 1976).  This functionalist tendency has been elaborated in the notion of “subimperialism” originally developed by Ruy Mauro Marini (1972) and more recent discussed by Patrick Bond (2013) in his analysis of the BRICS.  This approach focusses on the instances in which semiperipheral polities have reinforced and reproduced the existing global structures of power. Bond’s study of post-apartheid South Africa’s “talk left, walk right” penchant is convincing. But he may underestimate the extent to which the emergent BRICS coalition is counter-hegemonic. The discussion of the need for an alternative to the U.S. dollar in the global economy and the proposal for a new development bank for the Global South have had unsettling effects on the powers-that-be in the core states even if Bond makes little of these challenges. As we have said above, semiperipheral development is not carried out by all semiperipheral polities. It is undoubtedly the case that the very existence of polities that are in between the extremes of the core/periphery hierarchy tends to hide the polarization that is a fundamental process in many world-systems.  But the fact that emerging powers are increasingly banding together and promulgating policies that challenge the hegemony of the United States and the institutions that have been produced by the European and Asian core powers indicates that semiperipheral challengers do not just reproduce the existing global hierarchy.  The question for the New Global Left is how to encourage the potential for constructing a more egalitarian world society. Bond is certainly right that the transnational social movements need to push the BRICS to more effectively address the fundamental problems of ecological crisis, global inequality and global democracy.

The Challengers: Counter-hegemonic, reformist and antisystemic

          There are several different kinds of significant contemporary challengers to the powers-that-be in the world-system. The question of reproduction vs. transformation requires understanding the different kinds of challengers.  Here we follow Jackie Smith and Dawn Weist (2012) in distinguishing between counter-hegemonic movements, regimes and coalitions that opposed U.S. hegemony but are not politically progressive (Iran, North Korea, Al Qaeda and the subimperialist actions of some of the BRICS). [3]

            Among regimes, movements and coalitions that are progressive we distinguish between those that are reformists and those that are antisystemic.  Our study of Latin American regimes (Chase-Dunn and Morosin 2013) makes a distinction between reformist regimes that have adopted some socially progressive policies or taken some anti-neoliberal international positions and antisystemic regimes such as most of the members of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. [4] Smith and Weist  (2012:10) define antisystemic as follows: ‘“Antisystemic movements’ include a diverse ‘family of movements’ working to advance greater democracy and equality (Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein 1989). According to Wallerstein, ‘to be antisystemic is to argue that neither liberty nor equality is possible under the existing system and that both are possible only in a transformed world’ (1990:36).”

            Thus we have three categories for organizing a discussion of challengers: counter-hegemonic, reformist and anti-systemic.  Some of the challengers to global neoliberalism and the hegemony of the United States are not progressive.  Thus the New Global Left must distinguish between its allies and those political actors that are deemed to not be progressive.  And among the latter there may be some that can be worked with on a tactical basis or convinced to pursue more progressive goals.

            International geopolitics is a game that state regimes need to play. The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is hard to escape when one is in charge of national defense.  This is the main factor behind the phenomenon of “strange bedfellows,” as when Hugo Chavez allied with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. 

            Regarding the hypothesis of semiperipheral development and the Pink Tide phenomenon in Latin America, we found that both semiperipheral and peripheral countries were equally likely to have moved toward either reformist or antisystemic regime forms in the last few decades. But when we examine the timing of these moves we find that semiperipheral countries were more likely than peripheral countries to have made these changes earlier (Chase-Dunn and Morosin 2013: Tables 2-4).  Latin America as a whole has had more of these progressive challenging regimes because there has been a regional propinquity effect, and because it Latin American the non-core “backyard” of the global hegemon (the United States).  Also Latin America is has a larger proportion of semiperipheral countries than do other world regions.

