15 March 2011

'Structural Crisis in the World-System:' Can American politics adapt?

Immanuel Wallerstein is a Yale professor and historian of "world-systems." In his learned view, the modern "world-system" characterized by capitalist economics and American hegemony has been in a state of "structural crisis" since about 1970, while a crisis in global politics dates back to a few years earlier. Wallerstein sums up some of the findings of his newest history in an article for Monthly Review, a Marxist journal. He notes that workers under capitalism tend to benefit most, in trickle-down fashion, when one firm or group of firms enjoys monopoly or virtual-monopoly control over specific sectors of the economy. When inevitable competition reduces the monopolists' profits, as happened when American dominance was challenged by recovering or developing economies around the world, capital loses interest in manufacturing and seeks greater returns from financial speculation. Unemployment results in the leading countries, while wealth simply shifts from one location to another rather than generating truly global growth. This sounds like a broadly accurate description of the last forty years.

Wallerstein's comments on politics are possibly more provocative. On this front, the crisis began with the various uprisings of 1968, which were as much rebellions against a discredited "Old Left" as they were protests against conditions in the capitalist world. Wallerstein sees the "Cold War" as a period of actual effective collusion between the West and the Soviet bloc, with neither force seeking a decisive confrontation. Left and Right, at least in the eyes of the "New Left," had become "avatars of centrist liberalism" that could no longer accommodate the demands of minorities and other marginalized peoples who, in turn, no longer saw their concerns as subordinate to those of the Old Left, whether defined as Marxist, Big Labor, etc. As this happened, a "conservative right" (apparently not a redundancy) rebelled against the centrist compromises of nominally conservative establishment parties.

While Wallerstein's account seems a little Eurocentric ("1968" is still seen as a movement rather than an event across the Atlantic), I wondered whether its uncertain applicability to American history could itself explain something. What seems most different about the U.S. is that, while the splits described by Wallerstein were clearly visible, they had no structural or institutional consequences. On the Right, the "Reagan revolution" against "Rockefeller Republicans" fits Wallerstein's model. On the Left, the closest or most prominent approximation of Wallerstein's New Left was the McGovern movement in 1972. In neither case, however, was the split a schism. McGovern's dissident Democrats chose to take over the party, as did Reagan's dissident Republicans. Neither group could take over, however, without some kind of compromise with the existing establishment. That couldn't help but obscure the extent to which voters' alternatives had changed and limit the extent of the change itself. While Wallerstein contends that the political crisis, in the long run, has left the world with a choice between the hierarchical "spirit of Davos" and the egalitarian "spirit of Porto Allegre," the Republican and Democratic parties don't embody that choice. Because New Left forces tried to take over the existing "left" party, or else were marginalized, the "spirit of Porto Allegre" has no strong voice in the U.S., while "Davos" is well known as someplace where the Clintons go. Had New Left elements resisted the imperatives of Bipolarchy forty years ago, there might be a creditable party on the ground in solidarity with whatever Porto Allegre stands for -- Wallerstein himself admits that priorities are mixed on that front.

Wallerstein notes that economic uncertainty during a structural crisis "pushes popular opinion both to make demands for protection and protectionism and to search for scapegoats as well as true profiteers." That looks like a good description of populism without using the confusing word. Uncertainty drives extremism, not to mention polarization, "push[ing] both national and world political situations toward gridlock." Hoping to steer the "spirit of Porto Allegre," Wallerstein advises a short-term focus on minimizing economic pain for the weakest, even if that means accepting unnamed "lesser evils." In the "medium term," there must be victory for Porto Allegre or Davos. Wallerstein thinks his side will be helped by serious but inclusively egalitarian intellectual analysis and by the cultivation of a decentralized "alterglobalization" of "multiple autonomies," each achieving self-sufficiency and its own universalism.

Americans will be handicapped by a tendency to identify the Democratic party with progressivism even if it comes nowhere close to the ultimate spirit of Porto Allegre, unless a clear alternative voice can emerge. Fortunately, Wallerstein suggests that crisis conditions actually improve the chances for alternate visions.

