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World-systems theory (wikipedia.org)
51 points by schrofer on July 12, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 8 comments

It was some time ago, but I really enjoyed Immanuel Wallerstein's books on this, "The Modern World-System" volumes 1-3. He's also maintained, for years, an extensive series of commentaries on current events: http://www.iwallerstein.com/commentaries/

There's a book I read around the same time that I often recommend, "The Political Economy of Third World Intervention" by David Gibbs, which cites Wallerstein. It proposes a "business conflict model" of warmongering, and analyzes a shift in US military policy toward the Congo between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Basically the thesis is that war is no longer country versus country, but Multinational Corporate Conglomorate vs (MNC), and countries sway in alliance to various MNCs.

Its a good read from the perspective of the "World System", the definition of which is a (global) economic system which transcends localized political systems. Prior to the 1500's, most economic trade took place within a common nation/political regime, but starting around then, the "modern" world became a place of extensive economic trade across political boundaries.

I suppose I am showing my ignorance of history, but I was rather surprised to see Netherlands listed as the hegemon antecedent to the UK. Not to dismiss the many achievements the Dutch had in finance and trade in the 16-17th centuries, but I suppose my US-centric education just never focused on them as a world-wide economic center to the same extent as the British Empire, current US, etc. Interesting.

I actually find the theory, and its focus on production networks vs. trade networks to be rather intriguing. Wallerstein's 1974 publication "The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System"[1] definitely seems to use the World-Systems viewpoint to predict (in a loose sense of the word) the economic shifts ongoing since that time, but I'd have to do more reading to have any idea as to whether he was merely stating the obvious to back up his outlook.


Perhaps historians generally consider the Dutch to be a short-lived prelude to the British Empire. I'd say even considering the British Empire and the United States to be two separate hegemons could be wrong. They both speak English, and the British were the main land-owning settlers to North America. People like Washington, Jefferson and Franklin had British surnames. The revolution was simply another step in shifting the capital of the English-speaking people from London to Washington. Another step was World War Two when the US let the British go broke fighting the Germans, then stepped in in 1941 to save the day, taking control of the world's sea lanes from Britain. So before the revolution we had the "British Empire and its American colonies", nowadays we have the United States of America in a "special relationship" with the United Kingdom, via defence and security treaties such as UKUSA and ABCA.

The movement of the English-speaking people's power center from London to Washington thus took 150 years, longer than the ongoing Russian move from St Petersburg to Moscow, but shorter than the Song move from Xian to Hangzhou.

Hm. I don't know about your assessment of the Dutch (my world history isn't up to scratch to agree or disagree), but if the Dutch was a prelude to the British, and the American just a continuation of the British (which I entirely agree with, though I'd emphasize things differently than you have),

Has there been more than one world hegemon at all?

I'd say the Chinese have been fairly separate from the West, with 3 primary peaks in power (Han dynasty, Tang-Song, and Ming-Qing), with perhaps a 4th (PRC) on the way. So there's been at least two separate hegemons. But in the West it's hard to say when one hegemon is different to another. The Romans spoke a different language from the Greeks, took over by conquest but let the Greek language be spoken in their empire, until the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire "evolved" from the Roman Empire. So you could say the Greeks ruled for 2000 yrs from Alexander the Great (400BC) to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1500AD), though the Romans ran things for 500-odd years in the middle. So there's certainly many complications.

Can anyone explain what it means to have "a single division of labor" in Wallerstein's short definition? "multiple cultural systems" is easy to understand, but how can you have multiple divisions of labor? What would that look like and how does it distinguish itself from a world-system?

I think by "single division of labor" he means that there's one global labor supply which gets stratisfied across countries, "trans-national" labor supply. So some countries have most of their workers performing so-called "high-skill" capital-intensive production (first-world "core" countries, eg Hershey's imports cocoa, then processes it in the US to produce chocolate). Other countries develop a more blue-collar labor-intensive job supply, for the extraction of raw materials (cocao farmers in the Ivory Coast producing raw exports).

"Multiple divisions of labor" would mean that each nation maintains its own, sovereign hierarchy of labor. It describes economies prior to globalization, when nation-states tended to do most of their trade internally, rather than across huge geographic distances and political lines.

Hm, I think I understand the essential concept, but your point about trade seems misplaced. International trade doesn't require a globalized er... hierarchy of labor; it just requires comparative advantage of some sort. I suppose a unified "division of labor" (these terms are not being used the way I am used to their being used) would certainly intensify the volume of international trade, but I do not think it is required by any means.

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