            It should also be noted that the spread of the trappings of electoral democracy (polyarchy) to the non-core has provided opportunities for progressive movements to peacefully attain power in local and national state organizations. Salvador Allende’s election in Chile was an example that was followed by the more recent electoral victories of populists of various kinds in Latin America. The imposition of draconian structural adjustment programs in Latin America in the 1980s and the rise neoliberal politicians who attacked labor unions and subsidies for the urban poor led to a reaction in many countries in which populist politicians were able to mobilize support from the expanded informal sector workers in the megacities, leading in many cases to the emergence of reformist and antisystemic national regimes. 

The establishment of relatively institutionalized electoral processes in most Latin American countries and the failure of most leftist efforts to effectively employ armed struggle encouraged the leaders of the World Social Forum process to proscribe individuals who represent political groups that advocate armed struggle from attending the WSF meeting as representatives of those groups.[5] But all this should not lead us to suppose that violence and military power are no longer important in politics. The fate of Allende and of the presidencies of Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti remind us that death squads, the military, and foreign intervention are still powerful factors in Latin American politics as well as elsewhere.

            The relationship between the progressive national regimes and the progressive transnational social movements has been contentious. Despite strong support from the Brazilian Workers Party and the Lula regime in Brazil, the charter of the World Social Forum does not allow people to attend the meetings as formal representatives of states.  When Chavez and Lula tried to make appearances at WSF meetings large numbers of movement activists protested. The horizontalists, autonomists and anarchists see those who hold state power as the enemy even if they claim to be progressives.  Exceptions have been made, as when European autonomists provided support for Evo Morales’s presidency in Bolivia (e.g. López and Iglesias Turrión, 2006).

            The World Social Forum (WSF) process has itself been a complicated dance toward global party formation and the construction of a new global United or Popular Front (Amin 2007; Chase-Dunn and Reese 2007).  Its charter prohibits the WSF itself from adopting a program or policy stances.  The WSF is supposed to be an arena for the grass roots movements to use to organize themselves and make alliances with one another.  In practice this has led to competition among the movements and NGOs for hegemony within a hoped for emergent New Global Left.

As discussed below, studies of attendees at global World Social Forum meetings in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Nairobi, Kenya reveal a multicentric network of overlapping movements, in which four or five most central movements connect all the rest with one another (Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro (2009).  Up until 2011 the World Social Forum process had little participation from the Middle East.  The Arab Spring revolts got the attention of activists, and in March of 2013 the World Social Forum was held in Tunis. The connection of the Arab Spring revolts and continuing political contestation in Egypt with global neoliberalism and austerity has been obscured by the struggle for national democracy within the Middle Eastern countries and the rise of Islamist parties. 

The Network of Movements in the New Global Left

          Survey research conducted at the meetings of the World Social Forum in Porto

Alegre, Brazil  in 2005 and Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 revealed a network of alliances among eighteen movement types based on the fact that many individuals are active in more than one movement type (Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro 2009). Comparison of the WSF05 and WSF07 network figures showed that the basic multicentric structure of the movement of movements did not change. In both networks there was a set of hub movements that strongly integrate all the other movements.  As was the case for the WSF05 network, the matrix of movement pairs for the WSF07 meeting has no zeros, meaning that all of the 18 movements have at least one participant in all of the other movements. Only one of the forty-three anarchists was also actively engaged in the slow food movement, the socialists and the feminists.  But there were no zeros and so all the movements were connected to other movements by the fact that some individuals were active both of them.

            Three of the movements (anarchist, communist and queer rights) that were disconnected by the high bar of connectedness in the WSF05 matrix were also disconnected in WSF07, whereas National Liberation met the test in Nairobi, but not in Porto Alegre, and Anti-corporate failed the test in Nairobi but not in Porto Alegre.. One of the same movements appears near the center (Human Rights/Anti-racism), but some that were rather central in 2005 had moved out toward the edge in 2007 (Peace, Global Justice and Alternative Media). The Environmentalists were still toward the center, but not as central as they had been in Porto Alegre.  Health/HIV was much more central than it had been in Brazil, probably reflecting both an increase in global concern and a much larger crisis in Africa. Regarding overall structural differences between the two matrices, the 2007 network was more centered around a single movement (Human Rights/Anti-racism), but there were also more direct connections among some of the movements out on the edge (e.g. feminists and socialists, socialists and labor, slow food and global justice.