The one encouraging feature about a systemic crisis is the degree to which it increases the viability of agency, of what we call “free will.” In a normally functioning historical system, even great social effort is limited in its effects because of the efficacy of the pressures to return to equilibrium. But when the system is far from equilibrium, every little input has great effect, and the totality of our inputs—made every nanosecond in every nanospace—can (can, not will) add up to enough to tilt the balance of the collective “choice.”

So if not now, when?


d.eris said...

Interesting find. A few thoughts . . . Judging from my reading of Wallerstein's article, I agree when you say that the Republican and Democratic parties don't embody the choice between "the spirit of Davos" and "the spirit of Puerto Allegre."

But it seems like for Wallerstein the split between these two spirits does not equal the opposition between left and right as such, but rather to the fragmentation on the global left. In other words, the split between Davos and Puerto Allegre is the split between neo-liberalism and left radicalism. On the level of Wallerstein's "world system," the political opposition between Republican and Democratic party does not map to the Davos/Puerto Allegre split because the Democratic-Republican party establishment is basically united in support of neo-liberalism (i.e. the Washington Consensus) which is embodied by Davos.

It seems like the Democratic/Republican split might map more effectively onto what Wallerstein calls the division within the spirit of Davos: "The proponents of the spirit of Davos are divided between those who proffer the iron fist, seeking to crush opponents at all levels, and those who wish to co-opt the proponents of transformation by fake signs of progress".

On the other hand, if we're looking for what Wallerstein calls "the spirit of Puerto Allegre" in the US, I think we have to look at what used to be called the anti-globalization movement, and at things like the US Social Forum:

Samuel Wilson said...

You've pointed out a possible hole in Wallerstein's analysis, d. He seems to leap from the 1968 re-emergence of the "radical left" and "conservative right" as alternatives to "centrist liberalism" to a future in which Porto Allegre clearly stands for the radical left, but the alignment of Davos is vague. Wallerstein seems to say that Davos is torn between an "iron fist" conservative right and more slippery centrist liberals. But Davos as a whole is said to envision a "non-capitalist" future nevertheless dedicated to "hierarchy, exploitation and polarization." Based on Wallerstein's evident moral biases, I'd say he locates Davos on the right, but he may be wrong to do so.

d.eris said...

Darn it. Blogger ate my last comment. Okay here goes again . . .

"Davos as a whole is said to envision a "non-capitalist" future."

That fact was actually nagging at me after I published my comment. It didn't square with my own understanding of what Davos stands for, but it also seems to provide evidence that, for Wallerstein, the split between the spirit of Davos and that of Puerto Alegre is a split internal to the global left, i.e. between liberalism and radical leftism, rather than between the left and right. But whether Wallerstein locates the spirit of Davos on the right or in the center or slightly to the left, it is certainly TO HIS RIGHT, as you indicate.

One thing about the neo-liberal Washington consensus today is that it opens up opposition to the Democrats and Republicans on both the left and the right . . . in a way similar to the left/right opposition to "centrist liberalism" post 1968 that Wallerstein talks about.

You wouldn't think the Constitution Party and the Green Party would ever agree on very much. But they are both opposed to Davos-style neo-liberal free trade agreements. In The American Conservative Virgil Goode just wrote an op-ed arguing that the Korean FTA is "trading away our sovereignty." And he states outright that this FTA is non-capitalist, or even anti-capitalist. He writes: "Republican supporters of KORUS claim that the agreement is about promoting capitalism, free markets, and free trade. The truth is that this agreement does not promote free markets. On the contrary, it will make American businesses more regulated . . . KORUS is about managed trade, which puts partial control of our economy in the hands of international bureaucrats." Greens probably wouldn't disagree with the latter, and would probably add a long list of social justice issues that argue against such FTAs, worker's rights, environmental issues, global wage levels etc.