Figure 2: The network of movement linkages at the 2007 WSF in Nairobi (Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro 2009) 


Crisis of What?

          In earlier work Kirk Lawrence and I have discussed three broad possible scenarios that depict in general terms what might happen in the several decades (Chase-Dunn and Lawrence 2011; Lawrence 2012). We imagine the possibility of another round of U.S. hegemony in which the United States reindustrializes based on its comparative advantages in new lead high technology industries and provides global order that accommodates rising powers and challenging social movements.  We concluded that this scenario was unlikely to come about because of the continuing political stalemate within the U.S. and growing resistance to U.S. unilateral use of military power. The illegal use of drones to murder civilians in Pakistan and elsewhere confirms that the Obama administration has continued the illegitimate unilateral use of military power begun by the Bush administration. This kind of imperial over-reach is a strong sign that the U.S. hegemony is continuing to decline, substituting supremacy for hegemonic leadership. So one thing that is clearly in crisis is U.S. hegemony. And it is rather unlikely that this could be turned around. All earlier hegemonic declines led to periods of disorder and then to what Arrighi (1994) called new systemic cycles of capitalist accumulation.

            Kirk Lawrence and I also contemplated the possible emergence of a democratic world government that would coordinate collectively rational responses to population pressure, global climate change and ecological degradation, global inequality and rivalries among national states and transnational social movements. We see this as a possible outcome that might be brought about if progressive transnational social movements could form a powerful coalition and could work with progressive national regimes in the Global South to democratize global governance and to organize a legitimate authority with the capacity to help resolve the great crises of the 21st century.  This next phase could either take the form of another systemic cycle of capitalist accumulation, perhaps based on a globalized form of Keynesianism, or it might involve a qualitative transformation to a new type of world society based on forms of socialism.

And we also contemplated “collapse” in which continuing U.S. hegemonic decline, rising challenges from the BRICS, a contentious multilateralism among contenders for global predominance, conflictive action by both progressive and regressive transnational social movements lead to high levels of conflict that prevent coordinated responses to the emergent crises. This scenario could be much like what happened in the first half of the 20th century, or it could be worse because of the potential for huge destruction caused by more lethal weapons and because of the more globalized extent of ecological degradation.  This is may be the most likely scenario. But the other paths are not yet completely impossible for the next few decades.

Giovanni Arrighi (2007), in his last book, Adam Smith in Beijing, discussed the possible emergence of another systemic cycle of capitalist accumulation that would be less warlike and exploitative than the kind of capitalism that emerged with the rise of the Europe-centered world-system. Arrighi saw the rise of China as providing a model of “market society” in which the power of finance capital is balanced by the strength of technocrats who are able to implement development projects that are kinder to labor and less driven by the military industrial complex. China is not large enough economically, despite its immense number of people, to become the next hegemon. And, as Arrighi carefully explains, the current regime in Beijing has made great efforts to avoid any discourse about hegemonic rise and global leadership. He persuasively contends that the current Chinese leadership just wants a level playing field upon which China can develop its economic potential. These leaders are also quite sensitive and resentful of criticism from the West about the nature of their political institutions. Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank (1998) and many other academics in the West have accurately recognized the pervasive nature of Eurocentrism. Our lack of knowledge about East Asian history has facilitated negative images of East Asian backwardness, including the Marxian notion of “the Asiatic Mode of Production” and these have served well as justifications for colonialism and intervention. And anti-communism has also served these purposes.

The obvious need of Western political leaders for a bogeyman (now that Osama Bin Laden has been dispatched) understandably makes the current Chinese leadership nervous. The Chinese leaders are well aware that the racist imagery of the Yellow Peril and China-bashing might again serve the agenda of Western political leaders looking for a scapegoat for current or future catastrophes.

This said, the New Global Left (Santos 2006) needs a good analysis of the possible helpful, or not so helpful, roles that the Chinese people and current and future Chinese governments might play in the coming decades.  Arrighi’s analysis implies that the Chinese development path provides a useful example for the rest of the world, and that the rise of China may help the rest of the world to reduce global inequalities and to move toward a more sustainable and just form of political economy.

Arrighi contends that contemporary China is pursuing a model of market society that is similar in many ways to the paternalistic commodifying “natural” path that Adam Smith saw in earlier centuries. Arrighi’s contention that China has not yet developed full-blown capitalism is largely based on Samir Amin’s observation that the rural peasantry has not yet been dispossessed of land and so full proletarianization has not emerged. The continued existence of the household registration system that the Chinese Communist Party uses to try to regulate rural to urban migration also guarantees rural residents access to farmable land (means of production).

One may wonder whether or not dispossession of land is still a requisite of capitalism in the age of flexible accumulation and outsourcing. Mike Davis (2005:97-100) tells the story of the Bangkok-based Charoen Pokphand Company (CP), a large-scale poultry producer who brought Tyson-style (American) industrialized chicken production (the “Livestock Revolution”) first to Thailand and then to China. Davis (2005:99) quotes Isabelle Delforge as saying “With contract farming, large companies control the whole production process: they lend money to farmers, they sell them chicks, feed and medicine, and they have the right to buy the whole production. But usually the company is not committed to buy the chickens if the demand is low. Contract farmers bear all the risks related to production and become extremely dependent on demand from the world market. They become factory workers in their own field.”  Davis reports that, after starting in Shenzen, CP has built more than one hundred feed mills and poultry-processing plants throughout China.  This all sounds rather like capitalism despite that farmers have not been dispossessed of their land.

Arrighi also implied that the current Chinese regime is relatively environment-friendly. Others contend that this was indeed the case in traditional China, but not of the Communist regime. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) embrace of the family-owned automobile for the masses could have at least required California-style catalytic-converters fifteen years ago, a proven technology for reducing auto emissions that would not have added much to the cost of each car. Instead Chinese cities are choking on automobile exhaust fumes.  Decisions like that are both bad for the environment and for the human population. Regarding greenhouse gas emissions, Global South activists such as Walden Bello (2012) contends that China must be included among the countries that should undertake rapid reduction in emissions.

It would seem logical that Arrighi’s depiction of Chinese “market society” as a more sustainable and labor-friendly form of society than that of the capitalist West implies that other nations should emulate the Chinese model in order to deal with the issues of inequality and environmental degradation that capitalist globalization has presented us with in the 21st century. But Arrighi (personal communication) denied that he was saying this.  He pointed out that the historical conditions that produced the institutional complexes and culture of China today are impossible to replicate, and also that the world does not need one model, but rather many approaches. And yet it is important to ask whether or not the institutional elements that Arrighi found in China are of use elsewhere in the efforts to construct more humane and sustainable national societies and a democratic and egalitarian world society. [6]

The notion that China may be an exemplar of contemporary egalitarianism in relations with the periphery would seem to be contradicted by the situation in Tibet and by the reports of many observers of Chinese projects in Africa.  Progressive world citizens should not condone China-bashing, and I agree with Arrighi that China is, and is likely to continue to be, a somewhat more progressive force in world politics than many other powerful actors. But what does the Chinese model of market society imply for those who are looking for progressive alternatives to global capitalism?

Arrighi’s (2007) effort to tease out the combination of economic and political institutional forms that make the difference between better and worse forms of modernity is a valuable start, but needs to be further developed. The contemporary global justice movement that perceives a “democratic deficit” in the existing institutions of global governance and in many forms of representative democracy that exist within core states is not likely to find much worth emulating in the paternalistic Confucianist state that the CCP regime seems to be embracing. At the 2008 opening ceremony to the Beijing Olympic Games Confucian harmony had erased all vestiges of the Chinese Revolution except the red flag. Mao was gone. The class struggle was gone. The heroic workers and peasants were gone. And so was the Red Detachment of Women. The representation of modern China to the world was a vision of social harmony, technological achievements of the traditional past, openness to the world, and precise, large-scale drumming and tai chi. It was Confucian harmony and the paternalism of the “grandfather state” devoid of any alternative version of legitimate authority except national pride.   

The issue of democracy cannot be brushed aside as only a manifestation of Eurocentric ignorance. It is unfortunate that the neoliberals and the neoconservatives have used the discourse about representative democracy and human rights to badger the Chinese regime, but this will not make the democracy problem go away for the New Global Left.

 And the issue of institutional forms of property also badly needs to be addressed. The CCP is promoting the rapid expansion of private property in the major means of production and the reorganization of state-owned firms. But private and/or state ownership of large firms are not the only options.  Investment decisions in large-scale undertakings could be shaped by market mechanisms, thus allocating capital to firms that are productive and efficient, while profits are distributed to all adult citizens (Roemer 1994). The role of the state in this kind of market socialism is to redistribute shares to each individual at the age of adulthood and to incentivize the protection of the environment.  In Eastern Europe most of the post-1989 experiments in public ownership were carried out in the context of “shock therapy” in which neoliberal economists engineered a transition from former state-led and centrally planned economies to capitalism. Citizens were issued coupons, which were then rapidly bought up by a new class of capitalists (usually former party apparatchiks), thus proving that this kind of market socialism does not work. But a country like China could carry out experiments with real market socialism in which the whole public benefits from the profits of large firms while at the same time using market mechanisms to allocate both capital and labor. That would be a kind of market society worth emulating.

            Both a new stage of capitalism and a qualitative systemic transformation to some form of socialism are possible within the next several decades, but a new systemic cycle of capitalism is probably more likely. Capitalism has only been a predominant mode of production for about five centuries. It is still young. The kinship and tributary modes lasted much longer.

The progressive evolution of global governance has occurred in the past when enlightened conservatives implemented the demands of an earlier world revolution in order to reduce strong pressures from below that were being brought to bear in a current world revolution. The most likely outcome of the current conjuncture may a global form of Keynesianism in which enlightened conservatives in the global elite form a more legitimate, capable and democratic set of global governance institutions to deal with the problems of the 21st century.[7]  If the trajectory of U.S. hegemonic decline is slow and episodic, as it has been up to now, and if financial and ecological crises are spread out in time and if conflicts within and between nation-states are moderate and spread out in time, then the enlightened conservatives will have a chance to produce a reformed world order that is still capitalist but that meets the current challenges at least partially. But if the perfect storm of global calamities should all come together in a short period of time (a single decade), even though there would be a heavy price to pay and it would fall mainly on the world’s poor, the progressive movements and the progressive non-core regimes would then have a chance to radically change the mode of accumulation to a form of democratic global socialism.




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[1] The important book on world revolutions by Giovanni Arrighi, Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein (1984) pointed out that revolutionaries rarely attain their demands immediately. Rather what happens is that “enlightened conservatives” implement the demands of the most recent previous world revolution in order to cool out the challenges of a current world revolution. This is the way in which world revolutions produce the evolution of global governance.


[2] Hugo Radice (2009) provides a helpful and thorough review of the disputes about the conceptualization of the semiperiphery in the modern world-system.

[3] “Counter-hegemonic movements are those oriented toward challenging the leadership of the dominant state actor in the world-system, which since the mid-twentieth century has been the United States” (Smith and Weist 2012).


[4] Though Nicaragua is a member of ALBA we categorize the Ortega regime as reformist rather than antisystemic.

[5] World Social Forum Charter


[6] Arrighi noted that the unusual form of the contemporary developmental state in China, based on state-owned corporations and one-party rule, is a peculiar outcome of the long-run East Asian path of development and the legacy of China’s revolution. As such the particular constellation of institutional structures that now exist in China are not likely to be reproducible in other contexts. But some elements of the model could perhaps be adapted and adopted in other parts of the Global South, and perhaps even in the Global North. 

[7] Something like this has been championed by George Soros (2000).